BY KIM FARLEIGH
Kim Farleigh has worked for aid agencies in three conflicts: Kosovo, Iraq and Palestine. Copyright is held by the author.
A LA TIMES MAN looked across the plane’s aisle and asked: “What are you going to be doing there?”
The hooked-nose journalist leant forward like an inquisitive eagle, curiosity crumbling in construction silence.
The heat covered the passengers like pelt suits.
The construction employee crossed over a defensive leg, and after removing a report and a felt pen from his brown, leather briefcase, he splashed green over white, tasks more alluring than people.
His hairline and sideboards were square. His brown, leather belt matched his brown, leather shoes, his reddish eyes dour in his reddish face.
The journalist contemplated simmering earth. Uncertainty resembles this heat haze, he thought. It would have been so easy to have just stayed in Amman.
Two NGO workers, a man and a woman, were beside each other on either side of the aisle, the man whispering: “He looks like a hung-over frog.”
He was referring to the construction employee. His colleague’s lips widened silently.
On the cabin-entry stairs, the NGO man had turned to wave to an empty desert, a “crowd” witnessing his departure, his friend’s giggling engulfed by silence.
Shaved-headed security specialists were staring out the windows, khakis tight against their branch biceps, their necks thicker than normal arms, heads like bronze busts on their wide shoulders.
The female NGO worker whispered: “The brawn-brain ratio looks enormous.”
“You’re jealous because your arms aren’t that thick,” her associate replied.
The CNN journalist on the double back seat had blonde hair that looked hewn from satin and silk — like a beret with a split down one side. His black, mica eyes stared at the pilot who was glancing around, tapping fingertips in patient wait, the passengers still settling into their seats.
Black-and-white striped epaulettes sat on the pilot’s shoulders. Dimples, like happy hoops, bracketed his wide mouth, his irises like stained-glass windows of amusement. The passengers sat facing him. Single seats lined the plane’s fuselage, everybody apart in the narrow plane.
“A little manoeuvre may have to be done over Baghdad,” the pilot said. “But don’t worry.”
He chuckled, adding: “This is perfectly normal.”
Lines covered his grinning face, like looking into a wind tunnel, his sea-blue eyes blazing like azure fires.
“G-forces never hurt anyone’s face,” he continued. “Look at me: still gorgeous after all these years.”
His opening hands expressed irrefutable logic.
The construction-industry employee’s forced smile disappeared when he realized that the LA Times journalist was looking at him and smiling. The construction employee returned to his report.
“Enjoy the flight,” the pilot said.
If you can, he thought.
A chuckle escaped from the happy asylum of his thoughts as he returned to the cockpit where green florescence was shining upon instrument-panel black. The propellers started spinning. Cloud reflections deepened the depth of chrome propeller tips. The rushing desert blurred.
The plane’s shadow rushed over a yellow world, dried-up-riverbed lashes suggesting that heat had inculcated itself into the land. Vehicles, like metallic beetles upon the asphalt strip that thinned where sky touched earth, fell off the desert’s vast dish of scarred terrain.
The security employees were staring out windows, their mouths cleaved open by the tortuous luxury of boredom, distances now clear, heat haze non-existent from above.
Most of the passengers were reading, their heads down. The engines hushed.
A security specialist puffed his cheeks out; arching his back, he blew out. His companions smiled. One said: “Only an hour to go.”
The passengers were absorbed by reports, newspapers, and magazines. The pilots’ muffled voices rumbled over the purring engines. The flat, remorseless world remained unchanged.
“I saw an orange flash,” the co-pilot said, “before his chute opened.”
“Civilian aircraft bother me,” the pilot said and smiled. “No ejector seats.”
“We’ve been spoilt,” the co-pilot said, grinning.
Another security specialist blew out while checking the time. The woman NGO worker turned a page of her magazine. She wasn’t surprised that the security specialists were the only people on the plane not reading. Not intellectual types, she thought. It must be difficult for people like that to kill time. Probably never read a book between them. Her head turned rapidly so that she could lay her eyes quickly on the next page, her features set in pleasant contemplation. This happens when the future and the present seem new. She noted things in a notebook. Her ankle-length, floral-patterned, cotton dress covered her milky skin. Her red hair turned gold when caught by light, as if illuminating thoughts were firing up her follicles. Archipelago freckles dotted her cheeks’ milky seas.
A security man ground his teeth together. His forehead became lined. His mouth, like a torn hole, grimaced with dull despair. His companions were still staring, without curiosity, out the windows, the distances clear — so clear that nothing seemed new — as clear as danger is to a trained man.
The redhead, turning pages, didn’t see the desert becoming black earth. Buildings filled the blackness. Metal beetles, flashing like diamonds, glinted within the blackness, like cut glass on ivory.
