Prairie Fire, Summer 2003 (winner, Creative Nonfiction award)
Stumbling through the darkness I cursed Kabul. A city of half a million and they didn’t even have street lights. Shapes slipped by me, caught briefly in the glare of naked bulbs strung between the buildings. Where was the damn bus station? The air felt thin and had a bite to it. I knew Kabul was the same altitude as the Columbia Icefields, but here the glacier breeze was choked by diesel exhaust and the smoke of charcoal burners. I walked up to an unmarked shed. This seemed to be the place. Inside the only light came from the grate of an iron stove. Men huddled about it, and off to the side one man sat alone at a small rough table. He looked no different from the rest in his shalwar kamiz and coarse wool coat, but he had the table and some scraps of coloured paper in front of him.
“Kandahar?” I asked.
“Sixty,” he said in English. Sixty Afghanis. This bus ticket would cost me at least twice what an Afghan would pay but I didn’t argue. I’d worked in Banff and figured gouging foreigners was fair. I shouldered my knapsack and clanged up the steel steps. A murmur swept through the bus. I’d had to get used to being stared at, having a crowd collect around me whenever I stopped. I worked my way through the hands that reached into the aisle, found a seat and slumped against the window. It was too frosted to look out, so I pulled out my book and pretended to read, ignoring the rising voices.
Where was the driver? They were banging their boots on the floor of the bus now, and chanting. I was getting worried, and I wondered again just what I was doing here. It was 1972 and I had spent three months wandering through Europe in a Volkswagen van. I felt like I had been ticking off chores on a list: Eiffel Tower? check; canals of Venice? check; the Parthenon? check. check. I wanted something more than the familiarly unfamiliar, I wanted to encounter the exotic, I wanted culture shock. Now I wasn’t so sure. And these people (why were they chanting? were they angry?), I didn’t even know if they were called ‘Afghanis’ or ‘Afghans’. The currency was ‘Afghanis’, I knew that for sure. ‘Afghan’ I’d always known as the knitted wool blanket my grandmother kept by her chair. Perhaps ‘Afghan’ is only an adjective, I thought, trying to focus my mind and ignore the rising voices around me.
Suddenly everyone lunged to my side of the bus. The man across the aisle leapt into the next seat and leaned across me. But he wasn’t even looking at me. I was forgotten – they were all peering through the windows, gesticulating and talking intensely, nervously. Then as suddenly they fell back in their seats, silent.
Clang. Thump. “Damn these steps. Hand me the bag.” American accent. Eastern seaboard.
He stood centre-aisle, looking down the rows, and we all stared back at him, this apparition. He wore a camel-hair sports jacket and tweed pants, nicely coordinated with an off-white cable-knit pullover – the young squire perfectly turned out for a stroll round the estate. All he needed to complete the ensemble was a faithful dog, but on his left hand he wore a thick leather gauntlet reaching to his elbow, and on his arm two hawks, in leather hoods. Then a young woman appeared behind him, slender, taller, with perfectly-brushed blonde hair that fell to the middle of her back. She too wore tweeds, and on her left arm, held out with aristocratic ease, like a model on a runway displaying the latest Louis Vuitton handbag, she carried a hawk. I later learned that hawks are sacred in the East, that they have a mystic power, and that they never belong to women, but the sudden complete silence in the bus told me enough. The couple worked their way down the aisle and stopped by my seat.
“Would you mind moving?” he said, “So my wife and I can sit together.”
Oh Christ, I thought miserably, Why me? I don’t even like pigeons.
“Where?” I asked. I hadn’t seen any other seats and more people were getting on the bus behind them.
“Out here in the aisle.” He gestured with a patrician air to the fold-down jump-seats. They were narrow and thinly padded, with low backs. This would be a long ride. Afghanistan isn’t that big – if you took Manitoba and shaped it like a leaf you’d have a fair idea of its size. But though it was only 500 km from Kabul to Kandahar, the distance from Toronto to Montreal, the journey would take over twelve hours. And this was the express bus. The country felt vast to me.
“All right,” I said. At least I could stretch my legs.
He turned back to me and thrust out his hand. “I haven’t properly introduced myself. Donovan Smith, of Philadelphia. And this is my wife Karen.” She nodded, I nodded back, and told Donovan my name, but he was already settling the hawks and didn’t seem to listen.
