‘When do I start?’ the war artist asked.
The captain glanced at his watch, his thin lips pressed into a sliver. Thirty seconds passed.
‘Today,’ he said.
From down the hallway a pistol shot rang out, followed by the sprightly pop of a champagne cork.
‘Right now, in fact.’ He handed the war artist a neatly folded uniform, saluted her, and walked out the door.
The war artist heard the jingle of the captain’s keys and the solid thunk of the thrown bolt. She tried the handle, but it wouldn’t budge. Looking through the small window, thick glass meshed with wire, she saw the gray of another metal door across the hall. She knelt and opened the slot, near the floor, and peered through it. ‘Hello?’ she called. The hallway’s fluorescent lights buzzed.
She turned back into the room. Tattered mobiles of jets and helicopters stirred busily in the artificial breeze of the air handlers. She sorted through her footlocker and bins of supplies. The office was stocked with her favourite materials, and for a moment, this reassured her. Among the bins, she found a fifth of Jack Daniels and two shot glasses. Slices of light shone from the skylights. A small fluff of cloud passed over the sun. She changed into the fatigues the captain had left, sat at her drafting table, and waited.
She sketched to pass the time and to exercise her hand, soldiers in action poses that resembled her son’s army men. The fatigues felt stiff. The room was so quiet that the scratching of her pen seemed to fill it. She drew her surroundings – a boring exercise, but an exercise nevertheless: a cot, a footlocker, a metal desk and chair, an easel, all done up in the sandy shades of this war’s theatre – dry sand, wet sand, oil and sand, dirt and sand. She wondered what her children were doing, and checked her watch. They’d be walking home from school with their father, chatting in their high-pitched voices. They’d stop for a snack along the way, something wholesome or not, depending on her husband’s mood. They might yet expect to find her at home. She wondered when she would be deployed. She had told the children it was an honour to serve as the nation’s war artist, that she owed it to the soldiers to do a good job. The weight of her new responsibility – to make the war comprehensible to those who couldn’t witness it – exhausted her. She rested her head on the table and dozed.
During her nap, her civilian clothes disappeared and more fatigues arrived, along with an MRE and a pistol. She held the gun away from her, dangling it by the butt between her thumb and forefinger. She glanced around the room. Where to put it? Away, she felt, was the only safe answer. She assumed it was loaded. She would get the captain to take it away. In the meantime, for safekeeping, she placed it in her footlocker, nestled between mosquito netting and a rain poncho.
She turned her attention to the MRE. Three thousand calories, the package said. My, the war artist said. She had hoped for an itinerary or instructions for her deployment, but there was nothing else. She sketched the bulky MRE in its thick green plastic. Then she used watercolor pencils to finish it, and she tacked it on the wall over her cot. Better. The room had needed some color.
She had only had a moment to admire her work when a thunderous booming shook the room. She covered her ears and cowered behind her easel. Another explosion followed, then the rapid fire of guns. The war artist curled into a ball and shielded her head with her arms. Voices, sirens, and the sound of boots pounding filled the hallway outside her door. More gun-fire, more explosions, a moment of silence. She was panting. Then the screaming began, and cries in a language she didn’t recognize, beseeching cries of a woman. It sounded as though someone had reached into the woman and pulled her insides out. The war artist understood from the sounds that the woman pounded on the chest of a soldier, all the while screaming about her murdered children.
Focused intently as she was, she failed to recognize the sudden silence. It occurred to her that she might have been listening to a recording. The war was being fought elsewhere, not in the hallway of a government building. Yet a particulate substance floated in the air, and her fatigues were covered in plaster dust. New cracks crawled up the walls and around the skylights, and occasional bits of plaster fell. The war artist pounded on the metal door and shouted, ‘Hello? Hello?’ but no one came. Her arms and legs trembled. Dust from the newly cracked walls tickled her nose, and she sneezed into her sleeve.
