Passed as it was—from mouth to ear to soul, in that small village near the Black Mountains—word of the humiliating torture, mutilation, murder, and unforgivable desecration of young Saladin’s body (who, it was widely known, had spent his entire life hearing the greatly exaggerated tales of his father’s jihad against the Soviets, and so, with much trepidation, decided to join up with a small group of melancholic militants, cursed from childhood with the knowledge that they were meant to die violently, at the cusp of manhood, before ever having tasted the bitter nectars of first love) eventually reached the hairy ears of his giant father, Merzagul. Despite his incredible size, Merzagul was a man with an infamously puny heart, so puny, especially compared to the massive width of his chest, that many doctors from various cities all across the nation deemed his breathing life to be a minor medical miracle, something akin to a small tractor engine propelling the flight of a B-52 strategic bomber. And so it was that after Merzagul caught word of the murder of his only son, his puny heart pumped into overdrive and led him to the studded handle of his father’s legendary scimitar, which had once chopped down three hundred British colonizers back in the benevolent days of Kipling and Forster, when white men would fight on the earth like mere mortals—not as they did now, from thousands of miles above, from the very heavens themselves, perched upon behemoths of steel and light, watching their targets below, even in the darkest of nights, hour upon hour, spying and recording and listening, until one fateful day or night, when the white men in the clouds would rain down their fire, and decide, with the flick of a finger, the twitch of an eye, the shiver of an asshole, whether an entire village would celebrate a wedding or mourn a funeral.
Still fuming, Merzagul dragged his father’s scimitar out onto the road in front of his stolen compound and, in the presence of the entire village, renounced life, love, fatherhood, war, violence, blood, vegetarianism, and, finally, Islam itself, before proceeding to hurl his father’s sword into the sky, with the honest intent of murdering Allah (praised is He) Himself.
Then he went back inside to collect his goats.
But by the will of Allah (praised is He), the sword was impeded in its path by an angel.
Twenty-five thousand nine hundred fifty-eight meters above the spot where Merzagul hurled his father’s legendary sword, Second Lieutenant Billy Casteel was flying a McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 twin-engine, supersonic, all-weather, carrier-capable, multirole combat jet, affectionately dubbed “the Silver Angel.” Casteel had just completed his twentieth bombing mission of the year by successfully obliterating forty-six insurgents, twenty-eight of their young wives, one hundred fifty-six of their children, forty-eight of their sisters, seventy-three of their younger brothers, nineteen of their mothers, ten of their fathers, twenty-two of their chickens, eight of their cows, three of their bulls, an orchard of their trees, and three thousand honeybees, whose death, it was hypothesized, would eventually lead to the extinction of the human race. The lieutenant was flying back to Home Base, where his closest allies, a small clan of white boys affectionately referred to as “the Rat Pack” (there was Clinton the Marine and Roger the Navy SEAL and…), were waiting to surprise Casteel with a carrot cake and a keg of beer in honor of his twentieth-bombing milestone. But as he flew in the sky with the sword of Merzagul’s father hurtling toward him, Second Lieutenant Billy Casteel did not feel much like celebrating.
Minutes earlier, as he circled above his targets, Second Lieutenant Billy Casteel made the mistake of peering down and glancing upon a herd of baby goats led by two tiny shepherds who couldn’t have been more than six years old. Briefly, Second Lieutenant Billy Casteel was reminded of his own childhood on a goat farm in Davis, California, where he once cared for his father’s herd alongside his older brother, David, who died one night falling off a horse on a ride through the dark woods near their farm, a ride Casteel had suggested despite the darkness and the cold and his brother’s frail heart. In the years after his brother’s death, Billy had abandoned his father’s goats and taken refuge in computer-generated pornography, online social simulations, catfish accounts on Instagram, the philosophy of Jean Baudrillard, the writings of Philip K. Dick, and the Modern Warfare franchise, through which he had carried out his first virtual drone strike on little blips of Afghan enemies. Well, those boys could be me and Davey, Second Lieutenant Billy Casteel thought to himself before his desensitization training kicked in and he turned the blips on his screen into blossoms of light. Eventually, though, Casteel was struck by what he thought was a terrible pang of guilt.
In reality, it was the sword.
Tumbling from the heavens, Second Lieutenant Billy Casteel managed to spread his arms and legs as if he were prepared to embrace the earth itself, creating enough drag to deploy his parachute and float softly toward an inconspicuous little village he had yet to bomb. He landed in the branches of a mulberry tree, one of which, as if instructed by Allah (praised is He) Himself, promptly struck Casteel in the head, knocking him out.
