I see you being dropped off. I stop the movement of my scope and then I center the crosshairs on you . . . and on you waving the driver goodbye. He drives away . . . leaving you behind at the place where three roads meet, behind the date grove on the other side of the river. Now you’re not certain which road to take! The main road where you’ll wait for the next vehicle to come by or . . . the road that I want you to take? Hurry up and choose. My whole job today depends on your decision. It’s not clear from far away, but you put something on your back and move off.
You’ve chosen and my happiness is boundless. You’ve eased the burden of waiting for me . . . and now you’re continuing along the paved road that will end up at your first route. You just continue moving along that line and I’ll sit in this lookout, waiting on this side of the river, a wait that should take no more than twenty-five minutes and which will reach its climax in the last seventeen seconds.
And, during these twenty-five minutes, at least we can speak frankly to each other, though you will never hear what I have to say, but, perhaps, after those last seventeen seconds are over, all of what I say will reach your ears. How? I don’t know. Whatever the case this is the way we think on this side of the river in this completely surrounded city . . . and in any case you are not aware of me sitting here stalking you . . . and in this dark keep, with the entire plain, date grove, the roads you’ve crossed on the other side in sight . . . and especially . . . I keep every step you take under surveillance, and within my sniper scope lest I forget you.
Yes, I am sitting here stalking you and there’s a shell in a mortar, waiting for my order, an order that will be broadcast on invisible waves through the air at the promised time via this radio. Your side’s radios may even catch the signal and then the waves will pass by your body and you luckily will be deprived of the chance of receiving our shell and later you’ll radio for your own mortar . . . then the firing . . . and it will take seventeen seconds for the shell to pierce the air, reach its apex and then like a gull diving for fish, fall on that stretch of road . . . and then . . . and then thousands of pieces of shrapnel both large and small will embrace you . . . but now before you reach that point in the road, which will perhaps be the last place in your life, there are twenty-three minutes left . . . the length of the time depends wholly on the speed of your steps . . . go slower and you’ll add a few seconds to your life . . . go faster and you’ll shorten it by a like amount . . . and now you are moving. You want me to tell you more precisely how long you have before the shell that awaits you arrives?
I have only to keep you within the crosshairs of my sight and then press the button on my stopwatch . . . but it’s better not to lose time. Perhaps this twenty-second friendship will become timeless with the shell. Would you like to know what the first question is that I ask after I climb up this tower and have selected a prey like you? It is: Where are you from? Khanaqin, Baghdad, Kirkuk, or Basra? . . . And, as always, Basra concerns me the most. Perhaps I should tell you why . . . and the moment the promised shell hits the ground. . . . What are your parents doing at that moment? Is your mother making bread in one of those mud houses in a village along the Euphrates? Your father. . . . What does your father do for a living? What is he thinking now? Could it possibly cross their minds that I am sitting here waiting to take the life of their child in less than nineteen minutes?
And, if there is that odd feeling that exists between a mother and her child, how your mother will curse me at that moment? But I made my decision ages ago; at the time your forces surrounded this city. Want to know where I’m from? It’s not necessary to go very far from here. Maybe only a kilometer in that direction along this very boundary river, several years ago, my birthplace was at the hundred meter point along the river . . . yes and had I been born just seven hundred meters in the other direction, I now would be one of you, at the height of military prowess with those endless munitions which are more than enough to destroy a city far larger than our small town . . . and ignoring the screeches and howling of the women and children of the city . . . and drunk with power . . . I would be shelling them night and day, but now I’m happy . . . happy that I was born just seven hundred meters in this direction and that I am fighting for several things. My mother. . . .
Want to know what my mother is doing now? Like always she’s reciting the Throne Verse . . . for me . . . for my brothers and her brothers and all the people on this side of the river. What about your mother? Is she praying for you also? Whatever she prays or has prayed, in about fifteen minutes more it’ll all be for nothing. . . .
