The Man in the Moon

“God save us,” someone murmured


The Man in the Moon
by pomegranate

I had begun my military service as a draftee, and like the other greenhorns out of college, was looking at a two-year tour of duty. A few days before reporting to the base, I went to the barber and asked for a sefr-chahar. He obliged by shaving off the curly afro I had spent years cultivating and I left feeling several kilos lighter.

As time progressed, there were further signs of the government’s decay and loss of control. After every weekend, the number of soldiers in our unit dwindled as more and more heeded the call to desert the infidel army.

One day, as we were standing in our neat rows at attention for roll call, the whispers started going round.

“Did you see the moon last night?”

“No, what was going on?”

“They say the old man’s face could clearly be seen there. He was staring down at us from the moon. It’s clearly a sign.”

What the hell, I thought to myself as I stood stiffly, it may as well come down to the man in the moon that determines what happens in this screwed up country. Wouldn’t it be great, I thought, if these assholes just disbanded the whole unit and sent everyone home – almost half the men had disappeared anyway, going back to family and jobs or joining the almost daily demonstrations against the government.

It was quite comical, really, standing there at attention as though everything was in order, barking out a response to the roll call while the country was falling apart. Every other name or so would result in silence, the commanding officer would make a note, then move on to the next name.

Every day we paraded up and down for hours, perfecting our about faces and left turns as the officers watched us stone-faced from the platform. We fixed our beds to the centimeter for the daily inspections (the look we aimed for was the matchbox and all the corners were measured off with a right angle) and ate great quantities of rice and stew – heavily laced with kafoor, many suspected, to help control our sexual urges. Not that there was much to get excited about.

Once in a while we would hear what sounded like the muffled pop of gunfire, carried over the compound walls along with the faint smell of burning rubber.

Armed soldiers were everywhere around the base, and the tanks and armored personnel carriers patrolled the streets constantly. Inside the barracks it was eerily calm and we went about our business of marching up and down the parade grounds, being berated every so often by our commanding officers for stepping out of turn.

One day they drove us out in buses to a shooting range located some kilometers to the east of Tehran. It was the first time we had been sent for target practice and all of us were eager to try out the semi-automatics.

We lay flat on the ground, on our bellies, squirming around to make the contours of our body fit between the rocks and mounds. As I looked down the barrel toward the target, I fingered the trigger nervously, not knowing what to expect.

The order to fire came. The shock of the recoil surprised me and I caught the shell casing being ejected from the housing, a glint of brass as it flew in a slow-motion arc away from me. The slightly acrid odor of the spent round was strangely pleasing and I felt a stirring in my loins. Immediately another round was chambered and I felt a rush of exhilaration at holding this piece of machinery in my hands. Before I knew it the magazine had been emptied and I was breathing hard, my ears ringing and my hands clutching the gun tightly. For a moment, I lay there, sweat dripping from my forehead in spite of the cold, feeling for the first time the weight of the helmet on my head.

The range captain called out the order to lay down our rifles and I rested my head on my hands, drained. I watched blankly as a line of ants wandered off past my hand, picking through the pebbles, around the trigger guard and on to their destination. It seemed forever before the command came again to rise and shoulder our rifles.

On the way back, we noticed several plumes of black smoke rising in the horizon. One of the boys turned on his pocket radio and the announcer’s voice spilled out in rapid-fire urgency. You could hear the restrained excitement in his tone as he described the confrontations going on throughout the city.

“It looks like the shit has hit the fan. There are major battles going on in the streets.”

I was in a daze, not sure what to make of this and felt a queasiness in the pit of my stomach. It seemed somehow as though the act of firing these weapons had now made us participants in this unrest. Previously, everything that had happened was always related to them.

“What is going to happen?”

“Who the hell knows? All I know is that we better take off our helmets and lay down our rifles, otherwise the people will rip us to shreds thinking we are coming out to kill them.”

