“Do you understand what this means, Sarah?”
The air conditioning is redundant, pushing tidal waves of hot air around the small room. Her underarms and groin are unpleasantly damp; her throat itches from incessant rivulets of sweat. Everything is too white, as if someone turned the brightness on a television up way too high. She stares back, and doesn’t answer.
“We can’t afford to send out another observer. We can’t commit aid without some sure data on the scale of the problem. We…I trusted you. I told you what it would be like. You promised me you could handle it. As it stands now, our hands are tied. Do you realize that?”
The problem? She spares him the barest nod.
“If I hand in your report the money will go elsewhere. The food, the medical supplies, they’ll be gobbled up by the camps in the south or the border refugees. The situation is worse here, you know that. If I hand this in then — what is it now, seven thousand? Seven thousand people will die.”
She doesn’t like the expression in his eyes, the disappointment; but she holds his gaze. “Did you read my report? They’ll die anyway. Maybe it’ll take a few more days, that’s all.”
“How can you say that?”
She wants to scream at him. Strange to think she was so impressed by him a week ago, so attracted to his sham nobility. What is he doing, after all, here in the capital with peacekeeping troops on every street corner? “Because it’s the truth.”
Her voice sounds too calm, even to her — anaesthetized. She’d feel better for some kind of a reaction. If he would only shout. But no, disappointment; his voice is thick with it as he says, “Sarah, nobody finds it easy. Nobody goes to these places and comes back unchanged. You, though. I don’t know, a week ago…you seem like a different person. What I’m saying is, did something happen? When you were out there, Sarah?”
Did something happen? Out in the desert, a hundred miles from anywhere, from anything that bore the faintest semblance to civilization? There are memories. They slip and slide under the surface of her mind. She can follow the trail to a point, then it snakes away and the answer eludes her.
She can’t remember how it ended.
She only knows how it began.
They travelled for two days, over roads that weren’t roads really, were nothing more than indentations crushed into the drought-congealed earth. They only stopped at night, and then away from villages, since their supplies would be stolen in an instant. Her translator’s name was Akalé, and she didn’t like the way he looked at her. Whenever she crept away from the Jeep to piss, she felt sure he was watching. They’d tried to make conversation on the first day, but neither of them had really understood the other, on any level.
They arrived on the third morning — though she didn’t recognize it at first. The camp looked more than anything like a landfill. There had been a village once; not much of one, but there’d been a lake, and that was what had drawn people. The fighting had been fifty miles away then, in a town that didn’t exist anymore. Nobody knew exactly how many had died on the journey. They’d probably planned to keep going, push on towards the city. Maybe a few had tried.
At first, it had been mostly civilians: families without homes and food, those who’d seen their friends and relatives die, or who followed enough of the local politics to see what was coming. Once the town had erupted into a warzone there were others too, soldiers from either side too hurt or scared to keep fighting. On the first day, the village had swelled. On the second, it had collapsed. By the third, the lake was a mud bath and there were already two thousand people in a village that had barely supported two hundred. Food had run out. Disease was everywhere.
Nobody in the town knew that, though, and perhaps they wouldn’t have cared. They’d kept coming.
It was two weeks now since the first refugees had arrived.
Akalé drove slowly, carefully. They passed the first corpse about half a mile from the camp proper. It was too hot for rot to have set in properly, and the impossibly skinny body on the roadside was shrunken, baked. There were flies everywhere, and on the face particularly, crawling inside slack orifices. Sarah had managed to stop herself throwing up. Akalé didn’t seem too concerned. This was the third catastrophic famine in as many years and probably he’d grown oblivious by then.
There were more bodies as they came nearer, and in increasing numbers. Some had obviously been left where they’d fallen. Others had been dragged into obscene sculptures, a hopeless attempt to stop sickness from spreading. The piles were a barricade ringing the camp in every direction.
Partly for that reason, the stench reached her long before they arrived. It was the worst thing she’d ever smelled, an open sewer running through a sick room. It was sweet, and it clung to her mouth and throat. She knew there was nothing to be done, no way to clean, to sanitize, or to bury the dead in the heat-frozen earth. She still couldn’t help feeling disgusted. The level of degradation was so beyond anything she could have imagined. How could people live this way? How could they die like this?
The feeling stayed with her as they pulled to a halt, a few meters inside the apparent boundary of the camp. They couldn’t have driven further. The village had been cannibalized, houses that had never been more than shacks torn apart, and every sheet of corrugated iron, every corner of mud bricks was a shelter. It was like the aftermath of a whirlwind or a flood, fragments of buildings standing amid the detritus of canvas, metal, cardboard, whatever gave the least defense against the scalding winds.
There were figures all around, dark faces staring from makeshift doorways. It took her a moment to realize, though, because no one was moving, no one was doing anything. The only ones standing were in what passed as uniform, ragged khaki trousers and black T-shirts. Some of them must be rebels, some from the army, but nobody seemed bothered by the distinction.
