[Short story was published in “The Southampton Review” in July, 2007, and was named a “Glimmer Train” award finalist in April, 2007 and a Pushcart Prize nominee]
Hot. Steam rises from their heads. This one in my hands squirms when I douse him with water. He sits in a steel basin the size of a large soup bowl and shrieks like the rest. The tent morphs into a cavern of yelps as we pour cupfuls over their burnt skulls then squeeze the dirty excess from washcloths. I wipe Chidi down, he cries louder. Every touch — the lifting of an arm to get underneath, the pulling back of an ear to wipe behind — is a pinch or the cause of an ache. Each movement demands energy his cells don’t have. Energy requires food, after all, and here there isn’t enough. The heat saps the body like a mosquito drinks blood.
A crooked rivulet of sweat itches my cheek, sinks and drizzles off my chin. I swipe at the trail with a shrug then finish bathing the boy. The children are washed inside the tent in the mornings, if their mothers let them be taken. Salaam comes to me next. I call him Sam and Chidi is his brother. They are the same height, roughly the same weight. Chidi is two years older, but was born premature: a cruel thing, to come into this life early. Then to suffer kwashiorkor: the further starvation an elder child endures when a new born arrives, demanding care.
Chidi’s disposition is rightly cantankerous. He wails when I dry his body and set him back down beside Jumilla. With the wet washcloth removed, he again sits bare beneath the glare of the sub-Saharan sun. Sam merely cringes when I gather him into my arms to carry him from his mother and their hut, a mound of straw draped in blue-and-white plastic sheeting to look sturdier than it is.
The Oxfam tent is green and full of tears. To bathe Sam in it, I must step over and through twigs called limbs. A crunch on an arm will break it, an inadvertent kick to a leg can cause a spasm, a seizure. I cradle Sam close so I can see my feet as I walk. His warm cheek braces against my shoulder, his eyes squint at the sun, which smolders us slow. Spittle forms about the corners of his mouth. Three years old and his stomach looks like it should belong to a boy of twelve, a menace from Louisiana with a passion for French fries.
Sam has suckled his mother, but hasn’t eaten since I last bathed him, three days. I place him on the edge of the wobbly table. His legs thin like stork limbs dangle off. He sits, quiet and hungry, while I dump out the water dirtied by Chidi’s grime into a basin. To bathe them, I have a jerry can of well water, washcloths, and a small ceramic cup decorated with roses. Sam is a good spirit. We’re not to get attached to them, of course. They don’t stand much chance of living past five. I lift him into the tub and give him a bit of soft rice, folding it into his mouth. His lips part quick, grazing over my callused hands like innocent kisses. Chewing is a chore for Sam, swallowing an exercise. I shake a rattle in front of his face. Gold tint covers the toy and Sam, as any child would do, follows its motion with his eyes. His ears, I hope, delight in the sound, making it easier for the rice to slide past his esophagus into his bloated, malnourished belly I smooth with a sponge.
The bellies: I’ve seen them all my life, clicking by on the TV. Bellies like this, fat, hard, ripe for sickness. Sam’s kidney fails him when he digests. A rock would serve as a better sieve than his liver. The boy has diarrhea. His body’s organs are so whittled they can’t absorb the nutrients of the bits of food he gets, such is the devilishness of famine.
He has good teeth, Sam. (At least they’re straight and white.) He likes to grin. A plastic flower decorates the head of the rattle that hypnotizes him. So entranced is he by the gold tint and the high-pitched sound I fear if I set aside the rattle he will pout or cry. Around us, the room empties. The cacophony of shrieking babies and industrious relief workers gives way to the hum of an approaching helicopter. All of the people — the throng of refugees, the workers, the dwindling number of volunteers willed here by religion — rush to see who has come in the chopper, what they have brought. Sam and I are left alone with the sounds of the rattle and our breaths.
I remove the Oxfam badge from around my neck. “Hush, little baby, don’t you cry” — I unlatch the cord moist with my sweat — “mama’s gonna by you a diamond string.” The boy’s eyes glint, tracing the movements of the rattle as I thread it onto the cord. When I’m done, the rattle and Oxfam badge settle against my ribs like a ridiculous necklace. In front of Sam’s face, I clap. “Boo,” I say. His eyes widen, suddenly alert. They meet mine briefly then shift back to the toy. I resume scrubbing his bones and the motion causes the minuscule ball bearings inside my funny jewelry to ping. The song delights the child, coaxing the scrawniest hand you could imagine to slap water. At first, I think Sam is demanding food, a reaction to the noisy chopper. But playfulness shines in his brown pupils. A mischievous smile pokes up from the edges of his mouth.