Immediately, we started removing as much of our military gear as possible. As we approached the city limits and the buildings crowding in on each other, the smoke thickened and in the distance one could make out small fires. The sound of gunfire echoed through, sometimes in single pops, stretched out, and at others in bursts, like the staccato rhythm of a drummer. It did not sound very exciting now.

We drove in through the eastern outskirts of the city, making our way to our barracks. Clutching the seat ahead, I peered through the window. Men were running in the streets, shouting and darting in and out of the traffic lanes. Some had wrapped shirts and rags around their faces to block out the stench of burning rubber. Others shook their fists as we passed, their mouths open pouring out some inexplicable gibberish.

I looked around at my mates. All had removed their helmets, their shorn heads beading with sweat. Some pressed against the windows while others sunk lower in their seats, the better to hide from view. I slunk down, mouth dry and heart racing, and clutched the front seat with sweaty palms. Just let us get through.

“God save us,” someone murmured.

After what seemed like an eternity, the bus entered the base and we piled out, grabbing our gear. As we moved to the barracks, I marveled at how quickly discipline had evaporated. Everyone was running around, confused and dazed. No sign of our commanding officer, we dashed for refuge to our common rooms.

The gunfire was very close now, just outside the base on the western edge where the tanks were revving their engines, spumes of diesel smoke spurting from their exhaust stacks. We could hear bullhorns blaring instructions to some unseen crowd, warning them to disperse.

As we got to our sleeping quarters, everyone started shouting and talking at once.

“This is fucked. The government is going to fall.”

“We’re dead if we stay around here. The people are going to storm the base soon and there will be a major battle.”

Very quickly, a consensus was reached that we should approach our commanding officer en masse, demanding that we be let go. A delegation of three was sent out to track him down and present our demands.

“What if he refuses?”

“Screw him – nobody is going to stay here. Start getting out of your military gear and put on your civilian clothes.”

At that point, everyone started stripping off their clothes. We pulled out our suitcases and duffle bags frantically looking for anything that would hide our military identity. It was bedlam.

The door opened and the officer walked in, followed by our comrades. Everyone stopped in their tracks and stiffened slowly.

A young man in his early thirties, he stood for a moment taking in the scene. He cleared his throat. Dead silence.

“I have come here to tell you that you are permitted to leave the base and return home. We will be contacting you when the situation clears up – until that time, may God be with you.”

He was well-liked by all the men, never abusing them, flashes of progressive thought breaking through his military discipline from time to time. I am sure he took it upon himself to let us go, without any clearance from the higher ups. They were probably packing their bags anyway, heading off to Switzerland or God knows where.

We crowded round him, thanking him and saying goodbye. It was really quite extraordinary, more like a class full of students saying farewell to their teacher at the end of the school year. He turned and walked away, leaving us to scramble into our regular clothes. We grabbed what we could and headed outside.

It was early afternoon, but the haze from all the burning fires had darkened the sky. A group of ten of us sprinted to the parking lot where K had left his car. As there was no other mode of transport, we all piled in, sitting twos and threes on each other’s laps.

“Let’s get the hell out of here,” K said.

He gunned the engine and headed out through the main entrance. None of the guards were around, but we saw several tanks and personnel carriers parked in a cordon around the main gate, gunners at the ready. No one stopped us or even looked in our direction.

There was no one walking on the streets. The late winter sun filtered through the haze and glanced off the dun colored brick houses surrounding the army base, turning everything into a shade of gray-brown. We wheeled around the corner and started heading north, through the maze of streets and broad avenues that surrounded the base, and immediately entered what looked like a no-man’s land. Burning shards from exploded Molotov cocktails littered the streets, mixed with bricks and pieces of pavement.

A couple of blocks north of the base, we clearly saw the piles of tires and other garbage now burning at every intersection. Men and boys were running through the smoke and haze, shaking their fists or shouting and throwing rocks and bottles at the army trucks moving out from the base. Many had tied bandanas round their foreheads with “Allahu-akbar” lettered in red or green.

From behind us, we could hear the soldiers on their bullhorns:

Leave the area immediately. You will be removed by force if you do not leave.

