By Nancy Davis
Revolution threatened Michel's early years like a distant drumbeat. For a child who had experienced nothing else, though, it was simply background noise: the accustomed droning hum of normality.
He was born in the Belgian Congo. Later, it became Zaire, and maybe now is the Congo again; who can keep up with all these revolutions...?
His father Demitri was a businessman. In the Congo, he developed vast palm and coffee plantations and factories; he also traded in diamonds as opportunities allowed. Michel was his youngest child. Demitri's parents in Greece were unaware of his family in Africa. They had pressured him for many years to marry the daughter of close family friends. He had recently moved his Greek wife to the Congo; Michel's mother now lived in a smaller house nearby.
On one memorable occasion, Michel visited one of the factories. Demitri beamed with pride as his employees gathered around. He enjoyed showing his son off. It was a new and rare feeling, and he wondered to himself why he didn't do it more often; but there were always important distractions... people to meet, deals to solidify. Still, he enjoyed this moment... his son. With a hand on each of Michel's shoulders, he stood gazing to the far walls of his factory and with fevered eyes, looked beyond them in space and time. The two of them represented a powerful dynasty. Demitri had big plans for his son.
Michel was a handsome child, though so small that he would be overlooked in a crowd. But standing near his father, Michel felt himself grow. His round dark eyes reflected lively intelligence and a playful spirit. The factory workers made him feel welcome, and even had a respectful attitude toward him. He knew his father was proud of him. Michel was on top of the world!
Demitri said, "This is my son, and he'll be the boss here some day! Won't you, my boy?"
Then he laughed loudly, and the expression on his face showed affection as well as pride. He embraced Michel and kissed him goodbye after the visit. Michel could still experience the scent of shaving soap and tobacco. He would remember it always. It was something to ponder when he felt lonely.
Though he was seldom really alone; he had fun playing with his schoolmates. His manner was outgoing, even charismatic. Michel thrived on attention; he felt energized by the presence of people.
Demitri insisted on boarding school for his children. Though Michel's mother was quiet and reticent, Michel sensed that she had been unhappy when he first left for the school, many years ago. Hadn't he himself been sad? It was hard to remember, it was long ago...
But Father made the rules. Certain ways of being and thinking must be taught in a particular environment, as early as possible, to prevent weakness and to enhance every sort of success. Female influence in the family must be minimized after weaning to encourage effective adult growth. Early independence developed strength.
Michel respected and adored his father, or perhaps it was the idea and memory of him; he'd rarely seen Demitri in person. Quiet anger rumbled within Michel's busy mind, erupting at the surface only occasionally and briefly, like tiny bubbles in a boiling stew.
Demitri wasn't religious, but he found the boarding school operated by the missionaries a good arrangement. They taught his children the fear of God, providing strong, unsentimental discipline. Their strange rituals and dogmas were of no real consequence, and their unquestioned structure was admirable in its own way. This atmosphere would create humble and obedient children. And conveniently, the religious leaders could be bought. Demitri was well-connected in the community.
Michel habitually wet the bed. Though for all practical purposes the missionary school was his home, it didn't seem to Michel that the bed he slept in was his own, so he felt doubly ashamed, as if he were violating some sacred public shrine. He always dreaded the consequences: a public dunking in a huge old gasoline barrel, filled with cold water. Not only Michel, but most of the children wet their beds at some point, some for years. The bed-wetters slept in the section surreptitiously called the "zoo" by the teachers; the children knew, and were humiliated. The missionary teachers angrily scolded the guilty children, in half-understood foreign tongues; the younger children would cry while awaiting their turns in the dunking tubs.
As this was the Belgian Congo, Michel spoke mostly French, though he knew some Swahili and some of his mother's tongue, Lingala. Many missionaries spoke only English, rarely bending to the children's understanding. Some of them were kindly, but far too many had questionable motives for being there.
One had been a convicted bank robber in the United States. He convinced the parole board that he was a born-again Christian, so they released him with the stipulation that he become a full-time missionary worker. He frightened the children; they sensed a threat in his disdainful glances and impatient voice. These children had combined European and African heritage, and this man seemed to believe that white skin and speaking English defined humanness. Michel and the other children learned to carefully placate him, though they preferred to avoid him altogether. They clearly saw the injustice in his behavior; however, they didn't see their own disdain for the black Africans as also unfair. Ironies and confusion molded their young minds.
