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In The Beginning

By S. Brady Tucker

In the drowsy and silent dark of guard duty, I thought the white shadows clumsily trodding past my position were Wyoming elk. In my darkened dreams, they seemed graceful and full of purpose—the cows following the bulls in file. I thought I could see the huge muscular chests of the bulls heave and shiver, the sharp sound of hoof on rock, a calf stumbling up against the legs of his mother, her nose righting him. They moved like clouds in the Saudi Arabian desert. They were like planets in their hugeness, they belonged among the stars. They seemed to orbit the galaxy in careless patterns. In the end they would disappear like an oasis in a sandstorm.

I knew these were not elk. These shadows grunted and farted, hacked like old men at cards. The illusion was a symptom of the desert, an un-diagnosable misery caused by the days and nights of heat and sand and flies and dead men searching the sky for nothing. These elk were camels. This was the purple and cold of a desert sky. These nights were blank dreams folding in on one another, a repetition of hopes that froze time into one simple wish: Take Me Home. The icy night felt like a vacuum, like the spinning of the earth would toss us off into the sky in an agoraphobic nightmare.

The camels came to a stop in front of my guard post. Their smells mixed with the chill air and enveloped me. One mangy camel stood on three legs and bit at a growth on his other raised leg so that he looked like a huge dog gnawing at his privates. The smack of his lips sounded dry like the mouth of a drunk man leaving a bar at closing time.

Nuchurch was asleep next to me, his mouth open and gaping, his head stuffed uncomfortably into his Kevlar helmet. The war was four days over. Officially it was nearly two weeks over, but we had encountered the last resistance only the past Monday. Our guard watch served mainly as an anti-terrorist purpose. The weapons we had embraced like frightened children were once again just metal and fiberglass. Gone was the sense of comforting warmth they had once possessed in the huge loudness of terrible firefights

The sky was lightening to black, blue, and gray. The camels seemed to be dozing off in front of me, and I knew that I would have to move them soon so that I could have a clearer view of the desert. The camel that had been chewing his leg clumped closer to my position. There was a gassy, wet gurgling sound, and he began to chew a wad of cud. He stared at me with the dumbest eyes in existence. The desert wind turned and I could smell his breath, his coat, and his feet. He turned and shuffled away, his thin tail swishing around a crusty hind-end. They all began to move then, and soon their ghostly images faded into the desert, and I was alone again with a faceless and empty sky. When they were gone, it felt like I was missing them.

The sun would be up in an hour and a half. I pulled the night-vision goggles out of their case and flipped them on. The heartless nuclear green ocular pieces turned the blurry dark into a two-dimensional picture of black and green contrasts. Far off, I could see the twisted remains of two Soviet tanks, a personnel carrier, and a flatbed truck. Scattered around the destroyed vehicles were the remains of about eight soldiers. I shifted in the cool sand and looked again. Something was moving down there. It looked like someone was going from body to body.

I reached over and shook Nuchurch. “Hey man, wake up.”

He glared at me from under the helmet, then looked at his watch. “It’s only 0330. You said I could sleep until 0400.”

“I know, I know. Something’s moving down there.” I squinted my eyes down over the ocular pieces. “I can’t quite make them out…” There were maybe six of them moving about the mangled wrecks. I was feeling reckless and bored. “I’m gonna go down there.”

Nuchurch began to gather his gear, clumsily putting his flack jacket over his fatigues and web gear. “I’m coming with.”

I handed him the PRC-140 radio. “No, you call down to CQ. Tell them we have some intruders. Let them know I am going down to get a better look.” For weeks I had been trying to do something brave, maybe something risky or foolish or mad; I wanted to make up for those times in combat when I had felt worthless or weak, or worse, cowardly, but Nuchurch always seemed to be there, hanging over my shoulder to protect me.

“I’m coming with you.” Nuchurch continued to don his equipment. He was careful to slip his cross over the top of his flack jacket, and he carefully folded the section of Revelations he always kept on him into the rubber band of his helmet. Nuchurch was a handsome man—the marriage of a black man and a Hispanic woman gave his skin a golden hue, and his open and innocent brown eyes were so kind that it often made me feel cheap in comparison. Somehow, he seemed cleaner than any of us—like he was above it all looking down. Before the war, I wondered if his kindness wouldn’t kill him. But his eyes were deceiving—they concealed an incredible toughness, an anger, a strength that redeemed him. He often said it came from God, his strength. He said that God was on our side. We didn’t agree on this. It sounded too much like what athletes say when they are asked how they ran an interception back for a touchdown and the win—God blessed us today on the field. HE wanted us to win. For some reason, I couldn’t believe that God would want to be a part of any of this.