K constantly had to veer around the obstacles in his path, made more difficult by the weighted down car. As we crossed one street, I distinctly heard the whoosh of bullets firing from somewhere behind us – they passed by with a whine and a final thud as they landed against a brick wall up ahead.

Everything seemed to have sped up and slowed down at the same moment; time itself was stretched out of form. I could see mouths moving but no sound coming out. People were yelling and screaming yet nothing was comprehensible. Bodies were running here and there, sometimes masked by the smoke and clouds from the fires that were burning on every corner. My heart was pounding against my chest and I clenched my fists.

Looking out the passenger side window, pinned underneath the weight of two others, I saw several men half dragging, half carrying another, his shirt stained red and head hanging limp. Blood was running down the side of his head. They were yelling something as they dragged his body on to a pickup truck.

One of them broke away and ran up alongside us, yelling and hitting his head with his blood-stained hands. He slapped his palm against the window and I started back, expecting him to break through. For a moment I saw him clearly, just the width of a glass pane away, wild-eyed, eyes popping out with rage at the injustice, fury pouring out of his mouth.

Then K stepped on the gas, the car groaned and spurted forward, tires screeching on the pavement. It felt like the recurring dreams I had as a child, the monsters nipping at my heels while I frantically flapped my hands to lift off and get away. Hurry, hurry.

The hand was gone, but left behind was a reddish pink trail on the pane. Blankly, I stared at the perfectly formed ridges, redder where the fingers met, showing clearly the whorls of the prints. My eye traveled down the trail as it collapsed into a chaos that contained the remnants of a man’s concentrated anger. I leaned my head back and closed my eyes, suddenly feeling claustrophobic. I wished to God I could open the window and stick my head out for some air.

“We’ve got to get off the main streets. We’re either going to get killed by bullets or attacked by a mob.”

“Yeah, but where? Every street and intersection is blocked.”

We turned a corner and stared down the street at a huge pyre of burning tires and garbage. I could taste the acrid smoke from the fire in my mouth. A group of men blocked the road, brandishing sticks and crowbars and waving their fists and shouting.

There was no way we could get around that. We backed up, tires screaming, yelling at K to step on it. As we turned back, I saw several boys throw stones in our direction.

Slowly we made our way further and further from the base, turning this way and that to avoid the main streets and working through the maze of side alleys and koochehs, chockablock with houses on either side. The smoke lessened and the sound of gunfire receded as we moved through the city and further away from the base.

In some fashion, we eventually made our way toward the north of Tehran and K dropped me off at a square not far from my house.

“Man, you saved us. Thanks for driving me out here.”

I was overcome with relief, my knees shaking in the cold evening shade. It had taken us four hours to get to where we were.

“No problem. Take care of yourself and stay out of trouble. Don’t let these sons of whores get you – it’s all over.”

I said my goodbyes to the rest and walked away unsteadily, trudging down the broad sidewalks toward home, my hand stroking the stubble on my head. Somehow, the feel of the spiky hairs felt good as they scraped my palm. My knees felt weak, as though they might give at any second.

I walked close to the walls on my right, my shoulder scuffing and rubbing against the bricks. Passersby looked at me curiously, unaware of the mayhem that was happening a few miles away.

I kept walking.

All along, accompanying me, I heard the gurgling of water being carried down the open gutter on the edge of the street. The tall, stately plane trees on either side of the avenue nearly formed an arch over the few cars that made their way up and down. Barren of leaves, the lacework of branches fractured the sky and surroundings into a million pieces. I dimly noticed the lights from the storefronts as I passed. Cars honked in the distance.

Behind me I sensed the massive mountains that skirted the city to the north. Covered in snow at this time of the year, they stood towering over Tehran in the dusk, sentinels draped in glimmering white and blue ice since time immemorial. I shivered.

Turning into our street, I walked up to the front door and rang the bell as night began to fall.


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effin thrilling

by damon. (not verified) on

i thought it was for real, till i saw it was filed under fiction. good command of the english language as well.