Precious Clay


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                           Precious Clay

                                           by Norris Steel


Since you ask, I did have one crazy day while over in Iraq, about a month before the Army shipped me home to Fort Drum.

       The moment our Hummer turned the corner into the Al Kut fish market, I could see there was trouble.  The street was a Middle Eastern version of a strip mall.  Little shops lined both sides, most with open fronts and their wares either hanging from hooks, or set out front in baskets so people could eye them as they walked by.  Baghdad is a city of five million people, and there seemed to be somewhere around six million of these bazaars.  I should know; it was my job to patrol them.The trouble I saw was at the far end, where the street terminated at a big mosque with a dome roof and two crescent-topped poles at the entrance.  Diagonal from the mosque, one of the few closed-front shops was getting broken into by a gang of four men.  Two of them had crowbars and were twisting the iron bars over the shop window trying to make enough space to squeeze through.  The other two were holding AK47s and standing guard on the street, eying the shoppers in the rest of the bazaar as if to say, "You wanna do something about this robbery?  Butt in, and you'll catch lead."  There weren't any takers, and I didn't blame them.

       "Floor it," I said to Corporal Evans, who was behind the wheel of the Hummer.  "But be careful."  Getting our truck through the narrow street was like teaching a bull to tiptoe through a china shop.  It slowed us down, but Evans made good time anyway.  When we were halfway there, a gun rang out from inside the shop, pecking a round hole in the window.  From the sound of the shot, it was a bad move on the part of the storekeeper.  Seemed he thought he could hold off two guys with AK47s using just a 9mm pistol.  It's a cultural thing; some Iraqis seemed to care a lot more about bravery than smarts.  The crowbar men jumped back to get themselves out of the shopkeeper's line of fire, and one of the fellows with a rifle turned towards the window and opened up.  The glass collapsed like a waterfall, and sporadic sparks flew as bullets ricocheted off the bars. 

       "Christ, Evans!" I said.  "Hurry it up."

       With another couple heaves, the men made a big enough gap in the window bars that they were able to crawl inside.  There weren't any more shots from the storekeeper, which either meant he had taken a lucky hit from the barrage, or he finally figured out that resisting wasn't his best bet.

       Evans pulled our Hummer up within thirty yards of the two guards and stopped.  "All right, Garcia," I said to my other corporal, who was sitting in the back seat, "take the gun and light it up.  Give 'em some thunder but no lightning."

       "You got it, Lieutenant," Garcia said.  He stood up and took hold of the 12mm machine gun mounted on top of the Hummer and pointed it skyward.  I heard a click as he disengaged the safety, and slipped my fingers into my ears.  He emptied half a clip over the tops of the buildings, making a sound like the loudest drum roll you ever heard, followed by a metal rain of empty brass shells landing on the street next to us.

       Our announcement produced the desired effect.  The two guys on the street started booking it across the bazaar away from us, and the ones from inside the shop popped out the door and chased after them. 

       "Good job," I said to Evans and Garcia. 

       Evans put the Hummer in gear and we had just started moving out when the shopkeeper emerged from his store and started limping towards us.  For a cane, he used an old AK47 with the nozzle in his hand, and the butt on the ground.  The way these guns littered the city, the Russians must pump them out faster than bottles of vodka.  The damn things sold for about a dollar a piece.  Normally, I would have made the shopkeeper drop the weapon before coming close, but I could see that his AK was missing a clip, which meant that, at most, he was armed with the bullet in the chamber, though from the look of the gun I doubted even that.

       "America good.  America good.  George Bush!" he yelled at us to flag us down.  Locals were always greeting us that way.  I guess they wanted to prove they were on our side.  "You . you, come late," he said in broken English.  "They steal ." he cupped his hands while he groped for words, "my grandmother."

       "Your grandmother?" Corporal Evans asked.

       "Yes, yes.  Jar."

       "They stole your grandmother's jar?" I asked.

       "Maybe an urn, or something," Corporal Garcia suggested.  "Her ashes?"

