In They Dragged Them Through the Streets, a veteran of the US war in Iraq commits suicide, and his brother joins with four friends in search of ways to protest the war. Together they undertake a series of small-scale bombings, until an explosion claims one of their own: Zechariah, or Z. The novel is structured around these two deaths, the veteran’s and the activist’s.
The four remaining friends—Ford, Vivienne, Sara, and “A”—narrate in turn; the excerpt below includes brief chapters by A and Vivienne. Throughout, the characters’ names often dissolve into initials—their intimate shorthand for one another.
At Z’s funeral we stood in a row and faced forward. People came to shake our hands as though we were family. We could look at them, not at each other. No one said the word suicide, and there was so much to do that we didn’t have to have names for everything. Everything had had to happen so quickly, someone had to know which family members and how best to reach them. Someone, not V, wrote notes for the newspapers and alumni magazines.
V stood there as quietly as anyone. I suppose some people would barely have called it mourning. But did we need this word? We thought we could leave it for those who needed it. We were this well-mannered, finishing everything on our plates. Think of the starving children, our parents had said when we were young—no, not really, but that was something parents said. We didn’t need much, no ululation, we knew that what had happened would be allowed to be our tragedy. Together we could say what had happened not what he had done. Closer than a lover is the loss of a lover—something V would say.
At the funeral, I thought: war has efficiencies that would have suited Z better. After an attack write the names of the dead on slips of paper, put the papers in soda bottles, put the bottles headfirst in the ground at the heads of the graves.
A rabbi presided over Z’s service, which surprised us. Z’s parents hadn’t gone to temple in years, it must have taken an effort to find someone. We listened to him without listening to the words. We were in the basement of a synagogue, or the building adjoined to the synagogue, a community space, I wasn’t sure. V and I had had trouble finding the building, counting and recounting the numbers on the street as we passed; how is it we were going somewhere we had never been?
Driving to pick V up for the funeral I thought things like: over there it’s goats by the roadside, plastic bags of sewage, carpets laid out in the marketplace to sell dates from. Here, morning glory twisting up a telephone pole, empty fried chicken boxes, a man shaking his hair out of the window in the morning to dry.
On the news that day they said there had been a car accident in Baghdad. People had run toward it to help, but one of the cars was a car bomb and detonated.
After the service V and I filed out of our row and waited outside for Z’s parents. We wanted to duck out of the reception to come, we felt surprisingly like ourselves, our usual aimlessness: the long walks in the woods that veered off in some direction, into thorns that scraped our forearms and ticks I’d have to slide a thumbnail under and pull from V’s skin. I may have touched V, then, where Z never did: that slim chasm in the upper neck, the curve into skull and hair, I found a tick there once, its hard small back and the thought of the mouth spitting who knew what back into her blood. I pulled it free, trying to get the head out. I’m not your dog, V said, wincing.
Z: the one to do even things like this correctly. I eulogized. Z, the child who didn’t play graveyard tag but made rubbings. The one who always learned, the face you would want to have to the world, words chipped and polished. Not a bottle planted in dirt, not a description to know him by like: his eyelashes brushed the inside of his glasses. In the photo we were shown of the scene, of his body—his hand outstretched, his face turned toward the wall. Z, who died without saying where he would like to be buried, so we should have hidden his bones and challenged each other to find them, looked for them with children and dogs we found in the streets. Because his death was ours, no longer his. We had the last word—sentenced to death? But he can’t hear me, so it’s no joke.
I begin the story again, V beside me, looking down at a toe she drags back and forth in the grass. We wait for Z’s parents and think they must be noting which relatives didn’t come. Too little warning, I think, and this phrase seems almost funny enough to say aloud, but V’s looking down—her jaw muscles shift, but she doesn’t speak.
Walking down toward the stream by my house once or twice F and I found a deer skull on the path, lifted it aside before the dog could start in on it. Coyotes split off the jawbones, leave the faces agape.
