Akbar Rabani sat on a rock on the side of the road three miles north of Basra in Southern Iraq. Akbar was ten years old. He wore sandals, white cloth pants and a blue Manchester soccer shirt he was given by a British soldier. He was thinking about his mother. In fact, he was looking at his mother, who was lying on the cracked black pavement six feet in front of him. Akbar's mother's name was Suukal. Suukal was dead, lying in the midday Spring sun, wearing a dark grey skirt and black blouse that had a hood attached that was used to cover her head and face. Suukal's shoes were attached to her feet, which had been blown off her legs and lying a few feet away. The hole where the bomb exploded was under Suukal, her body having flown into the air, plopping down immediately on top of where the device had been placed. The heat of the bomb cauterized the bottom of what remained of Suukal's legs, which prevented blood from flowing. Indeed, Akbar saw no blood. It was strange, he thought, that his mother could be blown up, and somehow neatly just lose her feet in a bloodless death. Suukal's head was turned toward Akbar, her eyes closed, with a bit of dust on her cheeks. Suukal had long black hair which was splayed out from the hood that was back off her head. Suukal was thirty-two years old. Akbar had no siblings. He had no father, who was killed last year. And now Akbar had no mother.
An American Marine was standing a few feet from Suukal, looking down at the body, holding a rifle up with his right arm. The Marine's name was John. He was from Cincinnati, and was thinking of the Cincinnati Reds who were in first place in the Central Division of the National League. The Reds at that very moment had the best record in all Major League Baseball, and it made him feel homesick. John caught himself thinking of the Great American Ballpark, the name of the stadium where the Reds played, as he was gazing at a dead woman with no feet. John's mind bounced back and forth between the dead woman and the oldest professional baseball team in the major leagues. From dead woman to baseball to the dead woman and back to baseball. John was perplexed at how his brain could contemplate these two disparate thoughts. It was springtime in America, with the sound of bats hitting balls, and it was springtime in Iraq with the sound of roadside bombs. But like America, Iraq was more complicated than that. John then noticed a boy wearing a soccer shirt sitting on a rock.
Akbar rose from his rock and walked to his mother and touched her face. Suukal's cheeks were soft and warm. Akbar thought she looked like she was sleeping, but he knew she was dead. The softness and warmth of her cheeks surprised Akbar. Death meant cold and hard. But his mother was still soft and warm. Akbar had been about fifty feet behind his mother, kicking a soccer ball, following her on the way to a market where vegetables were being sold. They were very careful to stay on the pavement as it was known that bombs were usually placed in the sand and dirt on the sides of roads. But occasionally, in the broken roads of Iraq, where holes were filled with gravel, cleverly hidden trip bombs were placed. And Suukal, daydreaming of the dinner she was planning for her brother and son, thoughtlessly stepped on a patch of gravel. A click, and then the explosion. Akbar had kicked his green soccer ball just as he saw his mother fly up into the air and then fall back down. The green soccer ball rolled straight toward his mother and came to rest three feet from where her head hit the pavement.
John watched the young boy touching the dead woman's face. He did not know if the boy was related to the dead woman or just a curious Iraqi kid. John had seen so many mutilated bodies and body parts since arriving in Iraq four months ago, that he was usually immune to what would have made him vomit back in the States. But this moment, a moment in the Spring heat of Iraq, a moment where thoughts intersected and smells overwhelmed, a moment where John noticed a boy, a dead woman with no feet and a green soccer ball. The green soccer ball sat there, motionless like the dead woman. John thought that soccer balls should not be motionless. He walked slowly to the ball and placed his boot on top of it, like he had seen soccer players do to control a soccer ball, to change its direction, to out maneuver an opponent.
Akbar noticed his green soccer ball with a boot on it. He looked up and saw the American marine. Akbar had grown to like American Marines. He knew that Americans did not place roadside bombs, that they did not kill just to kill. Akbar had been told that Americans had come to Iraq with good intentions, but had made a mess of things. Now they were here presiding over a mess and not knowing what to do about it. Akbar thought that but for the Americans his mother would still be alive. He did not think that Saddam would have placed a bomb where his mother had placed her sandal step. That the bomb was there because the Americans were there. Good intentions, bad results. Love them, hate them. Two disparate thoughts at the same time. Akbar did not want to think about it right now, but he did want to take care of his mother.
John watched the young boy rise and walk over to the dead woman's dismembered feet. The boy picked up the feet, one hand grabbing a sandal strap of the left foot, and the other hand grabbing the sandal strap of the right foot. The body parts remained inside the sandals as the boy placed the feet at the cauterized leg tips of the dead woman. The boy adjusted them to give the impression that the feet were still attached to the dead woman. The boy looked up at the American. The boy smiled.
Akbar saw the American smile and wave his left hand. Akbar waved his hand. The American touched his chest and said "John," Akbar touched his chest and said "Akbar."
John liked the way Iraqis spoke. When they spoke slowly, their manner of speech sounded erudite. Even when spoken by a child. The boy stood and pointed to the green soccer ball. John rolled the ball towards the boy who stopped it with his right foot, keeping his foot on top of the soccer ball, much like John had done. John thought about soccer, and how the whole world seemed to play the game. The whole world except for America. John thought that maybe he should learn more about this game. There must be something to it that made so many kids kick soccer balls around in dusty Iraqi fields.
"Peterson, let's move," said John's commanding officer. John waved to the boy, turned and walked toward a truck where his commanding officer stood.
Akbar saw the American walk away. Akbar sat on his green soccer ball next to his mother and watched the truck drive away carrying the American Marine and several other soldiers. He looked down at his mother's face, which was starting to turn blue. Akbar did not know what to do. Leave. Stay. He then thought of his mother's brother, his uncle. He would go to his uncle's house. But he did not want to leave his mother. So Akbar stayed, sitting on his green soccer ball in the springtime noonday Iraqi sun as he watched two white morning doves land on the hot pavement near his mother's head.