The day I left, the President spoke plainly. Make history, he said, but first meet your quotas. The problem, it seems, was in my translation. My initial orders were to cancel local elections, make a list of those who would testify against the language, look for anthrax in the kitchen, submarines in the desert and missiles inside paper lanterns. At least that’s what I heard. Upon submitting my report, I was further instructed to record the coordinates of factories still standing and their capacity to get in the way of the money, or what the contractors here called the real money. I was given discretion to meet with spokespeople of every description, relay promises and threats. Clean the streets and distribute food for the camera, nothing in the thousands, things among things.
The day after my arrival Aban reported for work. When he was not with me or scouring the hills of Afghanistan he sold Western trinkets in a bombed-out building fifty or so yards from the palace. A distance now measured in the blessed calculus of a smart bomb. I live by the knife, he said, for fear of losing his Texan stipend. His job was to help distribute shrink-wrapped cash from Texas to the people he knew could influence events. The money arrived with Swiss precision, armoured and burlapped for favour and sway. Aban dispensed it, at his whim and pleasure, from a plastic chair in the courtyard of our office next to the market. He decided what their stories were worth, I collected the words and sent them back to Texas.
Every morning Aban insisted that we leave before lunch. For breakfast we would have tea, and biscuits he pulled from his pocket, two for me, and two for him. He refused to eat in the cafeteria. There is pork and the food is shit. Our meals were prepared daily by his friends who worked in the market. As we ate he gave voice to every thought in his head, his tongue rummaging the ashes for information a diplomat might not uncover. The secret, he said, is what we want and cannot have, is what we are. Apparently we don’t have an eye for beginnings, and what follows understanding is death. At day’s end he gave me my dinner, wrapped, to eat in my room.
Today is Sunday, or Monday, between sunup and sunset is where I look for the things that I could stop doing. I’m saving the nights for when there are none. I came to this country with notion and syntax to bridge a massacre, to reconcile events with their non-occurrence. I do not know that now, now I am only here. In a car it seems, there was some shooting. My capture was a simple unfolding, certain and without ceremony. I was hooded and tied in the first rays of an autumn sun. Aban died without a whisper while sitting on a plastic chair in the sights of an adolescent in Nike shoes and the bandana to match, brandishing an AK-47. A reliable gun and my favourite because the inventor also wrote poetry. In Aban’s hand was the blade that he lived by.
If you’re looking for justification, Carl Rove once told me, it is best to work backwards from what is intended. Our reasons for invading this country were formed of empty imaginings and perfectly timed for the next election. It takes a war to prevent a war. In anguish a man will cut his neighbour but he won’t face a tank with a slingshot. A child will. Children are stronger than tanks. My job was to show these people that they could not escape our stake in this place. Honour and valour, right foot march, right foot, right foot, this will be the best campaign ever. I have served, among other places, in Compton and Detroit. I watched and reported what the people were saying as they set fire to themselves.
In Westminster Abbey it is said that God and Empire do not rejoice in the annihilation of the living. The day before they killed Lorca I told him he would live forever. Truth makes a mockery of death. On my way to London or Istanbul I decided all explanation is an affront to affliction. I used to carry a map of the last several centuries charted by hunchbacks, poets who would empty a glass and move slowly through the fire. I have been speaking with those who lived before me on the streets of British Calcutta. They have risen and are living within striking distance of Notting Hill. What of our legacy they ask. Your affairs have been cancelled, your children have received the new king.
This is an ancient city, my abductors are calm and focused on the route vanishing in the cuts, the flaws of dead engineers. I’m looking to slip through the zero in their calculations. Knotted and blindfolded I cannot brace or anticipate the car’s turning. I am a rag in a Mercedes with a reputation for holding the road. But for the soldiers on either side I would fly into the wind, a brief stopover in Paris perhaps and then on to New York. In the courtyard Aban’s friends will have closed his eyes, covered him in clean white linen. If not for our collaboration he’d be on his way to paradise, but I don’t think he’d be happy there. It’s too simple a place.
For these good soldiers, my captors, there are situations until the end. They have no need for the coming century because there was one before this one, and better dynasties. Jewelled virgins and pillows, silk birds under heaven will show them the way home, and the line they cannot cross. In the car we evade near encounters with Texas patrols and review protocol. The prospect of being pulled over provokes only fear, as I would be killed immediately, a toll to the hereafter. The instructions are as follows: if captured, the combatant to my right will kill me, if he is killed first the responsibility will shift to the left. The last man standing will kill the wounded, if any, and then himself – got it.
On arrival everyone is a little unhinged but pleased to be reunited with others who I assume are part of the same fighting unit. They are stationed in what seems to be a large stately residence transplanted from Boston or the English countryside. I cannot account for its wood structure or red brick facade. Clearly it had known better days. On the roof is a tarp, the aluminium eaves and steel railings have been picked clean and probably sold for scrap. A youngish man in his early thirties brings food and water, collects ancillary weapons and gear from two cars that had been equipped for my capture. They call him Hakim. He sets up a tripod and a camera in a small supplementary building while the celebration of my abduction subsides. In time there will be demands and no discussion, silence open and abundant.
After the filming Hakim escorted me to my prison room. A kitchen, large and clear for the pacing that will gather the day and scatter the night. An appendage to the main house, an afterthought with no consideration given to a Victorian aesthetic. The door is a wood slab secured by rusting hardware, the walls grey stone and mortar. In the middle hangs a naked bulb. Against the wall opposite the door is a stone fireplace with logs half eaten, hooks for small game and a table with two chairs that don’t match, torn. Ancient pots blackened and pending from a steel grid, blacker still over wine-spattered concrete. In a corner lies a simple cot. There are cracks from the war and a small window to see the east rising. I begin in the west. The stones under my feet are irregular but I measure the posting of each step to forget it.
When I am not pacing I sit in silence, in the condition of such and such a person missing, one among millions. The future is rusting beneath the thistle, gaining on some abandoned railroad. When I came to this country I was armed to the teeth, that’s how they knew I was friendly. They will kill me. I am an envoy of trifling status and of no consequence to either side of the question. They have a camera, a script, a corpse and then another – basic things. On arrival I am cast and made to kneel. The story will be tendered first to Texas, an exchange that will not be made and then to some gaping deity. It is important my performance be sincere, quietly I rehearse the script. I do not want to die. Cut to this room where I will wait, but I don’t mind the delay. There are so many things on which I can meditate.