By the sound of bass and drum, angels rolled from warm earth, weeping and caressing, without breath and without sight.
Negril, Island of Jamaica
The applause to end the beggar’s life was sudden and insistent and simple. And it was loud. Like a river. And it cascaded across flaking skin and sore muscles and acres of memory and an ocean of regret.
With head bowed, the beggar sank before his God, and his knees bulldozed mounds of fine sand and his lungs bloated like unbound bladders and he fed upon a noxious, tarnished haze that exhaled from a cracked sewer pipe in tiny, cotton clouds. A drum of orange flames illuminated the soft grey matter as it was drawn as a veil before his tobacco brown eyes and he was at once still and sightless and his chin brushed the folds of a tattered, soiled vest and he greeted the dirt floor in concert with the thump of sacks tumbling from the shoulders of migrant workers. With the ejection of sputum and slaver and a single, wretched, rasping breath, the colored mist eased over his body, gliding serene and indifferent, and his skin blistered in gossamer sheets and he sweat perfect, round beads that swelled and warped like tears. And with clawed hands scraping a leaden sky, he died, cool and alone.
From beyond a pair of mahogany gates, weathered and split from a century of salt and sun, a tiny, stirring wind vacuumed the mist into a courtyard of marble and granite. Here it was swirled and dispersed through the frames of windows and the cracks of doors and it gathered and tumbled along pitted baseboards and it stroked the underside of twelve gilded birdcages draped with white hoods, suspended on fine silver wires looped from honeycombed rafters. And they swayed, excited by a warm, sub-tropical breeze, like so many Klan members cloaked in the fervor of racist prayer. And a symphony of frightened, imprisoned chirps arose from beneath the opaque linen covers and grew steadily in pitch and vibrato and with frantic dismissal, vital cells of organic life were overwhelmed and extinguished and silence fell upon the room.
The smoky river coursed across heavy rugs and traced lines of grain along scuffed wood floors and it rose to the tops of tables and absorbed brackish, yellow light radiating from bare bulbs that bloomed on stems of ivory lamps and it consumed the muted shadows that spilled across a forest of framed, frozen stares and nervous smiles and furrowed brows and slicked hair and skirts that billowed silent and static and perfect as white meringues, and a void of low pressure from beyond crown glass panes sucked the heavy atmosphere into clean air where it caressed a wide lawn of Bermuda grass and white clover and wandered as aimlessly as an abandoned child under the Caribbean sun.
Southern Sahara Desert
Solitude beckoned like a rising silk skirt. Thomas Edward Shaw careened from a smooth table of sticky tarmac onto loose gravel and finally onto a wide plateau of milky-white, shifting sand. Sunlight poured from the cloudless, indigo North Africa sky and burned the skin of his forearms to the color of dark mahogany and the Saharan winds whipped at his flank and teased and taunted both man and machine to the brink of sanity and stability.
Into the great wide open. El solo motocicleta.
With the throttle twisted to its stop, a jarring dissonance spewed from the sawn exhaust, pounding his unprotected hearing like a battery of jackhammers. He hurled a resounding "fuck you" to the line of traffic in his wake and his mind emptied itself of the most inarticulate of drivel: “Crazy.., stupid.., fucking.., people.., and…” Land and sky and sight and sound were as one and it was a drug and he inhaled deep and every breath expanded the world about him. He raced across the escarpment punching a tiny hole in a sea of humid air, with chest laid flat against the tank and eyes streaming rivers of salty liquid along his hairline and down his neck. For the next seventy-five miles, he pitched across a tortured canvas painted with moguls of sand and whale-sized divots of loose scree and when the engine was finally subdued, the internal melee was silenced. He was exhausted by a thousand voiceless thoughts, each beaten into submission by the incessant silent screams of the children he could not save.
Shaw set the bike upon its kickstand and dragged his leg over the abraded leather seat and walked a short distance and sat down, heavy and awkward. He was bone tired; lay down in the dirt like a dog, tired.
