It was a cold, dark Friday night in March as I drove down the country road. I stopped my car in front of a brightly lit 24-hour gas station that had a small convenience store next to it. I went up, bought some food for the next day, filled up the tank, and continued on my way.
On the dark mountain road, through the black lattice of the thick and thin branches overhead, you could see the sparkling stars against the dark sky. In the headlights, I saw many jackrabbits sprinting away into the darkness.
When I reached my destination, I saw a cluster of buildings at a fork in the road: a tavern, a small old wooden post office with a sign on the roof that read MOUNTAIN CENTER POST OFFICE and a general store. A sign stood alongside the road: “Mountain Center, Elevation 4,400 feet”. It was very quiet and cold.
Further down, I found a motel, in the dark forest, by the mountain road, but it was already closed. It was past midnight, so I had to try to sleep in my car in a campground. I huddled in the back seat, covering my body with a thick, warm plaid blanket, but I was too chilled to sleep. I needed something warm in my stomach to help me sleep, so I drove back to the tavern. Perched on a high, jagged cliff, it was surrounded by cars and pickups. A large neon sign of a white champagne glass blinked on t he rooftop, providing a sharp contrast to the dark sky. Outside it was quiet, but as I opened the wooden door, the tavern exploded with noise, light and smokes. About twenty people were cheerfully dancing to a band playing heavy rock music and another dozen were found at the bar, sitting on high barstools or leaning against it, clapping to the loud music and drinking beer.
“May I have a coffee?” I said to the heavyset bartender.
“We don’t serve coffee this late,” he said. Then he reconsidered. “All right. I’ll make some just for you.”
I sat at a small wooden table close to the band and the dancers. I wondered where they came from and where they all could go.
I noticed a girl with brown hair. Her long flowing locks shone in the light like a reflecting river, dancing joyfully by herself. She moved around smoothly with long strides among the other dancers without touching them. I had never seen anyone so energetic. All of a sudden, the bartender was by my side with a mug of coffee and a stainless creamer in his hands.
I paid, tipped and thanked him. He returned to the bar. When the music ended, the people, including my flamenco girl, crowded around him while a few of them wandered to their table, smiling beneath the dim lights. He handed out bottles of beer, collected bills and slapped change on the wet bar. It gave me a pleasant feeling to watch this entire simple scene unfold before me. I didn’t see anyone else drinking coffee. They were all swigging beer of various brands.
When the band began playing again, most of the patrons hurried back to the dance floor. The brown-haired girl began hitting her heels hard on the wooden floor rhythmically and excitedly, weaving in between the other dancers.
Finally, after I had finished my coffee, I stood up and went to the bar for a bottle of beer in an effort to share their exhilaration. I sat on a stool. The bartender was still putting glasses on the bar and laughing with the customers. He often went to the register, punched the keys, and I heard the tinkling sound of coins. I beckoned with my index finger and ordered a beer.
At the bar, I talked to a shaggy bearded man who sat beside me. His name was Michael. I found out from him that the population of the Mountain Center was just over 300. We didn’t, or rather couldn’t, talk much more because the noise of heels hitting against the wooden floor increased, making it only possible to drink and watch the dancers.
When she got off the dance floor, she sat beside me and ordered a beer. I smiled at her. She told me her name, and I told her mine.
“Would you like to dance?” asked Pat, the dancer.
“Sure,” I accepted.
As we danced, we kept smiling at each other. She hummed to the music, one hand on my arm, the other on my back. I recalled the wonderful times when I had been in love, and how fine it would be again. We were the only couple dancing close together. Feeling pleasantly warm and thirsty from our dance, we returned to our beer.
A while later, a young man walked up to Pat and asked her to dance. She accepted. Lost love---I was shattered. I realized I was going to have to hold off falling in love until I find the right girl.
As closing time neared, the dancing became wilder. I spoke to more people. Michael invited me to spend the night in his trailer in the mountains, and when closing time came, I shook many hands goodbye.
