The rest of the platoon on the roof started to move and jostle with the flickering half-light of dawn. Sterling perched with his rifle over the wall, sleeping and starting throughout our waiting. He jerked his head back occasionally and swiveled to see if anyone had caught him. He showed me a broad disheveled grin in the receding dark, held up his trigger finger and daubed Tabasco sauce into his eyes to stay awake. He turned back toward our sector and his muscles visibly bucked and tensed beneath his gear.
Murph's breath was a steady comfort to my right. I had grown accustomed to it, the way he'd punctuate its rhythm with a well-practiced spit into an acrid pool of dark liquid that always seemed to be growing between us. He smiled up at me. "Want a rub, Bart?" I nodded. He passed me a can of care-package Kodiak and I jammed it into the cup of my bottom lip, snubbing out my cigarette. The wet tobacco bit and made my eyes water. I spat into the pool between us. I was awake. Out of the grey early morning the city became whole. White flags hung in a few scattered windows in the buildings beyond the bodies in the field. They formed an odd crochet where the window's dark recesses were framed by jagged glass. The windows themselves were set into whitewashed buildings that became ever brighter in the sun. A thin fog off the Tigris dissipated, revealing what hints of life remained, and in the soft breeze from the hills to the north the white rags of truce fluttered above green awnings.
Sterling tapped at the face of his watch. We knew the muezzin's song would soon warble its eerie fabric of minor notes out from the minarets, calling the faithful to prayer. It was a sign and we knew what it meant, that hours had passed, that we had drawn nearer to our purpose, which was as vague and foreign as the indistinguishable dawns and dusks with which it came.
"On your toes, guys!" the LT called in a forceful whisper.
Murph sat up and calmly worked a small dot of lubricant into the action of his rifle. He chambered a round and rested the barrel against the low wall. He stared off into the grey angles where the streets and alleys opened onto the field to our front. I could see into his blue eyes, the whites spider-webbed with red. They had fallen farther into his sockets the past few months. There were times when I looked at him and could only see two small shadows, two empty holes. I let the bolt push a round into the chamber of my rifle and nodded at him. "Here we go again," I said. He smiled from the corner of his mouth. "Same old shit again," he answered.
It wasn't long after I left Al Tafar that I began to feel very strange. I first noticed it on the highway between the airbase and the town of Kaiserslautern. The trees outside the window of the taxi made a silver blur, but I could clearly see the green buds of spring as they untethered themselves from the remains of winter. It reminded me of the war, though I was only a week removed from it, and unbeknownst to me at the time, my memories would seem closer the farther I got from the circumstances that gave birth to them. I suppose, now, that they grew the same way other things grow. In the quiet of the taxi, the thin trees made me think of the war and how in the desert our year seemed like a seasonless thing, except in fall. There was a sharp disquiet in the way days passed into other days and the dust covered everything in Al Tafar, so that even the blooming hyacinth flowers became a kind of rumor.
I imagined it would be easier then, to arrive in a temperate place so obviously passing from winter into spring, but it was not. The wet, cold air of March in Germany shocked my skin, and when the LT said we wouldn't get a pass even though we couldn't leave until the next day, just wait it out, I decided I'd earned one anyway.
I'd had to walk a half a mile or so to get out the security gate and another two until the first row of buildings appeared on my left. The sky was now less brightly lit, and there was a steady, fine mist that hovered in the air. In the plane, the sun had a kind of buoyant dominance, but it had hidden itself away beyond clouds that appeared like pale, soot-colored sketches of themselves. The buildings were more colorful than I thought buildings could be, with light pastel trims, and rich creams and yellows thickly painted on the stucco walls. I walked toward the town, past softly lit cafes emitting deep, hearthy smells, past solitary people walking on the street, the collars of their slickers pulled tightly around their necks, their eyes pausing to evaluate me. Without fail, they turned toward some other ending for their travels.
Excerpted from The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers. Copyright © 2012 by Kevin Powers. Excerpted by permission of Little Brown & Company. 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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