Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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The following is a work of fiction.
Disguised as a young Dinka woman, God came at dusk to a refugee camp in the North Darfur region of Sudan. He wore a flimsy green cotton dress, battered leather sandals, hoop earrings, and a length of black-and-white beads around his neck. Over his shoulder he carried a cloth sack which held a second dress, a bag of sorghum, and a plastic cup. He’d manifested a wound in the meat of his right calf, a jagged, festering gash that was attracting flies. The purpose of the wound was twofold. First, it enabled him to blend in with the residents of the camp, many of whom bore similar injuries from the slashing machetes of Janjaweed raiding parties. Second, the intense, burning ache helped to mitigate the guilt he felt at the lot of the refugees, over which he was, due to an implacable polytheistic bureaucracy, nearly powerless.
It was these imposed limitations that had driven God, finally, to abandon his celestial post and come to Darfur. For millennia he’d been forced by his superiors to observe and document suffering without intervening in the slightest. For eons he’d followed orders, squelching the paternal feelings he had for his creations and turning a deaf ear to their pleas. But no more. He was not the omnipotent God most of them imagined — his knowledge of things was incomplete, and the miraculous abilities he did have were like cheap parlor tricks compared to the infinite powers attributed to him by man. He could not save the righteous or smite the wicked, but he could create for himself a physical form, and he could search for and find a boy named Thomas Mawien.
There was nothing unusual, in this place of wholesale murder, about Thomas’s sorry fate. In fact, it was the very commonness of his plight — thousands of Dinka had, like him, seen their families slaughtered and been sold into slavery — that made him the perfect symbol of his people’s suffering and the ideal recipient of God’s repentance. In his relative powerlessness God had come to believe in the importance of small kindnesses and symbolic gestures, and while he could not save the Dinka, could not restore their families or their farms to them, he could find Thomas and, upon finding him, throw himself down and beg forgiveness.
Also, God did have the bag of sorghum, and the bag of sorghum was infinite, so that he was able to offer the sweet grain to others endlessly. For weeks he’d done this, following the path of the Lol River through scorched plains, posing as Thomas’s fictitious sister Sora, giving away sorghum and asking if anyone knew the boy. Most said no. Some, grateful for the food and eager to offer something in return, claimed to have seen him as recently as the day before, headed north, away from the fighting, or else southeast, but when God followed their directions, he became hopelessly lost. Without the river to guide him, he wandered in wide circles, often coming upon the same boulder or stand of trees days after he’d first seen it. Denying himself the sorghum, he ate leaves, abuk roots, and on one occasion what was left of an ostrich carcass after it had been picked over by both people and hyenas.
He suffered under the sun he’d created. Sick with heat and cholera, he collapsed in a field of spindly yellow grass. His dress rode up immodestly, but he was paralyzed by exhaustion, unable even to cover himself, and when two wild dogs came and began walking wide, hungry circles around him, he could not move to drive them away.
Deliverance came in the form of the Janjaweed. The dogs heard their approach and bolted, but God could only lie in the grass and listen as the mass of horses and Land Rovers rumbled closer, like some great and terrible machine that drove every living thing before it, shaking the earth as it passed. The Janjaweed saved him from the dogs, and his paralysis saved him from the Janjaweed; had he been able to rise and run, they would have captured him easily, and seeing in him not the creator of this universe, but rather a slender Dinka woman with a long, elegant neck and almond-shaped eyes, they would have raped him over and over until he died from the trauma.
But God remained hidden as the Janjaweed sped past all around him. Birds took to the sky; rodents scrambled for the safety of their burrows. Even the mosquitoes and cicadas fled. Bursts of semiautomatic fire sounded over the riot of diesel engines and galloping horses. A hoof, cracked and badly shoed, struck the ground inches from God’s head. Still he could not move, did not make a sound.
And then, as quickly as they’d come, the Janjaweed were gone, leaving in their wake a silence so absolute even God had a difficult time believing it was real.
