Eric’s unit has to act now. The screener has intercepted a phone call. They’re sure it’s Tariq Mehsud. He’s one of the high-profile ones. There are only two soldiers still here in the trailer at the Ground Control Station. The others have left for the day. The sun must have sunk behind the rocky hills hours ago, but Eric cannot tell from this windowless metal box. The aged vinyl of the padded chair sticks to his flight suit; he has been sitting here for almost six hours now—nine, if you don’t count the ten-minute breaks. The group chat pings with a message: Weapons have been confirmed.
“We can’t lose him again,” someone says.
“Strike now!” A faceless voice issues the order into Eric’s headset. The last word is laced with more emphasis than anything he has heard in all his months here. This is why we’re here, he reminds himself . To protect. Mehsud is bad news.
Too much time slipped past while they stared at the video feed all day, sifting for any sign of suspicious activity, Eric thinks now. Most of the day has been a routine blur of images of dusty roads, bare rooftops, and muddy dirt trails. From the cramped darkness of a trailer no larger than a standard racecar, he has glimpsed the lives of people eight thousand miles away through images and videos that appear to belong to a clumsily curated collection. He has seen nameless men drinking their afternoon tea in courtyards; children playing soccer games dressed in jerseys emblazoned with Barcelona, Arsenal and Real Madrid logos—“Messi 10” read a striped blue-and-white jersey, “Ronaldo 7” proclaimed another—and combine harvesters ploughing golden fields with mechanical abandon.
The images on the screen before him are still bathed in warm sunlight. It is cold in here—a carefully maintained sixty-eight degrees, and the air permanently smells of cigarette smoke and stale sweat. Eric is struck once again by how different this feels from the action-packed training exercises from three months ago. Then, they obliterated cardboard towns with dummy Hellfires and flew Predators over the sweltering Nevada desert as the training inspector looked on. Now, they hover over unknown spaces miles away. The reality of the job is a stranger to the certainty of those trainings.
The video images run on the console before Eric, cordoned off into grids. A patchwork of brown, green and gold, blurred shapes and the target: a fuzzy figure with a white beard that is flecked with orange. Eric zooms in on Mehsud as Mehsud paces outside a brick house with a blue door, engaged in a phone conversation. The target moves back and forth in the little courtyard, kicking off clouds of dust with every step. His movements are frantic and his free hand gestures wildly as if he means for it to cut through the air. Eric feels Jake move in the seat beside him; he peers closer.
Eric switches the video feed to infrared and Mehsud is instantly stripped down to his heat signature, a stark white shape against the black ground. The machines hum in the quiet darkness and the smell of smoke lingers in the cold air.
Jake leans forward and aims the laser. A red dot blossoms on the screen. Eric presses the trigger on the joystick and his hand tremors. The countdown begins.
The video feed lies flat on the screen before them. It’s too grainy and too foreign to be real, to be now. Yet, it is. The thought unsettles Eric but he cannot linger because this moment won’t come again. They can’t afford to squander an opportunity like this one. Mehsud won’t risk another traceable call; this was a rare slip.
Another dark shape moves at the corner of the radius. Eric goes cold. He stutters his concern.
“It’s a sheep,” the screener reassures him through the headset.
Eric is not sure but his orders are clear. The screener knows what he’s doing. The countdown stops. The screen flashes white like a camera after the photographer issues the command to smile. A cloud of smoke erupts on the screen; it blankets the entire scene for a few short moments, painting it in strokes of grey and brown. The smoke begins to subside.
It is a clear day, the sky light blue as washed-out ink on aging school assignments. Araiz is surrounded by the familiar sounds of the fields: a mountain goat’s bleating, golden stalks rustling in the wind, and a low-flying drone buzzing overhead. The sounds of the aircrafts flying above the village have faded into white noise; at seventeen, they are as normal to the boy as the singing birds in the morning and chirping crickets after Maghrib.
It is a tedious job bundling the wheat. But there is something calming about the repetitive motion, meditative as mathematical tables had been in second grade. Araiz gathers up some of the rough straw left behind by the combine harvester, snips off a piece of string, wraps it around the wheat, ties a double knot, and sets it aside. He turns his head, taking in all the sights around the fields even as his hands maintain their mechanical rhythm. A cow stands by the water tank, its coat a black so shiny it looks recently slathered with tar. It swishes its tail back and forth. Araiz wonders where the rest of the herd has gone and whether the farmer has forgotten this one, left to idle grazing.
A few feet away, children hop one-legged in a chalky hopscotch grid on the pavement next to the white wall painted with the words of shahadah. A little boy grins triumphantly as he hops the length of the grid, eyes closed. He is about to step into the last square when he trips. The rest of the children immediately break into giggles. The boy gets up, dusts off his kameez and scowls at the others. In the distance, the unnatural green of army officers’ caps is just visible. Three of them stand clustered near the check-post today. Araiz looks away, turning his attention to the fields again as they turn a rustic gold in the waning sunlight. He notices the tall stalks are casting long shadows in the dirt and realizes it will be time for Asr prayers soon.
A door creaks open behind him and a man emerges from a building nearby, the one with the old door whose blue paint has peeled away to expose strips of cheap pinewood here and there. The man’s motions are agitated. He holds up his phone and waves it at the sky in the universal sign of “I’m not getting enough bars.” Then, he jabs a finger at the screen and presses the phone to his ear. A fat gold band glitters on his finger, reflecting sunlight in concentrated beams. Araiz can’t make out his words but he can tell they are inflected with impassioned urgency. The man’s henna-stained orange beard bobs with every exclamation. When he catches Araiz staring at him, he aims a precise glare in his direction. Araiz looks away immediately, knowing that it’s best not to provoke men like him.
