The Indication (noun)
According to legend, the Indication is an object that the hunter will recognize only upon its discovery. If you are searching for it, you will know it only when you find it. But if you find it and you are not searching for it, you will not know what you have.
I went there looking for it. I had been seeking it for years, ever since I met those gypsy Indication hunters passing through Brooklyn when I was a teenager.
I had problems getting through customs. They didn’t like my name or my look or my language. They didn’t trust women like me, women who were comfortable with discomfort, who refused to be intimidated or objectified by their smirks. Women are so often expected to give in somehow, even in small ways. A smile to appease. A look at the floor. Fright. Money. Tears. I do not give in. So they gave me trouble about anything they could think up—my tied-up hair, my not having any luggage, my traveling alone, my attitude. I called a friend of mine, a brutish Russian man I met a long time ago in the souks of Fes, Morocco nicknamed Bernard. He’s the one who invited me there to Astrakhan—that mysterious city there on the Caspian.
Bernard got me through customs with threats, anger, and a silver tongue. As I stood there listening to an argument in a language I didn’t understand, my dependence on him made me feel fragile. I just nodded defiantly in agreement with Bernard. He could have been telling them I was just an ignorant, American bimbo, but I nodded my way through it. Whatever. I would have lied, cheated, and stolen to get out of there and on with my search.
Bernard brought me to the house he was staying in—a huge old abandoned wooden house on a street of abandoned houses where vagrants and gypsies sometimes stay, harking sturgeon and black market caviar from illegal Caspian fishermen. This street, it was like a picture of an old west ghost town, eastern-style, deserted, dusty, dry, rotten, but these old houses were majestic, not too far from the great Volga delta that Stenka Razin and the Cossacks used to call—in their folksong about Razin sacrificing his Persian Princess by tossing her off the boat—the wellspring of God’s seed. Something like this:
Now, with one swift mighty motion
He has raised his bride on high
And has cast her where the waters
Of the Volga roll and sigh.
‘Dance, you fools, and let’s be merry
What is this that’s in your eyes?
Let us thunder out a chantey
To the place where beauty lies.’
‘There is no time for all your sorrows
Time to dance and sing and hum
It’s for a woman with so much virtue
That even God can’t help but come.’
Bernard had a couple rooms set up harum scarum, locks on the doors to keep out the vagrants and thieves, fireplace and a portable stove, a lot of collected furniture, hammocks hanging in the breeze beside gigantic windows that were spider cracked and hazy. He said he planned on staying there for a year or two, but he never stayed anywhere longer than six months.
I had stayed awhile with Bernard in Morocco. We were very close then, and I almost stayed with him there forever. I nearly convinced myself it was what I wanted. We were young. We were lonely. My money was gone. Sometimes disquiet can have a romance to it. That’s another story, but I told Bernard about my life search for the Indication, and before he left me there in Morocco, he told me he’d always keep a look out for places or people who might lead me toward it.
Years later I got a call from him in Tokyo, and when I went there, he showed me what are called the Kubuki rooms, old storage rooms in the oldest theaters in Japan with shelves and piles of things collected as Kubuki props for hundreds and hundreds of years, tremendous items, little artifacts that had epics to tell about their histories. One was an intricately carved pendant—a little representation of Izumo no Okuni carved in jade, fashioned off the famous sculpture created by Yuri Benshi that some claimed could send viewers into lustful fits. The Japanese believed that once one experienced what is called keetshmenschee as he or she viewed an aesthetic masterpiece, it wasn’t necessary to see that masterpiece again to experience keetshmenschee. One could gaze upon an intricately carved jade representation of that masterpiece and experience the exact same keetshmenschee again and again.
Now in Astrakhan Bernard had met a vagrant named Demir Adám—a man missing one leg. Demir had spent many years searching through the battle lands in Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion in the 1980s with a shovel and an old, used metal detector he bought from a junk merchant in Kandahar.