No one came to explain what had happened. The war artist set to her pencils. She drew quickly, with harsh movements, fragments of the scene she had heard. The face of the mother filled an entire panel, her mouth a terrible wound. The soldier occupied his own panel, away from the mother, his arm raised in a half-realized gesture of comfort. Apart from these, she described a mostly empty space for the children: a faint horizon line with nothing above or below it, save a few flecks to signify earth and a wisp of cloud for sky.
She slept lightly, and in the night, she woke to weather. The breeze at first was not unpleasant. She lifted her face to the hot wind, and it ruffled her hair. Particles of something fine swept across her face and forearms, clinging to each strand of hair. She shut her eyes against the graininess. The wind increased, ruffling her easel pad, scattering her Kraft paper sketches and gathering them up again in a whirling spout. The dust stung her skin and worked itself between her lips to coat her gums. She pulled herself into a tight ball and waited out the storm. Ink bottles pelted her, pens and pencils skittered across the floor, and charcoal sticks exploded against the walls, adding their dust to the air.
When the storm ended, everything in the room was coated with a layer of the finest sand she’d ever felt. Impossible to wash away, it burrowed under her watchband, and worked beneath the wire of her brassiere. Everything she touched was coated in grit. When she sketched, she pressed her fingers into it on the shaft of the pen. Each sheet of paper became a kind of sandpaper. Eventually, the sand infiltrated all of her inks and paints so that everything she made contained it: the portraits of her husband and children, which she drew from memory; the lakeside landscape of her family’s summer home; a still life of her children’s lunch bags and school books. When she blinked she felt it; too insignificant to induce tears, it stayed put. When she ate, it crunched like glass between her teeth. Each day, more sand blew in on a hot wind from a great furnace.
Over the next few weeks, boxes of treats arrived from her family and friends who thought she was at war: pulverized cookies, melted Power Bars, outdated magazines, sun-block, salt tablets. She painted pictures of whole cookies and tall frosty milkshakes. She made pastels of ice cream sundaes, as cartoon-like in their sumptuousness as centrefolds. At night, and only after she felt she’d made a good faith effort to produce, she re-read letters from her family. Small details thrilled her: buying tomatoes at the farmer’s market; making pancakes at home and setting off the smoke detector; the neighbor’s cat darting in the open door and surprising everyone with a live mouse.
She, in turn, had little to say – and little she could say. Her first letter – ‘Dear Family, Your letters and pictures delight me! I still haven’t been shipped overseas and am in fact very near you….’ – came back to her, with instructions to avoid mention of her location. The letter was returned the very day she’d passed it through the slot to the soldier who delivered her meals, packages, and letters. She became adept at concealing the truth without actually lying: ‘Dear Children, Very hot here, and the sand gets in everything! I must have eaten a bushel! It’s strange to draw something as dry as the desert with watercolor pencils, but I find it my preferred medium. Be good to each other, and mind Daddy. All my love, Your Mommy.’
The war artist tried to keep in shape by drawing and sketching, but she had grown tired of her room as a subject, and she could only draw so much from memory and desire. She found herself recreating bland desert landscapes and predictable war-time tableaus, lifted from movies she’d seen. She requested newspapers and internet access, via a note to the captain. The next day, several postcards skittered across the floor, having been flung through the slot. All depicted the desert around Las Vegas, circa 1950.
‘What’s this?’ she called through the slot to the soldier. She could just see the butt of his rifle as he walked away from her down the hall. She was in the habit of calling after him. ‘Fresh fruit would be nice!’ when another MRE thunked to the floor. ‘Thank you!’ she’d call when he dropped off her packages and letters.
She flipped through the postcards, making sure she hadn’t missed something more relevant. The last card had stuck to one of its mates, the edges of the canceled stamps interlocking. The front side showed a spangled showgirl dressed like Uncle Sam in fishnets and plunging neckline. On the reverse, written in faded India ink, she read: ‘Very hot here! Sand everywhere. Eating bushels. More, love.’ The war artist swore.
‘What am I supposed to do with this?’ She heard a phlegmatic click from a corner of the room. She spun about, trying to locate the source. Then a different sound, a pattering, followed by a rushing swish of sand, spilling from the sprinkler heads above her. For the rest of the day and all through the night, the sand rained down. She found an umbrella in her footlocker and held it above her while the sand pattered and swirled in the manufactured breeze. Goggles protected her eyes. The heat in the room intensified, until the war artist was forced to strip down to her briefs and brassiere.