Bubugul was on her way to Hajji Alo’s mosque for the Dhuhr prayer when she spotted a soldier hanging from Watak’s mulberry tree, just high enough to seriously hurt himself. And although her daily prayers were the only true comfort in her life, Bubugul decided it would please her Lord to sacrifice her salah and help him down. At one hundred twenty-three years old, Bubugul had been secretly hoping to die for more than half a century, and it would have broken her heart to know that Azrael, the angel of death, had visited Earth over fifty-three years ago to take her soul, but Bubugul had such a knack for preserving the sanctity of life, wherever she found it, human or beast, plant or insect, fungi or bacteria, that Earth itself could not bear to let her go. On several occasions, Azrael had flown to Earth so as to inquire about the life of Bubugul, and every time Earth had found some excuse to keep her alive.
“One hundred twenty-two years,” Azrael had recounted earlier that same year.
“Azrael,” Earth replied, “I have sacrificed my youth, my beauty, my health, and perhaps my very life, all for the sake of Allah’s (praised is He) creation, and yet, every year—only He knows why—Allah sends fewer companions to look after me in the autumn of my life.”
Earth had a point.
Out of all of the billions of planets in the vast universe, only Earth had been selected to accept the burden of hosting humanity. One last year, Azrael had lied to himself, before he flew back to Home Base, empty-handed.
Bubugul collected a bundle of leaves beneath the feet of the soldier and went off to locate a military translator in the next village just as Merzagul—who happened to be leading his goats toward the Black Mountains in search of his son’s corpse—came upon Casteel. With his giant fingers trembling, Merzagul yanked Casteel from the tree like an unripe mulberry and tossed him over his shoulder. Followed closely by his goats, who leapt at Merzagul’s back, attempting to nip at the yellow hair of the soldier he carried, Merzagul journeyed back home, announcing along the way that the entire village was invited to his compound for a feast.
Merzagul and his wife, Talwasa, had always been known as formidable cooks, but it was only after the arrival of his mountain goats that Merzagul’s reputation as a chef superseded the legend of his rage. The story went that a few nights after his youngest and most-beloved daughter was married off to a well-to-do Pashtun from the city, Merzagul fell into a terrible depression. His once-crowded compound had been emptied by the suitors who had come, one after the other, to marry his seven daughters. The first proposition had elated him. The boy was good and clean and strong, from a well-known family just two towns over, and he held a reliable position as a teacher. The second daughter was married off shortly afterward, then the third, and it was only after the wedding of his fourth daughter that the suitors began to annoy him. When he declared that none of his remaining daughters would be wed for the next three years, the suitors seemed to become even more brazen. They came from as far as Paktia and Jalalabad, bearing magnificent gifts and impressive reputations, until, eventually, Merzagul’s conscience would not allow him to deny his daughters such pleasant lives. And so, after he gave his youngest daughter to the boy from the city, Merzagul became inconsolable and refused to eat. For three days and three nights, Merzagul fasted, denying himself his favorite dishes (chapli, seekh, and shami kebabs; landi, kofta, roasted lamb, and goat’s intestine), until the morning of the fourth day, when he awoke to find his courtyard packed with baby goats from the Black Mountains. The night before, American forces had firebombed the Black Mountains, and the goats there, barely escaping the carnage, had ventured down to the valley and taken shelter in Merzagul’s home. Without a hint of guilt, Merzagul proceeded to pick up each of the goats and toss them out onto the road. But no matter how far or how frequently he threw the goats, they always managed to find their way back into his courtyard. Eventually, he gave up this battle and returned to his hunger and silence. The goats, on the other hand, would not go hungry so quietly. All day and all night, for two days and two nights straight, the goats wept loudly for sustenance. To placate them, Talwasa made every attempt short of cutting their throats, but something about the traumas they’d suffered from the war had made them uneasy. Then, on the seventh morning of his starvation, Merzagul could not put up with their incessant moaning any longer. He went out into his courtyard with the largest butcher knife he owned. There, seeing the weeping goats, so dark and lost and scared, Merzagul found that his puny heart had overcome his mammoth rage. Still determined to quiet their weeping, he took up his wife’s mission to feed them. That was why, one afternoon, Talwasa happened to walk in on her husband as he knelt on all fours and began to nibble at a pile of hay. In the beginning, he only pretended to eat, but when the hay touched his starving tongue, its scent of life overwhelmed him. He ate with relish. The goats joined him in his feast. From then on, Merzagul and his beloved goats shared every meal together. His newfound vegetarian diet seemed to restore in him a lost vigor. Nine months later, his wife gave birth to their first and only son, Saladin.
