This left Donk and the driver, a kind of bear-man miracle with moist brown eyes and a beard it was hard to imagine he had not been born with, to have a look under the Corolla and assess the damage. Monoglots each, they could do little better than exchange artfully inflected grunts. Nothing seemed visibly wrong. The axle, for instance, was not bent, which had been Donk's greatest fear. But the steering wheel refused to budge and the ignition responded to the driver's twist with a click.
"Hmn," Donk consoled him.
"Mmn," the driver agreed.
Donk looked over at Graves, who was speaking through Hassan to the truck's stranded driver. Graves was nodding with exquisitely false patience as the curly-haired boy, who looked no older than twenty, grasped his head with both hands and then waved his arms around at the desert in huge gestures of innocence. Bursts of dune-skimmed sand whistled across the three of them. The bed of the boy's truck was piled ten deep with white bags of internationally donated wheat. His truck, Donk noticed, was not marked with any aid group's peaceable ideogram.
It had been a strange morning, even by Donk's standards. A few hours ago some "nasties," as Graves called them, had appeared on the outskirts of Kunduz, though they were supposed to have been driven out of the area a week ago. In fact, they were supposed to have been surrendering. Graves and Donk had jumped out of bed and rushed downstairs into the still-dark morning autumn air to see what they could see, hopping around barefoot on the frigid concrete. The battle was still far away, the small faint pops of gunfire sounding as dry as firecrackers. It appeared that, after some desultory return fire, Kunduz's commander called in an American air strike. The great birds appeared with vengeful instantaneousness and screamed across the city sky. The sound was terrific, atmosphere-shredding, and then they were gone. The horizon, a few moments later, burped up great dust bulbs. But within the hour the gunfire had moved closer. The well-armed defenders of Kunduz had been scrambling everywhere as Donk and Graves packed up what little remained of their gear into this hastily arranged taxi and sped out of town to the more securely liberated city of Mazar.
"Bloody fool," Graves said now, when he walked back over to Donk. He was speaking of the curly-haired boy.
"Call him a wog if it makes you feel better," Donk said. "I don't mind."
Graves cast a quick look back at the boy, now squatting beside his hobbled truck and chatting with Hassan. "He's stolen that wheat, you know."
"Where was he going?"
"He won't say."
"What's he doing now?"
"He's going to wait here, he says. I told him there were nasties about. Bloody fool." He looked at Donk, his face softened by sudden concern. "How's that eye, then?"
Graves leaned into him optometristically, trying to inspect the messy wound through the do-rag. "Nasty," he said finally, pulling away. "How many wars did you say you've covered?"
"Like war wars? Shooting wars? Or just wars?"
Graves nodded. "Shooting wars."
"Not counting this one, three. But I've never been shot at until today." While they were leaving Kunduz their Corolla had been hit with a short burst of Kalashnikov fire, though it was not clear that the bullets were intended for them. The driver had used the strafe--it sounded and felt like a flurry of ball-peen hammer strikes--to establish a median traveling speed of 125 kilometers per hour. They had very nearly plowed over a little boy and his pony just before the city's strangely empty westernmost checkpoint.
"And how did you find it?" Graves asked, as though genuinely curious.
"I found it like getting shot at."
Excerpted from God Lives in St. Petersburg by Tom Bissell, pages 3 to 12. From the short story titled 'Death Defier'. Copyright © 2005 by Tom Bissell. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing 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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