Part III

Final part 3.  Click here for part 1 or part 2.

The man stopped speaking again.  The villagers did not whisper now and their faces were blank.  David glanced at Billy, at the man, at the villagers.  He began to pull the money out of his pocket.  They will not hurt me.  Hurt us.

“The man, he says he will not bring this death to us.  He says that we are strangers to this village and this lake.”  David shoved the money back down into his pocket.  The sweat began to dry on his back.

Billy continued.  “He says that strangers, they do not get punished with equality as members of the village.”  David nodded and thought of his prayer.  “But we did bring death to this village.  And this village is on this lake.  We brought death to this whole lake.  The man, he says that we must leave this village and not come back.  If we come back to this village, he cannot tell us what will happen.  It will be bad for us.

“And he says that they have told other villages on this lake what we have done.  He says that he made notice that the other villages not to harm us.  But these other villages, they will not listen to us.  We must take our message to elsewhere.”

The man with the scars on his chest and arms pointed toward the road with a straight finger and steady hand.  David felt an emptiness inside himself.  But we came.  This is why we came, he protested to himself and to God.  Billy felt the cool relief on his skin that came from a slight breeze and the mercy of the villagers.  He touched David on the elbow.  “Let us go.”  The man and the villagers did not stir.  The trees murmured.  David’s shoe knocked the empty copper bowl and made a melancholy thump.  David grasped that this village lacked the money in his pocket.  He had asked God what to do with the money.

“Billy.  What if we offer them the money?  Maybe they will listen to us.  Or they’ll let other villages listen.”

A gray cloud moved in front of the sun; the wind blew high above them.  Billy rubbed his hair with his hand and thought.  The coolness on his skin began sinking into his bones.  “I do not think we should do this.  God, he is the one who opens hearts.  Not money.”

“But we must be shrewd, Billy.  And we have the money to offer.  It will open a way for God.”

Billy’s dark and baggy eyes, his flaccid body almost grew smaller.  “It is your decision.”  He exhaled slowly, the lethargic sound of David’s father in the hospital.  A rush of wind came from the lake and threw sand into the air and the trees whistled.  Then, calm and stillness settled again.

David drew the money from his pocket: a thick wad of dirty bills.  He held it in the air and took the rubber band off.  The bills were colorful: blue and green and orange.  He pulled off one banknote and held it in the air.  It wilted in the heat.  The villagers looked on with blank faces.

“Tell them we offer them money as restitution.  Tell them we want to help.  Maybe it’ll open a door.”

Billy watched his friend holding money in the air and the villagers’ sad eyes.  The darkness had not left.  David was like a thousand men now: the missionaries and explorers and overseers and businessmen who came to Africa for adventure and success; men who thought Africa was a great dark machine that only needed the proper oil and care.  David smiled obsequiously at the villagers.  “Tell them.  Maybe they will listen.”

Billy thought of his father in the anemic light of the shop in Lusaka and his voice ringing off the silverware and cups and metal bowls.  David was his father, speaking only English and demanding success.  Billy turned away and walked back to the road.  His shoulders felt heavy; his feet ached with tired heat.

David saw his friend leave and took a few steps back toward the villagers.  He grabbed the copper bowl and placed the bank notes into it.  “For you.”  He spoke loudly even though they could not understand.  He smiled again and waved.  He poured oil into the machine.  Then, he turned and followed Billy, his heels crunching on the dry ground.  Another rush of wind stung sand into his eyes.  He glanced back at the village.  Colorful bank notes floated in the air and drifted along the ground with the wind.  They looked like butterflies.  The man and the villagers stayed still.  The banana-leaf roofs of the white huts flapped in the wind behind them.

Excerpt Part II

For Part I, click here.

Billy’s feet shuffled in the laterite dust and blush red covered them.  The red dust mixed with his sweat and small stains of red covered his ankles and shins.  His head and arms glinted and his purple shirt was wet around the armpits and neckline.  Even now, the abandoned copper bowl sat near the acacia tree.  The crushed lime was gone.  The boy saw Billy and David first.  He wore the same blue and dirty shorts and his skin gave the impression of saran wrap over his ribs.  He was outside the hut and followed the chicken, clucking at it.  When he saw them, he yelled.  David did not understand the words.  He gripped the wad of money in his pocket.

