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Walls Made of Earth

I shaved each morning in the Valley with a conventional razor, a metal canteen cup, one bottle of water, and a portable mirror. The Valley was a dry, windy place in eastern Afghanistan. The mirror was small and round and hung from a wall that was made of earth. The fold-out legs meant to prop the mirror on a desk were threaded into the wall’s metal gridwork. The grid provided the wall its form; it held the coarse fabric liner that retained the earth inside. It also held the mirror, and there I shaved.

Every day as I shaved I wished abstractly that I’d invested money in these walls before the war had started. With enough manpower you could raise them anywhere. Eight feet high, four feet thick, full of dirt, good barriers against gunfire and explosives. There were people somewhere drooling with richness thanks to a decision they made nine years ago, and while shaving I wished I’d been one of them. I wished that I’d been a fourteen-year old with miraculous financial foresight. The walls cost twenty-thousand dollars per hundred feet, I’d heard somewhere. They were just fabric and wire. A small dozer had buzzed around the base, scooping up dirt and dumping it inside the squares. Guys with shovels stood inside the squares to make sure the walls filled evenly. If they didn’t fill evenly the wire would bulge, the fabric would tear, the earth would fall out. The earth would fall out, bears repeating. The dozer’s bucket would drop another heavy load at your feet, and the explosion of dust would rise past your face. And you, working the shovel, sweating, exerting, using your strength toward a job that mattered, a job that required strength. The filth of the land attached itself to your body, flooded in, changed the color of your sweat. And you, settling the dirt where it ought to go, that felt like the exact work of a man somehow.

It was easy to relish that work even though it was terrible work to do. The digging and shoveling felt just like digging a grave but also the exact geometric opposite, because you were raising these areas of earth above where the earth had been, and of course nothing was buried, and of course the walls were meant to protect you from dying. We took off our tops and hung them from the gridwork of the walls we’d already finished. We leaned our rifles much farther down so the dust wouldn’t cover them, but it was never far enough and the dust got to them anyway, but it didn’t matter because the dust would get to them no matter what and we had to clean them every day no matter what. We worked in our t-shirts. I wished all the time that I had been the one to make money by investing in the walls and not the one who made money by filling them, but at the same time I knew those were two different kinds of people, two different kinds of men, and probably I was on the better side of things, even though the work was terrible and felt like digging graves. On bad days I wondered if the war continued only because there was money to be made by fighting it. Selling walls of wire and fabric, selling dozers to fill them up, selling uniforms with new patterns of camouflage, selling the contract for the scientific study of those patterns against other patterns to see which congealing of earth-colors was the surest to hide men. Selling the shovels. On those bad days I wished I had a degree in economics just to prove or disprove the idea about the war going on because it could be nicely sold. But because those bad days were bad days, the spiral of thought regarding economics sent me thinking that if I’d studied economics I never would have had the thought about the selling of the war anyway, because people who studied economics didn’t have a real blooded thought in their entire damn skulls to begin with. And it went on that way.

The work mostly involved using the side of the shovel to scrape the pyramiding dirt flat and even. Our shovels clanged together in the center as we reached for it. There would be two or three of us in the square spreading earth, slowly rising until we could stand on the preceding, finished square and reach with our shovels to spread the earth flat. Wearing the gloves but no sleeves felt wonderful and pragmatic, and since the rifles were far away, it was like we’d shed all that we didn’t need for the work. The boots were good, the pants good, buckled firmly, t-shirts that had come un-tucked in the labor, had become heavy with dirt and sweat, our arms bare and filthy, our hands gloved against the shovels so they wouldn’t blister. Someone somewhere had sold the gloves, had been given a contract to make heavy-duty gloves for the army, and often these gloves that were sold to the army were stupid and unnecessary and burdening in the sure blast of heat, and this fact threaded uncomfortably into the negative thinking about economics, but doing this work I was glad for them, since the work would’ve been unbearable with blistered palms. Finally, the gloves had come all this way for a reason and I wore out half a dozen pairs in as many months. I knew the people who got rich by investing in wire and fabric never wore out a single pair of gloves in their whole lives, or if they had, it was so long ago it could’ve been another lifetime, two completely separate bodies, separate souls, not one cell remaining from one body to the other, how people’s bones which take the longest to regenerate still do so every thirteen years, and the people who invested in the walls had totally different bones than in the lifetime where they’d worn through a pair of gloves. I also knew, though, that I’d never be young enough or foolish enough to volunteer for a job like this ever again, that this would be the last time, maybe in my whole life, that I ‘d do a job so terrible and filthy.

