Check out the musical inspiration for this story here. (Mp3 file from Phil Nerges and Vic Ruggiero’s album, “Don’t Feed the Cats”)
Fiction selection from the 2010 issue
They Must be Hungry
Stray animals were always a problem in the camp. Dogs were the worst. Every year, Saddam’s people used to kill the unwanted ones. But now Saddam was gone, and their numbers surged as the war raged around them. If you saw them during the day, they were off in the distance, too far for an easy shot. They knew that somehow. At sunset, they moved in closer. Maybe they kept their distance because it was too hot to bother anyone during the day. Anyway, they didn’t seem worried.
Vic liked to walk after dinner. He’d found a walled compound next to the camp, perfect for a stroll. Inside, a road lined by date palms on each side surrounded a man-made lake with unworldly greenish colored water. One of Saddam’s palaces sat in the middle. Bombs had punctured the roof and collapsed the interior. The outer shell was all that remained. It reminded him of a haunted house. A dog followed him one night, trailing a few feet behind him, snarling. He threw a rock, but the dog wasn’t frightened. It inched closer instead, ears matted back, hair raised, the upper lip curled back, as though daring him to pick up another. Vic didn’t want to stoop again with the dog so close, so he took a flashlight from his pocket and shined it into the dog’s eyes. The light was the tactical type, very bright, blinding in the dark. The dog didn’t move any closer, but didn’t leave either. It growled, displaying every tooth, but hesitated, puzzled by the light. It decided against attacking finally, and walked away, looking back a few times to make sure Vic didn’t follow.
He slept poorly again that night. The slightest noise or vibration jarred him from sleep. There was no light inside his housing container. The only window was sealed by a rolling window cover. He would lay on the cot with his eyes wide open staring into total darkness. He hadn’t slept well for weeks, kept awake by some vague expectation that something would happen. He kept his pants and flashlight on the floor next to him before he turned out the light so he could find them quickly if something happened. When he stirred, he would reach down and pat them. After waking three times, he almost fell into a sound sleep. But he could hear dogs barking in the distance. He ignored them at first and tried to submerge himself a little deeper in unconsciousness. They kept barking. Oh please, please, please, let me sleep, he thought. He tossed and folded the pillow around his head to cover his ears. He drifted off again, but he could still hear them.
They just kept barking. Then he got the sense they had been barking for too long and began to wonder what they were barking at— for so long—and why. He got out of bed and opened the door. It was still dark, zero five-thirty hours. Nobody was moving about. He looked up at the stars. He dallied there for a few minutes, and then went back inside to get ready for work. Nothing was going on. They were just barking.
When he came out later, it was light. The barking had stopped. A cat was blocking his way, looking up at him. It had waited for him to come out. Vic stopped. They looked at each other. The fur was dirty and a patch was missing from its back, near the hind legs. He couldn’t tell if it was an ulcer or a chunk bitten out during a fight. The tail flicked, chasing two flies trying to land in the wound. It was skinny, the ribs clearly visible, yet there was nothing about the wiry muscles beneath the fur that implied weakness. There was something intimidating about the ability to survive in that environment. It meowed, demanding food he guessed.
“Get away from me,” he muttered. “You get nothing—you filthy cat.” As he moved to go around, the cat stepped in his way. He stopped. They stared at each other for a moment. “What? Are you a suicide cat? Are you gonna blow up?” It nudged his leg. He stepped around it and left for work.
Looking back, he saw that the cat was just sitting there watching him walk away.
After lunch he sat on a bench shaded by a date palm outside the dining facility. There was a man and woman at another bench on the opposite side, next to the concrete T-wall. They were American. He recognized them. She was a secretary for one of the managers at headquarters, but he didn’t know her. Her entire upper body quivered as she sobbed. Vic could hear her sobs more than twenty-five meters away. She pulled at the hair clenched within her fists. The man had one foot up on the bench, resting his arms on his thigh as he spoke to her, but Vic couldn’t hear what was being said. He considered going over to offer his condolences, but decided otherwise, thinking he would be intruding. It was private grief.
Tyler Brownley, the animal control specialist, had finished his lunch and sat down next to Vic.
“Something must have happened,” Vic said, looking at the couple.
“She was friends with Shane, the hard car driver who got killed yesterday.”
“I don’t know him.”
“You’ve probably seen him. He was at headquarters all the time. He was on his way back from the Green Zone and got caught between two suicide bombers.”
“Yeah, they must have thought he had big shots in the car. One pulled up on each side of him, and they detonated together.”
“Was anybody else in the car?”
“That’s fucked up. Do you think we should say something to her?”
“No, it’s better to leave her alone. She has her own friends.”
“It’s unbelievable—totally out of hand. This morning, I read there were a hundred-and-forty car bombs last month.”
“Killing is business and business is good.”
“It’s getting on my nerves. I can’t sleep anymore. Last night, we finally had a quiet night and barking dogs kept me up.”
“Were they inside the camp?”
“In the village—I think.” He pointed west. “It’s hard to tell with the way the sound echoes off these blast walls.”
