“Shibboleth” – Last Part

November 12, 2008 at 11:08 pm (Ríta)

When I emerged, Chema was lying, pale and shivering, on blankets that had been spread for him. His partial leg was raised on several pillows; he had lost his knee to surgery.
“He will not make it another hour,” said Ivan to me.
Sir Richard was trembling and cursing and smoking a pipe. He held Chema’s damp hand in both his own. His head was bowed.
“Whatever you do?” asked Alberto Olmedo.
“Whatever I do,” said Ivan, defeated. “If the wound had been below his knee, perhaps he would not have bled so much, and during surgery.”
Alberto Olmedo was not a bad man. He was shaken and grieved for his cousin. He had been perhaps turning his idea over and over in his mind, but now there was no question about what was to be done. Had the doctor said that Chema could be saved by medical means, he might have made a different decision.
“There is nothing to be done,” he said.
“Nothing,” confirmed Ivan. He put his fingers to his brow. “Nothing at all. He is in shock. I do not have the materials for a blood transfusion, and…” He lapsed into silence.
“Is there a stretcher?” asked Maraña.
“One might be fashioned from tent poles,” said Sir Richard.
“Please,” said Maraña.
We did not understand what he intended, but we complied. I threw off my blankets and helped, in a feverish hurry, as best I could. Under Maraña’s direction, we left the camp unpacked, and took only some water and the makeshift stretcher. Ivan carried morphine. We made our way inland on a small path that led from the beach, and ended, with our lives, in the ruins of a small Mahdist military encampment, abandoned for fifty years, untouched, the stink of death faded with the passage of time.
Who am I? For many years I wandered, uncertain, a shadowy bruise, not able to speak the language of my birth, thinking of swords, of screaming, of the soundless sun glowing through the dripping red of my mother’s newly dyed thobe, of my wife’s hands on my cheeks, memories that remained with the body, haunted by dreams of cold and damp autumns, of hunting dogs, of my older brother’s violin, of the rustle in my skirts when I danced. I died at the hands of extremists. I died in the grip of what is now my mind. I died at the hands of what is now my body. I was born in Soudan. I was born in Britain. I was born in the dust, under an unblinking sky.
Maraña, as I have said, went mad. He would not budge from where he sat. He would test his arms, could not make them do as he wished, could only sweep them across the sand. He bit his own flesh, violently, enough to draw blood.
“My eyes!” he exclaimed. “My limbs! I cannot move them! Oh dear God, what is this light…” but his lips and tongue would not form the words satisfactorily. I could barely understand him; one minute he seemed to be speaking slurred English, and the next I could not tell what he spoke. It is only with time that I suspect that he was not only babbling, but also that my own understanding was wavering back and forth, like a radio being tuned.
Chema died from the strain; we buried him where he lay.
Sir Richard fell ill. He was not Sir Richard any longer; from his grey eyes shone a terrified little boy. We were forced to carry him back to camp in the stretcher, where he wrapped his arms around his legs and did not stir. He would not speak a word other than Ummi, ummi, and died of a high fever before sunset. Perhaps he had been an innocent bystander, a local boy who supplied the soldiers.
We could not in the end move Alberto Olmedo; every time we lifted him, he screamed and thrashed, as uncoordinated as a puppet on strings, in mortal pain. It was impossible to force him; in our confusion, we simply left him behind. I now believe that Maraña’s gentle, aged, and tempered mind could not make the leap to a young system, coursing with masculinity and nervousness, awoken from death in the heat of battle, and it drove him instantly to insanity.
Ivan was no longer Ivan but a burly man of about forty I came to call Zubayr. I only knew he must be Ivan later, when I remembered my past, that I had a womb, once; I counted people on my fingers and concluded that it must have been Ivan. He dubbed me Saeed. Heroes of Badr. It was a humourless witticism, but we had nothing else: no memory of our names or of how we knew each other, only flitting visions at best. I am grateful we remembered enough to return to camp.
I am even grateful to Alberto Olmedo, that he knew enough to warn his staff of what might happen. They did not ask who we were, only took us to Khartoum and left us there. Our families, I know, must have thought us dead.
From time to time I see men and women like the man on the plane. I have not seen Ivan. I postulate that he took his life during those first few months in Khartoum. He did not stabilize but became more and more unglued; we drifted apart within a few days. I did not at first notice his absence, and when I did, I promptly forgot him. It was like letting go of a bad dream.
I have forgotten what it is like to sleep. Those like me do not show the exhaustion behind our masks. We do not really live in the world, but move through it like knives in water, a frictionless, dimensionless “I” that has taken up residence in the world, cut loose to hop from one objective self to the next. I have been born into so many, died so many times, had so many fathers and mothers and native tongues. I do not remember how we woke the restless dead. Do not ask me. I do not know who I am enough to know whether or not I would tell you the answer.


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