The Soldier and the pigs

By Mahmoud Saeed

Translated by Dr. Ahmad Sadry

Samer opened his eyes. What he saw scared him half to death.
His heart was pounding violently against his rib cage. What on God's earth was this? An enormous snorting wild bore was lying on its back less than six feet away. Its short legs were pointing in the air and its huge belly was spilling out like a muddy water skin, covered with
sweat: ugliness incarnate. Its eyes were shut on a paste of yellowish slime whose dried up drippings had extended down from its folded eyes.
Its chest was rising and falling like a massive pair of bellows. Rows of glistening nipples lined up on its multiple breasts.

Samer looked at the sky. It was circumscribed in a jagged round frame of light and shoots of papyrus. First he did not remember anything except the explosion that had crushed his boat and sent him flying high like a bird. A thought had crossed his mind when he was in flight: "I got nailed." He had been sure of his impending death. Then he remembered the shock of falling. He had expected to fall in the water but he had landed on something more like a soft bed. Then he had lost consciousness.

Prior to the explosion, he had been watching the strands of papyrus that looked like a field of planted arrows. The sergeant had slowed down the boat. He could hear the sound of the papyrus shoots scratching the sides of the boat. He had put on his backpack, hung his weapon from his right shoulder and was preparing to jump onto the bank of an island covered by thick vegetation. Turning his back to his buddies he had
muttered: Ya Allah. Then, the explosion, the destruction, the flight, the fall, and, the loss of consciousness. What had happened to his buddies? Who knows? Everything was possible. May be they were still alive; may be they were all dead.

The rustling and the yelps were familiar. As if this was not the first time he was waking up to these sounds since he had been lying there.
First he did not realize what they were. Sounds and movements near his ears, face, and all over his body. Tiny, supple creatures were licking his face. A soft critter was sucking on his thumb that was lying limp on his chest. It was the playful suckling of a newborn. Then he realized what they were. A group of tiny piglets, racing each other and filling the space around him with the buzz of life. The loud pitch of millions of croaking frogs overwhelmed all other noises. The chorus of frogs rose and fell in starts and bursts which evolved into brief tones, and ended with ringing vibrations. Who knew that such tiny creatures could so utterly dominate the expanse of this entire land? The sound of the frogs could easily have drowned the loudest of all man made noises:
blasting cannons, earsplitting flower mills, speeding locomotives.
Nothing could compete with this deafening, ubiquitous hum.

The clammy, putrid odor of the wetland assaulted Samer's nostrils. The damp ground had drenched his back and his hair from the nape of the neck to the middle of his head. He gazed at the sky again. Small, darkish, almost black, butterflies, as small as common houseflies, were fluttering in the air above him. Hordes of them would alight all over him and linger for seconds before taking off. Hundreds of thousands of them whirled in huge vicious circles in the air, and, like an army of occupation, caste their shadow on the fields of papyrus. They were a soothing, magical balm, a silent cosmic front against the loud, monotones, din of the frogs.

The cuddly, little piglets were the very opposite of their sleeping mother who, like a statue of ugliness, dominated the island. A small piglet had clambered up on Samer's chest. Their eyes met. May be his moving eyelids had caught her attention. She kept licking his neck.
Her skin was tan, with a tinge of yellow. She was about six inches long.
The plump little thing pranced on him for a while and then stumbled off.
Soon she returned with her sisters whose legs were so small, they
appeared to roll on their bellies. They would play in the sun for a
while, suckle a bit, playfully ram each other and climb his body. They had licked every exposed inch of his skin: his face, hands and ears. One of the baby pigs had started to lick his nose. Her prickly, rosy tongue was slightly thicker than the petal of a flower. The piglets moved incessantly and kept teasing him and ramming his cheeks with their wet, flat, fleshy snouts. It was as if someone had lopped off the end of their noses with a sharp knife. Their beady, yellow eyes sparkled with mischievous joy.

What if their sleeping mother wakes up and attacks him? This real possibility frightened Samer and caused his heart to race for the second time. He raised his head and felt a heavy pain on his forehead. Yes.
It was his forehead. He must have suffered an injury. A frog, bigger than the palm of his hand jumped on his face, lingered for a second and jumped off, leaving behind a foul green slime. One of the piglets chased the frog into the thick curtain of papyri.

What was he supposed to do now and how?