I wasn’t going to argue, so I pulled what little rank I had on him. “Look Nuchurch, I’m just gonna go take a look. If it is something major, we need to get a jump on them anyway. If it’s too big for me I’ll come right back. I promise. I’ll be invisible.” I said this as a joke, using his own catch-phrase against him, but Nuchurch didn’t smile.

Nuchurch’s skin looked pale and gray in the dim light of the stars. He was squatting in the sand and he had his hands over the top of his M-16 as if he were baptizing it in the sand.

In spite of his devotion to Jesus, Nuchurch was a pure killer in a firefight. He was the best of all the Rangers in our company and had racked up the highest total of confirmed kills in the combat arena. When the ground war started our platoon was positioned miles from any support. We were supposed to come up on a known fortified Iraqi position from the north while the rest of the French and British troops and tankers would come from the west. It didn’t work out that way.

We were where we were supposed to be, but our support was nowhere to be seen. All the intelligence we had received for the mission was wrong. Instead of a ridge for us to fire down from, we ended up coming up a hill completely naked. The Republican Guard knew we were coming somehow, and they were waiting on us. Nuchurch took point and I followed with my M-60. Lieutenant Cerberus took ten paratroopers to the right of the position while me and Nuchurch and a team of seven Rangers hit the bunker head on. A 50 Caliber machine gun began beating down upon us immediately.

Nuchurch went down first; a round bounced up from the desert sand and hit him full in the chest. I pulled him behind a granite outcropping. I thought he was most certainly killed, but he was just writhing in pain and I could see no open wounds. The round was wedged permanently into his flack jacket, but it had not gone through. It broke four ribs however, and blood was slowly oozing from holes made by the sharp splinters of bone. That round remained wedged there for the rest of the war and for the rest of his career. It was his trophy and a symbol for the power of God’s chosen children.

I took out two tampons (which we had discovered were the best field dressings ever invented) from my field pack and taped them to the contusions. He calmed down after a few moments and reattached his flack jacket over the wound. I began laying down fire in huge spurts from my 60, trading fire with the 50 cal on the hilltop. The thick granite outcropping shuddered from the power of the 50 cal, and my return fire seemed pitiful even with the powerful recoil of my weapon thumping into my shoulder.

Nuchurch was on the other side of the rock sending off little faggoty sounding spurts of M-16 fire. Then I heard his grenade launcher pop off, and seconds later a cloudy explosion shook the Iraqi position. I could hear someone screaming from within the bunker, but the 50 kept hitting us. I returned fire until I burned off a whole belt of ammunition. The barrel of my 60 was giving off heat waves in the powerful 115-degree heat of the desert, and I knew that I only had about two more belts left before it would overheat.

I pulled a belt loose from the ammunition box, and under a shower of stone chips, fed my weapon the leaden morsels. I heard the pop of the grenade launcher again and Nuchurch was up and running toward the Iraqi position. I could only watch. The 50 swung across the desert in huge splashes of fire. He danced between the rounds as they washed over and past him. He kept running, and I could see his injury was hampering him. He fell once and the 50 cal washed over him again. I slapped down the fiberglass cover on my 60 and without thinking I threw the belt over my shoulder and began running too. My M-60 was heavy and awkward, and the first burst of fire from it nearly knocked me over. M-60’s were meant to be fired from a tripod—not from the hip, which I discovered immediately. I ran another twenty yards and threw myself down as the hum of 50 cal rounds surrounded me in a blind and sandy rage. I began firing again, really letting the 60 rip and Nuchurch was at the lip of the ridge and he let his grenade launcher pop two quick times and then he was over the top. The 50 cal was leveled on me now, and the gunner and I were staring down the long barrel of each other’s weapons as we let fly with everything we had.

It seemed like it lasted forever, and I waited for one of those big four-inch rounds to tear me from head to asshole. Then there was a huge explosion from within the fortification that literally jarred my bones and made my teeth clatter. The 50 cal continued to roar, but it was pointing mercifully to the sky in a cookoff, as the barrel itself became so hot it spontaneously burst the rounds in the chamber. I could hear the tiny sound of Nuchurch’s M-16 coming over the ridge, and all at once we were all running again.