It got colder instead of warmer when the bus began to move. I took off my boots, and wriggled into my sleeping bag, using my knapsack as a footrest to keep it off the grimy floor. The man on my other side was chewing tobacco and spitting great brown gobs onto the floor in front of him. I tried to ignore it but the gobs strayed close to my sleeping bag and I didn’t want it caked with spittle by the end of the trip.
Another near miss. Should I say something? Or should I just forget it? I closed my eyes and tried to forget about it.
I knew I’d be monitoring every slimy projectile all the way to Kandahar.
“Excuse me,” I said, tapping him on the shoulder and smiling. I gestured toward my sleeping bag and his floor.
“I’m just afraid some might get on it,” I said earnestly, knowing full well he understood no English.
“Balee,” he nodded and smiled. He was sitting cross-legged on the seat. I noticed for the first time that he was barefoot (and I still cold in my sleeping bag), and he reached down to the floor with his foot and brought up a tin like a small coffee can gripped between a prehensile-like big toe and the next one. He gestured toward me, smiled, and Phtt!, slung another blob into the can, and before putting it down with his foot. I understood. He hadn’t been spitting on the floor; the ignorance was mine. I smiled and thanked him, “Mutashakkir.”
Except for buying fruit in the market this was my first real exchange with anyone in Afghanistan. All the way out from Istanbul I’d kept my distance, looking at every scene through a mental viewfinder. I wanted to be a photographer and take beautifully-composed pictures like they had in National Geographic. I became practiced in the quick shot – taking my light reading nearby, then with camera cocked, held in one hand against the outer thigh like a bootlegging quarterback looking for a receiver, I’d stroll by my target, swivel-plant-and-shoot in one fluid motion, then drop back into a casual slouch and stride on. I thought I was being unobtrusive, a cross between a skilled photojournalist and a secret agent. I see now I must have looked comic. In the markets extra people kept trying to get into the shot, like the little girl edging in from the right on the orange seller, or the young man I couldn’t get rid of, shyly twisting his fingers but determined to be included. What pictures would I have now if I had let them in?
As we rattled south across the bleak plains I tried to doze, tried not to think of Crete and the bus rides from Heraklion through the olive orchards on the mountains, down to the enfolding bay of Aghios Nikolaos. I wanted to be instantly there. I was tired, I had a cold, and the intestinal agonies that plagued everyone else had finally caught up with me in Kabul. I nibbled a tea biscuit, they steadied the stomach.
Sometimes the bus moaned to a halt in empty desert. Bandits, I wondered? I’d heard two diplomats had been killed on this road the week before, though another version of the story said the year before, and the whole thing seemed somehow connected with the slaughter of the British in the retreat from Kabul in 1842. I was too uncomfortable to really care. The bus drivers all carried rifles and wore bullet bandoleers slung across their chests. Maybe they’d shoot Donovan and I could have my seat back. Sometimes we stopped at nomad encampments at the side of the road, their dark brown tents echoing the line of dun-coloured mountains behind. Children played around big piles of wood stacked in front of the tents. In Herat I had met two dope dealers from Montreal, a tall Anglo and a short Quebecois, who, though constantly stoned, had been out here many times before. I’d asked them why these people camped by the side of the road.
“They’re not camped, they’re selling firewood. They collect it and bring it to the highway to sell.” Ah, I had thought, sort of like those private campgrounds in B.C. where they tie up little bundles of birch in coloured binder twine and charge you extortionate prices. Yet it was not just that they were using camels instead of pickup trucks. I realized I had not seen a tree since we left Kabul. Behind the nomads and their piles of cord wood the land stretched like a great gravel pit to the unforested mountains behind. There was no vegetation except low scrub. How far had the nomads travelled to collect this wood?
Occasionally I glimpsed a town outside, all mud huts, like mushrooms that had risen from the plain, rounded at the edges, not like the clean white cubes of Greece. Here everything was brown, and the buildings had made it only halfway out of the earth before beginning to crumble back again. Most things seemed somewhat shambling to me in Afghanistan. We had seen the royal entourage near Herat – a half-dozen old American cars. “That’s the king,” the big dope dealer had said, pointing to a ’52 Chevy, “Zahir.” I craned for a glimpse. Was it really the king? Zahir didn’t know it and neither did I but six months later while he was in Rome the military would take over.
