He’d managed to drag himself this far to a place they called Three-Martyrs-Way. Here, Kazemi’s black-clad figure in grimy hospital slippers stood alone near bundles of twisted metal jutting out of the ground. He was waiting now for a car to pass so he could get a ride back to headquarters another twenty kilometers down the road. Not much of a road this. And who were the three martyrs anyway? His head hurt. Everything hurt and everything that hurt would eventually go away. This he knew from experience. The air was of dust and burnt fuel and there was no car that he could see coming his way. Three-Martyrs Way was in the middle of what had become another desolate quarter. Except that on the other side of the road the nearly intact bottom half of a humble and half destroyed faded blue mosque was still tilting to one side. The mosque’s top being gone, a yellow gas stove had somehow gotten tossed and now was perched at a dangerous angle where the arc of the dome should have been. Just beneath that, you could see the life-sized picture of some cleric, an imam, with parts of his mouth and beard showing through the bullet riddled wall of the building. Leaning so precariously, the stove truly looked like it might grow wings and fly again. At least it ought to. As for the picture, Kazemi couldn’t tell whose it was. He couldn’t even tell if it was really a picture of an imam or not. For a minute, then, Kazemi had second thoughts about everything that had happened and the feeling made him more self-conscious about what he wore. What he wore was full diving outfit, punctured from knee to navel from his having gotten caught in a mesh of razor wire the enemy had laid out for them in the marshes. The tattered black wetsuit was like skin gone bad now, spongy to the touch, no longer snug, making him look like an awkward bird in funeral gear.
Funeral. He figured everyone from his company was dead. By eight am when finally one of their own motorboats had picked him up and brought him to the Iranian shore he hadn’t seen any of his friends. The rescue people hadn’t said much and left him alone on the boat ride back, but when they’d gotten to land an officious little sergeant who had nothing to do with divers had asked him for any weapons he might be carrying and told him he needed to go to the hospital.
It wasn’t him they were so worried about. It was the half dozen grenades still wrapped to his wetsuit.
“Why? I’m not injured.”
“You have to relinquish weapons if you’re going to the hospital.”
The sergeant’s head had lolled forward as he said this. The man had a raspy accent Kazemi couldn’t place. It grated on you. It was just like the regular army to keep someone like that man around. Every day the Basij and Revolutionary Volunteers gave up their lives in scores around here, and all that the Army could offer was this pipsqueak asking for your weapon. What weapon?
“But I’m not going to the hospital.”
He’d nearly yelled that last. The sergeant and maybe twenty other men, none of them familiar to Kazemi, had started giving him the look just then. He knew that look. It wasn’t him they were so worried about. It was the half dozen grenades still wrapped to his wetsuit. He was sure they were thinking he’d lost it. Twelve hours in that water and most of it in pitch dark trying to stay afloat and waiting for the enemy to pick him off at will. “Go easy! He’s got the waves,” he’d heard a first-aid guy whisper not so quietly behind the sergeant. The words had made Kazemi feel more enraged and just slightly less famished for meat and bread. And he’d thought of what it must be like to have the waves. He supposed the experience was as different as there were men in this war. It could begin with a simple eye twitch and end with a foaming mouth and a strait-jacket. He’d seen a man smash all his teeth in with boxes of ammunition one night to stop what he’d called the chattering in his brain. Another had cut an ear off and tried to stuff it in the remaining ear. More than one guy had been spotted going around asking to be slapped into wakefulness. Then there were the others, the really dangerous ones, who began by asking for their mothers, their sisters, the hidden imam, the Prophet himself; they ate mud and bit hard at cubes of sugar until one day they got tired of all the thinking and blew themselves up while a brother knelt in prayer four feet away from them. No, Kazemi wasn’t going to say anything to these people. He was still dripping water and having spent weeks and weeks training in water he thought he knew something about waves that none of these men could possibly know. Only another diver like himself could understand that. And there were none here. So he’d lingered a bit more watching the sergeant watching him. In that time he’d recalled Brother Ahmadian’s last words before the squad had set out the night before to take back Mother Hunger Island, a lonely place where all of them had spent enough nights half-starved, a place none of them were anxious to take back from anyone. “Kazemi, you’re going to have to wrap another load on you if you don’t want your head to show above water. You need to sink down more, son.” But then Kazemi had stepped out of the water to show just how ‘loaded’ he was. There wasn’t an inch of him where any more load could go. “I’m a walking demolition team, Brother Ahmadian,” he’d said smiling. And Ahmadian had smiled back saying, “No, you’re a swimming one.”