When he came to, it was light, and he found he could move again, if slowly and with great effort. He rose and followed the path of the Janjaweed — the trampled grass and burned huts and dead things of every description — which led due north, and when he again reached the bank of the Lol, he threw himself into the shallow water and drank greedily and tasted dirt and shit and did not care.
Early that afternoon, God entered the refugee camp along a rutted dirt path and approached the only people in sight, an elderly couple sitting together in the dust beneath a tamarind tree. Behind them the empty camp spread out in clusters of fragile huts made from thatch and torn white plastic tarps.
“Kudual,” God said to the old couple in greeting. “Are you hungry? You look hungry.”
The man sat hunched over and asleep, his bare legs folded like two bent sticks beneath him. The woman raised her eyes slowly and nodded yes. God offered the endless sorghum to her. With a hand as shriveled as a strip of jerked meat she reached in and removed a small amount, then held it to her chest with both hands, nodding modestly and muttering words of thanks.
“Take more,” God said. “Please. There’s plenty.”
Without hesitating, the old woman did so. She placed the sorghum on the ground beside her, grasped and kissed God’s hand (at which he, embarrassed and heartsick at the limits of his ability to help these people, demurred), then woke her husband with a rude jab of one bony elbow.
“Go find wood, and water for boiling,” she said. “We have food.”
With the deliberateness of someone who has learned never to feel too blessed, no matter how good the news, the man unfolded himself and stood up. God watched him recede into the empty camp.
“That man once owned five hundred head of cattle,” the woman said. “Now look at him.”
“Old woman, may I ask,” God said, “do you know a boy named Thomas Mawien? Fifteen years old, but quite tall? He was taken as a slave by the Janjaweed many years ago, but he has escaped.”
“I don’t know him,” the woman replied. “But that doesn’t mean he’s not here.”
“It doesn’t look like anyone’s here,” God said. “Did the Janjaweed attack?”
The woman laughed, revealing red, toothless gums. “No, not today,” she said. “Today, with the big man here, we’ll be safe.”
“Which man is this?”
“The ajak, big man. Fat and pale like a mango. He comes to see us from America. Wherever that is. Walks around, smiles, shakes hands.”
From America. God knew, then, who this ajak was, and how he might be able to use him to find Thomas.
The woman continued. “Then, tomorrow, he will go home —” she made a motion with her hand like a plane lifting into the air — “and the Janjaweed will come back.”
“Where is he now?” God asked.
“On the west side of the camp,” the woman said. “That’s why you don’t see anyone. They’re all following him around out there, singing and dancing like fools.”
The U.S. secretary of state hid from an angry sun in the air-conditioned interior of his Chevrolet Suburban. Head down, he spoke quietly into a satellite telephone. A senior State Department official sat on the leather bench seat opposite him, holding the secretary’s linen Ralph Lauren jacket across his lap. Outside, the Diplomatic Security Service detail had formed a tight perimeter around the parked Suburban. To a man they wore black boots, khaki pants and vests, mirrored sunglasses, and thigh holsters with SIG Sauer P229 pistols. Each brandished a Heckler & Koch MP5 submachine gun. The DSS agents scanned the singing, ululating crowd of Dinka refugees, exchanged information (and the occasional one-liner) via tiny earpieces, and maintained a robotic, perspiration-free command presence despite the ninety-five-degree heat.
With a curse, the secretary turned off the telephone. “Tell me something,” he said to the official. “Why do I always end up relaying messages through the lowliest goddamn subassistant deputy aides in the White House? Why, in almost four years, have I gotten through directly to that redneck son of a bitch only three times?”
“I don’t know, sir,” the official said. “Maybe that gaffe you made in the Post last February? But listen, we should go over our key words for tonight’s press conference.”
“I’ll tell you why,” the secretary said. “Because I’m black.”
The official, uncertain, said, “Well, maybe, sir.”
“The same reason I got this job in the first place,” the secretary continued. “Because I’m black. I got the job because I’m black, and my boss won’t talk to me because I’m black.”
“If I may speak frankly, sir,” the official said. “I’m not sure black is the word I’d use to describe you.”
The secretary deployed a fierce, wide-eyed gaze he’d perfected as a young army officer. “Oh no?” he said.
