Volume 27, Number 2

When Death Falls From the Sky

J. Astrian Horsburgh

They never stopped circling.

Like birds, some people said. Metal birds with wings that created a buzzing, a whirring that wove itself into the background of their lives. Sleek black shapes that, when they deigned to make themselves visible, blotted little specks in the sky, over the sun.

After a while the people noticed them less. When they heard the whirring grow louder, they might look up and make out the shape gliding over their house or just watch the empty, empty sky and wonder when the buzzing would subside.

They heard rumors. They might stand and watch, feeling uneasy, then shake their heads and move on. But they became part of the landscape, these flyovers, visitations from another world.

* * *

Some people complained of them. Some feared them. Saja, the young mother with three children and a dead husband, said the drones made her paranoid, gave her stress headaches. She said that she dreamed about them, that they exploded or rained down missiles on her children. “They’re not natural,” she said. “They’re watching us. We’re all going to die.”

“They haven’t yet,” someone else would say. “Why should they kill us now? We aren’t terrorists.”

Saja tried to ignore them, the people and the sounds. She covered her ears when she heard them. She told her children not to draw attention, not to stand in large groups. Come home quickly. Don’t play out in the open, especially when the sky is bright and clear, when they can see you better.

Saja’s sons were teenagers now, young men, and they laughed at Saja’s paranoia. “It’s all right, Mother,” the eldest, Zahir, would say, patting his mother on the back. He had to work all the time now and felt his father’s absence acutely. His paranoid mother refused to go far from the house, and his siblings were too young to take life seriously. But the drones didn’t bother Zahir—at least, not more than an itch of irritation at that low whine far above. He was not a conspiracy theorist. He was sensible.

Some mocked Saja and those who thought like her. The whirring blended into all of their lives, gradually fading away. Why should it bother her? Patrols, that’s all. Security. Surveillance, maybe. Some of the children even ran after the flying machines, waving. They played in the open sands and watched the birds. Everything was safe.

* * *

A woman named Karima was Saja’s closest neighbor, but they rarely spoke. Maybe the drones were unsettling, but it was Karima’s belief that Saja, all on her own, was simply desperate to fill her mind with something.

Karima stirred at her stove and waited for her husband and children. She stepped out of her kitchen for a moment, and down the road a bit she could see her neighbor in the fading light. Saja peered around, squinting against the sun, then pressed a hand to her forehead and retreated inside. Karima shook her head and stepped back into her own kitchen. The sun beat down heavily outside, and her mind was heavy too, but not with drones.

Her sons, Rahim and Sakhr, pushed through the door first, their sister Maram lagging behind. The light from the doorway unsettled Karima’s eyes, accustomed to the dark of the kitchen. Her sons exchanged a few words and vanished. Maram stayed for a moment, her eyes glimmering. She opened her mouth and Karima closed her ears. She did not want to hear her daughter’s pleas.

The fist around her heart clenched slightly. She gripped her spoon harder. She wondered whether she should tell Khafid what she had found in Maram’s room earlier. Books, schoolbooks, newspapers and—Karima couldn’t think how her daughter had acquired them all—English books. Storybooks, books of politics, books of aberrant lifestyles. The kind of books her husband, Khafid, would never have allowed in his home. He was traditional, and girls did not read under his roof, especially not inflammatory foreign books.

Karima had never gone to school herself, and sometimes she envied her daughter. She was pleased that Maram was so bright, so eager to learn. Glad that her daughter had gotten at least the basics of an education, until Khafid had said, a few months ago, that she must stop school. Karima saw how it hurt Maram, almost physically. But she did not want trouble. Her daughter was almost of age and must grow up now.

Maram headed for the door. Karima weighed her options, closing a hand around her daughter’s shoulder. Maram turned to face her.

“I… I hope you aren’t still thinking about school…” How to broach the topic? She imagined Maram’s sweet face fracturing, tears sliding over cheekbones just starting to sharpen into a woman’s. Then she imagined the imprint of bruises in the shape of Khafid’s knuckles, and she made her choice.

Maram gazed evenly back. “Not as often, maybe.” Her voice betrayed her longing.

