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Toward the back of the area the corpses became exotic. One was struck by a massive bullet in the stomach. The bullet had ripped through the innards and the burnt tips of his severed bowels stuck out. Next to him lay a beheaded corpse, the head put neatly upon the chest, the eyes open, looking aslant to the left, where another young man was flattened in the torso and untouched on head and legs, the trace of tank chain writ large over the flat torso.
After the initial excitement in the minefield, one appreciated the peace here. It was clearly inspired by the necessity of ceasefire to keep the enthusiasm alive.
Mr. Shahamat, holding his wife’s hand, sauntered from corpse to corpse. The woman glittered with jewelry. Dr. Javaheri, taking his cue from Dr. Sepassi, had deployed his expertise and attracted an audience. His big handsome sons, clad in identical gray suits and black ties, were standing at his sides like bodyguards. The doctor was giving a talk about the latest scholarship on the decomposing process to a rapt audience. Further down, a university math professor and his nerdy daughter were calculating the rate at which the worms were nibbling away at corpses. The level of civility in public discourse was striking.
Beyond the corpses, the mayor was waiting. He was standing far from the exit. He looked like a garish red scarecrow pointlessly erected in a barren land. When the last man was out of the corpse section, the mayor marched ahead and we all followed him to a mound with what looked like a cave from a distance, but as we got closer, I saw was a mouth to a tunnel.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said. His voice was tired and huskier than before, which gave it a soothing tone. “The section you are about to visit is the one of which we are the most proud. Previously, you got a taste of the facts of war, a sample of its risks and dangers. Here we take you inside the mind fighting on the frontline. Please step into the tunnel.”
Whether due to obesity or to create suspense, the mayor was walking excruciatingly slowly. The crowd had fallen into absolute silence, save for the rustle of pants and dresses.
Every one of us that stepped out of the tunnel skipped a heartbeat. The tunnel ended right at the edge of a ravine, a deep wide fissure carved at the heart of the wasteland and stretched on both sides for miles. A deep vast scar on the face of the earth in which blew the cold wind of death.
As the last person left of the tunnel, someone closed a metal door off behind us. Before us, a rickety wooden suspension bridge connected our side of the ravine to the other side.
The mayor delicately opened the small wooden gate at the mouth of the bridge, moved aside, and signaled the first person to cross.
We embarked on the bridge one by one. It creaked and trembled under our feet and swung in the breeze to give us full view of the abyss beneath. The ravine was dug like a wedge, wide at the top with two steep sides that met at the bottom on a line hardly wider than an average city street. It felt like walking across the opened mouth of a crocodile.
We were halfway across the bridge when the mayor spoke again. His voice was not as clear as before. He was blabbering about martyrdom and god. The wind, intensifying as we approached the middle of the bridge, plucked his words out of the air and took them away. Around me groans and grumbles broke out now and then, but it was quiet overall. People, drenched in sweat and red with fear, took every step with ultimate care, held tightly to the frayed rope and kept their heads down. Through the cracks we could see the dance of light on the bottom of the slopes, its reflection on soil and rock. No beam of light ricocheted off the dark line at the bottom, where the jaws of the crocodile met.
When the first line of visitors neared the end of the bridge, the shake happened. First a sound, like the roar of a truck engine, came from behind. Then the bridge heaved up and swung fast to the right. The ravine seemed to jump at us. The bridge reached its furthest point on the right and paused, giving us a chance to look vertically down to the bottom of the ravine.
Some of us were lucky to have held the rope tight at the moment the bridge swung. Most were not. Droves of people had slipped off the bridge, shrieking and dropping into the ravine like a flock of dead birds. They were mostly children. The rope was too high for them and they had to hold their parents’ hands. Mr. Javaheri’s young boy and Mr. Safavi’s teenage daughter, tumbled and grabbed for their mothers’ hands in the sky. Meticulously dressed men looked like falling gray rectangles. Women’s dresses spread in the air like wings of painted bats.
The bridge swung to the left, gathering velocity along the way. More people lost balance and fell. A woman slipped and her chignon of multi-colored hair flung open like a magnificent peacock tail. The bridge swung back, but this time we were prepared. After a few shorter swings, the bridge became stable again. The survivors were screaming, their noise interspersed by the crackling of bones and skulls shattering at the bottom, amplifying and surging back up to our ears. When the last body hit the bottom, silence descended on the ravine.
On the other side, we spread on the ground to rest. Some were crying and mourning, but overall the climate was positive. The experience turned out to be more authentic than anything we expected, and that gave us joy.
“Congratulations, ladies and gentleman!” The voice of the mayor came from the left. He had opened up his coat buttons, divulging the true enormity of his belly. He was standing at a distance, but his voice was as clear and loud as before the bridge. “Congratulations on your heroic journey so far. Now, if you stand with your back to the ravine, to the northeast, you will see a hillock. Please walk there and climb. That will be your last stop.”
Every one of us who reached the top of the hill was so stunned by the heat that our senses failed to grasp what was below. The first thing we saw was fire, avaricious and large, illuminating the barren soil. Then our eyes adjusted, and we saw the vehicles.
