“They carried the soldier’s greatest fear, which was the fear of blushing. Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to. It was what had brought them to the war in the first place . . . ”
Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried
My days were dull replicas of one another, much like the photocopies of my dark fate deposited in the army’s files.
I was bound.
I was a registered piece of inventory.
I was a liability.
I wasn’t going anywhere.
There was a war on, and my job was to find the damnable landmines the Southern guerrillas had placed expertly in the ground. These were guys who really didn’t know shit about technology. They became pros at hurling rocks at tanks before heading into the mountains, where they became equally skilled at killing. However they learned it, they were now certified masters at laying mines.
This was why I had to be ever vigilant. I’d been taught that the moment I heard click, I was a goner. It was no rubber ducky making that noise beneath our feet but explosives waiting just to make that sound, to blow us all to kingdom come. The important thing was to give word before hearing it. If I could do this, I’d live. If I couldn’t, I’d find myself flying through the air in a haze of dust and gunpowder. Not a bone of mine would be left for the doggy cemetery. Worst of all, I’d lose Melsa forever.
These were times when I tried to be careful, making an effort to survive, if for no one else, for Melsa.
I didn’t die.
But only to end up this weird mess.
Mami, the soldier responsible for me, tied a chain to my collar and I went wherever it dragged me. The scars it left on my neck were as deep as my dreams of returning to the dusty streets back in town. I sat there waiting, the chain tied to my shed in the outpost garden. I sat upright and ready for duty, thinking my name would be called at any moment. I kept my eyes forward, my ears shifting right to left, my tail stiff and motionless. But it was all an act. I wasn’t waiting to go to work or whatever. All I wanted was to dash out of there as soon as possible.
All I longed for was to roam the mountains, drink from the streams, dive into the yawning wheat fields, doze under the trees, chew the fat with the sheepdogs trailing the passing villagers, dangle my tongue as I sprinted against the wind, roam the streets with my compadres, chase cats, scare strangers, then nestle into Melsa’s delicious, now-distant caramel scent and daydream.
I’d pace round and round my shed as far as my chain would allow. I burrowed into the dark, red earth without touching the food poured into my bowl. I knocked over my water. I grew testy and growled at the passersby. But none of it was much use. No matter how I barked, either no one heard me, or they just blasted some righteous profanity in my ear. At times like these, I’d throw my head back to the sky and call to Melsa, hoping she’d hear.
I howled my heart out, and voices floated in from the nearby towns and villages. My canine brothers and sisters answered me. The dried grasses rustled, answering me. The rushing streams answered me. The North Star flickered, answering me. The waters of Lake Papaz, the holy man lying in his tomb atop Mount Makam, and the distant lights of the town answered me. Kitmir, the patron saint of dogs, answered me. Muhterem Nur answered and that dummy Bushwack answered me. Even God—who decreed that the nights and we, his silent servants, would one day speak—answered me. But Melsa never answered me.
When everyone withdrew to sleep, I was left alone with the guys on patrol. The frost made our hair stand on end, and I watched as the sleep-deprived soldiers changed shifts. They fought to keep their eyes open as they dragged themselves to their posts. Most had even forgotten to tie their bootlaces. Along with the short-term sergeant who had the difficult job of shaking them awake at three in the morning, they walked over to a barrel, weapons in hand, and fired a shot inside to make sure their guns worked before slinging them over their shoulders. Their bayonets made a rhythmic ding ding as they brushed against their machine guns, a sound that nudged their eyes open little by little. They struggled to march properly, pacing for hours around the perimeter of the outpost, which was built atop a steep hill. Sometimes they headed to the North Tower, sometimes to the misty Jehennem Valley. I’d be left alone once again with memories that waited to be revisited.
At times like these, I pricked up my ears and listened to the distance. I heard the voices of sheep in the next village over. The distant lights of the city came and went like the beams of lighthouses. The whole of the town would be buried in silence. I heard the whistles of the patrol units in the town. Strangely, an unfamiliar briny smell scent floated up to the top of the mountain. Though there was no sign of it around, I sensed we were near the sea. A low hum rose from the big city in the distance. A panzer waited at its usual spot at the intersection ahead, prompting approaching cars to slow down in apprehension. Every now and then, a member of the Special Forces opened the hatch atop the tank and poked his head out. Soon the leaves of the oak trees would begin rustling, light as feathers. The barking of my brothers and sisters reached my ears, but I couldn’t answer. The soldiers scolded me the moment I opened my mouth.