Now the road was crowded. We passed camels and horse-drawn carts, while trucks wildly decorated with tassels and buses wildly decorated with people passed us, the buses roaring by on the flat desert beside the road, throwing up plumes of dust that covered the hangers-on. These vehicles were the local inter-village transport. One fare to ride inside, one to ride out on the roof, and I don’t know what to stand on the bumper, or, amazingly, cling to the rain gutter and jam your toes into the window ledge as the bus weaved round bushes and bounced over rocks. My jump-seat now seemed luxurious.
At last the jolting stopped. It felt like we’d been crammed into a giant paint-mixer, shaken for twelve hours, and poured out again. I stood stiffly, stretching out the kinks, trying to remember where I’d stayed last time. The usual crowd of boys swarmed around crying, “Baksheesh!” “Cigarette!” and offering to carry my knapsack.
“Burrah!” I growled. I didn’t know what it meant really, and had no idea what it sounded like to them. A Scotsman had taught me the term and said it meant something between “Get lost” and “Go fuck yourself.” I was probably pronouncing the Farsi with a Glaswegian accent, but it worked most of the time.
“Can you help me? I have some luggage,” said Donovan, already handing me a bag.
“I’ll take the antique shotguns,” he said. “Careful!” He lunged forward to take them from the driver who was tossing bags out into the road. “And two suitcases. Karen can manage the cages and one suitcase. Can you handle the other three?”
Sure. I slung my knapsack onto one shoulder. “Don’t let them touch those!” the boys were swarming round us now, the other passengers had drifted off. “This is a food riot, that’s what it is. Those people are like hungry wolves.”
“They just want to carry our bags,” I said. “Most people don’t have anything to carry – you have eight pieces. Besides, you have the birds. We look like good money.”
“Oh,” he blinked. “Well, I don’t want them to touch anything. But there.” He gave a few Afghani coins to the nearest boys. “Burrah!” They fell back, though they followed us across the street to the hotel. “You’ll stay with us?” he said. He turned to the desk clerk, “Three,” he said without waiting for my answer. We carried the gear upstairs and stacked it at the end of the small room.
“There’s a good restaurant on the central square,” said Donovan. “They sell hamburgers.”
“We need fresh meat for the hawks,” said Karen.
“Of course. We’ll get that at the restaurant.”
We took a tonga, a horse-drawn cart with one seat facing front and one facing back. I got the back-facing seat but I didn’t mind; it bounced gently as the horse clopped along, and I watched the scene of camels and merchants unfurl as we passed down the wide thoroughfare. Over the meal we exchanged the usual travellers’ biographies. Donovan had become interested in hawks in the States, and had learned that the art of falconry was practised most purely in Arabia and in Pakistan. And so, for their honeymoon, he had taken Karen to Pakistan.
“It’s the purest form of hunting,” he said. “The bird becomes an extension of you, is an extension of you. Do you know how hawks are trained? You take the young birds, females preferably – in all species of hawk the female is larger and more powerful than the male, called a tiercel because he’s one-third smaller than the female – and you deprive them of food and sleep. They must come to you for food, and you don’t let them sleep. You must stay awake as well. No one else can train the hawk for you. You become exhausted, and the bird knows this too, do you see? After that you begin to work with a long line, the creance, letting her go wider and wider.”
“‘Perne in a gyre’, eh?” I said, my mouth full of hamburger.
“Nothing. It’s from a Yeats poem with a falcon in it.”
“So after that the bird becomes totally under your command. It’s still wild, still a hunter, but it won’t stray from its master.”
Karen turned to Donovan. “They will be hungry.”
“Yes, yes! Fresh meat! Where’s the manager?” He jumped up and went off toward the kitchen.
Karen and I sat in silence.
Suddenly Donovan came charging back in.
“Steak! I have real steak! Amazing. Look at this.” He folded back the oiled paper to reveal a magnificent chunk of sirloin. I didn’t ask what it cost. He was happy now and more expansive, and as we strode back to the hotel he said, “So you’re interested in literature. There’s something I must show you. Something that will interest you very much. You know French literature?”
One summer I had wandered about with Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal in my pocket, darkly muttering “hypocrite lecteur” from time to time, but no, I didn’t know it.
“Balzac. You must read Balzac.” Balzac was very long I remembered. When we reached the room Donovan rummaged in one of the bags. “It’s here somewhere.”
“I’ll feed the birds,” said Karen.
“Here it is. Balzac’s Contes.”