Another piglet fumbled up on his chest, found Samer's thumb and started to suck on it with gusto. This gave him a tickling sensation and he had to suppress the laughter bubbling up in him, despite his feelings of disgust. He smiled and withdrew his thumb. The tiny piglet was now licking his hand and playing with his fingers. She kept knocking against them with her snout and bit them with toothless gums. The dry sound of her breathing produced the effect of tearing a piece of paper.
She took the movements of the fingers as a game and followed them assiduously. In the meanwhile another piglet had started to lick his forehead. This caused a burning sensation. Automatically, he knocked the piglet off with his hand. This meant that his hands were working.
Taking care not to wake up the sow, he discretely moved his legs. He was overjoyed. Both legs were intact as well. Thus, his forehead was his only injury. And that could not have been serious or else it would have bled more. He felt the wound with the fingers of his right hand.
The gash was not too deep, but as long as his forefinger. Since he was still alive, the wound could not have been caused by shrapnel. His own weapon must have caused it as he was falling or upon falling. But where was the weapon? He raised his head. The rays of the sun slapped his face. He closed his eyes and felt a pang from a different kind: thirst and hunger. What was he supposed to do? Where was his weapon, his backpack, and his canteen! Samer looked at his watch. It was eleven twenty. So, he had been unconscious for about three hours. The blow to his forehead must have been serious enough. This also meant that the ebb had just started. The tide would come in around five in the evening and he had to somehow save himself from this island by then.

He raised his torso slightly only to be assaulted by a gang of no less than three snorting piglets with naughty, glistening eyes. They climbed on his chest, smelling everything and noisily exhaling all over his green camouflage jacket. They nibbled at the buttons and edges of his uniform with slobbering gums. Their joyful squeals mixed with the din of the frogs. The number of straggling piglets on his body had increased. Now there were six of them, surrounding, ramming, pushing, playing and teasing him. This time, he had to fight back peels of laughter, and, he nearly did not succeed.

At long last, he spied the strap of his weapon sticking out from under the head of the big sow. What to do? The question of the day! Only four months earlier he had graduated with an engineering degree from the University of Basra. On that same day the city had come under artillery fire for four hours on end. His friend had wryly commented. "Wall to wall parties, everywhere; even the Iranians are chipping in with the fire works!" Was there any possibility of a new invasion of the city?
Everything was possible. One must expect the worst in war. But no fertile imagination could have prepared him for winding up alone, hungry, wounded and in the company of pigs. But the worst and the most immediate problem was a stark, simple one: how to get away from this dangerous, sleeping beast.

Here was the plan. He would pick up one of the piglets and throw it at the mother to wake her up. She would probably leave once she woke up.
But he must remain still and avoid any movement that might be misconstrued as a challenge. Who could predict the behavior of an animal defending her young? If provoked, this pig could do some serious damage with those fangs. He chose one of the piglets loitering on his belly. She appeared to enjoy the attention, opening her toothless mouth and wiggling her tiny legs with pleasure. Her bright white belly was covered by a fuzzy dawn. He stretched out and flung her at her mother.
He did hit the target but the blow was not hard enough. The mother-pig opened her small, sticky eyes, let out a groggy grunt, knocked the offending piglet on its back and closed her eyes again. Samer had seen a tinge of black in her bloodshot eyes. The piglet in question, however, seemed to have loved the new game. She trotted back toward Samer
emitting rapid, happy yelps, practically singing with delight. The rest of her siblings followed suit. There was no shortage of ammunition. Samer shot the mother-pig with another soft projectile, but this time he pitched harder. The ugly matriarch opened her eyes and snorted in obvious annoyance. She was not looking at him though. Her water-skin belly was still exposed and her legs hung limp in the air.
The little ones had obviously enjoyed the game and were ready for more fun and games. It was high time to think of the plan B.

The snorting of the pigs was almost lost against the loathsome chorus of frogs that had resumed in full force. Now Samer had to stay still as the mother's eyes remained open. How long did he spend like that, not moving and not being able to look at his watch? Minutes passed like hours. Hours would take forever. Had it not been for the frogs, the pig would probably have heard him breathe. Thank you Lord for your many blessings.

Suddenly, the pig moved with alarm. Had she heard something that he had not? She snorted vehemently and rose to her feet in the blink of an eye. Her hoofs were pressing down on the heap of the papyrus on which she had been lying. She looked in his general direction but her gaze was directed at a spot slightly above him. She exhaled boisterously.
The piglets had stopped their frolicking. Then the mother pig turned around giving Samer her back. The brisling gray hairs of her stomach were almost touching the ground. She started to walk away slowly, surrounded by her offspring.

At this point Samer received the shock of his life, occasioned by the sound of a bullet whizzing by his ear. The sound was dry, loud and hot, indicating that it was fired at close range. The sound of the bullet caused the rapid flight of the small family of pigs. Samer tried to sit up and reach for his weapon. But a pillar had suddenly sprouted between him and his weapon. Someone had jumped in front of him in a flash. Was it a Jinni, a ghost, an apparition? Where did it come from and how could it jump and land like that? He looked up at the rest of the pillar. He was taller than Samer by more than five inches, a giant compared to him. His uniform and insignia were different, as were his roughly knitted Kakuei, woolen cap and dark-green windbreaker. He had heavy army boots, brown tyrannical eyes and the haughty smile of a victor. He was darkly handsome. Then came the blunt order barked at him in Persian followed by a gesture for him to lie face down.

