The leg juts at an unnatural angle from a mound of dirt in the middle of the rolling hills of Iraqi desert hardpan. We have not slept in some hours. We have been rained on for days. We have not been warm in weeks. We are out of smokes. We traded our last MREs to a village child—who might have been an adult—for some Gauloises and then our makeshift tarp roof collapsed from collected water and soaked the pack. We tried to salvage the cigarettes but the filament-thin paper disintegrated leaving our fingers sticky with tobacco shavings.
So when we find the leg, we think we might be delusional from any number of things. But the leg is there and we think we can hear one another’s thoughts about the leg: Where’d this fucking leg come from? Why’s it in the middle of the desert? Whose leg is it? It’s not mine. Is it mine? I bet whoever’s it is probably misses it. Is it wearing pants? Think there are cigarettes in the pocket? It is wearing pants. Linen, maybe silk—this could be a rich leg.
The unoccupied pant leg is bunched and flopped like a snakeskin on the mound of dirt, covered in mud and camouflaged by the recent rains.
We are in a draw where we found the leg. Behind us is a towering dune of mud and dirt and cracking desert and drying sand. We think we feel the dune shift and breathe and come alive and begin pushing us toward the leg.
The leg now maybe resembles something like an altar, where we are maybe supposed to pray. We are maybe supposed to fall at the leg altar and prostrate ourselves and throw our hands into the sky and pray to the leg to bring us cigarettes and food and a goddamned resupply.
Then as we begin to kneel and thrust our arms toward what we think might be our new god, one of us says, Maybe I remember Bible stories about the cradle of civilization between the Tigris and Euphrates. He says, Maybe I’m making up the stories entirely. He says, In the stories Southern California is one of two places where the Joshua tree grows—the other is here in Iraq. He says, Where the tree grows so exist the earthly gateways to heaven and hell. Or some such shit.
And so we think as the dune at our backs maybe pushes us toward the leg that it might not really be a leg but a Joshua tree. And then our tired eyes watch the leg begin to sprout limbs and nodules and fronds that resemble smaller legs.
And then we might be falling, but it feels like running. It feels like running because we are covered in sweat. But it is not sweat it is water because it is raining, and we’re running and falling and covered in mud, running toward a voice that might be Jehovah’s or Beelzebub’s, but might also be Sergeant Martin’s, whom we think of as both. The land has faded into the sky and the sky into the land and it feels like we are rising but with every step we still fall just a little, just a smidgeon, just a cunt hair.
Somehow we are back in the truck and our makeshift tarp roof is fixed and we sit across from one another, soaking wet knees kissing and catching on the hems of the reinforced fabric of our camouflaged utilities. Maybe we are thinking or maybe we are speaking or maybe it is just the sound of our teeth and bones chattering but it’s all saying the same thing. It comes through in layers compounding one on top of another. Like pound cake and concrete and lung tar and mud and mattresses and tree bark.
Which do you think it was?
Years later, we still ask the same question.
Matt Young is a veteran, writer, runner, and teacher. He holds an MA in creative writing from Miami University in Ohio and currently lives in Washington state. His work can be found in River Teeth, [PANK], BULL: Men’s Fiction, Midwestern Gothic, O-Dark-Thirty, and elsewhere.