And the internal conflict reigned:
There are dues to pay. Tenfold. By tiny bodies with tiny hands bearing the weight of mankind’s crumbling morality like so many pounds of rotting flesh. This land of the free; this fucking, dismal land of the free.
His exile was unbearable. Drained of freewill and drained of imagination and drained of intellect. An empty vessel. Cried out. Laid out. Sexed out. Drying out. And guilt rose from his pores and settled thick as winter molasses upon his skin.
Maria or Mary or Mariel or..? It doesn’t matter; they don’t matter; I don’t matter.
Another shadow of the evening was consumed; another warm body used to blanket his weakness; another feeble strike at the cloying renegade imprisoned within.
Redirect energy to the moving parts.
He lied to himself regularly now, an art form perfected in the pursuit of solace; his loneliness quelled by alternating doses of peace and quiet and soft skin. Shaw spoke aloud to no one. His words were formed slowly on parched lips.
“I have.., and I want.”
He was still drunk. And his head fell into cupped hands.
Celebrate the loner; Pity the lonely.
He tipped onto his back and rubbed tired eyes until a constellation of stars swam and glinted and swirled and danced behind the thin veil of skin and a chorus line of blank faces with black holes for eyes and mouths frozen shut lest they spew forth their willing retreat were cast against a jet black sky.
And the roar of the lions abounded. Like white noise and canyon echoes. And everywhere he heard Mano’s disembodied voice pushing to the fore. And Mano was his friend.
“Thomas, there is only one road to ride.”
Shaw pulled the remnants of a rolled joint from his coat pocket and pressed it between his lips. He reached for his lighter and found only matches. The fourth attempt at striking delivered a bold flame in quivering hands and he sucked down the sulfur and pungent smoke and his lungs filled and he held it in, greedy for its magic; numb to its effect. He pointed an index finger knowingly at his invisible friend but the words were slurred and pointless and Mano’s spirit was not placated.
“Your riddles have no place here. Meet me out on the bay.”
Shaw surveyed the darkening sky. The spiritual summons was absorbed by the sound of a rising wind and he hollowed out a shelter in the sand and curled up tight on the dirt and he drew deep on the rolled cheroot and thought of his wife and the melancholy was welcomed like the warm, sensual embrace of a lover.
“Thank you.., baby…”
Sentiment had always been his only crutch. Now, five thousand miles from home, in isolation, Shaw sought answers. In constant motion, there was tranquility; a beautiful, relentless, magnetic force that pulled him from the past and thrust him into the future. But now, he could find no consolation and no escape.
High above, in the hard slate-grey of the approaching night, a red-tailed Hawk spiraled on rising thermals and he traced its random westward flight until the horizon erased it from sight. Shaw refocused on the jagged mountains carving north across the grassland. Their peaks were ghosted in shadows, like racks of newly-sharpened pencils, and the sun was fully eclipsed behind the tallest range. He drew his knees up and pushed his back against the wall of sand and there he rested and smoked until the light faded completely.
And then he slept.
Little Bay, Island of Jamaica
“You’d do well to take more lemonade, sir. It’s too hot to be refusing. My wife makes it every day, and every day it goes to waste.”
The air was thick as liniment and pungent with sea salt and the glass pitcher wept a consistent stream of iridescent tears in the stifling heat and drew dark lines on a clean, white towel that swaddled the juice like a new born baby.
A short silence was embraced. Malik the waiter stared at the two recumbent forms at his feet and noticed that not a single square inch of bare flesh was exposed to the elements. Body parts not painted by umbrella shade were safely draped in thin layers of white cotton that reflected the noonday sunlight with the intensity of a solar mirror.
Malik presented the jug again. He flashed an automatic smile; a perfect smile; a white teeth smile; a salaried smile.
“Come on now, you two. Whas da scene? Ya can’t make me walk all ‘dis way and not take some sweet lemonade.”
His uniform was pressed and clean and his hands were gloved and damp with runoff. As ever, he was prepared for that moment when touching was necessary. He had been schooled hard in the ways of service.
