AS ETERNITY WHISPERS

“Did you sleep well, Fee-lux?”

Felix Washington looked up to see Yusef straddling his den with his AK-47 dangling from one hand.

Washington peered cautiously out of his hole in the arid, sandy rock. Heat and terror had long since distorted his ability to recall what he’d previously done in his many years as a Navy Seal, or how long he’d been trapped in Iraq. Worse, he couldn’t recall his mother’s face.

Was it possible he’d lived in a hole on the side of an Iraqi mountain all his life? No, that couldn’t be. He’d lived in Chicago, then Virginia, then… he couldn’t recall where else.

The months had kaleidoscoped into a haze of death, treachery, and a steady diet of maggoulf, a concoction the locals insisted was grilled carp in rice. The vermin in the rice — he had learned to believe his long-dead commander — was “protein.”

He’d long since vomited away the knowledge that the “carp” they ate was more often dead rat. The black, rabbit-sized monstrosities roamed in millions. In the godforsaken Kurdish Highlands of Northern Iraq, the only water was six klicks away. A muddy stream wending down from a mountain range, it could not possibly sustain any life beyond the rats and the deadly vipers that inhabited the area.

Raising himself on an elbow, Felix took a long pull on his flask of arak, the local alcohol beverage. The bitter swill was illegal to possess throughout the land and execution to an American; but so was most everything else.

He yawned against the gathering daylight. The dream had kept waking him again most of the night.

Well, Fee-lux?”Tthe disheveled man stared down at him with penetrating dark eyes. The putrid body odor of the young savage no longer registered on Felix. The rawhide strip around Yusuf’s neck was strung with human ears. If enemies captured this fierce warrior with these trophies, his death would not come easily. But, Felix knew, the same fate awaited him.

“Why yes, Yusef, slept like a dead man… after two of your fat-assed wives, numbers 3 and 7, I think, crawled in here with me. Both said it was the best ride they’d had in years.”

Yusef’s grin was smarmy, even through a beard that, itself, might have housed a family of rats. “Oh, Comrade Fee-lux.” He switched the AK-47 to hang by its sling over his shoulder. “Tonight, if the woggies don’t have your head or your cojones, I’ll send over numbers 1 and 2. They are much younger and fatter and go about saturated in fresh fish oil, their breath sweetened with plenty of garlic. They are irresistible, my friend.”

Cojones? Yusef didn’t realize he had acquired a Spanish word in the English he had learned from his American “saviors.” That he used the term “woggies,” Washington’s blanket name for any enemy, was a natural progression.

Yusef reached down. Washington twisted his aching body to sit upright and handed up his flask. The bearded man took a long drink and scowled. “Praise be to the Almighty, Fee-lux. If I curse the taste enough, surely Allah will not find reason to punish me for poisoning this fine body he awarded me by drinking rat urine.”

“Yusef, I checked with the Almighty just last night. He told me if you don’t squat your ass down, one of them unwashed enemy snipers on that mountain yonder will dispatch you to the land of vestal virgins. Unfortunately, we’ve sent him so many customers, he may be running short of virgins.”

“Oh, Fee-lux, fail not to remember that the motherless dogs posted on that mountain the past two weeks couldn’t hit a pregnant camel at our distance.” He raised the flask again, grimaced, then handed it back. “The Almighty has declared that bullet that will kill Yusef Azad Shammas Hadad does not exist.”

Not yet, Felix thought but did not say.

* * *

Petty Officer Felix Washington, a product of a vast South Chicago public housing project, had been assigned to assist the Kurdish village composed of a distant branch of the Albu Latif tribe. They were Sunnis but had been sworn enemies of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party since long before Saddam’s capture and execution.

He knew the small but viciously warlike group was nominally allied with the U.S., but alliances were a fickle factor in the area.

Through his haze, he could recall that the village stronghold was in high country roughly on a line between Mosul and Kirkuk and in the general vicinity of the city of Amadiya. But he couldn’t recall his lost commander’s name.