Akalé drew an automatic rifle from the back of the Jeep and propped it in his lap, where anyone could see it. The vehicle was the most valuable thing for a hundred miles around. If they’d arrived two or three days earlier, someone might have tried to fight him for it. They were too weak now. Even the soldiers who were on their feet didn’t look like they could possibly use the weapons they clutched. They were like ghost sentries, guarding nothing.
Yet those who could still stand were the strong ones. She only saw the other extreme when she stepped down from the Jeep. He was young, barely a teenager. His olive T-shirt had a patch torn from it, as if to better display the wound in his side. It might only have been a scratch when he’d started out, but gangrene had set in, flies had sought the wet warmth inside him, and now it was a cavity. There were colors there, hints of shapes, a shifting mess of feasting, breeding insect life. He should be dead, she thought. Nobody can keep living with their insides spilled out like that. But his eyes were open and he stared at her, with a look so far beyond despair that she had no word to describe it.
Then she did throw up. It seemed to go on for a long time. When she finished she reached out for the Jeep to steady herself and to make sure she was facing in the right direction. She couldn’t look into those eyes again.
Akalé was gazing back at her disinterestedly. She was out of her depth, and they both knew it. That realization brought anger, made her struggle for a little authority. She spat into the dirt. Her mouth still tasting of nothing but vomit, she said, “Ask them — who is the boss? Who’s running this place?”
She knew as she said it that it was a ludicrous question. There was no leader, no one managing anything here. Akalé called out anyway, to one of the soldiers. At first, it seemed the man would simply ignore the question as not worth the exertion of answering. Then he spoke three short words and pointed deeper into the camp. Akalé said simply, “White devil,” and waved in the same direction.
She knew the phrase. They were the first words she’d learned, and she’d heard them a hundred times more since she’d arrived. It had hurt and frustrated her every time. She was here to help, when help was desperately needed. Why did these people hate her so much for it?
Akalé wouldn’t endanger the Jeep by trying to take it further into the wreckage of the camp. He certainly wouldn’t leave it. She couldn’t argue the point; the vehicle was their only means of survival. She didn’t want his company, either, except that the thought of going on alone terrified her. Part of her, a childish part, craved to ask him. The stubbornness, the anger held out. She turned and set off walking without another word.
At first, she wasn’t able to think of anything but the wounded boy. His sprawled innards seemed like a metaphor for the whole place, as if someone had turned the world inside out, spreading for all to see the filth and squalor that were supposed to stay hidden in darkness. The smell was so inescapable by then that it seemed to be coming from inside her.
The children were what brought her back from the snapshot horrors in her mind. She’d been seeing more and more people, more prone forms staring with dull eyes — as if they’d deliberately clustered towards the center of camp for some unimaginable reason. A detached part of her was amazed, horrified, by how easy she found it to look away. The children were harder to ignore. They limped into the road, reached to her, as though they really imagined she could help them. They seemed so much more anxious to live than their parents did. One little girl, stomach swollen with hunger, even trotted after Sarah for a few steps.
Sarah didn’t slow at all, was painfully relieved when the shuffle of feet faded. The idea that she’d go back, file a report, that aid would come and lives would be saved, was beginning to seem like a sick joke. Desperately trying to remain rational, she thought, even if only we can help a few, a dozen, one, and tried to believe it. She kept walking, with no idea of what she hoped to find.
Yet when she saw it, she realized she’d almost missed it. She looked up and there it was, set back from the road: a great marquee of sun-bleached white fabric. She stopped and stared. She’d seen similar tents, in news reports and in the videos they’d shown her before she left. Many aid organizations used them, including her own, and probably the local military did as well. There were no insignia, though, no markings to claim it for any group. It seemed incongruous amid the devastation — too clean, too bright. She realized abruptly that the air was better as well, no smell of decay or sickness. That, more than anything, made her nervous.
It had to be what she was looking for. If anyone was trying to orchestrate the pandemonium of the camp then where else could they be? It was the nearest thing to a building, to civilization, she’d seen. Still, she hesitated. It was too close to normality. It seemed unreal. Standing there, even the heat didn’t seem so bad. The air was less abrasive; the light didn’t sting her eyes.
She tried again to be rational. She was in shade for the first time in hours. No wonder the tent seemed clean and orderly when everything for a mile around was filth and chaos. The lack of markings was strange, but there were a dozen reasons they might not want to advertise their allegiances. She remembered again her reception when she’d stepped off the plane. Western aid workers weren’t welcomed here, were hardly less of a target than the factories and mines had been in the early days of fighting.
Did she really imagine there was something worse inside that tent than the horrors she’d already witnessed? She felt sick and dizzy, her feet and calves ached. She was drenched in cooling sweat. If she stayed outside for much longer, she might become ill. It struck her suddenly that her mind wasn’t working properly; it was as if a hundred voices were whispering just out of hearing. Maybe she was already feverish. What was she doing, after all, what was she afraid of?
“Ridiculous!” she said aloud. The word sounded artificial, and realizing that drew her back to reality. She moved forward, a little fitfully, pulled the entrance flap aside, and stepped through.
It was dark. She couldn’t see anything, though there was a sense of space. She reached behind her instinctively, touched the fabric there. The air felt greasy and smelled of rust. Was it antiseptic? She wanted to turn and run. Instead, she called, “Hello?”