Fortunately for his guests, Merzagul’s vegetarianism had done nothing to dilute the quality of his dishes, and, in fact, had only enhanced his wizardry in the kitchen. He prepared their entire meal on his own, chopping wood and lighting fires and sweating away in the tandoor khana while running back and forth between several different pots of stews in the courtyard. He was cooking all twenty-four of Saladin’s favorite dishes at once. Talwasa had locked herself up in Saladin’s bedroom and taken to smelling his old clothes. Near Asr, Merzagul’s guests came with their own dishes, figuring that the couple couldn’t possibly cook for their entire village, and yet before them lay such an assortment of marvelous platters that even the lingering scent of Merzagul’s sweat, which had been kneaded into the dough and dripped into the stews, could not spoil their appetite. Merzagul’s mountain goats ate the same food tossed in a small trough near the orchard, where everyone supposed Merzagul was hiding his American. Past the doorway into the orchard, past the apple trees and the garden, past the flower bushes and the swing he’d built sixteen years ago for his only son, Merzagul had dug a pit. It was two meters wide and three meters deep and it was covered with a makeshift barricade Merzagul had fashioned from chinar. Inside this pit, near the farthest corner of the orchard, Second Lieutenant Billy Casteel sat up against a mud wall, wearing nothing but his underwear. Merzagul and his guests crowded the pit, some of them inching toward its edges while others climbed up into the surrounding trees and hung from the branches. Faithful in the strength of his cage, Merzagul made no attempt to push anyone back, and when he saw that every single one of his guests had entered the orchard and seen the soldier, he finally spoke.
“On this day,” he declared to his neighbors and friends and even a few enemies, “I offer you all your God-given right to mortal justice. Tomorrow morning, immediately after the Fajr salah, every single one of you, from the eldest woman to the youngest boy, will be given a turn with the soldier. You may use your turn as you wish, except that there will be no psychological tortures and no dark magic. Understood?”
Some of his guests readily agreed and some declined to be involved, but no one was prepared to deny anyone else his or her turn with the soldier. The long war had mutilated many families and bodies and souls, and its perpetrators had remained invisible for so long that it almost seemed as if it had become a natural phenomenon, like an eternal storm, but now here it was, the war itself, captured in the body of a little yellow-headed man in his dirty underwear.
The next morning, just after the Fajr salah, every single one of Merzagul’s guests returned to his orchard, either to witness or to take part in the punishment of the soldier. Some carried clubs and stones, knives and cleavers, some had irons and hammers and pots filled with boiling oil or tar or just water. Some brought Tasers and peppers and lemon juice. Cleverly, it seemed to some, Merzagul had actually given the soldier his first punishment by refusing to feed him. Unfortunately, it didn’t have its desired effect. Second Lieutenant Billy Casteel sat in the middle of the pit, legs crossed, calmly building an alien city out of mud while chanting a Gothic tune from an old first-person shooter he once loved. Apparently, the night had been cold, for the soldier had rubbed himself, head to toe, in mud. He sat there in the pit, chanting and humming and carving sepulchers for an ancient warrior class of genocidal aliens, and did not even look up to acknowledge his captors. Naturally, Merzagul’s guests began to fashion a line based on seniority, but before anyone else could take their turn, Bubugul the Saint entered the orchard. Taking small, measured steps so as not to crush any stray spiders or wandering insects, she approached the edge of the pit where Casteel sat.
The crowd parted for Merzagul.
“You’re punishing this soldier?” Bubugul asked, peering down at the dirty creature playing in the mud.
“We’re all punishing this soldier,” Merzagul replied.
“Would you mind, then?”
“Mind what, Bibi?”
“If I took part?”
“Of course not,” Merzagul said. “You are our mother.” The crowd murmured in agreement. Bubugul was much loved and much feared because none of the villagers could recall a time before Bubugul. Her eternal presence in the village and her proximity to the otherworld gave her an almost spectral quality, like a benevolent ghost.
“Allow me fifteen minutes,” Bubugul said, and exactly fourteen minutes later, she reentered the orchard, leading along a young and handsome mountain goat, which, with Merzagul’s permission, gracefully climbed down into the pit.
“I’m very sorry,” Bubugul muttered, though no one was certain if she was speaking to the soldier or the crowd or the goat.
Initially, the second lieutenant’s plan had been to murder, eat, and then wear the goat’s skin for warmth. He had slaughtered hundreds of goats on his family’s farm in Davis and was already visualizing how he might use his teeth to tear open the skin on the creature’s neck. Momentarily, though, he was out-armed. The large and handsome mountain goat had two spiraling horns like corkscrews and impossibly spry limbs, while the lieutenant’s strength had been sapped from him by hunger. He was not sure if he could charge and pin and suffocate the goat head-on.
