H.O.W. Contest Winners, Fiction edition

HOW is proud to present the winners of our 2011 fiction and poetry contests. All winners’ work will appear in Issue #9 of HOW.

The fiction contest was judged by award winning author Mary Gaitskill.  For our third place prize, she chose “Seeing Makes Them Happy” by Jacqueline Kharouf.

“Seeing Makes Them Happy”

In the morning, Aymen takes a journalist and the platoon to Doura, a southern section of Baghdad where Sunni and Shiite insurgents wage ground war.  The whole neighborhood has divided against itself and the US army has decided to abate the conflict before it gets too far.

Aymen follows the journalist, who wants to talk to some of the locals.  He wears the vest and helmet, listening and translating, but also scanning the quiet buildings at their backs.  The old man they meet shifts his feet and wrings his hands.  He does not wear a turban and his sweat-soaked hair shimmers in the heat.

You should not be here, the man keeps repeating in Arabic.  Tell them this is the time to go.  Sweat slips down his neck, soaks into the front of his t-shirt.

Aymen pulls the journalist by the wrist and says, Go—go.  He doesn’t look back until they are sitting in the Humvee.  The old man wrings his hands, shuddering.

Small bits of roof and plaster, metal pieces of car and glass clatter around the shards of a body.  Aymen sees legs—busted—coated in dirt.  Brighter than the sun, a fireball hangs in Aymen’s eyes—a huge green patch he cannot blink away immediately.  The parked car against the closest building where they were standing rises on the horizon and bellows and only then he remembers the old man.

Less than a week later, Aymen finds a handwritten note taped to his apartment door.  He lights a candle, closes the curtains.  “Traitor,” the note says.  “We will torture and kill you for your crimes.”

It is April 2003.  Sarah is sleeping in the next room with the door closed and Aymen thinks to keep the note, but packs their few belongings instead, loosening the linoleum tiles where he has hidden the last of their money and the crucifixes she doesn’t want anyone to see.  He argues that to really avoid suspicion, she should wear a hijab, but she tells him she never will, shaking her ink black hair so that other women turn and stare, so that their hijabs tug against the hair pins they use to keep them in place.

He thinks back to that morning in Doura and wonders, waiting outside the door to the bedroom, but who had been left to see, to follow, to leave this note?

The next day, Aymen holds Sarah’s hand, motioning for the cars to slow down, to notice.  Her skin is papery thin against his and the traffic heats around them, dry, unrelenting.  A slow dark space folds around her eyes as the horns and starts of the taxis blast behind them, or come up too fast from between buildings.  Aymen wants to stop in the middle of the street, press his hands over her ears, take away the echoes, and bring the night with its chilly silences before the curfew.  Wishing night held Baghdad, he pulls her closer, his hand wrapped close to her armpit, and leads her along the narrow, crumbling cement, past the vendors with thick beards and eyes rolling bloodshot with their mouths, calling in anyone to buy a scrap, a dirty tank top, a hijab fading in the off-white morning.  There are palm trees and more cars, dust as old as time—floating in circles or spinning under the wheels of trucks loaded with boys and golden bullets—and Aymen imagines exposing Sarah to a danger he cannot stop, even if he sees it coming.  His only plan is that in order to protect her, she has to leave without him.  She must escape to Jordan first.  There she’ll wait for him until they can leave together, flying from Amman to the United States.

The US Embassy in Baghdad is on the corner, only a few yards away now, and still the sound is a plume over them, sitting on his shoulders so that he shudders and squeezes her hand more than he knows she likes.  Sarah stops as he does this, leaning into him.  She smells like jasmine and soft crushed flowers, even in the overheated coils of garbage and sewage.  Blood splatter dries on the side of the building across the street, but Aymen doesn’t close his eyes.  While her hair is warm against his face, he thinks how he should regret what he is, or what she is—how he should tell her he’s never loved her, that he’s been secretly betrothed all this time, that even though he promised himself for her, he was lying.  He cradles her head in both his hands and thinks to do it.  Her eyes are blue, blackened at the rims, creased with the time they lost—the time in which they could have been together had the world been different, had this war receded like a stone won over by the wind.

She smiles, all cheeks and dimples, and her fingers are cool and sweaty as she pushes his hair from his forehead.  You’ll see, she says.  I’ll be in Amman by the morning.

He bows his head, full and empty at the same time.

Her hair flutters, each strand distinct, like scripts of letters and words streaming across her eyes.  He knows it will not be enough, but he presses again into her, struggling to hold her to him.  The heartbeat from her chest flows out, quaking on her lips and tongue, and even as she’s there, her body a pounding tunneling through his, he feels how easily she could come apart.

