Yushua heard laughter and squawking chickens. He remained in the shadows as he crept up to the doorway. The men butchered one chicken after another. The spectacle of death held the boy in place. A large bird popped out of a crate, unnoticed except by Yushua, who pleaded quietly, Please, oh dear Allah, hear me. Let the rooster live.
Everything… the blood, the squawks, awkward wing flaps, and the odor of wet feathers, held the boy firmly in place. Feathers of many colors stuck to the sweating men as they methodically pulled one hapless bird after another out of crates to meet their curved blades. One of the men smoked, and both grunted in their effort. Hauling struggling chickens out of crates while slipping on bloody stones was a chore that both looked forward to ending.
The rooster was confused with its new found freedom. It walked slowly to the edge of the work bench before silently alighting on the ground. The heavy set man with the cigarette reached back to snatch another bird.
Yushua watched the rooster, his eyes growing large. He wanted the rooster; to introduce it to the three hens he already owned. Yushua prayed quietly. He felt like he wanted the rooster more than anything in his life. The bird deserved many more days of life. He pleaded with Allah, pointing out that he was a real good Muslim and would even be better if he was granted the rooster. The thought of the knife jamming into the rooster caused Yushua to shiver. He crossed his arms.
“This is a heavy one.” The man pinned another bird to the bench before pushing his curved knife into its throat. The blade disappeared before being pulled and twisted back out. The chicken pumped air with its wings. Before long, the bloody mess stiffened and was swept from the bench onto a growing pile. Occasionally, one of the birds would discover enough life to flop a head or flap a wing one last time.
Yushua stood, eyes locked on the pile of death, with his arms pinned to his side. Then his head followed the rooster, who had walked all too slowly toward the door.
Yushua held his breath. What was to be done? He did not know.
The man grumbled something about getting done early and reached into the crate without looking. He pulled another chicken from the crate, and the boy watched as the man pointed the knife toward his companion as he talked. He wiped red muck and several feathers off the knife before resuming his gruesome task.
The door stood open.
The freed rooster walked outside and disappeared into the darkness. The boy whispered a soft thanks to Allah.
“What is it you are mumbling, boy? You have something to say? Well, speak up, then.” Yushua’s eyes glanced toward the open door before he looked back at the man.
The man went to the door and immediately spotted the confused rooster. As he approached the bird, it clucked steadily. It ran along a mud brick wall into a corner. The man crouched toward the frightened chicken with his hands held wide apart. He snatched the rooster up and pulled his knife across its throat in one fluid motion. Inside, he tossed the bird on the pile and let it flap itself into death. Yushua balled up his fists and started pounding the man’s back. “You killed him. You killed him. Allah curses you. I owe you a blood debt.”
The man held his knife toward Yushua. “What is the matter with you? Leave now. We have work to do. These are our chickens. We need them for our stand. You wanted to steal my rooster. Be gone before I do what is written in the Koran. Off with a hand to a thief like you, boyeee!” He lunged toward Yushua.
Both men roared with laughter.
Yushua rushed by a pile of crates causing some to tumble.
The man howled, but Yushua only heard the anger not the words. He pumped his arms. Running into tears made it impossible to see in the Kabul streets. He ran, but not fast enough to leave it all behind. The dead chickens’ eyes flashed into his mind, and he ran faster until he reached the door. He shot a glance down the lane, but the ministers of death had not given chase. He leaned over, hands on his knees, breathing deeply. Could he tell his mammy what it was the men were doing or was it true he could lose a hand? No matter. Nothing should be made to suffer so. He hoped his tears had dried. Boys his age did not cry.
After his breathing slowed, he pushed the door open and bounded up the stairs several steps at a time. Without thinking, he collapsed into the only chair in his room which was held together with silver tape. Some of the tape had torn, but the chair remained standing. He was in no mood to land on the floor; the last time it had happened, his shoulder hurt for days.
Huma, his canary, leapt from perch to perch, clearly startled. Yushua whispered to the canary that everything was going to be okay. He sobbed between trying to whistle for the bird. He shut his eyes, begging them to stay dry. Then, he heard his mother’s soft approach.
“What is it, Yushua? Something has upset you. Do you want to talk, or just be alone? Doset Daram. Tonight it is chicken kabobs with naan. Your…” Her voice picked up in tempo and pitch, “favorite.”
Yushua spun around and stiffened, his back pushed against the chair. “Why chicken tonight? I do not want chicken tonight, I tell you.”
Mammy dropped her chin and scrunched up her forehead. “Perhaps kichiri with our kabobs. Is that what you would like?”
“I do not ever want chicken. Not tonight, or ever.”
“But Yush… chicken is your favorite. Stop this silly talk.” Mammy smiled, though she was confused. “And, be careful on that chair. I do not want you hurting yourself. I only have a couple pieces of tape left.”
“I killed a rooster tonight.” His sobs silenced him. His eyes became puddles.
“Oh dear, Yush, I am certain it must have been an accident.”