And you keep moving . . . perhaps wanting to reach your front line faster to shell or fire on our city at night again. When you put your finger on the trigger and the stock shakes on your shoulder, do you have a sense of power? . . . Or does the sound of larger explosions thrill you? Do you dance up and down and clench your fist futilely, when the mortars, shells, and missiles explode on our side . . . but when the time comes and I hear that promised detonation, I will not jump for joy . . . and you are still walking toward the chosen spot . . . you still have fourteen minutes before I switch on the radio and the sounds form in my larynx and on that side a mortar round comes to greet you.
Can you recall all the shells and mortars you have rained down on our city day and night, annihilating anyone and anything in range of your batteries? Is there any goal in the world more pointless than obliterating a city? Continue on your path. I have only a daily ration of three shells, and, as on the first day, I have already used up one. Would you like to know how? You’ve stopped, why? Oh, I see, you’ve put your pack down. So you’re tired! What could be in the pack that has made you so tired? Your clothes? A souvenir maybe, for your foxhole buddies? Maybe some of those homemade cakes your mother makes?
You want to know what I would take with me if I could leave this besieged city? My souvenir would be some more rounds for the mortars. You tired? Sit! A few minutes either way will make no difference to me, but continue on your way. I fired my first shell into the middle of this very roadway, and the second one is ready to strike the same spot. You’ll be there in a few minutes and you’ll see the powder burn from the first shell on the ground, and, like your comrades who were there before, you’ll slow your pace . . . and, stunned, you’ll stare at the place where the shell hit, not knowing whether the second shell is coming or not . . . and this question will always remain for me: After seeing where the first shell landed, why didn’t you get scared and start running?
You probably thought that it exploded and that you were so lucky not to have been there when it did . . . this is what caused you to be so calm but when the second shell comes crashing down . . . why will you still be sitting? You want to know more? What will you see if you reach the place where first shell hit and look at it carefully? Yes, that it’s one of yours . . . but make no mistake . . . it’s not part of the spoils we’ve taken from you. Look at it more carefully! It’s one of the dozens of shells that you have brought down on our heads, one of the few duds that land here every day. They just have to be dug out from the ground, their fuses set on safety, and their casings changed for a filed-off fifty-caliber shell . . . and then . . . .
Three shells are the daily allowance: three shells that until yesterday were in your hands and today are in ours. By the way, your national symbol is the eagle! Maybe the same eagle that had thought that all of our cities would be under its wings. On this side of the river we have a tale known to all about an eagle pierced by an arrow . . . they say that when the eagle, looking carefully, saw its own feather in the arrow, it said, why shed tears? we are our own undoing. . . . What are you doing? Those minutes added to your life aren’t to your liking? You’ve put your pack back on and you’re moving . . . yes you’ll go down the road and I, like yesterday and all the previous days, will lie in wait for you until you reach the zone of your last seventeen seconds . . . seventeen seconds to your death . . . and seventeen seconds till the time when the mortar round reaches its target . . . .
So I must recalculate how many steps you have to take during the seventeen seconds . . . and the radio will have to be switched on seventeen seconds sooner than the shell hits and, seventeen seconds later, a crater will be made where it impacts the earth. My eyes, in addition to the scope, your body, the seventeenth second, the shell burst . . . and the launching of thousands of pieces of shrapnel all around and into your body . . . every day or so this scene must be repeated several times until you on that side of the river are also robbed of your security and realize that every time you go on leave your death will come . . . and this thought is many times more agonizing than being killed at the front itself. The insecurity of the back lines, those tributaries leading to family and normal life, so tied up with a sense of safety . . . but only a daily rations of three shells will cause that insecurity . . . and during that entire time you have no choice but to run down this road . . . 3.5 kilometers of road . . . even when we are not manning our lookouts, you must be anxious . . . anxious that there is somebody waiting to switch on the radio . . . .
Yes, with only three shells . . . and not with those thousands of shells . . . and we have decided to haul the fear and terror from this side of the river to that . . . and you’re still on the road, looking up at the sky and perhaps enjoying it! What wonderful, brisk weather! If I were in your shoes the only thing I’d want from God is a breeze so that the shell might be go slightly off course before it hits the road . . . or that the charge in the mortar round doesn’t work and the shell doesn’t fire in the chamber. Ten minutes to go before the seventeen-second zone.