In the 1990s, he and a group of other former Islamist fighters packed his treasures in large sacks they carried on their backs, crossed the border into Turkmenistan, traveled over several days and nights through the Garagum to the chief port of Krasnovodsk on the shore of the Caspian Sea. From there they traveled five hundred miles to Astrakhan in the belly of a cargo fishing boat, where they almost froze to death and ate only raw, slimy sturgeon and seal meat—all because Demir had heard a rumor that there were illegal traffickers buying war antiquities for high prices in the Russian black market for rich collectors in Moscow. Like most rumors, it was only half true. The traffickers were buying only Soviet war memorabilia, and Demir, who sold enough to have some money to live on, unloaded his collection of metal into the basement of one of the abandoned houses in Astrakhan and stayed. He was too old and weary to venture all the way back to Afghanistan. Bernard told me that he stayed there to die.
Bernard had met Demir one night, watching him stumble and limp through the empty streets with his false leg. He gave him a hand and Demir invited him in. They became acquainted over late-night tea, and after, Demir showed Bernard the collection.
“Zis is not like anything you have seen,” Bernard told me when I got there. “Only one problem. He does not like Westerners.” He winked at me. “And women… They are no good.”
In the early 1980s, Demir traveled to Pakistan to join the mujahedeen—or what we were calling in America in our typical war-branding language freedom fighters—to fight jihad. He entered a training camp there in Pakistan and was trained for months by American Special Forces personnel—all funded by the CIA and private Saudi sources. After his training, they sent Demir to Afghanistan to fight beside the rebels against the Soviet invasion taking place there. It was a war that lasted many years, and the mujahedeen fought like true warriors. It was a fight so incredible, so fueled by passion and belief and faith, that it seemed nothing could defeat them. It truly seemed that Allah was on their side.
But one year before the war ended, Demir was shot in the leg by a Soviet soldier in the Khash desert and left there to die. He lay in the sand for an entire day, and his leg bled slowly and turned dead. But as evening fell, and as the heat subsided, Demir began to crawl. After an hour of crawling, his right hand fell upon a hard object in the sand. When he pulled the object up out of the sand he found a Dhulush, a weapon similar to a bayonet blade, clutched in his fist. He considered the Dhulush both an omen and gift from Allah.
In that pallid and waxen moonlight, Demir set the blade into his thigh and spent one excruciating hour severing his dead leg from his body. The bullet had shattered his femur, allowing him to cut through the bone. When he removed the single lead bullet lodged there, he kept it as he bandaged his leg with a piece of his clothing. Despite his convulsions, and the lightheadedness caused by the pain, he continued his crawl through the desert night.
After almost two days, on the brink of death because of blood loss and dehydration, Afghan rebel fighters picked him up and treated his wound. Several women looked after him in a small desert hut for several months. When his wounds healed, he couldn’t walk. The women had to carry him for twenty miles through the desert to Farah, where a befuddled craftsman fashioned him a peg-leg out of scrap metal.
With nowhere else to go, Demir went to Kandahar, the only place he knew anyone. But when he got there, he found that even though the mujahedeen had defeated the Soviets, they now faced the cruel aftermath of the war. Their home countries would not allow them to return, the Saudis retreated, and the United States, after training them to fight a war crucial to their own success, abandoned them all in Afghanistan. Kandahar was a city of scarred and broken veterans. Men who had fought for a God who had long since forgotten them. They were angry. They still had the righteousness of their jihad. And now many of the men Demir had fought with were joining together to form militant, Islamic groups with idealistic goals of reinstating the Caliphate, still charged by their triumph.
But Demir wasn’t so interested in continuing to fight. He’d been shot, and Allah gave him a blade to cut off his own leg. That meant something to him. It meant that guns and knives and bombs might empower you for a while, but eventually you will be forced to sacrifice parts of yourself, and eventually the scraps of those guns and knives and bombs will replace the parts of yourself that you’ve lost.
“If you’re not careful,” Demir warned his fellow fighters, “you too will become a bullet lodged in the femur of humanity.”
Demir left his friends, and traveled north to the battlegrounds near the border to scavenge metal from the ground. He believed he would find answers there, deep within the sands, just as he had in the Dhulush, the bullet from his thigh, and his peg-leg made of war scrap.
