Karl sat in the passenger seat. His fingertips were numb with cold, yet somehow sore at the same time. He jammed them in his mouth and blew down hard but it was no use.
Outside, night had fallen. The low rolling plains were blind with snow and the trees stripped of any shelter. There was a small building ahead, visible in the cone of the truck’s headlights. A trail of footprints had sunk in the grubby white, and exhaust fumes dissipated in whirling drifts. Karl could only imagine all of this. A blindfold had been tied around his head. He was glad that if he needed to he could claim ignorance. Although he did have a fair idea of what might be transpiring out there. Guns, goods. What else could they possibly be doing in the wastes of snow and dark?
Jawad had said they were smuggling sugar.
‘Oh yeah?’ Karl frowned.
‘Sweetness is cheaper over the border. This work isn’t all guns and glory, you know. Think of it as a social service,’ he winked.
Karl listened now to footsteps crunching outside in the snow. He could hear Jawad arguing with another man. Karl had been promised a cut for his apprenticeship and wondered what he would do with it. Leave the country, that much was certain. And as soon as possible. He wanted to go home, but maybe it was better to take a detour; head to India, then disappear in the Himalayas for a while.
The voices outside were rising in the wind when a thump on the driver’s side door startled Karl from his mountain idyll. It sounded more like a body slam than a fist or a forearm. The rear doors of the truck creak-slammed closed, then one-two bolts slid across and a cold rush of air entered the cabin as the driver door opened. He gasped.
‘I’ll give us a head start. Then you drive the rest.’ It was Jawad’s voice. The door slammed shut.
‘What the?’ he wriggled about blindly. ‘I thought I was supposed to –’
‘You are. But not now. Keep that thing on.’
More footsteps approached outside. Voices.
Karl’s breath caught in his throat.
Jawad fiddled with something. The engine shrieked.
Jawad ground his teeth in concentration. The gears crunched. Someone outside shouted and finally they lurched into the night.
Neither spoke as they travelled. Above, below and all around were only the sound of the engine and the eerie gloom of blanched shadows. Eventually the rhythm of the wheels began to soothe. Karl pulled at the blindfold.
‘Go on, take it off.’
He pulled the fabric down over his face and rubbed his eyes. Despite the rolling dark, the snow gave the landscape a strange glow, a certain mesmeric endlessness. He knew they must be driving across the plains of Anatolia but beyond that he had no idea. He saw a village crouched on the side of the road. The silhouette of a dog tripping through the gloom. That was it. Soon it would be his turn to drive. He fiddled with the radio dials. Nothing but static and shards of voices.
‘Rebel fight––’ the announcer’s voice cut.
‘Hey!’ Jawad jerked around.
‘Keep your eyes on the road!’
‘Well turn it back on!’
Karl fingered the dial haltingly as they curved through the stippled dark.
‘… the group who call themselves Islamic State have claimed responsibility for an explosion in the area of Sinjar also known as Shengal. So far the number of dead is unclear but estimates put the figure around forty-seven. That number includes children as young as one years old. Their justification for such acts is to create their own Caliphate …’
‘Motherfuckers,’ hissed Jawad as the announcer’s voice faded in static.
Karl reached for the dial again.
‘Leave it,’ snapped Jawad, and they sped into the gusting night.
The car park of the roadside restaurant was empty save for a lone vehicle. It idled. Its windows were fogged. Exhaust fumes drifted over the asphalt and the slush of tyre tracks that hemmed the reflection of a glistening, dirty neon.
Once inside they sat across from each other at a table by a window nursing bowls of soup. Karl’s hand trembled slightly as he lifted the spoon to his mouth. ‘What exactly went on down there?’ he said as he blew on the hot liquid.
‘I’ll tell you in Istanbul,’ Jawad slurped.
‘I’ll tell you in Istanbul!’ Karl spluttered. ‘Who said I was going to Istanbul?!’
Jawad cocked his head and gave a wry smile, dipping a piece of bread until it was soggy and orange.
Karl sucked noisily on his teeth a moment. Then, ‘It makes no difference where and when I know so just tell me now.’
The man behind the counter gazed at them intently.
‘He can’t understand English,’ Karl added.
Jawad tipped his head. ‘You never know my friend.’
‘Oh come off it!’
‘The simit seller, the taxi driver, the man in the tea house, who are they, really?’ And he tapped the side of his head with an index finger.