The official, realizing he’d stepped squarely in the metaphorical pile of dung, tried to backtrack. “Well of course, I mean, ethnologically speaking, you’re black. Sir. Of course. I was thinking more of your appearance, a sort of benign, nonthreatening, ashy sort of tone which —”
“I’m black as night, motherfucker!” With a sweep of his hand, the secretary indicated the throng of Dinka surrounding the Suburban. “Those people out there,” he said, “are my brothers and sisters. My family.”
“Of course they are, sir,” the official said. “I apologize, sir.”
“Good. You’re still employed. For the moment.”
“Back to the key words for tonight, sir. If we may.”
“Make it fast.”
“OK, so we’re talking about the Sudanese government and our attitude toward them. Key words for our attitude, as regards the humanitarian situation here, include but are not limited to: steady, demand, firm, control the Janjaweed, do what’s right, and solution.”
“Got it,” the secretary said.
“Key words for the Sudanese government include, but are not limited to: denial, avoidance, responsibility, militarism, racism, and — here’s your ace in the hole, sir; it’ll bring the house down — obfuscate. It means ‘to obscure or confuse.’ ”
“I know what the fuck it means.”
“Of course, sir. Sorry.”
“OK. I’ll go out and do my little soft-shoe routine. Make it look like that hillbilly actually gives a shit what’s going on here.”
There was a sudden commotion outside. The secretary looked up and saw two DSS agents restraining what was surely the most beautiful young woman he had ever seen. The agents struggled to keep the woman away from the Suburban. One grasped at the green fabric of her dress, while the other applied a chokehold and issued a firm textbook directive for her to cease and desist. Still the woman continued to call to the secretary through the window’s reflective, bulletproof, blast-resistant glass. A third agent moved to join the fray, pistol drawn and pointed at the woman’s head.
The secretary threw open the door of the Suburban to a hammer stroke of dry heat. “What’s wrong with you men?” he hollered. “Let her go!”
The agent choking the woman loosened his grip. “She rushed the vehicle, Mr. Secretary,” he said.
With a fierce gesture, the secretary called the agent over to him. “Perhaps you failed to notice the hundred or so cameras here,” he whispered through clenched teeth. “And perhaps you failed to notice that this girl speaks perfect, unaccented English; doesn’t that strike you as a bit odd in this place, you dumb cracker?”
“Yes, Mr. Secretary. I suppose it does.”
“Then let her go, and let her speak.”
The agent turned and motioned to his colleagues, who stepped aside. The woman lifted her cloth sack from where it had fallen in the dirt, straightened her dress, and approached the Suburban.
The secretary smiled. “What can I do for you, young lady?”
“Mr. Secretary,” the woman said, her large eyes brimming with tears, “I need your help.”
“We are anxious to see the end of militarism,” the secretary of state said. “We are anxious to see the Janjaweed brought under control and disbanded so people can leave the camps in safety and go back to their homes.”
In front of the cameras, under a large canvas tent erected for the press conference, God sat to the secretary’s immediate right. To the secretary’s left, the Sudanese foreign minister tried without success to summon a smile to his face. The senior State Department official stood just out of view of the cameras, hanging on the secretary’s every word.
“I’ve delivered a steady message to the Sudanese government that the violence must be addressed,” the secretary said to the assembled reporters. “The solution has to rest with the government doing what’s right.”
He turned to Sudan’s foreign minister, who finally managed a smile of benevolence and cooperation by envisioning the secretary’s head atop a pike.
“To that end, in a show of good faith, the Sudanese foreign minister has agreed to assist in locating Thomas Mawien, who was abducted by the Janjaweed and forced into slavery a decade ago, and whose sister Sora, seated here with me, has asked for our help in finding her brother. For my part, I’ve promised Sora that I will not leave Darfur until she and Thomas are reunited. So we’ll all be sticking around a little longer than we’d thought.”
The State Department official, whose left eyelid had begun to twitch as the secretary wandered farther and farther off message, now performed a spasmodic little dance as he fought the impulse to rush in and swat the cluster of microphones off the table.