F had said of Z’s parents: they’ll want to know everything, and then they’ll never want to talk to us again.
You don’t even know them, V said.
That spring in Baghdad parents had taken their children to the animal market for the first time in years. The bomb had been placed in a box like an animal, holes poked in the sides. Thirteen people were dead, we saw the photographs, feathers, splinters of cage, fish and glass on the street stones in blood. One man told a story afterward: walking toward the market he had seen a tangle of guts on the street, picked them up and put them in a plastic bag.
Before the bomb: a boy’s face pressed to the glass of a terrarium.
I consider the genres: Interview. Manifesto. Lede.
Flower on gravestone.
Flowers on gravestones—which somehow never rot in the cemetery I walk through daily, I’ve noticed this, the petals never damp and stinking; someone must come by to neaten up.
Lede. The other day I went to a fundraiser, with speeches, a group that builds schools over there, that brings—really—packets of pencils, notebooks and prosthetic limbs. Workbooks in two languages, theirs, ours. A had called me and told me to go; a journalist friend of hers was speaking about his two trips to the war, unembedded. He was good-looking, that I acknowledged. He talked passionately about the people. You can’t write a love letter to a whole people, I ought to have said to him. My chair was hard and uncomfortable. I did say something to him afterward: I shook hands with him, his warm soft palms—you shouldn’t be so vague, I said, which was a blow, I could see that in his eyes. But I was right.
But he has been places I haven’t. He has seen the streets after the soldiers left, the checkpoints absent and children setting up stands on the corners, handing out juice to passing cars.
But this is not the stuff of love letters either; this is what I mean to clarify. Nor when the women in front of the cameras wail—that’s the only word for it—and beat their chests, crying the names of children, husbands, brothers, lost. This is something else. Just as I do not write for Z, or to him or anyone.
I clapped politely at the journalist’s speech.
The clapping like the click of a shutter. The journalist had clicked through a slideshow of photographs, including a series from a morgue: It was so terrible, he said, I took pictures mechanically. The bodies weren’t whole; limbs piled up. They could no longer assemble them as bodies, but leg, leg, arm, arm. There were, terribly, heads. One watched the photos click by, the clicking not quite as soft as hands clapping, not the same. But how did they know, that this leg, for instance, didn’t belong with this arm? This head this hand? Perhaps no one had looked closely enough, to see how this wrist bone might resemble that ankle. How this sock might match fingers that could have pulled on it, old habit, a child’s thin calves.
I should have raised my hand to say: There’s nothing mechanical to it. Only human.
What do you know? the journalist should have answered me.
And how vague it must feel, and impossible, to try to bring back a whole country. Even the easiest moments, the greetings and muttering the interpreters talked over, the tea one was offered, the aid packages stacked in truck beds and argued through checkpoints. He said people there kept asking the same questions of anyone who talked to them, the most urgent questions.
Cameras documented this or that explosion but were absent the hours a family sat by their window watching the sniper watch the street. The dogs and cats in the street. Sometimes the sniper shot the dogs. Out of boredom or dedication or—it could be, there was no way to know otherwise—so that the bodies still on the streets would not be further desecrated (if that’s what dogs did, or one could call it natural) before their families could come for them.
It was the journalist who told me about the dogs; I learned this from him.
Thank you, I said after the speech, and shook his hand. Thinking as I did that his hand had held A. But he could never claim he knew her better than I did; differently, but never better.
Love letters: this thought isn’t mine, was born in an interview. When I read your novels, the interviewer said, they seem to me to be love letters. She didn’t say to Z, but that’s what she meant, I was sure. I didn’t answer at first; I’m never sure what to say when people say these things. What do they think of him, now that even the war is old news. She and I waited for each other.
That’s interesting, I finally said, realizing that it must be more my turn than hers.
Have you ever thought of your writing this way?
No, I said, which wasn’t quite true; I had thought: one cannot write for the dead. I thought she’d take my denial as a compliment, but instead she tipped her head sideways and waited.
