The first time I see the little girl, she is in a photograph. A closed room, a field medical tent on an American military outpost in a dusty farming village. Canvas walls and fluorescent white tube lights and plywood furniture and, in the center of the photograph, American soldiers in surgical masks and purple nitrile gloves. Her name and age unknown to them, they guess: She is seven, or eight. Maybe twelve. They call her Annapolis.
The picture I hold is grainy and blurred, as if everyone is in motion. An image of chaos. There: a doctor in motion, hovering over a patient, intubating. A medic in motion, passing a piece of equipment to the doctor. A shirtless boy in motion, supine on a stretcher, hands at his sides pushing off the table, his head raised. Everyone in motion but her. She is still, off to the side wrapped in a warming blanket, lying on a litter. An afterthought. I pull the picture closer to my eyes, focusing on her. I see pieces of her skull and brain matted into her dark black hair, blood smeared on the silver metallized mylar.
Later, I ask the doctor about this picture. He explains to me what was happening, and what he was doing, the instructions he was giving, how the young boy was moaning and the old man was crying and screaming for God. Afterwards, each time I look at the picture, it comes to life. Like the photograph is theater and I am audience. I see the doctor, I hear his instructions to the medic. I hear the young boy’s groans. I hear the old man’s prayers to Allah. I hear everyone but her; she is silent, by herself, stage right.
They are here because an American soldier, under cover of darkness and a silent sky, left his remote base and walked over dirt roads and through fallow grape fields to the old man’s house, where the American shot the old man in the neck and the young boy in the legs and her—her he shot in the head. He pulled a trigger and a bullet left his pistol and entered her forehead and then exited out the back, taking much with it. Now on her stretcher, under the bombardment of mercury vapor lights, the doctor assessed Annapolis, declared her “expectant”, and then the medic moved her off to the side, out of the way, and I imagine her asking what is going on and a translator leaning down, whispering into her ear, he says you are going to die.
The first time I see her in person, she is in a hospital. A real one. She has been here for three weeks, a patient in an intensive care unit at an American base on the outskirts of Kandahar. Her metallic mylar warming blanket gone, she is now draped in white cotton sheets, connected to modern equipment. Behind her a black-screened monitor of clear, bright numbers. Steady. A scrolling silhouette of sleek, fluorescent green mountains impossible to climb: a normal heartbeat. Clean ivory walls surround her. There are American soldiers wearing camouflage pants and medical smocks in that shade of blue seemingly reserved exclusively for hospital rooms. And now the imaginary play in my head, this theater, has become not only real but interactive: I’ve been pulled from the audience. I am to play the role of attorney. I am a lawyer in the American army, chosen to prosecute an American soldier. To seek justice for her. As if there is someone or some thing that possesses the authority to issue a correction. A do-over. To erase that night, to put the American soldier back onto his base and back into his own bed instead of rousting this little girl from hers. And her: She is no longer filling the role of Afterthought, no longer stage right. She is center stage, lying on a gurney, slightly reclined. Small and thin. A human child in three dimensions. There are others in the room. Other patients. Doctors and medics. Bit characters, grainy and faceless. She is in hyper focus. Her head is misshapen and her dark black hair shorn, a long surgical scar visible against her brown skin. Her tongue so swollen her mouth can’t close. The doctor tells me I think she will make it. I wonder what this means, to “make it,” where this phrase comes from. To make what? A full recovery? To make it to adolescence? Or, simply, to make it, to survive. A not-dead human being.
The next time I see her she is awake. It is a month later, two months. She is in a hospital bed, lying on her side, her dark black hair grown slightly, now messy and spiked. Her own room. The lights are off. Someone has placed a small television in front of her open eyes. She is staring at Dora the Explorer, a cartoon girl with brown skin and short, dark black hair. Dora travels the world wearing a magic purple backpack and overcoming contrived obstacles: A fox who steals from others, a troll who refuses to let her pass. Annapolis stares at Dora, I stare at Annapolis. The cartoon reflects on her face. Blurry. I watch her for a moment, her watching Dora and me watching the soft colors brush across her cheeks. Her body: still. Hyper focused. She blinks and shifts her eyes up to mine, holds them there. She blinks again and her gaze returns to Dora. I want to whisper in her ear you are going to make it, but think only about what has been stolen from her, what future riddles she must solve.
© Jay Morse
[This piece was selected by John Haggerty. Read Jay’s interview]