That evening, Aymen moves into a new apartment full of rickety furniture.  Gifts, the landlord tells him, from looters.  The apartment is the last unit on the sixth floor of one of those tower blocks lining Haifa Street, a main highway running along the west bank of the Tigris.  He lights candles, hunching close to them after the electricity shuts off for the night so that he can read the books and tattered newspapers he has collected from emptied cafés.  When he can find them, he reads books in English, and books that are cheaper now because of violence in the Market District—threats and car bombs that keep customers away.  On his days off, he studies in Mutanabi Booksellers, just memorizing the page numbers where he’s stopped reading, daring not to fold the corners in case the owner finds out and makes him buy the books outright.

During the night, he hears shouting and screams, voices hollowed through the walls, and in the morning there are bodies in the street, in the courtyard, the shoes still hugging their feet and blood thinning in the puddles.

The next day is April 9, 2003.  The platoon officer opens a navy blue folder and hands Aymen a map with a route outlined in yellow highlighter.  Today’s coordinates, he says.  Aymen calls him “sir” like the rest of the men, lowering his gaze from the man’s buzzed blond hair.  Aymen doesn’t like the stare from this man, the sparseness of his pale features, but he will hold it if he has to, speaking slowly so that he understands exactly where they need to go.  They stand in the barracks—or in the short corridor between them—and there is a gray collection of newspaper on the floor.  We’re passing out food and pamphlets today, the officer says.  Aymen reads the script again, even though he knows most of it already, and mentally deletes the portions about what has improved.  He does not ever tell the people that everything is OK—even when the Americans ask him to—because even if he tells them, this is something he cannot translate yet.

He hands the officer a few forms he needs him to sign, proving that he has completed this mission, proving his services to the United States and the new Iraq.  He has forms and applications for his visa, a long list of things he still hasn’t received: three letters of recommendation, his most recent academic records, his birth certificate translated into English, but he also has his own record of what happened, dates and events scrawled into journals and notebooks.  Leaving his apartment that day he wrapped everything in plastic grocery bags so he wouldn’t get unwanted attention on the street.

The first time Aymen went on this kind of mission he tried to thank the officer for his generosity.  The officer shook his hand, but told Aymen it wasn’t anything really to do with kindness.  He does not wear the helmet now.  The officer offers and Aymen says no because he wants the people to see who he is.  He knows the other soldiers take it as a good sign when he doesn’t wear it.  Their strides are more relaxed—still cautious, hands always near their weapons—but something loosens in the muscles around their jaws.  Something is less heavy than it should be.

After these forms are signed, Aymen sits in the open hatch of a US Army infantry tank, shouting into a loudspeaker.  This is food, he says, this is the goodwill of the American peacemakers.  Aymen holds the bullhorn in his left hand, swaying with the tank, and brings his right hand back and forth through the air as though he is quelling the desert wind.  The waving is redundant, he knows, but he does it anyway, ignoring the weight in his shoulder, the new pulling that stretches from his elbow to the back of his hand.  He makes a fist in the air and the men on the street do the same.  Then there are boys running alongside the tanks and Humvees, shouting “Hello!  Hello!” because it is all the English they can say.

They turn the corner to see a group of Marines, a horde of photographers and the rope snapping taut as the bronze statue of Saddam Hussein comes down in Firdos Square.  A small score of his countrymen use hammers and bits of wood to beat the metal after it has fallen.  And while he watches that—captured under a blaze of cameras and words—he thinks back to yesterday, when he watched Sarah board a bus that would take her Jordan.  The sun was setting and something inside him was beginning to collapse: the knowledge of being able to survive fading and in its place the dread that his survival had cost too much.

After Firdos Square—after watching Marines pull down Saddam Hussein with a rope and a tank, the bronze face of the dictator draped first in an American flag, then an Iraqi one—he stands in the hallway of his apartment building on Haifa Street.  The door to his unit is wide open, the lock and the door frame have been scraped away like someone has taken a crowbar to it.

In the hallway, he creeps up to the edge of the door, crouches to his knees, and looks inside from the bottom of the frame.  His cot is collapsed in on itself, all six legs in the air like an overturned beetle.  The chair is on its side and some of his books lay open on the dusty floor.  He holds his breath, but he can’t hear anything.  Aymen finds a CD taped to the center of the card table.

His hands don’t shake when he pulls the tape from the CD, even though he’s heard of CDs left like this before.  Aymen takes his laptop from the loose ceiling tile above his bed, thinking how he could throw the CD away, but he needs to know who, or what, is on it.  He plays it, telling himself it is just like before, just like watching when the bomb exploded, standing in the yard behind his parents’ house, watching when the shrapnel flew and struck his father in the head; it is like hearing about his brother, knowing the exact route he took when he had walked home too late that night, finding out later he’d been pulled into the back of a van.