By the time the storm had ended, about a foot of sand had fallen. She cleared her table-top and desk, and shook out her linens. Her cot now was flush with the ground, and she kicked sand into her bedding any time she moved near it. The new landscape was awkward to walk in and she found herself ill disposed to do anything. Sipping whiskey improved her frame of mind.
She was seated thus, in her underwear, sipping whiskey, when a young man in civilian clothing arrived. Sweat plopped from her chin and nose onto the blank paper in front of her.
‘Hello,’ he said, offering his hand. ‘I am your translator.’
The war artist wouldn’t move from behind her table, so the translator staggered through the sand to her. His slick-soled shoes slid and pitched him forward into the war artist’s table. They shook hands.
‘There’s nothing for you to translate,’ the war artist said. Patches of sweat blossomed on the translator’s dress shirt. ‘I’m the only one here.’
The translator held up his hand. ‘I get paid either way.’
She offered him a whiskey and he accepted. He sat cross-legged on the ground. She pulled on her trousers, and the translator explained the proud history of his region, the many accomplishments of his people, as well as the colonization, in-fighting, and religious oppression. The war artist rolled out fresh paper, and she drew a mural of the images and events the translator described. He kept pouring as he spoke, becoming more and more comfortable moving in the sand as they drained and he refilled their glasses. She looked at him from time to time; usually he stared off into a corner of the room, as if he could actually see the times and places of which he spoke. His slight accent felt lush to her, a spice she had never smelled or tasted. She felt she could slip inside the scenery she drew – the dusty streets, the ornate mosques and busy markets. She doodled away at some clouds and didn’t notice that the translator had stopped speaking. When the lull of his voice subsided, she looked up to find him gazing at her. The expression he wore looked a little hard, but she couldn’t read it. She looked back at the many feet of paper she had covered. She blushed.
‘You’ve inspired me.’
He rose and looked down at what she’d drawn.
‘They knew about perspective before anyone else did, you know.’
The war artist looked up from her work. ‘They?’
The translator smiled. ‘My people,’ he said. ‘That’s all for today.’
She walked him to the door of her office, hoping to catch some vague scent of his, which she was sure would be exotic and thrilling. All she smelled was sweat and whiskey. The soldier came and ushered the translator out.
The war artist painted after the translator had gone – ancient monuments he’d described and some she imagined, all to convey the past grandeur of the place. She fell asleep quickly, relishing the warmth emanating from the sand.
During the night, she woke to the sound of a helicopter hovering above her room. She threw back the covers and trudged to the skylights. The ground seemed to buckle under her feet. The pens on her drafting table jumped and fell nib-first into the sand. The helicopter abruptly flew off, circled, and came back to hover somewhere very near. The war artist gazed up at the two skylights framing the night sky, rectangles of inky dark and nothing more. She lay down again, and each time the helicopter hovered, her sternum vibrated. Her ears tuned to the sound of the slicing blades, and she fell asleep, her organs humming.
The next day, she requested coffee for the translator’s visit. He had mentioned a specific kind – cardamom. The coffee was delivered in a china pot with pink rosebuds. The cups matched. Not quite right, the war artist said, and she and the translator laughed. The war artist shook her head as if to cast her hair away from her eyes, but she meant to clear away last night’s noise. Her body had recorded the thumping whir, muffled and interior. She smiled at the translator, worried that her new sound might leak out.
‘Today,’ the translator told the war artist, ‘I will tell you about my family.’ He clasped his hands behind his back and told of the economic hardship and the violence that had brought him to her country. In vague terms, he spoke of separation from his parents, his wife, and his children. The war artist felt heat rise on her cheeks. She had thought him too young to be married with children, and the fact of his coming to her room had given her a proprietary feeling.
