by Berit Ellingsen
John Tonwe woke to the hollow beat of plastic cans and empty drums falling over in the yard.
“Damn wild dogs,” he said and got up, taking the scarred bat and the heavy flashlight with him.
“Be careful,” Miriam said from the borderland of sleep.
John opened the door and swung the flashlight, expecting the green gleam of wild dog or rodent eyes. Instead, there was a human body in army fatigues and rumpled t-shirt, sprawled over the containers. The militia! Adrenaline shot up in him, sour in his mouth. He swept the beam across the yard; Miriam’s patch of vegetables, the oars, the one-wheeled bike and the drying net, expecting soldiers and guns and trucks, but there was only darkness and the sound of the surf from the beach.
John swept the light across the man, then onto the ground next to him. Where was his gun? Maybe he could take it before the guy woke up? But there was no rifle, no gun, not even a machete. The arms where white and the head was a black bristle. There was a flag John couldn’t identify, and a patch, showing that the man, or at least his clothes, belonged to an international organization.
“Unnhh,” said the soldier. John trained the beam on him. He groped the dirt like a sea turtle on land and kicked the last can over. It fell and rolled away into the darkness. John pulled the stranger’s arm over his neck and dragged him inside before he woke the rest of the village.
“Dogs?” Miriam said, from far away in the darkness.
“It’s all right,” John said. He lit the lamp and shut the torch off to save the batteries. He lifted the lamp and searched the pockets of the soldier’s pants. No weapons, no money, no dog tags. Foreign skin tone, cheekbones and eye lids. Beardless chin. Long, thin limbs. No damage, save for some scratches and a crescent of burned skin above the neck of the t-shirt.
The face turned away from the illumination, a shoulder scraped against the dirt floor.
“Water…,” the soldier said in English, with lips of white flakes.
John poured water from the plastic container into a cup and dripped some of it between the chapped lips. The stranger swallowed and grasped for the cup. John moved his hand away.
“Slowly,” he said, “or it’ll just come up again.” Water was too valuable to be wasted. The stranger reached for the cup again. John was reminded of the baby, who tried suckle everything within reach, even if she wasn’t conscious of her hunger, far less of herself.
“Sleep,” John said.
He woke in the grey foredawn, the bat next to him, Miriam and the baby on the other side. A pale light was creeping in between the door and the frame. The soldier was moving and made soft sounds in the darkness. John sat up and looked at him. He was shaking, his rasping breath mixed with moans. The stranger’s face and back would be moist with perspiration and the shivering would last another seven hours. He could almost smell the mosquito fever in the room.
“Who’s that?” Miriam said and sat up. “Where did he come from?”
“Who knows,” John said. He couldn’t remember hearing anything about an international force on the radio. Maybe the stranger was part of some aid program and had gotten lost?
“Is he from the militia?” Miriam said.
“I don’t think so,” John said. “He’s a foreigner.”
“No, maybe from some relief organization, I don’t know.”
Miriam looked at their visitor again.
“He’s sick,” she said.
“I know,” John said. “Feed the baby. I’ll handle this.”
He gave the soldier some water, but it came up right away. The fluid vanished into the hard-packed earth as a dark stain.
Miriam hitched the baby up, one hand under its smooth, round head.
“Is it malaria?”
“We have some chloroquine left,” she said. “On the toiletry shelf.”
“That’s for the baby,” John said.
He considered taking the palm-sized paper satchel with him to the sea, but Miriam was awake, feeding the baby, starting her day. It would look like he didn’t trust her, and he couldn’t do that, not after his mistake with Diana. He left in silence, not knowing what to say, so he let it remain unsaid.
The ocean was gray and restless. It billowed them up and down and up and down, but yielded little bounty. Just a few small marmota and some meatless crabs they threw back in. John thought about the shipyard further down the coast, where men stripped derelict vessels from abroad of equipment, furniture, metals, bolts, screws, pumped up the tonnage left in the tanks to sell, whether it was crude oil, sulfuric acid, ammonia or something else poisonous. Ken said it was dangerous work, but it seemed better than going to the empty ocean every day. He hoped Miriam had some cornmeal left.
When he came home in the dusk, there was no food waiting for him, no fire in the hearth and no water left in the container. Miriam sat on the floor with her eyes closed, the baby on her chest. The infant mewled as she searched her mother’s dress with her mouth. He touched Miriam’s shoulder. Her skin was smooth and cold.
“The baby is crying,” John said.
Miriam opened her eyes.
“Hello, John,” she said. “Are you back already?”
“It’s dusk,” John said. “Did you fall asleep?”
“I must have,” Miriam said. She cradled the baby, shrugged the dress off one shoulder and let her suckle.
“Why is there no fire in the hearth and no food?”
Miriam turned and looked at the cold stones. “I was just about to do it,” she said.
“It’s dusk,” John said. “Have you slept all day? Do you feel sick?”
“I must have…,” Miriam said, looking at him. She touched her forehead. “I’ve been tired, the baby is eating a lot.”
“I know,” John said. “I know. I’ll go fetch some water.”
