No Longer Men
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No Longer Men is a pair of short stories that are connected by the theme of war, or more specifically the War on Terror in Iraq. Both stories are bound together by a linear plot; each story follows the same incident, yet offer insight from distinctly individual perspectives. Fireworks in the Night delves into the world of an Iraqi civilian and notes the detrimental effects of war on their life, whilst Step One follows the thoughts of an Australian soldier during the war. Both texts provide an exploration into the affects of war on the mind of a human.
Chapter 1, Fireworks in the Night
She walked into the house, comforted by the familiar smell of dry wood, dirt and sand. It wafted around her, mixed with the dry wind of the desert. The edge of her mouth twitched upwards, the smells making her feel safe once again. Her frail arms jittered with the weight from the bucket of water which she had carried back from her trip down the hill and into the valley, across sandy plains to the well. The trip had taken her from sunrise to sunset, and she was thankful for the company of her only friend: Goat. His warm breath on her fingertips drew her from her reverie and bought her back to the task at hand. She went about the house filling jugs and pots, anything that could hold water and stop her from having to make another trip to the well anytime soon, struggling under the bucket of water all the while. When the task was complete and the bucket emptied, she turned to Goat and reached out to touch his wiry hair. He bleated at her and rubbed his wet nose into her hand furiously. She was still careful of his horns; she had been since she was a child, although she had faith he would not harm her on purpose. His life depended on hers and in a way, hers depended on his.
That night, under the glow of the stars, she buried her face into Goat’s neck and scrunched her eyes closed as hard as possible. She pulled herself into the warmth of his fur, yet she could still see the flashing in the distance, the fireworks in the night. Although she could not hear the cracking, she could still remember the noises. They were buried within her memories, haunting her at night when new fireworks began.
Her face was drawn and her eyes dull, a result of another restless night; something that had been happening too often for the young girls liking. The sun had scarcely risen but the girl was too awake to return to sleep. She wandered in a trance around the small wooden huts that made up the village, holding onto Goat’s tail to comfort her uneasy mind. She knew the cannon fire had become too regular, a sign of something coming. She had sat upon the hill many times, watching in fascination as the men in the valley charged at each other like bulls running at red cloth. Each time she watched, she told a story to herself. She changed it and made it better, every new event added to the tale. The girl soon noticed that Goat had led her to the top of the hill and had sunk down into the dirt, dragging her with him. She now sat peering into the valley at the lights glowing from within the fabric huts the men slept in and she imagined other men sleeping in caves and behind walls of rock. Like a fog appearing, the story swept into her mind and she began to tell it to herself once more:
Once there was a group of men with pale skin like the clouds that drifted through the cool night air. They came from nowhere, like the clouds, and slept in tents at the bottom of the hill in a valley. For day they played with their toys and laughed at each other. On a silent night other figures, with skin the colour of the ground and all with beards covering their chins, emerged from the darkness and crept into the fabric village. Fireworks came from their toys, lighting up the night sky. Men, white and brown, shouted, ran, fell like rocks to the sand. In the morning, when the sun drove the moon away, the ground was painted red, littered with men of every colour. The others kept playing with their toys. It continued like this each time the moon shone. The fireworks began again.
She sat up from the dirt and leaned against Goat. She liked the way his fur turned from white to brown when he lay in the dirt with her; it had always made her laugh, but not today. The sun was high in the centre of the sky, glowing fiercely down on her body. Glistening beads of sweat rolled off her brow and down her face, like tears that had been shed many times in her past. She raised her arm to cover her eyes from the glare that bounced off the floor of the valley just below her. Her brow furrowed. The men, the white men, were once again playing with their toys, but this time it was different. The girl rolled to her stomach and shimmied closer to the edge of the craggy cliff face and peered into the camp. The men had lined up, with toys on their backs and toys in their hands; row upon row, standing like statues, the only movement made by the quivering desert air. One solitary man stood ahead of the others like some kind of God and spoke to them, his face contorted with anger. The girl, although she could not hear what was being said, could tell that this man was the leader. An unhappy man, like a father telling his children what to do, telling them how to improve. The men swatted at their foreheads and marched off to their tents. “Ants with no brains,” the girl thought to herself as she left the cliff top, returning to the town.
