The concubine slipped silently away from Kabul in the middle of the night. Her escape had not been planned. For many months she had pretended to accept her fate, waiting for just the right moment to act. One night she wiggled through the window of a back room where her devout captors had been allowing her to relieve herself into a bucket in private. She dropped thirteen feet, breaking her water when her legs buckled under her on the ground below.
She lurched and waddled from shadow to shadow, following the outlines of buildings like a maze. The normally mobbed street was deserted. Suddenly, a car approached and stopped. It was a taxi. A Lada, left over from the Russian occupation. The driver was a sweet man with long black hair and unimpeachable manners. Not in the least bit fazed by her disheveled appearance, he asked her where she was going.
When she did not answer, he watched her judiciously, one hand on the steering wheel, the other holding a cup of tea. He may have recognized her. He may have known who she was. If so, he never said. But he clearly recognized the desperate condition in her sea green eyes. Disoriented. Lost. Heavy with child.
He opened the door and introduced himself as a poet named Qassim.
“Come, sister, get in,” he said, in Dari, smiling.
She did, clenching the haft of the homemade dagger concealed beneath her burka a little more tightly, just in case. The car smelled of honey-soaked tobacco and sweat. Its seats were now just slats of wood and its windows were all broken.
He asked her if she had any money.
In reply, she held up a grapefruit, dried up like leather and pelted with mold, produced from somewhere beneath the folds of her robes. She began to sob.
Seeing her emotion, he waved the barter away and did what all men in Afghanistan do when women cry: he lit another cigarette.
“If you want to be left alone, you must go here, to this place,” he said, thrusting a map at her and pointing to a corner of the country near the borderlands, the wilderness.
“It is a forbidden place. A hidden canyon. Shrouded in mist in the middle of a mountain desert. There is a legend that it is a place of origins, that it is alive itself. An oasis. The plants that grow there grow nowhere else in the country, and the animals and birds, as if drawn by more than just the moisture in the air, come from thousands of miles away in all directions, across borders they do not recognize, boundaries that have no meaning to them. There you will see things you have never seen in your whole life, but you will surely be left alone, for nobody dares to go there.”
Then he paused and recited a line from the Koran: “Take refuge in the lord of the dawn.”
She nodded her head. She would sleep in a hole in the ground if she had to.
When he went to retrieve the map, she held onto it tightly. He smiled, nodded his head, and released it to her. They made their way through the back alleys, made only of dirt, deeply rutted, crawling with rats. She stared at the name of the place on the map – Boldak-te-pol – and listened to his bantering, a mixture of philosophy and politics.
“One day, when everyone has forgotten it, this city will disappear,” he concluded. “Poof.”
She was thankful, for once, for the veil shielding her face. It kept the dust and grime blowing through the open window from coating her lips, her nose, and hair. He apologized for the windows and for talking so much. She had still not uttered a single word.
They crossed the plains. This was an area that required permits, but no one knew whether they were to be obtained from the government or the Talibs, as neither had control in this province. Not, at that time, that there was much difference.
Soldiers, thin and dirty, holding Kalashnikovs, barked at them at a checkpoint. Qassim lied, telling them she was his sister-in-law, and inventing a quick compelling tale of her separation from his brother. In the tale, her husband, a conscript in the Soviet army, was forced to fight against their Muslim Chechen brothers, with whom she was being reunited. They waved them through.
Not more than twenty minutes later, at the next checkpoint, more Kalashnikovs, this time brandished by men in black robes. Again Qassim explained, elaborating on the impassioned and fabricated story. Again they were waved through.
They continued to bluff their way through like that. At every checkpoint, manned either by government soldiers or college students with guns, the story became bolder, more vivid, and more riveting. By the time they were out of the province, her poor fictitious husband, who had deserted his post, was being hunted by Red Army spies, and she was ready to give birth at any moment. Unbeknownst to Qassim, this last part was not as outrageous as the rest of the story. He watched her smile at him gratefully in the rear view mirror each time he lied for her sake, and when he said it was his pleasure, she believed him.
They passed a sign that read ‘Water Station Number 9.’ Soon after, the road ended. They kept going. She drifted off to sleep, for how long, she did not know.
Abruptly, she felt the brakes lurch. She woke up. A band of ragtag guerillas had stopped several other cars up ahead. People were running and leaping from a van. Qassim looker her in the eyes and told her to run.
“Don’t forget what I told you, sister,” he said. “Look for the crack in the side of the mountain.”