The walls rose and eventually surrounded the places we already lived, replaced the razor wire that had surrounded us before. Within the perimeter of walls were more perimeters: one around the living area, around the fuel point, around the ammo pit, around the command room. Clotheslines ran from the gridwork of one to the gridwork of another. Sharp rocks that had been among the earth that filled the walls poked holes in the fabric and threatened to leak the earth, but luckily, the rocks that poked the holes also plugged them.

The fabric of the wall by the trash pit caught on fire when the trash was burned and the flames were licked that way by the wind. Much of the fabric in that area burnt up, and huge dunes of earth spilled out of the wall and had to be refilled and refilled until the wall by the trash pit was one long dune from the top of the wall to the bottom of the pit, and the trash fires after that tumbled gently and blackly over it, as though a path. The smell of diesel masked the smell of what burned. Unused chemical heaters from the MREs burst when the fire touched them and the sound was like the crack of a shot, and sometimes guys in the nearer tents were momentarily startled, then knew better, then went back to reading James Bond. Because of the wire and relatively low height, the walls could be easily climbed. The color of the fabric matched the color of the earth inside. The squares that the grid formed were each the size of the largest possible square that could be drawn on a man’s palm. Every base in Afghanistan had redundant perimeters of these walls, barriers within barriers within barriers, and some of the perimeters were stacked doubly high, and sometimes the walls were used for makeshift shelters, a rectangle of walls with a tarp stretched over. Always the entrance of a base was a labyrinth of the walls, so convoys had to snake alternately in the direction the walls forced them, so the entrance guards could observe and control whoever came in, and those guards sat in a tower, the base of which was also made using the walls, doubly stacked, so that the total mileage of walls throughout the country you might describe as capable of circling the planet X number of times, where X is no-matter-what an astounding number, or you’d describe the total mileage of walls as maybe reaching a fraction of the distance around the planet, where even the fraction is an astounding fraction because it is a fraction of all that is terrestrial.

I rinsed the razor in the canteen cup so the water shook and turned opaque from dirt collected in the blade. I made a vague connection between my doing this and men in war movies doing this, and in Westerns. The sound especially: the rattling of the razor against the sides of the metal cup and the splash of water it made. In the movies the men used shaving cream and the water became pale and milky, though mine was only dirty with grime and cut stubble, since shaving cream was no good here. The air was too dry and the cream turned to crusty flakes that blew right off in the wind. I thought of James Joyce and the shaving instruments in Ulysses’ opening lines. I tried to remember the reasons Bloom thought it was proper to shave in the evening: There was more time, that was one. No rush to finish. People were more meditative in the evening. Maybe because they had more time. Maybe those were the same reasons. What were the others? Sand and stubble accumulated thickly in the slots between blades and when the cup of water wasn’t enough to clean it out I used my pocket knife. I don’t know how the sand was so thick in the razor. I always washed my face before shaving, but it was still there. After a while I stopped being surprised by where sand could turn up. It was impossible to keep your face moist because of the wind, but so long as the blade was wet each time that was good enough. I shaved upward. Downward and I was never cutting the hairs, just combing them. In the mirror, people passed behind me and I looked to see who it was each time. Tightening the skin so that it was most suitable for shaving always required ridiculous contortions of the jaw and lips. I tried to make these contortions appear as dignified as possible but always failed.

Most guys had a common electric shaver that was suitable to the curves of their fingers around it, so they didn’t need a mirror or a canteen cup or a bottle of water to shave. They didn’t even need to leave their bunks, but simply sat up in the morning and shaved where they sat, feeling with one hand for missed stubble, then replacing the shaver in their bag or on its charger and proceeded with their morning. It was effortless and modern, but I found the blunt metallic tug of those machines too agitating and went to these lengths to avoid it. Also, I liked feeling among the company of men in old movies and among the company of Joyce. Also, of Hemingway, who I assumed would never use an electric razor based on some principle I might agree with.

Every morning when I finished I took down the mirror and tucked it inside my hygiene kit. If I left it up, surely it would be stolen, so I set it up and took it down every morning. Some mornings I forgot the mirror, because it’s an unnatural thing to do when you’re finished shaving, to take the mirror with you, and the next morning guys would be using it to brush their teeth and I’d have to wait for them to be done before I could shave, and then I’d feel like a thief taking the mirror with me afterward, but I couldn’t imagine losing it. I reminded myself again and again, take the mirror with you. Take it with you. Take it with you.

Born and raised in southeast Iowa and served seven years in the Iowa National Guard. His essays have appeared or are forthcoming in the Kenyon Review online, the Georgia Review, North American Review, Ninth Letter, and BOAAT, among other publications.