She didn’t ask about the fish. That wasn’t necessary. She saw his hands were empty.
He took one of the spare containers in the yard, just one. Who knew who he might run into on the way to the well, even at night? He didn’t want to look greedy.
The well was a darkness at the edge of the shrub, smelling of mud and clay and water. He put his weight on the driftwood that had been forced into the sides of the pit and climbed down. Wasps and flies hovered around him. At the bottom, he swiped the container into the blind water mirror and let it guzzle for a while. Then he heaved the plastic out and climbed back up to the sky.
When he returned, Miriam had lit the hearth and was mixing cornmeal and water for porridge.
“Thank you,” she said, when he placed the container on the floor next to her and removed the empty one. She smiled at him. He returned her smile, the first brightness of the day.
John glanced at the stranger. He was asleep, curled up on the floor like a dog by its owner’s feet. Did his fever break that fast? John turned and looked at the shelf above the wash bowl in the corner. There was a comb, a brush, a mirror, his razor knife and shaving soap and a wooden figurine of four fishermen in a boat, but no paper satchel.
“Where is the medicine?” John said.
“I gave it to him,” Miriam said, meeting his eyes.
“What the hell did you do that for?”
Miriam tightened her lips. “He shook all morning and cried and moaned. I gave him some water, but it didn’t do any good. How could I not help?”
“Look at him!” John shouted, not wanting to expose her to his anger, but it welled up like a fountainhead before he could stop it. “Look at his patches! He’s from a rich country! Why should we help him? Do you think he would have let us in if we came to his door?”
“John, dear,” Miriam said. “Don’t be a child.”
And that was it. They had decided to help the stranger. Miriam gave the soldier a few spoons of porridge. He swallowed it quickly, like a hungry animal, and asked for water. John went outside. Suddenly, he had the energy to repair the large net which he thought he might have to discard.
At night, they woke to the stranger’s groans. John lit the lamp. The soldier lay very still and gasped for air.
“Did you give him all of the medicine?” John said.
“Yes, what was left of it,” Miriam said.
“That should have helped.” John said. It would have gotten him over the worst of the fever.
The stranger yelled and started to shake, his arms and legs extended and stiff, like a puppet’s limbs. His eyes were white, rolled back into his head. It wasn’t just fever, he was having some kind of fit.
“John,” Miriam said. “He’s dying. Didn’t the medicine help?”
What had Beauchamp said when he bought the medicine? It couldn’t help everyone, even if they had the same illness.
“Babies need stronger medicine since they have less resistance, like foreigners,” Beauchamp had said, his face creasing with humor. John had purchased the regular kind, which was cheaper.
“He needs a stronger medicine,” John said.
“Then what are you waiting for?” Miriam said. “I don’t want him to die in our home.”
“We can always throw him out,” John said, without meaning it.
Miriam opened the purse where she kept their money, and handed him a paper note.
“Take this and run to Beauchamp, quickly.” She shoved him out into the starlit darkness. “Don’t tell Beauchamp we have a guest, say it’s for the baby.”
John took the bat with him, not caring who might see it. What if he met wild dogs on the way?
John searched his memory. What had the merchant called the medicine?
“I only have two kinds, the one you bought last time and the expensive one,” Beauchamp said in the flicker from his lamp, inside the song of the insects in the shrub.
“What’s it called?” John said.
Beauchamp squinted and held out the packet in his hand. The old man’s face was all soft folds, even his long, thick-jointed fingers were wrinkled. Most of his teeth were gone and his back was round with age, his hair a curly gray. John wondered what it felt like to grow old, to be defeated by time.
“Lariam,” Beauchamp finally said.
“This is all I have, is it enough?” John showed him the note.
“Bring me a fish next time you get one,” Beauchamp said, grinning. “Doesn’t matter if it’s small.”
John smiled. It was always the money, always the money.
“Of course, uncle Beauchamp,” he said and saluted the old man. Beauchamp had been crewmember on his father’s boat until he got arthritis, went ashore and became a merchant. Three days a week Beauchamp biked twelve kilometers to the market before dawn and returned at dusk.
“The walking keeps my joints limber,” Beauchamp said if you met him on the road and asked if it wasn’t a long way for an old man to travel. He had two large baskets of vegetables, fruit, flour and medicine hooked across the handle bars of his bike and one hanging from the back of the creaky seat. On his back he carried a generous bundle of firewood. He sold the goods from his home to the villages at the coast.
The walk back along the beach drained the last of John’s annoyance. The ocean whispered in the sand, the surf quiet after the onshore breeze. Where did the soldier come from? There were no villages further south, just mean currents and sand until the border. Maybe he came from there, or from further inland?
The stranger’s skin was gray, there was a strange stillness about his body and his mouth was open. He was dying. John had seen it before. His grandfather and mother had exuded the same quiet when they died.
“Hurry,” Miriam said. She pushed a cup of water and a spoon at him. What had Beauchamp said the last time he had the fever? Twenty-five milligrams per kilo body weight for the first dose, then five milligrams per kilo bodyweight five hours later, then the same dose again five hours after that. He remembered because of all the fives in it. How much did the stranger weigh? He was lanky, but taller than John. He certainly wasn’t heavier. About the same then, John concluded.