Karl looked at the counter where the man had begun to wipe down a radio with slow deliberation.
Jawad nodded, ‘Ya?’ Then put his elbows on the table and leant forward. ‘It’s like this,’ he began in a low voice. ‘The fighting that’s going on down there is madness. It’s butchery.’
Karl tore at a bit of bread with his teeth and dunked it in the hot soup. ‘No shit.’
‘Do you want me to tell you or not?’
Karl nodded sulkily then leant in.
‘The only people fighting them are our very own mountain people, as the government so fondly refers to them. The Kurds.’
Jawad shook his head slightly and glanced at the counter. The man had turned the radio on and seemed to rest a moment with his back to them as the faint strings of an old style Arabesque sounded.
‘The other rebel forces are cowards. They do nothing but sit around and eat kebab.’
‘The killing is beyond imagining. Right now they are committing genocide against the Yezidi people––’
Jawad flushed, impatient. ‘The Yezidis. Kurds mostly. Non-believers, so they’re fair game.’
Karl said nothing.
‘There are still three thousand of their women and children being used as sex slaves in Raqqa and no one’s doing anything about it. Foreign fighter jets and missiles make no difference-––’ he broke off.
Beside them the dark window reflected the interior of the restaurant: the man and the radio, cookers and counters, a flickering green neon sign advertising prayer facilities at the back, and scores of tables, all empty save for theirs.
Jawad roused. ‘Gimme a cigarette.’
Karl pushed the pouch across the table then mopped up the last of his soup with another piece of bread.
‘These fighters need real weapons, not second-hand Kalashnikovs,’ Jawad sighed and held a cigarette paper between his fingers.
‘And they need to get out,’ said Karl almost to himself as he pushed the bowl away.
‘Uh-huh,’ Jawad nodded. ‘You’ve seen their Twitter account,’ he winced.
Karl shook his head slowly. ‘I don’t even know what to call them.’
Jawad lit the cigarette and exhaled loudly through his nose. ‘Some people call them the true believers,’ he said with disgust.
‘Oh come off it,’ Karl snapped.
‘You tell me, have they ever done anything that’s not written in the sacred texts?’
‘Every single thing they do,’ Jawad spoke slowly now, deliberately, ‘is supported by a quote from their holy book or the traditions or sayings of their prophet.’ He tipped his head to the side. ‘You just find me something that isn’t. Go on.’
Karl felt his face begin to burn but he pulled himself up straight. ‘I’ve got a good translation at home.’
Jawad jabbed at the air with his cigarette. ‘Until we’ve had a real revolution, I mean one where the brave people of the book can bring themselves to reinterpret the text and traditions for the times, minus the blood and brimstone, these people need all the help they can get.’
Karl pursed his lips.
‘That’s how you come in.’
‘Wait. How do you pay for the guns?’ Karl rubbed at his temples.
Jawad shook his head. He looked out the window. ‘You think they’re riding for free?’
‘That information is beyond your purview as chauffeur,’ Jawad grinned. ‘What did you think this was?’ he continued, puffing sharply at his cigarette. ‘How do you think they get from A to B? Have you not noticed how fucking cold it is out there?’
Karl tried to control his breathing. He snatched at the pouch.
Jawad studied him a moment. ‘Where do you think they land, all these people on the run?’
Karl stared at the curls of blonde tobacco in his palm.
‘Sure as hell not in your country.’
Karl’s throat tightened.
‘My country? It’s never been my country.’ His voice was shrill. ‘I wasn’t born there. I look different. No-one can pronounce my––’
Jawad pouted. ‘Poor mister Global Citizen.’
‘Oh fuck off!’ The man behind the counter looked up. He held the cloth in his hands, focused a moment, then coughed and turned away.
Jawad softened. ‘Listen, it’s winter now. The worst time for war. We have work to do.’
Karl looked out the dark window and nearly laughed. ‘There’s a good time for war?’
The man behind the counter had begun restocking the fridge. The music from the radio had stopped, replaced by a solemn voice.
‘Look, you did a great job getting that truck. You said yourself you wanted to help, to live a bit on the wild … What do you say, again?’
‘Side. The wild side,’ said Karl flatly.
He laughed. ‘Yeah, that’s it.’
Karl sucked hard at his lower lip, rolled the tobacco round in his palm to form a small lump.
‘Look, of course I want to help but you know what Gandhi said, an eye for an eye and that whole thing.’