Khafid’s voice sounded in the next room, talking to Rahim. Karima shook Maram’s shoulders. “Maram. You must forget. And—” she raised her eyes heavenward, desperately. She forced her voice hard. “Get rid of the books you have in your room. I don’t care how you got them. But they must be gone. Now, of all times? When Father is so— now, you would tempt fate like this?”

Maram’s eyes flew wide in shock, then anger. “You— why—”

Karima slapped her cheek. Not hard, but Maram gasped. “I don’t want to hear about it. Remove them. In Allah’s name, Maram. Promise me. Do you want your father to know?” She met Maram’s gaze fiercely, then let her go. Maram ran.

Karima steadied herself against the wall, closing her eyes. Laced through her trembling thoughts was the stickiness of guilt. As she carried the dinner to the table, she heard the whirring of the drones in the sky above them. For the first time, she felt the grating irritation of the sound. She clenched her hands and resisted the urge to cry out. She wondered if this was how Saja felt.

* * *

A group of American students was staying in the village for three weeks. Their program had sent them here, to these Middle Eastern borderlands, to observe a foreign culture. They stuck together, observing the hum of lives around them.

Most of the villagers kept their distance, flicking brief glances at the foreigners, but they had no reason to approach them.

One seventeen-year-old girl watched with interest. Her name was Bahar. She watched the foreign students and wished fiercely to be one of them. She wanted their life, their ability to disappear from this place as soon as their program was over.

One of the Americans, a dark-haired but clearly foreign girl named Eliza, noticed Bahar’s stare and offered a secret smile.

Bahar stared harder, absorbing the smile, trying to throw herself into Eliza’s mind. Willing herself not to be too conspicuous. Not to appear as hungry as she was.

A life lived in secret is no life at all, she thought scornfully.

A few nights ago she had accidentally met Eliza, an American who understood limited Arabic. Atrociously spoken, but almost sweet that she tried, sweet in her unsure and obvious unbelonging.

I live here, Bahar thought, but do I belong any more than that tourist girl? But before long, I’ll be trapped here regardless. Plenty of girls my age are already married. If my parents weren’t so wrapped up in my sister’s wedding, I might be too.

She shuddered.

She wished she could follow the tourists back to America. Well, maybe not America—she hadn’t heard good things about America—but somewhere else, anywhere but here. Slip into one of their suitcases and get out of this place. She wished she could feel rooted here like her family and friends did, but she drifted. She wanted to leave, to travel, to see. She was restless.

It was the restlessness that had driven her to approach Eliza. Restlessness that had driven her to seek her out again, treasuring each second of their stilted conversations. She squeezed her hands together hard, trying to drive the forbidden feelings away. She hated this life, this hiding. Seeing Eliza in the street and knowing that anything Bahar felt was expressly forbidden. Knowing that Eliza would be leaving soon, leaving Bahar with nothing but an address, alone in this desolate, suffocating life.

* * *

Maram stood outside the kitchen, waiting until her hands stopped shaking and her head stopped whirling. How did she know? Why didn’t she just tell Father if she wants to ruin me?

She wouldn’t relinquish the books, not now. Her cousin Bahar had given them to Maram. Maybe Bahar would take them back, hide them.

Because knowledge was like poison—once you drank it in, it would never let you go. She couldn’t forget the books, the channels they opened for her. The subtleties and details were lost on her, but the ideas she gathered from the books were clear. They opened her eyes, but in doing so, they made her different. They made her want to run, change. She didn’t live this life; she just survived.

Maram didn’t want this, these avenues that closed off to her more every year just because she would grow into a woman and not a man. She didn’t hate every part of it—she just wanted to keep her books, tantalizing doorways into different lives. She felt so small here, under the broad sky, under her father’s scorching gaze. She just wanted to breathe in air that wasn’t dusty with expectations.

She heard the buzz of the drones, and she wanted to shake her fist at them. Fly me away, she wanted to scream. Take me away with you.

She understood Bahar’s restlessness. Sometimes Maram wondered whether, in four or five years, she would be just like her cousin. Or whether she already was.

