Assuming he was scared by her gear, Hannah Nesmith took off her helmet and sunglasses and placed them on the ground.
“Hello,” she said, then repeated the phrase Murphy taught her on the way to the school. "Da sta lapaara day." This is for you.
The boy wore navy pants and a striped shirt, both at least two sizes too big. Dark toes peeked out of his sandals and his heels threatened to strike the rocky ground. Every student at the school was dressed this way. Nothing fit. Everything covered in dirt. His arms and neck and face were tanned and smooth—the color Tim liked his coffee to be when it had the right amount of cream and sugar.
The boy took two steps backward, his mouth closed tight, like he was trying to swallow something bitter. She knew he probably wasn’t used to interacting with women, and yet, Hannah’s commanding officer had sent her platoon on this humanitarian mission specifically because she was a woman. He said her presence would put the children and the teachers at ease. But Hannah knew these children would think she was a transformer robot before they believed she was a female. She wore an ID patch on the bicep of her uniform and an M16 slung over her shoulder. A kevlar vest flattened her chest and before she’d taken it off, the helmet hid a bun at the nape of her neck. But surely he could overlook her dirty blonde hair and blue eyes for the sake of a free, fully inflated soccer ball, Hannah thought. When the convoy had pulled up an hour earlier, the children were using a ball of trash tied together with string.
There were no clear roads leading to the school, no buses. The infrastructure for education had crumbled because for decades the Taliban had used this part of the nation as a haven for opium production and Sharia law. Hannah wondered how far this child had had to walk to school, what his parents did all day, and whether or not there was even food at home for him when he returned at night. Across the field of rocks and dust, a male teacher wore a white salwar kameez, the long traditional linen garment with a high collar. A blanket hung over the doorway to the classroom and inside, there were a dozen scrap wood desks surrounded by cracked walls and posters of Arabic prayers. Pockmarked, bullet-riddled blackboards at the front and back of the room were covered with arithmetic problems written in chalk. If the children needed to use the bathroom, they had to walk 200 yards to a trench behind the school. Sometimes they didn’t make it that far, which was why the entire courtyard smelled of warm urine.
Hannah licked her lips, feeling the dry, parched sensation cross her tongue and fill her mouth. Afghanistan assaulted her, constantly pressing every inch of her skin with its hot fingers. Her chest rose and fell, as though her lungs didn’t know how to breathe in air this thick, and sand found its way into her hair, ears, mouth and nose—every crevice it could find, as if it were trying to bury Hannah alive. Ignoring her growing thirst, she focused on the boy in front of her and lifted the soccer ball once more.
“This is for you,” she repeated in English.
Again, no response.
Dani had been wrong after all. Sophomore year at West Point, she'd tried to persuade Hannah to take Arabic, but Hannah turned Dani down. Of course that was before the towers came down. Before war was a certainty and not just a possibility. Even still, all of that work would have been in vain—the Afghani people spoke Pashto. Her translator laughed at Hannah when they first met and she said Marhaban instead of Salaam. And so after all that, Hannah was glad that she'd stuck with Spanish during her college years. West Point was hard enough without pictographs and it didn't matter what language she spoke. The boy wasn't listening anyway.
The child rubbed his eyes, smearing wet lines across reddening cheeks. He set his jaw and refused to look Hannah in the eye. She couldn’t understand what he was doing. He shook his head, and looked over his shoulder at his classmates, who were busy running after Private Stanton and Sergeant Willis. Willis and Stanton were terrible, bobbling around with the ball, holding their M16s so they wouldn’t swing around their backs. The children were laughing. It had turned into a game of chase.
Hannah nodded toward his friends. “See?” she said. "Do you want to play?"
When he turned back to look at her, the little boy’s eyes narrowed with hate. A loogie of spit came out of his mouth, flew through the air and landed on the ground between them. Then he wiped his mouth, ran across the school yard to his classmates and put his hands up in the air to stop them. Hannah could no longer keep up. The boy was yelling. He pointed back at Hannah, at the soldiers, at the sky. The remarkable thing about language was that you didn't really need it. From the anger in his face, the rage in his eyes, and the vehemence in his hands, Hannah had all the context she needed. If he'd had a knife, Hannah was certain that all five soccer balls would be sliced open, deflated like grounded balloons. Someone had told him not to accept anything from the soldiers uniform. Was it his father? An uncle? A teacher? Whoever it was, they had prepared him to reject this kindness. To refuse the help. To remain unsullied by the infidels.
Slowly rising from the ground, Hannah put her helmet back on her head, kicked the wet dirt and had a dismal thought.
How were they supposed to win the war if they couldn’t even give away a gift?