She opened the door and ran. A man leap onto the hood of the Lada with a heavy stick and begin to beat on it. She ran and ran without looking back.
She never saw Qassim again. Taking his advice, she crossed the ground on foot and an hour later she found herself on a double track looking across the desert to the east at the mountains. She started walking. Soon she heard a motor behind her. She hid in a ditch. She pictured her tormentor, hot in pursuit. It was a coffee truck. The driver, a Baluchi, offered her a lift. She showed him the place on the map and he nodded and helped her climb onto the flat bed. There was a boy already standing there on one leg. They held on to the sides of the truck as they bounced violently along the goat track. Outside of the village, she banged on the roof of the cab with the heel of her hand. The truck came to a stop. The Baluchi helped her down and handed her a lantern. As he and the boy with one leg watched her walk out into the desert, they assumed she had women’s business to attend to. They expected that she would return soon. They waited a civilized measure, cursed the loss of their lantern, and left.
It took her the good part of an hour to find the cleft, exhausted, slick with wetness between her legs, doubled over in anguish. She made her way through the opening without trepidation. The mist from within roiling at her feet. Inside the canyon she steeled her mind for what she had to do, sobbing. As she turned the blade of the dagger back and forth it glinted in the moonlight. But she wasn’t prepared for how quickly the child came or for the forcefulness of its arrival. It subdued her against her will. She felt her body begin to fail her. Images spun at the fringes of her vision. Then she watched them drift across the inside of her eyelids. She slumped to her knees. Everything reeled. The sky rushed into the horizon. The next thing she knew she was prone on the ground, writhing and howling in pain. The noise of it echoed in the canyon until it was carried away by the breezes into the night.
It sounded inhuman, the women from the village said later. Like something suffering across the plains. Something being ripped limb from limb by a wolf. It made their skin pucker and bump. But they knew what it was instinctively, and they came, against their husbands judgments about entering this place, against their commandments to stay out of it, that it was not their business, they came.
One by one, they had followed the sound until a small group of them had gathered at the mouth of the cleft. It was spewing forth sprays of steam like a breech, a portal, and all the evil spirits of the underworld about to come galloping through. According to the legend, the wadi running through the canyon had no beginning and no end, and therefore, no memory, also no grievances, and it was said to hold the spirit of the mountain itself. From inside they could hear her moaning. Then short grunts between otherworldly screams. It took them several moments to gather sufficient courage to enter the mouth of the cleft. Their hands clasped in a human chain, they stepped inside. Once they did, their lives would never be the same.
They found her where she had collapsed, blood-soaked, shifting and panting. God knows what they thought. The sight of her gripping that knife. God knows what they thought she intended to do. Her eyes, already wide, widened more when they touched her. She pulled back, terrified. She didn’t know at first who they were. She thought they were perhaps the flute-playing dwarfs carved into the stone walls of the canyon. Gods and goddesses with long curving horns come to life. Her arms flailed. Then she felt a humming inside and a final flux in the machinery of her body. The next thing she recalled was watching them pull the baby out of her. Flesh and gore in the sand. A thick, dense, glistening blue tube unfurled. Hands wet with blood holding him aloft in the moonlight.
“Halek,” she heard them say to her, to each other. “Sta halek.”
It was a boy.
She put her head back down against the earth. There was only the moonlight and the sound of him then, a thin wail, faint and clean. She felt a sudden weight on her chest, a tiny puff of breath on her cheek. The women began to say the adhan. One of them chewed up a date and smudged it ritually inside her baby’s mouth with the tip of a little finger.
She did not wonder what would have happened if things had been different. If the Soviets had not invaded. If her family had not gone to America when she was just a young girl. If they had not returned later. If the Talibs had not come to power. If she had spent more time in the safety of her house. If she had just learned to hold her tongue as she was told.
From the moment she felt him within her, from the moment she knew that she was with child, she knew that she would run away and keep him hidden. She knew that she must always conceal his existence. In time, she knew that one day he would inquire about his father’s identity. She knew that one day he would beg of her. She knew that she would not ever tell.
She would not.
She could not.
Master Sergeant Everett Truesdale arrived at the airbase just outside of Bagram in the cargo hold of a C-17 packed with red wheat, blankets, and Vitamin B capsules. “True,” as he was known, was being attached to a small Army Reserve unit, a Psychological Operations team being deployed into the hinterlands on a Public Relations pilgrimage, a “winning the hearts and minds” tour, toting leaflets and pre-recorded messages designed to reassure the civilian population, encourage cooperation, and discourage dissent.
