"Where are we going?" she asked. She stood in the frozen furrow of the previous night's tire tracks. The snow stretched on either side. Akhmed hadn't prepared for this. He couldn't imagine why the Feds would want Dokka, much less the girl. She stood no taller than his stomach and weighed no more than a basket of firewood, but to Akhmed she seemed an immense and overwhelming creature whom he was destined to fail.
"We're going to the city hospital," he said, with what he hoped was an assertive tone.
"Because the hospital is safe. It's where people go when they need help. And I know someone there, another doctor," he said, though all he knew of her was her name. "She'll help."
"I'm going to ask if you can stay with her." What was he saying? Like most of his plans, this one seemed so robust in his mind but fell like a flightless bird when released to the air. The girl frowned.
"He's not coming back, is he?" she asked. She focused on the blue leather suitcase that sat on the street between them. Eight months earlier, her father had asked her to prepare the suitcase and leave it in the closet, where it had remained until the previous night, when he thrust it into her hands and pushed her out the back door as the Feds broke through the front.
"I don't think so."
"But you don't know?" It wasn't an accusation, but he took it as one. Was he so incompetent a physician that she hesitated to trust him with her father's life even in speculation? "We should be safe," he said. "It's safer to think he won't come back."
"But what if he does?"
The longing knotted into such a simple question was more than he could contemplate. What if she cried? It suddenly seemed like a terrifying possibility. How would he stop her? He had to keep her calm, keep himself calm; panic, he knew, could spread between two people more quickly than any virus. He fiddled with her scarf. Somehow it had survived the fire as orange as the day it was pulled from the dye. "How about this: if he comes back, I'll tell him where you are. Is that a good idea?"
"My father is a good idea."
"Yes, he is," Akhmed said, relieved they had this to agree on.
They plodded along the Eldar Forest Service Road, the village's main thoroughfare, and their footprints began where the tire tracks ended. On either side he saw houses by surname rather than address. A face appeared and vanished in an unboarded window.
"Pull your headscarf tighter," he instructed. But for his years at medical school, he had spent his whole life in Eldar and no longer trusted the traditional clan system of teips that had survived a century of Tsarist rule, then a century of Soviet rule, only to dissolve in a war of national independence. Reincarnated in 1999, after a truce too lawless to be called peace, the war had frayed the village teip into lesser units of loyalty until all but the fidelity of a parent for a child wore thin enough to break. Logging, the village's sole stable industry, had ceased soon after the first bombs fell, and without viable prospects those who couldn't emigrate ran guns for the rebels or informed for the Feds to survive.
He wrapped his arm around Havaa's shoulder as they walked. The girl had always been strong and stoic, but this resignation, this passivity, was something else. She clomped along, kicking snow with each footstep, and in an attempt to cheer her Akhmed whispered a joke about a blind imam and a deaf prostitute, a joke that really wasn't appropriate for an eight-year-old, but was the only one Akhmed could remember. She didn't smile, but was listening. She zipped her puffy jacket over a sweatshirt that in Manchester, England, had warmed the shoulders of five brothers before the sixth, a staunchly philanthropic six-year-old, had given it to his school's Red Cross clothing drive so his mother would have to buy him a new one.
Excerpted from A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra. Copyright © 2013 by Anthony Marra. Excerpted by permission of Hogarth, 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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