There is a stick in the ground with a cardboard sign taped to it that says,
A man, who is not an American but wears one of their uniforms, reads the sign aloud for those who are illiterate: “If you cross this line, you will be shot!”
The prisoners murmur, look gloomily at each other.
“Are you a Kurd?” asks an angry man who has been angry since they brought him here.
“I am,” replies the man in the American uniform.
“Traitor!” the angry man yells and spits at the Kurd’s feet. It makes a thump like a marble when it lands. “Saddam will destroy you with the rest of the invaders.”
The Kurd looks at the saliva—a dense white orb in a halo of orange dust—then back at the American soldier standing nearby. The American has a big rifle and bright white teeth that pound a wad of gum (he does not notice it has lost its flavor). He rolls it to his other cheek, sucks at it, shakes his head as if warning a son.
The Kurd bites the inside of his lip, tears a bit of flesh, continues: “The only exception to this rule will be if you are commanded to cross this line. Food and water will be brought to you. If you need medical attention you will be taken to a physician. You may not ask to use the latrine but will be escorted as a group twice daily to do so.”
The Kurd spits a fleck of something white and goes away, leaving the prisoners with the American and his big rifle. The angry man glares at him.
“He is Republican Guard,” whispers a prisoner with a missing boot, talking about the angry man. “A loyalist to the core. He will certainly get us killed with his talk. Perhaps they will remove him, God willing.” He tugs at the laces of his remaining boot, determined not to lose it.
“You do not believe what he says?” asks another man.
“That Iraq will win? No. Do you?”
The other only shrugs.
“Frankly,” says the man with one boot, still tugging, “I wish the Americans would just get it over with so that I can go home to my family. God willing.”
“Keep quiet,” says a nervous man who is listening to the conversation. “They’ll hear.”
Their prison is not entirely a prison. More like a pen for keeping livestock, hastily erected in the sun. It consists of four tall posts in the sand, three walls made of razor wire, and a fourth wall that exists because the Americans say that it exists. The line that is not to be crossed marks where it is. The desert winds are always erasing the line, which makes the Americans a little uneasy. They redraw it twice a day, which makes the prisoners a little uneasy. The prisoners watch as an American redraws the line. He is young, has pink cheeks, smiles as he goes. They watch him silently because they are not allowed to speak. They watch, and they wonder why it makes him smile to draw the line.
“Why do they smile?” the prisoner with one boot whispers. “Are they so happy that we are here?”
“Keep your voice down,” says the nervous one, who has seen smiling soldiers before. He does not like it when they smile. A smiling soldier can only mean trouble.
The young American is not aware of the man’s fear of smiling soldiers. He does not smile for anyone’s benefit but his own. He smiles because the psych officer told him that it is hard to imagine one’s own death when smiling. He is only nineteen and too young to imagine his own death, the psych officer said. (The psych officer is a twenty-eight-year-old captain who is also often smiling.)
“I wish they would stop all the smiling,” says the man with one boot.
“Do you want them to hear?” says the man afraid of smiling soldiers.
Later in the day an old man is brought in through the fourth wall. Nearly blind in both eyes, the irises milky and blue. He is bent at the center, the spine at a near right angle, which gives him a severe hobble. The American who is often smiling holds him up by the armpits, almost tenderly. He speaks softly in English to the old man, who nods as if he can understand. But everyone knows that he cannot.
“Such an old man to be fighting,” whispers the man with one boot. “Saddam is getting desperate.”
“Shut up,” says the man afraid of smiling soldiers.
The American helps the old man to his seat in the dirt, mumbles some more English words to which the old man nods. He is trembling, and the American is uncertain if this is due to fear or extreme old age. (He does not know that the old man is only fifty-seven.)
The American with the big rifle yells something like a taunt at the American who is often smiling. He has lingered among the prisoners for too long, and his smile goes jagged, a rough tear in his face. His blue eyes slide, pause on each prisoner as if searching for veins of precious metal in their skin. Then they arrive at the angry man, who has just awakened from a nap to find the enemy within his reach. They gaze at each other silently, and the bond between time and space momentarily dissolves. The blood in their veins turns to glass, and the grains of sand that were colliding with their skin seconds before are now suspended just above the surface, floating in micro orbits.
Then the old man coughs, rattling the space around them and giving time a chance to catch up. The American who is often smiling turns back to him and kneels at his side, whispering. The old man nods as if to say, “Hm, yes.”
When the American retreats through the fourth wall, the old man is still trembling, his face hung toward a spot between his knees, his head rising and falling with each labored breath. It wobbles when it comes back down, as if ready to snap off at the neck.
Watching this for some time, the angry man grows angrier.