He recognized the faces that came out of the hut and blinked in the sunlight.  The death wail stopped after the boy yelled and the faces came out without speaking.  Bare feet scraped the bare earth.  The villagers did not look at them straight on; they only glanced at David’s feet or torso before looking away.  The woman wore the same yellow and black chitenge and pink earth stained it at her hips.  Another woman nursed a baby.  She may have been the same who ate the dirt yesterday.  The boy’s father, the husband of yellow-and-black, came closer to David and Billy.  He wore torn green pants that maybe came from the army.  He was bare-chested, too, and he had scars on his chest and upper arms that looked like cigarette burns.  He grimaced at David and Billy and his bald head gleamed in the sun.  His gaze held pain more than anger.  David could not hold it.  His chin and jaw were strong and square and set.  The villagers remained quiet after they came out.  The chicken wandered behind the hut.  Billy reached out and grasped David’s left hand.  This was not only a sign of friendship here in this Zambian village, but of solidarity.  It acted as a physical sign of connection.  David felt the sweat forming between their hands.

The air hung heavy and still.  The man with the grimace stood in the full sunlight.  His dark skin looked stronger, more solid than David’s white skin.  He was strong because he wore scars and military fatigues and pain in his eyes.  Billy saw the scars and realized this man was a witch-doctor.  He said nothing to David, but he squeezed his hand tighter.

The man spoke and Billy squeezed harder and David’s hand began to ache.  The words snapped out of the man’s mouth: the bw- and nd- sounds reverberated hard and condemning.  David felt naked and small in front of the villagers and the man.  The man’s eyes seemed to look down on him.  David, his right hand in his pocket, kept clutching the bundle of money.  He pulled his sweating hand from Billy’s.

Billy let his hand slap against his hip.  His shoulders drooped.  He focused on the empty copper bowl at David’s feet.  He jutted out his bottom lip like an extra covering over his mouth.  He would not reply until the man completely finished.  As the two waited there mutely, the villagers gradually grew like the man, bold and forceful.  They looked the strangers in the eye and the dirt-eater stomped her foot and kicked up pale red dust; her baby and breast wagged.  Billy stared with sadness at the copper bowl.  The man continued.  Billy did not reach for David’s hand again.  David squeezed the bundle of colored bills tighter in his pocket, the soft, dirty paper.  The man with the bare chest and the burns had white spittle on his lip.  God— David began to pray but could only think of the money: this destitute, dusty village needed the money.  They would not hurt them.  He had money.  There was sand between his teeth.  He swallowed it.

The words stopped.  The man pointed at David and nodded.  The villagers behind the man whispered and glared and the yellow-and-black woman shook her head at them.

“Cabipa sana.”  Billy did not raise his eyes as he spoke.  “Sana, sana, sana.”  David did not understand.  “He says this old man sat everyday at this tree.”  Billy lifted a crooked finger toward the tree.  “He says this old man waited to die.  He waited for to die at peace.  He waited for to die alone.  This is why he sat by the tree and did not wish for to die in the hut.  He says that we came and brought death to the father of his wife.  He waited by the tree for to die alone.  We did not let the man die alone.”

The man who had spoken watched them.  He jowled at them with his long jaw.  David wondered if he had some type of oil on his head with the way it reflected the morning sunlight.  Billy’s voice fell to a gritty whisper.  “This man says that the law is for him to take revenge.  The law of the village says that since we brought death to the man, someone must bring death to us.”  Billy coughed.  He took a deep and slow breath and the sound was muted and sluggish.  He nodded.  The man began speaking again.

David did not listen to the man who spoke again.  A flash of fever thudded behind his eyes.  He hemorrhaged sweat.  The villagers scowled with puckered lips and slant eyes.  The village began to spin, slowly.  David’s hand twitched and the bundle of bills was sticky against his thigh.  I have money, he thought.  I am white.  They will not harm me.  He looked sideways at Billy.  Billy nodded every few moments but did not raise his eyes.  He prayed for Billy.  If something happened to Billy he would be alone.  His other hand opened and closed, opened and closed.  They will not hurt me.  He even prayed for the villagers: that they would show mercy and that they would find Jesus.  One older man had a twisted leg that bowed outward from his hip and made him lean like a windblown tree.  David prayed for him.  He prayed for the boy who had the copper bowl yesterday and now stood near his mother.  They will not hurt me.  He prayed for the boy’s mother in the yellow and black and for his father with the bare chest and cigarette scars.  He thought of Maria, too, and prayed for her.  He reached into his pocket again and rubbed a bill between his fingers.  God, don’t let them hurt us and show me what to do with the money.  Sweat dripped down his back.

Tune back in tomorrow for the final installment.

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)…