“It was no accident. I killed the bird because I did not pray quietly.” He recounted everything in gritty detail. Any concern over losing a hand was lost with the realization he was responsible for the death of such a beautiful bird.
“But those men were butchering chickens. It needs to be done. People get hungry, you know.”
“Well then, people should not eat chickens is what I think.”
Mammy laughed. “You are a special one in this forsaken place.” She looked toward the window. “Always fighting. Men running around with Kalashnikov’s. It is maddening. The look in their eyes is what bothers me so. This is a hard place to be. You are a kind one. I know it. This place needs kindness.”
“I wish I had not been so stupid…”
“Shush, now. You will only upset yourself. I tell you, there are many things I wish for. I wish little ones could laugh more. I wish the skies were filled with kites. Blue ones. Red ones. I always like yellow the best. It was fun to watch the kites flying in battle. Good competitions. I wish women were not beaten for walking too loudly. Yes… we all have wishes, but sometimes the sands of our sacred land swallow them up.”
“Why is it Allah does not answer my prayers? Is it the infidels and Jews who cause such suffering? The Mullah in my madrassa says it is so.” He wiped what remained of the tears from his face. “Perhaps those men are infidels and like to cause suffering.”
“Let us talk more on this later. I am hungry. It is time for kichiri. No kabobs tonight. I promise. We should eat before the Muezzin calls for prayers. It is not good to pray on an empty stomach.” Mammy got up and started for the door, stopped briefly, looked back at him, smiled and then left.
When Yushua heard her call to come and have kichiri he straightened his kameez. Crying was for girls, but he still did it after being nearly grown. He was ten, and old enough not to cry. Why was he failing? Why was he crying instead of acting like a man? Some boys had even run shells and ammo for fighters. He heard it a lot, so figured it must be true. The shame settled on him and lingered like mulberry stains on his fingertips. The only good coming out of his acting like a baby tonight was that Mammy was the only one who saw it.
He walked downstairs. The food smelled good. The rice was mixed like Mammy always did, with more than enough daal and cinnamon. When the Taliban had arrived in Kabul, cinnamon was not available. Then, kichiri was not good at all. He never mentioned it to Mammy, and always put on like it was the best ever. It was not long after the Americans shot the Taliban back into Pakistan that spices were available once more, and food tasted good again.
After washing down the last of the kichiri with chai, the call for the fifth and final prayers of the day was given. Yushua dedicated some of his devotions to the rooster, though he would never share such a thing with anyone; not even his Mammy who was somehow always the easiest person to share things with.
At the end of the evening, the moon was bright, and several houses flickered with candlelight; one even had a kerosene lamp burning brightly. Electricity had shut down for the night. The dust had settled, as if it too wanted to rest.
Yushua sat on the stoop in front of his home. It was not long before he heard someone approaching. He jumped off the stoop and stood in the yard. It sounded like his friend from school, Juma Gul.
“Yush. Yushua,” Juma Gul said. The boy was shorter and thinner than Yushua, and was smiling when he stepped into the yard. He held his hands behind his back hiding something.
“What is it you have now?” Yushua stepped closer, and found himself looking at a football. His mouth dropped open.
“It is mine. An American soldier gave it to me. Let us kick it around.”
“Why would an American give you a ball?” Yushua asked. “Where is this American?”
“Never mind. Let us go and try it out.” Juma Gul spun around and trotted toward an empty lot. He looked over his shoulder to make sure Yushua was following. “This ball is like the ones real players use. The soldier must be very well to do—huh?” Juma Gul kicked the ball past Yushua and bounced it off a wall. It made a loud thud, and bounced back into Juma Gul’s arms.
Juma Gul danced around in circles with his hands up in the air. “I am ahead. Yes! I scored a goal. It was easy, Yushua. I am going to play in the World Cup!”
“That does not count. I was not ready, I tell you. You have to cheat because you are no bigger than a rat.” He picked up a brick and proclaimed it to be one side of the goal and then paced off to the other side. “Now, are you ready?”
Juma Gul kicked the ball hard, but Yushua punched it high over Juma Gul’s head toward the back of the lot, and into the waiting hands of Haji.
“Ah… a gift from Allah.” Haji smirked. Friends crowded in around him staring at Yushua and Juma Gul. “Here. Do you want the ball back?”
Juma Gul approached Haji with his hands out.
At the last minute, Haji punched the ball into Juma Gul’s face, knocking him to the ground. “This is not your ball. I found it, and I am going to keep it. What do you think of that?” Haji laughed. “If you cry like a little one, I might just give it back. Come on, baby boy, cry a little. Come on… just a little. Say it… I want my bouncy ball.”
Yushua stepped toward Haji. “Give him his ball back.”
“Give him his ball back, or what?” Haji looked hard at Yushua and smiled.
“Allah will not be pleased with your actions. Give the ball back—please—Haji.” Yushua stared through fear and the encroaching grip of helplessness. If I do anything, Haji will beat me good. He is harder than stone.