In the pixilated video on Aymen’s laptop, Sarah says his name, over and over again.  The image sticks and freezes into square chunks, zoomed into her hands tied in her lap, the blood running down her chin, half of her hair cut or shaved.  The sound and image buffer, stop-motion snippets at her clothes covered in sweat and dirt and reddish stains, the blurry haze of the rope around her neck.  Aymen sinks into the chair at his card table.  The sound scratches through his speakers, a high distended whistling that breaks when the image resumes and he can count four men in the background.  Black hoods cover their faces, ruffled loosely down their chests.  The one farthest on the right holds up a long curved knife.  The image blurs and something like a dark cloud starts and stops to cover Sarah’s head.  The man with the knife throws his head back in jerks and pulls like his limbs are on strings.  The video pauses, and Aymen is close to the screen now, holding it in both his hands as the image breaks through and the man’s laughter, throaty, deliberate, puffs up the cowl where it covers his mouth and the hint of his eyes barely flash through the slits.  He draws the machete under the brown, fuzzy coil of rope, and the screams start and stop until the video pixilates, flashes, and fades black.

The floor is dirty and yellow.  His lungs are still paused in exhale, clotted, too-thick.  He thinks, No, but they will be coming back, and he wonders if he should just let them.  He stands, but he does not change his clothes or comb his hair, his dark eyes glaring at him from the bathroom mirror.  He stares through the window until the sky is almost fully light and blue, until there are the honks of cars instead of guns, taxis crisscrossing the dirty streets, until there is only garbage, dogs, and rubble, the shot bodies turning white in the sun.

At the American Embassy in Amman, Aymen uses the English he learned at school and from years of listening to British radio programs.  I was a translator, he tells the woman at reception, for the US Army.  A name tag engraved with the word “Bonnie” sits on the desk.  He shows her his paperwork to apply for the lottery visa, his credentials, his letters and recorded expeditions with troops signed by the officer on duty.  He all but describes how they’d say “Tell him this,” and unfold maps of streets where he and his brother had played football with other boys as the quick nights fell, places marked by metal gates locked over storefronts, buildings cluttered in wiry balconies, and dirty palm trees.  They never made me carry a gun, he tells her.  Bonnie unfolds all the documents and arranges them square across the table.

In the entryway, the floor is glossy.  Sunlight flashes when the inner doors swing open, the heels of boots clacking clear and then dampening as they round the corner.  Bright, silken leaves potted in tangled mulch fill the reception and Aymen counts four people folding over newspapers smeared with too-orange, too-red photographs of car bombs.

How do you say your name? she asks.  She wears a silver watch so snug the metal clips squish the pudgy freckled skin.

He lowers his eyes.  His black hair, slick with sweat, sticks to his brow.  It’s like “amen,” he says.  Like when you pray.  He says the “a” softly—like father, like tall.

Aymen, she says and she smiles, but he doesn’t understand.  He is 22 years old, born in the May four years before the war in Kuwait.  When he is alone, he holds his hands to his chest and tries but can’t imagine how fragile this arrangement is.  Just skin, he thinks, the black hair on his chest curved over the seismograph scribble of the scar he got when his father died—a scrap of war that had once burrowed into him and, later, was cut out.

He wants to tell her that his name means truth, that it comes from the Arabic word for “right,” as in “accurate,” as in “fair,” but he only follows Bonnie’s wrists while she collects his papers.  A few children, smiling, clasping the hands of their parents, pass the reception and he finally wonders what he’s tried to avoid thinking ever since he found Sarah’s CD.  How long had Sarah been able to hold onto her belief—how long until she’d regretted ever telling him she’d be here?  He follows the eyes of these children, trying to see how they see.

Jacqueline Kharouf is currently studying for her MFA in creative writing, fiction, at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. A native of Rapid City, SD, Jacqueline lives, writes, and maintains daytime employment in Denver, CO. In 2009, she earned an honorable mention for the Denver Woman’s Press Club Unknown Writer’s Contest, and in 2010 she earned third place for that contest. This past winter, she published her first story, “The Undiscoverable Higgs Boson,” in Issue 4 of Otis Nebula. Jacqueline blogs at: jacquelinekharouf.wordpress.com; tweets holiday appropriate well-wishes and crazy awesome sentences here: @writejacqueline; and would perform a small jig if you liked her Facebook professional page at: Jacqueline Kharouf, writer.

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