Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Short story sample - The Sheik's Daughter

Hello, interwebz. I'm finishing up a 30-page short story entitled The Sheik's Daughter, and figured I'd share a selection. You know, for feedback and such. It's like a digital workshop, with anonymity instead of donut holes. Anyways ...

The Sheik’s Daughter
Author’s Note: Do I believe the following events happened? Not really. Not in the way chronicled, at least. I spent a tour of duty in this very same Iraqi village, only a couple years later, and walked the same streets, knew the same people, slept in the same outpost. Some of this will seem dubious, and maybe even impossible. That’s certainly how I reacted when I first heard it. And yet … and yet there’s still a magic there when Shaba’s name gets mentioned. Still a sense of awe, as if saying his name too loudly will bring him back. And it wasn’t just the locals who acted like that. The American unit we replaced did, too. So maybe there’s something to this, after all. And if the people who were there say this is what happened, who am I to say otherwise? When there’s no victor left to write a proper history, those of us still here should simply be thankful that any piece of the story remains.

I.
While the American brushfire wars raged on in late 2006, the men of Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, 48th Infantry Regiment hunkered down for the winter in their combat outpost, a large compound in the center of a village. They knew that their enemy, the nameless and faceless and numberless insurgent, did not like to attack in weather this cold. This village, called Ashuriyah by the locals, sat close enough to Baghdad to be a part of the everlong sectarian battles, but far enough away that any connection with the great Iraqi metropolis, be them guerilla or counterinsurgent, got severed by sand dunes and isolation and apathy. The fact was, no war would be won or lost in Ashuriyah, but the fighting would continue there, nonetheless. Just not now. Not during the winter.
The men of Bravo Company knew this because Farrell had told them so. Farrell was one of their own, a staff sergeant who served as a squad leader for Bravo Company’s first platoon, but the local Iraqis called him “Shaba” – the Ghost. During a late-night mission, one of his many contacts had approached him at a street corner. In a hushed, whispered conversation, the contact explained that both the Shi’a insurgents of Jaish al-Mahdi and the Sunni insurgents of Al-Qaeda had brokered a temporary peace between one another for the upcoming three months. They had approached him, he explained to Farrell, “to learn if Shaba and the Americans wanted this peace, too. It is too cold to fight.”
Unlike every other soldier in Ashuriyah, Farrell didn’t need an interpreter to speak with the Iraqis. He had taught himself Arabic over the course of his previous deployment. It was a part of the reason the locals loved him and the insurgents feared him; they had never known an American who could communicate directly with them. On more than one occasion, he had learned the whereabouts of wanted men, simply by playing dumb and listening to the chatter of the populace, who had grown used to talking about the Americans right in front of their faces without them knowing about it. Due to his sharp black hair and brown skin and slight stature, many in the village even whispered that he was actually one of their own, the son of a rich Iraqi family that bought their way out of the Middle East to escape Saddam and his secret police. Actually half-Bolivian and half-Irish, when asked about his heritage, Shaba sometimes encouraged these rumors with a wink, though never with words. Those who knew him best described him as an emotional jack-in-the-box – no matter what poking and prodding occurred, he rarely expressed himself. When he did, such occurred on his own terms, and usually in a burst of raw spontaneity.
Farrell looked across the street at the two officers on the patrol – Captain Tilsdale and Lieutenant Robbins – and told his contact that, “yes, the Americans agree. We won’t attack as long as they don’t attack us.” Farrell knew that Lieutenant Robbins, his platoon leader, would understand and agree. Captain Tilsdale, Bravo Company’s commander and the ranking man in Ashuriyah, wouldn’t, but Farrell knew he wouldn’t even notice the protracted change in operations. The captain tended to spend his time and energy on preparing PowerPoint slides for meetings with Higher, and spent many days away from the outpost at the large forward operating base, located one hour away, where the comforts of hot showers and large chow halls and the gym existed.

