Richard Krause’s collection of fiction, Studies in Insignificance, was published by Livingston Press and his epigram collection, Optical Biases, was published by Eyecorner Press in Denmark. Propertius Press has accepted his second collection of epigrams, Eye Exams. His writing has more recently appeared in The Long Story, J Journal, Hotel Amerika, Scapegoat Review, Turk’s Head Review, Red Savina Review and Eastlit. Oddville Press and Brilliant Flash Fiction will publish his work this fall. He teaches at Somerset Community College in Kentucky.
Hamid, the Water Carrier
Hamid was the tallest man that the Afghan villagers had ever seen. He was called El-Hamid for his stature and enormous strength. He was slow and deliberate in his movements, and though he came from one of the poorest families in the village, he acquired a dignity because of his size and gentleness.
When there was a broken water main, or the falling lintel of a house needed propped up and repaired, Hamid with his broad shoulders was called. Whenever anything required heavy lifting, Hamid was the first on sight. When someone’s goat was trapped in a stony crevice and bleating for dear life, Hamid’s gentle touch and strong arms were required. Animals and children grew calm around him. Perhaps it was his sheer size, the overwhelming presence of a man magnified who could eclipse the sun or provide shelter from the rain. Perhaps it was, too, the softness of his hands that were so deft for so big a person, that ordinarily you’d expect them to smash stones, skulls, or be used in anger, not so obligingly for the collective good.
Hamid appeared almost like a physician, for the laying of his broad palms on someone would immediately comfort them, whether it be for a lost sheep, or the young child who looked up to the splendor of Hamid’s great size and felt his extraordinary energy flow into his body.
The fact that Hamid was just the opposite of what they expected, calmed people almost like morning dew, like the hush at twilight, or the sedative fumes of the poppy. It awoke in the village a special pride at having such a large, powerful man among them, whose huge capacities set him apart from the ordinary run of men.
The whole village drew from Hamid’s strength as if it was an extension of their own, like the atmospheric lightning somehow harnessed, or the deep reassuring quiet of the star sprinkled sky. It was as if the village was one flesh with Hamid, who embraced children when they were ill, or in trouble, or at festive gatherings when they could feel secure in the wingspan of his giant arms. He was their shield and protective umbrella. They crowded round him for group photographs; all with radiant smiles on their faces, proud of being in his presence.
And his occupation was nothing more than that he brought water to the village. Hamid had to walk daily five kilometers to Farah to fetch fresh water. Sometimes when his cart was near full he carried two extra buckets on his own shoulders to relieve the exertions of his donkey. The strength required appeared almost effortless to Hamid, and enabled him after he disburdened himself to walk with an added uprightness, giving his posture the impression of royalty, so graceful was his carriage.
Hamid was worshipped, too, by his loving wife, Myra, and adored by his five children. The sweets he bought for them, the quiet devotion to each of their needs, and his powerful size made him seem a tall god walking the earth.
In fact for the whole village Hamid was the cornerstone, the solid underpinning, the center of love and activity, a community resource much like the water he carried, and almost taken for granted until something had to be moved. He never inspired the envy of cleverer men, the shrewd who are always focused on their own advantage.
When people looked into each other’s face they inevitably saw the reassuring shadow of Hamid behind them, and his smiling daughters and sons. The water the villagers drank, the community projects, all bore his reflection, even the foundation stones of buildings, the heaviest of which had always been lifted by Hamid and still contained the memory of his exertions.
That Hamid would one day be caught in the crosshairs of a country ten thousand miles away was unthinkable to anyone in the village. That he’d be the object of a thirty million dollar aircraft, developed by some of the best technical minds in the West, cruising over southwest Afghanistan that day, would certainly boggle the minds even of American taxpayers.
Captain Wainwright caught the tall man on his target finder. Hamid was traveling with a wedding party for his nephew, Karim. He was dressed in a long white robe of coarse cotton and stood out among the party of travelers even from the air, locked onto by the most delicate cockpit instruments known to man.
“It looks like him!” Captain Wainwright said to Major Moore.
“By God, it does!”
Above Wainwright was clipped a photo of his wife and three children back in Wichita, Kansas.
“Lordy Mercy, we got him!” Wainwright exclaimed.
“Yes, sireee, it sure looks that way, Captain!”
Both officers got excited as promotions already raced through their minds. The deck the Moores would build in their backyard, the swimming pool they could finally afford. And little Bobby Moore could get his braces. His son, Kevin, could get into Norton Academy, the private school in New England, and Kathy could buy Susie her Viennese violin, and Robert could buy the fur coat he had always wanted for his wife. Overnight, with one shot, their careers would be launched.
Wainwright, too, was the consummate family man. Up on the cockpit ceiling and inside his wallet were the same photos of Darlene Wainwright and their three kids, Mickey, Mindy and Jackie, all Tennessee born and bred. Wainwright came from a long line of volunteers, hunters who insured the safety of their womenfolk back when bear and Indians were the only threat.
