The Burning of Martyrs by Josh Gray
Editor Matty Byloos, Fiction, February 14th, 2017
"The water rippled when the drone struck the house..."
After they oil the guns the men kneel down to pray. The boy does as they do. Floorboards creak as the men rise and fall with prayer. The boy isn’t thinking of gods but of the stars that burn bright beyond the shuttered windows.
In his village, he spent many nights mapping stars, his finger configuring constellations in the soil. Until an honored guest arrived to stay with the boy’s uncle, his family. His uncle was a poet. Sung: my love is a drone seeking your heart. But a drone found his uncle. The boy was out fetching water. The water rippled when the drone struck the house. He ran into the dust cloud. Screams followed.
The men stand. The boy does as they do.
Rugs and bedrolls are stacked in the corner. They’ve lived in this apartment for months. The boy knows all their smells. The building once housed sailors from all ports, the North Sea not a half-mile away. The women help them dress. A woman crouches before the boy, eases his feet into socks and boots. He wants to ask to open the window, look at the stars, but no one speaks and so neither does he. The men grunt into their vests. Bodies shuffling. The woman runs her hand over his chest, smoothing his shirt. She smiles. He blushes. He’s never known a marriage bed. A faint mustache. She lifts his vest from the floor. He places his arms inside it. Then the heavy belt. Now the too-large coat. He steadies himself under the weight. The tall man comes to inspect them.
The tall man followed the drone. It left a blast crater. Shrapnel scars on bodies. He took the boy to another valley, another village. The tall man placed the boy with others his age and he did as they did, spoke as they spoke, but still he waited for the night sky. The tall man watched him. He knew the boy’s uncle, wept when the boy recited his poetry. Led the boy here, to this city whose winter the boy thought would never end.
The tall man dismisses the women and begins his inspection. Belts of C4 and armored vests. Kalashnikovs. The boy straightens his shoulders, pretends that the vest isn’t uncomfortable. The tall man palms the boy’s cropped head, tells him to lead the way.
The women line the hallway, on their knees, crouching low, backs against the wall. As the boy passes, the women reach out, touch his hands, kiss his fingers but he does not stop, does not speak, only walks to the door where the old man stands. He stops there, unsure what to do. Finds himself in the blast crater again, dust cloud covering stars, mud-caked bodies rummaging through the rubble.
Then the wailing begins.
He turns to the hallway behind him. The men are bent low. The women’s arms are around their necks. The woman weep, pray loudly. The old man steps past the boy, weeping too, but halts, returns to his post. Puts a wet eye to the peephole. Still they embrace and sing.
For a moment the boy thinks everything’s over, a test passed, his faith proven, and that the night had only been a trial, and he can now go to the roof, lay beneath stars. Yet, the men hug and smile and the women sing praises in high voices, all are exultant, and suddenly he sees clearly that this is beyond relief, that this is happiness, unbridled and true, and this happiness creeps through the floorboards and enters his feet and scales his legs and backbone and fills the darkness of the blast crater inside him with a light as brightly magnificent as churning galaxies, and from this light a voice begins to shout praises too and the tall man looks up at the voice and the boy realizes that the voice is his own and the tall man comes to him and takes his face in his hands and tells the boy of his love, his pride, his faith, with breath that smells of rosemary and hands that smell of gun oil, and no one has ever smiled at the boy like this and his heart is filled with joy, with the singing prayers of the women and he knows that he too is blessed, that he walks with a power few know on this earth and the tall man turns to the door and the boy turns too and with the flip of the first lock the apartment goes silent.
The door opens to a dim hallway.
The tall man leads. The men behind him. The boy follows. All doors remain closed. They descend the stairs. Through the small, empty lobby. Out the doors. The nine become three teams in three cars. Each car with a different destination.
The boy rides with the tall man. The tall man and the driver buckle their seat belts. The boy does as they do. The car maintains the speed limit. Cars parked street side blur past him. No radio. The vest makes it difficult, but he leans to look out the window. He sees a world of brick, mortar, and steel. The men don’t speak. The boy does as they do. Then the skyline falls away. And he sees them. A multitude of stars. Dimmed by the city lights but recognizable to the boy. On the window, he traces one star to another. The finger streaks on the window like the lines in the soil. And happiness overtakes him again. Like the stars that he so dearly loves, his happiness will know no end tonight. The men will go forth and he will do as they do. He will run open-armed to the world and they will seek his heart no more because he will bring it to them and they will feel his happiness, they will feel the fire of his blessing. Tonight he will shine so bright that the stars will see him.
+ + +
Header image courtesy of Constantinos Chaidalis. To view his Artist Feature, go here.
Josh Gray lives along the Texas-Mexico border. His work has appeared in Juked, Per Contra, Portland Review, and Crime Factory among others. He is currently at work on a novel about sex trafficking along the Gulf Coast. You can follow the border life on Instagram at jkgray510.