Washing the Dead

Farook was afraid.  He had doubts that any man could speak for God.  He had prayed for guidance and Allah had filled his mind with questions instead of answers.  He was afraid of doing something horribly wrong.

He was not afraid to die.  There was no one left who depended on him.  No wife or child or parent, not even a goat with young of its own.  No one who would miss him.  No one who would grieve.  All gone.

He had come to these people in a boiling rage, seeking revenge, seeking an end to his own pain and sense of failure.  A man took care of his family.  A man provided food and shelter and protection from harm… and Farook had not.  So when these people had approached him and given a name to those who had taken his family, reminded him of his duty to retribution, he had grasped it like a falling man.  He had embraced their offer of vengeance with the hope it would make things right, and bring an end to his anguished life on earth.

The body was an imperfect vessel for the soul, it cared for little but its own safety and satisfying its own appetites.  It had its own fears and displayed them in shaking hands.  It made him feel light-headed and dizzy.  It made him feel like there was not enough air in the entire world to fill his lungs.  It made it hard to think clearly, now, when it mattered so much.

He doubted the mullahs, the messenger Muhammad, the Quran, doubts he kept to himself.  He could not read the Quran for himself because he could not read.  He had only the words of others to tell him what it said.  The mullah said Muhammad said the words in the Quran came from Allah himself.  The mullah said all the wisest men said Muhammad spoke the truth.  Farook had heard this all his life and accepted it.  His father had said it, everyone said it.

All these things were said by men, but men were flawed, men lied, men blew up houses where mothers and wives and children lived.  Men said Muhammad said God said killing was wrong.  At least they had when he was a boy.  Now men said Farook should kill people he did not know.  Not just other men, not even soldiers, he should kill mothers and wives and children himself.  And he doubted them, because they were men.

Farook had never thought about religion deeply.  It was just there, in the landscape, like the mountains.  It was how people greeted one another, how the passage of time was measured and how people measured each other, though they had other ways too.  He said the words when he prayed, but his thoughts went to his family and his life, not to Mecca.  To pray was to stop what you were doing, bow your head and think of more important things for a moment.

One day, when he was a small boy, a man on a horse ran by Farook and his uncle while they were walking down a sandy road.  The horse was running swiftly and the man was leaning forward, pressing the horse’s neck.  The man’s mouth was open.  He looked breathlessly surprised and pleased.

His uncle turned to Farook.  “That man is a fool,” he said. “He should be married by now, but he has spent all his money buying that horse and all his time racing around on it.  He has no real use for a horse except to ride around on it, but if you ask him why he has done such a foolish thing, he will say ‘Allah is in the wind, and if Allah will not come to me, then I will run to Allah’.”

His uncle smiled, some teeth missing, others brown and worn.  Then he laughed and threw out his hand after the man and horse.  “Fine then, I give you the wind!” he called, laughing again.

When he had first been instructed in how to pray, Farook had gone through the motions to please and honor his father.  Once, he had even silently apologized for his deceit, asked God to forgive him for his disbelief.  That he would do so had briefly puzzled him, but he soon forgot it.

After the bombing, when he demanded to know why his family had died, he remembered… remembered he had apologized because he felt the presence of something, and felt it still, that something great existed in the world, was the world, was like the landscape and the mountains and the way people greeted each other.  It was that something he pressed for an answer to murder, and that gave him only questions.  Who could know what it all meant?

Perhaps the men who spoke of God were mistaken in their own understanding.  Perhaps they were liars keeping secrets.

Farook longed for an end to his pain.  He was ashamed of his failure as a man.  He was ashamed of his anger, though he still felt that too.  He did not want to kill strangers, the mothers and wives and children of strangers.  He knew if he spoke any of this now, these people would kill him.  They would call him Farook, the coward, the one who let his family be destroyed and did nothing.

They were putting the heavy vest on him now, showing him how to detonate it.  They were telling him he was a hero, a martyr of Islam, that Allah would be pleased with him.  And they were watching him very closely.