* * *

Bahar picked her way home slowly, glancing over her shoulder for another glimpse of Eliza. They’d met in a small artisans’ shop the other day, Eliza fingering with awe the fabric, trinkets, little things for curious tourists to buy so they could feel like they appreciated other cultures.

Bahar had surprised herself, going to talk to this girl, and surprised more at what it did to her when the girl smiled, when she tentatively invited Bahar to walk around together. She soaked in Eliza’s voice, her words, the meaning behind them. The picture they painted of another world. “My father,” Bahar had said, in choppy, accented English, “he does not like the Americans, he always talks of them. Terrible people, he says. But you, you are not like them, no?”

Eliza had smiled at that, and at other things Bahar said, until Bahar couldn’t dawdle any more. Eliza had given her an address to write to, and left with one glittering smile thrown back, leaving Bahar shaky and elated. A thrill, coupled with dread, snaked through her bones.

It was the thrill that made her reckless enough to sneak out again, to casually meet Eliza the next day, too, but now she tried to restrain herself. Sitting in the hot, burning sun outside her house, she wrote a letter, scribbled and messy, leading nowhere and everywhere, saying nothing, everything: thank-yous and wishes and dreams. She buried it in a stack of her clothes.

Her father commented at dinner, “I heard you’ve made the acquaintance of one of those foreign girls. Is that true?”

Bahar commanded her face still. “Yes. She was curious about what it’s like to live here.”

“Curious foreigners are almost as bad as the idiot ones,” he muttered. Bahar held her tongue. But she could barely eat another bite, and she felt her father’s gaze remain on her.

* * *

Saja woke the next day with a pain in her head, her stomach. The sound of the drones seemed louder to her, echoing in her thoughts. She said to herself, “It’s a premonition. Something bad will happen today.” She told her children to stay inside. They tried to humor her, but out of earshot, they scoffed. It wasn’t the first time they’d heard this.

The second-oldest, Jamil, disobeyed first, heading out with some friends. They did what they often did—gathered at the edge of the town, where the road faded off. Today there were several other people there, a few men they didn’t really recognize. Jamil chatted cheerily, aimlessly. One of his friends talked of jihad, casually but with the edge of worry. People said war was coming, but people said a lot of things. If there was a war, would Jamil and his friends be expected to fight in it? There was a little tinge of glory to that, honor, but they were thirteen and fourteen years old and not interested in killing, even justified.

Zahir had gone out after his brother and walked several paces behind, enjoying the solitude. He looked at the ground and hummed to himself.

Voices broke out loudly, ahead of him. A couple of men yelling in each other’s faces. The commotion drew a small crowd, but Zahir hung back, disinterested.

Then they heard it. The drones, the ever-present whirring, but louder. Zahir looked up and started. Close, closer than usual. A warning began to beat in his head. “Look,” he shouted. Then again, louder. His voice cracked.

* * *

As soon as Bahar heard her father’s voice, she knew she was in for it.

She stepped inside, into the darkened kitchen. She saw no one, and then she noticed her father sitting at the table. His face was coldly rigid, furious, and in his hand was her letter.

Her mind failed to issue any instructions. She tried to blink, but her eyes felt pinned open wide. She said nothing, feeling her muscles go limp with the current of fear.

He held up the paper, gaze hard and steady.

“I… I…” She trailed off. There was nothing she could say.

He crossed the room in a stride, and his hands were on her shoulders, digging into her neck like claws. “It is a sin,” he spat. “How a daughter of mine… you could die for this. You should die for this.”

Bahar felt the terror as if from a distance. Girls had been killed for less, she knew. Honor killings. Whose honor, exactly? She couldn’t swallow. What had she done? Nothing. Nothing. She’d smiled at a foreign girl and let that girl make her blood run faster. She had done nothing to be ashamed of. Nothing.

He backhanded her across the face, and she bit her tongue. Her father glared, visibly trembling, and he hit her again, again, again, shoving her back against the wall. He shook her. Her vision bent and twisted from the explosions in her head. Then his fist was coming at her again, and she screamed for the first time.

