By Manasvi

Firing had stopped and thick smoke covered the sky. The sound of the planes, trucks and footfall of men in the desert around the well had died. Inside the well there were four soldiers. Two of them were dead and and the other two pointed weapons at each other.

Since Karim had stumbled into the well and the standoff had begun, its insides had turned from that evening’s murky golden to pitch black. A few feet below Karim, on the opposite side of the well, Erich was perched on the edge of a stone stair, ready to jump if Karim started firing. Below them, the water was dark, and two dead men floated in it.

“Hey asshole”, Erich cried. “Ever heard of a Mexican standoff?” He shifted the weight of the grenade launcher from his arm to his thigh.

“Yes” Karim replied with a thick accent. He was surprised he could still speak English. To him, he sounded like a different man altogether. “Like in the movie, with the men in black suits” he continued. “Whatsitsname, the one where everyone dies.” He cracked his neck and reoriented the muzzle of his AK towards the source of the voice. His elbow grazed his knapsack and a chill ran down his spine, but he remembered what it was.

“Reservoir dogs?” asked Erich.

“Yeah, that one.”

“Watch a lot of movies?”

“A few. Not after the war. My father had lots of tapes. But this one I saw on TV”

“I didn’t know they played American movies here.”

“They did late at night, before the war, but only after the dirty ones.”

Erich chuckled. “Why’d you climb down the well?” he asked.

“I was looking for our commander.”

“Did you find him?”

“In the water.”

“That makes this mission a success” Erich mumbled to himself. “Fifteen soldiers dead and we kill one of theirs. That’s what the President back home would call a job well done.”

“The other man?” Karim asked. “Your friend?”

“No, he was our cook, kinda hated him” Erich replied. “Speaking of dead cooks, you got anything to eat?”

“Do you?” asked Karim.

“Yeah, a loaf of bread.”

“I could kill for some bread.”

Both the men smiled, but none could see the other.

“What have you got?” Erich asked.

“Canned fish, I am not sure.”

“Must be tuna.”

“I don’t know what it is, we got it from a truck we looted last week.”

“Ours?”

“No.”

“The UN? The big blue and white ones?”

“No, no, one of our own”, said Karim. He pulled out the can from the knapsack and stared at it in the dark.

“You guys looted your own trucks?”

“We needed the supplies more than the men in the city” Karim replied. He felt his hand holding the can go weak. He set it down by his side. “I’d never loot anything which doesn’t belong to my brothers.”

“Well” Erich began. “I have a preposition for you.”

“If you want to exchange food, then no” said Karim.

Erich laughed. “How long do you think we have? They’d bomb the well first thing in the morning, our team fucked up, they’d come back to clean their mess.” Erich’s voice grew louder. “Come on, at least let me have one last meal that doesn’t taste like shit” he cried.

Karim sighed. He leaned against the well’s rough cold wall, the air had a faint smell of smoke. He looked at the can again.

“Mind if I smoke?” Eric asked after a brief moment of silence.

“As long as you don’t pull the trigger.”

“Like that matters now.”

“You’d ruin water for animals.”

“It would be ruined by the morning anyway.”

“Doesn’t matter”, Karim said laying his AK by his side. “Look, I put my gun down.”

Erich heard the AK’s metal clink against the stone step of the well. He fumbled in the dark to look for a lighter and lit his cigarette.

In the faint glow of the lighter’s flame, Karim made out the man’s almost fleshless face, his cheeks were sunken and his eyes seemed like hollows.

“They don’t feed you well in the army?” he asked.

Erich sighed. He took a deep drag and said, “There was supposed to be a feast after tonight’s successful operation.”

“Very unfortunate.”

“Yeah, tell me about it. They feed you guys well? I see you have canned food.”

“If that was true we won’t rob trucks. We are soldiers not thieves Mr-” Karim paused.

“Erich, it has an H in the end, silent of course.”

“I am Karim.”

“Do you smoke, Karim?” Erich asked.

“Not for another eight months.”

“Why not?”

“I am mourning my daughter’s death, no cigarettes for a year.”

“I am sorry.”

“This is a war. People die.”

Erich fell silent. He smoked two cigarettes one after the other and then rested his head against the launcher. “So” he said. “The food exchange still a no go?”

“You can have the can. It brings much bad luck to me” said Karim. He rubbed his eyes and yawned.

Erich laughed. He spat into the water. “Canned food ain’t giving anything to anyone other than a bad stomach.”

“Don’t dirty the water if your stomach gets bad” said Karim. “Light the flame so I know where to throw.”

Erich flicked the lighter’s flame to life and waved his hand. His eyes followed the flame and he spotted Karim perched on a stair a few feet above him. The man’s face was was leathery and tired. He had small eyes and a long nose. His beard, thick and long, was either grey or just very shiny, Erich couldn’t tell in the flame’s dim light.

“Here” Karim said tossing the can towards Erich who leaned over the edge and stretched his arm out to catch it. He pulled out his knife and opened the can.

“It’s tuna” he groaned, but took a few mouthfuls of it. The rest he spread on his bread and soaked it with the brine. “You sure you don’t want any?”, he asked. Karim did not reply.

As Erich munched on the bread, Karim knelt and said a prayer for the dead. The men did not talk further.

By dawn, the well was illuminated enough for the men to make out each other’s faces. Erich saw that Karim’s beard was grey and Karim noticed Erich’s thin starved body in the over-sized uniform.

Thick smoke still covered the sky, and a distant roar of approaching jet planes drowned the silence.