Young Americans abroad in Central Asia find themselves pushed to their limits in these acclaimed, prize-winning stories by one of our most exciting and talented new authors. Combining bleak humor, ironic insight, deep compassion, and unflinching moral and ethical inquiry, Tom Bissell gives us a gripping collection that is both timeless and profoundly relevant to today’s complex world.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
; December 2007
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Title: God Lives in St. Petersburg
Author: Tom Bissell
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Graves had been sick for three days when, on the long straight highway between Mazar and Kunduz, a dark blue truck coming toward them shed its rear wheel in a spray of orange-yellow sparks. The wheel, as though excited by its sudden liberty, bounced twice not very high and once very high and hit their windshield with a damp crack. "Christ!" Donk called out from the backseat. The driver, much too late, wrenched on the steering wheel, and they fishtailed and then spun out into the dunes alongside the road. Against one of the higher sandbanks the Corolla slammed to a dusty halt. Sand as soft and pale as flour poured into the partially opened windows. The shattered but still intact windshield sagged like netting. After a moment Donk touched his forehead, his eyebrow bristles as tender as split stitches. Thin watery blood streaked down his fingers.
From the front passenger seat Graves asked if the other three men-Donk, Hassan, the driver-were all right. No one spoke. Graves sighed. "Glad to hear it." He gave his dune-pinned door two small impotent outward pushes, then spent the next few moments staring out the splintery windshield. The air-freshener canister that had been suckered to the windshield lay quietly frothing lilac-scented foam in Graves's lap. The spun-around Corolla now faced Kunduz, the city they had been trying to escape. "I'm glad I'm not a superstitious man," Graves said at last. The driver's hands were still gripped around the steering wheel.
Donk climbed out on the Corolla's open side, cupping his throbbing eye socket and leaning forward, watching his blood patter onto the sand in perfect red globules. He did not have the faintest idea what he had struck his head against until Hassan, wincing and rubbing his shoulder, muscled his way out of the car behind him. Hassan looked at Donk and shrug-smiled, his eyes rimmed with such a fine black line they looked as if they had been Maybellined. His solid belly filled the stretched sack of his maroon cardigan sweater, and his powder-blue shalwar khameez-the billowy national pants of Afghanistan, draped front and back with a flap of cloth that resembled an untied apron-were splattered with Donk's blood. The whole effect gave Hassan an emergency-room air. Donk did not return Hassan's smile. The night before, in Kunduz, after having a bite of Spam and stale Brie in the rented compound of an Agence France Presse correspondent, Donk and Graves found their hotel room had been robbed. Graves had lost many personal items, a few hundred dollars, and his laptop, while Donk had parted with virtually all of his photographic equipment, including an irreplaceably good wide-lens he had purchased in London on the way over. Hassan, charged with watching the room while they were out, claimed to have abandoned his sentry duties only once, for five minutes, to go the bathroom. He had been greatly depressed since the robbery. Donk was fairly certain Hassan had robbed them.
Donk fastened around his head the white scarf he had picked up in Kunduz's bazaar. Afghan men tended to wear their scarves atop their heads in vaguely muffin-shaped bundles or around their necks with aviator flair. Afghanistan's troublous Arab guests, on the other hand, were said to tie the scarves around their skulls with baldness-mimicking tightness, the hem just millimeters above their eyes while the scarf's tasseled remainder trailed down their spines. This was called terrorist style, and Donk adopted it now. It was the only way he could think to keep blood from his eyes. He also sort of liked how it looked.
"Hassan," Graves snapped, as he climbed out of the Corolla. It was an order, and Graves-a tall thin Brit with an illusionless, razor-burned face-had a voice seemingly engineered to give orders. He had thick brown hair and the ruined teeth of a man who had spent a large amount of time in the unfluoridated parts of the world. His hands were as filthy as the long sleeves of his white thermal underwear top, though his big fingernails seemed as white as shells. Graves made his way to the truck, twenty yards down the road and askew on its three remaining wheels. He glanced down at the tire, innocently at rest in the middle of the highway, that had shattered the Corolla's windshield. Donk noted that Graves looked as stately as was imaginable for a sick man wearing one of those silly war-reporter khaki vests and red Chuck Taylor All-Stars. Hassan rushed to catch up to him, as Graves had not waited.
