A crow darts down off the eaves and snatches up a grasshopper the size of a Volkswagen off of the grey rock of the fire pit, then settles down to dismember it.
"Goddamn National Geographic," someone says with a wry exhalation of cigarette smoke.
Titters and quiet barks of hoarse, choppy laughter are the only response.
A stuffy captain watches over the ops floor and calls out for "Glass five-two on the big screen" and a slurp of coffee. A technician dutifully juggles inputs and swaps one of the drone feeds from a peripheral monitor to the largest of the flat screens in the tactical operations center.
The big screen now shows us six men who disappear in a puff of hellfire. The normally surly captain cracks a grin exclaims "Goddamn National Geographic!" as he shoves a cigar into his mouth and fumbles for a lighter.
It is the first time he has been the duty officer in the TOC during a kinetic action. He feels that this entitles him to a sense of satisfaction and celebration, despite being nothing but a voyeur, utterly separated from the chain of command responsible for the strike.
A passing major, even stuffier than the captain, barks at him to snap out of it. "This isn't Hollywood, Captain. There's work to do... and NO SMOKING IN THE TOC!"
His last word, pronounced "tock", as in tick-tock. Tick-tock. Time is wasting. Wind your watch.
Please don't dawdle, Alice! We're very late, indeed!
I was once almost killed by a wheelbarrow.
The day before, a man standing no more than ten yards away had emptied a full magazine at me and missed beautifully. It was marksmanship that would have made Gandhi proud. In celebration of thirty clean misses in three seconds, I killed him.
The reason so many of the Taliban can't hit shit with a rifle (or an RPG or a mortar or a...) is actually the same reason that nobody looks before crossing the street in Afghanistan: insh'allah.
You see, God willing governs all things. If you are meant to get hit by a car, there's nothing you can do to change it. If it's God's will, then it is God's will, and therefore immutable. If it's God's will that the infidel die today, and surely it must be, then He will guide my hands. If it's God's will that I get run down by a taxicab, then it'll happen even if one has to fall from the sky.
There is a continuum of this attitude where at one end, to take responsibility for oneself is tantamount to blasphemy.
It is maddening, utterly maddening, to look around Kabul and realize that the majority of the thousands and thousands of amputees that you see hobbling around are not due to landmines, bombings, or emergency amputations. No. They're fucking traffic casualties. You don't drive in the cities, there. You play Frogger.
There is an old saying, attributed variously but also to the prophet Mohammad in particular, that one should "Trust in God, but tie up your camel." There are parables to match scattered through the oral tradition. To be fair, a wheelbarrow is most certainly not a camel, but the stoneworkers building the new retaining wall eighty feet up the cliff should have probably tied it up anyway.
When it landed ten inches from my left boot, all I could say was "insh'allah" as I brushed off the dust kicked up by the impact. It was an impressive display of nonchalance if I do say so myself.
In another, slightly different version of this universe, Mullah Omar died quietly in his sleep shortly after the defeat of the Soviets, and the puppet government fell to a corrupt, factional, power-sharing, but ultimately stable Afghan government formed from the major Mujahidin groups that to this day are grateful for American help during what they call Jihad times. They would have turned Bin Laden over in a heartbeat, and on a silver platter.
In yet another slightly different version of this universe, the rough hewn and uncouth assholes I call dear friends would have replaced my portrait with a picture of Wile E. Coyote at my wake, and anybody who knew me well enough to have been invited would have laughed their asses off. They would have capped off the evening by breaking into a hardware store to murder a bunch of wheelbarrows in cold blood, to satisfy the dictates of badal.
I fell down the rabbit hole without a clear idea of how I was going to get back out again.
All I knew was that it made more sense to wander down than it did to stick around on the surface. And, well, the deeper you go and the more momentum you build up, the harder it is to even think about going up again. You find yourself growing and shrinking and stretching until one day you realize that you don't know what baseline is anymore. Your perception changes but so does reality around you, making relative judgment meaningless.
Chasing the rabbit, like Alice did. Just as you get comfortable, things get a little more warped, always in steps small enough that you don't stumble hard enough to notice how insane things really are. Progressing stage by stage, marhala pa marhala, by quanta of derangement. You take it all as it comes and keep chasing that rabbit.
Not just chasing it, either - hauling ass after it like a greyhound, without a clear idea of what you'd actually do if you ever caught it. But it doesn't matter, because you never will.
I watched a beautiful specimen of Bungarus caeruleus, the blue krait, go after a pile of baby frogs in a mud puddle. I was walking to the showers when I noticed it in the light of my headlamp.
It was, I am sure, the find of the season for the snake. It was the dry season, and aside from a tiny oasis of water for the thirsty but sensitive three and a half footer, there was enough food to keep it going for maybe the rest of the year.
The frogs, who we had been watching develop for a few weeks, were utterly helpless, having just recently developed the beginnings of legs.
The blue krait is deadly, producing an incredibly potent neurotoxin in its venom that has a mortality rate of 100% in humans if untreated. Symptoms from the relatively mild initial bite are intense muscular pain and cramping, followed by progressive paralysis and eventually death by respiratory failure within four to six hours.
I stood, watching it from a safe distance, and warning off others. I had alerted the first person to happen by, who was due back any moment now.
"Going hot," was the only warning I got before whoever it was dispatched the krait and what remained of the frogs with three quick blasts of birdshot from a breaching shotgun.
Flashblind, I mumbled a quick thanks and left him to scoop up the remains and toss them into the burn pit.
Eventually, it's normal to be a pinball, barreling around a crazily tilted desert, knocking down score panels shaped like human beings.
Every time you skate by a fertilizer bomb with nothing but the adrenaline rush and the smell of ammonia in your hair; every time you scoot past a PKM, sparkling with the aura of invincibility that is really just tiny fragments of mica from bullet-chiseled rock dust, it's a FREE BALL, so you keep playing.
All around the pinball machine, your fixation, regular life goes on. The waitress brings the pizza. Your friends watch your share get cold while they finish off a pitcher of domestic. You can't even hear them, and then they no longer bother, calling over the lights and buzzers and bells of the game.
Eventually, your last quarter spent, you look up and the room is dark. Chairs up on tables, glasses long dried behind the bar, and the party's over.
It's just you, standing befuddled in the dark.