Through a broad valley of baked brown dirt and sparse green trees,
past mudbrick and stone villages of flat-topped houses, we climb
the Humvees up the mountain, over the quickly shrinking road until
it narrows to too tight to turn around, almost, and our team dismounts
to continue the hike up the ravine, the road becoming a donkey trail
over stones, between boulders, blue sky narrowing above ancient
rock walls softly echoing the crunch of our boots.
Slowly winding away from view of the valley I am startled, joyed
to see someone has strung a rope of colored prayer flags where
another trail merges. We seven soldiers, rifles held ready to raise,
pass under them – after, though not last, I move in the look-back,
backwards-walk spin of a rear soldier, seeing the flags wave slightly,
and as I turn back I can’t forget them.
Further on, at the scouted out place, along a trail so close our backs
are almost against the mountain, we finally take position seeing again
the broad valley, above the main mountain routes from the West
into Kabul. Lowering packs to the small mountain shelf, we scrape
rocks away to sit, make radio contact with the Humvees, settle here
to watch all night – looking for anything: tunic-clothed farmers, armed
drug traffickers, or, a wolf pack of bitter Taliban fighters. Below me,
through binos, I see a hawk float along the valley’s edge.
Talk limited in the prescribed stealth of an observation point, the open
blue sky quietly fades to twilight, to a black expanse of night. I see
the flags in the bright sun, though hidden now by night, trail’s bend,
how I memorized them there – my prayer: that if contact comes
we hold, that our bodies deny the reality of a bullet’s punishment,
that our spirits don’t leap out, join the distant stars, muscled skeletons
dancing lifeless down this thousand-foot drop like falling rocks.
An Army veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Steven Croft lives on a barrier island off the coast of Georgia on a property lush with vegetation. He has recent work in Willawaw Journal, Sky Island Journal, So It Goes: The Literary Journal of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, Third Wednesday, San Pedro River Review, Poets Reading the News, Ariel Chart, and other places.