Dark at the Crossing

Elliot Ackerman

January 26, 2017 
The following is from Elliot Ackerman’s novel, Dark at the Crossing. Author of Green on Blue Ackerman's writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Republic, The New York Times Magazine, and The Best American Short stories, among other publications. He is both a former White House Fellow and Marine, and served five tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan where he received the Silver Star, the Bronze Star for Valor, and the Purple Heart.

Haris Abadi awoke on the ground in the large tent. He sat up from the cheap-carpeted floor and hugged his knees to his chest. It took him a couple of breaths to remember where he was. It took him a few more to remember why he was there. Slowly he recognized his surroundings and reminded himself of his purpose—the border. The tent’s gray canvas roof flapped above him, pulling itself taut and loose with a snapping sound, a grubby aurora borealis moving in strange currents of air. The weather had remained bad, overcast and cold though it hadn’t rained again. Sitting in the dark, Haris listened for the rain.

The fighting in Azaz had ended the day before, but Haris hadn’t heard anything back from Saladin1984. With the border still closed, Athid had offered to smuggle Haris across. He’d told Haris he felt obligated, as a Syrian, to help anyone who intended to fight against the regime.

The crossing required rain. There was a tunnel system two miles away, some underground culverts the Turkish farmers used to drain their fields into Syria. Haris and Athid could climb through, but the farmers opened the culverts only when it rained.

Haris continued to listen, hoping for weather. Every corner of the tent stirred with sleeping refugees. A few of them had blankets. Most slept packed together, warming each other in a herd. Haris turned on his phone. After checking its charge, he slid it into his shirt pocket and laced up his boots. A full moon filtered its light through the tent’s open flap. Saied’s cot was next to the entrance because his wounds often forced him up in the night, or so he’d told Haris. Glancing toward the flap, Haris noticed Saied was gone.

Haris walked past the empty cot as he left the tent. Outside the moonlight cast a jigsaw of shadows against the earth and the clouds hung low. The air was damp and heavy. He crossed the parking lot and sat in the café. He thought he would wait awhile, to see if the rain would come.

Down at the border crossing, Haris could make out the gendarmes who worked the night shift. Their booth was dim except for the television that played inside, flashing impressions against two silhouettes of equal height. Haris wondered about the gendarmes from before, the short one and his taller friend—where did they go when not on shift?

The coiled hose in the corner of the gravel lot caught Haris’s eye. He hoped nothing had happened to Saied—his flayed stomach, his missing index fingers. The idea that Saied had been rushed to some hospital while Haris slept formed slowly in his mind. Before Haris’s imagination got away from him, Athid’s long shadow arced across the ground like a searchlight as he stepped from behind the café.

He sat next to Haris, tilting back his head, raising his face toward the sky as if to feel the rain on his cheeks. “This is the night,” Athid said in a whisper.

Haris leaned his head back too. He felt no rain. The wind died down, bringing quiet. The moon still shone bright and wouldn’t set until the early morning.

“Where is Saied?” asked Haris.

“Watching Bashar,” answered Athid. “Get your things.”

Haris walked quickly back to the tent. He gathered his hiking pack. He put on his old camouflage rain jacket though there was no rain. Rushing to cross the border, he found himself thinking of Saied, and the little dog.

* * * *

It was a two-mile walk to the crosssing. A dirt path wound through a quilt of partitioned fields, each strewn with untilled soil. In some of the fields pistachio orchards grew, but the Turkish farmers had harvested these trees weeks ago. They looked ugly and mean, their low branches sharp and bare. They would remain this way through the winter, until the next crop’s yield.

Haris and Athid’s boots crunched against the brittle path. The noise of their steps unnerved Haris—they were too loud. The sky cleared and the moon seemed even brighter. The homes of the farmers speckled the fields. Antennae and satellite dishes sprouted from thatched roofs, pointing north, away from the border. In a window or a door, Haris saw an occasional light. He wondered whether they could take a longer route, one that avoided any home with a light, but he didn’t ask Athid. Haris’s shoulders ached beneath the weight of his pack. He looped his thumbs under the straps, but this made his thumbs ache. He thought he might ask Athid to slow down, but he didn’t do this either.

