The rain beat into the sand, creating circular patterns at his feet. Captain Melbourne, under the command of General Alymar (whom he had been separated from earlier that day after a skirmish), had been traveling along side the Tigris for two days. The rain now threatened to disrupt the fragile banks, allowing the river to surfeit as it pleased.
“Cover those guns, men! And the Spiders!” Melbourne yelled as he lowered the brim of his hat to protect his eyes from the displaced sand granules. He had been in the heathen land of the Ottomans for only a week, yet had drawn the conclusion on his second day that he would have preferred France or Belgium in lieu of such a desolate landscape. Maybe he would have preferred to sit in muddy trenches and wait for the Spiders to come over the sides. Leading his comrades, the Captain would ignite his flame-spewing pistol and singe the eight aluminum legs from the bodies of the mustard gas-spitting creatures.
British forces in Belgium had captured a German unit full of Spiders and had subsequently shipped the prized war machines throughout their campaigns in the East, hoping t turn the tide. Melbourne often mused at how quickly the Allied forces might be able to win the war if they had had German military technology on their side all along.
His feet throbbed; felt simultaneous warm and cold as a soaked boot battled sore, swelling flesh. The fog further up the road parted to reveal a caravan. Pulling the damp, ink stained map from his coat pocket, Melbourne motioned the unit to stop while he advanced ahead. He had expected to be at Kut the day before and must now take advantage of a native’s knowledge of the land.
“British?” The native called. As Melbourne neared, two alarmingly close-together eyes, embedded in russet leathery skin, confronted him.
“Yes,” He saluted to the native out of habit. “Captain Melbourne.”
Melbourne extended the map toward the native.He pointed to a precariously constructed sign off the road, adorned with twisting, foreign characters.“What does this say?”
“Ali Al Gharbi.” The leather-skinned man replied while calmly stroking the wet fur of his donkey.
“Where is Kut?” Melbourne flared his nostrils and shrunk further within the protection of his coat collar. The native looked at him confused; eyes seemed to move closer together upon bewilderment.
“Kut.” Melbourne enunciated. The feel of the hard K-sound hurt his mouth, sent a chill through his bones like a sneeze.
The man stared at him for a moment, then began studying the map. Melbourne realized the characters on the English map must hold the same foreign mystique for the man as the sign he had seen, although not as twisting and elegant, but precise and hard-edged.
The man’s skin-flaked finger traced the blue Tigris line northward before overenthusiastically poking the point on the map where Kut presumably lay. He bobbed his head, which Melbourne took for a nod. “Thank you.” He took the map from the chapped hands and gave a gracious nod. The man flashed a three-toothed smile and returned to his donkey with a lopsided swagger.
Melbourne cocked his head, puzzled by the native’s behavior. Perhaps he should have studied the social customs of these people more extensively before his departure from England. Spinning on his heel, Melbourne suddenly froze upon seeing his unit.
- - - Nichole Beard is in the process of earning her MFA in Creative Writing at Rosemont College. She is a little too obsessed with Star Wars and most other things deemed nerdy. She is working on her first novel, a historical fiction piece.