On the other side of the fortified position Nuchurch was just plain killing. He came to a bunker with his weapon blazing, popped off a fragmentation grenade in the opening, waited for the explosion, and followed it in. To the east I could see Lieutenant Cerberus and the others slowly making their way down a rocky decline. The rest of us poured fire down upon those poor Republican Guard soldiers like heavy leaden rain. When we reached the floor of the wash behind the 50 cal, which was still firing its meaningless hatred at the sky, it was all over.

Nuchurch stood huffing and stumbling around the area with dark blood on his chest and fatigue pants, yet he was untouched except for the broken ribs. I had a gash across the back of my calf from I don’t know what. In the end, Lieutenant Cerberus recommended him for a Silver Star for Valor, but we were just glad of him then. In all, he killed nineteen Iraqi soldiers in those few minutes, and I think that if he wouldn’t have been there with me, that I would have died on that hillside, four thousand-some miles from home. I owed him one big time, and over the coming weeks, I looked futilely for a chance to pay him back, to be the courageous soldier I had always imagined myself to be. In the darkened solitude of nights, under the black desert sky, I began to doubt myself.

Nuchurch was looking at me skeptically from under the brim of his Kevlar, and I could tell he wasn’t about to let me go down for a look if there was any danger.

“Look Nooch, I need you covering me. If you see any signs of a firefight, you come in with the 60 from above. We have a perfect angle—it’ll be all right. Just let me do this one thing.”

“OK. But I’m calling CQ right now.”

“Fine.” I gathered my M-16 and three extra magazines then began a slow descent down the broken decline to the vehicles. It was cold that night—the cold of the gulf desert always dug into the seams of your clothes, freezing you slowly, so that when you stood it didn't feel like you had any feet. The heat of the day left as soon as the sun set, and the breeze had turned to a dry and frigid wind.

I rolled over onto my belly in the dirt and held up the NVG's to my face and looked over the barren landscape, keeping an eye open for any movement. I was about a hundred meters away from the dead vehicles, yet I couldn’t see any signs of the intruders. Then I saw someone slipping behind the Iraqi troop carrier. Whoever it was down there seemed to be going through the dead soldier’s pockets. It occurred to me that it could have been someone from our compound. I thought of all the criminals in Delta Company. I turned to wave up to alert Nuchurch, but his position had been swallowed up by the desert. There was no sound but my own breathing, which seemed huge and loud against the empty hollow of the desert’s silence. I attached the NVG’s to my helmet and flipped them on. Still, Nuchurch’s position was nowhere to be seen. I began to low-crawl across the coarse sand toward the black hunks of Iraqi wreckage. I crawled past the sour smelling body of a dead Iraqi soldier, about seventy meters from the wreckage. These were the remains of our final conflict with the Iraqi Republican Guard. These were the last true soldiers of a broken machine, fighting to the end, when all was lost.

They had come upon us when we were tired, at night, when we were broken by what we had seen that day—the awful chaos of the dead and split and exploded bodies on the road to Baghdad. After the first conflict with the 50 cal, we had fought for nearly a month with the Republican Guard, encircling them, pinching their movements from the north near Baghdad down to the south near the Pipeline Road. Every day, we took miserable prisoners, we watched skinny men fall under fire, we covered their disbelieving faces under black rubber body bags. The world around us was complete devastation—an Armageddon so complete that horror seemed mild and out of place there. After it was all over, when I was home, I would realize that my most hated memory was not of the firefights, the noise, the blood, the smell of burning flesh, the total eclipsing dark dread, or the guilt. It was the bagging of the bodies that followed me, it was the bodies zipped up under black rubber that remained.

The sun scorched earth, and the bodies of the startled dead became a familiarity to us, and the revulsion that I had felt in the beginning was just a dull sense of disgust and sadness in the end. We would space out over an area like ghosts from the wreckage and begin to bag the dead. This was death in such incomprehensible, colossal numbers that no one could be expected to understand. We didn't talk much. We retreated into an oblivion so pure and rare that we were untouchable. We learned quickly that speech would often end up sounding pitifully sentimental and cliché, and that it mostly just made us feel worse.