       "Why would they take that?" I asked.  "Listen," I said to the man, "report . police."  I put my hand to the side of my head with the thumb and pinky extended to mimic a telephone.

       "No, now," he said.  He tapped his wrist where he would wear a watch.  "They go."

       "Yeah, it'll be hard to catch them now," I said.

       "No, I know . they go." 

       "You know where those guys live?" I asked.  "Will you show us?"

       He nodded vigorously, though probably more because of the cooperative tone in my voice than the words coming out of my mouth.

       "All right, hop in." 

       Using hand signals, our new friend guided us to a small café where two men were sitting outside drinking sweet tea and playing dominoes.

       "You've got to be kidding me," I said.  "These guys?"  I'd never gotten a good look at the thieves' faces, so I wasn't surprised not to recognize them, but I had a little trouble believing that they'd run away from his shop and ended up here ten minutes later, sipping tea and soaking in the sun.

       Naturally, our new friend didn't understand me.  He just swung himself out of the Hummer and limped towards one of the two men.  He said something in Arabic and pointed at a black duffle bag behind the man's chair. 

       "Can I help you?" the man asked in passable English.  He was wearing a stained white apron on top of a blue T-shirt with a Nike Swoosh over the breast pocket.  He looked to be the café's proprietor.

       "He says you stole something.  His grandmother's jar?"

       "No, no, no," the man put his hand on his duffle bag.  "He stole it from me!"

       "Then what's in the bag?"

       Reluctantly, the man unzipped the zipper and withdrew a jar.  The thing was barely more than a hunk of clay, and it looked a hell of a lot older than our friend's grandmother could possibly be.

       "If he stole it from you," Corporal Evans said, "then what are you doing with it in your bag?"

       "I got it back."

       Our friend lunged towards the jar, but the café worker pulled it away.  In frustration, our friend slammed his hand on the table, sending dominos jumping.  The café worker and his companion stood up and started shouting in Arabic. 

       "Hand it over to Corporal Garcia, here," I said to the café worker.  He hesitated.  "Just to calm things down.  If it's yours you'll get it back."

       Slowly, he handed it over, which made our shopkeeper friend smile.  Corporal Garcia turned the jar in his hands, examining it.

       "I don't see what's so special," Corporal Evans said as he came over to look closely.

       "You translate," I said to the café owner.  "Ask our friend here when he's saying you stole the jar."

       They exchanged words in Arabic and the shopkeeper counted to three on his fingers.

       "He say three days ago," the café worker said.
       "Is this true?"

       "He lies.  It's mine.  Tell him never to steal it from me again."

       I scratched my chin.  There I was, with a shopkeeper asking me to help him steal this piece of clay from a café worker, and a café worker, maybe, asking me to do the same from the shopkeeper.  I was just about ready to pull a King Solomon and whip my sidearm out of its holster, tag the jar, and let them divvy up the pieces.  But then Corporal Evans tugged my sleeve.

       "Um, Lieutenant," he said.  "I think we figured out what's so special about this jar."

       "What's that?"

       Corporal Garcia flipped the jar over and showed me a tiny seven-letter code etched on the bottom with an engraving pen.  We exchanged knowing nods.

       "I'm sorry," I said to the café worker, "but we're going to have to take this with us.  That's a museum marking.  This is from the looting.  Tell him."  I gestured at the shopkeeper. 

       They had an exchange that ended with the shopkeeper vigorously shaking his head and stamping on the ground.  The café worker was quiet, which I took as a good sign.  He knew what was going on, and he could tell the game was up.  I gave them both my name and told them that Division would hold on to the jar until we could establish for sure whether it belonged to the museum.  I gave them a number to contact.

       Finally, the shopkeeper cooled down enough to let us drive him back to his shop.  After we dropped him off, I checked my watch.  This little diversion had set us an hour behind on our patrol, but it was worth it.  My Captain had told me Iraqi looters took about 170 thousand ancient relics from their own National Museum.  It was nice to be bringing at least one back safe.