A Thousand Fires Excerpt

Since this blog strives to be creative, yet often just focuses on the psalms, I offer an excerpt from my first novel (not yet published).  In it, David is an American missionary in central Africa, along with his interpreter Billy, a pastor from Lusaka.  In this scene, David and Billy return to a village where a man died while they were talking to him the day before.

The two walked side by side.  To their left was the lake, gray in the morning light.  Billy slumped along and his brown forearms glinted with sweat.  David walked much taller.  The flowers did not line the road here and only knee-high, sallow grass occasionally reached for their legs as they passed.  Silver-green acacia bushes huddled near the lake.  Billy thought of the dead man and David leaning over him and the popping of his ribs as they snapped.  He also thought of Martha in the harsh light of the kitchen as he convinced her that he should go north; she only pressed her lips together and walked away.

“David.”  Billy observed his friend.  David blew out an audible breath.  “Do you think that God, he is trying to tell something to us?”

“Mmmm.  But what?”

“Perhaps God, he does not want us here in the north.  Perhaps he wants for you to wait for Hannah.  Or maybe it is we should be somewhere else.”

The staccato slap of feet on gravel and the sad throb of the cicadas filled the air.  Mosquitoes buzzed around David’s head.  He wiped his forehead.  His shirt felt like wet paper smothering his skin.  He did not want to think about Hannah.

“This is where we’ve been called Billy.  I mean, we’ve prayed about it for months, and my church and your church both sent us here.  We’re supposed to be here, walking back to the village.”  They reached the wispy miombo trees that overhung the road.  They were close to the village.  Oval and irregular shapes of light marbled them and Billy took off his sunglasses.  “I brought money Billy.  Even if they don’t want it.  As least we have it.  Don’t worry.”

At the word of money Billy remembered his father in the dimly lit shop, charging him to help and make money for Martha.  Again the tightening in his neck, and a weary ache in his feet and ankles.  “Perhaps, this money, we will not need it.  Jesus is better than money, my friend.”

David fingered the damp money in his pocket.  “Yeah.  Jesus is better than money.”

A dim moan slowly began to radiate ahead and it seemed to almost come from the ground.  It began as a gasp and stretched out to a murmur.  David realized it was not the mosquitoes that he continually swatted near his head.

“Is that the death —”

“Yes.  This is the death wail.”

“They are still —”

“Yes.  They still cry the death wail.  In Zambia, we take the time to do this mourning.”  He nodded, pleased at his own words.  “God, he meets us in the mourning.  The people, they cry to him.  They have cried like this all the night.”

David thought of his father on the hospital bed, the blue veins in his wrist that met the I.V. needle and the iodine-colored patch of skin around it.  He had sorted through his father’s old house, putting books and picture-frames and suits into boxes.  He took most of the books.  The rest went to Goodwill.  Furniture stayed for the next pastor.  After performing the eulogy he drove back to Chicago with Hannah and listened to Coltrane CD’s he’d given his dad for Christmas.  He supposed that was his death wail.  He played laser-tag with the church youth group the next day like nothing had happened.

The wailing began to overwhelm the sadness of the cicadas.  It was unearthly, and David wanted to stop here under the delicate miombos, short of the village.  He told himself to think happier thoughts, and he pictured Maria smiling softly at him in the bar.  They talked so easily, and now shared a secret.  They could go to the bar now and it was their place.  It would be a place away from Billy and the duties of the clinic and mission field.  He used to have a secret place with Hannah.  Behind the coffee shop in Chicago they walked up the apartment stairs and then climbed from the railing to the roof.  They sat and talked on warm, humid summer nights.  They liked it better than the coffee shop.  But, the bar was better than the coffee shop: it was secret and illicit; it felt as thrilling as throwing the kerosense-soaked-and-flaming pine cones in the river.

The desolate sound disabled his thoughts before long, and he shivered despite the morning heat.  The buzz of guilt returned to his tongue, acidic and yellow.  I didn’t do anything wrong he told himself.  They reached the final clearing before the village, and the acacia tree that the old man died under appeared dark and indistinct.  Billy watched David for a moment and frowned at the memory of last night in the hushed lobby, David clutching Maria.  Yet, the image evaporated into the unnatural and ominous voice in church, the concern on Martha’s face as she begged him to stay in Lusaka.  The concern: an open mouth and plaintive eyes gave way to a voice that echoed off the concrete walls and her eyes that burned like coals.  She said goodbye in the shadow of the palm tree, in front of their house.  Arms folded.  She did not wave.  The stranger’s warnings and her warnings were dark and true.

The white brick huts and pale brown roofs became visible through the trees.  The wail sounded loud and guttural now.  It muffled the trees and the wind.

Billy leaned to David and spoke above the lament.  “In Africa, we say that when someone dies, that is when you must cry from your bones.”

More from the scene in upcoming days (stay tuned)…

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