In my car, I followed Michael’s vehicle, which had three of his friends inside. Not far from the tavern we turned left onto a dirt road between tall pine trees and stopped in a parking space. We all got out of the cars. With help from Michael’s flashlight, we walked up a winding dirt path until it ended at a small trailer against the dark mountain. A small window shone with an orange light and gave me a warm feeling. It was quiet and cold.
This small home had one large long room. A map of Mt. San Jacinto National Forest was tacked by pushpins on the wall up near a lamp. It was cold. Together, my host and I carried in chopped pinewood that made the trailer smell like winter incense. Michael built a fire in the potbellied stove and he put some more firewood to make the flame hotter. He was a very quiet man. His smiles took the place of words.
He sat down on the sofa with his guitar and set his fingers on the frets. He watched the ceiling for a moment, before he made music. One of his friends sat on the carpeted floor and played another guitar to the accompaniment of his strumming. Another, who also sat on the floor, joined them, playing on a Jew’s harp, which produced a soft “pinging” sound; the trailer sounded both happy and sad, like it had captured the feeling of the forest. The one who played the Jew’s harp stopped ever so often to drink tequila from the mouth of a bottle. He licked salt from his fist between his index finger and thumb before each swig. He passed the bottle to me and I put salt on my fist and I drank like he did. It made my stomach warm.
Michael stopped playing his guitar. He smiled. Michael seemed very happy with his music and also very happy living in the forest. He sprinkled the salt on my fist, and I drank it from the mouth of the bottle.
“Do you have any plans for tomorrow” I asked Michael.
“Not particularly,” he replied, after drinking. “How about you?”
“I would like to stay here and enjoy the nature, do a spot of fishing. But, I must go home.”
When I had enough tequila, I thought about the brown-haired girl in the bar. It suddenly hit me that the purpose of this night’s trip was to show me the connections between the world and me, and to prove that by plunging into life, I would understand it better. I mused over much philosophical thoughts until we had the bottom of the tequila bottle faced right up to the ceiling.
My companions, lying down in sleeping bags, were steeped also in silent thoughts and tequila. I lay down also.
“No, no. You’re our guest. You sleep on the sofa,” Michael insisted. It was a soiled old sofa, but to me it was beautiful. Michael covered me with a sheepskin coat and then, happy as a lark and as well provided for, I went to sleep.
A few hours later the sound of birds and the bright ray of sunlight awakened me.
After writing a brief thank-you note to my new friends, I slipped into the piney, earth-smelling morning, ready for the adventures of a new day.
As I drove away, I wondered how long it would be before the music of a new day would begin to play, or, if I might ever return for another conversation---or dance---with Pat.
There Is No Green Pasture
The train rumbled across the New Zealand countryside. It seemed almost a crime that noise should be allowed to disturb something so beautiful. Startled sheep bounded away from the track. The sheep were grazing in the smoothness of green sea.
“Aren’t they in the arms of shepherd?” I said to a man who sat in front of me.
“The pastures in New Zealand are green all year around,” he said proudly.
“It’s opposite of Australia.”
“The woollen animals aren’t sticking out of the grazing over there.”
“I’ve heard that in Australia, once every three years, they have terrible droughts.”
“Do you know the name of New Zealand’s largest city?”
“No, Sydney. Because many young New Zealanders go to Sydney for better opportunities.”
“I know what you mean. I met many young Kiwis in Sydney working there.”
“And many of them never come back,” he said sadly.
I gestured at the beautiful countryside that seemed to go on endlessly. “How could they leave this wonderful country?”
“Beautiful scenery doesn’t pay for food or cloths or housing. Australia is where the good money and the good jobs are.”
“Then why are you here in New Zealand?”
“I did work there for many years. But I came back. I shouldn’t have come back. Would you return to lower wages and fewer opportunities?”
“A charming young waitress, who served my dinner one night in Christchurch, had two jobs, one during day and one at night, earning money for a trip to Europe next spring. So I said jokingly to her, ‘You’re beautiful. Why don’t you get a rich man?’ And she replied, ‘Well, there ain’t many rich men in New Zealand.’”