“Okay then, have it.” Haji drove the ball into Yushua, and knocked him to the ground. Haji pinned him to the dirt with his soldier’s boot on Yushua’s chest. “Allah forbids little boys who are clumsy from having footballs. The Koran says it is so. I am sorry for it being so, but it is. I am a good Muslim, and you two have much to learn. Allah demands I take this ball.” He then pressed harder on Yushua’s chest and laughed. “Look at his face. So much pain. He acts like he just stepped on a mine. What a baby.”
The others burst out laughing.
Yushua held his breath.
The other boys leaned in and stood over Yushua. “This one will never grow into a martyr. Step down harder, Haji. Let’s see what happens.”
Juma Gul swatted the ball from Haji’s hands, plucked it out of the air and sprinted toward the gate. “Bring that ball back to me, or Yushua is going to get it worse! Yushua’s guts are going to pop out of his mouth. Do you think I am joking?”
Juma Gul ran several more steps before stopping abruptly, as if his legs were taking orders from an unseen force. He remained frozen in place, not wanting to turn around.
“Back to me now. Be a good little boy and place the ball in my hands, or it is guts up time for Yushua. I mean it. Now!”
Juma Gul turned slowly, his head lowered. “I hate you,” he marched up to Haji and pushed the ball hard into Haji’s hands. “I hate you, Haji!”
Haji smiled. “Thank you for the ball.” He tossed the ball from one hand to the other.
“I hate you, Haji.” Juma Gul said again.
“Shame on you. If you two were Pashtuns then I would let you have the ball. You are nothing but stupid Arab Afghans is what I think. If it was not so late, I would beat the both of you good. Such talk of hating a good Muslim. No more. Shut your mouth if you cannot be respectful of a follower of the all-knowing Prophet.” Haji spun and clomped out of the lot. His friends followed him.
Yushua pushed himself up onto an elbow. “Why did you not run for it? You could have got out of here with it.”
“Ah… I can find another American giving balls away. They never run out of good stuff.”
“Come on. Time to get home. You have a long walk to your baba’s shop. You did it because you are kind.”
Juma Gul walked faster. “You shut up now!”
Yushua bent over to feel his ribs. They hurt, but seemed to work—which meant they were not broken. He had heard it many times.
No tears came. That was good.
Perhaps he was close to being a real man after all.
* * *
“Yushua, you are a fine Pashtun. You are so like your baba. People in this place do not laugh anymore. But you do. Your baba would be so proud. You are different than those other boys.” Mammy motioned with her head from where she sat on a rug toward the front of the house. “He always liked to come home from work and shout out your name, and wait for you to run to him. So much joy. Laughing and running with your arms reaching for him. Oh how I miss him at times. He hated the Taliban for good reason. The Americans would have been acceptable to him, I can say.”
It made no sense to him how she could say such a thing. The Mullah called them great Satans. He wondered if his mammy was wrong because she had never been to his madrassa. Yushua decided not to hurt her feelings by pointing this out to her. He had grown used to the Americans running around in vehicles all of the time. Men on corners waiting for work would talk about killing them if they were not hiding in trucks all of the time. They would be quiet when the soldiers walked by, but then laugh some. Not the funny laugh, but a laugh that said how good it would feel to put a bullet into one of their heads for Allah. Then, Mammy says baba would have been friendly to the Americans.
He was confused.
He wanted to be fearless like his baba, but did not know how. So he hid behind laughter and big smiles. Sometimes he felt like he was being crushed by his own giggles. None of this worked with Haji. But he hoped his smiles hid his confusion from Mammy. He wanted to be strong for her, like his baba had been.
He stared at the ceiling while he listened to her. He fell asleep as she spoke.
He woke with her words coming to him from what sounded like a long tunnel. “Yushua, get up for rout before prayers are called. Yushua, you sleepy head. Time to get up already.” Then thoughts of an empty stomach, prayers, and school got in the way.
He yawned and wandered into the bathroom. He had set a pail of water out after getting back from the lot.
Haji loomed in his thoughts. He held up his shirt, but saw no bruising. He stole Juma Gul’s ball and said it was what a good Muslim would do. I would love to see a military truck, a big one, squish him on the road. Only thing good about him was that he could not run fast. People get run over all the time. Americans drive fast and never stop because they are afraid of bombs. So, if one squashed Haji, like the fat dog he is, I would be happy. Yushua smiled.
“Rout and apricots with hot milk. You need to eat if you are to be an important decision maker someday,” Mammy said. “Kabul needs all the smart decision makers it can get.”
“Are the Americans ever going to get water to come out of these things again, Mammy?”
“Faucets. That is what these things are called. They are working on a lot of things all of the time. Who knows if we are going to get water? You must never get water at the end of the street. That water would make us miserable, I can say. You cannot even boil the stink out of it.”
“No… No… Mammy. I will never go to the stinky tap. The Americans are good at doing things… are they not? You work with them, and are important? So why is it that they do not provide for us?”