His 16-man Seal Team, 12th Platoon, had trained and was based at a place — the name of which he could not recall — in rural Virginia. After many years and many missions, they had helicoptered to the remote, mountainous site months ago. Or was it years ago?

Felix recalled the instructors discussing and later saw the results of something called “PTSD.” Now, as the sole survivor of his unit, he could not recall what the initials stood for. He often wondered if he actually had this PTSD thing. Would he know if he did? He had seen a movie once that said recognizing one’s own mental disorder was impossible. The title, with many other thoughts, had oozed out the hole in his leaky memory.

Somehow, his superiors had lost him. All four radios had been destroyed in firefights. A U.S. chopper flew over weekly in the dead of night — a harder target for any stolen Stinger missile — and dropped bags of weevil-infested rice, medical supplies, and cases of .762 ammunition.

For want of ammunition, Felix had abandoned his issue .223, M-16 rifle, in favor of an AK-47, the Russian-made killing machine available in endless numbers in the area.

Washington knew they’d forgotten him, or they’d have dropped a box of those damned MRE rations. At one time, he would have smirked at the thought of missing the tasteless freeze-dried meals. Time and isolation had its way of altering men’s minds in many ways.

He opted to sleep in a hole. It was bulletproof, and only rarely did one of those vipers slither up to warm-blooded humans who smelled like dead goats. The winter rainy season had passed when he’d worn so much clothing no snakebite could penetrate. Soon, he’d have to go to plan B and sleep above ground, if he lived to see “soon.”

A hole offered some shelter from night attack, but the pack of half-wild dogs the villagers kept had somehow learned which strangers were enemy and which were not. At the whiff of a woggie from two miles, or a viper from fifty feet, the din of half-starved dogs was better than the fire alarms back at where the hell ever he’d trained in Virginia.

The dogs would eventually go into the cooking pot after service as night sentries. Cruel? No, practical.

* * *

Yusef turned away to urinate. Local custom made exposure of his male part to women acceptable, but somehow to piss in the direction of a foreigner was prohibited. God, that had to be PTSD getting into his head. He’d had the dream every night for weeks. What the hell did PTSD stand for? And what was his mother’s name?

Protocol prohibited any personal identification, photos, or other effects in a combat zone. He wished he’d bootlegged in a snapshot. He was certain he had a mother… well, fairly certain.

Yusef turned back, dropping his robe to conceal himself. In his thick accent, he said, “Fee-lux, last night, my cousin, Ahmed, came down from the mountain to my tent. The enemy, too stupid to move at night, is advancing up the valley from the south this morning. About fifteen men in two pickups. What do you propose, my friend?”

At the call to duty, Washington snapped to near-perfect clarity. He stood upright, instinctively inspecting his AK for sand. Why did that chopper crew not think to drop a can of gun oil? Tall and lanky, he towered over his squat companion.

The whine of a sniper round passed over their heads, kicking up rocks and sand a few feet away. Washington climbed partially back in his hole.

“Fee-lux, Fee-lux, my comrade. I told you he couldn’t hit anything. Possibly a Saddam-trained fool. We must climb up there one night soon and send him to Hell.”

Washington crawled back out. “How many guns can we muster today?”

“Muster, Fee-lux?”

“How many people can fight?”

“Eight, uh, nine, counting you. We kill many woggies.” Yusef stared intently into Washington’s face and his harsh, deeply set brown eyes. The diagonal cut scar across Yusef’s nose heightened the sense of raw ferocity. He couldn’t be more than 22 or 23. Constant warfare had systematically eliminated the older men.

“Rouse them up, Yusef. Gather behind that rock as soon as we can.” He pointed his chin. “We’ll walk about two klicks south to El Modiv Pass. They have to come through that way. We got any grenades?”

“Ten, Fee-lux.”

Washington checked the loads in the fifteen extra .762 magazines he carried in his backpack and the cutting edge of his trench knife. The thought of the dream revisited, as always when they went forth to kill.

He was crouched behind a rock. Three men in traditional robes, charged him through the dust, screaming like banshees. Their heads were covered by the checkerboard cloth keffiyeh or turban, tied around the forehead. Washington had learned the tie-on rope was called an agal.

