by Mark Powell
|On the morning of the third day Laura Riley woke from the dream of the floating Christ. It was her father’s dream—the dream of a seventeen year old Lucas Riley turning to find Jesus Christ face down in the pink surf off Guadalcanal, the Son of God headshot and drifting toward the beach—and when she opened her eyes sweat was streaking her temples. She kicked off the damp sheet. She was hot and alone, but not surprised. After her divorce, she had gone years without speaking to her father, but on her last trip home he had dragged out a box of photographs and started talking. She stared at gruff children in Marine fatigues, while he spoke of how they had died along the cliffs on Okinawa, falling asleep in his tattered recliner as he whispered about Tarawa and Saipan, about dead SeaBees and the nights sleeping in the cool insect mud.“Okinawa.” His voice slishing like tissue paper. “Them cliffs is where it got ugly.”
Lately, the dream had become more frequent, surfacing two, sometimes three nights a week, and now she stared up at the slow revolving blades of the ceiling fan and thought of him, her father in his Levis and Justin work boots, sitting at the kitchen table drinking coffee and cutting his country-fried steak with an Old Timer pocket knife. Her daddy ancient and veined and smaller by the year.
No, the dream didn’t surprise her, but it did frighten her, and she rose quickly from bed to brush her teeth and wipe her underarms with a dish cloth, feeling a particular urgency as she caked on deodorant and shook the white flakes from her sleeves. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letter & Papers from Prison sat on the nightstand, and staring at the book she realized she had slept all night on Jonas’ side of the bed. So, she thought, some joining of the apocalypse and an absent lover, and between the two—from the two—her father’s dream.
She put the book in her bag, then glanced at Jonas’ clothes hanging from wire hangers and wished for him, his smell and shape, the long slant of his body, the way he hugged his back when he walked. He was getting grayer and thinner. She had noticed that driving him to the airport in Bogotá, his encroaching age, the way he hesitated a half-second before pushing up out of the passenger seat of the little rented Citroen. Three months, he’d said, and then he’d kissed her, and then he’d left.
Now he was in the States raising money and awareness, speaking at churches and VFW halls amid the folding chairs and ping-pong tables, lecturing on the Christian necessity of pacifist intervention in war zones, a red International Peacekeepers banner spread behind him. He was in Wichita, perhaps, or Oklahoma City or Hannibal, Missouri, and she was in the Colombian town of Tulua.
For a moment she thought of what had happened in the village of la Florida. The dead decomposing beneath bed sheets. The boy who was missing his lower right leg, his body riddled with shimmery pinpoints of metal so that he glittered, his skin as iridescent as the scales of a fish. At daylight the local men had dragged three dead FARC guerilla and two AK-46s out of the bush. The rifles were cheap Chinese knock-offs, one with its laminate stock splintered by shrapnel, and Laura had thrown both into the river.
Now, she attempted to collect herself. She stilled her breathing, glanced a last time at her reflection. La Florida was three days ago. She wasn’t in la Florida. She was in Tulua, without him, while around her gathered the Last Things.
The house was empty by the time she was dressed, and she sat in the kitchen and drank green tea in bird-like sips from a china cup. Sunlight spread through the blinds and laddered the tile floor. By the time she walked outside it was late morning and she was sweating again. It had rained during the night and several children were playing in a river of brown ditch water that paralleled the street, the gutter disappearing beneath an iron grate then reemerging to maroon the metal posts of a chain-link fence. She waved and they looked down at their bare feet as she angled for the avenida. She had an appointment later that day with the city administrator in charge of the Guardia rural, but there were things to attend to first.
She needed to talk with him, or, barring talking—she realized she had no idea how to reach him—to at least write. There was a club called El Tigre on the avenida with a computer and internet connection and she started for it. Lately, she had become increasingly paranoid, avoiding both the computer and phone at the International Peacekeepers’ house. The Colombian government was cracking down on human rights groups and some germ of fear had spread into parts of her brain she had always reckoned rational and sound. She could trace it, but was helpless to contain it. It had started with Jonas leaving and grown worse after la Florida. Now it was infecting her dreams.
She passed the children splashing in the gully and thought again of her father. She never heard from him. It was her mother who wrote, a dutiful hand-written letter posted every two weeks, but it was her father who occupied her thoughts. There was something in him of the eternal recurrence, she thought. Forty years of the same old Ford pickup sitting in front of the Otasco he managed, the same American flag, the same swept sidewalk. In their yard, there always stood a pallet of salvaged bricks and several pieces of lumber, rusty nails pulled clean, beaten straight, and stored in Mason jars. Her father and the minutiae of his everlasting suffering.