“I work for all of Afghanistan. I do police work. It does not mean we get water before others.”
“They put the Taliban back into Pakistan. I hate the Taliban. They were no better than dogs. I hate them. The Americans made our kichiri good again, and they even give us sweets at times. And Mammy, they give balls away. At least a soldier gave Juma Gul one.” Yushua realized he was talking too much. Mammy had told him that he was never to be near the Americans. It was a good way to get hurt. .She had told him that over and over again.
“Sweets and a ball? How do you know such things?”
“Not me… Juma Gul. He got the ball. I know, I know. Stay away from soldiers all of the time.”
Yushua wanted to tell Mammy what Haji had done, but he wanted her to think he was like his baba. He was not sure what she would do if she found out he had been under Haji’s boot.
It was done, and now he would just have to be more careful. If Juma Gul could find the soldier, perhaps another ball would come their way. And now, because Haji’s place was near the well, he had to come up with another plan to get water. I do not want to bump into him.
“Yush, did you know the Americans got water into Rahila’s house? It is a sight.”
“Why her and not us?” Allah. Hear my prayers. If you have taken care of Rahila, can you now provide for us, your humble followers?
Mammy stopped chewing her rout. “Do not be silly, Yushua. Surely my sister can have water before us. I have a big strong boy to haul my water. My poor dear terla deserves water. Let Allah give her that gift. For that, I am happy. Her man Jaweed Jan is good for her, but he works all of the time.” She started chewing again, more slowly.
“Jaweed Jan does well working for the Safi Landmark. He has plenty of work. He meets very important people. He even brings treats home. Rahila gave me pieces of cake. It was very good,” Yushua said.
“Jaweed Jan? Yes he is a decent man, and good for Rahila. He works hard and lives for that car he is so proud of.”
“Why then is his brother so… so different?”
“It is drugs. Half the city seems to live under bridges; just laying down there in all that filth. Can you imagine? All they live for is poppy juice. It sickens me. It hurts Jaweed Jan, for that I am certain. But what is there to be done? All his brother wants is poppies. He is a foolish one.”
Mammy spun her hijab loosely into place, covering most of her hair. It always needled her to have to put up with the hijab after the Taliban left. She regarded it now as just one of so many things used against women.
Yushua held the door for her, and they both knew it was time to put on their public face. Kabul was full of ears, and full of those who took offense—perhaps deadly offense—to the wrong words or actions.
Everyone seemed to have purpose at this early hour as they began pursuing something to provide anything. “Oh, this city is miserable. The fumes. It is enough to make my head ache, I tell you. Today who knows what waits for me at the station? What are you learning in your instruction?” Mammy asked.
“The Koran. The sacred words and the meanings. We also learn numbers.”
She grabbed his arm in her farewell gesture.
He beat her to it. “I know. I know. Stay on the busy streets. Do not venture near the river.” He looked at her and smiled. “The men there are bad. Stay out of alleys on my way home. I know it all, Mammy. No cutting across the fields.” He said it automatically with a smile, but felt it deeply. She was concerned, and always on him, reminding him, telling him—and he knew why.
“Be smart. You take care of yourself because nobody else will. You remember it. Be wise. You are important to me.” She nodded and then spun toward the crowd on the corner waiting for the next bus. Some in the group smiled as she approached.
Yushua saw a woman in a burka seize her arm and lean into her. Kabul noises erased any chance of him hearing what was said. Mammy helped women who were having difficulties. Some of what she did, she had told him, he did not need to know. He still wanted to, and wished he could have heard what they were whispering about.
After walking to school the same way every day, he noticed a rhythm of sorts. He smiled at the shop owner who was always piling crates of fruit on the sidewalk, and the round man who always wore a kameez and shalwar that were too small for him. Many colored burkas bobbed from side to side. As he walked, he kept an eye out for anyone else walking to the madrassa.
He approached the bridge. Filthy skeletons of men lingered around piles of smoldering ash along the river. Some in the mass of men spoke, and some only stared off into space. Yushua slowed to watch the wretches. None of it made sense. One man smiled, rocked his head, and did an energetic jig. How can he do such a thing when he lives under the bridge and has nothing? He is dirty, wet, and in rags, and yet he laughs. He must be a fool. Is Jaweed Jan’s brother down there? I have never seen him down there. I am glad Jaweed Jan is not on drugs. I like him. It is a shame his brother is like this. Yushua shivered and picked up his pace.
As he neared the middle of the bridge, he noticed two men staggering away from the shore before flopping onto a mushy log. They were arguing, but he could not make out the words. He thought he heard words like: me, mine, now. Their heads nodded and dipped toward each other as the man nearest the bridge started peeling what was left of his sleeve up over his elbow. His companion grabbed his arm and pushed a needle into it near the bend of his elbow.