The dream was always the same. He brought his AK47 sights to bear between the eyes of the one on the left and squeezed the trigger. The rifle would not fire. Desperately, he ejected the magazine, slammed in another, and the rifle failed again. He could see the dark, angry eyes of death as the lead fighters were upon him, the detail of the checkerboard cloth stark in deadly finality. Then, always, he woke, sweating, heart pounding.

All his comrades had been lost, plus many villagers. He couldn’t expect to survive. Was this the day? He swallowed his fear and formed up his fighters.

* * *

By the time Washington’s ragtag squad reached El Modiv, the blazing sun was high. He studied the terrain and hand-assigned his eight fighters spots among the rocks. The pass was less than twenty feet wide at that point.

He motioned nine-year-old Malik into the most sheltered position, hid nearby, and waited. The half-dozen AK-47 magazines he laid out were nearly at eye level on the rock before him. A faint sound of gasoline engines without mufflers drifted up the pass.

A old pair of battered Toyotas crept around a bend in the valley, the drivers’ carefully working around rocks and holes large enough to destroy a vehicle. They had misjudged the terrain and failed to send a scout out front on foot. They would pay for their negligence.

One hundred feet, then forty. “Wait,” he’d directed, “until you can see the driver’s eyes.”

But young Malik — his own father butchered by this same group a week before — arose from cover and fired a long burst across the windshield of the lead truck. The three men wedged into the front seat gyrated wildly and slumped, dead.

A quick burst from the second truck and Malik’s head exploded, gore and brains splattering Washington six feet away.

Then came the dream in real time. Alerted by Malik’s ill-timed attack, three men in their robes and checkered turbans rushed Washington’s position.

Expecting death, he leveled his AK sights between the eyes of the center fighter and squeezed. The top of the man’s head disappeared. Washington snapped several rounds into the chests of the two men following the first. Both fell like limp coats from the rack.

Washington’s little army quickly annihilated the enemy. His men moved among the slain, executing the wounded, and gathering AK-47’s and the few pistols the dead men had been carrying.

Yusef rushed up, his handful of fresh human ears oozing blood into the sand. “The Almighty is great, Fee-lux,” he gushed, “we needed no grenades.”

“Sure as hell, Yusef, he sure as hell is. See if we can start either of those Toyotas. Malik must be returned to his mother. Tell Kasim to gather as many pieces of his head as he can find.”

“Yes, Fee-lux. Some of his head is on your face, my friend.”

Vultures circled overhead. They’d learned that the sound of gunfire forecast a hearty meal.

Felix surveyed the carnage around him, realizing his nightmare was not really a dream, only a premonition of the inevitable. One day, the dream would become reality. There was nothing he could do to prevent it.

“Yusef, what say we climb that mountain tonight and slit that sniper’s throat.”

Yusef smiled broadly, his eyes like a rabid dog. “Of course, my priceless friend. Of course.” He stuffed his newly acquired wad of ears inside his robe, then fondled the putrid necklace drooping on his chest.

Felix watched Yusef walk away. His mother’s face, teased the corners of his mind. Then, like an old movie, it faded to black.

In a bullet-riddled, sputtering Toyota pickup, Yusef stopped and grinned out the driver’s window. “Malik is in the back, Fee-lux. Get in.”

Felix hopped in the truck bed beside the remains of Malik and six sweating desert warriors. He studied the gore they were steadily leaving behind. His mother would never know what happened to him. Damn, if only he’d kept a tiny, single picture.

He took a long pull on his flask of arak and passed the bottle to the bearded man next to him. After he’d eaten his rice and rat, he had a mountain to climb. The thought of the mission cleared the mist slightly. He struggled to pull in the vague swirl of faces, but they drifted away, tantalizingly just out of view.

Yusef hit a huge pothole, nearly throwing the whole crew out. Felix thought that the dream would surely not find him in the dark on a mountainside. Perhaps he had a few more days, maybe a whole week before the vultures would circle for him.

Copyright © 2018 by Gary Clifton

As previously published in Bewildering Stories Magazine, Issue 761

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