39 - Baghdad
SEVERAL YEARS AGO According to the medic, Amira was bleeding internally. He thought that he could go in and fix her up, but the problem was that she was just losing too much blood. She was going to need a transfusion or nothing that he could do was going to be able to save her life. Unfortunately, he had no idea what her blood type was, so what they needed was someone with O negative blood–a universal donor.
And who was the nearest accessible universal donor?
Of course I agreed to do it. Even if it hadn’t been Amira, I had a moral obligation to life. If I had the means and opportunity to save someone, it would be a sin not to at least try.
When one of the assistants pulled up a second table and started to clean my arm, I noticed that he was very carefully looking absolutely anywhere but directly into my eyes. I let him go about his business for a while, but finally I couldn’t bear it anymore. “What is it Private?”
“Sir?” Technically I outranked him, but only just. I never stood formally on rank though. Then again, this was his first deployment, so perhaps he was just new.
“Something is bothering you.” My voice was halfway between a statement and a question, hopefully he would interpret it in whichever way he felt more comfortable.
“Well, with all due respect sir…” His voice faded. I thought that perhaps he was wrestling with the issues of rank again.
I nodded at him. “Speak your mind.” Again, halfway between a suggestion and an order. It felt strange to be giving even that much of an order, but perhaps it was what he was expecting.
He stayed silent a moment longer, at least finally looking me in the eye. His hands continued their work while he did though–he’d been trained well enough at least.
“Sir? Why are you doing this?”
“Doing what?” I asked him, honestly puzzled.
“Saving the girl.”
He glanced over at Amira and I followed his gaze. She was lying there on the other table, no more than four feet away. Face down on the table, her head had been placed carefully in depression cut just for this purpose. The back of her top had been cut open to afford the medic better access and there was a stain of red everywhere. Briefly, I thanked God for the occasion to have a medic who at least appeared to have a solid background in surgery.
It took me a moment to answer. There wasn’t a straight forward answer to that question but that’s exactly what the young man standing next to me was looking for. “Because we are all children of God” was the best that I could do.
“But padre–” At least it was my religious rank rather than my military one he looked to now. “Isn’t she one of them?” I could almost feel the intensity in that last word, cutting through the air between the two of us.
“I’m afraid that I don’t know what you mean.” I responded carefully. Of course, I knew full well what he meant. But I wanted to make him say it. Perhaps that would be enough for him to see, to learn.
He looked at me and I knew that he’d read my mind. He knew, or at least he thought he did, what I was getting at. But did he understand?
“She’s an Iraqi. Isn’t that the entire reason that we’re here, padre? To fight the Iraqis? So why are we helping this one?”
I sighed. “No. We’re here to help the Iraqi people, to free them.” Honestly, I wasn’t entirely sure that was the whole reason, but at the very least, I knew that the goal was not solely to fight and kill the locals. “There’s only a small minority of people here that are actively trying to fight back. The rest of them all just want to get on with their lives. Like you and me.”
40 - Baghdad
SEVERAL YEARS AGO His look was still blank though, I wasn’t sure that I was getting through to him.
I pointed over at Amira with my free hand. “That girl over there? She’s an archaeologist. Studies things that have been buried for centuries, millennium even. So long as the fighting around the city leaves her alone, she didn’t want anything to do with it.”
I wasn’t entirely sure that was actually true. Amira and I had only barely talked politics, we tended more towards her work and mine. Still, if she’d had a strong opinion on the matter, wouldn’t she have mentioned it by now?
“Enough chatter,” the medic called over a shoulder, interrupting my thoughts. “We need to start the transfusion now.”
The young man with whom I’d been speaking turned away and I could only hope that I’d given him at least a bit of food for thought. Perhaps I would have to stop by his bunk again after this was all said and done.
The process of getting the transfusion set up was quick and relatively painless. The needle stung when they put it in, but just like that and I could see the thick, dark liquid flowing out of me and across the gap over to Amira. I could only pray that it would be enough.
For the next several minutes–indeterminably long as they were–that was all. I lay there staring at the ceiling while only a few feet away a woman I’d met less than a week previously lay dying. The medic was doing all that he could, but in my heart of hearts, I could already feel that it wasn’t going to be enough. It could never have been enough.
With nothing more that I could do. I prayed.
“Jesus, please. Let her live.”