Yushua looked away for a moment, before his eyes turned back toward the men. The man who had been stabbed with the needle slumped forward, nodding as if falling asleep before snapping wide awake with a big smile. He pulled himself up from the log and brushed himself off. His companion yelled something at him as he wandered up the bank. After not being heard, he shook his head, fiddled with the needle and plunged it into his own arm.
A policeman kicked up a maggoty fish which splattered across the backs of the dreamers. “Move along now! No better than dogs. Move I say. You all should be dead the way you smell. Get going. Filth. You disgusting mud spattered vermin. Good Muslims do not want to see this. Why do you not take enough heroin to die and be done with it? Be gone.” The policeman did not tire and delivered hate filled kicks as he herded the addicts away.
Two older boys approached Yushua laughing and pointing toward the disappearing drug users. They were from his school, though he did not know their names. When they pointed and laughed, Yushua also laughed though his thoughts raced. Where is Allah? Why has he forgotten these Muslims? What can be done about this? I will ask Mammy.
“Poppy lovers stink,” one of the older boys laughed.
“These people make me wish I did not have a nose,” Yushua said.
Yushua remembered Jaweed Jan talking about his brother and how mad he got. Mammy had said it was because he was hurt. Jaweed Jan said something about his brother being on heroin, but not under a bridge yet. Yushua did not want to laugh while thinking of Jaweed Jan’s suffering, but several loud snorting sniggers burst from him unexpectedly. It occurred to all three boys that they had to get a move on if they were not going to be late.
The school building was made of brick, which was now covered with pock marks. The windows were boarded up. The heavy door hung on a single, brass hinge. It would be easier getting into the building with companions. After pulling back the door, they were able to squeeze through the narrow opening. Others arrived as they were just getting the door closed. Without a word, all three boys hung on the door as the new arrivals attempted to pull it open. The three conspirators giggled softly while the door stayed put.
“Shush… we will be beaten,” one of the older boys whispered.
Yushua turned around and peered down the dark hallway. His classroom was on the left. He did not have as far to go as the older boys. He would be on time. A clean piece of paper had blown against the wall. It had no writing on it. Yushua snatched it up and found no writing on either side. It was his lucky day. He would not have to erase one of his earlier lessons.
Mammy had gotten him a pencil. He had broken it in two for an extra one. It was unheard of to be in possession of two of anything in this building, but he did. He was even fortunate enough to have an eraser on the end of the pencil. An eraser meant more room for lessons on his paper. Yushua walked down the long hallway under dangling lights hanging on wires from the ceiling.
Yushua had never seen the lights on in this building. After his arrival, he immediately slid down onto his mat and sat quietly staring at the floor. The Mullah was standing cross armed staring out an opening blasted in the wall. He was tall, and his coarse hair swirled around eyes that had a glint in them.
“Yushua? You were laughing this morning. Why is it you find my words difficult? I have explained you cannot laugh your way into Paradise, have I not?” The Mullah asked.
Yushua stiffened, opened his mouth, and waited for the correct words to soften the glow of the Mullah’s eyes.
While staring into Yushua, the Mullah asked the class a question very slowly. “If you have two Jews, plus one of their wives, and two of their children how many do you kill?”
Yushua looked up at the Mullah, who had wandered toward the front of the room. The students quickly scribbled on their papers for an answer, but were beaten by Aga. He always was the first to get numbers right, and he did it without scribbling. His large head bobbed on a scrawny body. Muslim Monkey is what others called him. Nobody ever giggled about his smarts though.
“Yushua!” The Mullah demanded.
“Yes!” Yushua’s stare spun from Aga to the snarling Mullah.
The Mullah held his hand out toward Yushua, making a come here gesture with his fingers. “Out with it… how many do you kill?”
Yushua cleared his throat. His thoughts raced. An answer. The Mullah wants an answer. I do not know the answer. What can I do?
“You are not following instructions!” Rage flashed from the Mullah’s eyes as if he was a dog in a fight.
“All of them. Kill all the Infidels is what I would do. Jews, Americans, all of them, Kind Sir,” Yushua said.
The class remained motionless. It was not a good thing to be tricky with the Mullah. Yet the answer was right, though everyone knew the Mullah wanted numbers, not words. A flash of relief shot across the room as the boys realized their morning was not going to be as bad as Yushua’s. Some glanced toward him. Several even looked at the fuming Mullah before staring back down to the floor. An Oriole’s delicate song floated into the stillness of the room.
“Every last one of the Jews and infidels should be butchered. They are vile pigs; no better than monkeys whose deaths would please the all-powerful Allah very much,” the Mullah said.
Yushua stopped to take a breath, as hope replaced terror. It seemed to be a good answer. Perhaps he would not be beaten. Muslims knew their duty to protect Islam from evil doers. Everyone always discussed hating nonbelievers, even if they did not know any. “They are dirtier than a dog, and must be killed. All their filthy blood must be spilled,” Yushua said for added insurance.