It was a six-man squad and they had been together for about eight months, working in conjunction with larger units, mainly in and around the capital, where the Taliban resistance had been the lightest and the reconstruction of the country had been the swiftest and strongest. They had been involved in no live action, they were due to rotate home in four months, and they were not at all happy about this assignment, which did not make any sense to any of them. We’re going where? Why? And with who?
Officially, True’s orders were to provide “reconnaissance support,” which is a fancy way of saying he would be their scout. His job, in short, was to look for signs of the enemy and recommend the best courses of action to avoid, evade, or, as a last possible resort only, engage.
In reality he was a special operative, it was a clandestine operation, and his orders were classified. The PsyOps team was a cover. They weren’t told that, of course. They weren’t told anything. His actual mission was completely in the black. His target was a man named Akhtar. Full name, Mullah Abdul-Akhtar Gulpaygani, second-in-command of the Taliban before it crumbled, #5 on the Most Wanted Terrorists list.
Intel had a fat file on Akhtar. He was born in 1966, in the town of Gulpaygan, near Deh Rawood in Urozgan province, the home village of former supreme Taliban leader Mullah Omar. His given name was Muhammad. A brilliant student, he attended madrasas in his hometown, studied theology in Kandahar, and eventually the university in Kabul, where he was a rabblerouser. He was sent to college in America for a short time. When he returned, he was trained and armed by the Frontier Constabulary, a quasi-religious quasi-military unit in Pakistan, joining first the Hizb-i Islami and then the student protest movement that became known as the Taliban. Black hair, dark eyes, 5’10”, 175 pounds, olive complexion, scars on chest, right forearm, and upper corner of lip said to make it impossible to know if he was snarling or smiling. Tended to dress casually. Good with computers. He was wanted, most recently, in connection with the kidnapping and murder of Belgian Red Cross aid worker Raoul Cordeaux in 2003, but had been responsible for the torture, rape, and murder of hundreds of citizens, and the deaths of eighteen Afghan soldiers and police, and seven American servicemen killed in a slew of booby traps and car bombings. He was suspected in many more.
What Intel didn’t know was his current location. The word on the street, nothing more than rumors, perhaps, was that he kept mistresses. A harem of concubines across several countries in Southwest Asia to whom he would pay occasional visits. It was not known whether the relationships were willing or forced, and if forced, what abject power Akhtar had over them.
A woman named Yasmina Sherzai was reportedly one of these women. Intel didn’t know that much about her at that time. They didn’t know much of anything at all. They didn’t know enough, that’s for sure. The file was pretty thin. They had no photographs to make a positive ID. No fingerprints, DNA, or irises to match. All they had was a third-hand story from a second-hand source that a Tajiki woman with the most striking sea-green eyes who was or had been at one time one of Akhtar’s concubines was living up in the hills near a village called Boldak-te-pol.
The idea – it wasn’t much more than a hope, really, was this: since they couldn’t seem to locate Akhtar, maybe they would have better luck finding Yasmina, who could lead them, wittingly or unwittingly, to him. Or perhaps Akhtar would come to her and, therefore, to them. Anyone could be found. Everyone had a weakness. Sex, money, power, or pride, usually in that order. It was only a matter of time.
The PsyOps team was waiting for True on the flight line. Two humvees with hillbilly armor and whip antennas towing a water buffalo and a generator, and a deuce-and-a-half truck with a shelter on the back. On top of the truck was an array of four, gigantic, fluted, public address speakers, each pointing to one of the four corners of the earth and looking as if they could reach that far. It was part news van, part carnival wagon, and all target.
As strange as they must’ve looked to him, he must’ve looked even stranger to them. He walked out of the cargo hold carrying nothing but a ruggedized transit case. It was big, matte black, with a combination lock. What was in the case, they had no way of knowing, but he sure as hell wasn’t there to play the bassoon. *
He had a rusty beard, flecked with gray. Desert camouflage cowboy hat. His red hair, curling out from underneath the brim, was not regulation. Nothing about him was regulation. His attire, like the man inside, looked consumed by the elements. A Ghurka knife was sheathed just above his boots. No flag. No rank. No insignia. There was no mistaking him for an American, however. He looked too self-contained and slightly irrational to be anything else. And if there was any doubt, it would’ve been alleviated by the large silver buckle on his belt, polished and glinting. A bucking bronco and ‘CHAMP 1975’ engraved on it. He wore this old rodeo prize everywhere and always like a talisman. His right hand rested on the butt of his sidearm in the drop holster attached to his leg, as if waiting for something to go wrong, waiting for someone to come along for him to have to kill.
