The house smelled of fresh bread and gunpowder. It reminded me of Mama, covered in flour and scowling while she kneaded dough.
"Don't burn your bridges behind you!" Mama said, wagging her grizzled old finger at me with enough vigor that the skin on her arms flapped. I remember the finger more than her voice, slashing the air like Zorro.
Two rounds hit the sandbags in front of my position, between the house and the bridge. The sniper in the minaret was good; he took his time and didn't waste ammo. The rhythmic sniping came in threes, as if he were listening to a waltz and firing to the violas.
I liked to waltz. My friends would laugh at me when I traipsed off every Friday evening to the dance school. I had the last laugh, though. I enjoyed the company of older women, and I ended up dating half of my dance partners. I was young, and they were bored and excited that an eighteen year-old buck was interested in them.
Mama wasn't too thrilled that my dates were twenty years older me, but she did subscribe to the notion that love was blind. When I would tell her I was going to break up with one of my long-term girlfriends, I got the finger-waving, arm-flapping dance. I made sure my gals were let down easy. Mama did have a point -- don't waste friends, they're hard to come by.
Sgt Jaffe waved to get my attention, and the sniper turned his affections towards the partially-exposed Marine. The third round glanced off of a piece of rusted rebar, hitting the Sergeant in his earlobe. If his body wasn't shaking from waving at me, he would've had a fatal neck wound. Jaffe cursed loudly in Farsi, and the sniper answered back in triplicate.
"You OK, Sarge?" My throat felt raw, and I motioned him to toss over a canteen. He did, one hand squeezing on his bleeding earlobe, trying to stem the flow. "You lost your lucky diamond stud. I think it's behind you."
I gulped the water while he felt around in the silt for his missing part. Sure enough, his two-carat diamond was still attached to a little chunk of ear. "You'll look like some minor Van Gogh when we get back to the 'States."
He winced as he put two clothespins on his lobe. "I told you these'd come in handy."
"Sure you did, I owe you a beer." I pointed upwards, and the sniper, as if on cue, sent out three more rounds. "We need to finish our job, the gent in the tower doesn't like us, and there's a bunch of enemy troop carriers due in twenty minutes. Suggestions?"
"Let's just blow the damn bridge. The mission is the important thing here." His hand hovered over one of the detonators, but I knew he was too well-trained to set off the fireworks without my express orders.
I nodded. "The mission is important, but so are our hides. Let's not be too hasty, and spend five minutes on brainstorming."
"Well, I can see why they had you running big companies. I'll never know why you joined the Marines." He leaned back and fiddled with his good lobe, jabbing the diamond stud through the other lobe. I winced in sympathetic pain.
"Didn't I tell you about my wife? She worked in the Twin Towers, and never made it out. My daughter was visiting her in her office, and she died too." The story no longer brought me comfort; my tears were left behind in a graveyard in Middleburgh, New York.
"Geez, I'm sorry, Doc. I had no idea."
I grunted, man-speak for No Problem. "That sniper has a rhythm to his shooting. I think he needs to re-load after six shots. When he fires again, we'll both open up on his position. How's that for a plan?"
Jaffe checked his rifle. "Sounds as good as any plan I've heard in the last thirty seconds."
I chugged the last of the water, slid the canteen up the sandbag wall until it peeked over the edge. The predictable sniper unloaded three -- then six -- shots. Jaffe and I jumped up, rifles on full automatic. We weren't as conservative as our foe, and we knew we hit someone when a rifle fell from the railing.
We both hopped the sandbags and ran to the mosque, watching for enemy combatants. The circular stairs had a few bodies, none with fresh wounds. At the top, Jaffe and I burst through the half-opened door to the balcony.
The sniper was curled into a fetal position, nursing a nasty wound to his right arm. Jaffe raised his rifle, cursing in Farsi.
“Put it down. It’s a kid.”
Jaffe lowered his firearm and peered through his veil of anger. The sniper was all of fourteen, and muttering under his breath. “He asks Allah’s forgiveness for not killing us, and also asks that we kill him quickly.”
“We’ve had just about enough misery for one day, kid. Let me see that arm.”
Jaffe translated, but the kid shook his head wildly. “I think the kid believes we’re going to literally take his arm as a trophy.”
I looked over at the frightened child, who two minutes ago tried to murder two strangers. “Tell him that I am a doctor, and I want to see the wound.”
Again, Jaffe spoke in the guttural language. The pain of the open bullet wound convinced the child to say yes.
The bullet missed the bone. His firearm was torn from two rounds – clean entries and exits. He wouldn’t be sniping for a long time. I cleaned and wrapped his forearm.
“Tell him he needs to get a shot of penicillin when he gets the chance. He shouldn’t lose his arm if he takes care of it.”
The kid agreed, but didn’t thank me. I really didn’t expect him to.
“Let’s get moving, we have a bridge to demolish. Bring the kid; he’s better off not hanging around with the regular army when they show up.”
Jaffe explained, and helped the kid to his feet. I passed them two energy bars. The kid muttered something under his breath, and Jaffe startled us both by laughing out loud.
“The kid says he cannot eat your food, because Americans eat only pork. Muslims cannot eat pork, it is against doctrine.” Jaffe opened one of the bars, took a big bite, and then pulled a Quran out of his shirt. “I’d better tell him I’m a Muslim, before he thinks we’re all barbarians.”
The kid’s confused look needed no translation, but he did eat the energy bar. We helped him down the stairs and over the bridge.
Jaffe heard the rumbling of heavy trucks first. The convoy was early, but we were prepared. One quick twist, and tons of concrete and steel buckled into the river. The Iraqi convoy entered the courtyard to find their way blocked. Mama said not to burn bridges behind you, but never said anything about those in front.
I smiled, imagining Mama doing her finger dance as she tried to adjust her old wise saying to match the situation, when two rocket-propelled grenades hit next to our position.
The kid recovered quickest, and he snatched Jaffe’s pistol from the ground where it fell. He smiled as he pulled the trigger -- two sets of three, in waltz time.
My ears were ringing as I heard the kid shout. He pointed upriver, and the sounds of diesel trucks roared to life and dwindle into the distance.
Jaffe rolled over, still smiling. “You okay?”
“Yeah, but I think I’m going to suffer from tinnitus for a while.”
“Smart kid. He faked shooting us, and said our friends were on the way to blow up the next bridge.”
I looked over, and the kid still held the pistol. He wasn’t brandishing it; he just stood there as if expecting a gold star for winning a spelling bee.
“Tell him he did good. Tell him when he grows up, and Iraq is a free country, he can look me up. I’ll buy him a drink and tell him about the men he just saved.”
The sergeant dutifully translated my words, and I handed the kid one of my tattered business cards.
I have to hand it to Mama – she was right. I don’t burn my bridges behind me. I don’t need to see Mama’s finger-popping, arm-flapping dance to remind me any more. I think about a kid who had to grow up too fast, who now calls me every month since the war ended, just to update me on his growing family and his medical classes at the university. I buried my anger in the sand, only to find it was fertile ground for friendship.
Maybe that’s why we need to leave the bridges behind us on our journey – so our deeds can catch up with us in our old age.