Several barefoot Iraqi kids played in the mud, and in the distance the sound of big guns rumbled like an earthquake in successive waves that made one imagine beasts lurking beneath that earth.
The woman came out of her hut, unsmiling but gracious. Somebody had reported that a month earlier she’d cut the heads off two dead enemy combatants.
She offered me bread that she had freshly baked. It had been awhile since I was last in this region. The place had changed hands a few times until the men managed to push the enemy deep into the mountains beyond Tuz Khurma. Up there the sons of bitches would have to be flushed out one at a time and eliminated, and I didn’t mind being a part of that operation.
“Will they pay me?” she asked.
“To film you? Yes. But you didn’t keep the heads, did you?”
She looked crestfallen. “I should have kept them?”
“We must get away from here.”
“But they are coming to make the film. Yes?”
“No…I mean yes. But they are only using you.”
She had a distant resemblance to Atia, and like Atia her cheeks flushed red when she was distraught. I wondered to myself what kind of knife she’d used in order to cut off those heads. Was it difficult? Did anyone see her do it? All we knew was that for several days the outside of her hut was decorated with them, as if it were a set for some gory medieval war film.
“Maybe,” she said hopefully, “they will help me leave this evil land.”
The ground shook and shook. Above us the sound barrier was being broken. Americans? A convoy advanced toward us. A last-ditch desperate battle fought by men who should have given up on this area and taken their war somewhere they could actually fight it. I saw Saeed and his British charge stick their heads out of one of the Toyotas as it zoomed past us.
The Englishman shouted, “Don’t you bloody well lose her!”
I would have shouted back that he could take his cameras and his recorders and his cash and go fuck himself, but now came the inevitable: shrapnel, smoke, the earth shuddering as if a prehistoric giant had stepped on its own toes.
I stood with this woman, Zahra, who was no one’s heroine. If we lived through today, Saeed would film and the Englishman would interview her, and later, if by some grace of luck she managed to leave this “evil land,” she’d probably be implicated in war crimes. Someone with a degree in international law and a regular paycheck would decide that having her four brothers, husband, and three sons killed in front of her was not reason enough for Zahra to take a bit of revenge on a couple of already-dead motherfuckers.
The children who were playing next door a few minutes earlier were gone, as if they’d never existed. The convoy was gone. Saeed and his Brit were gone. It was just me and Zahra the Beheader left in this place, and I didn’t even know if it was a friend or foe that was bombing us.
Nonplussed, she looked at nothing in particular and said, “I don’t care if I die. But will they help me leave Iraq? Please eat the bread while it’s hot. Are they your friends?”
A sharp whistle went over our heads and in the vague distance the ground did a somersault. Bread in hand and half-deaf, half-blind, I told her, “They are not my friends. And now we must leave.”
“We’ll start with Baghdad.”
Her eyes sparkled like a child’s. She repeated “Baghdad” like it was a magic charm. “In Baghdad they will film?”
“Inshallah, they will never film.”