Now Ahmadian was gone. So were Khalili and Ghaffari and Torkan. There were others too. But it was those four he especially couldn’t put out of his mind because the four of them had taken it in the water. Water was different. Watching a diver get killed in it was about the worse thing you could witness. There was an innocence about it. No way to go forward, no way to go back. You went down quietly, like prey.
Surely, somebody would come and take that perfect yellow stove off the damaged mosque. Someone who knew a good thing when they saw it. Someone with a car. If only a car passed by soon. It was so dry on Three-Martyrs Way. Lately he’d gotten to imagining wherever there wasn’t water there were mines. He tiptoed around himself. Better yet, if he could help it he’d remain perfectly still as much as he could. He made excuses to do his prayers standing up without moving or making prostrations. He didn’t want to move now either. Having walked this far from the hospital was more than enough for him. True, the yellow stove was like a fat invitation. It was a jewel. But it wouldn’t be Kazemi who would get to keep it. He knew this as well as anything. He felt it as much as he’d felt the trap the enemy had laid out for them the night before. How he’d tried to warn Brother, now Martyr Ahmadian about it. The voice calling for them from the other side of the reeds just hadn’t sounded right. The voice had been able to finish the night’s password but the Persian it spoke to them sounded like it belonged to the marsh Arabs. Kazemi didn’t feel good about that accent and hadn’t hesitated to tell Ahmadian about it.
“Kazemi, you love water too much. You just don’t want to ever get out of it, do you?”
“We’ll get ambushed.”
“He’s starting to turn into a frog,” someone whispered.
“Everyone shut up. We’re working.”
They were tough kids who had gotten used to clowning around even under fire. Besides, it never seemed to make much of a difference . . . you could take one wrong turn and end up in an enemy trench or canal.
There was some muted laughter from a squad of nine where besides Brother Ahmadian who was ancient at thirty, and Kazemi who was nineteen, the average age could not have been a day over seventeen. They were tough kids who had gotten used to clowning around even under fire. Besides, it never seemed to make much of a difference if they were quiet or not anyway. You could take one wrong turn and end up in an enemy trench or canal. That was how close they often were. And they died. But it still wasn’t a war to them, it was a game. Now someone from behind had whispered again, “He just wants to show off his knowledge of Arabic. Maybe he’ll become a judge after the war.” Ahmadian hushed them. He put his hand out and motioned for Ghaffari to wade up ahead. Almost immediately the flash and the spraying had started, lighting the sky around them, briefly making each kid an outline of himself, like figures you saw on negatives of photographs. Then there was that dash of bullets hitting water, like stones blindly skiing surfaces before finding a target.
The car stopped right at Kazemi’s feet on Three-Martyrs Way, though at first the driver appeared engrossed in the undamaged stove.
“In the back, son. I got too much junk up front.”
“You don’t want the stove then?”
“Who wouldn’t want it. But that building is coming down any minute. And I got seven mouths to feed. My life means more than a stove today.”
“You can cook things on it,” Kazemi said as he got in. He didn’t know why he’d said that. He was sorry the man wasn’t taking the stove with him. Maybe he could have fit it on the back of the banged up old Jeep, or else they could have roped it to the top some way. They should have. Kazemi would have helped. Certainly he would. Despite his injured hands. Because it just didn’t seem right leaving the thing up there like that. Because … because you shouldn’t leave undamaged things so defenseless. They’d get damaged eventually. That was how it always happened.
The man now turned around and gave Kazemi a good long look. His mustache was completely white, his hair wasn’t. And the hand that remained on the wheel shook a bit. He looked tired yet still curious. He offered Kazemi a cigarette.
Kazemi held up his bandaged hands.
“I’ll hold it for you, son. You can take a couple of drags.”
“I’m all right. I need to report back to my unit.”
“Looks to me you need to be in a hospital.”
Kazemi tensed up a bit. He wondered if it showed. “It’s nothing. Minor wounds. I got caught in wire. Are we going?”
The man still kept his eyes on him. “How old are you?”
“You look younger. You a diver?”
