by Justin Briley
It’s a long, low landscape as far as you would ever care to walk. Mountains probably rear from the earth within sight, but not within space. It’s not in the frame, but you can imagine it. Geography is the heart of conquest.
This used to be a poppy field, guaranteed. Bet on it. The earth is loam, the sky is blue, the grass is probably knee high and wider than the eye of God. It’s all swift falling field country, save a lonely wasteland line that leans in from the higher deserts to carry trucks north and south.
(It’s all in black and white. Grainy, I know. Paint it. There’s a canvas in your eyes.)
Brown trucks full of white men, black and brown men, laughing and smoking. Women in body armor who laugh the loudest or not at all. White pickups full of brown men robed in black and white, heavy bearded. Hard-eyed heroes. Tantric and taciturn by turns, carrying the arms of long dead conquerors up from drier country.
They kiss their mothers on the mouth and die for God. All of them, after their fashion. It is a holy war, and if you ever tell them otherwise, you’re not lying—they were just collateral damage. The truth is, all war is holy. And jihad is the sacred soul of struggle.
But today there are no convoys, no caravans. No red Tomahawks, no white and blue Patriots. Today there’s some poor fuck in a broken truck, and his prepubescent son.
(Black and white, a shaky frame. Grainy too, I know. Let me hold your hand. Let me guide your brushstroke:
There’s a whirring sound somewhere between a helicopter and a hummingbird. This is normal. You expect it. Like the uncomfortable clap-clap-clap of all pornography. Tune it out and stroke on.)
The tailgate of the truck reads “TOYOTA.” You can’t make it out, but you know. The sharp lines of an early 90s shortbed Tacoma are as regular in-country and on-screen as the sight of distant mountains.
Chk. Five on five, I copy. Chk.
The Toyota and daddy are gone from the frame now. The kid squats over a sparse patch of roadside grass. His hands kick up cloudy dirt—dirt that’s been ground into fine, sepia dust over thirty years of constant foreign policy. The dust that covers the lens in so many war films. His hands kick up dirt.
Chk. Copy, five on five. Chk.
You hear the voice only vaguely, as from God.
The man tears in from the side of the frame, as if whipped by the scourge of heaven. It’s hard for thee to kick against the pricks. He is erratic, hands scratch empty sky at you. Zolfiqar is in his heart, but his hands scratch empty sky at you. Little hands throw up dirt by the road.
Chk. We’re hot. Chk.
You’re hot too. Office buildings never quite get the air right. You stripped down to your undershirt hours ago, but the heat clings to your skin. Is your skin. There’s no relief, save defleshing yourself. You’re not prepared to go that far tonight. You’ve tried keeping your eyes on your second screen, but the whir drags them on a leash. The whir rubs your nose in the pile you’ve created, commands you fill yourself up with it. You eat only in fits and starts, and consider your skin again.
(The office isn’t black and white. Feel free to picture all the shades of grey here. Grainy. Yes, I know.)
The man has the boy by the scruff, but you know what he knows. You hear what he hears. You’ve heard it all night. Once you’ve heard it, it’s far past the hour for fleeing. Holy wars are somewhat quieter than they once were. You’d almost never even know.
(They do, of course, run. What else could they do? Not far. Two steps that way, three steps the other. Not fair either. But it was always too late. You can survive the Mercy Seat. I’m told the Cross can’t keep a good man down for long. It’s all so grainy, I know. Your veins could even reject an injection and spray your bloody spite all over the Prosecutor and Judge. But you can’t fight what you won’t hear until—)
Some flowers, I’ve heard, only bloom for a day. A moment, on the right scale. Up from a hollow in the earth, bright and yellow and red. Bright and yellow and red and full of a living sense of themselves and themselves alone. When they wilt shortly away, they leave precisely nothing behind. As though there never were any such flower. As though that black dirt below on your black and white screen was simply always black, never white. Never, ever grey.
Your eyes are filled with these poorly painted wonders. Grainy, I know.