After each skirmish with the Iraqis I would snap on my rubber surgical gloves and cover my mouth with a moist cup to keep the disease and stink out, and begin. We would join together at the boxes of green-black bags, then move off in pairs, being sure to never wander out of earshot of the others. We became masters of “policing bodies.” We were adept and able, we became cold and ghastly specters—wandering from body to body, stuffing the broken, the burnt, and the bloody dead into their final sleeping bags. In the end, we talked while we worked, using language to turn our attention from the chore that so often broke us down when we were alone. In the beginning we had either cried or threw up or fainted, but now, I would sometimes hear myself telling a joke as I carried another human being to the pile. My own smile felt like that of a dead man—stretched tightly across my teeth like a rubber band on a newspaper, and the rusty sound of a laugh would croak like the dry wind around machinery.

In the end, in the final battle of a dead war, the Republican Guard finally flanked us. The final battle of a war that was already over was the bloodiest and most brutal for us. The tanks had been bait—we had moved on them expertly, low crawling as the tanks moved forward, up and running when they turned their backs to us. When we were close enough, Lieutenant Cerberus called for air support. He was speaking when the first round tore through his jawbone. He looked surprised that he had lost the power of speech. The second volley hit his left arm and it pinwheeled backward out of control and jointless. A bullet clipped the top of my flack jacket, near my neck. The force of it turned me completely around, and I fell on my back clutching at a pain beyond anything I have ever known. I thought I was killed, and for a moment I lamented my short life. I did not once think of anyone else, and for that I am ashamed still. My eyes were spouting tears from the pain, and I could see the Lieutenant on his knees, holding his face with his good hand while he stared incredulously at his mangled left arm. Bullets were humming by us and I could see tracers fizzing and spurting in the sand all around. The sound of choppers surrounded us, and an Apache screamed by our position and disappeared over a ridge. The tanks were booming in terrible harmony.

Lieutenant Cerberus still gazed uncomprehendingly at his arm, and his good hand held his face tenderly, as if in reaction to a slap. I reached up and pulled him down by his destroyed arm, and I could feel the wet emptiness of his shirtsleeve, could see the abnormal length of his twisted arm. He collapsed next to me, still holding his face, while his jaw moved grotesquely around silent words.

I took his 9mm pistol and rolled away from him. The dust from the helicopter enclosed us, and I searched desperately in the storm of debris for a clue to where the rounds were coming from. My throat pulsed in purple agony. The red gleam of tracer rounds seemed to be coming from every direction. I touched my neck and could feel the hard lump of a broken collarbone under the skin. The noise was complete and huge, like a separate being altogether. In the dark eclipse of dust and sand I saw a figure stumble by, then another. I couldn’t make out if they were from my unit or if they were Republican Guard. The second one stopped and spun around in confusion. I heard the unmistakable sound of a bullet hitting a chest and he was falling, a red explosion of man.

The dust storm washed over us, and then was gone. I still had the unused 9mm in my hands. The dead man was an Iraqi and I turned to look for his partner, but he was dead as well—face down and missing most of his hip and belly. A tracer hissed from the gaping red hole of his wound, then sputtered and died—a swirling black cloud of smoke rising from the wound, then the smell of burning flesh curled around me like a kind word.

Nuchurch was about fifteen yards past the dead man. He was looking down the barrel of his M-16 at me, his kind eyes open wide. Behind him, the rest of our unit boiled in confusion. Below us, the tanks smoldered and Iraqi men burned, some of them still running around for water that would never come. The personnel carrier seemed to be limping away from the devastation. The noise of gunfire exploded around us again, everyone glad for a target. The bullets did nothing to the carrier. It limped on in metallic agony. I could hear the Apaches returning, and the sound of their blades hissing in the air seemed to come from everywhere. I never saw them again—I only saw the enormous explosion of the carrier, saw the anthropomorphic rain of metal and flesh.

We didn’t go down there after that. We attended to Lieutenant Cerberus, then policed up the bodies of our dead and injured and set up a watch on the ridge above the tanks. The Lieutenant recovered his speech but never found use for the arm again. I saw him years later, a politician in Colorado with a lisp and a hand stuffed uselessly into his front pants pocket. He kept trying to engage me with talk about the glory of it all—I felt compelled to remind him that we only killed people who tried to kill us—that there was no sense of duty, no honor involved. I didn’t remind him. Instead, I wished him good luck and I shook his good hand. I think he lost in the next election because I haven’t heard of him since. Sometimes, in my terrible dreams I see him mouthing words around a bloody hole of flesh and bone, I see him swinging his useless arm in an attempt to wave, I see the arm stretching and stretching.