“You don’t look old enough for it. You are certain you are nineteen?”
“Look, all I need is a ride to Khorramshahr. If you can help me, God bless.”
“Son, no reason to get excited. I’m just asking questions.”
“Too many people ask too many questions. Please, can we get going?”
“We can.” He put the car in gear. “But that stove is truly breaking my heart looking at it.”
It felt odd sitting in the back alone being driven. He could see the driver was watching him in the rear-view mirror and had a thousand questions to ask. They passed by a ghostly procession of old women in long black chadors walking along the left side of the road. In their midst there was only one small boy carrying a TV bigger than himself. Kazemi wondered where the women were going. He wondered about the kid and decided he was too tired to try and figure out where the old women were going and what the boy had to do with that TV set.
“You were part of the Karbela-4 operations last night?”
“You know about it?”
“Sure. I know enough to know it didn’t go too well. I’m sorry about that too. Luck was elsewhere last night.”
“Your fellows make it back all right?”
Kazemi shook his head. “I don’t know yet.”
But he did know. You didn’t get trapped in the marshes on a moonless night and simply crawl your way back home. If the enemy didn’t get you first, the wet and the cold did. Hunger did. Water made plagued men ravenous. Which was why he would have told that thick-headed sergeant that instead of asking for his weapons they ought to be offering him something to eat. He was starved. All those hours in the water and their only concern was that he had the waves. Yet he knew if he put up any more argument they’d really start to believe he’d lost it. So he’d sat in the ambulance and closed his eyes for their sake. Then he’d fallen asleep almost right away and only woken up when someone shook him and pointed to where he had to present himself.
“You are serious? I must see a doctor?”
He noticed his waist felt free. They’d unclasped the grenade jacket from his wetsuit. How heavy he must have slept. How hungry he was.
The ambulance driver, looking down in sympathy, had said, “It’s for the best. Your fingers look bad. All your things will be waiting for you in Khorramshahr.”
Ten minutes later a young doctor was asking him, “Your story?”
His story? He was trying to keep himself from shaking. He explained that first. “They’re treating me like I got the waves, doctor. It’s just hunger. I was in the water for a long time. I’ve had nothing to eat for almost twenty-four hours. Test me anyway you like. Do you want me to recite the Periodic Table for you? All right then.” And he’d started, recalling eighth grade chemistry class, beginning with the smallest atomic weights, Hydrogen, Helium and Lithium, reciting each element in its right order until he’d gotten up to number eleven, Sodium, before the doctor stopped him.
The doctor was laughing. “Where are you from?”
“How old are you?”
“Everyone keeps asking me that. How old are you?”
The doctor paused. “Twenty-six.”
“You’re a real doctor?”
“Not yet. What would you like to eat then?”
“Anything not in a can.”
While he ate the doctor sat watching him carefully. A middle-aged male nurse was soon there to cut the shredded plastic glove off the rest of the wetsuit and bandage Kazemi’s hands slowly, one at a time.
He was given canned peaches. While he ate the doctor sat watching him carefully. A middle-aged male nurse was soon there to cut the shredded plastic glove off the rest of the wetsuit and bandage Kazemi’s hands slowly, one at a time. But except for his left middle finger where a short angled blade had made an ugly gash, they were mostly surface cuts from when he’d been trying to use a wire-cutter to free his legs from the tangle of razors under water. He didn’t really need the bandages. But it was as if by bandaging him they were marking him for the inevitable hospital stay. Regulations, the doctor said. He should think of it as a vacation. Kazemi didn’t argue. He’d seen a lot of unlucky guys from the Karbela-4 operation lying down in the hall or leaning unhappily against the faded walls of the hospital. The place was small and to Kazemi more resembled a public bath. The emergency cases were rushed through a dank stairway leading to some basement room where they said you had to go if you wanted to use the bathroom. He didn’t want to be here. His wetsuit was making him an object of curiosity and other nurses and doctors were looking at him strangely too. He could tell they all had their own questions to ask. At last someone did; as soon as the bandaging was done, a toothless old hospital janitor had stuck his head inside the room, grinned nervously and asked the doctor if Kazemi was a human being. The young doctor had shouted at the man to mind his own business.
“It’s a mad house. I’m sorry, though.”
“Sorry for what?”
“I’ll have them bring you better food later on,” the doctor said closing the door behind him.