“As we speak,” the secretary continued, “units of the Sudanese army are scouring the region for Thomas Mawien. Once he is returned to his sister in good condition, then, and only then, can we be assured that the Sudanese government is not merely continuing its campaign of denial and avoidance. Only then can we be assured that they are no longer trying to obfuscate and avoid any consequences.
“Thank you,” the secretary said, rising from his seat. “That’s all for now.”
The mass of reporters rose with him, waving their hands and clamoring as one attention-starved organism. The senior State Department official rushed in, screaming, “That’s it! No more questions!” The secretary put an arm around God, held the pose for several seconds while the cameras flashed, then turned and offered his hand to the foreign minister. For a moment the foreign minister merely stood and regarded the hand as one regards a dead squirrel or a fresh pile of dog feces, but when the secretary fixed him with a fierce stare, he gave it a limp, spiteful shake. Then, flanked by his entourage, the secretary turned and strode out of the tent.
As the DSS agents began herding reporters out into the arid night, the official turned to the secretary. “Due respect, sir,” he said, “but are you insane? We’re scheduled to be in Indonesia tomorrow. Sir, it’s already tomorrow in Indonesia.”
“Indonesia isn’t going anywhere,” the secretary told him.
“Besides which,” the official said, “besides which, sir, and forgive me if I’m out of line here, but our function is not to order foreign governments around. Our function is to persuade and convince.”
“Fuck that,” the secretary said. “I’m a general, don’t forget. And generals give orders. Like I’m giving you an order right now: leave me alone.”
The official’s satellite telephone rang, a shrill, angry sound. He clawed at his jacket, found the phone, and clutched it to his ear with both hands.
“Yes?” His face blanched. “Yes, sir. . . . Sir, I don’t know. . . . This is as much a surprise to . . . I have no idea why the secretary has turned off his telephone. . . . Sir, let me . . . let me assure you that I remain a faithful servant of the admin— . . . Sir, perhaps you’d like to speak with . . . Yes, sir, he’s right here.”
The official thrust the phone at the secretary. “It’s the president.”
The secretary waved it away. “Take a message,” he said.
© Maureen Beitler
The aide seated next to the foreign minister in the back of the Land Rover hadn’t noticed that morning how rough the road was between the refugee camp and El Fasher, where they were staying during the American’s visit. Tonight, though, as they drove across dried mud plains under the silver face of a new moon, it seemed the minute vibration of every crack and pebble was amplified a thousandfold in the freshly broken bones of his forearm.
The young aide had learned, in the few seconds it had taken for the foreign minister to coolly and expertly snap his right radius into two distinct pieces, a few lessons:
1. The minister’s famous smile was the equivalent of a smile on a shark.
2. The minister’s slender build belied tremendous physical strength.
3. It was not wise to speak to the minister when he’d just been humiliated by a foreign diplomat, especially one from America.
Pain instructs. The aide had assimilated these lessons so completely that he dared not make a sound now. Even as the vehicle rattled and bucked, rubbing raw, jagged bone on bone, he didn’t so much as whimper.
The minister himself finally broke the agonized silence.
“I want you to call Rahman,” he said to the aide. “Tell him his men have until noon tomorrow to find this boy.”
The aide considered asking if he should issue a specific threat along with the order, but then decided, based upon his recent experience, that a grave threat was probably implicit.
“Yes, Mr. Minister,” he said through gritted teeth.
“We’ll deliver the boy to the American,” the foreign minister said. “He will be satisfied, and then he will go away. But the moment the wheels of his plane leave the runway, I’ll take the leash off the Janjaweed. And I won’t put it back on until every Dinka in that camp is dead.”
“I’ve never questioned any of my decisions,” the secretary of state told God. “Not as a kid, not in Vietnam, not as chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Plenty of opportunities to wonder if I was doing the right thing. Sixty-seven years, a skyrocket of a career — I never once doubted any decision I made. Then, on the plane here, I get a phone call — a simple phone call, lasted maybe three minutes — and suddenly I’m certain, absolutely certain, that every choice I made before today was wrong.”