“Ah… I want numbers and you resort to treachery. Is that it then? I ask a question about numbers, Yushua!” The Mullah leaned toward Yushua, who could smell his breath. Sticky spittle dripped from the Mullah onto Yushua’s face. The Mullah took a deep breath and straightened up.
“Please class, pray for Allah’s assistance. Ask him to never let you be like our Yushua. I have heard it all. How he speaks of me as being smelly. Do not let him interfere with your prayers as you follow the holy words. Do not do it, for he is full of Jewish trickery. He intends to bait you off the chosen path. He is a bad one, of that I am sure. I pray, Allah hear me, for this class to humble themselves to you.”
The Mullah returned his gaze to a cowering Yushua, and looked at him with snake-like, unblinking eyes. The Mullah whispered in a crackly voice. “You are on a bad path. You do not know what end a camel shits from. When the others have prayed, they are to leave us alone for some time.”
Suddenly, Yushua could not smell the odors swirling around the Mullah. He remembered how everyone had laughed when he said the Mullah stunk like a Billy Goat freshly rolled in its own dung. Does he know what I said? Who told? Someone behind him sniffled, and everyone avoided looking in his direction. Mammy always said to never trust anyone. They had laughed, and he had kept saying things they all knew to be true. It had felt good. He remembered talking like the Mullah with his arms across his chest.
After prayers, the classroom quickly emptied.
Yushua remained on his mat making endless promises to himself to never, ever, anger the Mullah again. He even promised to say extra prayers to Allah. He figured he now understood how the rooster had felt getting backed into a corner and having a knife shoved down its throat. Yushua guided his thoughts to something better. He prayed… Allah, give me the gift you have granted Aga. I want to see numbers and arrange them in my head. I shall then recite sacred passages every night without fail. I promise you this, Allah. If I can figure the numbers I will please my Mullah. I am sorry for my actions and want to be forgiven. Please, mighty Allah.
Suddenly the air was driven from his chest, and he felt a sharp burning across his back. He lunged from his mat to crash head first onto the floor. Another blow struck his back, and another his face. Though not invited, tears flowed from him.
“Please… no… more.” Yushua pulled his arms up over his face and gasped for breath.
“Damn you. Do you want to be beaten or do you want to learn?”
“I only want to be a follower of Islam. To be like you, Kind Sir.”
“I know you are a Muslim. But you are not a good Muslim. No. You run around being tricky like a no account infidel. If you are ever called upon to spill the blood of a Jew, take it. For I fear that is the only path to Allah for you. But tell me, what am I to do with you until then? Am I to continuously beat you? I do not know.”
“No… I am in your service. Mercy. Please, no more of the cane. I have learned my lesson, Kind Sir.” Disjointed thoughts sparked across Yushua’s mind like so much heat lighting in the desert. The burning lines across his back merged with his sense of shame as he realized that hell loomed in his future.
“I shall kill a Jew if I find one. I have a knife. A big knife. I will make his body feel my steel for Allah. Please, no more cane.”
“It is a hard thing to beat young men. I do it for you. You are full of treachery, which is not a good thing. The Americans are full of treachery, and we know what Allah thinks of them, do we not?” He brought the cane down on Yushua as hard as he could, and then marched with determination to the front of the classroom. He tapped his open hand, again and again, with the cane before stomping to the door. The rest of the class had found its way to the grimy hallway outside the classroom. They had heard the beating, and Yushua’s screams.
“Oh. Hello. Will you please come in?” the smiling Mullah said. The notion of having beaten the entire class into submission was very delightful. Fear was evident from the actions of each and every boy. Heads hung low, and they moved quickly past the Mullah lest the cane land on them.
“Ah… many grateful feelings for being in your service, Allah. Now perhaps we can get back to the business of the Koran. These boys will now listen and not be tricky.”
The boys shuffled to their mats, avoiding any eye contact with Yushua.
The Mullah smiled broadly.
“We are now going to consider passages from our most holy Koran.” The Mullah dropped his cane onto his table which had been propped up on bricks. He smiled as he opened its pages. “Come now, class. It is time for our devotions. We must recite the beautiful words. It delights me so.”
The Mullah’s black marble eyes looked elsewhere, but Yushua knew. The beating was going to be even more severe if he messed up during devotions. Muhammad had taken time to instruct the chosen people. Allah had told him how to put the Koran together. The Mullah did not accept any mistakes. His cane was back in hand. He looked from boy to boy.
He wants to beat me again before we are released. I can feel it. He thinks I am full of godless trickery. Please Allah, I only want not to be beaten.
The Mullah whispered softly and cocked his head. He glared into Yushua, who stared back at him with wide eyes and lids that refused to blink.
“You will recite Allah’s holy words, with beauty and meaning will you not? Can you call out the words and make them sound beautiful? Or should I strike you now, and have Aga recite the most holy passages?”
Aga immediately stiffened and dropped his pencil.
The Mullah was drumming his open palm with the dreaded cane. It was shorter than the one the Talib had used on Mammy. He was certain he was to be beaten. He wanted to act like she had under the cane.