‘Oh c’mon. You think those maniacs give a damn about that? They didn’t join up because of Gandhi. They joined because they thought it’d be fun to chop off heads and go out raping.’
Outside a car pulled in across the asphalt. They both turned. Beyond the dark window, the blue stripe of a police car stood out against the shadows. Karl gritted his teeth.
‘Be cool,’ Jawad said and with a steady hand took the lump of tobacco, flicked it away and offered him his cigarette. ‘We can make it in five hours if we go well.’
Karl inhaled deeply. Somehow the threat of danger worked to restore his cool.
‘I’m driving, right?’
‘That was the deal, no?’
Karl glanced up at the sound of a jingling bell. The restaurant door opened and three police officers entered, stomping the ice from their boots and clapping their hands for warmth.
Karl rose. His heart crashed against his ribs. He took a deep breath.
‘Okay, but sort out that fucking radio. I need some music to drive to. Then when all this is done I’m gonna go to bed in Istanbul and pretend I never met you, you son of a pimp.’ He almost
swaggered as he passed the police on his way out.
‘Okay Karl,’ Jawad smirked. ‘Whatever you say.’ And the bell sounded on the closing door behind them.
They had been back on the road an hour or so when they heard the thumping.
‘What the fuck?’ Karl shot Jawad a sideways look.
‘Well, I didn’t drug them,’ Jawad was deadpan.
The thumping came again.
‘Shit!’ Karl banged at the wheel and the truck swerved through the pitch.
‘You gonna pull over or what, chauffeurji?’
Karl grabbed at the wheel with both hands. ‘This isn’t funny. You didn’t think perhaps they might’ve been hungry back there? Or needed to breathe?’
Voices sounded now. They rose to shouts as the truck began to skid.
‘I am relaxed!’ Karl shouted as he craned forward to peer through the windscreen.
‘We need to pull––’
‘I know we need to pull over!’ he gasped. ‘Shut up!’
A luminous low rolling plain opened up before them. The headlights cut a path through the snow as they veered off the road and onto a flat verge. When they finally pulled over, Karl had bitten his lower lip hard enough to draw blood. ‘Jesus.’ He yanked on the handbrake and looked around. The night outside was still and opaque. A blast of cold air rushed into the cabin as Jawad climbed down, leaving the door open behind him.
The sound of footsteps in the snow. The sky with a cataract of clouds. Karl rolled a cigarette and remembered a church service his mother had taken him to in Melbourne. A visiting guest priest, a certain Father Tony Kasih from Syria, had recited the Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic. He’d told the congregation that it was the exact prayer that Jesus had taught his disciples thousands of years ago. He remembered the way his mother had squeezed his hand as they listened. The way a tear rolled down her cheek. In the cabin, looking out at the swirling night, he could almost hear the priest’s voice on the wind. Then he heard the rude bolt of the truck doors coming unjammed, followed by thudding, heaving, and voices. Jawad was shouting, a woman protesting. Karl wound down the window and watched in the side mirror. His cheeks were bright pink. He was shocked by his own white face, his eyes staring back at him like a stranger’s. He combed his hair with his fingers, opened the door and clambered down into the bracing cold.
‘What do you mean he’s not here? How could you leave your son behind?’ Jawad was strung forward like a bow, taut and ready to snap.
‘He’s not my son. He’s my sister’s. She died in a bomb attack.’
Jawad worked his jaw as he paced.
‘Look it doesn’t matter whose son he is,’ he said. ‘The point is it’s impossible to go back. Look at this weather,’ he flung an arm out into the sleety black. ‘It’s not going to stop. There are wolves out there.’
The woman was unmoved.
She was dressed in a dark coat with a scarf wrapped tightly round her head. She was beautiful. Karl noticed the blue ink of a tattoo in the centre of her chin. One small yet discernible dot.
‘What’s going on?’
Jawad swung about. ‘Nothing.’
‘Looks like something.’
Grimacing, Jawad turned back to the woman.
‘What’s your name?’ he asked her, in a new tone.
He started. ‘Do you know what that means?’
‘Of course I do,’ she said.
‘What does it mean?’ As Karl came closer, he noticed two men emerge from the back of the truck.
Jawad clapped. ‘Look what we’ve got here Karl. A woman called Freedom running back to the war. Can you believe it?’ He took a pen and notebook from his pocket and started flipping through the pages, running the nib down the margins. His lips moved over the names; Musa, Dina, Hanadiy, George. Jiwana, Rojda, Jiyar, Newroz.