Athid walked at a brisk pace, but casually, his hands buried in the pockets of his olive-green jacket. He didn’t carry a heavy hiking pack like Haris’s but a book bag that couldn’t hold much more than a change of clothes. It swung like a metronome on his back, keeping time. Now and then, Athid looked over his right shoulder, a few hundred meters to the south, where the ground sloped down, leveling out along the border. A pair of chain-link fences paralleled the border’s length, topped with coiled razor wire. The space between the fences was a no-man’s-land, just wide enough for two cars to pass.

Athid didn’t look at the border for long, but instead searched the ground in front of him. Culverts had been dug into the upturned and resting soil, each sealed with a padlocked manhole cover. Athid and Haris passed nearly a dozen. All were shut. Haris grew nervous. The fields weren’t flooded, and when the sun rose they’d be discovered trespassing on some farmer’s property. Uncomfortable as this made Haris, what frayed his nerves to their ends was Athid’s certainty they’d find a way. It edged on recklessness.

An irrigation ditch appeared ahead of them, a boundary running between two farmers’ fields. Water and mud pooled in its dark bottom. It stank of decay. Athid took a step back and charged at it, jumping across. He landed heavily on the far bank. Mud sucked at his feet, but he picked them up easily enough.

Haris stood on the near bank. Athid glanced back, offering his hand. Haris waved it away, cinching down his shoulder straps. Athid offered his hand again. Haris ignored it, taking a few steps back. He too charged the bank, jumping with all his strength, throwing his body forward. His bulky hiking pack turned him in the air, spinning him sideways. He flailed his arms once, clutching toward dry ground. It didn’t help. He landed right in the middle of the irrigation ditch, his pack pulling him backward into the stagnant water.

Athid lunged after him, hooking Haris beneath his armpits, dragging him out from his shoulder straps and onto the far bank. Haris was soaked from the waist down, and he stank from the water. Athid leaned into the irrigation ditch and fished out Haris’s pack. He sat it next to Haris and stood over him, staring down his nose. Haris struggled to his feet. Water trickled along the backs of his legs, pooling in his boots. He reshouldered his pack, heavier now that it was wet, and stumbled forward. Lending a hand, Athid held the pack’s bottom so Haris could properly tighten the straps.

“You should’ve taken my help,” said Athid.

“I thought I could make it on my own.”

They continued down the dry path. To their right, in the southern sky, the moon dissolved, setting behind the low-slung hills of Aleppo Governorate. Without the moon, darkness fell through the fields while the first stars formed clear, hardened points above. Haris’s waterlogged pack slowed him. Out of breath and with aching shoulders, he wasn’t certain how much further he could go. All that he carried dripped a long trail of brackish water in the dust behind him.

* * * *

On the side of the path, Haris sat waiting. The sound of Athid’s steps grew faint and then disappeared entirely as he cut across a barren field to check if one of the culverts was unlocked.

Haris looked at his watch. Through the darkness, he couldn’t distinguish the hands on its face. He angled his wrist to the sky, hoping to catch some light. Nothing. Dark as it was, he knew enough night remained for the crossing. That wasn’t what bothered him. He wanted to know the time so he might imagine what was going on at home. Maybe if he knew it was five p.m. back in Dearborn—when he’d be finishing his job at the university as a custodian, a handyman who fixed small things—he’d know he had made the right choice quitting such work. Or, if it was seven p.m. back there—when he’d be eating alone, a reheated bowl of rice and spiced lamb baked in a dolma by Samia—he’d know all he had lost by giving up his old life was convenience.

He remembered three a.m., too, the hour when he had returned home after his drink at the hotel. That night, he had assumed Samia would be asleep but found her sitting on his sofa bed, her face in her hands. He hadn’t even slipped the door shut when she threw a pillow at him, then another, until a barricade of pillows stacked at his feet. Before he could devise a story of where he’d been, his sister demanded to know why he would sneak out, whether he planned to abandon her, whether he had brought her here for his new life instead of both of theirs.