Besides punishing Michel for an immature bladder, the missionaries taught many odd ideas. For example, he learned the English word for "penis" was "shu-not"....as in, you "should not" touch it. This scared and confused the children, because they also "shu-not" talk about it. Fear of making a wrong move was ever-present and no questions were allowed.
Shu-not was a normal word and world view for a long time for poor little Michel; there were many things he ''shu-not" do. Nevertheless, good children were expected to conform to "normality". Michel was hungry for approval and learned his lessons well.
Michel dreamed of the day he would be able to do whatever he wanted. What child doesn't at least unconsciously collect fuel during his early years for the eagerly anticipated celebratory fires of adolescent rebellion? Michel often dwelled in another world, while quietly obedient to missionary demands. He was a master at hiding his feelings; he hoarded them.
Michel's mother arrived at the school one day in early fall. She hadn't seen her son in many years, and was greatly anticipating this visit. She was escorted into the main building and told to wait outside the school director's office. Patiently she waited. She'd come this far, and the reward for her patience was in sight. She thought fondly about Despina, and silently gave thanks for the blessings of her children.
Despina was Michel's sixteen-year-old sister; she had arranged her mother's trip to see Michel. A recent visit to Greece had opened her awareness; she thought it only fair that her mother be allowed to visit her youngest child, especially under the current circumstances.
Demitri's household wasn't designed for family life. There was a large main house and several smaller ones; he was a wealthy man, providing many material advantages. But children were out of place there; Michel was sent to boarding school at age three. Athena, the oldest, had been sent to Greece many years ago, where she was now married to a government official.
Despina had seen another world while visiting her sister, and she cherished the memory of Athena, playing with her two young children. They would attend school nearby. Despina realized that her little brother Michel hadn't seen their mother for many years, and that children needed their mothers. She had tried to take their mother's place while she was at the school, but had to leave last year. Despina knew her mother missed her baby; she had spoken of it. And Despina had seen her silent tears in the dark.
Suzanne often worked far into the night, serving the needs of the many ever-present guests. Demitri's business commitments were overextended, but that was his way. He delighted in having people around constantly: friends and business associates, government officials… all important for various reasons.
He never tired of joining his visitors in eating, drinking, smoking cigarettes and playing poker, making deals, talking and laughing until he collapsed in sleep. He loved Suzanne in his own way, but she was a fixture, playing a role. It was her tradition to be always available and accommodating; it was unthinkable that she join the festivities. And though his lifestyle was unique, an exotic bubble within the community, Demitri and his household were not exempt from the subtle, and not-so-subtle attitudes rampant in the culture and times.
Here in the Belgian Congo, where the native Congolese had deep skin shades, those in the minority stood out as different and were labeled differently. Therefore, Despina was considered "white", like her father. His skin color was not literally white, nor was hers; color had an ambiguous definition which related to giving and getting respect. It also had something to do with government and the leaders in control of it. It was far too complex for a young inexperienced girl to comprehend. In fact, it was too complex for the most brilliant and educated adults to understand. They just accepted it as the way things are.
Despina was now too old for the missionary school, and would perhaps be sent to Greece; present circumstances were unsettled After visiting Greece, she had requested that her mother be allowed to visit Michel. It happened that Demitri had an acquaintance who was making the trip for business purposes; he was a trader in staple food supplies, the kind westerners missed in this place so far from home. The missionary school was isolated; they would pay good prices. So it had been arranged and planned for over a month.
Suzanne was really here, at Michel's school. It was hard for her to believe it. The wait outside Reverend Derkson's office was finally over; he appeared and sent her to the girl's dormitory to await Michel. Then he asked a teacher to take Michel to see her.
There were no classes that day, and it was late morning. Miss Louis came to the dorm to get Michel. He was nowhere in sight, so she spoke to one of the other boys there.
"William, please help me look for Michel.Tell him he has a visitor."
"Yes, Miss Louis. Michel!" William called loudly as he ran down the hall of the dorm.
William stopped running as he noticed some of the older boys huddling together outside the window. They were deep in conversation, and he was curious to learn whatever they had to say. The little ones couldn't wait to get bigger. The most fun, important things happened when people grew up, and the closer a person got to being grown up, the closer he got to all there was to discover and enjoy in that mysterious, fascinating world. William strolled out the door and walked in their direction, close enough to hear what they said, but not close enough to seem to be spying. The big boys could get angry without much warning, and though they weren't always mean to the smaller kids, they could be.