I was within twenty yards of the wrecked tanks, and the shadows beneath were on the move again. It had taken me nearly twenty minutes to creep undetected to this position, and I could see the intruders for who they were—a group of skinny and scabby dogs. They were pitiful and weak, darting back and forth between the dead forms, taking quick and paranoid bites before retreating behind the tanks. One dog had an extremity to himself and was gnawing away at it under the flatbed truck. The flanks of the dogs were mangy and thin, and their ribs poked out in sharp angles.

I flipped the safety switch on my M-16 and quietly pushed a magazine snugly into the chamber. I fired the first burst into the hull of the tank, hoping to create as much noise as possible, to maybe scare the dogs away without hurting them. My second burst I fired at the flatbed truck. The dogs darted about in confusion, tails between their legs and hind ends lowered. As I prepared to fire again I heard the hum of bullets and saw the red flash of tracer rounds ripping into the target area. Then I heard the thumping of the M-60 from above as the hard sound of each round caught up to the spinning lead bullets. I flattened out on the ground as well as I could. I could see the spouts of flame issuing from the muzzle of Nuchurch’s weapon. The dogs were in a panic, some of them frozen in place, some running in circles. One of the dogs was watching the orange flame as well—he cocked his head in curiosity, his left ear perked and his right ear flopping down over his eye. Then, he turned to look back at the other dogs and a bullet ripped through him, completely separating his front from his rear. The other dogs stood in confusion, perplexed and frightened, caught between flight and hunger. They didn’t understand what was happening and none of them fled.

One padded over to the fallen dog and sniffed him while bullets whizzed by, tearing holes in the ground in great splashes. His head disintegrated in a flowering explosion. Then Nuchurch had the range and they were all falling in pieces. One dog was pissing down her legs, howling a throaty and solitary dirge that raised bumps on my arms and legs, and then she too was gone. Then they were all dead, but still Nuchurch fired on them—the dog’s corpses were almost undistinguishable from the soldier’s bodies. I waved my arm above my head until Nuchurch finally stopped. I removed my NVG’s and lay there for a moment, hoping that I could finally put this weapon away, that I could finally go back to the night, back to some fine illusion.

After a few moments I decided to go down and make sure they were all dead and not suffering needlessly. The sand was soft and powdery under my feet—it was ground down into baby powder by a million years of wind and weather. Somewhere, one of the dogs was whining and I thought that I should make Nuchurch come down there to finish him off. I walked around a couple piles of gore and could not find where the sound was coming from. The sound was low, anguished and foreign. It took me some moments to realize that it was not a dog. I circled the Iraqi soldier. He was badly burned and I could see a brown hole in his lower leg where blood had dried around the wound. He didn’t see me yet, so I came around to face him. He was unarmed. I poked him with the muzzle of my weapon, but he didn’t react. He was humming and muttering in Arabic. I nudged him again with my boot. He looked up at me finally and I laid my weapon down in the ancient cradle of sand and pulled out my med-kit. I poured water from my canteen over the wound to get the sand out of it, then administered a field dressing because I was out of tampons. I could smell the cheesy festering of flesh and I knew he would lose the leg anyway. I soaked another bandage and wiped his face clean. I gave him water to drink, and I fed him a chocolate protein bar. He only whimpered when I poured water over his burns.

The wounded soldier and I watched the bloodiest sun rise above the charred earth. I could hear the sound of rocks being displaced as Nuchurch slowly made his way down from our position. The sun was the color of a diseased wound—red and brown and black from the oil fires to the southeast. Today, when I think of my time in the desert, I usually think of only two things. Most of it is forgotten or hidden away—a life someone else has lived, a story of a relative, a mythology. Mostly I try not to think about it. But when I do think of the desert, I think of individual and unique dead men and I think of that ugly sun rising over us like a rewritten history of bones and teeth and metal.

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S. Brady Tucker received his MA in Creative Writing from Northern Arizona University in 1998, where he founded and worked as Poetry Editor for Thin Air magazine. Currently, he is pursuing a doctoral degree in Fiction at Florida State University. He is originally from Wyoming, and served as an Army paratrooper in Panama and the Persian Gulf. His most recent publications have appeared in the Lullwater Review, North American Review, Poetry Motel, Mississippi Review, Southern Poetry Review, Rhino, Crab Orchard Review, Spoon River Poetry Review, and in the following anthologies: American Diaspora (2001, University of Iowa Press), Like Thunder (2002, University of Iowa Press), and Clockpunchers (2003, Mammoth Books).

Contact Seth at stucker@mailer.fsu.edu