The Asturian Campaign
ALL SHE HAD TO DO was press the button strapped to her thigh. She sat dripping perspiration, her heart thumping. The long weeks of carefully rehearsed preparation with the team were as nothing compared to these last, stifling, lonely minutes.
She had, or imagined she had, a minor tremble in her right hand. I’m not alright, she realized. There’s no air in here: I need more air.
Do it, do it, answered her breath, fast and shallow.
She couldn’t pull out now. She had to go through with it. Wait for the moment, squeeze the trigger, and her work would be done.
Erica sat in the target location in full burqa, feeling voluminous and petrified, hoping only that fear and the oxygen-starved heat inside the cotton hood wouldn’t cause her to faint and fail, while her nails were painted what the beautician called “love pink.” It was the new, breathable polish, the girl in winged spectacles was telling her, which could be safely left on for daily prayers since it allowed water to penetrate to the nail during wudu.
The pre-prayer purification of arms and hands, the imams insisted, included a woman’s nails.
“You’re sure it’s halal?” Erica asked from behind the brown gauze
of her head cover.
Yes, she was promised.
An older Arabic woman, reading Hola magazine in a corner by the shop door, snorted derisively. It was typical of European converts to Islam to aspire to out-ritual those she considered her own kind.
After which, in the cheap boutique, in the suffocating Madrid summer, conversation died away. A wobbly fan succeeded only in pressing the tedious heat against them. A plastic clock on the wall continually tried and continually failed to advance, a spent battery causing its second hand to flicker and shudder repeatedly in the same spot. In the high wall mirrors, nothing happened.
Erica’s eyes strained at their peripheral limit to watch the door of the shop, while her reflected image in the mirror looked back mockingly. The woman in the corner licked a finger and turned a page.
As the moment of asking approached, Erica’s mind went numb. She remained alert and set to act, but that was all. Any sense of self beyond staring eyes and a dry mouth was lost and forgotten. She remembered her training and what she might have to do —the slim pair of hairdressing scissors on the shelf in front of her would make an ideal close combat weapon— but she didn’t really know why, or what it meant. There was no wider world beyond these four walls. There was just waiting.