Karen had taken her bird out of the cage and sat on the bed opposite us. I don’t know how I imagined hawks were fed. I guess I would have said you just open a can of hawk food and put it in their dish, if I’d thought about it, which I hadn’t. I was a bit nervous being this close to the bird in the small room.
“His psychology is amazing, just amazing…”
I could see the leather traces tied round its ankles (do hawks have ankles? I wondered) and the scarred gauntlet of the leather glove where it gripped Karen’s arm. Over his shoulder I could see Karen undoing the hood with her free hand.
“…he really understands women…”
As she slipped off the hood her breathing seemed to quicken slightly. Or maybe it was my own. I was conscious of the rise and fall of her breasts under her sweater, and of the way the light from the small lamp caught the highlights in her hair and in the plumage on the breast of the bird. Then the hood was off. The bird shook its head and turned its bright eyes on me. I jumped slightly. Donovan didn’t notice. Karen was oblivious, absorbed in the hawk
“…the heart, no, deeper, the impulses deeper than the heart. It’s not that they’re evil, but there’s a side that we men don’t have, the darker…”
She took a chunk of the meat and held it tightly in her gloved fist. The bird bent toward it, and then, with a swift snap, broke off a piece and straightened up. This was not like watching a budgie open sunflower seeds. The bird would bend, slowly at first, then swiftly, deeper, snap, and then straighten up. It was a beautiful motion.
“…the demonic aspect manifests more easily…”
Absolutely pure, absolutely efficient. Nothing wasted – the force gathered through the acceleration and at the snap the whole power of the bird was in its beak, in the tip of its beak, and then a moment later the bird was completely relaxed. Beautiful. Terrifying.
“Ah yes,” said Donovan, who had followed my gaze. “The killing stroke. You see that little hook at the end of the beak? That’s what they use to slice the spinal cord. They hold the prey in their talons then snap the cord at the back of the neck.”
“And do you always feed them this way?”
“Oh, yes, you have to. Unless you have a whole animal to give them. It’s hard for them to work with small pieces.”
“Part of the bonding too, I suppose.”
“Yes. But,” he resumed, turning back to me, “you must read this story.”
“I will,” I interrupted. “In fact why don’t I let you finish the feeding and I’ll go down and get some tea. I’ll take this with me.”
When I came back, the birds were in their cages, and Karen was in bed, her face turned to the wall.
Donovan spoke softly. “The birds won’t disturb you. They may rustle a bit but they won’t disturb you.”
“Sure,” I said. I got into bed and lay there uneasily as he clicked off the light.
The next day I got on the bus early, grabbed a seat, put my pack beside me, and leaned my head against the window. I closed my eyes emphatically in what I hoped was the international posture of Man in Deep Sleep.
“Do you want some bread?” said Donovan. He’d taken the seat behind me.
“No thanks,” I said, eyes still closed. I’d already got some from the bakery near the bus station. Afghan flat bread was the best travel food; thick and crunchy, you could roll it like corrugated cardboard and stick in your pack. Donovan chattered away. Then he paused to light a cigarette and offered me one.
“No thanks,” I said. An Afghani man in front of me leaned back over the seat, said something to Donovan in Farsi, and signed that he would like the cigarette.
“Oh, why not,” said Donovan, giving it to him without looking at him.
The man smiled, nodded, and offered Donovan some bread.
“No thanks,” said Donovan, brushing the bread and man off. He went on talking to me, though I was still pretending to try to doze.
The man offered again, thrusting a slab of bread under Donovan’s nose.
“No,” said Donovan, waving it aside. “Can’t he see I have my own?”
The bread came back and Donovan ignored it, talking to me trying to ignore him.
Again and again the bread came back and each time Donovan pushed it away.
Finally the man, now turned and kneeling on his seat, reached right over me and jabbed the stiff crust into Donovan’s chest.
“Goddam it, no!” he shouted, now glaring at the man.
Passengers nearby started to mutter. I sat up.
“Donovan. Take the bloody bread. You gave him a cigarette. He gives you bread. Get it? He has to reciprocate. It doesn’t matter that you already have some. He can’t enjoy his smoke until you take something from him.”
“Oh,” he said, “I see. All right.” He took the bread, still hovering over my head, and smiling earnestly said, “Yes, thank you, thank you very much.”
The man smiled happily and disappeared back into his seat. As the smoke from his cigarette drifted over the headrest Donovan said, “Say, you really understand these people.”