To assuage his guilt about leaving Samia that night, or perhaps to assuage his homesickness, which itself felt like a form of unquenchable guilt, Haris walked his sister to the university every day that week, waiting outside her classroom in the Michigan winter. The faculty soon asked about the man loitering around campus in a thin camouflage rain jacket, and shortly thereafter offered Haris the charity of a job, which came with a discount in Samia’s tuition. His hours now began earlier than Samia’s and finished later, so they began to walk separately to the university. He noticed how she started to avoid him, how when he saw her, pushing his mop in the navy slacks and the powder blue shirt that were his new uniform, she would speak to him with her eyes downcast and explain that she was late to her next class.

The spring of Samia’s second year she began dating an Emirati boy whom Haris had no reason to disapprove of, whose passport came soused with oil money and stamped with a student visa, and who had a car of his own. Samia had told her brother it was a BMW. Haris made a point of often forgetting the Emirati’s name, of lecturing his sister about the poverty and indignity some Arabs—Iraqis, Syrians, Yemenis—faced while others—Saudis, Kuwaitis, Emiratis—indulged in luxury. He also made a point of never being around to see the car.

He took another look at his watch. Sitting on the side of the path waiting for Athid to return across the field, Haris stared to the south, toward the border, and into the perfect blackness. All he could do was listen, and wait.

* * * *

The air cooled. Haris strained to hear over the wind. Then Athid surprised him, flopping down on the trailside. He brought his face close to Haris’s, speaking in a whisper: “It is unlocked.”

Sweat beaded on Athid’s forehead, running in rivulets over each temple. Haris felt afraid and nodded once.

Running in a crouch, they moved quickly across the broken field. Haris’s footing felt uncertain and mud caked to his boots, his feet becoming heavier with each step. He couldn’t see a thing, whereas Athid moved with total certainty, never slowing. Then Athid collapsed to his knees. Haris toppled into him in the darkness. After untangling himself, Haris also stood on his knees. Athid bent over the manhole cover that sealed the culvert. With a jerk from his legs and back, he lifted and tossed it aside.

A warm, decomposing smell belched up from the earth. Athid lowered himself underground. When he stood in the culvert’s bottom, its mouth came up to his chest. He glanced back, looking for some assurance Haris would follow. Haris took off his heavy pack and stood at the opening’s lip. Athid dipped below, and Haris trailed after him, ducking underground.

On their hands and knees, and at times on their stomachs, the two crept toward the border, dragging their packs behind them. The sloshing of stagnant water and the scampering of subterranean creatures were the only sounds. Athid cursed as the sharp smells became unbearable or as a rat or something else brushed by his leg or over his arm. Haris reached up and touched the sides of the culvert. They felt cool and hard, like cement. Beneath his palms it was all mud.

Haris crawled on his left side. Soaked from the waist down, he did his best to protect his right pocket, which carried his fold of cash, passport, and map. Miserable as the passage was, he felt glad for it. To cross into a war should be difficult, he thought. To fight in a war should be even more difficult. When he’d been in Ramadi, that most violent of cities, the war had felt easy. The American soldiers he had translated for would tape a half pound of explosives to a door, blow it in, find the person they were looking for, maybe kill that person, maybe capture him, and then return to their firebase at Hurricane Point, a peninsula jutting into the Euphrates River. They’d leave after dinner. They’d return before dawn and have breakfast, watching television and lounging on La-Z-Boy recliners flown in from the States, the sweat still on their uniforms. They would kill someone and in the morning they’d eat cornflakes together.

Traveling through filth and darkness, Haris thought he might find what he was looking for on the other side. And he was happy.

* * * *

Haris tugged his pack by the handle, grunting, becoming short of breath. Every few minutes, he’d tap Athid on the back, needing to rest a bit. Then they’d continue to plow through the water and filth. The culvert was several hundred meters long, and progress became difficult to measure. They moved in a straight line, but Haris wondered if it was possible to get lost on a straight line. Again he glanced at his watch, knowing he wouldn’t be able to see its face.