A young guy wearing captain’s bars and sunglasses got out of the passenger side of the first humvee to greet him. He was staring at the transit case. True gave him a casual salute, with quite some little deference, and the captain returned it just the same. It would be the first and last time.
“You the scout?”
“The what? Oh, the scout,” he said, momentarily forgetting his cover, then recovering. “Yeah. Right.”
“You are Master Sergeant Everett Truesdale?”
“Hooah,” said True, showing the captain his dog tags.
“My name is Captain Crump,” he said, holding out his hand. True shook it.
“You’re riding in the second vehicle with Top,” the captain said, referring to the senior enlisted man in the unit.
Top and the driver looked at each other as True climbed in the back. In the absence of a more logical explanation from a more credible source, an opinion about him had already been formed, is what the looks said. The convoy pulled out into the road and they flipped on their jammers. A hot dusty wind blew through the cracks in the doors, the seams of the tattered soft top and the holes in the floor.
“Have you ever seen a country this dry before?” a voice from the front seat said after awhile.
True was slouched down and resting his head against the back of the seat. He had been sizing up the two men from under the brim of his hat.
“Well, have you?”
At the sound of the persistence in the voice, True forked his hat back with his thumb and looked at Top. He was a thickly built man unkempt in the manner of mountain men or stumblebums. He had his head twisted around, staring at True as if he would not look away again until he had his answer.
“I never been here before,” True said with a minimum of energy and the curt unmistakable voice of a detester of small talk.
Top regarded him carefully. “That’s not what I asked.”
True, who had already assumed the unarresting personality of an extra duffel bag in the back seat, ignored him. He could get away with it. Age didn’t always translate into experience, but in True’s case, it was obvious. And rank was irrelevant. Rank wouldn’t matter much out there. It was experience that counted. That, and whatever was locked up inside that black transit case.
The convoy turned onto Highway 4, flipped off their jammers, and left behind the cities. They passed through checkpoints at the outskirts of towns and farm settlements. Through Gardez, Orgun-e, and Karghi Kanabad, heading north towards the vast emptiness of the Shomali plains, slowing down in the towns to navigate the little mud streets where the citizenry turned out to see the pale-faced irregulars. Smiling. Throwing flowers. Children running alongside waving. Maliks in timeworn finery bestowed sanction they no longer possessed on their passage. The mullahs, not to be outdone, gave blessings, saying pithy, lofty things, like, “May your blood have courage as a tree has sap.”
In just a few hours of listening to their radio chatter True knew more than he wanted to know about the PsyOps team. Their names and the names of their wives and kids. Their politics. Whether or not they believed in God. What sports teams they cheered for. Top was a lifer. The driver, a linguist and an engineer, was a Staff Sergeant named O’Leary. Up front with the captain was the XO, a first louie named Kasparaitis. And bringing up the rear inside the deuce-and-a-half were two civilians nicknamed Heckyll and Jeckyll. They were contractors playing toy soldier of fortune. Technical writers who worked for a RAND spin-off called Thinc. Riding in the cab with them was a monkey, a macaque named George, which True had initially mistaken in conversational references as a shy and silent seventh member of the team.
They bivouacked the first night inside their vehicles on the side of the road. In the morning they were buffeted awake by a convoy of tractor trailers they followed to a chemical plant outside of Tarin Kowt. They bribed the guard at the gate and a man wearing a white hard hat at the filling station with a fistful of dollars, topped off their tanks, and took once more to the upcountry road.
They rode a day and a night and a day like motorized filibusters of old through mountains and desert and into mountains again. As they climbed it got old fast with the flowers and the waving and they learned to just keep going until there were no more towns, no more farm settlements, only yurts woven from black goat hair dotting the countryside by the hundreds. The air got thinner, the grassland greener, and the road had gone from gravel to the grooves made by the wheels of donkey-pulled carts in the dirt.
They lost an hour near a place marked with a sign reading ‘Water Station Number 9’ waiting for a caravan of Hazara nomads on camels. The men hooted into their radios as the nomads appeared out of the murk like characters out of fables. Tiny woolly horses. Hundreds of coal black sheep with white faces. A herd of pale cattle with eyes agoggle and extra horns askew. When the drovers following the herd on their humpbacked mounts waved at the strange men-at-arms upon the plain, they grabbed their cameras and snapped pictures.
