To Iraq, with Lovebirds Joshua struggled through the windswept and sandblasted marketplace, hoping to buy a cactus pear for breakfast, but knowing that any bite of fruit would include a mouthful of sand. He wished he’d allowed himself to participate in the embedded form of journalism. Right now, he could be savoring an MRE with the 101st airborne instead of weaving through a disoriented and dirty crowd. But no. He had insisted on the freedom to wander and report whatever he encountered back to a free and objective press. This morning, the grit of his principles lingered in his mouth, a taste that had been with him since his arrival in Baghdad. He got used to the danger soon enough, but the absence of water he could see through was a suffering he hadn’t anticipated. Sure, he had his bottled spring water weighing down his pack. He knew he would need drinking water, but he hadn’t expected this piercing longing for a limpid pool of water big enough to splash around in. The water at the Ministry of Information came out lukewarm with a green tinge. Some of the other journalists who’d been there a lot longer than Joshua bathed in it, claiming the green came from oxidized copper pipes and was harmless. Joshua didn’t quite understand the other journalists’ willingness to risk germs in a place where antibiotics were a luxury and hospitals were busy with shrapnel wounds. While he was splashing the green water under his armpits, one of the journalists told Joshua a story he’d heard from an embedded CNN reporter, the tale of a modern day John the Baptist in the Iraqi desert. A U.S. army sergeant stationed in Southern Iraq used a plastic children’s pool full of fresh, cold water to baptize dozens of soldiers who succumbed to the call of the Holy Spirit or the temptation of cold water. The Baptist army sergeant told journalists that he didn’t care what motivated the soldiers to submerge themselves in the pool, either way, he guaranteed a religious experience. Joshua had laughed at that story. Just below the surface of his laughter, he’d felt bothered by the tale, as though he didn’t quite believe the veracity of it, but then again that was days before his own cravings for cool, clear water had begun. That first night, the bombings were in full swing and Joshua found himself doing more cowering than reporting, but soon the fear and the thrill wore off and it seemed relatively safe to explore the outskirts of Baghdad, at least until the ground troops arrived. He kept walking with water on his mind and a thirst that had transformed itself into hunger. Most of the market’s merchandise was barely contained in tattered cardboard boxes. Joshua could smell the mix of rotten fruit and smoke that would soon permeate all of his memories of the place. He moved toward the small cluster of stalls that offered their wares and their customers some protection from the elements. The shelter mainly consisted of a few Persian rugs slung over a rope and tied between two posts. It was in front of one of these makeshift tents that Joshua saw a sight that took his mind off breakfast. Inside a tarnished brass cage perched two silent lovebirds. Their orange, green and yellow feathers were as faded and sparse as the threads of the worn Persian rug hanging in the background. One of the birds stood at the bottom of the cage, balanced on one foot. Both birds appeared near death and completely disinterested in one another and in Joshua’s nose hovering near the bars of their cage. “You like?” The question startled Joshua. “You like?” the bird vendor asked again with a twitch of his dark mustache, as Joshua turned to meet his gaze. “They belonged to Sajida Khair-Allah, the honored wife of our great leader.” The vendor continued his sales pitch without waiting for Joshua’s response. “She sent one of her daughters here to sell them in the marketplace. Saddam hates birds, so she wanted to get rid of them before his visit. I gave Saddam’s daughter a fair price, as I will give you.” For a brief moment, Joshua considered buying the lovebirds, if only out of pity for their miserable condition. Images of himself lugging the heavy brass cage around along with his satellite phone brought him back to reality. A bird savior he was not, and these were the most ornery looking so-called lovebirds he had ever seen. “Uh, I don’t think they’d make it through customs.” “Customs?” Customs?” muttered the vendor. “You tell them these are the birds of Sajida. Part of the spoils of war, right?” He glanced over his shoulder and then winked at Joshua before disappearing into the tent with another customer. The woman must have been interested in the sort of bird that can be served for lunch, because within seconds there came some pitiful squawking from inside the tent and then the squawks abruptly stopped. Joshua took the opportunity to get a closer look at the lovebirds. He knew he should walk away before the vendor returned but he wanted one last peek. One of the birds was missing the tip of its beak. There were bits of desiccated fruit scattered around the bottom of the cage but no water anywhere, not even a container for water. Joshua unzipped the front pocket of his backpack and dug out a green plastic, collapsible cup. He’d brought the cup with him for rinsing out his mouth after brushing his teeth, but after a day in Iraq he’d realized he couldn’t bring himself to waste good water on swishing and spitting. The tiny brass door let out a terrible squeak as he opened it and he feared the sound would attract the vendor’s attention. He balanced the cup full of spring water in his palm and placed it in the bottom of the cage without spilling a drop. He heard the vendor’s voice growing louder, no longer muffled by the rugs. He pulled his hand out of the cage as fast as he could but not before one of the birds pecked his thumb. Once he’d gotten his hand out of the cage and latched the door shut, Joshua ran as though he had set the birds free. He didn’t slow down until he was safely behind another cluster of tents. He poured what was left of the bottle of spring water over his head, and cursed himself for not getting a photo of Sajida’s lovebirds and the man who sold them.