One cannot write for the dead, I said. Is this sincerity, I wondered.
But wouldn’t you say people write for the dead all the time? That that’s exactly what they’re trying to do?
But failing, I said.
All right, trying but failing.
All right, I said, We agree, but I don’t think this is what I am failing at.
You see, I didn’t write to him when he was alive.
Write to him?
She hadn’t been thinking of Z, then. Zechariah, I said, I’m sorry, Zechariah Berkman, isn’t that who we were talking about? You know the story?
I didn’t mean—her eyes widened; I waved a hand.
Never mind, I said. But one can’t write a love letter generally, one always writes to, you know.
It’s like soldiers’ letters home, they’re only interesting if you imagine who loosens the flap with a finger and thinks of how he sealed it. The letters themselves are nothing.
Or: the journalists, I said. They don’t file these reports, bombings in the background, thinking of people. There’s someone they think of when they wire their latest. That’s how it works. One doesn’t go down into the morgue the day after the siege for no one. One looks at the bodies and thinks who they might be. How much hands are like hands. How similarly all our skin holds. Then writes.
Her job of course was to take notes, not to have a conversation. I watched her type.
Ford and I already did it, Sara had said to me the night Z died—she had come to get me, I must have been sitting on the kitchen floor for hours. The refrigerator was too loud and cars kept going by. We went to identify him, she said, You don’t need to go. It was hard, she added, which I understood to mean the state he was in.
We should go to A’s, she said, and slipped her hand around my elbow, hard, to pull. I wasn’t sure why this should be next, but I followed her.
By then it was nearly morning. How lucky that I wasn’t in that country, where had an explosion claimed him I couldn’t have just sat where I learned of it, just sat. The planes above still coming, or the sirens rushing toward. It was not like that here; no one would worry that they’d look for a body, check everywhere thinkable, and find no one, nothing. Limbs they’d have to sort through to see, and even then, bury what? A left arm? And the death squads buried their victims everywhere, they don’t keep records. It wasn’t like this here; I sat for hours, against my back the heat of the refrigerator.
You dedicated this novel to “A”? the interviewer asked. Can you talk about that?
Yes, but I didn’t write it for her, I said. It was just afterward, that I dedicated it, because I knew I should have.
She was so slow. Should have written it for A, I said.
I am no different from anyone, I said, after a pause. I was thinking of that journalist: I threw up outside after, he’d said, standing before the slideshow, on the screen one body’s imperfectly closed eyes, lids too swollen. He thought we would sympathize. But you were one of the last people to see them, I thought. Didn’t you owe them more, than to let disgust be your last gesture, the last thing they were offered? To sit and watch them, watch the flesh bruise and dampen on the stone, what had been blossoming becoming decay, no one coming through that place to tidy, and why should they tidy?—that’s not what we owe each other.
The child had been taken while gathering coins in the street with his father. I read this three times, but I always pictured it wrong. I pictured the child standing in a fountain lined with coins, gathering. The fountain would be dry. But I didn’t even know if there were fountains in that country, if this was a way to make wishes there.
I read: the family paid the ransom but the child was not returned.
Here, I kept getting phone calls: People wanted to dam the river nearby and build a power station. This had been in the works for some time. Come support us, they said on the phone, and told me when the meetings were. We have to reduce our dependence on… they began to explain. I know, I said, I understand that. In the mail I got leaflets from protestors, groups opposing the dam. The leaflets had photographs of fish and plants that might be adversely affected. The fish looked dead already, blurred in black-and-white, blank-eyed. The plants looked like weeds that grab at the ankles and slime on the river bottom when you get in to swim.
All of us neighborhood kids had swum in that river. A bend in it where it pooled, where there were warm rocks to lie on, an incline where you could lie and let the water drag sticks and leaves under you. Together at night we picked our way toward the swimming hole, we thought we could find it by sound, that’s the bend, someone would say and the rest follow. They might be right. We always got there. Wearing sneakers to protect us from the broken bottles. But the glass might still press up into us as we lay in the dark on the rock faces coupling, uncomfortable, the sound of the water never as loud as we wanted, never drowning us out as we wanted.