Through all of this True had slept or studied a map or thumbed through the little travel bible he always kept in a cargo pocket, glanced at his watch, ate nothing but military-issue energy bars, and spat snuff juice in an empty soda can. Not once did he dismount the vehicle except to take a leak, and the only time he ever spoke it was in reference to the radio, when he asked in jest if they could find a country music station on that thing or what.
At dusk of the third day they rode into the village of Boldak-te-pol, the end of the trail. The buildings were scarped and counterscarped and blue smoke from charcoal fires aglow in every smokehole hung thick in the air like an immense ghostly presence. They passed under a string of faded plastic flags emblazoned with the faces of martyrs. Down the street they could see the arched buttresses of the mosque and the minaret surrounded by a scrappy stand of cedars. They were met by the mullah and the malik at the edge of town, all togged out for company.
“Asalaam alaikum,” the captain said.
“Alaikum salaam,” said the mullah and malik, impressed, together.
The mullah did not smile, stepped forward and said, “Pe kher ragle Boldak-te-pol – pacha-i-rakhatali da Allah tak,” then immediately departed into the waning light, his robes rustling, requesting permission from nobody to do so. The malik stepped forward, assuming a posture of authority in the absence of the mullah. He was wearing his best sandals, turban, tunic and sash. He smiled broadly, showing them his crooked yellow teeth, and greeted them in nearly perfect English, gesturing with a great expansiveness of good will. The captain and Sergeant O’Leary walked alongside him. The humvees and deuce-and-a-half followed at a slow idle, like a funeral procession.
“What was that the mullah said?” the captain asked the malik.
“The mullah he say, ‘Welcome to Boldak-te-pol – it is impossible to get any nearer to your God than here.’”
Whether it was intended to be a witty reference to the elevation or an ominous veiled threat they had no way of knowing. Women and children stood solemnly on their stoops. Goats walked about on roofs. Tethered roosters flapped on the branches of gnarly little khaghazi trees. Dogs with swollen teats prowled. And the merchants selling nuts and spices and beads of oiled cedar, the coffee vendor, the butcher, the poulterer were all closing up their shops. Nobody was blowing kisses or throwing flowers or waving hats, True noted.
They stopped in front of a walled compound. A wrought-iron gate in a sallyport led to a courtyard trampled into submission by the tread of a thousand boots. Inside was a small building that looked as if its mud bricks had been kilned from the crushed bones of crusaders and saints. The whitewashed walls were filigreed around the windows with ornate fired tiles, flashing in the moonlight.
“Why is it vacant?” True said, inspecting a pock mark in the wall with his finger.
The malik explained. The building was referred to in Pashto as “the Little Fortress,” in Dari as “the Old Schoolhouse,” and in Turkish as “the Universal Municipal Building for Community and Commerce.” It had been used in turn by the Taliban, the anti-Taliban resistance forces, the Soviet Red Army, the Royal Afghan Army, and before those the British, and before the British the Turks, and before the Turks the Mongols, and before the Mongols, well, it had been there a long time. Centuries, certainly. He said that it was only appropriate for the Americans, since the village did not have a hujera, and he did not think it wise for them to stay in the mosque, the traditional guesthouse for travelers.
With that, True crossed the space between himself and the captain, latched on to his elbow, took him aside, and fell to conversing with him sotto voce.
“I don’t like this guy.”
“My S-2 says he’s a Karzai man and he’s on our side,” the captain said.
“I don’t care what Intel says, my gut tells me that somethin’ about this hajji just ain’t right. He’s got Ali Baba written all over him.”
“He is the chieftain of the village, which means he has the people’s respect, which is crucial to our mission here. I don’t want to start off on the wrong foot.”
“I don’t like it.”
“The war’s over,” the captain said sharply. “I appreciate your input, sergeant, but why pitch tents when we can sleep indoors? Besides, it’s safer.”
True glared, paused, shifted the wad of snuff lodged between his teeth and gums from one cheek to the other, and spat a stream of snuff juice at the ground next to his feet in a contemplative manner.
“Whatever you say, sir.”
They entered warily. The floor was covered with dust, mouse turds, and dead scorpions. A table, chairs, and a desk were strewn about in the main room. In the back were sleeping quarters with steel-framed cots. They swept the place out, unloaded their gear, unhitched the water buffaloes, secured their vehicles, and turned in for the night as dusk closed in.
Soon, the muezzins started up. A caterwauling from the west. From the east, a melody in the upper register, but no words. From the south, all words, only words, that warbled and went wild. But it was to the north that True’s ears were most finely tuned. From the north came a single shrill mechanical toot. Neither lonesome or joyous, short or long, just functional. It was like a signal. It pierced the night from far away, as if calling to someone. Perhaps a fugitive. He was sure it was a whistle. He was also sure that whoever was being called had heard, for it blew only once.