Karl caught her eye. She was patient, he could see that. And brave. Or something else.
‘Look.’ Jawad spoke. ‘Listen. I’d love to take you to your son – your sister’s son – but you have to understand, we can’t turn back now.’
The two men approached and Hurreya spoke to them quickly, calmly. They began arguing, and one of them grabbed her roughly by the arm and shook it as he motioned to Jawad, the truck, the road. But she remained unmoved.
‘Hey, hey, brother, you’re not in your own country here,’ Jawad started up. ‘We don’t like that sort of thing here.’ He lunged forward and the woman wriggled out of the man’s grip, folded her arms over her chest and said, ‘I go back.’
The men sunk back, muttering.
‘It’s too dangerous,’ Jawad said. Beads of sweat had appeared on his brow despite the sleet.
Something seemed to amuse her. Karl peered into the dark all around them. It was freezing, at least ten below. The road was icy, the trees offered no shelter, and a treacherous wind had picked up.
‘Listen, I’ll call and see if they can find him. Maybe he’s just in another truck.’
Hurreya smiled. Karl wasn’t sure if she understood or not. Not a single car had passed the whole time they’d been standing there. One would however, soon enough. Then there’d be trouble.
‘Look, we have to go,’ Jawad said finally, his breath steaming before him. ‘We don’t have time. Just get in the truck and I’ll ring––’
But she cut across him with that strange, calm smile. ‘I’m going Mister Jawad. Give me my money.’ She held firm. ‘I told my sister when she was dying that I would protect her son with my life. I can’t go on without him.’
The men shuffled and coughed. Jawad swore then opened his hands and, turning his face to the sky, implored, ‘Allahim ya Rabbim.’
Karl was stunned. They’d already driven at least thirty kilometres from the border. She’d have to walk all the way, unless of course she got a lift with a passer-by. But that undoubtedly would lead to no good. The snow wasn’t getting any lighter and morning was a long way off. Without quite realising what was happening, he heard his own voice saying, ‘I’ll go with her.’
Hurreya tossed him a glance.
‘Are you mad?’ Jawad snapped. ‘You’ve gotta drive this fucking truck!’
Karl blinked away the melting snow on his eyelashes and was glad suddenly for the rebuke. He just wanted to show her that in another life he could’ve loved her. But Hurreya was getting impatient. She opened her purse.
Jawad shook his head. ‘You know money’s useless in paradise don’t you?’
She laughed softly.
‘This is trouble. I guarantee it. If you were my sister I wouldn’t let you do this. I’d put you back in the truck and I wouldn’t let you out until you were safe.’
‘I am not your sister.’
Jawad sighed hopelessly and turned back to the truck. Karl blew on his fingers and looked on as the two men punched numbers into a mobile phone and pressed dried figs into the woman’s hands.
When Jawad reappeared he had a wad of notes in a plastic bag.
‘Sister, please, you’ll die out here,’ he said feebly.
She looked at him with something like pity.
‘I died when those maniacs burnt down my village and raped my sister in the name of Allah.’
Jawad’s shoulders slumped. He mumbled something and handed over the plastic bag.
‘Thank you, brother.’ She flicked quickly through the notes as if counting but before she’d finished, tied off the plastic bag and stuffed it in her coat pocket.
‘Jawad shook his head then clapped the two men on the back. ‘Okay, in the truck. We’ve got a way to go yet,’ and he thumped the side of the vehicle. ‘Hadi chauffeurji, let’s go.’
One of the men climbed in but the other remained. ‘I go with her.’
Jawad wrung his hands in exasperation. ‘Oh God, okay! But I’m not giving you any more money. You broke the deal.’
‘I need something,’ the man growled.
‘What you need is to be as far away from there as possible.’ Jawad waved in the direction they’d come.
‘It’s his decision,’ Karl brokered. ‘His life.’
‘What the hell would you know?’ Jawad shouted. ‘He won’t have one if we leave him here! Get in the truck.’
Karl stood motionless.
Something rumbled in the distance. Remembering the blue stripe of the police car, Karl hurried back and scrambled in behind the wheel.
Hurreya followed him and looked up now from where she stood in the snow.