“Rich folk appreciate the covered hand. It’s not about yuh race, it’s about yuh finances, mon! Hands don’t lie. Yuh work will always betray yuh pride. No matter how hard you scrub.”
Malik passed this wisdom to all of the new employees at the compound in his rich, deep baritone: “Gotta keep the dream alive, from arrival to departure. If ya want to season your spliff, fellas, ya’s got to make style. In truth.”
The island was awash with nauseatingly, mindless activities born out of placating the tourist trade, and with so many indigenous workers on hand, the rivers of knowledge ran shallow and wide and time moved as slow for the unemployed as it did for the unemployable; as slow as the trudging lines of wiry, lean bodies that snaked from docksides to markets to hotels, drenched in sweat and wrapped in fatigue.
But for Malik, this gig was different. “…dees cats is different.” The money was good. The best he ever had, in fact. These folks didn’t rock out with the glitterati and they were ten times as famous. “Fuck, man, they are front-cover famous! On every news stand, famous; lead story on every TV, famous. He’s a government man. An Ambassador, no shit! He got half a leg and all, and with her at his side. She’s old, but sweet, too bad! And they don’t talk down to me.., and they invite me to eat at their table…”
But he didn’t go. Not because he felt out of place. “…‘cause maybe I’d just scoffed half a chicken and two pounds of corn bread and me want no more food. Anyways, I keep the distance, right?”
And he did, and he said so, and they had laughed. Big laughs. Not at him. With him. “Yeah, these cats are cool.”
Ingrid Hayes rose from the lounge chair and tilted the wide brim of her sun hat and cast a long, piercing gaze at Malik over the top of dark, oversized sunglasses.
“Enough with the serving, young man. If we need something, we’ll get it.”
She settled her hand gently on his arm and it was pale and scarred with age.
“Take this time for yourself; go spend it with your family. We want for nothing.”
“Mrs. Hayes, it’s my responsibility… If dey find out I’m not serving you, dey’ll bring in someone else…”
His challenge was cut short.
“Don’t get her started, Malik.”
A man’s muffled voice crept from beneath a paperback that was cracked along its spine, obscuring his face from forehead to bottom lip.
“She’s already reassigned two gardeners to clear garbage from the shed and the pool guy is cleaning gutters and by now wondering if he’ll ever get paid.”
“This place is an outrageous waste of taxpayer money,” Ingrid Hayes muttered with contempt. “The government owes us so much more than the trivial comforts of some drug-lord’s impounded mansion.”
“Alleged drug lord.”
“Alleged? Have you seen the guest bathroom? All that gold? I’d say that the whoever lived here had turned laundering money into an art form.”
Ambassador William Hayes removed the book hiding his face and raised his eyebrows and winked at the waiter.
“I’ll take some lemonade, Malik. Just leave the pitcher.”
The icy liquid was dispatched with a gentle pour and covered with a towel and clean glasses were deposited and empties were collected and Malik bid his farewell and rattled off across the great expanse of the south lawn with the heavy beakers engaged in an unsettled dance on the silver tray.
Ingrid Hayes’ eyes trailed Malik as he ascended a rise of wooden steps set into the side of a low sea wall. The top of his head bobbed along a line of sculpted rose bushes for another thirty feet before vanishing out of sight completely.
“His wife is about to give birth, you know,” Ingrid said. Her lips barely moved, as if she were reluctant to be overheard. “Between them, they have eleven children, all living together in a three room house. I visited last week - so much laughter and so much happiness against such a depressing backdrop.”
“Perhaps you’re judging them by someone else’s standards.”
The Ambassador pulled his left leg to his chest and adjusted the thin blanket covering the exposed stump of his other limb. Crudely severed three inches above the knee in a terrorist bombing during an Embassy ground-breaking ceremony ten years previous, the damp air had seeped into his bones and spread fingers of ache throughout his flesh and he massaged the limb until it pulsated with a bright stain of red blood beneath the surface of his white skin. The warmth was immediate and welcome to his touch.