When the largest explosion of all came, she wasn’t surprised that other voices were screaming along with her, and only when her father’s face went white and he ran from the house did she realize there was something else happening. She dragged herself up, wincing, and stumbled outside.

* * *

Seven thousand miles away, a pilot squinted at his screen. A group of—yes, those were people… shouting… fighting… He radioed a question and received an answer. Fire.

He winced. When he looked back at the screen, smoke was rising. He closed his eyes and wondered if he had enough Xanax left to sleep tonight.

* * *

The next moment the drone was larger than ever, casting a shadow over them. His brother had finally noticed it and pointed wildly. Zahir screamed suddenly, without knowing why, and stumbled backwards.

The metal bird released its hellfire, and Zahir felt the ground shake under him as his legs collapsed.

Jamil screamed once, a high-pitched sound lost in the whirring of the engines. He realized suddenly, with a terrible clarity, that once you understood the gut-punch immediacy of why this machine was called Predator—it was too late.

The explosion came, fire and smoke and noise. They didn’t see the drone rise up and vanish into a speck in the sky again. They felt a shattering and a burst of pain, and then it was gone, and it was silent.

Zahir didn’t realize he was screaming, lying on the ground, screaming, screaming. Then there were people around him, and there was smoke, and his brother was not there.

“Are you hurt? Are you all right, son?” Zahir couldn’t answer the questions. Jamil had been right there, right where the missile had struck.

“Jamil,” he said thickly, and passed out.

* * *

The drone strike charred fifteen bodies—four were recognizable as Jamil and his friends. The others were villagers. The government claimed responsibility for the strike, as it always did, though the people suspected, as they always did, that it was the work of the Americans. The news proclaimed that the dead were militants, part of al-Qaeda or al-Nusra or Daesh, whoever the Americans thought they were fighting now. There was no mention of the civilians. There was no mention of thirteen-year-olds. Not even to label them collateral damage.

Saja was frozen, dried out, a husk of herself. She said nothing but, “I knew it, I knew it, I told you so.” She couldn’t even cry. She never slept, and sometimes she screamed.

* * *

Bahar crawled her way to the hotel of the American students. Eliza opened the door cautiously and almost collapsed.

Bahar was nearly insensible, struggling to explain and trying to will away the look of shock, horror, fury on Eliza’s face.

Eliza said Bahar should try to get to the UN or an embassy, apply for asylum, immigration, refugee status or… or… or what? Did they have women’s rights centers in this country? Worse, was this her fault? She’d forgotten the rules of the States didn’t apply here. She’d let her multicultural righteousness, highfalutin American principles, erase her good sense. This is an educational program, damn it. I wasn’t supposed to hurt anyone. Did I lead her on? Did I let people make assumptions? I’m not supposed to be like that. I’m not supposed to cause damage—I’m not the military. I’m just a student. I’m… oh, I’m such an idiot.

She let Bahar in and let her collapse on the bed. Eliza sat with her head in her hands and fought with herself. She wound a strand of Bahar’s untucked hair around her finger and made herself a promise.

* * *

Two weeks after the drone strike that killed Jamil, Saja took her remaining children and left. She said she wanted refugee aid. She wanted out of this country, this life. Still, the drones buzzed in her head. She could not escape them.

Bahar was gone. Her father said she’d run off; he denounced her, called her a shame to the family. Eliza knew where she’d gone, and she wished her luck, but knew Bahar needed a lot more than that. She wondered if she had made the right choice, sending Bahar off on her own while Eliza tried to help from thousands of miles away. She wondered if there had been any other choice to make.

Maram did as her mother said, mostly, and hid the books, away from her house. She was quiet and obedient in the aftermath of the strike. She watched the anger burrow deeper into her father’s eyes and the creases of his forehead. But she would not give up her reading.

Zahir felt the scars of the strike acutely. He had sustained only burns, but he’d seen his brother blown up in front of his eyes. He wondered sometimes, privately, if there was a way to strike back.

* * *

Life in the town slipped slowly back toward a shade of normal. A few less people, a few more graves dug, a few less smiles, a feeling more somber, more restless.

And still the metal birds, the specks over the sun, circled and circled, waiting.