“You look frightened, old man,” he says in a distant tone like far off thunder.
The old man does not look up.
“You shiver like a dog. Are you worried they will beat you if you do not obey?”
Still, the old man is silent, hands trembling between his legs.
“Did you hear me? Or are your dog ears as useless as your dog eyes?”
“If you are so fearless,” says the man with one boot, “why don’t you cross their line?” The angry man spins around, searching desperately for his challenger.
“You are afraid too,” he says to no one in particular, “aren’t you? You have no faith in your president. You are just as bad as this old sniveling dog. When the rest of my unit arrives—”
“The rest of your unit? Why were they not captured with you? Have they abandoned you, just as your president has abandoned his people?”
The angry man charges, kicking wildly at the man with one boot, who turns and receives the blow to his back.
“Sit down!” says the man afraid of smiling soldiers. “Do you want to get us all killed? They are watching.”
“Let them watch,” yells the angry man, making hollow thuds with his boot. “Let them smirk. They will not be smirking when they are dead.”
“Ikhras!” yells the American with the big rifle. But the angry man will not listen.
“Do not fear the invaders,” he yells, pointing at the American. “Saddam will make them burn for their desecration of the homeland.”
“Ikhras!” the American shouts again.
“Did you hear him?” says the man afraid of smiling soldiers. “He said shut up!”
“Why are you afraid?” the angry man shouts. “Why will you not stand up to them?”
More Americans gather, their weapons ready. The American with the big rifle is shouting now in English because ikhras is the only Arabic word he knows: “You better sit down, motherfucker!” The angry man turns to him because motherfucker is the only English word he knows.
“Saddam will destroy you and avenge his people!”
The man with one boot is lying on his side, pressing at his back. “Did Saddam avenge us the last time they came?” he asks, wincing. “Did he not take his vengeance out upon his own people?”
The angry man kicks at the man with one boot again, this time in the stomach. It forces bile up into the man’s throat, and he vomits, curls up, and writhes like an injured centipede in the dust.
“Liar!” shouts the angry man. “Saddam has always protected his people. Those who are loyal to his nation.”
“You must not stand,” yells the Kurd, who has been summoned by the Americans and is panting between his words. “You must stay seated and remain silent.”
The angry man glares wildly at the Kurd. The Kurd is sweating profusely. The American with the big rifle is gnawing his flavorless gum. The American who is often smiling is not smiling. The man with one boot is retching into the dirt. The man who fears smiling soldiers is frantically watching for any sign of a smile.
“You will be destroyed too, Kurd,” yells the angry man, “you and all your people.”
“Sit down, now!” shouts the Kurd. “You will not be told again. Do you understand?”
The angry man falls silent, thinks a moment, his body swaying. Then he sits in the dirt. But everyone fears he will not stay silent for long.
Later, the Kurd says, “Form a line!”
The prisoners stand, form a line.
“Not you,” he tells the angry man. “You stay here.”
The angry man glares at him through the fourth wall, angrily.
All of the prisoners except for the angry man are escorted across the camp by the American with the big rifle and the American who is often smiling. The prisoners shuffle in a line, each with a hand on the shoulder in front of him. In the back trails the old man, struggling to keep up. He is mumbling to himself, trying to catch his breath.
“I wish that old man would stop his praying,” the man with one boot whispers, ignoring the pain in his bare foot.
The man afraid of smiling soldiers is not concerned with the old man’s mumbling. He is only concerned with the Americans and whether or not they smile beneath the rags on their faces. The rags are for keeping out the stink, which emanates from a trench up ahead that is filled with human feces. The Americans have tried to dilute the smell with diesel fuel, but that has only worsened it. And so they wear their rags.
At the edge of the trench, the prisoners line up, staring into the soup—a pale brown liquid with an oil slick on the surface, a prism changing colors in the sun. The stench is unbearable—worse for those barefaced—so they hold their breath, listen to the old man’s mumbling, which has progressed into a steady moan. Every man in the line, standing shoulder to shoulder, can feel his trembling now, passing through them like a dull current. A swarm of black flies hums in a sphere nearby, the collective tone of a thousand tiny wings beating. It is almost deafening, this low mechanical drone, and it has a hypnotic effect so that the large, bent object that goes flying into the latrine and splashes shit up onto the bank goes largely unnoticed.
“Allāhu Akbar!” shouts a voice shortly after the object goes in, and at the same instant a sound like a woman wailing jars everyone from their malaise. A moment later and the realization spreads that the flying object was the old man, who has jumped into the latrine, and the sound like a woman wailing is laughter coming from the American with the big rifle. He is doubled over, laughing his highpitched laugh and pointing at the old man, who stands waist high in liquid excrement, his face turned down, his fingers locked behind his head—the position he has learned is customary—and his prayers echoing off the liquid’s surface.
