The Himalayas are one of the youngest mountain ranges on Earth. Formed in a violent collision of the floating Indo-Australian landmass and the Eurasian plate, they wrenched bits of the ocean skyward to form the highest peaks on Earth. Scientists proved this when they discovered the peak of Mount Everest consisted of marine limestone. Parts of the first plate continue to move beneath the Eurasian continent which causes the Himalayan range to continue to grow at a rate of about 5 mm a year—about the same size as a bullet for an M-16. On a geological scale, measured over millions of years, fifty million years or so makes them the equivalent of a global child, undergoing a pre-teenage growth spurt.
I have never been in the Himalayan range, but I have lived amongst her daughters—in the foothills of the Hindu Kush—beneath the shadow of a snow-topped peak whose name I do not know. I built military structures for those who would try her rocky paths in search of an enemy they could not define—places of rest and comfort for our uniformed soldiers. At night the soldiers turned hunter—the unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable. I planned construction projects for a permanence that cannot exist in those hardpan hills, in Kabul, in the Afghan country. Only clay remains. In houses made of clay, behind courtyard walls made of clay, live the people baked dark and hard as the clay from whence they came. On the side of a hill, maybe three thousand meters to the north-east, stood a house overlooking our compound—a clay house painted a defiant pink.
At night, I stood watch over a bank of monitors—chat rooms, comm feeds, medevac requests. I watched people attack, react, and die in real-time twelve-point font and misspelled words. Later, sometimes days later, CNN would unspool the previous events on the biggest monitor in the room. January: play-off season leading up to March madness. Madness indeed.
In the mornings, at 0600, I emerged from my cave of monitors; the steel door creaked and slammed behind me. I turned my face to the east—toward Mecca—the sun crawling from behind the mountain, washing the snowy caps with a pale purple over blue sheen, a bloody red, then the pink of medium-rare—fading to the white of common day. My boots clanged on the steel stairs, or crunched the icy snow accumulation from the night before. The smoke from my cigarette blended with the steam of my exhalations, with the morning, with the stench of the smelting plant just outside the fence.
Surrounding the command center a wall stood sentinel—clay-filled barriers seven feet tall, topped with serpentine coils of concertina wire, looping, glinting, and sharpening in the sun. From the clay sprouted a grass long ago dried and crisp; it rustled when the cold wind blew. In the dead grass and the clawed tendrils of wire lived a dove—her nest protected by our defenses. Every morning, she rose as I departed and perched in silhouette between the coils—looking forward, backward with her keen sideways eyes—looking for danger.
Seven thousand years before Christ, Neolithic peoples navigated the mountain passes through Afghanistan and into the Indus valley carrying basketsful of a vibrant blue stone flecked and mottled golden pyrite—fool’s gold. They carried it to Iran and Pakistan, they carried it into the Caucasus Mountains. For centuries they carried hordes of this blue rock into the ancient Sumerian city of Ur, across the Mediterranean where it found its way into Egypt and became the eyebrows of Tutankhamen’s sarcophagus. Lapis artifacts have been discovered throughout Mesopotamia where it found its way into the literature of the Bible and the Epic of Gilgamesh. Cleopatra pulverized the stone and made eyeshadow.
Lapis is a metamorphic rock. It changes. Once, its parent compounds touched the crucible of Earth’s inner core, magma bubbled through the mantel, heated the cool rock of the crust, and then receded—leaving behind a hot puddle of brilliant blue polluted with inclusions that somehow made it more beautiful. Again, millions of years later, the people of the Sar-i-Sang province dug it from its earthly vein and showed it to the world. It changed the people who mined it, who carried it, who traded it to kings, artists, and neighbors. The people changed Lapis again—working it into forms of beauty and utility—amulets, beads, dagger handles, and coffins.
In the 14th and 15th centuries, Italians moved literal boatloads of the stone into the hands of Renaissance painters who ground it into the most prized pigment of the period—taking its name from its origin, “from across the sea”—ultramarine. The vibrant blues that adorned the eyelids of Cleopatra became reserved for the robes of the Virgin Mary.
Lapis changes. Men into shades. Wives into widows. Children to orphans. Blood into money.