Samer could not believe what was happening to him. His second day in the army was going to end like this? The Iranian yelled again. He obeyed. The captor put his boot between Samer's shoulders, pulled and pressed his hands behind his back and produced a green length of rope to tie him up. Then, abruptly, the rope went flying. The ground under them was shaking. The enemy soldier fell on top of Samer, covering his head and shoulder, almost suffocating him. He realized in horror that they were being stampeded by a herd of wild bores. His eyes were open, and from the crack between the body of the Iranian and the ground he could see scores of short legs running, jumping and pounding the ground in a mad rush. They seemed to fill the entire universe. Like a run away train hurdling off in blinding speed, the herd was beating a wide path through the thicket of papyri. It ended as suddenly as it had started. The sound of the departing hoofs gradually died down.

Samer pushed the Iranian off his body with some difficulty and turned him on his back. The stampede had knocked him off balance and almost torn him to pieces. But he was still breathing. Thank God. His windbreaker and pants were torn up in more than one place. Blood was gushing from deep wounds on his head, nose, and shoulder and from behind
one of his earlobes. Even his wool cap was torn up. In mad seconds his triumphant adversary had been battered into a piece of tenderized meat. Luck at last! Praise the Lord! Had his enemy not covered his body, he would have been crushed to death. His enemy had saved his life.

He found the Iranian's backpack a few yards away. His weapon was laying a bit farther, half-covered by clumps of mud and grass. And then, he found his canteen and took a swig with trembling hands. His first impulse was to run away. But it made little sense to run away from a man who was barely alive. He found himself absently wiping the blood off the face of the injured soldier. His face was familiar. Where had he seen him? He looked like someone who could have been his friend.
But a friend would not have been so rough with him. Samer was no longer afraid of the pigs either; he would soon find his weapon and be the master of the island. So, what was to prevent him from returning to his company? This: only the sergeant knew the area. He did not have the foggiest where he was. They had traveled for hours in the dark before the daybreak. He did not have a map and was unfamiliar with the terrain. When he had joined the theatre of operations around the marshes, he had been asked only one question: "Do you know how to swim?"
He had said that he could, and that was it. The next day he was dispatched to a world of endlessly narrowing or widening waterways that repeatedly crisscrossed or ran parallel to each other for miles on end, a world without landmarks or road signs. The water was jet black at night, reflecting the stars that spread on it like a broken string of pearls on soft velvet. At dawn, the marshes were awash in a dreamlike, limpid light and the dew drenched papyri swayed heavily in a gentle breeze.

Samer considered his options. The pigs were gone and his enemy was eliminated. He was all free with nowhere to go. Was he fated to starve to death in the land of pigs. The Iranian opened his eyes. After a while their eyes met. He was softly moaning.

--Are you still here? Why don't you run away?
Samer was dumbfounded to hear his own language from the enemy.
--What are you? An Iraqi, an ethnic Arab?
--I am from Basra.
--So why are you on the side?
He heaved a sigh as he was trying to touch his wounds.
--We were deported seven years ago around 1979 . They dropped us off at the border like dogs. Half of us starved to death. But you must run away. In about fifteen minutes my platoon will arrive. They know where we are. We were the ones who gave your coordinates to the artillery, and, we watched as your boat was blown up. Run away before they catch you.
Samer's voice quivered.
--I don't know which way to go.
The injured soldier closed his eyes trying to defy the pain.
--Help me sit up.
He was leaning on Samer and looking at the edge of the water.
--It was my stupid, childish mistake. We never learn, do we? I was afraid the sow would attack me to protect her young. Then you would either run away or kill me. So I shot in the air to scare her away.
Instead I started a stampede.
Samer laughed.
--I would not kill you even if I could. I am not out to kill anybody.
He gave Samer a severe look.
--There is no way around killing. Kill or get killed. This is a war.
Pigs! They rule this world. They are destroying everything.
He paused for a while and then pointed to the East.
--See that island? Ford the water to that island. The water is shallow. In a few hours the tide will start coming in. If you walk fast you will reach your company in four hours. Put your trust in God.
Don't waste a single second. Why do they keep sending you? This is the fifteenth boat that is blown up. It is hardly a secret that we are waiting in ambush here. Why are they playing games with your lives?
Every day they send a new boat through the gates of death. Do you know how to swim?
--Then hurry up. Take my backpack. There is enough food and water for a couple of days in it. Go, go in God's protection.
--But it will take less than an hour to get to that island.
--True. Then, turn north. There is another island. From there turn towards east. From the next island go north for half an hour and then make a sharp turn toward west. You will be there. Watch for the pigs.
Don't provoke them.
He said this and passed out briefly.
--Come on, make a run for it. If you hear the sound of bullets, hide
under water. Do you know how to breathe through a reed?
--How many years in the army?
--Two days.
--Two days and they send you to your death?
Samer felt his heart was throbbing with affection for him. He wanted to hug him, kiss him or at least shake his hand. But the Iranian was almost whispering as his eyes welled up with tears.
--Get with it. Hurry up. Don't waste time.

Then he closed his eyes and muttered: