Something Like Peace

pelted by a rain of bullets
buzzing from the planes’ bellies
I lie in the ditch

carriages and bikes,
lone dolls and shoes
litter the road
where a moment ago
a people fled

a distant rumble is heard
a beating drumbeat
from anxious clouds

suddenly the sun is out
like a curious child parting curtains
to survey the scene below

something like peace
descends on us

the sky is back to being the sky
the planes a distant memory
except for the cries for help
from writhing bodies

I offer my strength to the injured
my health to the dying
my hand to the orphaned child

Paper

The ceremony was held without her body, to put her soul to rest. By the time he’d heard the news, she’d been dead and buried overseas. He had dreamt of her, pale and evanescent, which told him her ghost was unmoored. He wanted to set things right. He didn’t like the feel of paper on his lips. Having written the name of his late mother on a piece of paper, he wasn’t ready yet to see it go up in smoke. He let his lips linger longer than appropriate, a long exhale, like her last breath. He stifled sobs but the tears were streaming freely down his face, a flood of conflicting emotions. Her death had been sudden, unexpected. He had trouble accepting the reality of it. He lay the piece of paper in a gold bowl which the monk lit up amidst chants.

It was hot, where he was. Everybody moved slowly under the white sun, sleeping, no, collapsing, when it was at its apex. Even the bugs were drowsy, looking for shade. He thought the sand would turn to glass, a brittle layer burning the soles of his feet. He felt feverish, as though he had absorbed the heat and it was scorching his insides. He wondered if he was suffering a bout of malaria or grief. He could not tell.  Neither would go away. After the ceremony, he had another dream, of his mother still, this time floating on a boat down a river. He had the feeling of an underground river, in darkness and damp. She was unmoving, lying still on her back, the barge loaded with gifts. He woke up to see a servant with a concerned look on her face. She had put a wet, cool washcloth on his brow. When he opened crazed eyes, she held a cup of weak tea to his lips. He drank greedily and went back to his dream.

He was in a barge himself, alongside hers now. They had picked up speed, the current was trying to tear them apart. He had tied both barges together, but the knots kept coming undone and he was desperately trying to stay with his mother. He grabbed on to her barge and tried to climb into it, but fear overtook him. The river was boiling now, bubbling and stinky. The barge was hot to the touch. He let go and his mother’s barge sped ahead caught in a whirlwind that sucked her down and away from his sight. He woke up, heart pounding, sure that she was dead now, with a deep hollow in the pit of his stomach.

The worst of the heat had abated. He was drenched in sweat, perhaps feverish. He walked to the terrace and heard the muezzin’s call to prayer. So many ways to appease the gods. He poured himself a whisky. The drone of the prayer settled his nerves.

Mr. Klein

I stand by my father’s bed. We never had much to say to each other and this is no exception.
– You want water?
– Sure.
I pour a glass. He takes a sip. I figure I should stay at least 15 minutes, then I should be able to leave. I told Marion I was going, hoping she would drop by. Instead, my sister was relieved and said, lightly, “Three’s a crowd.” That’s always been my line, and I could see now how she would have resented all my years of copping out. It was a shock to find our dad sprawled on the floor, in pain, his hip fractured though he’s not that old.
We look grimly at each other. I am eyeing the clock. It’s only been five minutes.
– Are you still in pain?
– Nah, painkillers.
– How’s the neighborhood?
I point at the curtain between the two beds. Dad has insisted on a semi-private room “for company.” He hates people, so I can only assume he’s been frightened out of his wits and fears another fall, another long wait. Dad frowns and pulls me close.
– I think he’s dying, he says in a low voice.
So much for company.
– Why do you say that? I reply in the same hushed tone.
– He’s hardly ever conscious. He moans and groans. The doctor comes and only talks to the nurse. He hasn’t gotten up at all.

Now I’m curious.
– Any visitors?
– Nope.
I suddenly feel righteous. At least Dad has me. Five more minutes.
-They should install the tv tomorrow. Do you want anything in the meantime?
He’s dozing off. I kiss his forehead lightly, as you would a child. His hair has thinned.

I stop by the nurses’ station and enquire about my dad’s roommate. He’s in the last stages of cancer. No family has claimed him. I hear myself say, “When’s the best time to visit? I mean, do you think it would be okay if I visited? Is he sometimes conscious?” The nurse’s features soften. “If you come around 7 pm, we can postpone his morphine until after you leave. Company will do him a lot of good. Thank you.” “His name?” “Mr. Klein.”

I visit Dad the next day. He’s back to his old self.
-The tv’s not working.
I try the remote.
– You have to press here.
– Give me that.
He finds the news channel and starts watching the news. I watch a little with him, then I head over next door.

– Hello, I’m Rick. I’m your neighbour’s son. He wants to watch the news. May I sit with you, Mr. Klein?
He looks at me, non-committal. I stay put. He ushers me in with his chin. We sit in silence. He has pleasant features, though etched in pain.
– May I sketch you?
He looks intrigued, motions at the pillows. I straighten the pillows. He runs the hand without the IV through his hair. I take out my sketchbook. He stays motionless, with a purpose. I draw him in broad strokes, the elongated forehead, the diminutive chin, the fine lips, the fiery eyes and bushy eyebrows.

I show him. He chuckles.
– “It’s good. Rick.” He nods. “It’s good,” he repeats.
– Thank you. It’s for you to keep. What shall we call it?
– The last hurrah.
I write ‘The last hurrah’ and hand it to him.
He points to the bedside table. I place it there, near a picture. I don’t ask. He’s looking at me, but his gaze is faltering.
– Time for your morphine?
He nods. I press for the nurse, who arrives promptly.
– Shall I come back tomorrow?
– Yes, Rick.
I go see Dad. He’s still riveted by the tv and mumbles his comments. I can tell he’s feeling better by the venom he projects.
– I’m off, Dad. Do you need anything?
He waves me away. He’s got his tv.

The next day, I make it earlier to the hospital and slip in to see Mr. Klein.
– Do you need help eating?
He looks up and smiles.
– You could eat my share. I’m just pushing the food around.
I am starving.
– At least eat the soup.
He complies and watches me down the pasta and bread. I look at him guiltily.
– I should have kept the bread for you.
– Eat, eat.
There’s applesauce and Arrowroot biscuits. I push it towards him. He says, “Take the cookies, they’re too dry.” His appetite is better. I tell him about desserts I liked as a kid. He says he could have applesauce everyday. I put the tray on the floor and push the table out of the way. I can hear the tv sounds from Dad’s side.
– Does the sound bother you?
He answers, “He’s got it running all day, all night.”
It’s loud. I suspect they took out his hearing aids.

– Hi, Dad.
– Rick, you’re early. Aren’t you working?
– I wanted to see how you were doing. The tv’s pretty loud. Let’s get you set up with the earphones and see if we can get the volume down.
I fiddle with it until he’s comfortable. He’s eaten all his food, so I get rid of his tray as well. He’s absorbed by the tv. I leave him to it.

Mr. Klein doesn’t ask me about Dad.
– Better? I ask.
– Yes, thank you.
He’s pretty lively for a dying man.
– How’s the lighting? Are you managing to sleep?
– I would do better with my cap, but I can’t get to it.
I rummage and come back with it. He puts on the cap. He looks dapper.
– Do you want to pose with the cap?
His eyes are softer. They are no longer fighting the harsh light. I push the cap a bit to the side. This time, I draw the boy in him. He gasps when I show him.
– What shall we call it?
– Springtime.
I title it, date and sign. I notice the first one is gone. It’s been a long visit. I bring it to a close. We shake hands.
– See you tomorrow, Mr. Klein.
– Goodbye, Son.

Dad doesn’t hear me leave. He’s got the baseball going.
I come the next day with flowers. Mr. Klein is heavily sedated. A forbidding woman is sitting by his side, her back very straight. I introduce myself and hand her the flowers. She seems to need them. I go and see Dad.
– The tv’s too small. I could hardly see the ball yesterday. I’m ready to leave. They say I have to do physio. I’ve been getting up and exercising but I’m supposed to always wait for help. They’re afraid I’ll break something
– Did Marion come by?
– Marion? Yes, she says hi. She missed you yesterday. She says to wait for her today.
I start sketching him.
– When are you going to get a real job? None of that doodling.
I put my pad away. We stare at each other.

I hear the woman getting up next door. She stops at the foot of my father’s bed. “You have a good son.” She leaves with the bouquet. I catch up with her in the hall.
– You drew those pictures, yes? You have made him so happy. He is dying, you know. But now, he is lighter. Your visits make him happy.
– He’s in pain today?
– Yes, they had to increase his dose.
– I will sit with him until my sister comes.
– Thank you, I must leave now. For work.
I take out my pad and sketch his dreams. He is playing the fiddle in a field. People are dancing. Dogs are trying to get a bite from a table full of food. I leave the drawing on his bedside.
Marion has arrived, and Dad and she are arguing. She wants him to turn off the tv so they can talk. I intervene.
– Dad, you’ve got a better tv at home. Maybe we can discuss ways to get you there sooner.
I’ve got his attention. We agree on a plan that Marion will discuss with his medical team tomorrow. If they agree, we can take him back home. We leave Dad to his tv.

During the night, I get a phone call from the nurse. “Mr. Klein is asking for you. I think it may be time. Will you come?” I hurry to the hospital. They’ve moved Mr. Klein to a private room. His breathing is laboured. He relaxes a bit as I take a seat by him. I take his hand. It is cold but firm.
– How did you know about the dream?
I look at his blue eyes, the child, the dream, the old man.
– My hand knew.
– Draw again, please.
I look into his eyes and see death. I draw a beautiful woman with a peaceful smile. She has long curly dark hair and tiny feet. I feel music around her. I change the curls to notes. I am immersed in my vision, drawing quickly. I show Mr. Klein the drawing. His eyes are focused and clear. He seems to recognize the woman. “Ah,” he sighs. He takes a deep breath. After a pause, another breath. I have stopped breathing and I am holding his hand. His grip relaxes, his breathing stops. We sit in silence, the drawing on his silent chest.

Dad went home today too.

Kory death rituals

Death in the Kory culture is an elaborate affair. I have written elsewhere of the rites and rituals surrounding the disposal of the body. I will focus here on the impact on the clan and immediate members of the family. I interviewed Klio, whose husband was killed by a wild boar during a hunt. The meat was offered ceremoniously at the internment. Her face was still smeared in ash and clay, and would remain so as long as she saw fit.

We could only refer to her husband by the relationship they had. His name was no longer to be uttered, and would never again be used in naming another child. Anyone who had a similar name would be encouraged to add a syllable in front. For example, someone named Opona where the deceased was Oponge, would now be called Keopona. Because the tonic accent was on the first syllable, the name would sound differently and no longer cause undue grief and pain. In the olden times, a finger of the relatives would be amputated at the first phalange to indicate the hurt, and the closeness and harmony shattered. Nowadays, this tradition was no longer followed, but people still felt a need to symbolize the loss. A number of the Kory had taken to sporting a tattoo of a hand with a severed finger, or alternately the finger would be dark and shown with a red string on it, which was the first stage before the digit was cut off. Klio had such a tattoo from the earlier death of her beloved sister. She planned to get the tattoo updated to signify her husband’s demise.

They had buried the body with all that was dear to him: his radio, his wristwatch, his fishing hat and lures (much to the chagrin of his fishing buddies), various tools and weapons. It was better that way – seeing those things would have been a daily reminder of his departure. This way, and by never again saying his name, it was said that his spirit would be free to join the stars. Still, Klio confided in me (surely because I was an outsider and did not know how wrong it was), she dreamt of him almost every night. They had been very close, and in the dream, he was either holding her hand, lovingly caressing an amputated finger, or saying goodbye in different ways. His death had been sudden and unexpected, and they did not have time to do so in real life. In the dream, she would sing his name, or whisper it in his ear. Sometimes, at that point, he would simply vanish in a wisp of smoke. She could not ask for advice, as these dreams were forbidden. She found a measure of relief just sharing them with me.

An anthropologist’s job is delicate. Just the recording or interviewing of subjects could change the dynamics and introduce new elements in the culture. It’s a difficult juggling act that requires much tact.

Till Death Do Us Part

The woman of steel took care of it.

She had heard that the girl had been buried a month ago, after a long illness. She regrets not attending the funeral. She had considered it, but her pride prevented her from going. From all accounts, it was a grand affair, and she expects the family must be swimming in debt now. They are her best chance, pride be damned.

The family is told of her grandson’s untimely demise. They commiserate. They are tactfully informed that he had not yet wed, had not tasted love, and asked about the state of the late young woman. She is reassured to hear that the same fate had befallen her.

They make sympathetic noises over tea, muse over possible family ties. “I believe my cousin twice removed…” “Yes, yes, we are related. This is such a large family.” “Then you will pardon my asking, and you will understand my grief…” “Yes, yes, but will you pay for it all, and will you take into consideration our anguish…” “Yes, yes, such a tragedy, and what will the neighbours think.”

In the end, they agree to dig her up so that both can be buried together, as the couple they never were in life. The man will not present himself alone to Death. Someone will be by his side to take care of him where they themselves are not yet ready to go.

The neighbours approve.