Danny was fifteen, and was considered a leader among the older children. "I tell you, it's true…I heard Reverend Derkson himself talking to some of the teachers. We're all leaving on the buses! It sounded like it might be soon. And they're taking guns. I'm taking my spear!"
"No, Danny, they won't let you because then everyone will want a spear. The teachers don't know how to use them… they won't want to look stupid!" David saw little William out of the corner of his eye. He called out harshly, "What do you want?
William held back timidly. "I'm looking for Michel; he has a visitor."
Danny smiled. "Aw, I saw him with a few other kids heading out to the road early this morning. And here he is now…hey, Georgie, get over here, NOW!"
William marveled at the way Danny spoke to Michel. It was a teasing voice, but not mean or angry sounding. It was as if Michel was a big kid, like one of their buddies; they almost looked up to him. Strange for a little kid. Everyone liked Michel.
William said quickly, "Miss Louis is looking for you, there's someone here to see you."
Michel had a distracted look as he plucked some thorns from his shirt. He held a tin can full of berries he'd picked. He offered it to William. "Here, you want these?"
"Thanks Michel!" William ran off to share his good fortune, no longer interested in the big boys and their secrets.
Miss Louis was very tall. She peered at Michel through black rimmed glasses. "Your mother is here to see you Michel. Please follow me." She turned and walked toward the girl's dormitory.
Michel was stunned. He couldn't remember having ever seen his mother before...he had been at school for a long time, since a very early age. He tried to bring an image to mind, but could not. He was afraid... and did his father know she was coming?
He wasn't so sure about this. Suddenly a stick on the ground caught his attention, and he picked it up. He whipped out his machete, and started to slice off the bark with it.
Miss Louis spun around and saw that Michel hadn't made a move in her direction. The angry flames leaping from her eyes almost devoured the stick he was holding.
"Michel, you will put that stick down and follow me this instant! Is that clear?"
Miss Louis was fuming. It was so frustrating to have to go looking all over the place for these children, and now here he was dawdling and wasting time. When she had her own children, she wouldn't let them do this to her. She'd make sure they stayed where she could find them. Teaching was a good way to learn about children, and plan ahead what to do and what not to do. Yes, planning was so important. It had always been her plan to be a missionary, to do something that mattered in the world, to exercise her Christian love. Of course, this job didn't pay well, and it was extremely tedious; she was often bored here in this isolated place. Nevertheless, this was what she always had planned to do. She sighed.
As Michel followed Miss Louis to the building, he struggled to keep up with her long strides. Besides being frustrated at having had to wait for Michel, Miss Louis was in a hurry, as the teachers were having a special meeting today. She was missing the proceedings, which probably would cost her some stern looks when she got there. This meeting was a last minute scenario, set up by the illustrious Reverend Derkson. She had little respect for the man. He had ridiculous and annoying mannerisms. Honestly, this field of employment attracted such a peculiar assortment of individuals.
She hoped the teachers' meeting wouldn't take long; after it she would be free for the day… though there really wasn't much to do around here, especially compared to the excitement and sophistication of the city she left behind. This current duty, facilitating a family reunion, was an annoying interruption for her, but she was here, after all, to do a charitable work.
She sighed again and slowed her pace quite a bit, as she finally realized the little boy was falling behind. She glanced over and noticed he was striding along briskly, using the stick as a staff or a cane, and managing to look quite dapper in spite of his dusty short pants. He grinned up at her, and impulsively winked. In spite of herself, she was charmed.
Michel was well aware that his mother's tribe traditionally wrapped their heads tightly, resulting in an unusually elongated, even distorted appearance. This was considered attractive in her home village. He tried hard to remember if her head was like that. Perhaps the other children would laugh. Oh, they certainly would. He prayed and prayed. The missionaries had taught him well.
They arrived at the girls' dormitory, and entered by a side door. The room was cool and dark, an abrupt contrast to the bright day outside the door. He saw his mother from a distance, and was delighted. Her head looked normal. Perhaps God did answer prayers!
That was his first feeling when he saw his mother: happy relief, that the other children would have no reason to snicker and poke fun at his mother, or at him. Then, that initial euphoria dissipated, and he felt uncomfortable; his throat was tight, his fists clenched involuntarily. Miss Louis took his hand and walked him closer to his mother. His steps were small and stiff.
He had really missed his mother, but had missed her for so very, very long.... he no longer knew her. Michel had come, finally, to miss only the idea of his mother. Not a living idea, visited periodically in dreams or fantasy, but a parched, brittle idea, one he avoided thinking, looking at directly, or touching, perhaps for fear it would disappear... a faded, blurred picture in his mind. True, it was with an unspeakable passion that he missed her, but his knowledge of who-she-was had evaporated with the years. Could the reality ever, ever measure up to the fragile, perfect idea?
She was sitting on a straight chair, dressed in the traditional clothing which was familiar to him, yet was not. To have her, here, where he'd never seen her before, was a jarring, other-worldly event. Whenever he had thought of her, he associated her with home. Home....something else that was familiar, yet was not.
Tears trembled in his mother's eyes as she shyly reached out to touch him. Her voice was gentle and tender; familiar, yet not. "My son...Michel... I love you, little one. And I have missed you."
A smile froze on his face, but his arms relaxed enough to give her a hug, then he stepped back quickly.
He was just nine years old, but his timeless eyes flickered briefly with an ancient terror, soon calmly extinguished from the cool, controlled depths of his tiny heart.
Survival has its price.
Michel was a survivor. He would survive this visit, this horrible, wonderful visit. Michel's mother was allowed to take a walk with him around the school grounds. It was rare for black Africans to be present at this school, except those in subservient roles. She was here as a parent, and the realization of this fact was uncomfortable to all, on some inarticulate level. She received many disdainful looks, from children as well as from the adult missionaries.
A breeze sent a chill through Michel's mother and she shivered. She narrowed her eyes against the wind, and hugged herself. She had no wrap with her. The school was located in a mountainous area, which, though near the equator, was much cooler than the lower river vicinity where she lived. The school was a large, rectangular shaped brick building which seemed to frown its disapproval of her presence. She was accustomed to being viewed as inferior, but would never be comfortable with it.
Michel felt awkward walking with his mother, and fell silent, dragging his feet and kicking small stones when some people passed them. But when they were alone, his face brightened as he eagerly shared his knowledge. He always enjoyed having an audience, especially one who was so particularly interested in him. She had come here just to see him! He chattered and danced along ahead of her, walking backwards so that he faced her while pointing out the familiar sights. His mother smiled and took his hand, and he walked in step with her.
Suzanne had a round, childlike face, with a kindly but worried expression. Michel's complexion had a much lighter hue than his mother's; he had inherited his short stature from both parents.
He pointed out the wing of the school where the teachers and administrators lived, which had a kitchen and recreation room with a fireplace. The students were allowed into the recreation room on special occasions. The bedrooms faced onto a large, circular court, which received the occasional motor vehicle, delivering eagerly awaited supplies from the outside world.
Then there were the buildings housing the toilets, which were just six holes cut into some platforms, suspended over a larger hole. Maggots proliferated in the area, as well as, of course, flies. No partitions, no privacy, though there were separate buildings for boys and girls; the sexes were kept apart as much as possible.
Sleeping quarters for the children were two separate buildings, one for the boys and one for the girls. Their ages ranged from three years old to about fifteen years old. The older children looked after the younger ones in an intermittently concerned, but ultimately noncommittal way; mostly, they all wandered about freely on the campus, and even into the jungle. The teachers supervised them only during classes and there were no assigned caretakers, per se.
The jungle surrounding the compound was deep, gloriously fertile, and frighteningly dangerous. Leopards would retreat if you met one face to face, but if they saw you first from afar, they would stealthily creep up from behind and attack. Mountain gorillas and chimpanzees lived in the most remote, elevated areas. It was fairly common to see them, and they could be quite fierce, though they usually kept their distance. The children knew not to look them in the eye, as that could cause them to attack. Small monkeys traveled in large groups; they were cute, but had deadly bites. And snakes...well, those were the scariest of all to Michel.
Many poisonous snakes lurked about and there were no nearby medical facilities. Illnesses were rampant, and those who weren't strong simply didn't survive. Death was no stranger here, and mystery and fear surrounded it. Corpses were transported out of the area only at night, so night itself was terrifying.
Yet the jungle was enchanting. Endless varieties of exotic birds rejoiced in their own being, making their hopeful presence known to their unseen soul mates in exuberant song...though the most subtly beautiful notes were wasted on the casual listener; they were rarely perceived at all...which lent a wistful quality to even the most cheerful tunes. Somehow, they found the time and heart to build nests, lay eggs, tend their young...but their mournful cries punctuated the darkness, whether dark day or dark night. The sounds of the jungle were shadowed with bittersweet complexity; the shadows were haunted by echoes.
Parrots were sparkling, multicolored breathing gems, adorning tree branches so abundant and heavy with leaves that no light penetrated their depths. The jungle seemed to be a soft, mysterious cave, at least from a safe distance. So dense and velvety was the foliage that it created an almost creamy background silence, which was never truly silent; even if no animals or other conscious life could be seen, there were many tiny unseen creatures, including unimaginable numbers of insects, which were far from silent.
Even the faceless trees had an eloquent presence. They exuded primeval wisdom, delivering a soundless, friendly warning to all who dared enter: "Welcome! But beware". For this message, there was no language barrier, but young children tended to hear only the "Welcome!…"
Michel ran ahead of his mother toward the dense jungle. He was a high-energy young spirit. He always kept his machete handy, to hack through the dense brush. It re-grew overnight, so there were no true paths, in the sense that the ground was clear...it never was. There were sharp thorns on many plants, and poisonous leaves on others. He was adventurous and fearless, though often he regretted those impulses when his skin swelled up with bug bites, rashes and cuts. To some degree they could be avoided, though Michel wasn't sure what he wanted to avoid.
Suzanne had enjoyed the tour, savoring these moments with her son and preserving them in her memory. It was a perfect day. But time was short. She called to him from a clearing outside the thick jungle. "Michel... please come away from there... let's sit here. I leave soon, and cannot miss my ride."
She sat on the ground and waited for Michel to finish his explorations. She could see that he had a curious mind in need of constant feeding. It was hard to believe she was here, and harder to accept that it would soon be time to leave. In a few days, she'd be back at home, telling Despina about this visit; she would be interested.
Suzanne had anticipated this visit with pleasure. She had traveled with the trader, his driver and a guide. It was a two day trip; the roads were unpaved and rocky, with many pits. No repair service was available for vehicles, and she was required to help push the truck out of a few ditches. But this journey was a wonderful gift to a woman who had grieved many losses.
These grateful thoughts drifted though Suzanne's mind as she saw her Michel dragging his feet toward her... he really wanted to show her his jungle! But she knew the jungle. Forging a path there would consume precious energy and time; there was little left. And fighting the jungle would cause injury; nature, especially in this part of the earth, was stubborn and strong. It took wisdom born of many scars to weigh the consequences of such battles.
It reminded her of her own childhood. Though the memories seemed a dream, she had also been a child who liked to explore the forests and jungles, the mountains and rivers, playing and laughing with her sisters, brothers and friends. But that was long ago, when life served different choices, or seemed to. She was a cherished, favorite daughter of beloved parents. They'd raised her a Christian, baptized with a Christian name. She still lived close enough to visit them as she liked. Her own mother had taught her many skills, though she continued to find larger wisdom in unexpected places. Her father often paid visits to Demitri, during which they exchanged knowledge of each other's games and ways.
She had been given to Demitri by her father, who was of the royal family in her village. They had at first been business acquaintances. Demitri had received many acres of land to be used for his plantations. Her father had received many guns, useful in hunting; they were much more efficient than the spears he formerly used.
Suzanne was not part of a purchase but was a gift of good will between the men. She was honored to be Demitri's wife. It was, of course, an arranged marriage, yet this didn't mean there was no love within it. He treated her well, and she always did her best to be worthy. He was a busy and important man, and she respected that. She didn't always agree with his decisions or actions, but she was submissive and obedient; that was the tradition for women in her tribe. Yet there were times when an inborn sense of justice would launch a hesitant protest, which never reached her throat to deliver a sound. She kept these stillborn impulses buried in a safe place within. Thoughts about his other wife were stored there.
She'd been quietly despairing when the children were taken to the boarding school at such early ages. Demitri was kind enough to allow her freedom of access to her family, and she was grateful for that; yet their own children, he claimed. And she missed having them near.
They were part of her, precious creations. The responsibility of having caused a life was frightening, and made her feel an awed fragility, a trembling inside. In the early days after the births of her children, that magical feeling permeated every thought, glance, touch. With time, she relaxed within the everyday routine; though how could she take such wonders for granted? Especially when their absence emptied her heart.
Michel was slowly making his way toward his mother, but found endless marvels in his surroundings to absorb his immediate attention. He dug his knife into the rich black soil, unearthing thousands of ants, which scattered in a frenzy. He immediately withdrew from their territory, as he had been bitten by these far too often already. He should have known better than to disturb their nest, but this day was filled with unusual distractions; he needed to be more on guard.
Suzanne studied him from afar, amazed at his resemblance to Demitri. But his handling of the knife reminded her of her brothers… who here could teach him the ways of the jungle? Life depended on it. She suddenly felt exhausted and defeated. But not for long. Close to tears, but content in rare fulfillment, she gazed at her child.
She pondered the amazing freshness of children, the joy and renewal they bring! With clear uncluttered instincts, they could teach her to shut out those realities, to pretend back in time to a place where hopes lived and blossomed. Maybe it wasn't pretending, but actually seeing the hidden wonder and triumph. During rare opportunities for reflection, she was open to such teaching.
A brilliantly colored butterfly shared this pristine, cool day with her. Velvety wings invited her tired eyes to rest within a soft and gentle dance; iridescent hues shifted, reflecting the sun's glory with each slight movement. It fluttered over a nearby flower, then moved on to another one, closer to her, and lighted down, unaware that its beauty was a gift: a gift not of conscious will or generosity, but of simple being.
Quiet passion in the love for her children sustained her through difficult times, which occurred more and more these recent days. She knew that her children could never feel so strongly for her; that type of love goes in only one direction, and she felt no injustice in that. The tragedy she couldn't escape was that she could not be there to deliver it. Yet she did have this moment.
The butterfly moved off to a distant bush; Suzanne closed her eyes in humble appreciation and breathed deeply the sunny day.
When Michel got nearer to his mother, he forgot about the jungle. His thoughts and moods changed in a heartbeat. He excitedly swung his arms up and down.
"I have a pet owl, Mother. His wings are sooo big!! You won't believe.....! I taught him to fly, you know, he was a baby when I found him! I hope he comes soon, I want you to see him!" His eyes sparkled.
"I hope so, too." She smiled broadly.
His innocent joy in the moment was contagious.
Suzanne reached out and pulled him onto her lap. No more baby. But still a little boy. She touched his soft black curls lightly, thinking back to the day he'd been taken from her; so many years, yet seeming like yesterday. Her heart still remembered. She sometimes felt his pain, or thought she did. Perhaps it was her own, reaching across the distance. Here and now, she felt at peace for the first time in years.
"Do you remember home, Michel?"
Michel looked at her face and saw a sadness he had felt himself many times. She was smiling. He was trying to understand how a person could be sad, and yet smile. He did this himself all the time, automatically, yet it was a big mystery in his life, like the mystery of why dead people scared him so much, or why chimpanzees sometimes looked like they wanted to cry, but had no tears, or why, each time his owl flew away, Michel had a sharp little pain in his chest.
He was quiet, uncomfortable in being so close to his mother; she was really a stranger. Though he knew she was his mother, he felt offended that she took such liberties. None of the teachers touched him except to put him in the dunking tub when he was bad. He desperately wanted to pull away from her, to run far, far away. Yet he also wanted to stay close to her forever. But he knew this wouldn't be forever; she would be leaving soon, people always left, finally. So he would find the generosity to cope with this closeness for the moment, with dignity. He was learning well, to be kind and cordial and to get along with people. He would try to give her an answer. He searched his memory for a place called home.
Slowly and softly, as if in a trance, he spoke.
"I remember going to Father's factory, and all the big, loud machines."
He remembered the visit last year, his father's voice, the scent of soap and tobacco; he thought about his father giving him a big hug when he dropped him off at the school after his visit. But he didn't want to talk about that. No, no, he couldn't touch that memory... he might lose it, it might leave, forever.
He remembered the long trip to and from the factory. "I remember riding in the boat and the car…and I remember when Despina went away... that wasn't too long ago." His father had taken Despina with him when he left Michel back at the school.
He got quiet again. He missed his big sister, but she was gone now. No one really took the responsibility of looking after him, of caring about him, in the time since she'd left last year. He was getting good at taking care of himself.
No, he didn't remember home. But perhaps it would be wrong or not nice to say that out loud. So he changed the subject. Or perhaps he didn't…
"Will my father come to see me?"
Suzanne slowly cast her eyes toward her feet. They were dusty from the trip, and tired. She stared until she saw nothing, and saw it grow to encompass eternity. Within this moment were no possibilities; she could only fail her son.
She thought about how she could tell him. She wondered if there was a right way to do it. Being here was the best she could manage to do. She couldn't bring his father back to life.
Years of many cigarettes and heavy meals, much celebrating when business was successful, drowning his disappointment with alcohol when it wasn't… and the early rumblings of a revolution threatening his business… he'd died of cirrhosis of the liver, two weeks before. A full life, but not long enough. It never is.
"Michel, your father cannot come to see you. He's gone. He's dead. I'm so sorry." She had thought her own tears were used up, but the shocked pain on his little face brought them forth.
Michel heard a loud roar in his ears and felt his throat and stomach tighten. After a few seconds, he stood up and walked stiffly, then ran into the jungle.
The driver called brusquely to Suzanne that it was time to go. She stood and walked obediently to the waiting truck, then hesitated at the door.
"May I have a few more minutes to say good bye to my son?"
The driver glanced over at the trader, who was momentarily distracted by a conversation with the director of the school. He and Suzanne couldn't understand the English they were speaking, but it appeared they were quite involved; perhaps there was a bit of time to spare. He said, "All right, but hurry."
The trader stood a few yards from the truck, frowning into the distance as the Reverend looked at the load of supplies in the back of the truck.
"Yeah, Reverend, that's what the man said... the rebels are not 30 kilometers from here. Serious lootin'... they want what they want." He shrugged. "They're not afraid to kill anyone in their way. It may be a couple of days before they get here, but I'd advise you to get everyone out of here tonight. No sense taking unnecessary chances. Things will get dangerous for those on the outside of this regime… that means all Europeans… and the rebels would put these kids in that category."
Reverend Derkson blinked nervously, and chewed his lip. "Very bad news, Mr. Packard, but it's a blessing you came up here today and gave us the word on this. We'll carry supplies for the trip to Kampala, but I'll make other arrangements for the children as soon we get there. I have connections in Belgium, an orphanage.... I'm sorry I can't buy the supplies under the circumstances; the buses wouldn't hold it all and it would be wasted here, the looters would take it."
The trader stared hard at the Reverend. "I would've turned around back there to save my tail as soon as that man told me... but I had to come here; you needed to know so you could save those kids." He took a last drag on his cigarette and flicked it away. He exhaled slowly. "Don't worry about my profits; I'll sell this stuff. There will be refugee camps, no doubt." He grinned and extended his hand.
Reverend Derkson slowed his blinking, and shook hands firmly. "Thank you".
Mr. Packard took a step toward the truck. "I'll be going now. I have other commitments to keep. Maybe we'll meet up on the other side of all this, when the dust settles. I get around."
Suzanne ran back to the clearing where they'd been sitting and peered into the jungle where Michel had run. No sign of him. Suzanne was distraught.... still grieving Demitri, and now, Michel... she turned round and round, scanning the area frantically. The pulse pounded hot in her head, its hypnotic beat mocking her despair. The trees seemed suddenly bigger, the sun shone brighter, the intensely blue sky was too, too beautiful; time slowed down…
Panic arose as she realized she probably had no legal rights to this child. She didn't completely understand such matters, only that in her experience, rare good things were a gift. This child was a sweet blessing she had received late in life.
She could see the wisdom of Demitri's decision to send him here… these people could offer experiences for Michel which she never could. All she could give was a mother's love. Was it true that was only for babies? Even adults have a silent, watchful baby within that didn't die with growth; it only changed. Sometimes it's not so silent. The world makes no room for such sounds.
Seemingly from nowhere, an owl touched down on the ground, and walked toward her, apparently tame.
She approached it and reached out hesitantly. It quickly flew off, leaving two small feathers in its wake. As they hovered momentarily in the air, she reached out to catch them. A sudden gust of wind snatched them from her grasp as the driver called to her impatiently. She ran, stumbling blindly, to the truck.
Michel peeked out from behind the tree where he'd been hiding his tears; boys weren't allowed to cry at this school. His mind did not know the words, but questions filled his eyes. They were as big and round as those of his pet owl, which now swooped down, landing close to him.