The day of the Suq arrived and the young girl travelled along the dust covered road with Goat by her side, surrounded by many others from the small village on the outskirts of Al-Awja. The people walked together, not wanting to stray from the pack for fear of being robbed by the cloud people, or raiders. The girl, small for her years and delicate, was shoved around in the throng of the crowd. People shouted at her but she didn’t notice; one of the things she enjoyed about the numbness of her ears. Already the hard work she now had to do for herself, such as travelling to the Suq and gathering her own water, was taking a toll on her young body. Her feet were blistered, cut open and terribly sore, making it hard for the girl to even move around, or collect water from the well, walk miles to the Suq and carry everything back that she needed for the month. She was frail, her eyes darkened and her hands old and wrinkled; the hands of an elderly woman. She knew she needed help; Goat could only carry so much on his back but she was too proud to ask. The work was taking a toll on his body as well. His hair had begun to go limp and fall out, gathering in her fingertips when she stroked him.
The crowd was thickening, tightening their grouping. She assumed they had reached the Suq; she could not see through the crowd, the bodies moving like a wave, pressing against each other and blocking out all light. The current of the crowd moved forward, dragging the girl with it into the town of Al-Awja and into the Suq. Dirty women with torn clothes started appearing in the crowd, beginning to brush the men on the backs and legs with their rough and dirt encrusted hands coaxing them in, trying to make a sale of their own bodies. Al-Awja, the town of corrupted women, was famous for its night life and the brothels that existed very openly throughout the town. The girl held onto her goat, thinking the whole while, “Please stay close to me”. She knew no-one would miss a deaf girl. She doubted that anyone would even notice her disappearance and for this reason she stayed suffocated in the midst of the crowd, getting pushed and shoved. The stalls on either side of the street were each fronted by two or three men yelling and bartering with the townspeople, trying to make a sale of anything. The girl knew what she needed and ignored the sellers grabbing at her arms. She dodged and weaved away from them, turning down alleys and streets to avoid them.
The girl regretted her decision to dodge the grabbing arms of stall owners. She didn’t know her way around the market town well. She was confused, a little lost, and now she found that the people had thinned leaving the girl out in the open. An uncomforting feeling washed over her. The red dirt encrusted mud brick buildings towered above the girl and the shadows shrouded the alleyway. Cold droplets of sweat ran down her back, not because of the stifling heat that was trapped in the alleyway, but rather because of the man staring at her from behind. He was an average man; average height, average age, average hair, average skin. The thing that the girl was most focused on and was most fearful of was the soft pink scar that ran from his left brow to his right lip, dragging his eye with it and pulling his lip into a grotesque, tight-lipped frown. The scar stood out against his dark skin making it visible to the girl from a distance. She tried not to look at the man, but her eyes kept wandering curiously, yet fearfully, toward the man’s menacing stare.
She walked down, stall by stall, gathering wheat, barley and lentils and keeping the man with the scar in her sights all the while. Her footsteps, although light, crunched along the gravel. She couldn’t hear the sound, but she felt it, she felt her feet scrape along the rocks and shards of stone that littered the ground and imagined the sound that she once knew. The last stall stood dilapidated in the corner of the alleyway, walls rising on both sides of it, shadowing it from the sight of the girl. Brown fabric that she thought could have once been white flapped lazily around the sides of the stall, barely hanging from the rotted wood frame. This created a back room, one that the girl could not peer into without the light of the sun. No-one stood at the front of the stall, and the girl dare not speak. She had not spoken since her hearing had been taken from her. She feared what she would sound like. Hot breath lapped at her neck and she threw herself against the stall, spinning to see the man with the scar behind her, his monstrous face close to hers showing the wrinkles spreading from the scar. From the end of the alley, the girl thought the man was aging, the wrinkles a result of many long years of life. Yet on closer inspection, the girl decided that he was rather young, perhaps only five years her senior. The rest of his skin was smooth and glowed with the joy of youth. His eyes did not share this. They were empty, dark. The only spark they held was focused on the girl, tearing into her.