Yushua cleared his throat. “Then fight in the cause of Allah, and know that Allah heareth and knoweth all things…”
Yushua hung on the words before letting his response slide out, “As to those who reject faith, I will punish them with terrible agony in this world an in the Hereafter.” He paused, remembering how Mammy loved to hear him sing song the sacred words…“nor will they have anyone to help.” He knew all six passages from the Koran long before he was in school. Mammy would have him recite the verses to stunned visitors. Her pleasure drove him to memorize more and more of the Koran. He liked to watch people as he pronounced the sacred words. It was always a good thing to please grown-ups. Mammy’s smiles and hugs, always produced feelings he could never get enough of. The visitors would praise him, claiming Islam was strong in his heart, and tell him that Allah had plans for him.
The Mullah worked a finger into his beard and nodded up and down. He raised his eyebrows up, away from his eyes. “You have surprised me. Here I am believing you worthy of another blow from the cane, and then you please me. You have the holy words inscribed on your heart, young man. Yes… Yes… Yes! We will all have a better day tomorrow. Now be gone with you. Remember your namaz, class. If you forget, the all-powerful Allah will be firm with you!” The Mullah relaxed his hold on his precious cane as the boys walked toward the door.
The Koran is full of wise words and passages. Perhaps Allah has provided the gift of sacred words to keep me safe from the Mullah’s cane. Yushua walked into daylight feeling better than he would have if he had found one whole American dollar.
“Yushua… you spoiled it you know. I lost many Afghani notes on account of you. Now what am I to do? Huh? I hate you!” Aga stepped closer to Yushua as they left the school.
Yushua cast a glance toward him. “Oh… and just how did I cost you anything?”
“You talked… you spoke the words of the Koran and pleased the Mullah. Now how am I to come up with enough notes to avoid a beating? I bet money that you would feel the cane again. Then you please the Mullah. How was I supposed to know you would not be beaten again? It was trickery. Perhaps I should tell. That is what I will do. I will tell,” He rubbed his chin. “The others in class knew all along, and tricked me, and that is not being a good Muslim. The Mullah is right, you are full of trickery like the Hebes… The Little Satan’s… I will show you. That is what I will do.”
“Gambling is not a good, acceptable Muslim behavior. That is what the Imam instructs. Islam forbids gambling.” Yushua was enjoying this for reasons he was not sure of. “Yes, do tell the Mullah. I want to see you beaten.” The thought of Aga betting he would be beaten angered Yushua. He wanted to tell Aga his monkey ears would slap him silly in a strong wind. It would serve him right to hurt. He could not say such a thing, though, and figured it would be pleasing enough just to watch him take a beating. Then a thought occurred to him. “Hey… you can teach me numbers. Yes, that is it.”
Aga looked at him, not knowing. “What…”
“Shut up for a minute, will you? The numbers. You can teach me how you do it with your eyes closed.”
“And why should I?”
“Because… because then I can help you find a way to come up with the money. Deal?”
“Okay,” Aga shrugged.
The two boys walked past a charred chunk of metal which had, recently, been a car. The Taliban claimed responsibility. Men had gotten together to talk about a new Afghanistan and this had angered the Taliban. A car had pulled up near the group, and the smiling driver had blown everyone up. If the boys had arrived minutes sooner, they could have been hurt or killed. The boys kept their thoughts hidden. Chunks of humanity caused an immediate halt to their plans to play in the park. The boys lingered, not knowing what to do. They stared, motionless, until grownups backed them out of the way as moaning bodies were dragged away.
“Remember puking in the park that day?” Aga asked.
Yushua could not forget it. He had encountered a large chunk of skin that had thick tuffs of black hair on it. The skin was stuck to a big stone. The hairy meat had started to slip toward the ground before drying out enough to stick in place. Big green flies covered what had once served as a chest. Yushua had remained motionless while considering the gruesome discovery. Nasty fluid surged up into the back of his mouth, delivering a foul taste, seconds before it happened. He remembered clamping a hand over his mouth to hold the puke in as he got away from the other kids. Some of the boys pointed at him, claiming he would never be a fighter. Someone had said, “Pretty hard to fight a jihad when you are puking yourself inside out.”
“I don’t remember much of it. Shut up now, will you? Mammy said the fools should not have been near the park in the first place. She said they should have been thinking instead of talking. They made it too easy for death to arrive,” Yushua said.
“The Taliban did it. That is what my baba said.”
“Aga, it happened a long time ago. Let us not talk about it anymore. What difference does it make if it was Jews or the Taliban who did it? Anyway, you are smart. You know numbers, but do you know how to find a Jew?”
The boys left the car wreck behind and turned into the park onto a stony trail.
“I cannot remember ever seeing a Jew. The Mullah says they are everywhere though,” Aga whispered and glanced toward the trees.
“Well, I have to find a little Jew.”
“Jews are hard enough to find, and you want a little one? Good luck, Yush.”