If he wanted to survive, he had to be clever. Overnight, a few apples from the orchard had fallen into his pit, and though he was famished, his soldier’s intuition had told him to bury the fruit and wait. “Billy,” he said to the goat sitting before him, and held out an apple in the splintered sunlight. Gingerly, the goat trotted forward, its head cocked, it eyes empty. The second lieutenant placed the apple on the roof of a miniature mud tower he had constructed to pass the time and stepped back within an arm’s reach of the bait. The goat cocked its head in the opposite direction, its eyeballs trembling, and leaned forward. Within an inch of the apple, just as the second lieutenant was reaching for its neck, the goat turned its face and chomped down on his extended hand with such force, it took the second lieutenant a few seconds to realize he was wounded. Bleeding profusely, he passed out.
Hours later, the second lieutenant awoke to the Isha adhan in a darkness so thick he could not tell if the goat was still near him. Its scent seemed to linger. He thought he could hear the huffing of its breath, the clopping of its hooves. His hand no longer bled, but when he felt for the wound in the dark, he realized that it had been plugged up with something resembling hair or fur. He was too afraid to tear it away. After shuffling toward the edge of the pit, the soldier sat up against a wall and attempted to recall his survival training. He needed to build up his psychological defenses. He needed to remain wary. But all through the night, the huffing, clopping, chomping, pissing, shitting, twisting, climbing, farting, spitting, and whispering of the mountain goat would not allow him to focus. With time, again, he passed out.
In the morning, there were two goats.
Wholly identical, both goats sat on the farthest edge of the pit and seemed to stare into each of the soldier’s eyes. It was as if the goat had replicated itself in the night, or as if the one goat had been split into two. He attempted to avoid their gaze for as long as he could, but he found that there were ways to become lost in the face of a goat. There was something comforting in the creases, the horns, the teeth, the beard. The oddly human eyes. Touching his makeshift bandage, he noticed that there was more fur sprouting from his wound. When night fell, the soldier thought he heard chatter coming from the other side of the pit. At first, he was sure that his captors were playing tricks on him, that this was all a part of the torture, the breakdown, but as the night wore on, the voices quieted, and he fell asleep touching the hairs of his wound.
In the morning, there were four goats. All of them, again, identical.
Like this, day after day, the goats replicated themselves, splitting from two to four to eight to sixteen, as the fur or the hair spread from the base of his wound to his fingers and wrist. Eventually, the pit was stuffed with so many goats that he felt them against his skin at all times. He listened to their tongues and smelled their scents, which, he realized, was his scent too. No longer afraid, he nestled himself into a spot near the center of the pit. He could not recall his survival tactics, the basics of his military training, the names of his commanding officers, or the early years of his youth when the scent of goats had awakened him every morning. He had loved a boy with a frail heart, he had attempted to drown himself in a shallow creek, he had masturbated to horrifying scenes of violence, he had obliterated many blips on many screens, he had had a name and a rank and a calling, but he had forgotten, and as he kept on forgetting, the chatter of the goats became more sensible.
The goats complained of the size of the pit and began a digging operation to increase the area of their abode. In the beginning, the man refused to assist his neighbors. He nestled into his spot, nursing his wounds and his memories, weeping without shame as the goats made the most of their situation. They dug and built tunnels and fashioned individual pits within the pit so that each coupling of goats could have their own space and privacy. They even built the man his own personal pit within the pit, and this act of kindness affected him so deeply, he began to take part in their labors. Crawling on all fours, he dug with the goats and listened to their songs and stories and poems and jokes. He clawed at mud with his elbows and knees. He swallowed mouthfuls of dirt and shat pebbles in his wake. He rubbed his forehead against hard, dark clay and felt it chasm into a home. He bleated.
By way of one peculiar goat’s insistence on making up for its lost labors, the herd discovered within their tunnels an underground cavern filled with clear mountain water and stones covered in moss. The goats drank from this water and licked these stones, and like this, for a time, they persisted through the tunnels, past the cavern, into the upper hollows, where they found ancient halls filled with gold and diamonds and priceless artifacts. Ignoring these treasures, the goats trotted toward the outer regions of the caves and escaped out onto the tops of the Black Mountains. From the heights of the cliffs, the goats traveled down into the valley and entered a small village and arrived at the door of a compound they vaguely remembered. One of these goats—distinguished by its golden fur—knocked on the large door with the tip of its newly sprouted horn. Therein, they were met by a giant, and this giant, seeing for the second time in his life a mysterious herd of mountain goats escaped from the Black Mountains, proceeded to invite them inside and vowed to treat them with love and care until the day of his death, which came shortly afterward, when a rogue squadron of commandos—known as “the Rat Pack”—broke into his compound, slaughtered him and his wife and every single one of his goats in a mad operation attempting to locate a missing and beloved pilot who once went by the name Second Lieutenant Billy Casteel.
Upon arriving in the village for the souls of the dead, Azrael visited Bubugul and found her shuddering inconsolably on a thin toshak. She begged for death and wept until she fell asleep. Overcome with mercy, the angel of death then entered her dreams and sat by her side and told her so many stories of life that she became utterly convinced she had died.