This is probably what you’re thinking: How long will the roads remain insecure? With ten, twenty, forty more people killed, you’ll doubt the safety of other roads. Yes, it’s a good question, you have every right to ask it, and I have every right not to answer. Today it’s your turn to find a strategy. Likewise it could be the turn of one of your comrades, someone just passing a few minutes before you and you would probably inspecting his spattered blood on the ground; but today everything has conspired to make you the subject of the conversation. Want me to answer your question? You have the right to know! In the future if this method doesn’t work, I’ll find another way. Now everything is in place for the old method. Do you know what that is? Keep walking along the path and just listen. “The Mousetrap” is what we call it. At the same level with the road you are on and the others that go off into the desert behind it is a telephone pole. We just have to bring the first shell down on the telephone wires . . . and a break in communications . . . and then the poor lineman who will have to come and reattach the frayed cables . . . exactly at the point of impact . . . and here a seventeen-second wait won’t be necessary . . . and the second shell . . . and the interesting thing is that I had never seen this break in the lines myself and only became aware of it from the movements of your linemen.
Taking into account the extra time accrued when you stopped, we have another eight minutes to chat. It’s an interesting sort of friendship, don’t you think?
Know how many people are sitting around our battery waiting for my radio signal? Five . . . five artillerymen. . . . Want to know who they are? You have a right to. One of them is Mehdi who lost his father before the war. His mother was a laundress at the hospital . . . until one of those thousands of shells landed on the hospital laundry. Want to know how long it took before those bloody sheets were white again? And then there’s Hoseyn who’s only thirteen and keeps the artillery clean. He had to bury his sister with his own hands; can you understand how hard that was? Bury bits and pieces of her, that is? Enough or should I say more? Thousands of rounds launched at the city just to kill a handful of non-combatants and all we have is three shells at our disposal and, when today’s work is done, all of us without the slightest remorse or pangs of conscience will sit down to lunch and then rest and once again track down some more of your duds so that we can prepare another three shells for the coming days.
We, in fact, don’t even need the three shells to weaken your resolve. All we have to do every so often is to mount the kind of action we carried out two months ago when we got a battalion of your soldiers to turn on one another. Yes, the same battalion that was sent away from the front lines and was replaced by your battalion. Nobody on your side knew the secret behind those leaflets. The leaflets that angered the leadership of your third army. There shouldn’t be any secrets between us during these final minutes. In a few days it will be your battalion’s turn. One of those shells that dispense leaflets . . . leaflets that are simple on the surface, promising amnesty . . . amnesty with pictures of the Imam . . . the man that terrifies you . . . yes, you have rained thousands and thousands of leaflets on our homes in the besieged city . . . give up . . . until now none of them has done any good, but our leaflets have alarmed many of you, one little shell at that . . . and you never caught on to the trick we played on your forces! You weren’t in the old battalion, but your comrades in your present battalion will soon see a shell will open in the sky and pour leaflets down on them . . . each leaflet containing a picture of Imam Khomeini and the promise of amnesty. When we mount our operations, each leaflet will count as a writ of asylum . . . and your commander like the commander of the previous battalion will order that the leaflets, especially the writs of asylum, be collected and those in your battalion that don’t give up the writs will be reprimanded severely; and that in an army known for its collective punishments. Watch what happens when your battalion commander finds leaflets without amnesty writs! What’s he supposed to do? He’ll wonder who’s picked them up. Maybe a number of soldiers have actually taken them! There’ll put more pressure on the battalion to find them. . . . If Baghdad gets word of this . . . your commander will be under pressure . . . collective punishment . . . maybe members of the battalion will start accusing one another to escape the punishment . . . bad blood and suspicion . . . and in the end a lack of trust in a battalion some of whose soldiers have hidden the writs of amnesty, even with their pictures of the Imam . . . and a lack of trust in war means laying awake at night fearing betrayal and expecting something bad to happen.