The children have abandoned hopscotch, and they are now running circles around each other in a game of Aankh Macholee. A short boy with sandy brown hair is chasing the others; he has a bright pink dupatta wrapped around his head to cover his eyes. His every movement is hesitant, careful, measured. The boy who tripped earlier creeps up behind him, pokes him lightly, then runs away giggling. The blindfolded boy tries to catch him but he’s too slow without the advantage of his sight. Araiz reaches for another bundle of straw, wraps the string around it and ties a double knot. By the time he looks up again, the blindfolded boy has acquired considerable skill in the game; he runs after the others with confidence now; he is suddenly able to navigate his surroundings. Araiz assumes the knot on his makeshift blindfold has loosened (as it always inevitably does); it is evident that he is able to look at the ground now. Araiz turns his gaze back to the fields. This time he chooses to look at the vegetable patch a few paces away from where he sits.
That is when he sees her. The girl. Her head is bent in concentration, covered with a Kashmiri-chai-pink chador that casts a shadow over her face. A few tendrils of copper hair have escaped the chador and they glint in the sunlight like naked wires. She plucks okra from the small patch of crops. Her hands are surprisingly small—Araiz notices this even from the distance. Her long fingers make up for it, though, he thinks, nimble and efficient as they are. The straw basket beside her is almost brimming with okra that is browning in some places and too bright a green in others. The girl’s delicate hands move in an uninterrupted, methodical motion; the attention, with which she is bent over her work—eyes never leaving the crops—captivates Araiz. She continues her work. The pile of okra grows. The minutes fade away. Then, after what feels like a long time, she pauses and looks up. Araiz senses she has felt his gaze on her. He finds himself looking at her face when she looks up and is unable to look away. His eyes are fixed in place. He has never seen a face quite like hers before: the color splotches on the tops of her cheeks, the unassuming straight nose and the thin lips, deep pink as kachnar petals just burst out of their green shrouds.
He knows immediately that this image will linger. One of those images that he cannot erase; the ones that play through his mind in unending loops. His mother thinks it is a blessing to be able to recall sights with such precision and his Plaar thinks it is a nuisance. He is inclined to believe it is a curse. He certainly thinks it is a curse now.
At that precise moment, Araiz’s eyes lock with the girl. Her irises are a green-rimmed murky brown and they are speckled with scattered hazel shrapnel. But that is not what he care about most. It is the other thing that matters, the image that transcends words. The noor shining in her eyes that he thinks is not of this earth. It convinces him that no one has ever seen her the way he does; that this light is a secret only the two of them share. It conjures other images: laughing with her, playing games of Chuppan Chuppai and Baraf Pani together as if they were kids, images of him teasing her about silly things and she, returning the favor. Then, stroking those copper tendrils—how extraordinary they look—feeling the bristles of her dark, long lashes upon his cheek and the heat of her warm body curled around his. Araiz has never wanted anything more than he wants this fantasy life that has stepped before him, fully formed, in a single instant. The girl looks away and the moment passes.
This must be it, Araiz thinks. A trick of the devil. That master manipulator. This is my aazmaish—my trial—she has come at last . Wrapped in a pink cotton chador, the perfect picture of innocence, she provokes me to anything but. One glance and he knows this is it. His hands stop working on the bundling, and his mind floods with the image of her face. He tries to focus on the wispy ears of golden wheat but they blur before his eyes. He fixes his gaze on his own arms; studies the blue-green network of veins crisscrossing on his wrist like tributaries on a map.
Copper tendrils . Murky eyes .
But it was only once. The first gaze is fair game.
But he knows this was not an innocent first gaze. He closes his eyes but it is too late: Her image is burned into his memory, every detail ready to be recalled at will. He knows this must violate some kind of first gaze law. There is no sin for the first glance but if you don’t avert your gaze immediately, then you have sinned. He knows this just as he knows he will think of this girl tonight before he goes to sleep. He will lie under the ceiling fan for a few minutes, listening to the whoosh of its metal blades and think of her deep pink mouth. Of her small hands clasped in his—he imagines they feel like warm satin. He must remember not to smile or his brother Ibrahim will notice the difference, and he is not one to miss an opportunity to make fun of him. Araiz must be careful not to give Ibrahim more ammunition.
At the moment, he hears the girl move. She gathers up her things, preparing to leave. He feels himself getting up too. His legs have broken free from the chains of his mind. Reason smothered by this new thing that must be desire. He wonders if this is why people say women are fitnah. Is fitnah something that makes you lose yourself? Isn’t that what they whisper alcohol does too? It is what it’s done to Behram Khan—a man who lives in Araiz’s neighborhood. He comes by the tandoor sometimes, always smelling of something sharp and toxic, a smell that is soaked into every thread of his chador, contrasting with the warm scent of the stacks of bread covered in old newspapers at the tandoor, perfectly round and deliberately charred in a few places. The tandoorwala hates it whenever Behram Khan is there but he cannot get himself to banish him—Araiz suspects he feels sorry for him too. When he sees Behram, Araiz thinks of how alcohol smells of death, like the stench of spirits that lingers in hospital corridors.
It wasn’t a first gaze. How I wish it could have been . He looks at her retreating form, still rooted in one place. It is like beholding the flame of a gas heater. He can’t look away, even as the odd burning moistens his eyes. Soon he’ll lose sight of her. But flames demand staring.
He gets up to take a step in her direction. Some broken wheat kernels tumble off his shirt. The ground tremors. A cloud of dust rises to his nostrils, earthy and rough—