I pause with the washcloth to shake the toy for him. As the rattle peals louder and louder, his teeth gleam. The rattle ping-ping-pings for Sam. Joy leaps from the child’s throat. I shake the toy faster, I shake it and giggle and laugh; I shake it until his face shrinks and his eyes broaden with panic and his throat fills with the rice it had just let pass down.
Sam throws up. “Poor baby,” I say and stretch for a clean cloth. I press it against his mouth.
He cries, but it’s not the caterwaul of his brother. Sam sobs with such reluctance it sounds as if he feels guilty for doing so.
I use a separate bowl to dilute his little bit of vomit and finish with his bath. The rattle has ended its carol. When I move now, it smacks against my body emitting a rhythmless toll.
Sam settles against my breasts when I hoist him from the tub. He curls a hand up to my neck and his fingers scratch my skin while playing with the cord. Outside the tent, the sun glows orange like a lamp. In my arms, I bounce Sam and we watch the rampage for the parcels. The helicopter has dropped the food in three clearings. People, bleating and screaming, swell like ants to the heavy grain bags that can weigh thirty pounds — the heft of the boy in my hands — or more. One or two people will be injured badly when the crowd dissipates. Boxes loaded with cardboard bundles have been seized by the agencies to be parceled out. The packages of rations contain a caloric blend of sorghum, oil, protein mix, beans, salt, and lentils. You can live off that. If there’s enough.
Thousands have fixed tents here, spreading out and around the encampment in a blue-and-white occupation of the destitute. They come by Kala Road, escaping the war on foot. Every day, more arrive. To come here means somewhere out there is a worse hell than this hell I know.
Sam’s mother is a woman whose skin resembles charred wood, rough hewn and full of bumps. While I bathed her youngest son, Jumilla had gone to collect firewood, leaving Chidi with a neighbor. Tomorrow, if she has the energy, she will walk the three dry logs to the market outside of the Kala camp and sell them. With what money she gets, she’ll buy a loaf of bread, maybe a box of biscuits. That purchase and whatever food is granted from the UN drop shipment means Sam will be fed before I see him again. He is asleep when I hand him back to his mother, who removes her hand from the valuable firewood to take her baby. Her lips mouth a Muslim prayer; I hear “Allah” and comprehend nothing more. I brush a hand over Sam’s cheek and remove the rattle from my Oxfam-issue lanyard, leaving it for him. Chidi, awake and leaning against his weary mother, stretches an empty hand, which I tap good-bye before retreating to the tent.
The night lurks forward in the desert. The sun beats on us until it no longer has the strength to pound then it gives way to the black — cold with wind and storms of dust. We in the Oxfam tents have kerosene lamps and ear plugs to keep out the howls of night, the scary sounds suited for this waste land.
I sleep in a cot, bundled so close to the wall of the tent my nose brushes its Kevlar. We sleep beneath warm blankets made in Spain. Outside, people like Sam and his family, the displaced thousands in this camp and the millions around this continent of sorrow, shiver. Their tents and huts are porous, the wind will penetrate during the night. To shield Sam and Chidi, Jumilla will cover them with a blanket. She herself will bundle in her thin head scarf, hiding her eyes from the grains of sand pitched at her face. Others won’t last. I know it as I slip into sleep. The cold, like the heat, like the starvation, kills in the desert.
In the morning, the count comes: seventeen dead. The German medical team tends to the bodies, wrapping them up, driving them away from the camp to be burned. At the river’s edge: more death. I go to the banks of the Yew for water and to spend the useful hours of the day helping to build latrines from kits and schematics. Near the tributary, though, we find animals: two donkeys and a young goat so thin the contour of its ribs can be seen beneath its skin. The skin, in fact, wraps taut to the bone and appears like a simple hood for the skeleton. Starvation has killed again. The mouth of one donkey gapes and flies invade its tongue, buzzing onto it then darting away. No moisture or nourishment exists on that slab of pale flesh. Mosquitoes have already spiked the beast in the throat and rump, draining it of blood, leaving it diseased and unedible.
The six of us abandon the latrine project at the sight of the carcasses. I curl my nose and wish for perfume as I bend to take the first donkey’s hindleg. With three others, I carry it to the rear of the truck and we pass it to the two Australians standing on the flatbed. The four of us on the ground treat the beast as if it were a piano, angling it in, careful not to butt its head against any of the truck’s hard edges.
The Aussies get it right. They plop the donkey onto the flatbed as soon as it’s aboard.
The animal croaks when it lands and shit splurts from its ass, staining its upper leg and the wood beneath its body. The other donkey then the goat are loaded in, and Max, a Brit from Eastbourne with a welt above his left eye, squints as he takes the driver side.