I didn’t, but at least I was beginning to figure out how much I did not. Donovan seemed cheerfully unaware. Oh well, I thought, he’s harmless.
A man with a hawk. Even at the time it seemed almost too symbolic. That’s the trouble with life, I thought, it makes such clumsy art. But it’s also slippery, and my encounters in Afghanistan kept coming back to me, explicit as parables, elusive as dreams. I know that I scribbled in my journal that night about the femme fatale, the ice blonde who never spoke, who fed raw meat to hawks while her husband rambled on about the demonic nature of woman. But when we got to Istanbul and I finally had a conversation with Karen I found she wasn’t demonic at all. Just quiet, but not like a hawk. Back in Greece when I developed my pictures of Afghanistan they looked stilted to me, and seemed always to just miss what I had been trying to catch, yet I still was not sure what that was. Not National Geographic, but what? And though the self-assured Donovan had annoyed me, I saw that by pushing me into the aisle he pushed me into contact with the Afghans. That jump-seat ride had jolted me out of the box a little way – the discovery that my companion spitting into the tin was the more courteous one, and worse, that my tucking the sleeping bag away from the spit echoed, more closely than I liked, the motions of my fussy British grandmother settling her Afghan around her legs. So, though annoyed, I was grateful.
Travel, sooner or later, leads you back to books. I came across Richard Burton’s little book, Falconry in the Valley of the Indus, published in 1852, reissued with an introduction by Christopher Ondaatje. Burton set me straight on the difference between hawks and falcons: hawks have short, rounded wings and falcons have long, pointed wings. And where hawks “pursue the game in a horizontal line,” falcons “swoop from the air upon the quarry with the rapidity of lightning, and fell it to earth with a single stroke of their powerful avillons, or hand-talons.” Burton concludes with a cheerfully bloodthirsty report of a bird bringing down a gazelle, first striking its eyes out with its talons, and then pecking it until, weakened by loss of blood, the gazelle could be finished off by the greyhounds. The account made me think of accounts I’d read of the Afghan mujaheddin attacking Russian convoys in the Panjshir valley north of Kabul, using their height to harry their quarry, striking again and again, keeping out of the way of the heavy artillery until the units of the convoy, now separated and weakened, could be picked off one by one.
Donovan was in his early 20s then, now he’d be in his early 50s. Wealthy and well-connected, would he be in government? Brushing aside local customs with the same way he’d brushed aside the bread – not with malice, just incomprehension. An incomprehension that seemed innocent, but now, with the reports of bombed wedding feasts and other well-meant murders, seems more complex. The discussion of the hawks, with their beautiful killing stroke – would he be extolling the aesthetics of the F-16s and smart bombs, the parabolic grace of their delivery arc? And the action I thought so little of at the time: his asking me to move, with the assumption that his priority was so self-evident that it needed no explaining, and the way I did it, unquestioning. What did that mean? The courteous Canadian, giving up his place to the prior claim of the American – a prior claim announced belatedly and never explained? And then the way I, dislodged, rationalized it as all for the good. I’d learned something new about Afghanistan hadn’t I? Or was this an emblem of Americans putting us on the jump-seat and taking us on their ride? Or not. Each time I look back it gives a slight turn to the kaleidoscope and the pieces fall differently.
At the back of the bus the two Montreal dope dealers, who were wearing new shoes packed with hashish in the soles and heels, were cackling happily. I’d heard the Kandahar product was the best. Then they began a chant, a story they told with delight and surprise and infinite variation, making each line fresh as if they’d just thought it up:
It was a dark and stormy night.
And round the fire were brigands.
Brigands short, and brigands tall.
Brigands large, and brigands small.
And Antonio said to the captain,
“Captain, tell us a story.”
I shifted my pack around to use as a pillow.
And the Captain said,
“It was a dark and storrrrrmy night.
And round the fire were brigands.
The chant started to bring on the sleep the hawks had disturbed.
Brigands short, and brigands TALL.
Brigands LARGE and brigands small.
And Antonio said to the captain,
“Captain, tell us a story.”
My eyes closed for real now. Donovan had disappeared into his seat.
And the Captain said,
“It was a dark and stormy night.
And round the fire were brigands…
I gazed at the desert as the bus rattled north to Herat, soothed by these nursery-rhyme brigands and their circular tale.