There was no particular reason for his going to the avenue that morning. Reza had phoned and suggested a stroll but there was no urgency in his voice. A stroll was actually a chance away from home and the constant talk about missed friends and relatives, either overseas, as his brother in California, or dead in the war, as his neighbor Mehrdad.
He, too, had been encouraged by the neighborhood mullah and the school teacher to go to the front to serve the Islamic Republic, but his parents had pleaded with the “Committee” to allow him to reach his sixteenth birthday before offering his services to the Imam.
The cripples and beggars on the avenue provided no escape from the hopeless mood, though it was a chance to lose oneself in the multitude, in the stream of faces and veils with downcast eyes against the backdrop of the magnified Imam forever watchful, forever foreboding.
Frequently the boys would pass teams of “morals inspectors” berating fearful women who had dared to show too much makeup or too much hair from beneath the veil or scarf. At these times the boys would look away embarrassed and engage each other in irrelevant conversation in order to drown out the nearby humiliation.
They were involved in such a diversion when two trucks rolled to the opposite ends of the block. Armed Revolutionary Guards disembarked and began scrutinizing the street. Two enforcers dressed in camouflage jump suits and carrying assault rifles converged on the crowd and began pulling out various young men by shoving and pulling them toward the trucks. Other troopers approached these nervous individuals and demanded identification. Several boys, including Reza and he, were taken to the trucks and berated.
The leader, unshaven and with bloodshot eyes, grabbed Reza by the collar and pulled his face close.
“Why are you not fighting the enemy?” He hissed through tea and tobacco-stained teeth. “Sir, we are not old enough…” Reza tearfully whispered. “Shut up! There is no right age for fighting the enemies of Islam.” He yelled as he landed a backhand across Reza’s face. “Begging your mercy sir…” Reza blurted. “I said shut up! Cowards don't deserve to speak. Get in the truck, now!” he ordered with a push and a kick.
On the silent ride to the camp the boys kept their heads down avoiding the disgusted gaze of the armed guards and the curious crowds. He did, however, manage to glance at Reza and noticed the wet patch on his pants.
They had been in the training camp for less than three months before being shipped to the front. Training had been light on combat skills and heavy on slogans and verses. They had to partake of a bizarre reality. A reality designed to replace a lack of the machinery of death with zealous waves of “martyrs”. No admission of fear was allowed in the 'Army of God'. Only in their nightmares did they dare to doubt.
His parents’ pleas to the Committee had met deaf ears. With half a million casualties there was now a desperate need for new “martyrs”.
“You must realize that those less fortunate than you have sent their sole offspring to the service of the Imam,” said the mullah in a benevolent tone.
“God will protect him and if God wishes and he is martyred he will be in heaven with the rest of the beloved martyrs of the Islamic Republic.”
He hung the plastic “Key to Heaven” issued to him around his neck and carried the heavy rifle under his arm. Secreted in his Koran was an old photograph of his parents and brother on a Caspian coast holiday.
The rains had stopped barely month ago but the mud was already baked into jigsaw patterns. The dry reeds whispered a warning with every passing breeze. The artillery barrage had been relentless. The Iraqis had known of the build up across the waterway.
They waited for the orders to charge, the more zealous men whispering prayers and praises of the Imam. He remembered the last night with his brother. He could still taste the shish kabob and hear the laughter around the backgammon board in the lilac scented garden. No memory, however, could replace the sick feeling in his stomach now.
“Reza, I wish we could be home now.” “Be careful, they might hear you.” “I don't want to die now, not here.” “We'll be allright.” “I was hoping to join my brother in California.” “There is no going back now. There are Iraqis ahead and Hezbollah to the rear.” “They wouldn’t really shoot us if we stayed back, would they?” “Yes my friend, in spite of God it is a fine old tradition.”
The order was whispered in waves along the levee. With hails of “Besmellah” they scurried through the marshes into the predawn dark.
They had made a desperate rush toward the enemy bunkers on the other side of the waterway. He and Reza had been separated almost immediately. At first the surging force had provided a sense of security, but as the wave dissolved into chaos and the pounding artillery took its heavy bloody toll, it was every desperate man and boy by himself and for himself.
Suddenly a shell exploded to his right. He was lifted up and thrown into a thicket of reeds. The initial shock and the pain of the impact muted his sensing the obvious severe injuries. A piece of shrapnel had gouged a path through his abdomen. In the twilight he saw a rivulet of red coursing its way away from him through the mosaic of the sun baked mud.
As he lay on his back, he did not realize it at first but there was a lull in the bombardment. In the distance, through the now searing pain, he could hear an occasional muffled “boom”, but here amidst the reeds he felt a comforting quiet. His rifle lay a few feet away and further, in a clearing, he could see a flock of finches nervously scavenging the upturned mud in the early morning light.
The only other rifle he had ever had was an air rifle he had received from his father for his ninth birthday. His first quest had been to shoot a bird.
“Scatter a handful of rice at the end of the garden and wait for the pigeons and finches to land,” Seyyed Morteza, the old gardener had said.
His aim was lacking and at the sound of each discharge the birds would scatter into the air. On one occasion, however, one bird remained behind. Gasping, it lay motionless on the ground with eyes half closed. He picked it up slowly and felt the soft downy breast mired with a Scarlet patch, heave one last time. He could not remember why he had wanted to kill a bird so much. He buried the bird and never used the gun for killing again. Strangely, he had not anticipated the guilt.
Here amongst the reeds he felt alone, thirsty and empty. There was no reason for his being here that made any sense to him. Here, far from the avenue, there was no Imam, no country, and no enemy. It was just him alone with his rifle and the finches. As he closed his eyes he felt his mother covering him with a quilt, as she used to, after a nightmare. A field gun roared in the distance and the finches scattered into the early dawn.