“The Mullah said Paradise awaits me if I spill the blood of an infidel. I figure I could cut a little Jew and get away. I do not think I have to hurt him too bad. Just cut him a little.”
“Jews are like shadows. They are all over, but you never touch them. They are here to trick us into hell. That is why Allah hates them so. The Mullah says it is so.”
“I do not know how I am supposed to make a shadow bleed.” Yushua stopped a moment to look Aga in the eye.
“You have to go to Israel to kill them. It is on TV all the time. You saw it with me.”
“Well, how am I supposed to get to Israel? You are no help.” Yushua slipped and winced. The sharp pain running up his back reminded him of the beating.
“Jews are too sneaky around here. They are not stupid, you know. If they just walked around they would be killed. I know they are here though. Yesterday I was in the Square watching soccer and the Shia’s stole the electricity. I heard everyone talking about it. That is what everyone was saying you know. The Shia’s probably work with the Jews because they are no good Iranians, and they steal from the Sunnis. You should just cut a Shia. I bet that would work, and there are a lot of them around.”
“How about I just do not listen to you. Who do you think you are? A Mullah?”
The boys scrambled up the rock strewn trail in silence. The top of the trail had claimed many ankles. The Brick Wall was at the top of the hill. They both stopped to catch their breath.
Aga leaned toward the ground and picked up a large chunk of cement that had been blasted from the wall. He kept quiet for a moment and then asked, “Why does the Mullah hate you? He never beats me. You should not be so dumb to get him angry all the time. Then you could climb around this place without feeling the pain on your back.”
“It only hurts a little. Did you tell the Mullah what I said about him smelling like goat piss?”
“No… I swear. I am smart enough not to say a thing to him.”
“We are almost there. Follow me.” Yushua started for the Brick Wall, “do you know who told him?”
The Brick Wall was part of a pavilion that had been built before the boys had been pushed out of their mothers. The pavilion had been stripped of wood and loose bricks. The wall left standing had been chewed up in a rain of bullets, and one side had been blown in. Mammy felt it could tumble at any moment, and forbade Yushua from being anywhere near it. Its only current use was as a command center for the boys who met to play Mujahedeen and Infidels. After the older boys picked sides, those selected to be the godless ones walked the trails until every last one of them was killed.
“How come you never play Mujahedeen and Infidels? My uncle made me my very own Kalashnikov. You saw it Yush. He sawed it out of a chunk of wood and painted it. It looks real.”
“I hate it. I always have to be killed, and nobody ever follows the rules. They throw rocks too hard. What fun is it to be the Godless One, or an American, all the time? The older guys are never Infidels. They always get to do the killing. I am not playing anymore.”
Aga flopped down and propped himself against the wall. He watched Yushua carefully settle into a sitting position without letting his back touch anything.
“Juma Gul took a beating from his baba for being tricked. He got a ball from the infidels. Americans put things in them so they can listen in on the chosen people. How stupid can you get?” Aga said.
* * *
Without Readers there'd be no Authors and I Thank You Kindly for your Interest.
Judges comment from Ink & Insights Contest regarding The Passionate Jihadist Overall, great writing style. Reminds me of Rushdie: internal, emotionally complicated, and dualistic. Delivered with a sensitivity and awareness that is underrated.
Judges comment from Ink & Insights Contest regarding The Passionant Jihadist Great title; it mimics the duality of Yushua's conflict: will he become like his father, sensitive and humanely passionate. Or like the Mullah, passionately violent. The title can be interpreted both ways. Awesome!
Review from Austin Herald Newspaper - Curt Rude . . . Take one dose of his prose. After 4 hours, call a friend and tell 'em, you can't put this book down.
Review from the Total Writer - "Curt Rude captures what many run from - the truth - in this captivating story of greed, lust and ego fueled off vulnerable human emotion. Dark, yet, captivating, these fast moving stories will have you on the edge of your seat."
Review from Norfolk, United Kingdom - Once I got used to the American dialect, I loved Brand of Justice. It was a very good story, that could so easily have been true. It was so well thought out with very good, solid characters. What the author had his characters doing was brilliant, then how things got 'rigged' so drastically was a great inclusion. This book had a few surprise twists in the tale and I was encaptured all the way through. Five Stars out of Five Stars.
Review from Goodyear, Arizona - Are you into suspense, who did it books? Ones that will keep you guessing until the end, hold your attention, then Brand of Justice is for you! Tinkey and Dub are friends who have their futures planned after they graduate from highschool. Then a murder happens and one of them is accused of it. How did the murder happen? Did anyone else see it like the police did? This is a story about true friendship and how youngsters have to make things right again. Thanks Curt Rude for a great read. Five Stars out of Five Stars.
Review from Nikki of Goodreads - JusThis was an interesting read! It's definitely a worthwhile book. It's also interesting knowing the background of the author. I googled his name and it really shows he knows what he's talking about. It looks like he came out with a second book, Brand of Justice, it'll be interesting to see how his writing has developed.