They spent a lot of time readying their firearms, flares, canteens, helmets, and bayonets. Then they waited for orders. The bolts of their guns went shak as they slid back and forth, over and over. While the Lada jeeps and armored Akreps were being readied, Special Sergeant Papa, who strutted around with his enormous gut and always reeked of sweat, would bark orders at the soldiers. They got in line and conducted repeated headcounts to make sure no one was missing. They added me to the count before giving roll call.
Then they’d stare at the mountain ahead as they waited to take to the dusty road. They would soon check its every curve, examine its every culvert, inspect its scattered bumps and ridges, and scrutinize any piece of cable—big or small—found along the way.
Just as I nodded off at the crack of dawn, they would grab my chain and take me on the road. Once we’d set out, they let me off the chain and waited for me to give them a signal. Always on edge, their hearts leaped into their throats every time we took off. I was all too aware of what was going on and everything that was about to happen. These scenes repeated themselves over and over, and I knew their every detail by heart.
The Karakeçi Outpost, the rear of which overlooked the Jehennem Valley, served but one purpose: to set out ahead of military convoys about to go down the road and sweep for landmines. Me and all the soldiers were charged with this duty. They were all just young kids. There were new arrivals as well as the restless ones who were so close to discharge that they scratched the number of days they had left on everything—latrine walls, benches, even my shed. As the seasoned guys prepared to go out and sweep for mines, the rookies hung back to deal with the outpost’s routine work. They waited silently for Chief Sergeant Kabba, who always reeked of drink. Their hearts pounded anxiously in their chests. I could even feel them breathing. I couldn’t help but stand at attention like them. After all, Chief Sergeant Kabba was commander of all of us.
He was commander of the creepy crawly things and of the morning, too. He was commander of the forty-four soldiers at the outpost, the roll call done four times a day, the prayers said before meals three times a day, the 449 days of military service, the notebooks where soldiers counted down the days left, our fatigues, shopping leave, the Akreps, the Ladas, the barracks, the watchman’s booth, the barrel where they test-fired the guns, the North Tower, Jehennem Valley, the outpost gate, the casino, the bathhouse, the mess hall, the dormitory, the volleyball field, my shed, the artillery warehouse, the G3s, the Kalashnikovs, the M-16s, the mortars, the bazookas, the Dashkas, the machine guns, the bombs, the cartridge belts, the bayonets, the thermal cameras, the parachute flares, breaks taken to air out foot-rot, changes in the weather, vulgarity, words of wisdom, the villages of Arkanya, the roads and the trees. But at night he wasn’t the commander of the caves, Jehennem Valley, the gorges or the cliffs. At night they were the domain of the others.
The mine detector usually wasn’t working. The gizmo was supposed to let out a whoop-whoop when it detected something underground. If the damn thing weren’t broken all the time, it would comb one side of the road while I did the other. That way, we’d have an easier time and get back to the outpost faster. Without a doubt, it was more reliable than me. But seeing as it was made with mortal hands, however, it was always going kaput and all the responsibility fell on my shoulders.
“Get in!” Chief Sergeant Kabba would order. We’d hop in the Lada and take off, we gliding slowly from the outpost at the top of the mountain to the main road, where the village guardsmen awaited us. Some of the soldiers called me “Bobi.” But like all Southerners, the village guardsmen said everything wrong and called me “Bubê.” Despite their army fatigues, these sunbaked old men looked nothing like soldiers. A few of their comrades had been killed by the guerrillas and their corpses hung, mouths stuffed full of money, from the telephone poles I loved to pee on. Still, they didn’t give up their line of work. They were bound to the state. They showed Chief Sergeant Kabba the utmost respect, following his orders to the letter. After determining who would walk on which side and how fast the car would go, we formed two columns and began to march. Typically, we walked for hours and hours under the scorching sun. We started out with the village guardsmen at the front and me bringing up the rear. I ran my nose along the ground, searching for mines and booby traps laid on the edges of the road with an involuntary instinct.
My job was actually quite simple. As soon as I smelled something, rather than start digging, all I had to do was sit down right where I was and bark. The rest was up to them. They proceeded to search the area on pins and needles. Chief Sergeant Kabba would stretch out on the ground, his commando knife between his teeth, and lightly brush the dirt aside. For hours, he dug like this, painstakingly—the sweat dripping from his brow enough to set off the mine. He wiped it away and patiently continued his work. He never found anything. I always gave false alarms. They would curse at me and continue on their way.