“It’s the twenty first century.” His wife would not be dissuaded of her opinion. “No one should be fetching water in the middle of a city.”
“You can’t fix everything, my dear.”
Eyebrows were raised. “I am I,” she said.
A sense of melancholy pressed heavy upon her chest as she looked at him struggling for comfort and she caught a breath in her throat and the memory of his long captivity resurfaced and it was raw and without a sign of repair. For the past six months, it had been a constant ghost that floated at her side, goading and taunting her every step. She had first felt its presence during the long weeks of their even longer debrief. Her husband had begun recounting his ordeal in a rehearsed and solemn fashion to a gathering of officials at a private hospital in Tenerife no more than forty-eight hours following his rescue. Through gritted teeth and bouts of racked, uncontrolled sobs, the Ambassador had recalled in vivid detail how shards of broken concrete had ripped at his legs as though spat from an automatic weapon, and he had shared intimate details of the eventual amputation by his captors and the months of infection and the dedication and sacrifice of his assistant to keep him alive. He told of dank housing and desert camps and his constant fear and the numerous mock executions, and, with much difficulty, he told of his surrender to the acceptance of his destiny.
But what he did not share with those strangers was the strength and resilience he had witnessed on the faces of those who would succumb to the most degrading and depraved inhumane treatment outside of a bone fide war zone. He would not jeopardize the transit home of his fellow hostages in any way by laboring over their ability to cope with the unimaginable hell. They were women and they were children, and their numbers were many, and their souls were beaten and their minds shattered. But, en masse, they were only ever seen as being of Africa and they would be compensated poorly, if at all, by their home countries. To a woman and to a child, they would be reabsorbed into the communities of the impoverished and the fearful and as the glare of the media spotlight dimmed, they would once again become invisible and at risk.
The Ambassador’s ten year incarceration had been the ultimate bargaining chip for a human trafficking enterprise that stretched throughout Western Sahara and southern Morocco. Hayes and his diplomatic aide, Rebecca Shaw, had long since been mourned and grieved and immortalized in the minds of their loved ones, so the sudden knowledge that their captivity had been the product of chaos and careful planning amidst the violence of a suicide bombing had been an impossible weight to bear for Ingrid Hayes and her lust for vengeance had been deftly corrupted by her husband’s captors in what would prove to be an extraordinary show of patience and precise execution.
In the aftermath of the Ambassador’s rescue, the public cries for a full investigation were quickly silenced and no honors were bestowed and no public celebration was encouraged and no moves to avenge a sitting U.S. diplomat’s abduction were put into motion. The soft underbelly of political embarrassment was hard at work and, despite their extraordinary achievements, Ingrid Hayes and the team she had engaged to secure her husband’s release were quickly branded as nothing more than common vigilantes. Warrants were issued and assets were seized and bank accounts were frozen and if not for the Ambassador’s very real and angry threats of exposing past governmental misfires from his storied and influential career, he too might have been publicly admonished as having become emotionally attached to his captors. “Ten years is long time..,” a Republican Senator from Missouri preached to the media, “…we just don’t know why he was spared and he is providing no real evidence to suggest he remained a strong patriot throughout his ordeal.”
A decision was made within the darkened halls of congressional sub-committees: pay them off and make them go away.
And pay them off, they had. Without consideration or consequence, fifty million dollars had appeared in a joint account under the Hayes’ names at the National Bank of Dominica. For his aide, Rebecca Shaw, a nominal amount of five hundred thousand dollars was cleared to a Swiss bank account with no visible trail.
Ingrid settled back into the lounge chair and pulled out her phone. For the tenth time that hour she studied an email sent anonymously to her private account.
“Shaw’s contracts have all been cancelled - even the non-government ones. They’ll sell off his airplane next.”
“What do you expect. It isn’t a personal vendetta, it’s how the game’s played - country comes first. Anyway, there’s not much you can do from the outside.”
Hayes rocked an empty glass in his wife’s direction.
“Do you want some of this?”