Without a thought, the girl moved her dainty foot around the boy and let her body follow, but something was holding her back; his hand tightened around her wrist, and her body tensed in pain. She pulled against him but she had no hope of breaking free; she was younger than him, a female, and severely weakened by her lack of food. Goat was standing against the wall of the alley stamping his hooves against the floor, huffing in agitation. He ducked his head down, ready to charge at the boy. Without him, the girl thought, she would surely be dead. Goat’s horns pierced the boy’s leg, ripping through his pants and tearing away at his flesh. Blood oozed out of the gash soaking into the boy’s pants and running down his leg. His whole face flared up with anger so furious the girl felt the heat pulsing through her body. He turned from her and kicked Goat, sending his old and fragile frame against the wall of the building. Clumps of mud fell from the wall, showering Goat in dust. She screeched in anger but nothing came out; her voice had dried away like a desert river. Goat’s eyes, filled with worry and fear, flickered towards her but he did not rise to protect her. The boy’s hand rose like the sun grabbing her face, throwing her into the stall. She rolled along the ground, her skin scraping along the rocky floor. She rose as quickly as possible, knowing she needed to get away. The people in the other alleyway stalls came to her mind, but as she raised her head over the stall to search for them her hopes were crushed. There was no-one there. Stalls lay abandoned in the alleyway, leaving her and the boy in the alley alone. People were cruel; she now knew this for sure.
Before she could turn, the boy’s hand was in her hair, ripping it from her scalp as he dragged her back into the stall. Her legs scratched along the gravel and shards of rock stabbed into her skin. Hot blood ran down her legs and arms. At first she struggled, but it hurt more when she did. Instead, she just stayed limp, letting the boy slowly drag her into the tent. She stared up, up to the sky imagining, thinking about what happens when people die. Many others before her had known what it was like to die; she did not. It had to be something wonderful, something better than this life. She thought this because she had seen many people, the men with their toys, willingly go and welcome death. They had to know about the greatness of the next life; what other reason could there be to throw away something as beautiful as life? The boy dropped her onto the ground, and she looked up into his eyes. The anger, the ferocity was no longer there, but rather sadness filled them as he looked down at her. She thought about his life, and hers. They were both damaged, unwanted people in a world full of the wanted. She imagined how he felt in the Suq having to see people every day, having to see their faces turn away in disgust and shame. She was lucky; she never had to see that, but he did, and those sounds must have sat in his mind at night, flicking like some strange and sadistic picture book, haunting him. She was no longer scared of him. She yearned to reach out and touch him, to comfort him with words she could not speak. The boy ducked down behind the stall, and pulled her over to him and lifted the curtain. He was whispering something in her ear, hot moist breath filling her mind. She did not know what he was saying, but he was pointing out to the Suq, out of the alleyway.
In one second, a moment as small as her presence in the world, everything slowed. It was like the world had stopped, and the girl could see everything. There were men with their toys, perhaps 15, or maybe 20 of them herding the growing expanses of civilians through the maze of the town, searching for the ones they wanted. The men with their toys thundered through the town, with their cold eyes searching, always searching. The booming rat-tat-tat of the toys slit through the air, interrupted only by the small sounds of life being snuffed out. The girl could no longer hear the mournful mutter of a fight, but she knew it. She could remember it from her past, from her childhood. Memories that she had suppressed for years came crashing into her mind; the noise of the sirens and the screaming of her neighbours’ children, the planes flying over-head, the cacophony of explosions that drowned her mind. Tears wet her face as she remembered the crackling of the fire that burnt her village and her family to the ground. She was no longer a child and she knew what the men held were not toys; they were guns. She was old enough to admit that to herself now. She had seen many pass into the second life over the years at the hands of the cloud men and the sand men, yet she did not blame them. The life that was lost thoughtlessly was not the desire of the men or their leaders. Yet those few lives seemed to them to be a necessary loss. She stared into the Suq, her eyes widening at the sight of a torso being ripped apart, and the limbs of another being torn away by the speed of the bullets, the blood flying through the air spraying strange patterns upon the many civilians that were trying to force their way through the surging crowds longing to escape. Their attempts were in vain. There were now men on rooftops and amongst the throng of the crowds. The girl could no longer be sure of who was responsible for the lives that became caught and stolen in the cross-fire.