“If you see them in the camp—let me know. Animals here aren’t like the ones at home. You don’t know if they just finished gnawing on a corpse—then they come over and want to lick your hand. Disgusting.”
“They must be hungry.”
“They are, but don’t feed or touch them. No pets are allowed. You can get fired for that. They don’t have any kind of shots. They’re disease carriers.”
“I stay away from them. They’re nasty.”
Tyler didn’t respond.
There was a pause in the conversation. Vic listened to the grating drone from diesel generators, truck traffic a hundred yards behind them, and pairs of helicopters flying low every couple of minutes—yet the sound of the woman crying pierced right through it all.
“I got a bad headache,” Tyler said. “I have a favor to ask. What do you have going on this afternoon?”
“I’m slow—nothing until four o’clock.”
“I have to make a trip to the recovery yard, and don’t feel like going alone. It’s creepy there.”
“Blown up equipment mostly—I have to disinfect a truck a driver was killed in. I just don’t feel like going alone.”
They picked up a pump-sprayer can and a brush from Tyler’s shop, and headed to the recovery yard located at the edge of the camp. The road was blocked on the way out by military activity. Soldiers standing in the road signaled them to stop. Armored cars were posted on each side with fifty caliber machine guns pointed at them.
“It makes me nervous when they point guns at me,” Vic said.
“Nervous is normal here,” Tyler said.
A Medevac helicopter descended from above, the rotor blowing dust in all directions, obscuring everything. Soldiers, silhouetted in the dust, unloaded two stretchers from the armored cars and carried them to the helicopter. Five minutes later, it lifted off.
A soldier signaled them to pass, and they moved slowly, waving to the gunners. Beyond them was the recovery area. From a distance, it looked like any auto salvage yard back home, but it was surrounded by coils of concertina wire and contained things that looked out of place. There were planes with no wings or tails, turned upside down, the wheel assemblies sticking up toward the sky like the legs of giant grasshoppers, on their backs, dead. Most of the other wrecks were military vehicles, crushed, blown up, burned, punctured, ripped, rusted, halved, three-quartered, pointed in all directions. The rest were SUVs and tractor trailers. Tyler stopped at a cable crossing the road, a sign hanging from it, warning them the area was off limits. He got out and unhooked it.
“This place is haunted,” he said, getting back into the SUV.
“There’s something very American about that—a haunted junkyard,” Vic said.
“No—I mean it. These yards are all over Iraq, and I hear stories about them. There’s one on MSR Tampa, with Iraqi equipment, south of Diwaniyah. They shoot at the convoys from in there, but when they send soldiers in, there’s never anyone there.”
“I’ve passed that place too—it’s creepy.”
Tyler parked the truck, and got the sprayer and brush from the back. He looked inside the cab of a wrecked truck. The windshield was gone. The door had been torn off. Reddish brown goo covered the steering wheel and floor beneath the seat. He began spraying, scattering the flies into the wind, using the brush to loosen it. Vic backed away, looking at the rest of the truck. The shrapnel had penetrated the half-inch thick steel frame. He sneezed, sweating profusely, his underwear soaked.
On the way back, Tyler said, “Don’t tell anyone I brought you there. It’s off limits, but I hate going alone. It’s sacred ground to the truck drivers. They’re superstitious about it and don’t want it violated.”
“I won’t say anything. I gotta go back to work. Drop me off at the office building.”
The cat was waiting for Vic when he got back to his living container at the end of the day. It brushed against his leg.
“What the hell do you want?” Vic said, stepping back to look it in the eyes. A starving cat should be weak, but it had pushed hard, and he was surprised by its strength. He looked around. No one else was in sight. Then he looked closer at the patch of fur missing from the cat’s back—fresh meat exposed to the air, dried out a little, but nothing oozing.
“How did you get that wound?”
The cat sat down, staring at him, expressionless.
“I can’t feed you.” He sat down on the step. His pants and shirt flapped violently from the hot breeze.
The cat was untouched by it.
“I don’t know how you survive here. A wound like that would just about kill me.”
Vic looked around once more, got up, and opened the door. The cat walked in and sat down on the floor. Vic followed, opening a can of sardines, warm from the heat, and put it in front of the cat. He sat down on his cot, sweat dripping from his nose, watching it eat. When that was finished, he gave it a second. After eating, the cat sat up and looked around the container, relaxed, suddenly dignified. Vic took out a can of first aid spray, moving slowly toward his guest. The cat stayed still. He sprayed a little into the wound. It jerked at first, but didn’t move away. He sprayed a little more, being as gentle as he could. He coated what was exposed, and then put the can back in the locker.
They sat facing each other in silence for a long time. Vic got up finally and looked out the door.
“Come on—out of here,” he said, looking back inside at the cat, waving his hand.
The cat got up and left, as though it understood everything. Vic watched it walk away. At the concrete blast wall, it turned and looked back at him, then disappeared around the corner.
Vic closed the door and sat back down on the cot, thinking how much he needed a shower. But he didn’t take one. He didn’t even undress. He fell backwards onto the cot, into a peaceful sleep, the first since he had left home.