“No.., thank you.., I can’t help feeling it’s more than politics. Look at this place…”
Ingrid spun her head 180 degrees and took in the sprawling estate -manicured gardens as far as the eye could see, tennis courts, three swimming pools and a seven-car garage. The guest house alone had five bedrooms.
“It’s free, and we’re homeless too, remember.”
I don’t know what’s worse, accepting dirty money or imagining the acts of depravity the walls of this house must have witnessed. Either way, the government owes you more William; the country owes you and Rebecca and Molly and…”
Ambassador Hayes caught the flashes of disgust in his wife’s eyes and extended his hand.
“Hey, we’ll get through this.”
His smile was crooked, but broad and full and his dark eyes danced like nuggets of polished ebony in the afternoon sunlight.
“Your optimism is borderline clinical. Maybe the post-abduction therapy is a little too effective.”
From across the lawn Malik returned, carrying a telephone handset and issuing contemptuous shouts of annoyance as a battery of lawn sprinkler heads popped up for service and began to splutter and the air around him exploded into a hundred vibrant rainbows as the fine spray saturated his fine, white uniform.
Ingrid and the Ambassador watched the amusing scene unfold from a hundred feet away: the high stepping and skipping; the bemused, angry shouts; the immediate laughter from onlookers.
And then Malik slowed. And his voice stalled. And his posture became suddenly erect and his hands rose to his throat and he clawed at his uniform as if it were abrading his skin. His feet drew together and a muddy puddle formed around his perfect white shoes, lapping quickly above the neatly tied laces.
The Ambassador sat up in his chair and shouted across, “Are you alright, Malik? You’re getting soaked.”
The telephone handset fell to the ground and Malik sank to his knees and the muscles in his neck stood proud and began to spasm and his head was pulled back sharply and his nose discharged streams of bright mucus that was flecked candy-red. Ingrid looked around for the assistance of others, but found the grounds to be empty. Where only moments previously gardeners and builders labored under the relentless sun, tools now littered the ground and work sites were vacated. She called for help and hurried across the lawn into the path of the sprinkling water and she was not so agile on the soft grass and she stumbled several times over protruding rocks and shallow folds in the soft earth. As Ingrid recovered her footing, she noticed the deepening color of a fine mist rising to Malik’s waist. His eyes connected with hers and a soft, muted gargle spilled from his throat. The ivory white surface of his eyes bulged and watered so profusely that tracks of thick translucent tears were evident amongst the fine droplets of showering water. She turned back to the Ambassador for some sort of consolation and was suddenly propelled into panic as she saw her husband struggling to stand. Sprinkler heads dotted randomly in the turf had risen beneath his lounge chair and the air was now thick with the brassy, swirling vapor. He waved his arms frantically and shouted for her to move away and in only a matter of seconds, William Hayes’ uttering’s became more aggrieved and urgent and his head bowed to his chest and he collapsed onto the saturated ground. Ingrid made to return to his aid but the conflict of devotion and survival startled her to stillness. The Ambassador’s voice called again, but she was immovable. And then, as suddenly, clarity descended and the beat of her heart filled her senses. Nothing else mattered; nothing had ever mattered except her love for this man. Her life was behind her now. She would not live without him again.
Ingrid Hayes strode directly into the path of the toxic cloud. She had covered no more than seven steps before she too was laid upon the darkened turf, still and quiet. The fibers of her muscles constricted tightly and collapsed her internal organs and her pores were evacuating scarlet bullets and she was determined to feel her husband’s hand clasped around hers one last time.
So much time had passed and so much love remained unrequited and so much pain had been born by so many innocent people and she would not let it end with a pathetic, silent protest. Ingrid Hayes pushed along the ground to where her husband lay. Her fingers clawed at roots of grass and clover and her bare feet plowed furrows of mud and his form became visible, like a gentle hillside rising from a retreating fog bank, and she reached for his hand and he reached for hers and she knew they would have this connection, one last time.
And with arms outstretched and eyes locked, they were denied.
Says Who? will be published in 2017.
All text, artwork and photography ©2017 Cry Desert Publishing, INC. All Rights Reserved