‘Lady, there’s a war going on,’ he began, regretting his words as soon as they’d come. As if he knew anything about war. ‘Even if you make it back,’ he tried again, ‘you’ll probably die out there. Don’t go.’
Hurreya shook her head. ‘War is war,’ she smiled cryptically, then turned on her heel and left.
Karl gulped. He felt sick. He slammed the driver’s door shut and as he watched her reflection retreat in the side mirror Jawad clambered into the cabin.
He fumbled with the ignition wires. But the man had started banging on the passenger door.
‘You’ve got to give him something,’ Karl said.
‘What?’ Jawad was incredulous.
The engine churned. ‘Give him some of his own money back at least,’ said Karl as he gripped the handbrake.
Jawad swore and scrambled round in the half dark of the cabin. He pulled a plastic bag from the glove box and retrieved a thin wad of cash before thrusting it out into the cold. The man snatched the money and left.
‘Okay Gandhiji? You happy? Now let’s go!’ For the first time that night his voice shook.
Karl released the handbrake and without looking back they skidded off down the icy road.
Freedom lay in the snow. Her lips were an intricate blue, her cheeks immaculately pale. Tree branches bent in the wind and a dog barked somewhere beneath a bridge.
A boy waited near a border.
Two police officers stood by the side of the road smoking Samsun cigarettes. This was not what they’d expected on a morning shift. Mostly they dealt with photocopying and paperwork, home-pressed hash and the odd domestic murder. One poked her with the tip of his shiny black shoe. Her body was soft and heavy.
The other shrugged. ‘Look at that tattoo. Kurdish maybe.’
‘Did either of you check for ID?’ asked the superior officer as he approached, both his nostrils blowing warm steam.
‘There could be something in her pockets,’ he pressed.
They shifted about, the younger one flicking the ash from his cigarette while the other clapped his hands together for warmth. A radio message crackled from inside the police car and the superior officer turned to walk away.
‘Check her out boys,’ he called over his shoulder.
The two officers gazed down at the woman, her dark coat slowly stippling with snow.
‘You gonna check her pockets?’
The younger one curled his mouth down and puffed on the yellow filter tip, his pink face freshly shaven. ‘No gloves,’ he shrugged.
‘You son of a donkey,’ he shook his head. ‘That’s only in the movies.’ And he tossed his cigarette, watching it arc across the white, then rolled up his sleeves, squatted down and began to search her pockets.
The snow continued to drift and bruise as the young officer fidgeted nervously, unable to shift his gaze from her face.
‘Who the fuck called this in anyway?’ said the older one, standing.
‘Well it looks natural enough.’
The younger one nodded. ‘What do you expect if you go out walking in this weather?’
The older officer didn’t answer.
The air had begun to thicken with sleet and up ahead the police car and its blue stripe seemed to appear and disappear in drifts of blinding vaporous white.
‘A shame,’ said the older one and wiped his hands vigorously on his trousers as if they were soiled.
‘Yeah, she’s pretty.’
‘Estağfurallah.’ He clicked his tongue in disapproval.
‘You don’t think she could’ve been dumped?’
He yawned. ‘Anything’s possible.’ And he bent his knees a few times as he pulled at the crotch of his pants and adjusted his balls. ‘You heard the Saisal Lotto results?’ he asked once he was tidy.
The younger shook his head. ‘You up?’
‘I sure am. And if I win, I’m out of this,’ he nodded at the body beneath them. ‘Finished.’ He looked down the road, as if it led anywhere. ‘Move to the Black Sea and farm hazelnuts with a young wife, something like that.’
‘Inșallah,’ sighed the younger one as he continued to study the frozen, doll-like features of her face. She looked so peaceful in her shroud of brilliant white.
But the sound of the engine turning over came through the calm.
‘Look,’ the older one held out a grubby laminated card with a headshot.
The other grabbed it. ‘Can’t read that,’ he spat. ‘Arabic.’
‘Another fucking refugee.’
The younger one ground the cigarette butt beneath his boot as the landscape slowly blotted itself out.
Their superior officer shouted from the car.
‘Boys, we’ve got a call. Next town,’ he waved. ‘Gotta get moving. Put her in the boot. We’ll call the Jandarma later.’
The two policemen looked at each other, shook their heads, shrugged.
‘Alright boss,’ they mumbled.
And on the count of three they bent down, dug their hands into the perfect crystals of snow and heaved her through the swirling mist to the boot of the car, where the superior officer stood waiting with a blanket.
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