This left Donk and the driver, a kind of bear-man miracle with moist brown eyes and a beard it was hard to imagine he had not been born with, to have a look under the Corolla and assess the damage. Monoglots each, they could do little better than exchange artfully inflected grunts. Nothing seemed visibly wrong. The axle, for instance, was not bent, which had been Donk's greatest fear. But the steering wheel refused to budge and the ignition responded to the driver's twist with a click.
"Hmn," Donk consoled him.
"Mmn," the driver agreed.
Donk looked over at Graves, who was speaking through Hassan to the truck's stranded driver. Graves was nodding with exquisitely false patience as the curly-haired boy, who looked no older than twenty, grasped his head with both hands and then waved his arms around at the desert in huge gestures of innocence. Bursts of dune-skimmed sand whistled across the three of them. The bed of the boy's truck was piled ten deep with white bags of internationally donated wheat. His truck, Donk noticed, was not marked with any aid group's peaceable ideogram.
It had been a strange morning, even by Donk's standards. A few hours ago some "nasties," as Graves called them, had appeared on the outskirts of Kunduz, though they were supposed to have been driven out of the area a week ago. In fact, they were supposed to have been surrendering. Graves and Donk had jumped out of bed and rushed downstairs into the still-dark morning autumn air to see what they could see, hopping around barefoot on the frigid concrete. The battle was still far away, the small faint pops of gunfire sounding as dry as firecrackers. It appeared that, after some desultory return fire, Kunduz's commander called in an American air strike. The great birds appeared with vengeful instantaneousness and screamed across the city sky. The sound was terrific, atmosphere-shredding, and then they were gone. The horizon, a few moments later, burped up great dust bulbs. But within the hour the gunfire had moved closer. The well-armed defenders of Kunduz had been scrambling everywhere as Donk and Graves packed up what little remained of their gear into this hastily arranged taxi and sped out of town to the more securely liberated city of Mazar.
"Bloody fool," Graves said now, when he walked back over to Donk. He was speaking of the curly-haired boy.
"Call him a wog if it makes you feel better," Donk said. "I don't mind."
Graves cast a quick look back at the boy, now squatting beside his hobbled truck and chatting with Hassan. "He's stolen that wheat, you know."
"Where was he going?"
"He won't say."
"What's he doing now?"
"He's going to wait here, he says. I told him there were nasties about. Bloody fool." He looked at Donk, his face softened by sudden concern. "How's that eye, then?"
Graves leaned into him optometristically, trying to inspect the messy wound through the do-rag. "Nasty," he said finally, pulling away. "How many wars did you say you've covered?"
"Like war wars? Shooting wars? Or just wars?"
Graves nodded. "Shooting wars."
"Not counting this one, three. But I've never been shot at until today." While they were leaving Kunduz their Corolla had been hit with a short burst of Kalashnikov fire, though it was not clear that the bullets were intended for them. The driver had used the strafe-it sounded and felt like a flurry of ball-peen hammer strikes-to establish a median traveling speed of 125 kilometers per hour. They had very nearly plowed over a little boy and his pony just before the city's strangely empty westernmost checkpoint.
"And how did you find it?" Graves asked, as though genuinely curious.
"I found it like getting shot at."
"That was rather how I found it." Graves's face pinched with fresh discomfort. He sighed, then seemed to go paler. His eyelids were sweaty. Graves stepped toward the Corolla searchingly, arms out, and lowered himself onto the bumper. "Think I need a rest." The driver fetched a straw-covered red blanket from the Corolla and wrapped it around Graves's shoulders.
They had been in Kunduz for two days when Donk noticed Graves tenderly hugging himself no matter the heat thrown off by their hotel room's oil-burning stove. His pallor grayed by the day, and soon he was having trouble seeing. Initially Graves had not been concerned. They went about their business of covering the war, Donk snapping Kunduz's ragtag liberators and the dead-eyed prisoners locked up in one of the city's old granaries, Graves reading ten hours' worth of CNN updates a day on his laptop and worrying over his past, present, and future need to "file." But his fever worsened, and he took a day's bed rest while Donk toured Kunduz on foot with the city's local commander, a happily brutal man who twice tried selling Donk a horse. When Donk returned to the hotel a few minutes before curfew that evening he found Graves twisted up in his vomit-stained sheets, his pillow lying in a sad crumple across the room. "Deborah," Graves had mumbled when Donk stirred him. "Listen. Turn the toaster? Please turn the toaster?"