The boy with the scar clenched his fists, wanting to move, to help those in the Suq, but he would not leave the girl. The girl was mesmerized by the blood of those who had been shot, and those who had been crushed by the panicked crowd. Her body started shaking and she reached out to touch Goat only to realize he was not there. She remembered him flying towards the wall and searched frantically for him. He lay next to crates, against the wall no more than 20 paces from the girl. Their eyes met, and Goat bleated with joy and stood to join her under the stall. A white man, a man with a gun, jumped at the sound and lifted his gun. The cloud man was showered in bullets, and was no longer recognisable as a person. The girl’s eyes flicked to Goat as the man dropped to the ground. She tried to run to her friend, but the boy held her tight, a pleading look on his face. He was begging her to stay; she did not hear his words but she knew what he was asking. She couldn’t leave Goat.
The crowd had thinned; the ground had become a crowded wash of blood and dirt. The soldiers aimed their guns into the alley, their eyes pressed against their guns. The girl struggled more and pulled away harder, kicking with as much strength as she could. She would save Goat. She rolled over to look into the boy’s eyes, tears in them as he held her down. Slashing her arm through the air with all the strength she possessed, her hand connected with his nose, sending blood running down her arm and down his face. He flinched away and before he could regain composure the girl was up and running. He lunged upwards towards her and two booms, as loud as fireworks rung out in the alley. The boy, the boy with a scar and soft pleading eyes fell to the girl, crushing onto her and forcing her to the ground. Blood oozed from his body, trickling slowly across her and onto the rocky floor. He groaned and tried to move, but his eyes lost their sadness and glowed for a moment before becoming dark, lost to this life and greeting the other. Warm wetness covered the girl, and she could not move for a moment that seemed to go for years, but only lasted seconds. She stared at the boy who died protecting her and she began to cry. Not because she was sad, but because she was angry. These people, these innocent souls were dying for nothing but the orders of other men handed down until they reached these men with their toys. She was, however, sad for these men, who had no choice but to fight and kill and maim and to risk their own lives for the sake of living. If they did not kill they would be killed, the girl could see that. No-one had a choice.
Dragging herself from under the boy, she walked towards her friend. Her eyes never left him until she sunk into the dirt next to his limp body. On the ground, no longer white, was dirt and blood covered Goat; the only friend the girl ever knew. He was no longer in her world, could no longer be her life. His chest no longer rose with hers and for this she was consumed with sadness so heavy that she began to whimper in his wiry fur. She was resolved that her friend’s life had ended and thus hers had too. A deep breath was taken, and it hurt her. She felt it would stay this way forever. Turning over, the girl leaned against Goat. She stared out of the alleyway, looking for any sign of life, any sign of danger. Outside the alley, slumped against the wall she could see a man sitting amongst a pile of rubble, blood painting the wall around him. He was crying, holding another man tightly in his arms. She looked past him, at the sky once more and thought about the wonders of the next life. The man’s eyes had glowed with joy before his last breath; perhaps he had seen the excitement and felt the immense joy of whatever lay ahead? She basked in the thought of his eyes, and smiled at the man clutching uselessly onto his comrade’s blood-soaked figure. He looked upon the young girl smiling up at the sky, tears rolling down his dirty cheeks and stood stronger than ever before. Picking up the tattered remains of his friend’s body and placing it over his shoulder, the man kicked away his gun and turned from the alley. The girl watched him as he left, watched his friend’s blood trickle down his back and thought about why he was here, what made him so cold to look at. A shiver rolled down her spine.
The young girl sat alone peering into the valley at the lights glowing from within the fabric huts the men slept in, and the other men hiding behind rocks and behind walls of rock. Like a fog appearing, a story formed in her mind:
Once there was a group of men with pale skin like the clouds that float through the sky. They came from nowhere, came with the clouds to sleep in fabric tents at the bottom of the hill in a valley. For days, they played with their toys and laughed at each other. Then, one night another group of men, with skin like the colour of the ground and many with beards covering their chins crept into the fabric village. Fireworks came from the toys, lighting up the night sky. Men, white and brown, shouted and ran to find their toys and joined in making fireworks. Some of the men played dead ants like when we were children. Maybe they just wanted to be kids again? In the morning, when the sun fought the moon away, the men kept playing dead ants, and others kept playing with their toys. It continued like this, the same each time the moon returned. The fireworks began again. The men continued doing this, but for what? Hideous pictures of blood against walls and floors filled their minds. Perhaps they were asleep, and could no longer see, hear or feel. Perhaps they were no longer men.
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