Authors: Stephen Dau
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Copyright © 2012 by Stephen Dau
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Published simultaneously in Canada
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Book design by Michelle McMillian
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
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hey arrived like a thought, tracing contrails across the deep sky as though writing out their intentions in letters too big to be fully seen from the earth. Or they flowed low and fast over the hills, their great machines arcing silently from horizon to horizon, so fast that they were there and gone before the roar from their engines caught up, screaming the news of their arrival even as they disappeared.
In the village they tried to make sense of it.
The imam said that the Americans were like the lion who had stepped on a thorn, and then went about making a great noise, roaring at the world from his pain. But it would soon pass, he said, when the thorn dried up and fell out, when the pain ebbed, and then tranquillity would be restored.
Younis’s father, on the other hand, said that no, this was only the beginning. The planes in the sky were like the first gray dusting of blight on the wheat, which this year might only affect a few sheaves, but which would spread over time, draining the golden crop of its color, rendering it foul and devoid of life.
Most of the villagers tended toward one or the other of these two points of view. But the discussions between them, while occasionally animated, as were most of their discussions, whether about God, or cricket, or livestock, lacked any real vehemence or certainty. The positions staked out were not hard and fixed, but were instead general inclinations to support one side or the other.
Because, in fact, nobody knew what to make of the visitors in the sky. No one could say for sure whether they were a temporary nuisance, as the imam thought, or a harbinger of disaster, as Younis’s father said, or even, as a very few dared to profess, brought with them tidings of better days ahead.
So they carried on as usual, bending over their scythes in their fields, or walking the low pastures with their flocks and their dogs. And whenever they spotted a line of smoke, high and pale like the daytime moon, or heard the jets echo from the surrounding mountains, they would look up, and then turn to one another and talk about what it meant as though discussing something large and remote and uncontrollable, like the weather.
hat is it like to lose everything?
Younis was first asked this question by a well-meaning development worker, a friendly young man whose specialty was working in war zones. They sat across from each other in cheap plastic chairs beside a bomb-scarred house that served temporarily as a hospital. Just for a chat, he had been told. Just to see if he needed help, to see if he could
“It must be so difficult,” said the man, whose face was serene, “to wake up one morning and see that life as you knew it has ended, that so much has been destroyed.”
Despite his youth, Younis sensed immediately that the man was trying to get him to do something dangerous. His first instinct was to play it off, to make a grim joke of it—the house was getting old anyway; destruction as a form of camouflage; at least now we don’t have to maintain the roof—anything to deflect the course of the inquiry.
But this would not do, he sensed, not with this man who
sat across from him, this friendly man with his placid, expectant face. So how to answer?
Should he talk about his shaking hands, his trembling limbs, the ringing sound in his ear, his blurred vision? Should he describe his physical injuries, show him his wounds, the rudimentary stitches, now nearly ready to be removed, underneath the bandage on his forearm? Should he discuss the numerous times, after he fled into the mountains surrounding the village, that he stood at the cliff edge, wind rushing up into his face, and nearly felt himself take a step off, unconcerned whether he fell or flew?
Or should he talk about—and this was what he found to be the odd thing—the blessing of it? The surprise of finding himself alive, finding himself connected to life. Should he talk about the days after he ran into the mountains, about feeling surrounded, even in that barren place, by life? About the plants that seemed to vibrate with it? Butterflies and rock mice and ants and caterpillars and snow hare and everything he looked at, even the stones, seemed alive. On the mountain he once came face-to-face with a dark falcon riding low on the thermals, wind whooshing through his feathers, and felt one with him, felt peace, as though just by watching the great bird, just by following his example, he could stretch his arms and lift his feet from the ground.
Or should he say that the thing was now part of him, defined him, founded him, that he could no more describe its effect than he could describe being born?
What is it like to lose everything, they ask. The question
takes various forms, and that day, sitting in plastic chairs beside a shattered house, he developed his one and only response.
“What is it like to lose everything?” asked the man, the stranger who was there to help.
And Younis fixed him with his pale green eyes and said, “What is it like not to?”
He has a memory, or thinks he does.
They are on the train, the old colonial line running alongside the river to the capital. He lies on the wooden, time-polished bench and rests his head in his mother’s lap. Thinking he is asleep, she has draped a loose muslin cloth over his head to cut the sunlight that flickers at them through the passing trees. They are going to meet someone, his father, he thinks. Every so often the wind puffs through the open windows and billows the soft cloth, startling him with a strobe of sunshine, like the bright end of a run-out movie reel.