The secretary sat cross-legged on the dirt floor of the conference tent. God lay in one of the cots the secretary had ordered brought in after telling the senior State Department official they would not be returning to the hotel in El Fasher. Outside, beyond the ring of DSS agents standing guard, they could hear the quiet conversations of Dinka families, the pop and hiss of campfires, the sigh of a steady plains wind.
“Except for marrying my wife,” the secretary said. “That was the right decision. But other than that.”
Despite an acute awareness of his responsibility for the circumstances that had led to the secretary’s crisis of confidence, God was exhausted, sick with both guilt and a blood infection from the gash on his leg, which was hidden beneath the green dress. He found himself wishing the secretary would be quiet so he could sleep.
Still, the guilt won out, and he asked, “Who was the phone call from?”
The secretary shifted his bulk and sighed. “A woman named Rita. I knew her a long time ago, when we were children. Her brother Keith and I were friends. Keith was murdered, and I was the only person who knew what had happened. But I never told. I was just a kid.”
“I’m sorry,” God said. “I know how she must feel.”
For a moment neither of them spoke.
“Rita’s at a retirement home in South Carolina now, dying of liver cancer,” the secretary said.
“Did you tell her?” God asked.
“I’m sure Rita is grateful,” God said, “to finally know what became of her brother.”
But the secretary shook his head. “I ask myself, finally,” he said, “how does a man become the first black assistant to the president for national-security affairs? How does a man become the first black chairman of the Joint Chiefs? How does a man become the first black secretary of state? And then I answer myself: by behaving, in every possible manner, like a white man.”
God said nothing. Instead he did what he always did, all he was allowed to do: sympathize, sympathize.
Later that night, however — after the fires had burned themselves down and filled the air with the thick, honeyed scent of smoldering cinders, after the conversations had faded one by one and been replaced by the gentle sound of forty thousand people dreaming the same dream under a sequined sky, after God had gone into a fevered sleep and even a few of the DSS agents had begun to flag and slump outside the tent — the secretary had to admit to himself that he’d committed political suicide today not just for the sake of pride and race, but for something simpler and more tangible: a chance at redemption.
Because it had not been gratitude that he’d heard in Rita’s voice. No. What had been converted from sound into electrical signals, sent through thousands of miles of telephone wire, uplinked and bounced from one satellite to another, then transmitted to his telephone and converted back into sound was pure, unalloyed grief. Fresh grief at Keith’s death, yes, but more than that: the grief of finding out too late to do anything about it.
And now here was this strange, beautiful girl, this Sora, who wanted nothing but to find her brother. The secretary, at least for the time being, had the power to help her do that. And he’d be damned if he wasn’t going to try.
Weeks later the senior State Department official (who had never been well liked precisely because his need to be liked was so transparently desperate) would find himself invited to every cocktail party and cigar-lounge bull session inside the Beltway, and he would relate, time and again, his insider’s version of the former secretary of state’s meltdown.
“It was a sudden, out-of-the-blue thing,” he told a group of young State Department attorneys during happy hour at the Hawk and Dove. By now the story was so well rehearsed that he didn’t need to think about what he was saying, but could simply enjoy having the undivided attention of so many people (in particular that one willowy blonde who was still young enough to chain-smoke with listless indifference and who, he would discover later that night, bore a vaguely Pentagon-shaped birthmark behind her left knee). “On the flight to Sudan, he got a call from some old bat he’d grown up with. The whole thing started,” the official said, “with a phone call.”
The group let out a collective groan of disbelief. Several took advantage of this break in the narrative to sip their microbrews and Cosmopolitans.
“How in the world did she get through on a secure line?” the blonde asked.
“The secretary’s wife pushed the call through,” the official said. “Apparently this woman called his home first.”
Another groan. Glasses clinked. Cigarettes flared. The official raised his eyebrows and shrugged his shoulders.
A lawyer whose vulpine features seemed familiar to the official chimed in. “You’re trying to tell us that the man who could have been the first black president of the United States was derailed by a call from his childhood sweetheart?”