El Tigre flashed in pale neon above a glass door, and Laura stood for a moment blinking against the dimness of the club. A few men sat at tables drinking beer and looking at her. She got a Postobon soda at the bar and stepped past them to the computer that sat on a folding card table, wedged between a lifeless jukebox and the ply-board door to the bathroom. Water dripped through the seams in the corrugated roof and onto the concrete floor. She logged on, opened yesterday’s email from Jonas and hit reply.
I might as well say right up front—because I know you’ve already talked to Julion, right?—that what he told you about the night at la Florida is probably way over the top. There was a firefight. True. I’m not denying that. But we got there as it was ending—useless as always, right?—and the idea that it was close, the idea that I was almost killed or even hurt is so far out there that
She stopped writing and leaned back from the screen. So far out there that what? She watched the cursor bounce. She had no answer, and thought for a moment of telling him about her dream, of sleeping on his side of the bed, of wallowing down into the slim impression his body had left then drifting off to find Christ dead and caught by the incoming tide. Jonas would read it in Des Moines, maybe, or Minneapolis. Check his inbox and think of her—if only for a moment—before stepping before another sparse crowd. We put ourselves in conflict zones in the hope that our presence lessens the chances of innocent victims, he would tell them. We put ourselves in conflict zones in order to take literally Christ’s command to be peacemakers. Water plinked into a coffee can. The cursor blinked.
I’ve been reading Bonhoeffer, his last few letters from Flossenberg, &
She stopped. THE HIDDENNESS OF LAST THINGS. It was a phrase of Bonhoeffer’s and for some reason she felt the need to type it, to see it assume shape on the screen. She took her hand from the mouse and put it back again, and erased everything she had written.
Hey babe—she typed—just a quick note to say I love you & am thinking of you.
She hit SEND and logged off, left a thousand pesos on the bar and walked out before she made a fool of herself.
Joyce Dyer was at the kitchen table eating fried plantains off a sheet of aluminum foil when Laura got back. Joyce had curly cherry hair and gray eyes; the rest of her was the color of snow.
“Who is this guy you’re supposed to meet?” Joyce asked.
“Something Larz—I don’t know. I’ve got it written down,” Laura said. “He’s the head of the Guardia.”
Joyce ran her tongue over her gummy teeth and swallowed. “Is it Tomas Larz? I had a run-in with a Tomas Larz once.”
“I wrote it down it somewhere.”
“Tomas Larz is an asshole. I hope you get a better Larz.” She shut the lid on the container. “Any word from Jonas?”
Laura shook her head.
A moment later Julion walked in with a bag of groceries, barefoot in shorts and a dirty t-shirt that read NO FUMAGICION!, his Medusa-hair crowded into a knit Rasta hat. He stood for a moment hiking a bag onto one hip.
“Julion,” Joyce called, “who is the guy we met that time, the Larz guy? Wasn’t it Tomas?”
He cocked his head and a little snake of dreadlock fell loose. “You’re eating my lunch,” he said.
Laura went into her room and shut the door and lay on her bed. She picked up Bonhoeffer and put him back again. Time was strange, the way it pooled and seeped, oozing night into day until she lost track of the seam, the moment when one folded into the next. She stood and moved around her room, picking things up and putting them down again. Something had dissolved, purpose, a sense of direction. Without God this is what you get, she thought. You stand in a room and touch things, the weight of your soul equivalent to whatever object you happen to find in your hand. She knew she needed to steady herself. Doubt is a virtue. She’d had these conversations with Jonas and with herself. Remember Christ calling out from the cross? Doubt keeps us vigilant. It’s what the fundamentalist lacks, Laura. She settled onto the bed, shut her eyes and lay as still as possible. Doubt means you’re fighting to believe. It’s certainty you have to avoid. Certainly means you’ve given up. You’ve faced the chaos and constructed this artificial meaning; you’ve faced it and decided to make shit up. She tried to pray but the blackness closed off her thoughts, and, at least for the moment, it was easier that way.
When she walked out of her room, Joyce and Julion were slicing more plantains and smashing them in a press.
“Where you headed?” Joyce called.
“Out,” Laura said, opening the iron grille that led to the street. “Just for a bit.”
“You want me to come with?”
The asphalt steamed, and walking toward the avenida she felt out of place in a way she never had, naked and vulnerable to the honking horns and passing motorbikes, discomfited enough to flag down a taxi and collapse into the back seat.
