Smitten Gate (Chapter 19)

a novel

Copyright © Stan Goff 2022, All Rights Reserved

Sharing cigarettes

Intercontinental Hotel — Kabul

July 12, 2010

0843 — Local

Gaston and Emal, his interpreter, met young Juma on the street across from the parking garage exit. Juma was agitated. Gaston could hear the terms “amrekayan” and “topakuna” — Americans, guns. Emal asked Juma a question in Pashto. Juma’s agitation increased, and Emal held up two hands, signaling Juma to wait. Emal turned to Gaston.

“In Zama, he say American soldiers, umm, rape a girl and keel her. Mother, too.”

Gaston offered Juma a cigarette. Juma took one, gave it to Emal, and took another for himself. The Frenchman lit Juma’s cigarette with his Zippo, then Emal’s, then his own. Juma had tears of rage welling up in his eyes.

“Do you believe him?” asked Gaston.

“I believe. He want you to go see.”

“See? You mean go with him?”

“Yes. Go with him. He show you girl, show you mother.”

“The bodies? They are still there?”

“Bodies there now. You go see.”

“Where is Zama?”

“Not far.”

“Why me?”

“He does not trust American.”

*

Zama, Afghanistan

July 12, 2010

0928 — Local

Emal drove the Borrego, expertly dodging the potholes, while Gaston looked ahead at the crowd of huddled men. As soon as the Borrego pulled in and Emal pulled up the handbrake, Juma, Gaston, and Rastin — the latter on loan from Phillip Ferguson — dismounted.

Emal had to catch up to them. When he did, he noted a surprisingly small old man, even by Afghan scale, who stood front and center before the assembled villagers. He was the numberdar, the headman, dressed in a traditional khet partug with a tattered blue North Face pullover jacket and a white kufi tilted on his head. He had a magnificently thick gray beard and a Kalashnikov slung across his back, muzzle skyward. Two of the headman’s companions carried Kalashnikovs, too, but everyone was at sling arms. Emal had left his Uzi in the car and asked Juma to go back and look after it.

Emal introduced the headman to Gaston as “Rahnamah Lal,” and reminded Gaston to call the headman Rahnamah (Leader). Rahnamah Lal turned, and the gaggle of men parted. Lal led Gaston and Emal to the house which perched on the edge of a small drop-off with a sandstone foundation and three worn steps leading to the door.

The door hung precariously on a single twisted hinge and had obviously been broken down. Gaston smelled congealed blood and heard the fly-frenzy before he even mounted the steps. A woman wept loudly in a small brick house thirty meters away across the wadi. Several of the men outside cried softly, too.

Gaston’s shadow broke the column of sunlight that fell through the room from the door. Dust particles surged and swirled in the slanting rays. His gaze was drawn toward two white bundles laid alongside one another next to the far wall. Bloodstains made brown maps on the sheets that wrapped the girl and her mother. Bloody streaks crossed the floor like little highways. Someone had dragged the two bodies before they were wrapped, probably the locals.

Gaston flinched when Emal touched his shoulder, indicating he should go on in. Gaston took a step forward, breathing deeply now to wrestle down nausea. Emal and the headman came in behind him, the headman speaking softly with Emal. Emal grunted from time to time, indicating either assent or acknowledgement.

“You can look,” Emal told Gaston. “Give respect, but look. Mother’s name Bakhtawara. Husband dead long time. Girl’s name Storai. Daughter has blood . . .” Emal indicated his crotch, “ . . . here. Virgin . . . ummm . . . rape.”

Gaston handed a cigarette to the old headman, who eyes were welling with tears. Another cigarette for Emal, and one for himself. For the smell, he signed, pointing to his own nose. He lit their cigarettes, then moved deliberately and slowly toward the corpses, careful not to step on the blood streaks across the flagstone floor. A rolled-up rug stood like a column against a wall. There were broken pots, he noticed, an upturned chair, and blood splattered on two walls. In the small sleeping quarters lay two tick mattresses, one of them drenched in dark, dried blood.

He squatted next to the longer bundle, holding his cigarette away from it in his left hand, and folded back the sheet with his right. The flies rose briefly then dove back down to feast. This must be Bakhtawara, the mother. A wide gash lay across the left side of her forehead, her face vaguely distorted by a skull fracture. Blood had pooled and dried in her left eye, drawing the flies into a hive there, the right eye scarcely open and cast downward. Dark bruises around her throat — she’d been strangled, too.

Gaston opened the sheet a bit more, looking for other signs of violence, but there didn’t appear to be any. Gently, he folded the sheet back over Bakhtawara.

He pulled deeply on his cigarette, then stood up and set it on a little wooden table, the ember hanging off the edge. He almost passed out from standing too quickly and placed one hand on the cob wall to steady himself. Kneeling down next to Bakhtawara again, he reaching across and opened Storai’s shroud.

Storai’s eyes were wide open and dulled with dry dust. She’d been a pretty girl. He could see that. Now bloodlessly gray, nightgown torn and tangled around her shoulders. There were two gunshot entry wounds right between her tiny breasts, stippled with powder burns: she’d been shot at point blank range.

Gaston couldn’t bring himself to open the shroud to examine her lower body. He’d take their word about the broken hymen. Folding the sheet back over her, he swallowed hard against the bile rising in his throat, then stood, more slowly this time, and retrieved his burning cigarette. That was when he saw it.

It glinted in a ray of sunlight from a seam between the stone floor and the cob wall on the other side of Lal and Emal. A coin of some kind, just the edge visible. Gaston motioned for some room, stuck the cigarette between his lips, and knelt to tease out the coin. It wouldn’t budge. Finally, he took a little pen knife out of his trousers, and pried the coin up. He grasped it gingerly like it might bite, and inspected both sides of it.

“Emal.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Would you get my camera equipment please, and ask these gentlemen to stay outside for a few minutes?” Emal pivoted. “And ask if anyone has found used ammunition, amrekayan.”

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Stan Goff

Author of the books “Hideous Dream,” “Full Spectrum Disorder,” “Borderline,” “Mammon’s Ecology,” and “Tough Gynes.”