The official smiled. “I’m telling you that the day after he took that call was the first time he called me a ‘no-good honky motherfucker.’ But it certainly wasn’t the last.”
Dawn broke torrid and clear over the camp and found God hunched in the entryway of the conference tent, wrapped in a military-issue wool blanket. Infection hummed in his blood. Shivering with fever, he watched as women dressed in brilliant reds and greens shuttled water in plastic buckets atop their heads. Others sat in a food queue that stretched out of sight into the dense congregation of lean-tos. These women stirred and rose to their feet as the secretary appeared, flanked by the senior State Department official and two DSS agents. A wave of chanting and clapping followed the secretary as he approached the conference tent. God could see he was smiling.
“Sora,” he said, clasping God’s hands in his own. “They’ve found Thomas.”
Practically underfoot, two young boys crouched and giggled as they bathed one another with water from a dented tin can marked BEANS.
Not sure that God had heard him, the secretary gave God’s hands an urgent squeeze. “Sora? They’ve found your brother. They’re on their way here.”
Over the secretary’s shoulder God saw a tawny cow being led by a teenage girl. The cow struggled to keep pace. Its ribs strained its skin with each step. Greenish foam blossomed at its nostrils, and its udder dangled like an empty glove. As God watched, the cow took half a step forward, staggered back, and died on its feet. For a moment the body remained standing. Then it began to collapse with terrible slowness, as if it remembered gravity but did not agree with it. The front legs folded at the knee, and the rear end listed to one side, dragging the rest of the body down into the dust.
In an instant flies swarmed around its mouth and eyes. The girl stared at the carcass with stunned indifference. Over the chanting of the women in the food queue and the giggling of the boys rose a high, steady sound, a single note of distilled grief, which God knew came from the girl, but even as she threw herself down and wrapped her arms around the dead animal, her face remained still and expressionless, almost catatonic.
The giggling and chanting and splashing and clapping went on and on. God felt with certainty and relief that he, too, was dying.
“Sora,” the secretary said. The smile was gone; he peered into God’s face with concern. “You should lie down. Thomas will be here soon.”
God allowed himself to be led back into the tent by the DSS agents. They eased him onto the cot and draped another blanket over him.
The secretary’s telephone rang somewhere inside his rumpled suit. “I want you to find someone from the medical tent,” he told an agent as he searched his pockets for the phone. “Get them in here as soon as possible.”
The secretary lifted the phone to his ear and turned away. “Yes,” he said. There was a pause. “Well, I’m afraid you can’t fire me. Because I quit.”
“I must be dumb as a brick,” the secretary said into the phone. He’d left the tent to avoid upsetting Sora, and now he strode angrily and without direction through the camp, shouting into the telephone, trailed by one anxious DSS agent and a steadily growing crowd of Dinka admirers. “Because I actually thought your stupid ass might be capable of seeing that, in this instance, the right thing to do is also the smart thing to do, politically speaking.”
“Smart politically because if you got behind what I’m doing here, people would see a president transcending the rhetoric of diplomacy and acting for once. Doing something good, no matter how small.”
“Don’t give me ‘delicate and complicated.’ What am I, some bright-eyed Georgetown undergrad, out to change the world? It’s only delicate and complicated because we make it delicate and complicated.”
“What happened to me? You want to know what happened to me.”
“All right. Let me give you a hypothetical: Let’s say you’re a black kid growing up in the Bronx. Imagine it’s the hottest summer you’ve seen in your eight years, and the war’s over, and everyone in the neighborhood has lost their job because all the white men have come back from Europe and the Pacific looking for work themselves. And so everyone’s packed in on everyone else, every day, in the heat. Then say someone decides he’s had enough, and he picks up a rock and breaks a window. Who knows why? Maybe he’s an anarchist; maybe he’s a labor-union agitator; maybe he’s just bored. For a week after that you smell tear gas every morning when you wake up. A third of the buildings on your block burn to the ground.
