Thursday, May 9, 2024

GAS Featured Writer: TOMMY CHEIS

Tommy Cheis is a Chiricahua Apache writer, medicine leader, veteran, and Cochise descendant. After traveling extensively through distant lands and meeting interesting people, he now resides in southeastern Arizona with his horses. His short stories appear in The Rumen, Yellow Medicine Review, Carpe Noctem, ZiN Daily, Spirits, Red Paint Review, and other publications. While his first novel, RARE EARTH, is under submission, he is at work on his second.


“White-Painted Woman let Lightning drop Rain in her vagina. After a while Child-of-Water was born.”

Four dikohe, or Horse Holders, seated at the cardinal directions around a mesquite fire, snigger. No doubt old Eddie chuckled too when he learned about our primary cultural hero. This trip, which we run every year to initiate our boys into manhood, has been nhzoo—good. I didn’t know if Eddie could handle the physical rigors of the deep Gila Wilderness, but now, teaching four boys ranging from twelve to fourteen who they are and what’s expected of them, he’s in his element.

'“ One day, when Child-of-Water was your age, he wanted to go out. But it was raining. Lightning crashed. His mother said stay in the wickiup because it was too dangerous.” On this cold night, under a blanket of stars, in a place as it was at the beginning of time, he’ll talk to these boys until sunrise. “But Child-of-Water told his mother, ‘I’m the Son of Lighting! Lemme out, goddamn—god bless me!’ So White-Painted-Woman shouted, ‘Hey Lightning! This here’s your son!’”

Over the last three days across a sweep of Wilderness, Eddie and I, in white linen trousers and breechcloths, trade-cloth shirts, leather vests, moccasins that turn up at the toes, eagle-feathered caps and bandanas, led our apprentices on horseback to sacred sites. We taught them to find water and food. To tolerate hunger and thirst. To make and interpret old hand-signs, speak in battle-code, wrestle, run, use weapons. They learned discipline and followed orders.

"Bull...Baloney!" Eddie says, imitating Lightning, “but tell you what, Lady. I’ll give him a test only my son can pass." So Lightning made Child-of-Water stand to the east and smacked him with a bolt of black lightning. BAM! Nothing happened to Child-of-Water. Same thing from the south with blue lighting. CRASH! Nothing! Same from the west with yellow. POW! Zilch. Then from the north with white lightning, BOOM! Bupkis! Child-of-Water stood there better than before holding bags of cash. I’m kidding. So Lightning admits, ‘OK, well, I guess he is my son since he survived and shit like that.

“So then Child-of-Water wraps himself in deer intestines and goes hunting. This was when giant animals roamed the earth and I was your age. His mother doesn’t want him to go but he’s persistent. Child-of-Water finds this nest of eagles terrorizing the whole fucking neighborhood. Stealing meat, scaring everyone. So he takes this big war club and kills them, then plucks the youngest like a chicken and eats him.”

The dikohe are dozing. Eddie howls like a rabid coyote, jolting the apprentices to attention. They laugh so loudly they’re heard in Albuquerque. “I’ll cut to the chase, sleepyheads,” he says. “Tomorrow’s your big day.”

On the fourth day, dikohe learn the most frightening skill of all—to be alone and self-reliant.

“Child-of-Water is scared but picks up a bow and arrows,” Eddie recounts. “He’s offed Eagle. Next, through trickery and a little help from his friends—lizards, gophers, shit like that—he kills Buffalo, Antelope, Giant. That’s why no monsters are left and his mother’s safe and you can all eat meat in peace. Now you know why after a battle everyone sings and dances. It all happened right under your asses.” 

Eddie waves the apprentices away an hour short of dawn. The boys untie their horses then climb in their sleeping bags, lead ropes in hands, ready to awaken and mount the instant danger comes. Within four minutes, they’re snoring.

Then Eddie and I hold vigil by the dying fire. Nothing ill will befall our dikohe.