Only once in my military career did I correctly identify an explosive device on the side of the road. The ground had been freshly dug and the wires were jutting out of the ground. Our guys would have seen it even if I hadn’t sat down next to it and pointed proudly with my paw. Still, this supposed merit was added to my record. After I’d found a simple trap, the guys warmed to me and started calling me “Bobi.” But how was I to know that my real name, known only by the commanders, would soon be revealed to everyone, the decisive moment looming nearer every day, like a curse.
Every now and then the soldiers took a break from minesweeping to patrol the area. They held their breath and scanned the surroundings. They didn’t say a word, but signaled to one other using gestures. Their fingers reached for their triggers. An ominous stillness settled over the asphalt road stretching between the mountains. The real problem lay not in the asphalt, but in the soil. At times like these, I’d watch the soldiers as they sat in the middle of the road, running their eyes fearfully over the earth.
They waited for death, ruminating on their own dread. They thought of the loved ones they’d left behind. As they waited on edge, they hoped, at worst, to get maimed rather than end up in the afterlife. The thought of taking out a few of the enemy before they went comforted them. As they looked around, fingers on triggers, they’d signal for me to keep quiet. I’d then sprawl out in the middle of the road and think about the past, which bore down on me with all its weight.
My mother, who’d not only deprived me of her milk but also disowned me simply for allowing a man to pet me, was in the past. My brothers and sisters were in the past. Uncle Heves, who cursed himself for losing Muhterem Nur to someone even more miserable than himself, was in the past. That idiot Bushwack, who shouted, “I’m flying, flying just like a cow!” as he rolled off a cliff, was in the past. The Burning Hearts were in the past. The streets I’d tramped around day and night were in the past. The hands that stroked my head, scratched my neck, and squeezed my chin were in the past. Melsa was far in the past. My light grew dimmer with each day gone by. Turquoise, who decided I was a prime specimen of a mutt as I loitered around the streets, who sent me to the capital, who turned my luck upside down, who delivered me to a training center, who was responsible for the state I was in, was in the past. Who knew where the trainer who made a minesweeper out of a street dog was to be found. Even that faggot Lama, whose spit never seemed to dry up, had long since been discharged. Third Lieutenant Zafer had probably become a staunch dog-hater and returned to his job at the courthouse. I was the only one left choking back sobs, reflecting on bygone days.
Eventually, Chief Sergeant Kabba would raise his hand, ordering the marching column to continue down the road. Special Sergeant Papa and Special Sergeant Nene, whom the guys didn’t really like, would send the soldiers under their command searching here and there. They’d make them check under bridges, culverts, ditches along roadsides, and the bottoms of trees. Excited about the reward to be given (usually a bone), I’d run my nose along the ground, trying to find the mines laid by the Southern guerrillas.
Every now and then I was misled by the scent of bones buried along the road by other dogs. I’d start digging excitedly. The members of the marching column would brace themselves, trying to figure out what I was looking for. Their fingers rested, as always, on their triggers. Their pupils grew wide with fear as they scanned the summit of the mountain for even the slightest movement. The notebooks in their pockets with photos of starlets like Sibel Jan, Ahu Tuğba, or Müjde Ar were soon covered in sweat. Their hearts raced as I dug like a madman. When, rather than signaling the mine they expected, I emerged with a bone between my teeth, they’d cuss like sailors. Special Sergeant Papa was the worst.
“Fuck your mother-loving cunt!” he’d shout at me.
They got mad, paced, sweat, went quiet, and worried. But none of them were as disappointed about the situation as I was. I’d urinate on each telephone pole I came across, most of which had been scorched when the chaff was burned. I peed on the boulders, dry brush, and the oak trees circling the edge of the mountains before continuing sheepishly down the road. The soldiers trailing behind figured I peed right and left out of animal instinct, but I did it for Melsa. I hoped maybe she’d recognize my scent, realize I was nearby, and come running after me.
But Melsa never came. She never called to me. She never beckoned with her paw, saying “Come to me” from behind the razor-wire fence. Who knew how many holidays the Southerners had celebrated while I wasn’t around!
I was like an injured footballer who makes a circle with his finger to say, “Take me out,” as he heads to the bench. Take me out. That’s what I was saying with all my howling. They never did. “We’ve used our three substitutions. You have to play,” they told me. But later I’d listen to the thoughts of the fear-stricken soldiers behind me. None of them had counted on seeing days like these.
From Wûf. © Kemal Varol. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Dayla Rogers. All rights reserved.