“Now imagine your mother, who saw much worse than this where she’s from and maybe isn’t as worried as she should be, tells you to go to the store. She sends you with a boy named Keith, who lives in your building. Keith is fourteen and supposed to keep you out of trouble. Except there’s nothing but a scorched foundation where the store used to be, so you have to walk sixteen blocks north, all the way to Cab’s Grocery. On your way back the milk and oranges are getting heavy, and Keith wants to take a shortcut. So you duck down an alley, and Keith tells you to climb this chain-link fence and he’ll pass you the food, except you only get halfway up the fence before a cop grabs you by the seat of your pants and pulls you off.
“The cop slams you on the pavement and presses his dress shoe on your neck. You smell dirt and shoe polish. Pebbles bite the side of your face. You try to turn your head, but the boot presses harder, and the cop says, ‘Just take it easy, boyo.’
“A second cop is talking to Keith. ‘What are you jigs up to? You going to break into this place?’ And Keith, who is always getting into fights he can’t win because his mouth is a lot bigger than the rest of him, says, ‘Fuck you.’
“Then you hear a sound like someone hitting a side of beef with a baseball bat, over and over, and Keith is crying, then screaming, then silent.
“ ‘Jesus Christ,’ says the cop whose foot is on your neck.
“You’re jerked to your feet and thrown face-first against the fence. The second cop presses against you from behind. His body is trembling. He hooks his fingers through the fence and leans close and whispers in your ear. ‘Not a word to anyone, you fucking niglet.’ His breath is hot and moist on your cheek and stinks like onions.
“They let you go. You run all the way home, and your mother wants to know what happened, what’s wrong, where’s Keith, where’s the food. But you don’t tell. Your father returns from work and asks you the same questions, and you don’t tell. A few days later the police come and sit at the kitchen table and drink your mother’s coffee and ask the same questions, but their voices are all too terribly familiar, and you don’t tell.
“You keep this secret your whole life. You do such a good job of keeping it that after a while it seems like maybe it didn’t happen at all, maybe it was a story someone else told you, or a dream.
“Half a century later, you’re flying to Sudan on a diplomatic mission one night, and you get a phone call. It’s Keith’s sister. You’re one of the world’s most powerful men, and she’s just an old lady dying of cancer, but by God she insists you’re finally going to tell her what she wants to know. If you don’t, she says, you will have to live with her hatred forever, in this life, and the next. This woman, she’s so sick she can barely speak, but you wilt under her anger, her grief. You haven’t thought about Keith for years, but you do now, and it all comes back to you, as real as if it happened yesterday: the wet smack of the nightstick on his skull, the smell of oranges crushed on hot pavement. Real. It happened. It was not a dream.
“And then you realize you’re the only black person on this plane.”
“How would you feel? How would you talk? How would you behave, you silver-spoon, master-of-the-universe motherfucker?”
A motorcade of five army jeeps and one late-model Land Rover tore into the refugee camp at noon, kicking up dust and scattering children. The secretary watched as the procession ground to a halt in front of the conference tent. Angry-looking men in dirty fatigues spilled from the jeeps, assault rifles in hand. The foreign minister emerged from the Land Rover, followed by his aide (who wore a clumsy, makeshift splint on his right forearm) and finally a tall, crook-backed boy dressed only in tattered shorts and sandals.
The three approached the secretary. The foreign minister motioned to the boy. “Introduce yourself,” he said.
“I am Thomas Mawien,” the boy said in labored English. He looked at the foreign minister, then cast his eyes to the ground. “The brother of Sora.”
“I know who you are, son.” The secretary hugged the boy, then turned to lead him into the tent.
“You are satisfied, Mr. Secretary?” the foreign minister called after them.
“Just wait here,” the secretary said.
Inside was dark and cool. Motes drifted on the air, illuminated by a shaft of sunlight from the open entryway. A doctor stood beside God’s cot, adjusting the flow of an IV drip.
“Sora,” the secretary said. “Thomas is here.”
God opened his eyes, blinked a few times, coughed weakly.
The secretary pulled the doctor aside. “How long will the treatment take?” he asked. “We’re leaving today for Indonesia.”
“It is not possible,” the doctor told him. “She needs three or four rounds of antibiotics. Much too sick to travel. Maybe in a week or two, with improvement. But right now, no.”