The translator walked alongside the previous day’s mural, which the war artist had tacked to the wall. He spoke of oppression under the previous regime, and the hardships and terror of the current war. Occasionally, he fell silent and stared at his shoes sinking into the sand. Mostly, the war artist respected his emotions and waited for him to gather himself again. The translator stared at the palace the war artist had rendered, its gates open to a garden of orange-red flowers. Without speaking he lowered himself to the ground and sat.
‘So you help our government for the sake of justice?’ the war artist said.
‘Justice?’ The translator looked down at his lap. For a moment, the war artist was afraid he couldn’t continue, and she was sorry to have pried. He nodded. ‘I am very tired.’
After the translator had gone, the war artist painted a new city, a new country – what might rise up like a field of wildflowers after this war: industry and parks; roads and public transportation; schools and universities; hospitals and laboratories, all peopled by rational, clear-eyed, hopeful citizens. What this new civilization could accomplish – and how the rest of the world would benefit from its example – once the dust had settled!
She made herself eat a light supper, a small portion of her MRE, and practiced sleep hygiene with renewed zeal. She had grown accustomed to the cot and the unfamiliar sheets, the sand and the lack of scent. In the dark, she heard the rattle of her murals on the walls, shifting slightly in the breeze from the fans: the good sound of work, of something made. She thought of the murals someday hanging in a museum or other public building, alongside the ancient friezes from palaces destroyed by war. Drifting as she was, the hard rolling sound didn’t trouble her. In fact, followed as it was by another hard something rolling, and another, the string of sounds was quite soothing. The hard, round things rolled in the hall, up against her door, and that reminded her of ocean waves lapping, until the explosions came. The sound tore through her ears, and blossomed red – fuller and fuller, pushing through her head, chest, and bones.
When the waves of sound receded, she lay on her back, rigid and panting. Every part of her felt shattered, her atoms and molecules reassembled imperfectly. The sheets were cold and damp. She thought of her youngest son, how he’d wept through his shame of bed-wetting. She rose to change the linens, staggering sideways, her inner vibrations throwing her off-balance.
On the third day, the little rosebud teacups rattled in their saucers as the war artist poured the coffee. Everything was bright and sharp – except the translator, who lumbered in with no stories to tell. The two sat across the room from each other, sipping their coffee. The translator’s eyes were vague and unfocused. The war artist felt her gaze harden. At the very least, he could give her something to work with. They both had jobs to do, and despite the ringing in her ears and the ache of unease in her bones, she wanted to get on with it. She placed the cup and saucer on her desk, and took up her usual position at the drafting table. She rolled fresh paper across it, picked up her charcoal, and cleared her throat.
‘The heat’s getting to me,’ the translator said.
The war artist raised her eyebrows. The man did look ill. ‘I thought you’d be accustomed to it.’
The translator’s head dipped on his wilted neck. His eyelids fluttered, showing the whites. The war artist jumped up, broke out a cold compress from her first aid kit, and clamped it to the back of the translator’s neck.
‘They never get the humidity right,’ the translator said, loosening his tie. ‘Anyway, I’m from Boston.’
The war artist sat down again at her drafting table. Over the translator’s shoulder, the bright colors of her murals blurred. She sloshed herself a whiskey.
‘You lied?’ she said.
The translator removed the compress from the back of his neck and applied it to his forehead. ‘Those aren’t lies,’ he said. ‘That’s a lot of people’s truth.’
‘Are you an actor?’ the war artist asked.
‘I’m a graduate student,’ the translator said. ‘Art history.’
The war artist sipped her whiskey, then threw it back. ‘What’s your language?’
The translator shrugged and shook his head. He had an uncle, he said, who had lived in Dubai for a while, whom he’d gone to visit regularly, and he had his training, which helped to pay his way through school.
‘This is a fucked-up situation,’ he said. ‘I tell stories of a life I haven’t lived, and you make pictures of a war you haven’t seen.’
The war artist poured the translator another whiskey. ‘You can’t leave,’ she said, ‘until you tell me something I can use.’
She sat at her drawing table and prepared to sketch. The non-translating translator sipped his whiskey. ‘Now,’ she said. ‘Do you have a girlfriend?’
