by Ray McPadden
“Did I tell you about the time we shot the kid in the cornfield?’
“Jesus man. Why you always gotta’ be so dark?”
“C’mon, it won’t take long.”
“Go on then.”
“My platoon was in Helmand Province; some shitty village pinched between dusty hills. We march into the square and this elder strolls out to meet us. He’s a mean looking sumbitch; has one eye, seven fingers, and a face like saddle-leather. He takes us to his house where we sit on a rug, a beautiful red rug, one I wish I coulda’ brought back.
“Now this elder calls for chai, and in comes his son, this retarded kid, about 10, maybe 12 years old. And I mean retarded. Kid has this dim look on his face; can’t speak a lick of his own language. The kid is four steps into the room when he trips. The chai cups rain down on this nice rug. For a second, it was perfectly silent, just one cup of chai rolling on its side. Then the elder grabs the kid by the neck and strangles him for a while. And the kid is just taking it, like even the kid believed he deserved a good choking. Finally the elder throws the kid out the room and sits back down with us and squares his pakul. He smiles with one eye and rotten teeth. It’s like nothing happened.”
‘I know, right. So I get down to business. I tell the elder, look, there’s a farmhouse outside the village. No one’s in it. My boys and I are going to stay there a while. The elder says okay, though I could see he wasn’t happy about it. Now picture this farmhouse: it’s got a big wall round it, and cornfields on two sides, east and north I think. Corn must have been 8 feet tall. Beautiful really. We figured the muj would come sneaking up through the corn, especially if we were there for a while, which would be the case. So I tell this elder, we’re going to flatten the corn. And starting right now, keep your people out of the fields beside the house. If we see anyone in the corn, we’ll shoot ‘em on the spot. No questions asked. Anyone in the corn is bad.’
“Was he pissed?”
“About the corn?”
“Oh. Not really. We paid him for the crop. Can’t remember how much. He wanted a lot more than it was worth. Shit. I grew up in Iowa, and I know corn. Anyway, the elder said he’d keep his people out of the corn. We could shoot anyone in there. No fuss.
“So we make for the farmhouse and kick in the door. We put a squad on the roof and the guns on tripods. Night’s coming, so the boys roll out their fart sacks. I radio battalion, and they tell me they’ll send a ‘dozer next afternoon to flatted all that corn.
“In the morning, the hills seemed on fire beneath the red sun. The corn was waving in the river wind. From the farmhouse, we can hear a donkey somewhere in the village; its hee-hawing itself to death. Hee-haw, hee-haw, hee-haw. It goes on and on. The sounds, you know, they stick with you like the smells do. And it’s always farm sounds over there, and farm smells. Just like Iowa. I get jumpy when I go home to see my parents.
“Anyway, we got our snipers on the roof of this farmhouse. The shooter, his name’s Hernandez. We called him Hern. The spotter is…well shit, it don’t matter. About zero-eight, Hern calls down from the roof, says we’ve got movement in the cornfield. I ask what exactly. Hern says there’s a guy sneaking around, maybe 200 yards north. His head keeps popping up and down in the corn. He’s taking a good look at us. Hern asks if he can shoot the guy. I said roger. Then it was quiet for a long time. I didn’t say nothing on the radio. I knew better than to bug Hern when he was dialing in.
“The crack of Hern’s rifle surprised me. I winced, even though I knew it was coming. The shot echoed through the hills and then it was quiet except for that damn donkey again.
“Then Hernandez comes over the net, One KIA. Got him in the head. Ten steps later, I was on the roof. I crawled beside Hernandez. Pointing, he showed me the crumpled body in a spot of matted corn. I said good shot, Hern. You blew his fucking head off. Hern laughed into his palm. Not a nervous laugh. It was a naughty laugh, like when you’re laughing when you’re not supposed to, like in church or something. Hern was weird like that.
“We geared up a squad to check the body. And they were just stepping off when the one-eyed elder comes stomping toward the farmhouse on the village trail. I was thinking shit when I saw him. The boys let the elder into the courtyard. I straightened my vest and met him with heavy legs. First thing the elder says, ‘You shot my son.’”
“You shot the retarded kid?”
“‘Yes. No. Well, not me. But yeah, we shot him, and hell, I ordered it. So yes. I told the elder, ‘No one was supposed to be in the cornfields. I told you that just yesterday, you one-eyed bastard.’
“Now the elder, he’s pacing and thumbing these prayer beads and whispering to himself. He squares off in my face and says he wants money for the death of his son. I told him I could pay him.’
“Solatia money, wasn’t it?”
“That’s right, and we were authorized to pay up to $2,500 for the death of a civilian.”
“More like hush money.”
“I suppose. Either way, 2,500 American dollars goes a long way in that part of the world. So I’m counting the bills, there in the courtyard, looking very serious and very sorry to have shot a retarded kid. And get this, the elder is laughing, just sort of bubbly. I hand him the money and he’s laughing. He walks off and he’s laughing.”
“He must have been retarded too, or maybe crazy.”
“No. Not at all. I didn’t put it together ‘till afterward. My terp tells me they don’t take kindly to retarded kids there in the ‘Stan. I mean, it’s a hand to mouth existence to begin with. They got no time for dead weight. So best I can figure, this old man sent his retarded kid into that cornfield on purpose, to get the kid killed. The old man gets rid of the kid and he gets paid.”
“I know. So I raise the colonel on the battalion net, say I got something to say in private. He said, ‘Go ahead.’ I said, ‘No, sir. I need to call you on the sat phone.’”
“He said okay.
“So I called the colonel and got right to it, said we shot a retarded kid, maybe ten years old. I told the colonel that the kid’s dad set him up for the solatia money.
“The colonel whistled. For a while, I could hear him thinking. Then he asked, ‘Who’s making a stink about this?’
“I said, no one.
“The colonel said, Then we keep it quiet.
“So that’s what we did. We let the villagers get the body. They came with a blanket and threw the kid in and hauled him off. No ceremony. Handled him pretty rough.”