Hundreds of tanks and ambulances and trucks and jeeps and carriers were set aflame across the desert. The flames varied from small flickers to massive bonfires shooting up into the sky. It was scorching and suffocating, but like any other all-consuming fire, it exercised an irresistible pull. Men took off their coats and loosened their ties, women kicked off their heels and opened their collars, and we all rolled down the hill.
We hardly noticed the food before reaching the first burning tank. Among ranks of vehicles long tables were set up, all covered with hundreds of skinned, cleaned, fresh chickens on ornate silver trays, surrounded by knives and batches of skewers and bottles of arak. The crowd came to the tables and stopped and gazed at the food and then the vehicles. The tenderness of the naked meat had incited a primordial desire, a long dormant drive to tear carcasses apart, but they were still hesitant, as if waiting for an invitation to the tables.
Someone screamed. As if it was the bugle of war, the crowd charged at the food. Respectable men and women of our community picked up knives, yelled and howled like Vikings, and hacked into the carcasses. They picked the limbs apart, pushed their fingers into the meat and bone and rent it asunder, and impaled the pieces on skewers. They opened bottles of arak one by one. People took large swigs like it was water and passed them on to the next person.
When the pieces were properly impaled, the men, all of them already drunk, went around, each holding skewers in one hand and a bottle in another, in search of the right fire. They climbed tanks to access flames spewing from their hatches and roasted their chicken. The smell of alcohol mixed with the stench of grilled fat in the air. Someone had found a stack of blankets in an armored carrier and distributed them. The men climbed down the vehicles one by one, staggered along to their families and friends. The metal graveyard had turned into a park. People were talking. Almost all had lost someone during the visit, and the need for commiseration had brought us close.
I was gnawing at the grilled chicken and laughing drunkenly with others when a man caught my attention. He was surveying the vehicles and toting two large black bags that weighed him down. Along the way he sneaked glances into vehicles. I followed him. He was skinny and tall, with light brown hair and trimmed beard.
The man ended his survey of the vehicles by making an abrupt turn into a narrow space between two tanks. He strode down to an ambulance hidden from the visitors. He pulled a small package out of his bag and placed it on the back wheel of the ambulance. When he was done he turned and sprinted off to a truck nearby, put his other bag under the truck, and moved out of sight.
Another man with bags was there, a shorter and younger version of the one before. He threw his two bags into the open window of a truck and dashed around to the tank behind it.
I climbed on top of a burned-out tank that had a good view on the area and spotted twenty bag-carrying men. All of them were doing the same thing: dashing from vehicle to vehicle, making short pauses to place a package, and running off. They walked past laughing people tearing at chicken wings and drinking arak from the bottle, children climbing up and down burnt trucks. People were too drunk to pay attention.
I climbed down the tank and approached the ambulance. The small box was still there on the back wheel. I pulled it out. A heavy hard object wrapped in an impenetrable plastic. I shook it and listened. Nothing rattled inside. But it was ticking.
Blood froze in my veins. I dropped the box and ran off, turning between the vehicles, hitting against burnt hot metal and falling to the ground and rising in pain, all the way shouting “Bomb! Bomb! Bomb!” The visitors, drunk and settled on blankets, didn’t bother to lift their heads. The ones that did cursed under their breaths. A few complained loudly that I was ruining their hard-earned break.
I ran through a dense picnic spot, stepping over chicken skewers, kicking away arak bottles, knocking children out of the way. I was only a dozen feet from the last burning vehicles when the bomb went off.
When you live through a war you know what an explosion does to a body. Experiencing it is a whole other thing. It first came as taste. A bitter thick whiff assaulted my nostrils and clogged my throat. It tasted like blood and gunpowder. A strong pull on my left leg followed. It was as if I took off from a bear trap without knowing that my leg was stuck. Then a stabbing pain in the brain, two burning lines that came through the ears and met at the center of my forehead, like someone had pushed two hot spikes into my ears. Then something knocked my legs from under my body and tossed me in the air. I felt my organs spilling out of my skin. I hit the ground hard and opened my eyes, anticipating to see my flesh around me.
I can’t tell how long it took me to overcome the shock. My body found itself bit by bit. When I was whole again, I rose.
Of all the vehicles and people, only piles of shreds were left: small bits of bone, mangled limbs, hole-strewn torsos. Even the tanks were torn to pieces.
First it seemed that I was the only survivor, but others emerged. Through the receding smoke, about a dozen survivors rose from the debris. Clothes were torn and burnt. Their skin blackened and reddened. They reeled around in shock.
As the smoke cleared, I saw the mayor at the edge of the area. He talked through his smile.
“My dear fellow-citizens. You took this incredible journey and made it to this point. Many of you were honored with martyrdom along the way. They are now ascending into the embrace of god. For those of you who survived, the war is over. You can go back to your families and live the rest of your life in peace.”
The mayor clumsily waved farewell, turned around and shuffled off into the desert.
The survivors looked at each other, their looks fraught with fear. A young man bent down and rose with a half-burnt chicken bone, put it in his mouth and crunched away at it. The woman near me picked up another bone from the ground. She stared into my eyes, made a long lascivious lick on the charred bone, and smiled. I smiled back and looked around at other survivors. They smiled one by one.
I pointed to the mayor, who had become a moving red rectangle on the horizon. Then we staggered out of the ruin into the desert and attacked him.