This Morning’s Star

On graduation morning, each of the nineteen newly-minted suicide bombers dispersed like a virus sneezed into the world with death his purpose, save one. The boy, Muhammad Jihad, on Abu Zil’s orders, boarded a bus of ISIS fighters. After an unremarkable journey, the driver halted before a shattered brick factory to let him off into a grey paste of chilly wet Euphrates air and choking concrete dust. A scruffy fighter in a sand-colored balaclava and fatigues exited next, confirmed his identity, then pushed him up sandy stairs through a crumbling wall and into a quadrangle.

Rebar tentacles snaked out of collapsed buildings like larvae of steel octopi. A cage of metal bars and a diesel backhoe surrounded by rubble brooded in the center. Ready and waiting were three video cameras mounted atop tripods and one atop a surviving pillar. Nineteen armed ISIS fighters secured the perimeter fence and the scrubby desert beyond the parched river. Scruffy Fighter steered the boy through two mute guards and into a bomb-damaged office in the sole surviving structure.

A handcuffed prisoner in an orange jumpsuit sat in a chair at a folding table. His dimpled chin and wide ears were enough to have sparked grade-school teasing. Beside him, an ISIS fighter in a fat-strained uniform smoked desultorily. The space stunk like a revolting patch of August cement as fat raindrops fall and petrichor peaks only for a careless shawarma vendor to fumble onions and raw lamb onto the street.

Fat Fighter greeted Muhammad Jihad. “Asalaamu alaykum. Thank God we found you in time. He would have been angry. I hope you like films, as you’re going to be in one. Our friend,” Fat Fighter slapped the prisoner’s face, “is this morning’s star.”

The prisoner smiled feebly, then went back to reading a book entitled, The Last Confession. The boy catalogued facial cuts, florid bruises, bloodshot grey eyes a Crusader inserted into the gene pool, and a fractured jaw. “Muhammad Jihad,” said Fat Fighter, “meet Lieutenant Umar al-Talib, Royal Jordanian Air Force.”

Do I shake his hand or punch him? “Did he defect to The Cause?” Gales of laughter stung the boy to the quick until thoughts of Abu Zilquashed his defeatist thoughts.

“Umar’s had a rough week,” Fat Fighter explained. “We’ve shot all his scenes but the big finale.” He hugged Muhammad Jihad jihadi-style, all ripe with sour nicotine-sweat, then headed out into the courtyard. “Fix him up, Abu Habiby,” he shouted to his comrade.

Abu Habiby, shouldering a wooden broom handle wire-lashed to a bundle of diesel-soaked rags, kicked the door shut. In the thumb-web of one hand, dangling by his thigh, he held a hypodermic syringe. He dropped the torch on the table then dragged Muhammad Jihad into the corner. The boy’s head smacked brick. Angry ice-blue eyes bored from his balaclava’s oval. “You, a mere Cub, get to pronounce and execute sentence! Why not me? Min ayna anta?”

“Gaza City.”

“Ah. It is right that a Palestinian will kill this crusader pilot,” he agreed. “It is written.”

The pilot ignored them and read quietly.

Habiby handed the boy an index card upon which instructions were neatly written. “You’ll read, then the brothers will guide you.” He handed over the syringe. “Inject him with the scopolamine. It will erase his mind and destroy all resistance. When you bring him out he’ll be coherent but with the free will of a stone pigeon. If you say, ‘Lay down on the train tracks,’ he won’t flinch when the locomotive saws him in half. He who takes scopolamine enslaved to him who gives it.” He hawked a glob of chalky mucus on the pilot’s face then strutted out.

Nineteen minutes later, after a quiet-on-set announcement, Muhammad Jihad faced the drugged Lieutenant Umar al-Talib, a man twice his age, and pronounced death by fire for the crime of apostasy. Then he nudged the condemned in the back with the torch to goad him into a gauntlet of ISIS fighters forming a chute to the cage.

The pilot shuffled in socks and sandals and punished each fighter he passed with a glance. “I killed no innocents,” he insisted. “Each of my bombs hit a military target.”

The boy, wondering if he’d been drugged instead, focused on torch-stench and an imaginary line connecting the tangerine prison suit with the brutal steel cage.

“I’m ashamed. I wish I’d drowned,” said the pilot, who’d been shot down then fished from the Euphrates ten days ago and two city blocks away, “before I falsely claimed my country is responsible for Palestine’s occupation.”

