They trussed him up in chains and tossed him into an armored personnel carrier. On the clattering ride through the countryside and the barely smoother and quieter drive over a road potholed by weather and war, he clanged around on the metal floor. Whenever he started to stand up, the soldiers knocked him flat.
At a military cantonment, they carried the boy into an empty cage in the guard dog kennel and unchained him. Dogs in neighboring pens barked and hurled themselves at the bars, eager to get at him, sample his smell, challenge him, fight him. But as he climbed to his feet and circled the cage, they fell quiet and watched with confusion. One instant he had appeared to be an animal, the next moment something approximating a man.
He struggled to squeeze between the bars, then seemed to remember that he had hands. Squatting on his rump, he fumbled at the gate, fretting with the lock. He rattled and scratched it, but in the end went back to being an animal. He bit the lock, and when that didn't break it, he wheeled in frustration and paced the cage. His fingernails scraped against the concrete floor as if against slate. He swung his head from side to side, sniffing the air, snapping his teeth. His shoulders twitched, shaking off flies. Others promptly replaced them, roosting on his lips and eyelids and open sores. He didn't bother to bat them away.
He began to whine and whimper, then fell to his hands and knees and arched his backbone. An abrupt fit of coughing turned to convulsions and he retched and vomited and fouled himself. What fell out of him at either end wriggled with pinkish-white worms. A soldier fetched a fire hose and drove the boy into a corner. The high-pressure spray cleaned the mess off the floor and scoured the mud and weeds off the kid. Now he was truly naked, and resembled a sable peeled of its pelt. The man aimed the hose between the boy's legs. To protect himself, he grabbed his genitals and screamed. This gave his captors an idea, something to do during dead stretches of the day. Whenever the kid calmed down, they stirred him up with the hose.
That night they got drunk and dragged one of the camp whores to the kennel, tossed her into the cage and told her to fuck the wild child. When she refused, they hosed them both down. The jolting force of the water ripped the woman's clothes off and flattened her against the kid. He sank his teeth into her naked shoulder. The soldiers got a laugh out of this--until the boy's bite drew blood. They had to rush into the cage and pry the two of them apart. As the soldiers resumed drinking, there was general agreement that the kid must be truly crazy and hadn't been in the army after all. Otherwise he wouldn't have attacked the woman or spat out the vodka they force-fed him.
Bored, they abandoned the kennel, taking the whore back to the barracks. The boy crept over to the gate and discovered that they had left it unlocked. Within seconds, he was out of the cage and had clambered over the cantonment fence. Racing through fields of brick rubble, he heard the roar of wind and the howl of penned-up guard dogs in his ears.
He advanced in darkness toward the center of town and the Grand Mosque. A minaret of blue ceramic tile inlaid with gold leaf roiled in moonlight so that the elegant calligraphy that encircled its cylinder appeared to revolve. The gilt letters quoting the Koran were of a size and shape that suggested the legendary beasts-griffins, basilisks and horned seahorses-on an antique carousel. High up in this glittering alphabet jungle, a guttural voice gushed from the minaret, beckoning the boy on.
By now he was very sick. He had cankers on his throat, and it tormented him to swallow or breathe. Scrabbling for food in a trash bin, he fainted, and that's where the woman found him.
She was tall, with sun-freckled skin and long reddish-blond hair. She might have been mistaken for a Russian, but she was American, in her mid-thirties. Faint vertical lines crimped her upper lip; crow's-feet at the corners of her eyes deepened as she squinted at the boy. She had seen starving children in the streets before, but none who looked like this--naked, his hands and feet clawing the ground like a dog lost in a dream of running. She had heard the stories. Her neighbors saw it as their obligation to warn her of all rumors of danger. Still, she scooped up the wild child and carried him into her house.
From Shelter from the Storm by Michael Mewshaw, Copyright © 2003 by Michael Mewshaw, published by G.P. Putnam's Sons, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., all rights reserved, reprinted with permission from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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