God sat up and struggled to focus on the figure at the foot of the cot, thinking that his eyes, blurred by fever, were misleading him. He took a long look while the boy shifted from foot to foot, unsure what to do.
“You are not Thomas,” God said finally, in Arabic.
“I am,” the boy said without much conviction.
“No. Your face is similar, and you are tall like him. But you’re not Thomas.”
The boy implored God with his eyes. “Please,” he said quietly.
“The men who brought you here. Did they tell you to say you were my brother?”
“But you’re not. You’re not Thomas.”
The boy looked toward the secretary and the doctor. “No.”
“Did they threaten you? The soldiers?”
God regarded him for a moment, then said, “Turn around slowly so I can look at you.”
The boy did as he was told. His wrists, ankles, and neck all bore the banded scars left by rawhide straps tied too tight for too long. His back, twisted by work and malnutrition, was crisscrossed with the rougher, raised scars of the whip.
“Where do you come from?” God asked.
“Until this morning I tended goats for a man named Hamid.”
“And before that? Who were you before?”
“I don’t know,” the boy said. “I’ve forgotten.”
Guilt gathered in God’s throat and formed a lump there. He realized with sudden certainty that this boy, or any of the people in the camp — the men suddenly alone in their old age, the young women with disappeared husbands and hungry children — were as deserving as Thomas of his apology, would serve just as well as the altar upon which to confess his sins of omission and beg forgiveness. God slid from the cot and stooped on his knees before the boy, like a Muslim at prayer. The unfamiliar twinge of tears stung his eyes, and he was about to speak when the boy crouched and put a hand on his shoulder.
“Please,” the boy said, “get on your feet.” He cast frightened glances around the tent, as if expecting the foreign minister and the soldiers to appear at any moment.
God looked up. “I’m sorry,” he said.
“Please,” the boy said again, tugging urgently at the shoulder of God’s dress. “If you show weakness, it only makes them angry.”
Several hours after the secretary had departed, taking the boy with him and promising to return, God removed the IV from his arm and staggered outside. He gazed out toward the eastern horizon and spotted the first plane, a tiny blemish on the sky. Soon it was joined by three more, all drifting around one another in slow circles, like a swarm of tsetse flies.
Most of the camp’s inhabitants had taken shelter in their lean-tos or under tamarind trees to wait out the hottest part of the day, but as news spread of the odd spots in the distance, people began to stir. Mothers looked at the sky as though checking the weather, then roused the children and gathered their belongings as an ominous wall of dust formed in the east and the planes drew nearer, flying now in attack formation.
God crouched on his haunches, pulled the blanket tight around his shoulders, and waited. The Dinka scrambled with mounting urgency. They rushed to the well for a last drink of water and untethered the few goats and donkeys in their possession. One woman lost a sandal in her haste, but rather than stop to remove the other, she hobbled as fast as she could, clutching the wrist of her young daughter and pulling her along. Those who were late in rising simply got to their feet and ran, leaving behind everything they owned.
Sunlight glinted off the planes’ wingtips. From the wall of dust, trailing slightly behind the planes, God heard the first faint bursts of automatic gunfire. The ground began to tremble minutely.
Time and again the people still in the camp, realizing they were now trapped, called to God in a dozen different dialects. He laughed and cried at once. He had so many names, yet could not answer to any of them.
The planes flashed overhead. They pitched forward and dropped their payloads. God did not look up. He watched the dust storm, from which great black horses materialized like wraiths, their coats slick with foam, their nostrils flared. The men astride these horses swung wicked blades and took aim with their rifles. Their faces were hidden in checked scarves. The bombs whistled down, down. The ground shook. God closed his eyes and wished for someone he could pray to.
Ronald F. Currie Jr.
The short story “God Is Dead” in your December 2005 issue was audacious, moving, and powerful. Ronald F. Currie Jr. mixes empathetic horror with satire in a whole new way. As a Zimbabwean, I particularly appreciated how thoroughly he situated the story in Africa. Even the Americans were in Africa.