The old man wanted cigarettes. I gave him my pack. “Keep it,” I said. The translator told him. The old man did not thank me.
“Ask him about his rifle,” I said to the translator. “It looks old.”
They exchanged a few words, the old man’s eyes not leaving my face as he smoked. Dark eyes, deeply set in a terrain of creased skin.
“He says it was his father’s before him, from the Great War.”
“World War Two?” I asked.
“No, the one before that.”
The old man spoke again, this time at length. He gestured through the blasted windows of the bombed-out building where we crouched, toward the mountains of rubble that had once been a town. Even now, the thud of distant artillery could be heard over the horizon. And I knew, as the old man probably did, that high above us could be a half dozen predator drones poised to launch guided bombs. Even the night offered no concealment. The old man spoke for perhaps twenty minutes, his harsh croaking punctuated by hand gestures. Abruptly, he stopped.
The translator nodded, turned to me. “I will tell you what he said precisely, though I think you will not like to hear it. You see, this man and all his ancestors, they have always been at war. Always. Generation upon generation shaped by war’s obscenity as sands are shaped by the wind. It has carved their language and even their humanity in its horrific image. What he says will shock you. It cannot be otherwise.”
I swallowed, prepared myself as best I could to hear it.