But Kazemi wouldn’t wait around to find out if they’d bring him better food or not. Bandages or no bandages, there was a window. They should have known better than to leave a diver alone.
He’d gotten used to counting his paces. He counted everything now. The Periodic Table was nothing. He’d counted the number of peaches in the can they’d served him. One of them had had a black spot and was slightly rotten. He’d eaten it anyway. He must.
He counted his hours in water. He counted how long it took for a man to die from a French mortar or a Russian one. He listened and beat time to the whistle of the 81mm and the 120mm. He hated the 60mm ones only because you couldn’t hear them. You couldn’t measure them. One second they weren’t there and the next second they were right on top of you. They weren’t as deadly, but they were rotten; back-stabbers was what they were.
So he’d counted exactly fifty paces from that hospital window. There was a family of women huddled by a dried-out bush near the gate weeping uncontrollably. For a moment they all looked up and seeing Kazemi in his diver’s suit they stopped and stared at him. They couldn’t look at him and cry at the same time. When they’d had their fill of him they went back to their crying and didn’t pay him any more attention. He was grateful for that. Forty-eight paces, forty-nine, fifty. At fifty he turned around and looked back at the window he’d jumped from. He’d told himself he wouldn’t look until he got to fifty. And when he did, he saw the same doctor with his head sticking out the window looking at him in a leisurely sort of way. The young doctor’s face seemed even paler from this distance. A wiry little man in white, a pair of sad eyes behind glasses. Now he was smiling at Kazemi. He could have easily shouted at the two security men outside to detain his patient, but he didn’t do it. Peace. Go your own way. You don’t belong here. Kazemi had a notion that if only he could, the doctor would jump out of that window and join him. He just didn’t know how. He would shed his white doctor’s uniform for something else. Kazemi raised both arms and stuck out his forearms. If I can push a window up with these and jump out, you should just let me go. I’m all right. The doctor nodded to him and withdrew inside.
Kazemi didn’t want to wait around for a car near the hospital. The doctor might after all change his mind. It was a ways to Khorramshahr and he thought if he kept a serious face and looked at no one, people would forget about his diver’s suit and he’d be able to catch a ride some place more remote where no good Moslem could refuse to pick him up. The problem was that the hospital slippers made him have to drag his feet; he also didn’t really trust land and the canned peaches had done nothing for his hunger. After a while he fell behind an old man and his three goats walking up ahead in the same direction. He followed a careful line behind their tracks, making sure not to take one step beyond the dust prints the man and his goats were making. Safety lay in who was ahead of you and the width of the path they made. A couple of times the goatherd turned around and briefly stared at Kazemi but said nothing. Yet his goats would take turns to actually back up, sniff and try to nibble at Kazemi’s wetsuit. They seemed drawn to something in its texture. At some point the goatherd finally cut away in the direction of the river and the animals followed him. Suddenly Kazemi was faced with miles of open road before Khorramshahr and no goats to clear a safe path that way. He stopped in his tracks.
The old man turned to him. He had a short stick in his callused hands and his feet were bare. Half a lip hung below the other half, as if the man meant to blow smoke from the side of his mouth. “Is it my time?” he asked.
Kazemi couldn’t answer. He didn’t understand the man’s question. He just wished he and the goats would walk ahead of him for a bit longer until a car came.
“Are you a ghost? Have you come to take me away? I have fifteen mouths to feed. My two eldest died in the front. My first daughter is married to the devil. I take care of their children. My wife is old. I need time to set my house straight.”
“I am not a ghost, father.”
“What are you then?” He wasn’t looking so much at Kazemi as at the black he wore. “Are you a man or do you belong to the river?”
“I belong to the river, father.”
“Then in the river you should stay.”
“It is my wish also.”
The man pointed beyond the damaged building and the stove. “This here they call the Three-Martyrs Way.” With that he turned and walked away and took his goats with him, leaving Kazemi standing stiffly on the deserted road facing a mosque with its missing dome.
The man pointed beyond the damaged building and the stove. “This here they call the Three-Martyrs Way.” With that he turned and walked away and took his goats with him, leaving Kazemi standing stiffly on the deserted road facing a mosque with its missing dome.
“Son, I have to turn off this road. I brought you as far as I could.”