Wainwright already envisioned surprising Darlene with his promotion, for early on she had fallen in love with his chest full of medals and looked with admiration to the bravery of her husband flying through the clouds for the protection of his country and family.
The warm glow around Jack suffused the Wainwright household, even when he was away, with a sense of their own importance and sacrifice. It was a family ritual on those mornings when Jack was on active duty to raise the flag in their front yard. Little Mickey blew on his trumpet while Mindy and Jackie stood proudly at attention, as Darlene Wainwright slowly raised the American flag.
“Request permission to fire from Central Command,” Major Moore said.
Computers in Kuwait checked the coordinates, matched it with data of troops on the ground and other aircraft in the area.
“It looks like it’s all a go, sir.”
“It sure looks like him. He towers over the rest.”
The sky was pink, streaked and with bronzes and a scarlet underbelly, the blues darkened to velvety black at the fringes drew in the lemony yellows. The chlorotic greens bore the beguiling chloroform hue of another era of trench warfare.
“They’ll give you an oak leaf cluster, Sir.” Wainwright said.
I got him, Moore thought, in smothered jubilation.
Wainwright already pictured the ceremony of his promotion to major and the adoring look on Darlene’s face, not to mention the pride of his three children.
“Permission granted,” General Booth at Command Center crackled over the intercom.
Moore squealed in delight and reached towards the control panel, oblivious to the deafening roar of the engine jets.
The release code was accepted and the missile engaged. Then in a split second it launched with whistling speed at the slow tread of the gentle giant moving on the ground.
Hamid was joking with one of his uncles about the antics of his youngest child, Asa. He wore a smile on his face that the only surviving member of the party would remember.
The next moment the missile created a small puff of smoke on the ground. It had hit its target and blew almost everyone apart. The concussion threw Haji so far that just before he lost consciousness he was able to picture Hamid smiling at his uncle.
“Target engaged!” Wainwright whooped.
“Mission accomplished! Goodbyyye Osama!” Moore added.
The shock would be repeated after the body parts were returned to the village. Stunned villagers stood around with an angry, but defeated incomprehension.
“Why,” they asked, “were they attacked? Why kill Hamid? What did he do to them?”
That morning at two-thirty, suddenly, from out of the night sky like extraterrestrials, precise cones of yellow light appeared, then the quiet hum of an airship whose shape had never been observed by the local inhabitants, as four black ladders dropped figures with the most advanced gear in the world and matchless night vision who pointed their weapons at the roused villagers in their white tunics. Their cloth turbans and sandals were no match for the sensors on their helmets, or their Velcro vests and thick leather boots.
They demanded to see the village headman, and quickly cordoned off the village into occupied sectors. They reported on their radios that they had made contact with the enemy, had secured the site and met with no resistance. A few goats bleated in their pens, and children in their mothers’ arms screamed in tears at the strange spectacle of the special forces, fearing what would be done to them.
The soldiers’ faces were blackened, and their fearful looks terrorized the astonished villagers, as did the unfamiliar equipment silhouetted in the dark, creating such eeriness that there was now barely a murmur of resistance.
The blowing up of the wedding party, of Hamid, seemed like an act of God, and the villagers thought it was the end for all of them, a judgement from above.
The translator wanted to know where the dead bodies were, and the soldiers were led to a small makeshift morgue that had never had so many dead at one time.
“Where is the tall one?” they asked, and the village headman pointed to a torso of Hamid that had only one leg and the remnant of a face whose large features now seemed like a floppy rubber mask.
Way was made for a medic who worked through the crowd of huddled villagers and soldiers. With his bag he bent down before the corpse, unzipped it and took out a small glass vial and a scalpel, then scraped two skin samples from the remains of Hamid for DNA.
The special operations personnel withdrew as efficiently as they had come, as the airship disappeared mysteriously into the night.
It would later be determined that Hamid, the water carrier, that extraordinarily tall man in the wedding party, was not the famed terrorist Osama bin Laden after all, but that would have to await final lab analysis.
The promotions of Major Moore and Captain Wainwright depended on those lab results, not to mention the personal benefits to their families. Needless to say the deck, the swimming pool, the fur coat, the private school, even Bobby Moore’s braces, and of course the personal ambitions of the two servicemen, would all have to be put on hold.
But Moore and Wainwright were in for the long haul, and in their own way happy to be flying the skies over Afghanistan, eager for the opportunities that awaited them in what was now being described as more target rich Iraq where they hoped to shoot some real terrorists from the air, not just innocent water carriers who had the misfortune to be born taller than the rest of the local population.
Reparations for Hamid’s children, and for the other villagers, were never even considered, being that the dead were casualties of a war that had never been formally declared.