“Allāhu Akbar!” he screams, ensuring God will hear him. (He knows He will be watching the execution, for God is concerned with such things.)
“Look at that!” yells the American with the big rifle, clutching his gut. “He just jumped right the fuck in!”
The other prisoners had been preparing to urinate when the old man jumped, and they now hold their penises in their hands, dumbly watching. The American who is often smiling is not at the moment and as a consequence begins imagining his own death (although he knows he is too young to do so). He is wondering what it would be like to die standing in a pool of feces. Feeling the explosion of pressure in the back of his brain, the white–hot burning that would spread in microseconds, and the sinking into human waste, boiled by the desert sun.
“Allāhu Akbar!” cries the old man. “Allāhu Akbar!”
“Look at him!” says the American with the big rifle, the rag on his face slipping. “Look at him go! You ever seen a thing like that?”
But the American who is often smiling does not answer. He is too busy wondering what might flash into his mind in that last instant before all brain activity stops, leaving him an inanimate lump at the bottom. Would he see the faces of his loved ones? Of his mother or his father? His little sister? Or maybe the nude body of Susan Biggle rising above him in the backseat of his Sentra? (A going away present, she’d called it.) Or would he see the shattered leg of Marco Guerra after he helped six other guys roll a disabled Humvee off it? Not one shot fired and poor Marco gets his leg crushed.
He thinks that he must choose. That there wouldn’t be time for them all. But what he could never imagine is that none of this would be encoded in the final transmissions of his dimming synapses, because all of the resources that his nervous system had that were not damaged by the bullet would be allocated to the realization that he was immersed in a river of shit, monopolizing the last bit of voltage his sodium channels had left. There would be no images of his family, or of his last sexual encounter, or even of poor Marco’s segmented leg. Just electrochemical panic as the shit rushed in, seeped into every orifice, every cell, until the world went from brown to black to nothing. (Nothing, incidentally, is not blackness, but nothingness. This too, he could never imagine.)
“Allāhu Akbar!” cries the old man, interrupting all of this imagining.
“Stupid haji!” yells the American with the big rifle.
The American who is often smiling grabs the prisoner who is afraid of smiling soldiers by the arm and begs him with his mind to tell the old man about his mistake, that he is not on the brink of an execution but was brought here only to take a leak. But the man who is afraid of smiling soldiers cannot read minds and is too afraid to pay attention even if he could. So the American who is often smiling gets on all fours and leans into the latrine, gagging into his rag, and grabs the old man by the armpit. The old man’s praying finally stops when he feels the hand, and he peers up into the American’s face that looks like a blob because he is nearly blind. Then he looks up at the blob that is doubled over laughing and then at the row of blobs standing just above him, holding their penises in their hands. He cannot see their expressions of disapproval, but he knows that they are there.
The prisoners are back behind the fourth wall, and the angry man is gone. He was removed by an American with a beard and a New York Yankees hat while they were at the latrine, so the Kurd tells them. He does not know where the angry man was taken, although he wishes that he did. Not even the Americans know where the angry man was taken. All they know is that he did not protest, nor did he glare angrily when he was taken, and they all agree the event was quite anticlimactic.
The prisoners huddle close together, as far from the old man as possible. He is sitting alone in the corner, reeking of shit and diesel fuel. His lower half is coated in excrement, and one sandal is missing, stuck in the viscous sludge at the bottom of the latrine. He rocks back and forth, silently, no longer praying.
The prisoners are told that they will be transported to a different camp with new Americans the following day. The man with one boot would normally have been troubled to hear this, but instead he is indifferent because he no longer wears one Iraqi boot, but two American boots. They were given to him by the American with the big rifle, although that fact is disputed.
“That sneaky haji?” says the American with the big rifle. “He probably stole them off a dead man.”
The man who is afraid of smiling soldiers is reevaluating his fear, wondering if it isn’t better to fear frowning soldiers. But secretly he hopes that the new soldiers do not smile either.
The American who is often smiling decides not to listen to the psych officer anymore. He figures it is impossible to avoid imagining one’s own death, just as it is impossible to maintain a perpetual smile.
The prisoners never see him—or his smile—again, and that night the line marking the fourth wall vanishes almost entirely without him there to draw it.
This makes everyone a little uneasy.
David Tucholski is a student in the MFA program at George Mason University. He lives in Warrenton, Virginia, with his wife, two children, and one obnoxious—but lovable—Labrador named Joe. His short fiction has appeared in the Potomac Review, and at the current time, he labors over what he hopes will become a finished novel.
“The Fourth Wall” appears in our Winter 2011 issue.