Kazemi opened his eyes. He’d been dozing. At first he didn’t know where he was. Then he noticed the bombed out slaughterhouse where his group had pitched tents for a while some nine months ago. It seemed like ages since he’d first come to the front. His father had made him promise he wouldn’t run off and volunteer until his school was over. Kazemi had obliged him, though he was sure his father would try to dissuade him even when he had his diploma. His father, a high school biology teacher, was a man who thought prayer was a waste of time and ever since the revolution argued constantly with Kazemi’s mother, a pious woman, about that sort of thing. He thought the war was even a bigger waste and had told Kazemi he’d noticed the kid getting all dreamy eyed when the recruiters passed by their neighborhood singing their anthems. And he was dreaming now if he thought those bearded impostors were going to be waiting for him with honey and sweet cakes when his time came. Kazemi hadn’t argued. His father was a good man but he was out of touch and behind the times. He didn’t understand the revolution and he understood the war even less. The truth was, Kazemi liked the dream that his father didn’t. And instead of waiting for his draft papers to arrive, he’d left a note under his pillow the beginning of the second week of summer and headed for the recruiting office before the morning prayer. After that, he hadn’t called home for almost two months and when he had finally called he’d talked only to his mother and asked for her blessing right away. She’d given it. Now he wondered if she still would have, had she known that nearly a year later people would be asking him if he was a human being or not. Maybe that question bothered him more than being taken for someone who had the waves. Why would they assume he had the waves at all? And even if he did, did that not make him a human being now? He could see that the driver was giving him all the time in the world to get out of the car. The driver had patience.
“Forgive me, friend.” Kazemi was instinctively reaching for a pocket to give some money to the driver for the ride.
“What is there to apologize? Go with God, son.”
“This thing I wear,” he ran a hand on his diving suit, “has no pockets. I can’t give you any money.”
The man frowned. He turned to face front. Ahead of them a line of mini-buses full of kids was blocking the square. “I’d take you all the way if it wasn’t for them.”
“It’s fine. Only a ten minute walk from here.”
“Look at how young those kids are. They’re sending them back to their mothers and fathers. They came down here to volunteer.”
“They’ll run off from their homes and come back again. This thing is an addiction.”
“For you too?”
“But those kids, they haven’t tasted it yet. How can they be addicted?”
“Some addictions are that way.”
He walked past the mini-buses where kids his brother Hamid’s age-twelve, thirteen, fourteen, some crying and others trying to throw themselves out the windows so they wouldn’t be driven back home-looked upon Kazemi with a mixture of awe and fear. They saw him in his black diver’s suit and they pointed him out to each other like he was the Hidden Imam itself come to lead them off to wherever he would.
Kazemi continued on. Smoke rose from the direction of the river and a formation of three helicopters flew fast and close overhead towards the city of Ahvaz. He heard the copters before seeing them and began instinctively to count. Up closer there was more smoke. A lone date palm still standing was burning quietly by itself. And at the foot of the tree you could see raw wires that had gotten dislodged from underneath piles of shattered stones sending persistent sparks up the palm’s stump. Kazemi stopped for just a second to watch the tree burn. The leaves on top swaying gently in the wind even as they were consumed by the blaze reminded him oddly of the women he’d seen crying outside the hospital. Now he walked casually past the minor traffic jam caused by the smoke and headed for the road towards the rail road terminal. Finding his rhythm he quickened his pace, counting each step, as if he were on a march. At some point a car slowed down and someone shouted if he needed a ride. Kazemi didn’t even look up. He shook his head and kept walking until he’d walked right past barracks security without being stopped. A voice from behind one of the tractors the battalion used to make dugouts called out, “Where to?” And without slowing down Kazemi mustered enough voice to yell back, “Heaven’s gates.” The voice didn’t sound familiar and Kazemi didn’t care if the fellow wasn’t aware of the inside story about how half the kids in the platoon had made a vow that whoever got martyred first during Karbela-4 would wait around by the doors of heaven until the others arrived. Kazemi, in any case, hadn’t been one of the ones who’d made the vow.
This time it was a bright little face standing guard in front of the room Kazemi had periodically shared with seventeen other guys. Other than this kid with cauliflower ears and that other voice he’d heard a minute ago the place had fallen on an eerie silence that Kazemi had both expected and hoped against. Kazemi smiled faintly.
“You know, I don’t have the waves.”