The non-translating translator nodded. ‘She is Hindi and was born in Calcutta –’
‘Stop.’ She pointed her charcoal at him. ‘I want the truth.’
The young man looked away, smiling faintly. ‘Her father was a physician in Iran during the Shah’s reign. They fled to South Florida –’
The war artist stood. ‘Imagine I point a gun at your head.’ She demonstrated with her thumb and forefinger.
He stared at her. His black-brown eyes looked wide and innocent. The war artist retrieved the pistol from her footlocker and pointed it at the translator’s head.
‘Do. You have. A girlfriend?’
‘You don’t have to do that,’ he said. ‘I’ll answer your questions.’
She shook the pistol at him.
‘Okay,’ the young man said. ‘She grew up in Worcester. She’s terrible at math. She makes good potato salad. We fuck in her parents’ bed while they’re on vacation. We did it once on her stoop and the neighbor across the street saw, and my girlfriend still cries about it.’
The war artist straddled her chair. The facts steadied her. ‘What else,’ she said.
‘We’re supposed to get married when I graduate.’
‘Supposed to?’ the war artist said.
‘She wants to.’
‘But you don’t.’
The young man looked at the ceiling. ‘It’s not that I don’t want to, it’s that I don’t think we’ll be ready. She’s never dated anyone else, and how can I be sure – how can she be sure –’
The war artist raised her pistol and tried to fire into the ceiling. Nothing happened.
‘Squeeze again,’ he said. ‘Like you mean it.’
She fired into the ceiling several times, which caused her to flinch and cry out. The translator shielded his head. He waited for the rain of plaster to stop before answering. ‘I don’t want to marry her,’ he said. ‘She’s boring, except when we’re fucking.’
The war artist stared up at the now-crazed skylights. ‘I should shoot you,’ she said.
The non-translating translator shook his head. ‘I know,’ he said. ‘I know.’
In the end, she sent the young man away. With him, she sent a note to the captain: ‘I want to do my job. Let me do my job.’
The next day a yellow form in triplicate, having to do with the discharging of her pistol, fluttered from the slot in the door to the sand. She used needle and thread to embroider her explanation: ‘It’s a war.’
After she sent her translator away, the war artist so missed even incidental contact with others that the rosebud china service pained her to tears. She couldn’t bring herself to smash the cups and pot. She made weepy studies of the trio, until her sorrow bored the hell out of her. Better to make it big and lurid, this loneliness. She started on large paper, and painted quickly in watercolor couples straining to make themselves one, but the paper was too small. The edges antagonized her. She moved to the walls, covering over her murals with big powerful strokes depicting the most intricate orgy she could imagine. The figures blurred together, though the most disturbing image repeated itself plainly enough: Men and women opening their jaws wide and stretching their mouths over each other’s faces. She stepped away from the wall and felt the hunger and tenderness of the gesture: to want so strongly!
Every morning, she lined up her buckets and laid on more paint, until the figures were impossible to discern. When the wall glistened thick with color, she threw herself into it, smashed her cheek in the cool earthiness, and rubbed herself along the oozing surface. She rolled along the wall and moaned, pounding her fists until she felt a shattering ache the length of her body. At that moment, she thought she heard the static click of an intercom. She remembered the sound from grade school. She paused for the message. ‘Eh-hem,’ a voice said. Blushing, she pulled herself away from her painting. The war artist, slick with ooze, vowed to make herself and her feelings smaller.
She didn’t see why she should eat since the food always tasted the same and it was so hot, and anyway everything had sand in it. So she ate only what she absolutely had to, and she watched as her stomach, upper arms, and thighs melted away. For the sake of something to do in between bombs, sandstorms, art-making, and masturbating, she did push-ups and sit-ups. She admired her newly chiseled arms and abs. Fuckin-a, she said to herself in the mirror. I am one bad-ass bitch.
She was an art-making machine: totally focused, she’d learned to manage the boredom, fear, loneliness, and lust. She had been bribing the soldier who brought her food; she made pastel portraits of his children from snapshots and school photos he provided. He sighed over them, opened the flap in the door, and shoved in a stack of newspapers. The newspapers were in Arabic. It was true she hadn’t specified the language, but she thought her guard – for that is how she thought of him – was playing games with her.