“It’s very hard to rich in New Zealand unless you win the lottery. You see I have two tickets,” he pulled them out from his inside pocket. “I wish I could return to Sydney to work to get rich. But it’s too late now. I have a wife, five children, two ponies, two dogs and twenty-three cats.”
“I guess you’re already a rich man. I have none of those,” I smiled.
“You’re the lucky man. Because you’re still single. You can go wherever you want to and whenever you want.”
“You’re a lucky man living in a beautiful country. At least, you can have a simple and good life. You can’t buy fresh air.”
“I am paying for it in other ways.”
It must be terrible, I thought to myself, to be doing what you wanted, be where you wanted to be doing it, and still not be completely happy.
We sat in silence until the next stop at K Station. As the train slowly screeched to a halt we shook hands and said goodbye to each other. The man departed.
Climbing down from the car, I breathed deeply the pure air and walked toward the station restaurant where many passengers were heading. In the shaded area of the platform, two railroad workers in their uniforms were chattering; one was leaning against the side of the opened doorway of the goods wagon, a wet cigarette clinging to the corner of his lower lip while rolling another cigarette; the other one was standing with his hands resting on his hips.
In the restaurant, a large crowd already swarmed around the busy counter, ordering their food and drink: weak milky tea and coffee, a variety of sandwiches and lots of hot meat pies. Behind the counter, three women, two young and one old, were hard at work. It probably was the busiest hour of the day, I thought.
The big windows looked out to the blue sky and sea. Many oil paintings, depicting snow-capped mountains of New Zealand, hung on the stark white walls.
While many of the passengers were sitting at the tables enjoying their meals and drinks, I raced outside with my cheese and onion sandwich and a small carton of apple juice.
At the end of the long platform, I saw an engineer who was sitting in the back of the driver’s cab talking to an unseen companion beside him. The sleeve of his blue shirt was rolled up above his left elbow, which was resting on the still. Turning my back against the hulking yellow engine, I walked down the baking hot asphalt surface of the parking lot behind the station. The sparkling blue ocean across the sand soothed me.
At the edge of the parking lot, I sat on the tall early summer grass on a rocky bank, resting my feet on the two large smooth-surfaced, grayish-black oval rocks leaning out to the sea as I ate. Other rocks along the bank were shining in the sun. Apart from the relentless hissing of the white foamy waves, it was very quiet, as if the world was dead. In the cool breeze, the blades of young grass brushed against one another.
On the breakwater, far off to the right, cray-fishing boats were gently bobbing up and down near the small fishing village perched in the hills. A brown horse stood as motionless as its surroundings; its flanks were shining like oil in the sunlight.
Suddenly, loud speakers announced that it was time to board. I stood up. Walking toward the train, I saw a tall, young man taking photographs with a 35mm camera. A camera bag, jammed with other cameras and camera equipment, was on the ground near him.
“Did you take many good pictures?” I asked.
“Where are you from?”
“Switzerland is as beautiful as New Zealand.”
“But we don’t have sea.”
The train started off with a thunder and jerk as we all settled into the cars.
We all sat on the carpeted floor as a single light bulb shone brightly upon all our faces. The room was filled with many men and young boys. They were in their traditional clothes. The men wore brown apple pie hats. The young boys had shaved heads. Most of them were staying in this second-floor room of a concrete apartment in a dusty ancient town of Pakistan. They were resting from their long and ferocious fighting in Afghanistan and some were receiving medical treatment for their wounds. In the hallway, outside the open door, several young girls, wearing colorful peasant clothing smiled broadly, as they looked into the room. They didn’t dare come in.
The room had no furniture. The only display, or decoration, was a large board of a wall-mounted collection of ammunition samples: bullets, steel fragments of shell casing, peculiar assortments of jagged metal and a piece of very thick glass from the window of a soviet jet bomber. They were proudly displayed like the trophies of a great sportsman.
