Wounded Read online

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Perhaps it is because hunger is only a dull ache in your belly, growing sharper as the days move past. You grow more hungry, always more hungry, like a hole in your belly growing ever larger until you think it may swallow your ribs and your heart and your liver and whatever else hides behind the skin of your chest and belly, parts I do not know the name of.

  Thirst, however. . . it is a desperation. You would do anything for one drink of water. To be thirsty is worse than to be hungry. You can eat a bug, or worm, you can snatch a can of beans or a hunk of hard bread from a market stall. But to find water? It is not so easy. A bottle of water is heavy. It does not fit beneath the folds of a dress, or in a sleeve. You get thirstier and thirstier until it is like anger or hatred. Your mouth turns into a desert, dry and sandy and empty, your lips cracked.

  I think this is why thirst is worse than hunger.

  Aunt Maida dies of hunger, but really of a broken heart. She is old, and she loved my Uncle Ahmed for all of her life, since she was a little girl. He never hit her, like many men do their wives. He loved her. When he died, I think she did, too—it just took a longer time for her body to realize her heart and mind were already dead.

  I touch her face, and it is cold, so cold, and hard. Her eyes stare unseeing. She sees Uncle Ahmed in heaven, I think.

  "Do you see Allah?" I do not recognize my voice, or why I am asking questions of a dead woman. "Is He there, Aunt Maida? Ask Him why He does not answer me!"

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  She does not respond, of course, for she is dead.

  I am just a girl, only fourteen, and my arms are weak, but Aunt Maida is so small, so thin like a bird that I can drag her from the house, still stiffened into a sitting position. An old woman watches from an open doorway. Her eyes are like brown beads, hard and cold, and she does not move to help me, or ask questions. I have no hijab on, and she curls her lip in disapproval. I drag my dead aunt through the street, as far as I can. I do not know where I will put her, what to do with her. There is no one to tell, I think. At least, I do not know who to tell. So I drag her as far as I can until my arms and legs and back are sore and empty of strength, and then I leave her, sitting awkwardly in an alley, amid the heaps of trash.

  I stand over her for a moment, wondering what to say to the dead body. In the end, I do not say anything. I whisper, "Goodbye, Aunt Maida," to her spirit, but that is after I am back home.

  A dead body is just a dead body. Aunt Maida has been gone for a long time.

  I am worried about Hassan. I do not expect him to come back, but I keep hoping. I wrap my tattered and torn hijab around my head as best I can and set out to find Hassan, to bring him home and scold him being a stupid boy.

  He spoke of finding a gun.

  I think of that day two years ago, in the wrecked building. I do not know where he got that rifle in the first place. I was gone, looking for food, and I found Hassan huddling in a doorway while gunfire racketed in the streets, dust kicking up, shouts echoing, English and Arabic.

  I hid in a far corner, waiting for the shooting to stop, and when it did, I ran across the street to where he was hiding, tears drying on his face. He was not hurt, and I held him close when the shooting started up again. He was clutching something to himself against the wall, between his knees and his arms wrapped around it, his little body shaking. I was behind him, my arms around his shoulders, my fingers clutching his sleeves.

  An American soldier trotted past us, rifle raised to his cheek. He paused, glanced at us, dismissed us, and continued on, loping away like a wild dog, threat clear in the way he ran, hunched down close to the earth. When he paused, Hassan tensed, and I could feel hate seething from him. They killed Mama and Papa, so he hates them. It is simple, to him.

  I know the bullets that took their lives could easily have been ours, however. Stray bullets do not recognize American or Iraqi. They only know soft flesh and red blood. I cannot explain this to Hassan, though, for he will not care. I cannot explain why anyone is killing anyone, for I do not know the answer myself. Iraq has never been a safe place, but when the bombs began to drop, crumping in the distance and flashing like fireworks, it became even deadlier. The streets filled with men with guns, tanks, trucks with keffiyeh-clad warriors clutching guns. It was sudden, and it has not stopped.

  Death is all around now.

  When the American soldier passed on, we ran, and I pulled Hassan behind me, not looking back at him. Guns crashed and bullets buzzed and ricocheted ahead of us, and I jerked Hassan into an empty building, destroyed by a bomb or a rocket. We hid in the corner and waited.

  And then the American man with the camera came, and he was not a soldier, but still an American. He saw us, and that was when Hassan stepped forward, a gun in his arms, too big for him. I wanted to yell at him, ask him where he had gotten such a thing, but I could not. My throat was closed, and if I yelled, I was afraid the American might have a gun we could not see and shoot us.

  And then the gun went off, the American’s hidden gun. And then I killed him.

  I heard crying, and I knew it was me. I knew tears would not bring back the dead American. I did not mourn him, for I did not know him. But I mourned his death. I mourned for myself, for having killed him.

  I see him even now while I am awake two years later, staring at the spot where he died. His blue eyes are wide and staring into me, but not seeing me. Blood spreads beneath him, seeping from the holes in his belly and chest, pools around him. It stinks, the blood. It smells. . . coppery, and vaguely of shit.

  I let myself think the bad word, since there is no one to care.

  I blink, and he is gone, leaving me with the bad taste of memories and waking nightmares, and always the gnawing mouth of hunger.

  It is a long walk, and it is well past dark by the time I find anyone. I find a knot of soldiers, black and brown rifles leaning against the wall near their hands, or across their knees. There are seven of them, smoking cigarettes. They talk loudly, proclaim their feats in battle, how many Americans they have killed. They are all liars. I can tell by the way they laugh too loud, laugh through the smoke streaming from their noses.

  They stop when they see me, and they drag their rifles closer to hand, even though I am Iraqi, and just a girl.

  "What are you doing here, girl?" one of them growls. "It is dangerous. You should be home with your mama and papa. "

  I ignore their stupid questions. "My brother. . . " My voice is soft, too soft. I strengthen it. "My brother ran away to fight. He is only twelve years old. I need to find him. "

  They laugh. One of them does not, and he speaks to me. "I saw a boy. Hours ago. With some other men. He had a rifle, and he was shooting it at the Americans. He hit one, too, I think. "

  "Stupid boy," I mutter under my breath. "I need to find him," I say, louder.

  The one who spoke shrugs. "Good luck. I only saw him the once, very quickly. He was off to the west. "

  I look around me, having no idea which way is west. "Can you show me?"

  He stares at me, then lifts one shoulder. "I could. "

  The others are watching me, a look in their eyes that makes me nervous. I want to get away from them.

  "Please show me? He is just a boy. He should not be fighting. "

  "If he can shoot a rifle and kill the infidels, he is a man," one of the others says. "You should go home to your mama and let the boy do a mans work. "

  "We have no mama or papa. They died. He needs me. Please, help me find him. "

  The strange, hungry look in their eyes strengthens when they realize I am alone, all alone. Their gaze travels down my body, from my ripped hijab to my old dress, my small girls br**sts and my thin legs, the triangle between them visible when a breeze blows my dress flat against me. I know what they want. I know that much. I have seen what men do with women, and I know I do not want it to happen to me with these men.

  I edge away, watching them. They do not move, a