But do you want to know the truth of the matter? It’s likely that nobody on your side picked up one of those amnesty writs, because from the very first we made a number of leaflets without pictures of the Imam and the writs. See how we use our wits and talents in a city under siege? O Mr. Iraqi eagle! How could one of your own feathers be the agent of your death? We never learned to fight anywhere except here during these last few months and if it weren’t for the war, we’d be in high school in this very city . . . and which class would we be in? . . . Probably math . . . and here I am calculating the three minutes you have left to live. Now it’s time to tell my five comrades down below to get ready. They have to be at the ready with a tight grip on the chord, as the seventeen seconds begin. Well, they’re ready . . . everything’s set against you. Do you know what I always think at such times? That you and those before you and those who come after you are probably Basran. I have a somebody there, or had, I should say, a person that I never saw . . . my mother’s sister . . . who years ago, long before she died, married a man from there. I always wonder whether you, if you are Basran, know anything about her or her children. They say she had two sons several years older than me. Sometimes at such moments like this I have the feeling that I have those two boys in my sights.
Now there are only five steps before you enter the zone. Four steps, three, two, one.
I’ve turned the radio on. The chord is being pulled and the machinery of your death has been set in motion. Now a shell that for years remained hidden underground in the form of ore . . . was extracted, refined, and then forged . . . and then made into a container for shrapnel and steel, brimming with explosive powder . . . and conveyed by boat over miles of ocean . . . is on its way to rack up your death, a shell that has been ordered twice to kill: once, when used on our city, and twice, when used on you. O Iraqi eagle, here’s your feather back!
From this moment on the shell is making its way through the sky, under no one’s control, not even mine. Our friendship didn’t last very long. You probably would rather be in school now . . . and I, if I could, would take you prisoner so that after the war you could return safely to your family; but now your are on that side of the river and I am on this side.
You’ll have one chance at the thirteenth second when the sound of the shell reaches your ears. If, and only if, you pay attention . . . and stop for a second and sit . . . when the shell’s course is fixed . . . maybe you’ll survive the explosion . . . get ready to take that chance.
If I were in your place and knew what was coming, I’d spend these last moment asking God’s forgiveness . . . for everything and everyone . . . perhaps God . . . whatever the case you won’t need sermons from me when you’re dead.
The sound of the firing . . . and you are still determined to follow the same path. The sound of the shell didn’t attract attention. What are you thinking about? But there’s still a chance . . . the last chance . . . maybe a breeze will blow at the last moment, but I pray it doesn’t.
As boldly as possible I must admit that after killing you and climbing down from this perch, I will have forgotten the whole thing. By donning that uniform, you have signed a contract to kill and to be killed.
Clear your mind of everything except the wind . . . and me with my allotment of three shells . . . and that I have used up one of them . . . the other is on its way . . . the third?
The seconds remaining in your life have gone from two digits to one. Death is on the way, my friend.
The shell is also on its way. You are also on the way and my scope is trained on the spot where the shell will explode. The windfall outcropping whose sole cause is human, on that side of the river.
See: there’s no breeze to make the shell go off course and the blasting powder in the shell, though it’s handmade, has performed perfectly, propelling it from the artillery. Now only a miracle can help you . . . and, maybe, your mother’s prayers.
How many days will it take for your family to get word of your death? Two days, five? When it comes, what will your father be doing? For me it wouldn’t be more than twenty-four hours. My brother will be the first to know.
Six more seconds.
Time is short. Whenever one of your soldiers comes from that side of the junction in the direction of the riverbank, I say to myself, “Chalk up another enemy for our side.”
Five more seconds.
You may be wondering whether I would have called in the strike if you had been my cousin. Yes, I would have and I’d be waiting another four seconds. Now in another four seconds you will be at the place where the shell is going to land and four seconds more before your rendezvous with it.
Four more seconds.
See the waterway for the last time? We call it the Arvand River and you the Shatt al-Arab. In any case it won’t make the slightest difference to you. Whatever happens the fresh water of the river will spill into the sea, becoming salty — as in the past, the present, and in the future. See how foolish it was to start killing the people of our city, in the hope of trapping a river that has never been captive to the man-made?
