“Prisoner of War”

Iraq (from Flash Fiction International)

For Marcia Lynx

Sahira was standing in the doorframe, watching her father grow transparent as the morning sun glowed in her bleach-white kitchen. He sat at the marble table, gutting a radio transistor. The sun washed right through him. Sahira reached out for him, but Saleh shrugged away and disappeared like a mirage against the white walls.

Saleh was constantly amazed by the electronic gadgets around him. They looked nothing like they had when he was first caught by the Iranians twenty years before. Now, he spent most of his days discovering them. In captivity, everything had been the same. Prisoners exchanged the same stories for the hundredth time and pretended to be hearing them afresh. Sahira smiled at him. He looked like a little boy, consumed by the task at hand. She walked to the sink to wash and drain her greens.

Sahira had been five when Saleh was captured, twenty-three when he was released. Sahira and her mother waited as the first, second, and third round of prisoners of war exchanged between Iraq and Iran, long after the end of the eight-year war. They asked returning prisoners if they had met Saleh, if they had known him. No one had. Sahira’s mother died in 1996. Saleh made it out in 1998.

That winter, Sahira slept three nights in her car at Al Nusoor Square in Baghdad, where it was promised the last of the POWs would be brought home. Sahira brought an old ID photo of her father, which she’d enlarged and put in a bright gold frame. Sahira hoped that, even if Saleh didn’t recognize her, he’d at least recognize his old self. Sahira slouched down in the seat of her car, pulled her sleeves to cover her cold fingertips, and dozed off. She woke up when her car began rocking as people squeezed past it in the mayhem. The crowds made her car move with them.

At first, Saleh didn’t believe it when the prison doors flung open and the guards yelled at them in Farsi to get out. Saleh thought, as his cellmates did, that they would be executed. “Do you think they’re letting us go?” one hopeful man asked. “Shut up!” Saleh slapped him. They walked them outside, single file. The outside world was blindingly bright. Saleh was hungry to see sky, but it was brighter than his eyes could handle. When they threw new clothes at them and told them to change, Saleh began to wonder. He tore off a strip of his old shirt and hid it: if this was false hope, he was going to strangle himself. Then Saleh and the others were put in buses that had padded seats. Saleh had not sat on a cushion in eighteen years. He pushed the palms of his hands into the padding and cried. He knew then that they were going home.


“Daddy! Here!” They embraced and lost track of time. The crowds roared around them.

“Bushra!” Saleh was about to kiss Sahira on the lips.

“Daddy, it’s me, Sahira. Mommy she . . .” Sahira hesitated. Saleh pulled his arms off his daughter as though he’d been electrocuted. Sahira, his tiny girl who’d clung to his leg, giggling and shaking her curly hair as he swung his leg up and down, walking across a room. “Sahira.” Saleh placed a kiss on her forehead. “I didn’t recognize you.”

“Daddy?” Saleh looked up as Sahira dried her hands on a towel. “Lunch is ready for when you’re hungry. All you have to do is heat it. OK? I have to go to work. Do you need anything? OK? OK.” Sahira had her usual one-sided conversation. She patted his head as she walked past him to grab her coat and purse. “Don’t leave the house, OK? And call me if you need anything.”

Saleh was too consumed by the radio’s inner workings to be bothered. Saleh heard the sound of the bolt once, then twice, and then his daughter’s footsteps moving away. Saleh carefully reached down to feel if the padding in the chair under him was real. He then got up and closed the curtains to block out the blinding sun.

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