The next morning, as the men began stepping outside on their first full day in Boldak-te-pol, they discovered that someone had placed a perfect bloody handprint on the whitewashed wall outside the door during the night. They stood there in their boxers staring at it. Roosters had begun to stir. A dog was barking. And the muezzins were just warming up. True walked up with a wet head and a towel around his neck.
“Did you see this?” Top asked, indicating the bloody handprint.
“Yeah, I saw it. There’s one just like it on the hood of every truck.”
All heads swiveled at once.
“It’s gotta be some kind of warning,” Jeckyll said.
Sergeant O’Leary said, “Isn’t that the universal symbol for ‘Stop’?”
The captain didn’t say anything.
“You don’t have to habla the local bla bla to know that whatever it means, it ain’t good,” True said, stepping around him to go inside.
“Maybe we’re being unduly pessimistic here,” offered the LT. “Maybe it’s some form of blessing instead.”
The captain told Top to set up a schedule for night watches and he told the LT to take Sergeant O’Leary and go fetch the malik and he told the contractors to get those damn handprints off the trucks. Meanwhile, dark-eyed orphan boys began to appear with the accruing light. They sat on their haunches watching the Ameriki. Waiting for handouts and looking for the chance to pilfer something.
“Where the hell did they come from?” True heard Hekyll say.
“Word gets around when the circus comes to town,” said True.
Fifteen minutes later a rusty lime green Yugo pulled up outside the compound and all the children scattered like feral cats. It was the LT and Sergeant O’Leary with the malik. They stood in front of the bloody handprint. The malik just smiled and told them it was nothing but an old superstition, a handprint of goat’s blood to ward off evil spirits.
“It could’ve been anyone,” he said.
“Okay, I get it,” the captain said. “But they think the evil spirits are us.”
Heckyll and Jeckyll went to work on the handprint on the wall with the same gasoline-soaked rags they had used on the truck hoods.
“Captain,” one of them said after a few minutes. “I think you better come out here and look at this.”
They had removed the stain and a good bit of the whitewash and even parts of the old wall surrounding it in the process. They kept rubbing. More of the wall flaked off. What they found underneath were more handprints. The more they rubbed, the more they found. Handprints under handprints under handprints. They had all been whitewashed over. Layer upon layer upon layer.
The captain told them to stop rubbing.
Whether it was the hex on the wall or their own ineptitude, their first few days in Boldak-te-pol were marred by a series of doomed enterprises. Day 1, a Tuesday, was uneventful. True was sent into the village to scout around, where he was immediately besieged by the orphan boys begging for money, candy, sunglasses, and field rations. Sergeant O’Leary and the tech writers fired up the generator, plugged it into the shelter, and turned on all the computer systems. The LT carried the safe into the Little Fortress, counted the money, counted it again – $54,084 – and then opened the ledger to balance his books. The captain and Top tacked a 1:50,000 scale topographic map of the area on the wall and then they studied it.
On Wednesday, they all fanned out into the village to distribute leaflets, as impersonally as Jehovah’s Witnesses, announcing a census.
Thursday, at precisely the prescribed time, the mullah and the malik presented themselves at the Little Fortress to be counted, departing immediately thereafter with their laminated ID cards.
Nobody else showed up.
Later that afternoon the captain practiced talking to the malik about this matter with the LT, then summoned the malik back to the Little Fortress, where he informed them that everyone in the district was illiterate except for he, the mullah, and a crazy devil-eyed witch up in the hills.
“What was that the malik was sayin’ about the hills?” True wanted to know afterwards.
“He said that reading and writing was not customary up here, in any language,” the captain said.
“After that. Somethin’ about a crazy witch.”
“Oh, I don’t know. I wasn’t paying attention to that.”
On Friday, they went audio. It was a complete failure. The sound check was a muted, muffled, garbled mess. The atmospherics were terrible, the distance too great. The trouble was the deuce-and-a-half was simply too large and unwieldy to drive through the village or up into the hills where most people lived.
“We are now accepting callers for these beautiful commemorative pendant key chains,” Jeckyll said into the microphone in a fake deejay voice.
The captain was not in the mood for sarcasm. He told him to knock that shit off, dispensed with practice, summoned the malik and the mullah, and urged them both to spread the news of the census, to be conducted at the same time the following day, by whatever means they had at their disposal.