She spent the day tearing the newspapers into strips. She set up her camera, took off her clothes and carefully wrapped herself from head to toe in the strips of newspaper. She stuffed wadded newspaper in her mouth. Only her eyes showed. She left one arm free enough to work the camera’s remote. She made a series of photographs and attempted to send them to her family, via the bribed guard. The next day, a new guard appeared, one whose hairless knuckles and hammy-looking fingernails promised no shenanigans.
She stayed in bed all day. She nibbled crackers, curled on her side and slept. In the night, she woke and tore fresh white sheets of paper into strips, laid them on the floor and took pictures. Then she went back to bed. She couldn’t say what any of it meant, but she kept doing it, for ten nights by her count, until she realized she’d gone daft. She stripped nude, tensed her muscles, and stared down the camera. She made side and back views of herself, and printed these. She admired her muscles, tracing her finger along the new gutters of her body. With great care and precision, she tore her photos into strips and ate them. Then, using a very small screwdriver, she disassembled her camera. She spread the parts on a thick piece of pearl gray paper, and instinctively reached for her camera to document it. Oh, said the war artist. My. With a hammer, she smashed the parts of her camera, taking care to herd the wayward pieces. With a mortar and pestle, she ground the pieces into a fine and sparkling pile of dust. She tried letting the particles dissolve on her tongue, but they clung, coating her mouth and caking at the edges of her lips. The thing to do was wash it down, so she opened her bottles of India ink, and once she started it was difficult to stop.
Eventually they came. The soldier with the ham-like fingernails stepped matter-of-factly over her spatters of vomit. He helped her to her feet, and led her gently down the hall to a room where the Captain and other soldiers waited. The Captain motioned for her to sit at a long table, around which the other soldiers sat. No one spoke. The war artist sipped water from the glass in front of her, rinsed her mouth, and spat on the floor. She was determined not to speak first. The soldiers stayed very still. The air handlers whirred. She stared down at her briefs and became aware of her stink. In the two-way mirror at the far end of the room she saw herself: a gristly-looking person, dressed in a sweat-stained under-shirt, wearing a goatee of inky vomit. She crossed her arms in front of her. She thought of her family, and all the time wasted. Finally she spoke.
‘Am I to be debriefed?’
The oldest man in the room – the General – who sat across from her at the long table, smiled mildly. ‘What is it you’d like to know?’
He reminded her of her grade school principal, willing to give only what information was necessary to answer the inquiry in the most meager way.
‘Why did you keep me here?’ the war artist asked.
The General removed his glasses. His eyebrows were gray and bushy. ‘We thought – we hoped –’ he smiled, ‘that you could show us something about the war.’
The war artist felt a roiling burn at the base of her throat. ‘What did you learn?’ she asked.
The General suppressed a smile. ‘You responded in interesting ways. We were touched by your … humanity. We admired your passion.’ He folded his hands in front of him. ‘Time for one more question.’
Grit clicked between the war artist’s teeth as she spoke. ‘Why did you keep me in that room?’
‘I see,’ the General said. ‘We didn’t want to hurt you.’
Some of the soldiers at the table had gone red around their ears and necks. A fine crust of sand lined the uppermost ridge of a young man’s ear. One young woman had an angry red stump for a thumb. The ham-fingered soldier, upon closer inspection, wore prosthetic hands. The war artist couldn’t help staring. She wondered if his new finger fit the trigger. She imagined him working it into place, not being able to feel the trigger’s resistance, or gauge how much pressure was necessary to squeeze off one round or two. She watched the soldier so intently that she didn’t notice the urge to sneeze coming on, and she neglected to cover her mouth and nose when the sneeze arrived. She sprayed the soldier’s hands with dark gritty mucus.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said. She started to wipe her nose on her forearm, but the soldiers on either side of her offered their hankies.
‘It’s okay,’ the soldier said. He cradled his M-16 as he wiped his prosthetic hands. ‘It happens to all of us. It never goes away.’
Photograph by Victor Semionov