Donk did not know Graves well. He had met him only ten days ago in Pyanj, Tajikistan, where many of the journalists were dovetailing stories by day and playing poker with worthless Tajik rubles by night. All were waiting for official clearance before venturing into Afghanistan. Graves-with an impatience typical of print journalists, their eyewitness being more perishable-elected to cast a few pearly incentives at the feet of the swinish border guards and asked Donk if he wanted to tag along. Donk, dispatched here by a British newsweekly, was under no real pressure to get in. His mandate was not one of breaking news but chronicling the country's demotic wartime realities. He did not even have a return flight booked. But he agreed.
Donk did not regret following Graves, even as he forced mefloquine hydrochloride tablets into his mouth, crusty with stomach ejecta, and splashed in some canteen water to chase them. Graves, Donk was certain, had malaria, even though it was late November, a season at the outer edge of probability for contracting the disease, and even though he knew Graves had been taking mefloquine since October. The next day Donk convinced one of Kunduz's aid workers-a grim black Belgian-to give him a small cache of chloroquine phosphate pills, as mefloquine was useful mostly as a malaria preventative. The chloroquine seemed to help, and Graves, still as shivery as a foundling, had recommenced with his worries about filing a story. Graves was rather picky with his stories, seeking only narratives that presented this war in its least inspiring light. Unfortunately, Kunduz seemed fairly secure and the people weirdly grateful. Indeed, despite predictions of a long, bloody, province-by-province conflict, 60 percent of the country had fallen to American-led forces in this, the war's fourth week.
After they were robbed, Graves noted that his chloroquine pills were among the missing items. As the regrouped nasties waged this morning's hopeless surprise counterattack, neither Donk nor Graves had the presence of mind to beg more pills before they left, though Donk was fairly certain the aid workers would have pulled out of Kunduz too. That one could simply leave a firefight and come back a bit later was one of the odder things about this shadowy war. Roads were safe one day, suicide the next. Warlords thought to be relatively trustworthy one week were reported to have personally overseen the meticulous looting of an aid-group warehouse the next. All of this seemed designed to prevent anyone from actually fighting. From the little Donk had seen and heard, gun battles here seemed founded upon one's ability to spray bullets blindly around rocks and walls and then beat a quick, spectacular retreat.
"How do you feel?" Donk asked Graves now.
Graves, still sitting on the bumper, flashed his ruined teeth. The dirty wind had given his eyes a teary under-rim. "How do I look?"
"Fading. We need to get you somewhere."
Graves looked down, angrily blinking away his eyes' moisture. "Where are we, anyway?"
"About an hour outside Kunduz."
"That's another hour from Mazar?"
Graves glanced around, but the dunes were too high to see anything but the road and the road was too straight to reveal anything but the dunes. "Not far enough, I imagine."
"We could hitch. Someone is bound to be along."
"Someone is. Who is the problem."
"You don't think the poor devils would use roads, for God's sake, do you? This far north? They'd be bombed within minutes."
"I have no idea."
With shiatsu delicacy, Graves massaged his face with his fingertips. A bright bracelet of untanned flesh encircled his wrist. Graves's watch, too, had been stolen. His hands fell into his lap, then, and he sighed. "I hope you're not worried, Duncan."
Donk decided not to remind Graves, for what would have been the fortieth time, that he preferred to be called Donk. The nickname-a diminutive form of donkey-dated to one of the boyhood camping trips he and his father and older brother Jason used to take every year in the Porcupine Mountains of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. If he had never especially liked the name, he had come to understand himself through its drab prism. donk st. pierre was stamped in raised black type upon his ivory business card; it was the name above which his photographs were published. People often mistook his work for that of some Flemish eccentric. When colleagues first met him, something Donk called The Moment inescapably came to pass. Faced not with a tall, spectral, chain-smoking European but a short, overweight Midwesterner with frizzy black hair and childlishly small hands, their smiles faded, their eyes crumpled, and a discreet little sound died just past their glottis.
"I'm not worried," Donk said. "I'll be even less worried when we figure out where we're going."
Graves stared at Donk as though weighing him in some crucial balance. "You seemed rather jittery in Pyanj. Wasn't sure you'd be up to this."
From the Hardcover edition.