Muhammad Jihad searched in vain for Abu Zil in the hooded crowd.

“I was tortured,” the pilot explained, “but still.”

The cage, framed by fighters, sand and dust spun into a dun cake-frosting, and sky like dull-grey pipe, grew with each step. The boy poked the pilot’s back with the torch. Soaked rags left a dark transfer stain.

“I hope you get your country back. Drones,” the pilot pointed heavenward, “will make you famous or worse. I wanted to be a doctor. It’s not too late for your soul. Run from these people.”

Jarred, the boy scanned the sea of camouflage and dead eyes. Zil was nowhere.

“Keep your promise, Muhammad Jihad. Anwaar, in Ayy, in Al-Karak.”

Then two fighters seized the condemned, muscled him into the cage, and slammed the bars.

The gauntlet dissolved. Along the courtyard perimeter, fighters pointed rifles at the caged pilot as if he were a superhuman who could bend steel bars, escape, and devour them. Two collected Muhammad Jihad and led him a stone’s throw to a rubble pile, positioning him just so for the cameras. “I’ll light the torch,” said Hani, a short Egyptian. “Ramzi will signal you.”

“Once Hani lights it,” said Ramzi, a Saudi, “you’ll hold the torch aloft. When I nudge you, lay it here.” He pointed to a shallow trench in the sand running into the cage. It was dark and oily and lined with charcoal-colored powder. “Wait until it ignites. Understood?”

A fighter with a steel can wanded diesel onto the pilot, who sneered through the deluge. With each pass, his tunic and pants variegated into orange and black stripes until the pilot was a captive tiger awaiting the moment his keeper would make a fatal error and scores could be settled. Finally he faced Mecca, knelt, and prayed. Defiance did not affect his repose. He might have been in his village mosque in Ayy.

A hush fell. The boy’s body was torpid with terror and his torch waved like an orchestral conductor’s baton. “Ready.” Hani flicked a silver lighter open, spun the wheel, and lit the rags.

Before the boy could run, the vapor cloud ignited, then the ball of cotton scraps. Frozen, he held the roaring torch aloft until terrifying heat and a longing to please Abu Zil overcame his will and made him do as ordered. The wicked gunpowder and diesel admixture spawned a row of sparkling dancers and sent them skipping down the trench.

On reaching the cage they split and raced around the perimeter to encircle the pilot. While they reconnoitered and schemed, Umar al-Talib steadfastly professed belief in the oneness of God and covered his face. When they attacked, the boy dropped the torch and vomited.

The pilot prayed longer than was possible. When fattening flames jerked him to his feet his martyrdom, by force of will, was not the shrieking agony of a domestic cat, fur set ablaze by a neophyte-psychopath and left to comet down the street. It was a five-act danse macabre.

First, flamenco. He hopped and clapped to embellish the rhythms of unseen guitars and castanets. Palmas, pitos, y jaleos from onlookers instantiated the communal nature of his dance.

Ballet en flambé followed. With a fire-tornado-partner whooshing hair and flesh through the salon, the pilot executed a demi detourne and gave his back to the enchanted throng. Despite the ramifications of organizational apostasy, Muhammad Jihad, sob-wracked, screamed at God.

Belly-dance next. The incandescent pilot shimmied and swayed behind a veil of boiling cloud. The inferno dragged chalky air into the pyre. Witnessing Umar al-Talib’s agony, the audience moaned with desire.

Then came a faena. A cinder-matador sank to his knees for a last series of passes, drawing the beast to his sword. Having delivered the thrust, he slumped, victorious, head between bars, face melting into a sand-puddle.

Finally, a Passion. Sinews, contracting, broke bones, but he rose to his haunches and arched. Supine, charred hands clasped in prayer, he watched his soul taunt smoke-horns stabbing impotently at the best of him climbing a sky-ladder to Paradise.

Enraged, the mechanical dinosaur dumped a ton of rubble and sand, snuffing cage and contents. The ISIS media director shouted, “Cut!”

Like magic, Abu Zil’s voice rumbled in Muhammad Jihad’s ear. “I’m so proud of you.”

Before the crying boy could bask in his master’s praise, a frenzied mob swept him into its number. 

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