II.
   Later that night, while standing on the outpost’s roof, alone, Farrell explained the brokered deal to his lieutenant. He liked his platoon leader, but like he did with most officers, he found Lieutenant Robbins to be lazy and prone to utilizing delegation as a crutch.
“Sir,” Farrell said, “we only have five months left. This will cover most of that time. Bravo Company has already lost twelve men. We’ve done our part.”
“Hmm.” The lieutenant muttered while thinking, and hoped it made him sound pensive. He did not care for the war or about the war. He simply wanted to get home to his wife and two young sons, and get his soldiers home, too. He considered joining the military the biggest mistake of his life, and looked forward to crunching numbers mindlessly in a cubicle someday. Unlike the captain – who told all of his junior officers that true leaders of men were the biggest and strongest guys around – Lieutenant Robbins also didn’t care much for lifting weights. His body type resembled that of a roly poly, and the members of his platoon affectionately called him “Lieutenant Bitch Tits,” something he didn’t necessarily mind. He had heard worse nicknames for officers from soldiers.
“We’re not really setting up the next unit for success,” the lieutenant eventually said.
“Sir, you know how it is. They’re gonna get tested and blown up that first month, no matter what we do. It always happens. It happened with us and it’ll happen with them and it’ll happen with the guys that replace them.”
“Hmm.” The lieutenant tugged at his bottom lip and stroked his slung rifle. “Think they’ll stick to it?”
“Who?”
“The bad guys. Al-Qaeda. Jaish al-Mahdi. Think they’ll stick to it?”
Farrell leaned back, shrugged his shoulders, and pulled out a pouch of chewing tobacco. After putting a pinch in his mouth, he offered some to Lieutenant Robbins, who said no and shook his head. Farrell took a deep breath and then spoke in a slur, due to the wad of tobacco nestled in his cheeks. “I don’t know about the Shi’as. Jaish al-Mahdi – at least here – isn’t very well organized. But I think the Sunnis will. Sheik Ahmed made the call on this, not al-Qaeda. They’ll just have to go along with it. Even they won’t defy him.”
In an effort to avoid eye contact, both men looked out into the black, beyond the T-wall barriers and mazes of razor wire that surrounded the outpost. Pale, blinking lights were scattered sporadically across the village, as only those locals wealthy enough to purchase their own generators received consistent electricity.
   A blood moon hung over Ashuriyah, staining the horizon in a crusty splotch. Farrell remembered the last time he had seen a moon like this, back in Afghanistan, sometime in 2003. Or had it been 2004? The deployments were starting to blur.
“You trust Sheik Ahmed?” Lieutenant Robbins asked.
“Definitely.”
The lieutenant snickered, the type of snicker that betrayed a feeling other than amusement. “Be careful, Sergeant Farrell. Even though I’d swear under oath that I don’t, I know what’s going on and where you go at night after missions.” He rubbed his own arms and shivered, even though the winter’s chill this night could hardly be described as such. “It’s cold. I’m heading back inside. Remember, tomorrow morning’s patrol brief is at 10.”
Farrell avoided the temptation to blink, counted silently to three, and then spoke. “Hey, Sir,” he called out to the backside of his lieutenant, who subsequently turned around. “Listen to the village. No gunfire tonight.”
The lieutenant nodded. “I noticed. It’s a welcome change. But the guys will all figure it out. Don’t think they won’t. You should be the one to explain it to them, so they hear it from you and trust the change.” Then he spun back around and walked into the outpost. Farrell stayed on the roof.

8 comments:

  1. I want more! order medication Revia and get guaranty of confidentiality about your personality and purchases

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  2. Outstanding..it's a book in the making..I would buy it

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  3. Very clever!!! See? You CAN write is a different voice. I remember you were concerned, but not to worry! This is a great start. Do we get to see more? Please?

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  4. Uneven. Some of the exposition sets the mood, some of it makes things read like a Tom Clancy novel. I would err on the side of letting things be a little mysterious. And get rid of the line about deployments blurring together, it's hackneyed and sticks out badly.

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  5. You caught my attention. I would read more. I agree with Max - deployments blurring together - you find that line in many novels.

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  6. Not sure why it's become trendy to hate on exposition - Hemingway wrote pages and pages of exposition, and that didn't seem to hurt his short stories.

    Also, the deployment line isn't hackneyed. It's not necessary, but it's not hackneyed.

    Only thing I'd caution you about is the commander character - seems too easy, though perhaps you flesh him out later in the story.

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  7. Cosign Max J. and Marian, but the real problem with "the deployments were starting to blur" isn't that it is a novel cliche, it's that it's a pulp novel cliche. To me, the greatest virtue of your writing about Iraq is that you walk (what I imagine to be) the cultural line of today's American soldier (or sailor or marine or airman); you are a leading voice in the most connective aspect of American culture, the internet, yet you tell the story of an aggressively and unfairly disconnected segment of the population, our military. Giving a civilian audience some familiar literary markers to help them orient themselves in the story of Iraq isn't the biggest sin in the world, but when those markers denote a genre that is not only based in unreality but in the almost gleeful unreality of pulp novels it seems to betray the basic premise of your writing. People will have a hard time accepting your version of realism if you're pointing them towards understanding your writing through a prism that explicitly rejects realism.

    I don't know if that made any sense, but writing it was certainly more interesting than my philosophy 101 lecture. Moral of the story, you've got a great piece here that's in need of one monster line edit.

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  8. Some good parts, some rather hackneyed exposition as said above. Kill the bit about the sergeant being known as "the ghost", it's a comic-book like affectation. Try to zero in on what it was actually like to be in that village. All that said, I'd still want to read more after reading this sample, so it does what it's supposed to do.

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