The kid seemed stunned at hearing Kazemi speak at all. He was so tiny that you could tell they’d issued him the smallest uniform there was and he still had to roll the sleeves up two-fold to have them fit. “Waves?” he asked.
“I’m all right. I just need to sleep now.”
The kid swallowed and tried unsuccessfully to meet Kazemi’s eyes. Probably the boy was one of those that had gotten away from the mini-buses up the road, Kazemi thought a little unkindly.
“Brother Madani told me to let him know if anyone showed up at this door.”
“Tell Brother Madani that Kazemi has arrived and he’s tired, he’s going to sleep.”
“Kazemi is my name. Tell Brother Madani that.”
He gently pushed the kid aside, opened and closed the door behind him and listened to the click clack of the kid’s oversized boots as he went running toward Brother Madani’s office behind the battalion mosque. It was all so drearily quiet otherwise. And what greeted him in the room was a graveyard of folded blankets and dufflebags lying neatly in rows where each man had slept before. They’d already packed the belongings of these men and arranged for them to be sent to their families. He saw that his own things were just as neatly packed and ready to be shipped off. That was why Madani had posted the kid here. He wanted to see if by chance any of the divers would materialize before he sent a death notice to their people. Madani was a thorough guy. Thorough and focused. They called him ‘The Sieve’ because he had more holes and shrapnel wounds on his body than you could count.
Hearing click clacks again outside he closed his eyes hoping they’d leave him alone until he’d had a good sleep. What was there to report anyway? The enemy had been expecting them. The enemy had known their position.
A sieve. That was something that lost liquid, Kazemi thought uselessly. He came and pushed his bag to one side and lay on the cot without taking off his diving suit and he pictured Brother Madani as a dark fountain that couldn’t go dry, ever. Hearing click clacks again outside he closed his eyes hoping they’d leave him alone until he’d had a good sleep. What was there to report anyway? The enemy had been expecting them. The enemy had known their position. It was no different than the time Brother Madani had come out to the tunnels to personally direct the assault into the marshes that separated the Iranians from the Iraqis just north of Khorramshahr. Kids were slumped dead and dying at the head of the bog and Madani was insisting that each unit had to quit dragging their feet and walk over the bodies of their friends and hit the marsh as quickly as possible. “Kazemi, recite the Wajalana. Do it right this second,” he’d screamed.
“I did already.” It was the prayer to put the curse on the enemy and blind them to your position in combat. “We all did. But-”
Maybe Madani had read something unspeakable in Kazemi’s eyes just then, because he’d quickly yanked him aside. “Take these kids and take them through here. Do it now. I’ll have people come back for the bodies when you’re past the tunnel.”
“What if the enemy buries the tunnel afterwards? It happens.”
“Kazemi, who are you worried for, the dead or the living?”
“Our cause is true, Brother Madani. We’ll be kissing each other’s cheeks at heaven’s doors.”
“Save that talk for later. We got work now.”
“We always got work.”
“You’re wasting precious time.”
He was right. The tunnel was getting clogged and Kazemi had picked an odd time to start questioning things. Yet he couldn’t help it. He was at least a couple of years older than most of these kids and the tunnel was probably as good a place as any to waste some precious time. Besides, the enemy’s rear guns hadn’t started bracketing them yet. Maybe the prayer to make the enemy blind had worked, after all. Kazemi took a deep breath and spoke.
“I’ve read something.”
“What did you read, man. Speak!”
“There are armies that never leave one of their own behind.”
Madani was frowning looking hard at Kazemi. The difference in their ages was all of Kazemi’s nineteen years. Yet rank and age were nothing here and the bustle around them might as well have been just a rumor.
“We are not an army,” Madani said, “we are much more. And what rolls off your tongue, son, smacks to me of anti-revolutionary talk.”
“It was not my intention.”
“Good. Because let me tell you that the true test of a man is not that he won’t leave his brother behind. It’s that he’ll step right over his brother for the sake of something a lot bigger. I hope when that day comes and I’m lying in that tunnel you’ll do the right thing for both of us.”