Men still mine Lapis in Afghanistan, perhaps the descendants of those Neolithic entrepreneurs. They dig the rock by hand: we call it artisanal. Brace and bit drills, antiquated dynamite, and ordnance scavenged from decades of warfare. Lapis changes. Men into shades. Wives into widows. Children to orphans. Blood into money. I bought several pieces from a man in a kiosk. He was not the miner—only the merchant. The necklace, a disc of blue set in hand-wrought silver, lacks the precision of our western polished metals—it is the most expensive piece of jewelry my daughter owns.
Poppies bloom a red so deep, the black in the center of the flower seems a well. Opium, raw opium, assumes the dead baked brown color of the desert. When the flowers fall away soldiers cease warring to harvest the pods; when fed into their pipes, it signals the re-start of the fighting season. Sold across the world’s black markets, it purchases the rockets and bullets for their rifles. A bullet, when it finds its mark, blooms again to a black centered red—so deep it becomes an eternity.
Gravel and clay mixed with the snows of January. Crunch and grind—frozen like tundra in the shade, mud in the sun. I exchanged American dollars for Afghan afghanis—it seemed like a thousand to one. The colorful currency felt fake—smaller, printed on copy paper, stiff as a pair of new boots. It had no meaning to me. One weekend a month, the women and their grandchildren are allowed to set up their wares in a courtyard within our walls. Beneath a forest of coalition flags, bronzed and wrinkled women hunch over card tables or upturned boxes to hawk beaded jewelry, trinkets, and fabrics. Black haired children, girls between five and ten, wearing brilliantly colored dresses and smocks, skitter amongst the stalls calling to the soldiers, Come see sir. Come see mine. You want see, buy mine. They grab and pull at pants legs, pockets, and shirt cuffs—pull the soldiers to the stalls for the grandmother. See? You like? You buy? Stopping at one stall gives the other girls a chance to catch hold of another part of clothing—pulled, tugged—all directions at once. Come see mine next. Next I take you . . .
I learned a way to shop the bazaar in peace—I bribed the children with candy. Pockets full of peppermints, butterscotch, and chocolate—whatever came in the care packages, I gave to the girls. Then I walked quickly from one end to the other, darting my eyes left and right to as many tables I could view, then out the other side—out of sight, out of grasp. Circle back around the buildings and come out at the beginning of the courtyard again. Repeat. Run out of candy—go back to my room. I bought very little at the bazaar. I couldn’t prize one child over the others. I couldn’t not go see, I couldn’t choose. Except one. One little girl—black haired and eyes of obsidian—night sky, gentle tug at my shirt cuff. I offered her a candy, which she took, but still she pulled, softly, insistently, gentle pressure so like my own daughter. I followed her to see. To see scarves of silk, woven by ancient and juvenile hands—purple, vermillion, blue—the colors missing from the landscape. I bought one from her, her grandmother set the price. I did not haggle.
There are many shops on our base—Camp Phoenix. Several sell British flintlock rifles, Enfield pistols, Russian belt buckles. I wonder what trinkets of ours they will sell when we are gone. We will leave the fires burning; they will rise from the ashes.
I followed the shadow of our chopper over the broken scrub—an echo of myself on the ground. The darker me, the insubstantial me grew and grew until the two touch on the tarmac.
The Appalachians are one of the oldest mountain ranges on Earth. In her foothills, I have lived most of my life. The Tennessee River flows between the flattened peaks of Lookout and Signal Mountains. In the near history of the nineteenth century, my valley filled with soldiers, too. Now it fills with commuters, houses, lives of quiet desperation. In my living room, my daughter unfolds the silk scarf. She sees and appreciates the patterns, the softness of the silk, and the size. She wraps it around her body, across her head. I absorb the threads—threads of blue—not ultramarine; in Afghanistan, I was ultramarine—from across the sea. The deepest reds—the blends of dyes to build a royal purple. The blank whites. Each thread adds its story to the extravagantly simple tale of the scarf—the gift. The scarf—for my daughter—from a daughter. All the daughters.
William “Tripp” Woolf was born and raised in Chattanooga, Tennessee where he still resides with his 13-year-old daughter, Ivey, and Pig, an Akita of indeterminate age. He has held jobs as a raft guide on the Ocoee River, a lifeguard, and as a carpenter. In 1998, he cut his hair and joined the U.S. Navy Reserve as a Builder in the Seabees. He has been deployed overseas three times with the Navy, twice to Iraq and once to Afghanistan. He is currently enrolled at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga on the Post 9-11 GI Bill as a 47-year-old undergraduate student in the Creative Writing program.