A hoop of light sliced into the culvert from a sealed manhole cover above. Had they been traveling for that long? Haris couldn’t believe morning had already broken. Athid stopped, his neck craning toward the light. He gazed back at Haris. Both their faces were layered in sweat and grime. Haris glanced upward. Athid had kept his word, taking him this far. Haris returned his look with clear, wide-open eyes. Athid’s eyes had become heavy-lidded with fatigue. Composting earth flecked the growth of his spongy beard, and it seemed as if a liquid filth might be wrung from it. He considered Haris for a moment further, then frowned. Coming to a squat, Athid bounced on his haunches and then exploded upward, lifting the manhole cover.

Light rushed in.

Not looking back, Athid vaulted from the culvert.

Before Haris could follow, a pair of blue-sleeved arms reached beneath the earth and grabbed him under the shoulders. Haris flailed against their grip, lunging belowground. He struggled to free himself and almost broke loose. Then another set of longer arms clutched after him, joining the first. Haris grabbed the drag handle on his pack, hoping its weight might anchor him inside the culvert. It didn’t work. As he was lifted up, light washed against his face, blinding him. But it wasn’t daytime. The glare didn’t come from above but from the side. Headlights.

The blue-sleeved arms pinned him down. Haris glimpsed the two chain-linked fences of no-man’s-land. He called out for Athid. No reply. Framed in the glare, two silhouettes moved swiftly against him—one short, the other tall. They cursed at him in Turkish. The headlights caught the stubbled faces of the gendarmes.

Haris offered his hands so they might cuff his wrists, but they didn’t. The taller gendarme knelt on his chest. Haris now faced the sky and the night above. The short gendarme groped at his pockets, grabbing after his valuables. Haris bucked wildly. “Don’t!”

“Stay still you damn fool!” the gendarme shouted in Arabic.

Haris got an arm free. He struck the taller gendarme across the face. It wasn’t enough to knock him from Haris’s chest. Instead the gendarme rolled his jaw and unholstered a strange-looking pistol. Haris glimpsed the plastic barrel. It fired with a click instead of a bang. A fanged bite sunk into Haris’s skin, just beneath the ear. He felt the puncture, then his whole body seized, the Taser’s ten thousand volts pulsing through him. His eyelids cramped shut. He smelled his burning flesh, felt his skin turning hotter than his blood.

Everything released.

Haris exhaled, his breath tasting like warm ash.

The taller gendarme dismounted him. He ripped the Taser wire’s teeth from Haris’s neck. The shorter gendarme finished rifling through Haris’s pockets, taking his cash, passport, and map. Haris tried to stand, to come after them, but he couldn’t. His body refused him, remaining limp on the soft ground.

The headlights shut off. Perfect darkness returned.

Only Haris’s eyes would obey him. He looked frantically for Athid, but found him nowhere. Lying on his back, Haris glimpsed the dome of stars above. Mixing with the stars was galaxy dust, the type which could only be seen far from a city. And Haris felt completely alone.

Standing somewhere above Haris, the two gendarmes argued in Turkish, presumably about what to do with him. Slowly Haris felt his senses recovering, but he didn’t move. He hoped the gendarmes would leave him. Soon their chatter stopped. Their footsteps fell into the distance. Haris shifted his eyes in that direction, but he couldn’t see through the night.

A car door opened where the gendarmes had disappeared. Haris managed to turn his head toward the sound. The overhead light flashed on inside the cab of a truck. Haris saw a black parka, a red Che T-shirt. Saied’s head was hunched down as he thumbed through a wad of cash handed to him by the shorter gendarme, and on the seat next to him sat Bashar the dog. Startled by the flash, Saied glanced up, staring into the darkness. Before Haris could read the expression on his face, the taller gendarme turned off the overhead light.

Haris rested his head in the mud, easing into the earth. He watched the galaxy dust and waited for his body to return to him.



From DARK AT THE CROSSING.  Used with permission of Knopf. Copyright © 2017 by Elliot Ackerman.

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