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Desert Sands

by Ryan Stovall

Evening brought peace, and a stillness to the hot desert air. The body, its hands wire-bound behind its back, stopped its gentle swinging and hung black and swollen and heavy beneath the acacia tree’s spreading boughs. Four Nigerien soldiers squatted in the dust nearby, sucking mango seeds and waving lazily at the flies. Three AKs stood propped against the dirt wall of the guard shack beside them. A fourth had fallen over, and lay unnoticed in the dirt.

Two Americans were watching the Africans from across the tarmac. Their M4 carbines, heavy with night optics, lasers sights, and small, one-to-four power scopes indicated that they too were soldiers, but their beards, long hair, and mismatched uniforms devoid of rank and insignia marked them as Special Forces. In the gathering dusk, their eyes glinted from the shadows beneath the wide brims of their boonie hats.

One sat perched on top of a pile of gear on an Air Force pallet. The other was on the ground, leaning back against the pile of equipment. After a time, the one seated on the ground stirred. He scratched at his beard, then interlaced his fingers and popped his knuckles. “Africa,” he said softly, his eyes fixed on the hanging body. “Here we are, back again. What do you think, Jerry?”

The second man stretched. Like his companion’s dark, finger-length hair, Jerry’s blond mane was long and wavy. But he was much younger; his beard was nothing more than a scruff of scraggly blond wires that betrayed more than disguised the boyish nature of his face.

Sliding down from his seat, he scratched at his forehead for a moment, clearly taking his time before answering. Then jerking a thumb in the direction of the body and the group of soldiers squatting near it, he said, “Looks like your standard-issue African justice to me.” He shrugged. “We’ll see when we get up to Arlit, but I still think this is gonna be a good trip.”

His partner, Rick, got to his feet, fingering a length of knotted, pink scar that ran like a ribbon below his eye and into his bushy sideburn. Taken together with the beard and the wild hair it made him look like a pirate. He stretched, too. “Well, I’m gonna go across and ask those guys if we can have the body. We’ll take it out in the desert tomorrow and see who can put a 203 round in his abdomen first. He’ll be nice and bloated up by then. Should make a real nice splat.”

Jerry stiffened. “We can’t do that, man. Shooting up a dead body, that’s. . .  . . .that’s a war crime, isn’t it?”

“Is it really? Are you sure?”

“I’m pretty sure, man. I think I read a story about some guys in Afghanistan who…” Jerry stopped short, his face reddening as he caught on to Rick’s sarcasm.

“Your war crime is already hanging right over there in that tree, smart guy. Summarily executing a dude, then publicly displaying his body, none of that is exactly approved by the Geneva Convention. And you haven’t been in SF long enough to be able to tell ‘standard-issue African’ anything from a hole in the ground,” Rick said, his voice matter of fact. He sighed. “Well, at least they hung the poor bastard before we got here.”

“What do you mean?”

“We have to try to convince them not to, if they start pulling that kind of shit when we’re already here,” Rick answered. “We obviously can’t have anything to do with them at that point, pretty much means we have to get back on the plane and go home. One time, we argued with them for hours, then had to watch while they blew a dude away with a 20 millimeter anti-aircraft gun. We went straight to the airfield and were all loaded up on a C-130 and headed home a couple hours later.” He shook his head. “Cut the fucker right in half.”

Jerry blanched and deliberately looked away. He hated never being able to tell if Rick and the other older guys were serious or not.

He decided to change the subject. “I read up on this place a bit, you know.”

“Good for you, kid.”

Jerry pressed on. “Did you know they’ve got desert crocodiles down here?”

Rick grunted. “No shit. The Niger’s full of ‘em.”

“No, man. Way out in the desert. In little caves and oases where there’s barely any water.”

“Really? And how are they supposed to have gotten all the way out there?”

“They’ve been there for centuries. This whole southern strip of the Sahara used to be nice, fields and pastures, even a few rivers. When the Muslims were first pushing through a thousand years ago, this was a land worth conquering.”

“And just look at it now!” Rick said.

“Anyway,” Jerry went on, determined despite the interruptions, “these big-ass crocs spread out from the rivers to the little lakes and oases, looking for food or mates. Then over the years, the land slowly dried up and the sand pushed farther and farther south. It’s still happening today. Apparently, when one of the waterholes gets too small, all the crocs living in it eat each other. Until finally there’s just one left.”

“The MOAC – Mother Of All Crocs.”

“Right. So then there’s just this one big croc, usually a dominant male, left in the waterhole. And he’s massive, and scarred, and hungry. And when the oasis dries up to the point where it’s too small even for him by himself, he uses his instincts to figure out where he’s most likely to find water. And then he sets out walking across the desert.” Jerry stared out into the desert scrub. “He walks, day and night, no reason to stop, no sanctuary, no food. He walks day and night, hot or cold, sun or moon. He walks, and he walks, until he dies. Or until he finds water.”

He fell silent. “And then what happens, poetry boy?” Rick asked, watching the younger man with sardonic amusement.