Those words had been too easy to say. And last night Kazemi had done what he could not to do things Madani’s way. At least in the beginning he’d tried not to. Last night after Ahmadian and Ghaffari and Khalili and Torkan had gone down, it had taken Kazemi more than two hours just to swim his way in the dark back to the barbed wire. From there it should have been easy to find the Iranian shore. The distance wasn’t so great. But the two lines of thick telephone cables that had been laid in the muddy bottom to guide the diving teams back were impossible to find in the darkness or maybe the enemy had discovered and cut them off. After a while Kazemi had realized he was going in circles. By then enemy swift boats were all over the lake and they were hunting down the divers one at a time. He’d never learned the name of the other diver he’d come across in the water. The kid was hungrily nibbling on a tall reed when Kazemi had swam up to him. He’d offered half his reed to Kazemi to chew on. They needed energy, he’d said, if they were going to survive. The kid had been as hopeful as Kazemi wasn’t. They could hear the engines and the sounds of mortars and RPG’s and the enemy skipping about every which way in their boats offering the relief bullet to the exhausted divers they came upon. Before long the whirr of a boat was heading straight their way. To Kazemi it seemed if he stayed under water another two seconds he might as well never come up. When he finally did he saw that the boat had passed them but not before making a sieve out of the other diver. Kazemi had cried. He had never cried like that before but he’d cried last night. He’d promised himself no matter what Brother Madani said, he was going to haul the reed eater to shore with him. He’d vowed to offer exactly one thousand prayers to the Fourteen Innocents if he made it back in one piece. Two hours later when he was still in the water and the muscles in his arms and thighs felt like they would peel off, he’d vowed an extra two thousand prayers. Then he’d done what he didn’t want to do. He’d let go of the body of his fellow diver. He’d kissed the face he’d barely seen in the pitch black and let go. It would get light soon and he’d know where east was and he’d swim there. He owed three thousand prayers by now and he was crying and he was thinking that maybe Brother Madani had been right after all. You only left no one behind when you could afford to do that. He wished now he had never promised himself to bring the boy’s body home. It was the wrong sort of promise. It made you a liar.
Madani stood silently looking over Kazemi lying on the cot until the younger man finally had to stop pretending and open his eyes.
“Forgive me,” Kazemi said without attempting to get up.
Madani reached down and kissed him lightly on the forehead. “You guys did good last night.”
“We were butchered.”
“Who is we? This war is bigger than you and me, son. In a month, I promise you, we’ll be in Basra.”
Kazemi took the hand Madani was offering him and stood up. Next month? It took a lot more than that just to make a passable diver out of someone. Next month was too soon and this room was too empty. Now he felt obligated to give an account of himself. He started counting and rattled off the names of the martyrdoms he’d witnessed with his own eyes the night before-Ahmadian, Ghaffari, Khalili, Torkan…
“And the others?”
Kazemi barely shrugged. “It was ugly out there last night.”
“I know.” Madani had let his eyes drift over the folded blankets and the bags ready to go. He asked, “And you? Where were you until now?”
“They thought I had the waves. They sent me to the hospital.”
Madani studied him closely. “And did you give them any reason to think that?
The answer seemed to suffice for Madani. He turned to go. Let us meet in the mosque in twenty minutes. Get out of your diving suit.”
The boy Madani had given sentry duty to helped him change clothes. Twenty minutes later when he came into the mosque Kazemi’s heart fell. The emptiness in the long, carpeted hall was a lot heavier than in the dormitory. Just yesterday when the teams would gather here in the mornings or afternoons the mood would be something near raucous. There was always a lot of fooling around. Here was where they caught up with the other teams. Here was where they’d had the bright idea to wait for each other in heaven.
And would they wait for him now?
Maybe, he thought, he should start on those prayers he owed the Fourteen Innocents. Then he thought of that yellow stove he’d seen up there on Three-Martyrs Way. Somebody would have taken it by now for sure. Such a fine stove. He thought of the doctor who had let him escape. And the goat herd. And the women who had been crying. And the other women who had been walking on the left side of the road. And that little boy with the television on his head. He stayed silent. Gathered in another corner speaking in quiet whispers were three divers from a team that had been working the river last night. They were huddled and hadn’t seen Kazemi and he didn’t want to break in on them just yet. Their grief would allow room for him in a little while. They had to take care of themselves for the time being. Three teams. More than thirty-six men, counting the leaders. And only four divers, including himself, had come back. He wondered if the other three had been seen by doctors too.