A large old-fashioned fan was circulating slowly on the ceiling, fighting a losing battle against the heavy heat. Outside, it was almost dark. Through the window, you could hear the sounds of the horses’ hooves pulling the carriages at trot.
“My brother’s son’s leg cut by German doctor here in Peshawar. In this city there are two or three legs cutting everyday. Even more arms cutting up. I also lost many relatives and friends,” Jawad spoke. He was the leader of a small band of mujahideen. He had been fighting the Soviets for more than six years, since the day the Soviet Union invaded his country. Both he and his two brothers were proud to be rebels fighting against the Russians; they were also inordinately proud to be the grandsons of a man who spent his entire life fighting the English, who likewise had grand designs of conquest on Afghanistan in another era.
“Is there any way to keep the Russian prisoners alive instead of executing them?” I asked through my interpreter.
“We have no choice,” said Jawad. “One day we shot down a helicopter gunship. Pilot escaped with his parachute. We gave him to Pakistani government. But two weeks later, they gave him back to Soviet Union.”
“Pakistani government scared to make the Russian government angry. So they returned him,” added Raz, showing his badly stained teeth as he spoke.
“We are also busy all the time and no way to watch prisoners. So only way is to kill them,” said Jawad.
“We don’t like kill people, but the Russians kill us,” explained Raz.
“Last summer we shot down one more helicopter gunship and two Russians pilots survived with their parachutes. One woman and one man. When they come down slowly into village we wait with knife, sword, sickle and stone. My men finished them like goats,” Jawad’s lips curled slightly into his cheeks, in what seemed like the beginning of a smile.
“Russians are scared. They cry and scream because they don’t believe in Allah. If you don’t believe in Allah dying is horrible,” Raz showed his bad teeth.
“And you,” I asked, “are not afraid to die?”
“No, I am not scare to die. It is respect to die for cause. We enter heaven when we die.”
“Do you think you’re going to win this war?”
“Oh, yes,” replied Jawad. “We fight until we win or be killed to go to heaven. You can win if you have heart. No matter how strong your enemy is. If you are scared, you will never win. No matter how good your training is.”
“That sounds very fundamentalist-----and dreamers,” said I.
“We are dreamers. We cannot be slaves.”
“No,” said I. “I understand that.”
Jawd put his fist down so as to emphasize his feelings more energetically. “It is better to be lion for one day than chicken for thousand years.”
“We love freedom,” said Raz, showing his teeth.
“And Allah,” added Jawad. Raz nodded. “I don’t know politics. I’m only fighting to kill our enemies.” He smiled.
Just then the light bulb spluttered and went dead. The room was thrown into darkness.
Jawad broke off and said something to someone in a strange-sounding language, presumably to get the light.
He continued in the darkness, “If you are not Afghan, it is very difficult to fight in our mountains. Sometimes the snow up to our necks in winter. That’s why Russians sure lose.”
“I know that the Russians are not used to fight in rugged mountains,” I responded.
“A Russian prisoner told me that the Russian soldiers are very happy with snow because it remind them their homeland,” said the leader.
A young boy came in holding a brightly shining kerosene lamp. His face was brightened in the light.
The boy seated himself beside me. The lamp heated me.
“Do you miss your country?” I asked the boy, who was listening attentively.
“Ooh, ooh, ooh,” the boy replied. He smiled, looking right at me.
“He want to fight,” said the leader.
“How old is he?” I asked.
“You would let him fight at his age?”
“Next year.” Then Jawad said something to another boy.
The boy quickly went out of the room. He returned holding a small box and handed it to Jawad who opened it near the bright lantern. He showed me many black and white and faded color photos that were taken inside Afghanistan.
“This is thirteen.” He pointed to a boy who was holding a Kalashnikov standing among the rebels in a photo. “He is sixty-five years old.” He pointed to one in the same photo.
The whole room suddenly brightened as the power returned.
The Sun Behind the Clouds has 27 short stories
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