Jerry broke off gazing across the desert and glanced back at Rick. He seemed almost surprised to find someone listening. He gave a wry smile and a little shrug. “Then it starts all over again. The fight for dominance, the water drying up, the forced migration. Only the strongest breed, and only the strongest survive.”

“I’m sure Darwin would bust a nut.”

“Exactly. And that’s been going on for generations, for centuries. Imagine what the ones that are out there now must be like?”

“Monsters. Dragons. Croczillas.”

“And desperate. Hungry. Pissed off. Resentful. Bitter.”

“What’dya mean? Are you sure we’re still talking about crocodiles here?”

“Think about it. Year after year, generation after generation of it being harder and harder to find a mate. Harder and harder to find food, to find water, to survive. Trapped in a shrinking world. Forced to kill your own kind. Angry at every living thing that’s free to just take off and leave, that isn’t restricted to a shit-filled, evaporating mud-hole. A victim of the world changing beyond your control.”

“Fuck.”

“Yeah, fuck.” Jerry looked at him for a moment, then turned away and stared once more out into the void of the desert. After a long silence, he turned back to find Rick still watching him, a questioning look in the older man’s eyes.

“We aren’t gonna have to keep watch on you when we get out to Arlit, are we? They say white boys go nuts in the desert sometimes; get the feeling they have to see beyond the horizon or something, and just take off walking out into the sand.” He was only half joking.

Jerry shook his head. “No man, I’m good.”

“You get to feeling too desperate or bitter or hopeless or whatever, you come talk to me, ok? We’ll get some beers and find you a piece of Peace Corp ass to help lift your spirits, even out in Arlit. This isn’t even the war, you know.”

“Sure man, whatever. I’m not scared. I’m fine.” He broke off. One of the African soldiers was crossing the tarmac toward them, a wide, white smile gleaming in the dusk. “What’s up, man?” Jerry asked, smiling back. He held out his hand. “Comment ca va? Parlez vous francais?”

The man shook his head no, still smiling. His teeth shone. He tapped his chest. “Hausa,” he said.

“Quite the name, Hausa,” Jerry replied.

“No, man. That’s his language. Hausa’s one of the tribal dialects down here,” Rick said, stepping up behind him. “Didn’t that come up anywhere in all your reading?” He turned to the soldier. “So what’s up, man?”

The Nigerien pointed at his own chest again. “Christian.”

Rick nodded. “Good for you, brother. Bit of an atheist myself.”

The man pointed back across the tarmac, at the body hanging in the shadows under the tree. “Terrorist. Muslim.”

“I truly do not care, man,” Rick said.

The man mimed lighting a cigarette, and held out his hand. “I’ve got a lighter if you need a light, brother, but neither one of us smoke.” Rick pulled out and proffered the Bic, but the man shook his head, still smiling, and again mimed the cigarette. “Sorry brother, can’t help you,” Rick said. He patted his empty cargo pockets and shook his head. The man gave his wide smile and a double thumbs-up, and shuffled bow-legged back across the tarmac.

Rick was shaking his head in disgust. “What a fuckin’ joke. Just in case you haven’t learned already, all these bastards want is to see how much stuff they can get us to give to them. ‘Cadeau? Cadeau?’.” He held out an open hand, miming the street beggars. “And that ‘terrorist, Muslim,’ bit. That’s their idea of building rapport, telling us what they think we want to hear. It’s all bullshit.”

Jerry shrugged. “The dude just wanted a smoke, man, and to make friends.”

“Yeah, right. And if you’re sappy enough to give him a smoke, tomorrow he’ll be back, asking for a case of Gatorade. And the day after that, he’ll want your M4. We might as well have just sent a fucking pallet of smokes and Gatorade down here, and stayed home.” He cleared his throat and spat.

“I get what you’re saying, man. But I know you still get you’re rocks off, coming down here to train these guys to shoot and patrol.”

“Fuckin’-a right, I do! If nothing else, we’ll get you young guys some experience before we rotate back to Afghanistan this fall. But you’re right. It’s more than that. We are here, and we are doing something. It’s not combat, but it’s still better than just sitting home.” He threw Jerry a sharp glance. “Do you have any clue what I’m talking about, kid?”

“Sure, man. I mean, I know I haven’t been to combat yet, but I get you.” The younger man’s face was serious. “You can’t go through life just going through the motions, just repeating the same everyday routine. Sometimes you’ve got to go and actually do things, if you want to make life worth living. Sometimes, you’ve got to go out hunting for those desert crocodiles.”

Rick grunted, smiling humorlessly. “We’ll be hunting them alright come October. Right down in their caves and their fucking shit-filled mud holes. Then we’ll see if you like doing it as much as you seem to like talking about it.”

“We’ll see. Maybe I will.” For the first time, Rick heard a touch of defiance in Jerry’s voice.

“Maybe you will.” Rick smiled to himself. Maybe the kid had some sand after all.