They would drive him to the edge of the market.  He would walk to the crowded center and blow himself up.  That was the plan.

The thing he must do settled on him with the vest.  He felt the muscles in his legs and back receive the weight.  His breath was deep and steady.  He was strangely calm.  “I am ready,” he said.  “I will do my best to please Allah.”  These people smiled and said soothing words and touched him on the shoulder.

During the car ride to the market he fell asleep.  He dreamed of his daughter and that he would never have to tell her he had killed children.  He dreamed that she forgave him for letting her die so young.  They woke him up and nudged him out of the car, told him to go with God.  He walked two blocks to the market.  He walked through the market and down to the river.  He climbed over the low wall and slid down the bank to the water.

The water was dancing with reflected sunlight.  Two boatmen smiled and waved to him as they drifted past.  He waved back.  He thanked Allah for giving him life, hard as it was.  He thanked his father and mother and wife and daughter.  He thanked the man who had helped him when his goats were sick, and the women who had helped deliver his child.  The world was beautiful.  He was sorry to leave it, relieved to do it alone.  He knelt at the edge of the river and put his hand in its flowing coolness.

May we all find peace, he thought, and squeezed the detonator.

***

The 92M understood that he had essentially two jobs as a mortuary specialist: to suffer, and to return dignity to the dead, and so to the living.

It had taken him a while to understand this, the suffering came first.  The 92M was pretty sure the suffering and the living and the dignity were inseparable, from now on anyway, but he had taken the job and so he would do it.

The mortuary was cool and clean, they worked hard at keeping it clean.  The smell was scorched decay, industrial antiseptic, tang of the citric deodorizer they put in the swamp coolers, blowing a steady cool breeze of desert air through, their fans spinning, humming soothingly.

The commander told them this morning he had tried to get them a Valorous Unit Award, like a Silver Star for the bunch of them, but it wasn’t going to happen, the word came down that someone thought it sent the wrong message, I’m sorry, I think you should get it, that’s all, carry on, went around and told everybody in little groups so he didn’t disturb their work too much, but his message ran ahead of him, and people stopped and gathered when they saw him coming, and they said thanks anyway sir, but still it was hard news to take.

The 92M was up for some Pink Floyd today, just the right blend of outrage and heartbreak and beauty, that guitar, man, said it all.  Maybe some Jimi Hendrix later, keep him going till lunch time.

He had a choice now.  That one came from a burned vehicle, the charred fingers broken off the steering wheel.  But here’s one that still looks human, easier on the soul, usually, sometimes they still have that last look on their faces, but heck, even then, sometimes they surprise you, look serene, or just sleeping.  You could say they all had a bad day, some handled the moment better than others.  Serene was easier to look at, but that would probably get creepy too, if you saw too much of it.  How much happiness could there be in being dead?

The paperwork says this fellow here was a suicide bomber wearing a vest that malfunctioned, only part of it went off.  The vest was gone now, but the 92M could kind of picture it by the damage, how it must have been.  A suicide to be proud of, go off by yourself, well done, see, found something to like about you already.  The dude looked like he was thinking some serious shit, not mad but fierce, kind of had that noble savage thing going, like these people could do so well, make you feel like the world you lived in wasn’t quite real, just like Pink Floyd.  Well ok partner, let’s get you cleaned up and see if we can learn your name.

There was nothing in his clothes to identify him, no keepsakes or amulets to protect him from the evil in the world, gone out the way he came in, alone and on his own, no evidence of his buds or kin, well, except the shapes and lines in his face, some old scars, everything and everybody left some kind of mark on you.

The 92M was washing him off now, blood and bits of flesh making their way to the drain in the floor, massaging his face gently, help him relax just a little, now that it was all over, remember the good times, why any of it meant anything, why it was worth it, why you’d do it again if you had the chance, and there it is right now, that guitar, man, calling out to you with those high notes, almost pleading, can you hear it?

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