They all heard Madani’s booming voice at the threshold telling them to put on their boots and meet him in his office instead. Madani must have thought the same thing-the mosque left too much empty space now for just five people. Then Kazemi heard his name called and he kept his face turned from the three divers. He began counting. Just odd numbers, starting from 3 and increasing in multiples of 3 so that they would remain odd numbers. It was a game his father had invented for him, one that Kazemi had played with himself all through fifth grade. 3, 9, 15, 21, 27, 33…
Let them think he was praying. His fellow divers wouldn’t be able to hear him and tell the difference. Besides, he could switch to the Fourteen Innocents anytime he wanted to.
Let them think he was praying. His fellow divers wouldn’t be able to hear him and tell the difference. Besides, he could switch to the Fourteen Innocents anytime he wanted to. He didn’t want to talk to anyone right now. He didn’t want anyone to kiss his cheeks or his forehead or his hands. He didn’t want sympathy or brotherly love. Not quite just yet. He’d left that kid in the water and he lost the thread of his numbers after 87. He pictured the Periodic Table. Hydrogen, Helium, Lithium. It was his father who had made him memorize that too.
Besides Brother Madani, who was standing directly in front of him just then, there was no one else left in the battalion mosque. He’d been keeping count but lost count of the time here.
“What has happened to you, son? Look me in the face.”
Kazemi did. “I’m hungry.”
“Is that all?”
“I’ve gone bad.”
“Yes, you have.”
“It started before last night I think.”
Kazemi reminded the other man of that day in the tunnels.
“What about that day?” Madani asked patiently. “That day turned out beautiful.”
Kazemi nodded. “But, that day, I saw one of our wounded on my way back. I couldn’t see his face, but I could hear him. He was speaking in broken Arabic to the enemy. I understood everything he said.”
“What? What did he say?”
“He didn’t want them to kill him. He wanted them to bring him an officer. He said he’d give them information if they spared his life.”
Madani’s face had darkened. “And what did you do about that?”
“I listened. I waited there and watched and listened and I still couldn’t tell who this traitor was. But I wanted to know. I had to know. So I hid and waited until the officer came. And do you know what? Whoever it was, he’d planned it all along. He blew himself and the officer and the soldiers up.”
Madani smiled. “Like I said, it was a beautiful day and whoever this young man was – may he rest in peace-he did a beautiful thing. He’s in the right place now. He’s in heaven.” Madani grabbed Kazemi’s wrist and held it. “Do you understand me?”
“No. I mean, I didn’t want him to blow himself up like that. I wanted him to be a traitor.”
“Why, son? Why?”
“Because I’d never seen one. Not like that anyway. I wanted the satisfaction. Then I would have taken my grenade out and sent them all to hell. I was unhappy with his sacrifice.”
Kazemi knew Brother Madani was watching him with all the concern in the world and when the older man asked him what he was doing with his lips he told the truth. “I’m counting.”
“Odd numbers. Chemical elements. The martyrs. My footsteps. My strokes in the water. The prayers I’ve promised to the Fourteen Innocents.”
“How many did you promise?”
“That’s good.” Madani let go of the wrist. “Sit here. Do five hundred for now. Then meet me in my office. You’ll be all right. Counting is not the worse thing in the world. And counting your prayers brings blessings.”
“And the waves?”
“I don’t care about them. Do you?”
Kazemi shook his head.
“It was a mistake they sent you to the hospital. You must believe this. I’ve told you something like this before: the waves, they’re not for us. They’re for people who have the luxury to have them. They’re for people who have the time to think they need a doctor. Now start your five hundred. You’ll have twenty-five hundred more to do later on.”
Kazemi started as soon as Brother Madani was gone from the mosque and he was left alone. It was easy now to keep ahead of the count since they were not in multiples of three’s anymore. Then as he got to the fortieth recitation for the Fourteen Innocents he felt a shivering in his bones, like the first days of diving practice in Karun River’s muddy waters, and he gritted his teeth hard against each other and he bore down and focused. And he went on with the prayer count, thankful now that he owed so many of them-forty-one, forty-two, forty-three, forty-four.
Salar Abdoh was born in Iran and currently lives in New York City. He is the author of two novels, The Poet Game and Opium. The story, The Waves, has as its background the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980′s, one of the longest lasting and most brutal wars of the 20th century.
The author wishes to thank the PSC-CUNY grant foundation for their support.