Only hours ago in his tortured sleep he had seen Azrael, the angel of death, moving slowly across the valley toward him. Azrael was approaching too slowly and Quasim didn't want to wait, not with the infection from his wounded thigh burning into his groin as it did.
For comfort he stroked the stock of his AK-47, a good if old-fashioned weapon that had meted out much justice. He peered into his last can of food, Bush's Beans as chance would have it (taken by the case from a United Nations depot), and swallowed its remains with a plastic spoon.
Yes, he remembered Bush well, the president from years ago when Quasim was a young fighter and the Holy Jihad was raging so well. Now here at this moment in this little cave, the smallest in their Tora Bora network, the great Jihad had come to its end.
What was left? Three brothers-in-arms, buried in shallow graves at the back of the cave. Two broken laptops covered in sand. Scattered empty cans of food and plastic water bottles, a cell phone dead for weeks, a heaped and tangled waste of guns, a book. The cold didn't void the smell of death rising from his fallen brothers and from his grime-camouflaged clothes and exhausted spirit.
The Americans had started a universal national service for their young, and then revived their Peace Corps, marking the beginning of the end for Al Qaeda. Quasim had seen the world seduced by hoards of young, idealistic, ebullient Americans. They descended on the fold like transcendent Huns badgering people with we-all-are-one brotherhood. Then capitalism became enlightened (as their leaders described that amazing shift), and Jihad was beaten back by hope, spirit, and infernal Western music.
Quasim Ayyad reached for the book beside him and glanced at its worn pages. He would have preferred to read his Koran, but it had been lost in their flight to this cave. He had read many English books as a philosophy student at the University of Cairo, and he had purchased this one long ago when he thought it might reveal hidden American military strategy.
It was titled Pieces of Intelligence: The Existential Poetry of Donald H. Rumsfeld. How he still possessed this book he couldn't imagine. But, truth be told, he did begrudgingly admire it. If Osama bin Laden had expressed his thoughts as adeptly, things might have gone differently.
He now read:
Once in a while,
I'm standing here, doing
And I think,
"What in the world am I
It's a big surprise.
Quasim Ayyad, too, was surprised, dying in a cave at the end of the world, often unable to distinguish dreaming from thinking or praying.
Presently he stirred and rose painfully to his feet. A loud and prolonged eruption of gas underscored his effort. Bush's Beans! How existential! Had his heroism been reduced to melodrama-or worse: irony, farce, absurdity? He stepped slowly to the entrance. His eyes were still surprisingly good, and he saw the plume of dust, probably from a farmer's truck, shimmer in the setting sun where the road passed by a creek bed a few kilometers away. The sky was infinitely grey-blue. He noticed that the snow line had crept down the mountain, closer to the entrance.
He had one last fight, fending off the cold and pain through the coming night. In the morning he would fall off the precipice close to where he now stood. He considered that final act to be more dignified than shooting himself, though he would probably have to crawl to get there.
And yet-why should he even be concerned about his dignity? Dignity was probably overrated. How had Rumsfeld put it in his book?
How does it end?
But he didn't especially want to be thinking those words when he fell off the mountain side. It would feel as if Rumsfeld had pushed him.