He poured the contents of one satchel into the cup and stirred, clanging the spoon against the porcelain. Then he fed it to the stranger. The man drank the liquid in eager draughts, but started vomiting. John held his head up so he had no choice but to swallow it back down. Some of it went into his lungs, but he coughed and retched and finally, kept everything.
Miriam was nursing the baby, her back to him.
“Next dose in five hours, like when I was sick,” John said.
“I’ll give it to him,” Miriam said. It was almost dawn and the door had begun to grey around the edges.
Another day at sea. A tanker passed them far out in the ocean. John followed the elongated shape with his eyes. He had wanted to become a sailor, go to the ports in the north, to the cape city in the south, to the east coast, or the countries further east, maybe even to the wealthy north. But his schooling hadn’t been enough, and he couldn’t afford the necessary classes. Then Miriam became pregnant and going to sea seemed like a pointless, childish dream.
He got some fish that day, a round-bellied dorado and a few slim mordedor. He delivered the dorado to Beauchamp.
“Thank you very much,” Beauchamp said, his face wrinkling up, almost hiding his eyes in the smile. “I will cook it tonight.”
John looked forward to eating the fish he brought home. They were too small to sell.
When he came home the air was still and hot, filled with a silence that pounded in his ears, like blood.
“Miriam,” John said.
She sat by the hearth, branches of firewood next to her. For a terrible moment he thought she was dead, drained and killed by the stranger. But then she drew her breath.
“Miriam!” he yelled and shook her shoulder.
“John,” she said and looked at him from far away. “I just dreamed about you. You were here.”
The baby started to cry.
Miriam took the baby, John lit the fire. He cleaned the fish and she fried it. It was almost like before.
She handed him a plate with a hairline crack down the middle, and served him one of the fish, fried until its skin turned crisp and dark. She picked up another plate, put half of the other fish there, flesh white in the semi-darkness, and squatted by the soldier.
“What are you doing?” John said. “Eat your food.”
“What’s he going to live off, air and water?” Miriam said. “I’ll give him a little of my fish.”
“I disallow it.” John said and put his plate down.
“He’s sick,” Miriam said. “He needs food. Or is it me you don’t trust?” Her eyes were leaden with anger.
“Miriam,” John said, deflated. “Eat yours. I’ll give him some of mine. You need food for the baby.”
She nodded. He hadn’t thought she’d agree to that, but she must be hungry.
“I’m not feeding him, though,” he said.
Miriam separated the white flesh into small lumps with a spoon and fed them to the stranger, along with more medicine and water. The sound of the plastic when she filled the cup told John the container was almost empty.
Now the soldier was strong enough to move. He rolled over on his back, kept his gaze at the ceiling and struggled to keep the food down. Then he closed his eyes and fell asleep.
During the night John woke from Miriam moving about the room, preparing the next dose. In the morning he fetched water from the well before he left, placed the container right inside the door.
The sea yielded nothing but spray and waves. Porridge again tonight. But when John came home, Miriam and the baby and the stranger were asleep inside a quiet that hummed in his body, like the silence between a lightning bolt and its thunderclap. When the stranger drew his breath, so did Miriam and the baby, but only then. The pause between each breath was so long that John thought they had stopped breathing altogether, when they started again. What had the stranger done to them? He should never have left them alone.
John pulled the soldier up and put his gutting knife at the pale throat. The stranger didn’t resist, but hung in his grip like a helpless, overgrown infant.
“You carry no weapons so they can’t be used against you,” John breathed.
The soldier’s eyes were full of sleep and nothing else. John raised his knife, greasy with fish blood and entrails, so the stranger could see it. It would have been quick to push it into the pale belly and slash, like he did with the fish. But it wasn’t easy to kill a man, especially when he looked at you like he was dreaming and that nothing in the dream could hurt him.
“What have you done to them?” John shouted.
“Nothing,” the stranger said. “I haven’t touched them.” His voice was hoarse from lack of use and had a foreign lilt to it.
John raised his fist. The soldier flinched, but did nothing to defend himself.
“You have gotten what you wanted, food, water, medicine,” he said. “Now you are well enough to walk. Leave. Now.”
The soldier glanced at him for confirmation, then struggled obediently to his feet. He steadied himself against the wall and shuffled towards the door. John threw the last satchel of medicine on the floor.
“Take it,” he said.
For a moment, John thought the soldier would leave without it, but then he stooped and closed his fingers around the waxed paper.
“Thank you,” the soldier said, his eyes still dreaming.
“John?” Miriam said in the darkness.
“I’m here,” John said. “I’m here.”
The stranger opened the door. The dusk was overcast and gray, with a cold drizzle that chilled their hands and faces. The stranger clutched his body as if he tried to keep himself attached to it, and exited. He left the entrance, then the yard and continued down the beach until he was nothing more than a shadow. Only then did John close the door.