Above: Rebecca Wurtz experiments with time and tense through the eyes of a woman abducted by a militia.
Stephen Graham Jones, guest judge for the 2015 Texas Observer Short Story Contest, told us that he’s always on the lookout for stories with “a fast start and a real ending.” This year we received dozens of stories with fast starts and dozens more with real endings, but we also saw plenty of fiction that provides both. Narrowing the field was a difficult task. In the end, Jones’ call for “a voice that makes me want to hear more, keep turning the pages” made the decisions for us.
Here we present the third and final contest finalist, “Hands Moving Through Hair” by Rebecca Wurtz.
The winning story will appear in the Observer’s annual October Books Issue. — David Duhr
I have lost track, but the afduubaha keeps track, tells me today is day twenty, day twenty-seven, twenty-nine. My abductor uses his fine English to taunt me: It’s been seven days since your government told us there would be no further negotiations, and more than five days since anyone in your family tried to contact us. You are running out of time. They taught us not to believe what captors say, not to lose faith, that our government would not let us perish, and I have drawn a bright, hard line around those promises. I know that there is turmoil in the outside world. My parents and my new husband have left no stone unturned, have been unceasing in their efforts to get the State Department to negotiate my release.
I am curled in the dirt in the dim corner of the hut, so dehydrated that I haven’t cried in three days, haven’t peed in two. My T-shirt is rough with dried sweat, and rank with the smell of goat grease and wood smoke from the nighttime guard’s fire. I am in and out of consciousness, drifting on a wave of murmuring voices, and heat, and my own stink.
For the next forty years, I will play the next forty seconds over and over in my mind.
I am startled from my drowse, but only part way. I can’t seem to break the surface, the hard bright line that protects me. Are you talking to me? I taste a metallic tang. Why should that be? Is that what startle tastes like? On a hot day running errands before we leave Washington, D.C., for good, I will buy a chocolate bar in aluminum foil, and unwrap it in the car. In my haste, some of the foil sticks to the candy, and the first bite will return me to my half-waking dream, to the dry heat of the Horn of Africa, to a diplomatic posting that went horribly wrong.
The afdu’s voice reaches me, and my eyes open, and I am staring into the corner of the wretched hut, built of wooden poles — just branches really, no bigger around than a finger — stabbed into the dirt. The poles are weathered and old; they have been used many times to make many dwellings, gathered and carried, probably by children or women, from one place to another. At Cape Hatteras, my six-year-old son will build a sandcastle and palisade it with sea-bleached sticks. The crashing waves will rush in and out, like my ragged, dry mouth-breathing. I will have to turn my face away and I will see my husband smiling as he tickles our daughter, sitting in his lap.
Are you talking to me? His bulky shape is silhouetted against the blaring sun. He extends his hand — a deep scar running through the web between the thumb and forefinger — toward my face. On a cool North Carolina fall day, I will come home from teaching international development policy at the university, and a carpenter will be measuring for the bookshelves in our new home. He will hold his finger and thumb out to show me the distance between the wall and the base, and he will have a scar that travels across the web at the base of his thumb, just so. My eyes will dart to his eyes, and the kindness there will almost make me cry.
The afdu’s dirty fingers smell like gunpowder and curry as his hand hovers in front of my face. We will celebrate the Fourth of July at the international students’ potluck. In the yard, our host will light a string of bright red firecrackers. The smoke will rise and drift across a picnic table still crowded with potluck dishes of curry and rice. Involuntarily, I will touch my face because I will know what comes next.
With a sharp fingernail, my captor traces the dried track of my last tear down my cheek. A long, slow scratch, exceedingly quiet — I would not hear it if I were not inside of it. My blood seeps and mingles with the exhausted dust of this failed country.
I can’t get up. My legs give way. His rough hands move through my hair, and for part of a second, that is all I hear. I will go out to the car alone to get another load to carry into my daughter’s dorm room. The wind will move the pine branches in a whispery sough, and my neck will prickle.
He yanks a fistful of hair and drags me, as I howl in pain and fear and rage, over the rotten scrap of wood that marks the threshold. For the rest of my life, I will be lucky. I will never make nor hear that sound again. The closest I will come is one day when I will rip an old sheet into rags, and the rending of the first long strip, from one end to the other, will bring tears to my eyes.
I paw and scratch at his hands. He dumps me near the remains of last night’s fire. After weeks of not seeing the sun, hooded when I was transferred from car to truck, kept in a basement and then the hut, allowed out only at night to go to the toilet in a pit, I can’t open my eyes in the bright light. I will squeeze my eyes shut against white daylight when the doctor takes the patch off after my cataract surgery. Cartoonish stars of pain will orbit around my head, and I will smell wood smoke and taste ashes.
Something is wrong. My captors are alarmed, shouting to each other, arguing as they pack the precious satellite phone in its plastic case. I will visit my son’s family, and the young Somali taxi driver who takes me home from the airport will talk urgently, loudly into his cellphone; I will realize that he was born years after I heard the clattering of guns and clanking of cooking pots being thrown in the bed of a truck.
I decide to run; this confusion can cover my escape. I force my eyes open and struggle to my knees. I raise my head to see the afdu striding toward me. It is not the knife in his hand but the look on his face — abstracted and primitive — that tells me he is coming to cut my throat. One day on a hike in the American Southwest, we will encounter a loping coyote, and the feral emptiness in its eyes will frighten my granddaughter. I will want to tell her where I have seen that expression before, but words will fail me.
I try to scuttle away, but I can’t move; I am immobile with fear. I think of my mother, her sorrow because I have been killed, and I am so very sad. I will sit by her bedside in the last weeks of her life, and I will sob when I remember my anticipation of a mother’s sorrow.
He grabs my shirt and pulls my head to the side, and my neck is exposed to his blade. Standing at the kitchen counter in my bathrobe, cutting an apple, I will accidentally drop the knife, and as I jump away, trying to avoid it, I hear the smallest breath as the blade travels through the air before clanging to the rocky soil. His grip relaxes, and his knees splay outward. He sits to the ground, blood running from his nose, a bullet hole over his ear. My husband will die from leukemia. Toward the end, he will bleed from his nose, and I will wipe his face and smooth his hair, and I will whisper to him that I always knew he would save me.
A crack and a whine, the sound of the sharpshooter’s rifle, reaches me after the bullet reaches the afdu. Late at night, awake and alone, I will watch the approach of a storm and shiver in the gap between the lightning and the thunder. A soldier in desert fatigues, and then another, move choppily up behind the truck and the side of a mud-brick hut. There is more shooting. Someone lifts me in his arms, asks me to confirm my name.
When I’m very old, a male nurse in the hospital will lift me from a gurney to a bed; he will ask my name and I croak it out. Dust will cloud my vision and grit pelts my face as a helicopter thumps down. I am handed in through the cargo door to a medic. And I will fly away.
Rebecca Wurtz on the writing of “Hands Moving Through Hair”:
Time may flow only forward, but memory and anticipation spiral in and out of that stream. I wanted to experiment with time and tense in a story — sentence by sentence. When I heard a radio interview of a woman recounting her abduction by and escape from a militia group, it seemed like the perfect opportunity, jangling with spirals.
Nellie Downer’s story checks every box on the list of attributes guest judge Bryan Washington appreciates in short fiction: “stories with distinct voices, a keen sense of place, and a palpable intimacy.”