Bernard dressed me in his clothes like a man. He wrapped my breasts in a chenille fichu, wrapped my head and face in a wool turban, covered me in a jellaba, and gave me all sorts of little wool bags and charms to hang on my person, disguising my femininity with clutter. He brought me into Demir’s house and introduced me in a language I didn’t understand. I was a mute, Turkish gypsy and trader, lungs scorched by land mines, there to lay eyes upon the great collection.
“Not a word from you,” Bernard had told me. “Try ze gestures only. Be slow.”
Demir served us tea. He hobbled around the abandoned house like he had been there for decades, his scrap-metal stub clicking against the wooden plank floors. He was an old man, and looked older than he actually was. His face was dark and deeply wrinkled. It looked carved in mahogany. You could have hidden pencils inside those wrinkles. His metal leg looked like a piece of armor and his hands were gnarled, two of his fingers gone, lost somewhere on the trail from one place to the next—left behind, as though men like Demir don’t ever die, just lose parts of themselves until they’re gone. Around his neck hung a pouch where he kept the bullet, the last remains of the leg he severed in the desert.
I wanted to speak to him. I wanted to introduce myself as myself. I felt like an intruder there. I was an intruder, and I wondered if it was right, my being there, my seeing that collection that Demir kept from Western eyes. He said very little during tea. He looked at us almost never. When he stood, we stood. He led us down into that basement as though he was on some kind of schedule. Conducting business.
There were cats everywhere, skirting past my feet in gray and white streaks. They were dirty and wild, but not unkind—curious and anxious at the same time, as though they wanted attention but were too scared to accept it. And as I descended the stairs into that dank basement that smelled like strays, I felt like there was something almost offensively exploitative about my curiosity and my search. I knew that I was lying to Demir. I was a gregarious American woman, not a mute, Turkish man. His story, and the slow and pained way he hobbled down the stairs and through the cats made me feel disturbingly trapped in my lie.
When he turned on the lights, I saw the war torn objects scattered all over the floor, carefully laid out, carefully labeled with tags where Demir had written the location each object was found, how it was found, and his estimation of where, when, and what it was a part of.
Bernard and I walked through the piles of metal, the detritus of war, the leftovers, pieces of things built to kill, piles of bullets like guano, many blunt and malformed by collisions with bones, torn shrapnel in shapes like stained bed sheets fluttering in the wind, bent muzzles, dull and rusted knives, war pins and medals, grenade pins and bomb devices, land mines, and malformed melted assault rifles from some firebombing or explosion, looking like they were made of wax, appearing strangely pliant like Dali’s clocks or butter in a pan. It was the very apotheosis of what human beings leave in their wake, the useless items of their wickedness, the antiquity of their iniquity. Guarded in the basement by the cats.
Then I saw them, a small heap on the dirt floor, piled together like valuable coins or gemstones on a piece of black fabric. I felt a charge run though me. I knelt down and put my hands on these objects. Then I picked one up. It felt neither heavy nor light, looked neither dangerous nor harmless, seemed neither functional nor artistic, neither religious nor secular, neither dead nor alive.
The triggers of Kalashnikovs, the concave surfaces polished smooth and shiny by the fingerprints of unknown index fingers, some distant soldiers of war. No counterparts now to give the triggers leverage. No safety to make them stop. No end to their travel. An infinity of progression. Triggers now impossible to pull.
Before I left, Demir put a hand on my shoulder like men sometimes do to other men. In his other arm he cradled one of the cats, and it licked his rough finger affectionately. Our eyes met—his like tumbled turquoise, mine brown as almonds. It was just one tender touch by a man who had fought for something he believed in, carved his leg off in the desert, loved and provided shelter for cats nobody else wanted, and gave me a part of his collection. Don’t give in, I told myself. Do not give in. But I could feel it shooting out of me. I took off the turban, and let my hair fall out. “Hello,” I said.
Nicholas Leither lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, and teaches writing at Santa Clara University. This story is excerpted from a novel-in-progress. His books include Dubliners: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction and Slant: Writing Essays You Want to Read. His fiction has appeared in Boulevard, and he has just finished two companion novel manuscripts called “Want” and “Need.” In his spare time, he builds rustic, bentwood furniture, which has shown in galleries from Minnesota to San Francisco. Read more at NicholasLeither.com.