In the daylight we would jump from a small cliff on the side. Someone had put up a rope swing, but you had to throw yourself forward just right or you’d hit a rock shelf below. One boy had hit it, paraplegic. In the daylight he should have seen: the water was too golden there. Some people said his neck hadn’t broken till after, when the other kids pulled him from the water.
I hadn’t been there since I was a kid. F and I had gone to a protest against the dam, years ago. We didn’t know anything about it, but someone had called us and we went. We’d sat in the yard of the power company offices and held signs. It was hot out and there were only a dozen people there, probably the same pamphlets, the same plants and fish. We’d brought a bag of cherries, I remember spitting pits into the grass.
Whenever I think of the dam I picture it wrong; I picture the water itself electrified. The blade of the waterfall descending to shock the pool below. The bodies of the teenagers who swam there would rise to the surface, bellies translucent and bloating. The water lilies brightening as the current passed through them, stinging any fingertips that touched them.
This is not how it is.
They explained on the phone how many households the station could power.
I read that the mother would stand for hours holding a photograph of the child and crying. The family would come home to find her like this. They wanted to hide the photograph, but she had to take it to the offices and morgues once a week.
They say there are places in that country where oil rises if you just press your thumb to the ground.
It would be a waste not to, they say to me on the phone. A waste of a river. I wonder. Waste, how you lose a coin on the street and the coin loses a child. How plant and animal carcasses pool under rock underground. We swam in that summer-low river. We pictured workmen unearthing the cherry trees we left in that lawn. Our bodies curved out so gracefully in descending to the water, rising back to the surface, wasting the rock shelf that might have touched the spine, coaxed the bones into falling just wrong.
A hospital, I said.
Their silence was what I wanted.
I wanted them to get up and leave me, I would lean my forehead against the window and listen to the rain, listen to the moths hitting the window through the clear nights when there was no other light, neighbors gone to bed hours earlier.
We’d read: In Baghdad the hospitals were too full and there were too few doctors.
It is a rule, hospitals are not targets.
To think of the landscape this way, divided into target, not target. I might look out the window. The squirrels move with a speed I think of as guilty. People shoot deer from their gardens.
What I mean is: the hospital is where plans go awry, where plans are wasted. One plants rows but weeds come in. Bitterness in the mouth, staring at the ceiling. The inked fingertips that were supposed to mean one thing, were declaimed by TVs and newspapers to mean one thing, had instead become a target.
A hospital. Z started to collect me that night. To put my words into something he could bury, something he could love better. Let’s pretend Vivienne didn’t say—the rows of the sick, the mothers in the throes of childbirth. Let’s pretend, Vivienne. It’s time to go, he said, or something like this, and Sara was stacking glasses inside one another to take to the kitchen.
But I meant it, I said.
No one answered.
My words are fireflies in jars, I thought. A light people like to look at but don’t see by.
I meant: an end to all this waste. Men come into schools midday to set fire to the hair of the girls who don’t wear headscarves. Let’s not pretend we could ever say, this won’t happen, or that. That doctors won’t be about to cut an umbilical cord when soldiers tie their wrists. Those nights Z’s hand lay upon my stomach.
I execute a plan and publish it.
Someone might execute this doctor, this farmer, an artist, to be found later with the shells of the bullets that killed him tucked in his pockets.
What I was saying: all rules have been broken. Every story proves only myth.
A poison in the shells of the eggs, a sky that broke into storm.
What I would have given, those hours staring at the ceiling. For an end. This may be true, yes, but this is not what I mean. What I mean is only the truth of these hours. The date palms plowed under, bodies that won’t even nourish the cypresses. I want the dust of that place on my skin, in my pockets. This is all I meant.
They Dragged Them Through the Streets: a novel by Hilary Plum, FC2 / the University of Alabama Press, 2013