Two more seconds.
Again, you hear nothing I say; you just keep walking to the place where the shell will explode at the same pace. In one second you’ll hear the explosion, but you’ll only have part of a second to hit the dirt. So get ready and use the last chance to save your life.
Our friendship is in its last second. What are you thinking about during the last moment of your life? Your intended, who waited until the last second to say farewell? Your mother? The cold weather? There’s nothing else to do! My eyes are fixed on the point of impact and you are caught in my crosshairs and, in this half second, the sound of the shell . . . and . . . it’s all over. The blast happened exactly where it was supposed to, covering the place in a cloud of smoke and dust that made you disappear. I sit waiting for it to settle. What happens next means nothing to me, but, for you, if you’re wounded . . . it is vital . . . every second you’ll bleed more than before . . . and I know exactly what you are thinking about during this time . . . about your friends helping you . . . but if it’s all over and your soul has taken flight . . . now your friends have a dilemma . . . should they rush to help you? I also have a friend who could come to your aid . . . don’t get me wrong . . . not to save you . . . I’ve let you in on our whole strategy . . . the third shell is already in the tube so that your friends will suffer the same fate as you.
The smoke has cleared and you’re lying on the ground not moving. Your friends are observing from far away. You’ll be the bait for the next hook and I’ll remain here waiting for your friends so I’ll use the third and last eagle feather. . . .
And again another second.
Our friendship is in its last second. What are you thinking about during the last moment of your life? Can you imagine how much the firing of one shell, only one shell, has caused me to think? Where do you come from? I wonder. Who’s thinking of you? And this is what I do every day, for every one of you who goes down this road. Do you, before firing all those shells at us, give my mother the slightest thought? So why are these three shells so painful for you? Three shells with so much thought versus thousands of shells without any thought, if those thousands of thoughtless shells had not been fired, then these thoughtful shells would never have been launched. My eyes are fixed on the point of impact and you are caught in my sights and this half-second . . . what happened? Why are you lying on the ground? What are you looking at? At a dud? So the shell was a dud again! So now I’ll give you five seconds to get up and run away; if not, I’ll switch on the radio and tell them to send the third your way.
I start my stopwatch . . . one, two, three, four . . . run faster! You put my mind at ease! Don’t get me wrong: I haven’t said this so you’d get away ahead of time. My third shell needs to fly seventeen seconds, and, if you were late to escape, it’s possible that there’ll be no one where the shell hits . . . now, perspiring, you’ll join your friends . . . without your back pack which you left in that appointed place . . . and now you’ve seen death with your own eyes . . . will your finger squeeze the trigger of your gun again tonight? Will you give the mothers on this side of the river a thought? Absolutely . . . so you’ve got my message loud and clear. With death or fear, it doesn’t matter which, you’ll transmit you fear to your comrades . . . like the leaflet-scattering shell that will explode over your heads in a few days . . . and maybe you are one of those who out of fear kept one of those writs of amnesty. Whatever the case I’ll be waiting for you, until at the crossroads . . . someone else is dropped off . . . perhaps in a couple of days . . . and again you my friend. . . .
Habib Ahmadzadeh, born in Abadan, Iran, is a veteran of the Iran-Iraq War and writer in Tehran today. Among the books he has published are Chess with the Doomsday Machine [Shatranj ba Mashin-e Qiamat] (Trans. Paul Sprachman, Mazda Publishers, 2008) and Dastan-ha-ye Shahr-e Jangi [Tales of a City in War], a collection of short stories, in which “Eagle Feather” appeared and another story from which became the basis for Kiumars Poorahmad‘s film Night Bus. Ahmadzadeh says: “This story, ‘Eagle Feather,’ is based on a true experience during another disastrous war — a war supported by the United States of America and its allies, a war forced on both the peoples of Iran and Iraq. News about Gaza made me think about this old story of mine and wanted to share it with concerned citizens of the world. Let’s hope we’ll get to end violence and achieve peace for everyone and bring about a better world.” This translation of “Eagle Feather” is by Paul Sprachman.