Noonday sun turns tin hovels into ovens and bakes the earth into a choking dust that clouds behind the Jeeps. He glances at the unfriendly eyes watching him with from dark, impassive faces. No matter. He’s come for what is his.
His driver halts before a shack, and he can hear the rhythmic chant of women’s voices inside. He motions his men to wait. No need for a scene yet. He strides through the doorway where the women dressed in shades of red are gathered around a low pallet on the floor.
He says, “Where is she?”
The keening continues.
He grabs the bony shoulder of an old woman in a dress faded almost to pink. “Where is she?”
The woman shrugs and moves aside to reveal her still form. A woman in soft crimson, with a scar puckering her right cheek, bathes her.
“What the hell is this? What did you do to her?” he shouts.
The scarred woman looks up. Expressionless. “What did you do to her?”
He pulls out his pistol. He hates her knowing eyes.
She says, “You can kill me, but in the end, you’ll lose. This is our country.”
He pulls the trigger.
“Lives have been lost, Mr. Richards. It’s an inevitable casualty of the war on terror.”
The jet pinwheels across the deck of the carrier, a twirling flame of destruction. Men cry in agony. Lives are snuffed out like so many candles. Is it better to die in a fireball or of hypothermia in fifty-degree water?
“Naturally, there will be an inquiry into the safety of the aircraft itself. The design. The engineering. The, uh, fuel. You understand what I’m saying. Our firm has been retained to provide the best possible legal defense for NorCom Industries. We expect your full attention to this matter.”
One after another, standing jets ignite on the deck as burning drops of fuel rain down. More green blue flames shoot into the violet sky like fireworks. Metal twists and groans as if the heat is a knife cutting the ship in two. Men leap overboard, their bodies ablaze. The ship is melting.
“The Navy is calling this the worst peacetime disaster at sea ever recorded, but I believe we can turn this situation around.”
Debris litters the surface of the ocean. Waves rise and fall. Black slime covers the water like a shadow.
“Let’s get to work then.”
There are no survivors.
My brain hurts today.
I’ve been trying to put together my puzzle pieces of memory, but they shape shift into nightmare phantoms, prodding me with voices of smoke and sizzle.
Remember. Remember. And you will be free.
But what am I to remember?
The neatly joined grey walls and floors come together at perfect ninety degree angles. Overhead, a long fluorescent bulb blinks intermittently and throbs with a low wattage hum.
I hate neat lines and perfect squares.
Keys jingle jangle in the door and a chipper voice says, “Time for your medication.”
Buzz. Buzz. Buzz. I want to throw my puzzle pieces in his smiling face, but I swallow my pill with a tiny white cup of water. Or so he thinks.
The puzzle pieces watch me drop the red pill down the metal toilet and laugh. They dance around me faster and faster until I bang my head against the wired glass door and scream.
I must put the pieces together, or the white coats will come back with their forget-all machine. The taste of rubber before the void.
Remember. Remember. And you will be free.
But what am I to remember?
Lightening forks down from the indigo sky while thunder roars loud enough to shake the stones beneath our feet. We tremble, falling deeper into the mountain fortress and praying to the gods for mercy.
The gods do not listen.
Instead, the clouds open, and rain pours in a torrent so thick that life beyond these caves becomes a memory. The wind shrieks with glee. Pieces of rock break and smash into the raging ocean below.
The priests cower with the rest of us until the child rises and walks to the edge of the cliff. She is no one. But she raises her arms to the sky and cries, “I am ready.”
For a moment the wind lifts her and folds her in its embrace before setting her down. Then the clouds begin to roll back, and the rain slows. A ray of sun slips through the darkness, and she catches the light in her hands.
It took three days to travel up the rain-swollen river. Suhan piloted the boat.
“Doctor go to big house. Very much sick,” he would say over and over like a mantra.
Each day the sun beat down without mercy, and I would feel my skin blistering as the sweat soaked through my clothes. I listened to the brown water pushing the boat onwards, the birds cackling in the lifeless trees, and drank sparingly from my bottled water.
On the second day towards evening, the boat collided with something, and Suhan called out in terror. It was a bloated body. Suhan began to rock and pray.
On the third morning as we drew close to the plantation the river was choked with bodies, and a plume of gray smoke rose into the sky. The great house was burning.
“Everyone gone,” Suhan said, his eyes like black tunnels. “Everyone free.”
Despite the heat, I began to shiver.
When summer comes, I help my family by picking berries. It’s outside work, so I make a game of it. I scramble through the rows of ripe strawberries and pluck the fat red fruit quick as I can. I don’t mind picking, though my arms get sore after a few hours, and I wish I had shoes. But at least I have decent clothes and a hat.
Mr. Bigalowe says I’m the fastest worker he’s got. Sometimes Mrs. Bigalowe watches from the porch. She always smiles at me and asks how I’m doing, and I say, “Quite well, thank you, Ma’am,” just like Mama taught me. She offers me lemonade, and it’s cool and tart and sweet all at the same time. I don’t gulp it though. I always thank her. She smiles, and says we’re friends. Though if we were real friends, I guess she’d let me come inside instead of standing on the porch.
On the last day of berry season, Mrs. Bigalowe calls me over. She says she hopes I’ll come visit and gives me a heart-shaped strawberry tart with a golden crust. It looks like something from a storybook.
“Don’t forget to visit,” she says.
I nod and thank her. On the way home I sell the tart for five whole cents.
The deep rumbling sends pebbles skittering as the hard ground begins to shake and a small fissure opens in the rocky soil> It widens as the rumbling grows to a crescendo. The woman’s head and shoulders emerge from the newly formed crater, lush green against the grey stones and brown earth.
When she pulls her arms free, she tosses seeds into the air, and shoots of green begin to spring up through the earth. Saplings rise and turn to trees. She laughs and water begins to pour from a dried stone fountain.
“Live again,” she says. She runs her fingers through the water and lets it pour through her palm.
A single tear trickles down her face. It lands in the water with a tiny splash, and she watches the widening concentric circles with satisfaction.
A phoenix rises in a flash of light.
She nods. “Fly, my child. You are free. The age of man is over.”