The plane rose up. The journalists and the NGO workers looked up from their reading material. The aircraft started diving down — spiralling down! Facial expressions got harmonized: eyes enchanted, mouths open, common expressions irrespective of education and intelligence, a unity of experience that wiped boredom’s dryness from tired faces.
The sun flashed in the windows as the plane spiralled, a flashing sun like an ultra-violet atomic clock that ticked on objectively; the ground spun, faces pressed against cheekbones by G-forces………..it flashed — a silver bullet — past the right-wing tip, smoke pouring out of its rear, its tip flashing in the sun.
The clefs of the woman NGO worker’s lips unfurled to produce an oval encasing denture cliffs; she gasped: “My God!”
A thinning vapour trail underneath them became a cellular path of vaporous crocodile skin.
A security specialist said: “Don’t worry. The pilots know how to avoid them. And there’s only time for one.”
His voice’s unexpected softness didn’t stop that alive hollowness from spiralling up her body like a malevolent spirit, swirling, entering her head, popping like fireworks, wiping out petty considerations, levelling self-esteem smooth. She clutched her rattling hands. She didn’t even know this threat existed! Or that her body could create such chemicals, her sharp eyes glued to the wing.
The plane levelled out and landed. The strain left the passengers’ cheeks. The desert had seemed too lifeless to contain deadly life — an illusion. The woman’s heart slowed to a throbbing beat of relief.
A U.S. soldier, wearing desert khakis, and emerging from the desert background, appeared to have broken away from the land. Nothing had suggested that he had been in that wilderness. But he suddenly came into focus, as if the hazy heat, gyrating like a stewing broth above the ground, had given birth to life. The soldier’s creation from this flailing atmosphere was so unexpected that his appearance seemed like magic evolution; not there; then he was.
“Are you okay?” the security specialist asked the woman.
The man’s eyes were kind. Before, he had just been a thick-necked ape.
“I wasn’t expecting that,” she said. “Thanks.”
“No problem,” he replied.
He felt amused because he felt he hadn’t done anything.
“What are you going to do here?” she asked.
His gentleness was magnified by physical strength. He was younger than she had imagined. That gentleness looked amazing in that strength. His eyes now possessed surprising, alert kindness.
“We’ll be looking after certain people,” he said.
“You already have,” she replied.
His grin’s pleasantness resembled a fresh awakening.
The heat reached all parts of their bodies. They could feel it on the tips of their noses, and on their earlobes, heat capable of touching any place.
The soldier took them across the tarmac and into the arrival lounge, his face punctured by opal slithers of green friendliness. The M-16 he was carrying was a strange anomaly under the taffeta-like purity of his face; but his body was covered by white, green and brown patches that made this being of supposed innocence impossible to detect in the desert that stretched ever so slightly upwards to meet the sky’s cobalt light that rose over those speck-like hominids, who, in that magnitude, became ants in a place where few of their colony were prepared to go.
The woman NGO worker had never felt so small. Desert magnitude, she thought, creates positive smallness.
I now understand, she contemplated, how monotheism emerged from this landscape.
The construction-industry employee’s smile was now natural as the male NGO worker said: “It was perfectly normal.”
Amiability was a survival mechanism.
“Great job there,” the woman told the pilot.
Her humble enthusiasm for others had never been so acute.
The LA Times journalist said: “It missed us by that much.”
The CNN journalist said: “It ruffled my hair!”
The pilot said: “Hair-ruffling is perfectly normal here. Just look at Seth.”
Seth was the co-pilot.
“My hair has been so ruffled recently,” Seth said, “that straightening it out would be a waste of time.”
The construction employee told the LA Times journalist: “I’ll speak to my people about the LA Times doing some stories about us, okay?”
“Can you give me your contact details?”
The security specialist was asked by the NGO woman where he was going to be staying.
“The Green Zone,” the security specialist replied.
“Me, too,” she said.
His smile’s brilliance made her response leap out of her mouth as if her comment had been fired out by air-compressed enthusiasm, his smile the device that had flicked open the lid.
“This is my card,” she said. “If you don’t contact me, soldier, I’ll have you court martialed. That’s an order.”
He erupted with titillated surprise, delighted with her ebullient audacity. Amazing strength emerged from her beautiful physical fragility. He gave her his card.
In the van that picked her up, she observed the security specialists getting into a Jeep.
“Caroline fell in love after the missile attack,” her associate said. “Near death has altered her neurons.”
“That,” Caroline said, “is Hunk City, U.S.A. And it’s going to be mine! Mine!! It’s going to do whatever it wants to me in the name of security.”