I was about to go into a rosary, feeling that at least the structure and pattern might be able to help calm my own nerves. But as I snaked my free hand into my pocket, feeling for the beads that I kept there, I instead felt a sudden sharp stab in my finger tip and a sense of warmth.
I jerked my hand back out of my pocket, startling the same young man with whom I’d been speaking earlier. He darted forward though, eyes intent on the needle in my arm, checking to be sure that I hadn’t torn it free. While he did, I pulled my other hand up into my field of vision, intent on seeing what had stabbed me.
Standing out, straight as an arrow, it’s tip embedded in my finger, was on of the pottery shards that had been pulled from Amira’s back.
A sudden breeze blew through the room, just barely strong enough to ruffle the papers on the medic’s desk. There was a faint scent in the air, vaguely reminiscent of leather or perhaps wet fur.
And there was a sound to the wind, a rhythm in the soft sighing of moving air brushing against the contents of the room. It had a cadence that sounded maddening familiar, but I couldn’t for the life of me place it. It ebbed and flowed, almost as if the whispers of a man, just out of earshot, only audible by some twist of the wind.
But before I could take a deeper breath to analyze the scent or take the time to more carefully listen to the sound, it was gone.
I glanced over at the door.
I looked at the other three men in the room. Not a one of them appeared to have even noticed the breeze at all. The medic was bent low over Amira’s back with sutures in hand. I prayed that was a good sign. One of his assistants was helping him, using some sort of metallic tool to hold the skin in place. The other, the young Private I’d been talking with earlier, was bent over my arm, checking on the needle, close enough that I could feel his breath.
Well that was weird. I thought.
And then I looked down at my finger. The pain had mostly faded, nothing more than a dull throbbing yet remained. There was a drop of blood having welled up, but other than that it could have been a perfectly fine ordinary day in the life of a finger.
Except there was one very minor thing wrong. The sort of thing that you wouldn’t even consider until it was missing.
The sliver of pottery was gone.
41 - Chicago
SEVERAL WEEKS AGO With Mrs. Claire slumped as she was in the chair, John Smith and I just looked at each other. I could feel that her reaction had not been at all what he had been expecting, draining at least a part of the fury right out of him.
“What do you mean, actually showed up?” I asked.
She looked up at me, her eyes tired, weariness well beyond her years. “At first, nothing happened. I got them to give me an item of his, an old wristwatch if I remember correctly–” Smith nodded vaguely. “–and set it on the table. Lit all of the candles as I always do, put out a few thematically appropriate items. Then I had them all sit down and join hands.”
She actually grinned at that, if only for a moment, “it’s always fun to do that part. It makes them feel so emasculated. I’ve seen some groups walk away at that, but it’s too late for them then.” She pointed at a smallish sign hanging against one wall. “No refunds.” But as quickly as it had come, the grin faded away. “So I called out his name, chanted a bit in Latin–”
“Latin?” I cut in.
“Sure.” She shrugged. “I picked it up in college. Seemed like an easy A at the time. After all, how hard can it be to pass the tests when no one even speaks it anymore.”
I had a feeling that she had been quickly disabused of that notion. What very little of Latin I’d managed to pick up at the seminary had been notoriously tricky, verb tenses and conjugations left and right. It made even English look relatively sane.
“But then, all of a sudden, the lights went out,” she said. “A nice shock for the boys, I was sure, I’ll do it every once in a while just to prove a point. But the thing was, it hadn’t been me. I hadn’t tripped the light switch.”
Her voice had taken on a needy, rough sort of quality, almost as if she knew how off she was sounding and was desperately trying to convince us now. As if she were trying to even convince herself of the truth.
“Things got really strange then, a breeze blowing through the room. A strange smell, like a wet dog. And whispers in the wind, speaking in some tongue I didn’t know.”
I shivered, memories from long past welling up in my own mind.
“It was one of the best performances I’d ever put on in my life. If only I could figure out how to reproduce it all.”
A thought was pulling at the back of my mind, trying to force its way to my tongue. I let it.
“Mrs. Claire. Just what was it that you said in Latin?”
She looked at me as if it were I and not she verging on the edge of sanity, but she answered me nevertheless. “Oh, it’s such a chilling thing. Something that I worked out all of the way back in my first year of Latin. I figured it was appropriate, given the situation.”
She took a breath, hesitating, as if worried that the words she had once spoken would once again be enough to raise the recently departed.
“Mortuorum silentium ego sum vox.”
I am the voice for the silent dead.