I climb into the front with him while the two Aussies stay in the back alongside the dead. The two volunteers we leave behind will fill jerry cans with water before heading back to the camp. The truck’s engine coughs when Max starts it and the brakes creak as he shifts into gear. Behind us, the Aussies sit on the frame of the flatbed, gripping the steel sides as the truck rolls away. One of them owns a hat apparently precious to him; he clamps it between his knees rather than risk having it fly off his head. He should know hats don’t go lost here, particularly ones with the demarkations of a Sydney cricket team. Someone would eventually find and return it. The need for clothing isn’t so great. People can live in rags; they cannot live without food.
Dirt covers Kala Road. Sinkholes dot the path like the craters of exploded land mines. Max can’t avoid dropping in one wheel or another as we ride. We move lurching forward, dipping left, then right, rumbling like an elephant.
I cry on the way. Max touches my shoulder with the slightest graze of his fingertips. His hands are needed for the road and can’t stray long from the wheel.
“Is all right, dear. Is all right,” he says, his voice gravelly.
“Is it?” I look at him. My tone sounds accusatory and elicits the proper response.
“Of course it’s not all all right. But there are some bits that make it bearable, you know. Some bits.” His lips quiver. They’re chapped; grayish stubble dots his chin and mouth; his neck appears leathery from too much sun. Max has done this for a long time. “You have to believe that if you’re ever going to get by. God gives these people strength to come a long way to get to us, Lana. That’s what makes it all right.”
He swings the truck down a short path lined with sorry acacia and baobab trees. The shocks have eroded, making the truck as stable as a raft on water. I bend down, keeping my skull safe from hitting the roof of the cab. With squeaks and squeals, the trundling stops, far from the river. The door handles are stainless steel. To touch them would risk skin. Max and I use rags to yank on the scorching metal plates. We get out with palms unpeeled.
The Aussies have already hauled out the goat. Max and I join them in removing the carcasses of the two donkeys from the flatbed, dragging them along the dusty ground the color of clay to the designated pyre in the sand. Bones from the last bonfire remain. Max squirts lighter fluid over the three animals and each Aussie lights a match to snap the fire to action. I walk away as the orange blaze rises, filling the air with smoke and the acrid smell of charred donkey and goat. We don’t have to stay. It’s early — the sun will do the rest. The fire will smolder through the day then die out at night when the wind swirls up the sand to kill it.
But the Aussies are not eager to get back.
In the camp, work awaits. Water to deliver, a filtration plant to engineer, bodies to help the Germans collect, names to learn, children to avoid loving.
Near the truck, one of them, a chunky guy named Dillon, hands me a flask. I snatch it and raise it quickly to my lips. “Grappa,” he says, warning me. “Drink slow.”
I frown and take just a sip. The liquor makes me wince, even a mere nip of it swells my thirst, the parchness in my throat.
“What a clusterfuck,” the other one, Jackson, says. His accent is thick, his voice drooling with awe as he watches the animals burn. I pass him the flask. “What a fuckin’ disaster,” he says and tugs the bill of his cap.
That look is on his face. The sad, hopeless expression of cognizance. Jackson, I can see, has awoken to the unendingness of the task. Was it really the three bodies of starved animals that settled it for him or just this respite from the camp? A break that allowed him time to contemplate his experience in Africa?
They’ve been here for two months. Dillon drinks constantly. He and Jackson have started to camp outside the Oxfam tents, sharing the illegal liquor in their flask with some of the abler refugees. The two of them won’t be here long. They’ve done their part, they can tell their mates back home. Did their time in the world of the humanitarian. They’ll leave behind the people, but their minds will pack away this misadventure like a memento or souvenir; some inanimate trinket to pull out of the closet and show off to guests.
For the rest of their lives Jackson and Dillon will have stories to tell of the refugee camp on Kala Road. They’ll speak of the oddity of knee-slapping laughter, which comes at night, when first-worlders like Jackson and Dillon, and sometimes me, drink with the one-armed men of Africa who must first put down their glasses before they can pat their knees and cackle at a joke full burst. Some of these same men sing dirges in mellifluous tones when they are sober and their minds have wandered from the worries of their plight to cajole out of their throats a tune from home. Jackson and Dillon surely have memorized a few melodies, as they have the awful sounds in the dark: the panicked shouts of men who awake hallucinating about the Sudanese bombs and machine-gun fire that drove them from their homes.
Dillon will whisper when he curses disease and what it does. He will look away shaking his head. His voice will trail off and Jackson will shift the subject to an anectode less sorrowful: one about spider monkeys squealing in the jungle, or the medicinal taste of alcohol, or the abominable lack of media, who are counted on to provide cricket scores. Or perhaps there’s a story to tell about the sheila from New York who would put her lips to their flasks but never anywhere else.
Yes, Jackson and Dillon will recall all of us, when they’re ready. For now, they’ll fuck off to Thailand, sun themselves on a beach, smoke dope with kids from Europe, meander through the Far East then head Down Under. And before long go back to thinking nothing’s wrong.