A pause. An indrawn breath, slightly rasping. Then — “What do you want?”
She hadn’t expected an answer, somehow. When it came, her whole body jerked. The voice was male, the words in English, but she couldn’t place the accent, the age. She realized as soon as she thought about it that she couldn’t recall volume, tone, pitch, anything, and then she wasn’t sure she’d heard it at all. “Is…someone there? I’m a…an observer. Who are you?”
A noise — the beginning of a laugh, perhaps, choked off. “An observer also. Now, answer my question. What do you want?”
Her eyes were adjusting to the gloom. As if to compensate, her concentration was failing. What do I want? “I came…came here to help.”
“To help me?”
She could see a figure now, without detail — just a shape really, but bright-edged, as if faintly backlit. “You? No.”
“Then who? Who wants your help, Sarah?”
“Came to help…outside. There’s something wrong. People are…they’re hungry. There was a war.” She was perfectly lucid. Only she couldn’t put the words together. She knew what she wanted to say, yet each time she tried to speak, her thoughts broke like glass.
“They don’t want your help. They despise you. They’d kill you if they were a little stronger. Do you know why?”
He sat a dozen feet away, in a folding chair. His suit was luminously white, like the canvas of the tent. She couldn’t make out his face.
They hate me. She’d known it the moment she stepped off the plane. She’d only wanted to help. Why did they hate her so much?
“They know where the weapons came from to fight this war. They’ve seen the factories that turned grasslands into deserts, rivers to poison. They know why they’re poor, and who secretly rules their country, regardless of who wins this latest squabble. They see a hand that proffers trifles and takes jewels. Are they wrong to hate you, Sarah?”
“I…I don’t know.”
“You are guilty, aren’t you? Isn’t this futile endeavor just the capstone to your guilt? Because you’ve never gone without, and in your heart you’re terrified that your thousand comforts should ever be taken away. If only they would be civilized, if they would behave decently, and not live and die like animals, then you wouldn’t have to feel so ashamed. They hate you. And you hate them.”
“Then again, why shouldn’t you? No one made these people kill. They were eager for a chance to prolong a thousand years of bloodshed. Did they imagine there wouldn’t be consequences? They left their farms to murder each other and were surprised when the land fell barren, angry that the food ran out before the bullets. Do they deserve your pity because the creature they birthed became too strong and devoured them whole?”
“It isn’t…shit…it isn’t that simple. I don’t know, I don’t know!” She was shocked to realize she was crying, uncontrollably, crying as she hadn’t since she was a child, sobs that shook her and tore from her throat like living things. A thought bobbed to the surface and she clutched it, forced it with every bit of her self-control into words: “I only wanted to help.”
“And you will. Go away, Sarah, this isn’t for you. These people are mine, whether they live or die. I go only where I’m invited and take only what I’m given. So get out. And if you want to do something useful, make damn sure I’m not disturbed again.”
She’d gone into the desert. She’d seen the camp, and it had been bad, she knows, it had been like the end of the world. The details, though, the details — she can’t remember. Nothing but the smell; she can still taste the smell.
“What do you mean?” she says.
“I mean…I don’t know. Did something bad happen to you?”
He’s practically whining. She knows what he’s talking about, all the old familiar traumas. Was she sick? Was she raped? Perhaps she couldn’t cope out there alone. Perhaps she went a little crazy. She’d walked, further and further, and — another memory, the most important, surely, but it snakes away, suffocated by its own static hiss. A serpent, coiled in the places she can’t visit inside herself.
That isn’t what he wants to hear, though, is it? “Something bad? What do you mean?”
“What I mean is, a week ago you seemed so hopeful, so eager to help. I can’t believe the young woman I met a week ago would have filed a report like this. I think something awful must have happened to you.”
It’s hopelessness. Intolerable pain and absolute abandonment, despair like an underground lake that light can never hope to shine on. It’s — it’s nothing. There’s nothing there. There are feelings, emotions, but no memory to cling to. She went to the camp. It was terrible, irredeemably terrible, and now she’s here again, the bearer of a truth too ugly for someone who hasn’t seen what she’s seen. Did something happen? “No.” She stands, suddenly impatient. “Can I go now?”
“My God, Sarah. Don’t you want to help these people anymore — this country?”
One final question and she knows the answer. There’s a whisper in the depths of her mind, a snake’s hiss. She knows now that it’s nothing new, it’s always been there. Maybe she didn’t want to acknowledge it before, but the whisper in the darkness is the truth, and she replies with absolute certainty. “This country is fucking sick. It should be put down.”
She walks away from him then, because she knows he has nothing left to say. Neither does she — except that when she reaches the doorway she pauses, turns without looking, and says in a voice not quite her own, “So just make sure you file my report.”
|David Tallerman’s short fiction has previously appeared in a number of markets in print and online, including Lightspeed, Bull Spec, Flash Fiction Online and Chiaroscuro. His first novel, Giant Thief, was published by UK publisher Angry Robot in 2012, with two sequels to follow.|