Ahmed is a soldier in a prison watchtower. He stands high above a harsh, barbed wire world. He feels sleepy but forces himself to stay alert lest he miss an opportunity for the big prize, two weeks of vacation for each convict shot while trying to escape.
To reach Ahmed’s territory a prisoner has to make it through a barbed wire entanglement that stands between the inner prison grounds and Ahmed’s territory. One step into his territory means Ahmed can shoot and claim the prize. But even if an escapee makes it past Ahmed’s gun, there are two more barriers between the prisoner and freedom. It is impossible. Still, suicidal convicts sometimes throw themselves into the death zone and become a two week vacation for some lucky soldier.
Ahmed is from one of the republics in Middle Asia. He joined the army just four months ago, and can't stand the humiliation and cruel hazing every new soldier suffers in the Soviet Army. He wants to go home. Army life is not what he thought it would be. It is not the belt buckle Soviet star prints on his butt that hurt the most. Nor is it the painful gong of a wash basin clanging against Ahmed’s head morning, noon, and night. What hurts the most is his diet. In his homeland, eating pork is unheard of, a filthy sin against Allah. Now he lives in the largest pork producing republic in the U.S.S.R., and bits of the forbidden meat are everywhere; in his soup, in his gruel, and sometimes even in his tea.
He cannot wait for some stupid prisoner to walk into his world. He knows he must help things along. He needs a trap, and a trap needs bait. Ahmed silently climbs down from his watchtower and gently lays a pack of cigarettes and a piece of lard on the ground, two steps into his world. The bright cigarette package glitters against the gray-brown dirt. Ahmed knows what convicts will do for a pack of cigarettes. Now it will be just a matter of time before some convict ventures into his world to grab the cigarettes and food. Then, with one shot, he will go on vacation, to his homeland, and the company of righteous people who eat as Allah intended. Proud of his inventiveness, Ahmed climbs back into his tower and, like a hunter, watches silently for his prey. He is bored, but these are the best of times because he is alone and no one is torturing him.
Ahmed’s stomach is empty and that produces a terrible thought. What about eating pork? For the last two weeks a fight has grown inside him. At night he dreams about food, good food, the right food. Now, in the solitude of his tower, he thinks about last night’s dream. A talking pig came to Ahmed in his dream. The pig said, “Eat pork only at night, when Allah is asleep, and there will be no sin.” Now Ahmed eases back and thinks about the dream, its hidden meanings, and even its potential for prophecy.
One part of Ahmed wants to believe the pig was a good messenger. After all, it didn't look filthy or sinful. It was even humanlike. But another part of Ahmed tells him the devil can turn into different forms and lead him into sin. Yes, there was something suspicious about the pig and its way of talking. It smacked its lips and winked when it said that Allah sleeps at night. What a shame it would be if the pig were really the devil. It was such a pleasant dream, such a nice pig, until the end when the pig turned into a soldier who put a burning match between Ahmed's fingers.
Ahmed looks at his fingers, blistered from burning matches put between them while he slept. They call it a “balalaika” because of the wild strumming motion one makes when trying to fan away the pain.
“I should ask my brother to send me gloves,” thinks Ahmed. “I will sleep in them. Good idea, those gloves. After I began to sleep in my boots they stopped putting matches between my toes to make me dance like a bear. I will tell my brother not to send cologne this time, or the senior men will take it away from me and drink it up again.”
Slowly, as he thinks, his thoughts soften and he starts to fall asleep again even as he struggles to stay awake. He wants to nap, in hopes of seeing the pig again.
“Maybe the pig brought me a good message,” thinks Ahmed, “Eating pork would make life easier.” Then warmth envelopes him. He thinks of shooting an escapee and going on vacation. Right out in front of him is the bait. He starts to dream of the mountains of his homeland. Suddenly he hears the sound of a distant siren and awakens. If an officer finds him sleeping he’ll go to prison himself. The thought of being in a penal battalion wakes him completely
Ahmed looks at his watch. It is time to offer up a prayer. In his village he was known as a righteous and intelligent boy who never missed a prayer, and he won’t miss one here, so far away from home. Ahmed falls to his knees and begins to pray. He finds great comfort in his prayer. He is now in harmony with Allah. When his prayer is finished, Ahmed rises in peace and looks out over his land. The cigarettes and lard are gone. Someone took the bait but it was Ahmed who had broken free.