Mostly, she thought riding downtown, her father was an angry man, a brutal and unyielding pillar of the church. Laura’s mother tried to avoid him, but Laura knew that her mother could not understand the hell he saw in the darkest attic of his mind, could not fathom what must have waited in the spaces between sounds, the interstices of fear that flickered white hot while he passed the offering plate or rung up a new set of post-hole diggers. How when he plowed the garden on his little Cub Cadet it would return to him, the diesel exhaust and the up-down of the Higgins boat as it plowed through the waves. How wind chimes must have sounded faintly of bullets striking the steel of the landing door.
He left the battlefields of the Pacific to go home to Indiana, but had left something on those ragged atolls, and what he had left was one of the reasons Laura knew she could never go back, that no matter what the need—“There’s poor people in America, too,” her mother always reminded her—no matter what the want, she would remain a stranger in a strange land.
She cracked the taxi window and could smell stagnant water, dank and rich, a billion acts of organic putrefaction. She wanted to pray, but knew she couldn’t, not here, not now. Or maybe it’s that I want something more than prayer. That felt closer to the truth. The taxi crossed the river and she looked at the spooling current, as bright and glossy as mother-of-pearl, and knew that what she wanted was nothing less than the presence of God. She wanted to hold God with the lightness of a dancer, close enough to absorb the radiance. She wanted God descending, slow as a feather. She thought of those moments as a little girl back in Indiana when she would listen to her mother pray, her mother’s communication with the divine like a court docket, each need to be summoned in an orderly manner. When she had exhausted her petitions Laura’s mother would cut off the lamp and shut her eyes and sleep.
Life could be remarkably simple if one allowed it to be, she thought. For those incapable, other answers had to be sought.
She got out in front of several office buildings. Behind her in the park a man in a yellow kimono led a group of women in tai chi, moving with the awkward grace of a marsh bird, arms tracing some imaginary circumference. She stood and watched him loop his arms in an elegant arc, his hands defining what appeared to be a tiny halo. Grace. Bonhoeffer and his endless insistence on grace. Grace is the self-communication of God. Not a gift from God, but the gift of God.
She started walking toward the City Ministry Building while around her the wind gathered, whipping plastic Budweiser pennants strung above the patio of a cantina. She passed the tables and chairs, the napkin dispensers and tin ashtrays and bottles of hot sauce. She thought of trying to call Jonas, but instead bought a bottle of water and sat watching the street. The noon stillness. The long fingering shadows, the spires and warped filigree of balcony railings.
The notion of apocalypse had come to her the night before Jonas left. In a shabby hotel room in Bogotá, she had come while making love to him, something that didn’t happen so often anymore, and in that moment of shuddering, that moment of flying together and flying apart, she felt death very near. For weeks there had been a growing sense of finality, but it seemed to have taken physical shape that last night, and walking, she took a moment to think her way through it. She thought hard. She felt greedy. If there was indeed to be nothing left she wanted to memorize every detail, then walk away and never turn back, to vanish into the lure of what Buddhists called Unbeing. To travel the Eye of the Needle, stripped to hair and bone and nothing so encumbering as this thing she called ‘Laura.’ It was like a seduction, the notion holding such sway over her, the idea of easy nothingness, that she had to resist it constantly, to descend into whatever it was she considered ‘self,’ before climbing back out on a chain of prayer.
Since Jonas’ departure she had struggled with the sense that these were her Last Days, that her private apocalypse was very near and very real. That she had escaped death in la Florida seemed only to confirm her suspicions. Part of it was his absence. She missed him, but wouldn’t bother to call him, even if she had known how to reach him. That had been their agreement: limit the calls, limit the longing, understand that their suffering was miniscule compared to the suffering they were working to alleviate. When loneliness invaded it was important to remember they were never alone, never really apart, that corporeal distance meant nothing so long as they remained connected through God the Father. She knew he was right, knew he would soon return, but still felt far from comforted.
By the time she reached the City Ministry Building she had sweated through her blouse. She stood outside and squinted at the glass façade. The sunlight hurt, and she realized she had spent a good portion of her lifetime staring at painful things.
She passed through the revolving doors and into a front of cold air. Her sweat began to freeze, and she was shivering when Tomas Larz’s receptionist told her the Minister would not be able to see her. Instead, Laura was led to a conference room air-conditioned into cold efficiency where she sat opposite a man with a gray suit and acrylic eyes. Some minor functionary. Another useless bureaucrat. When he exhaled his cheeks shook. She watched the wattle of his throat, the wavy indifference.
“I understand you were involved in an incident in the campo,” the man said.
“At la Florida. A village was attacked. We’re expecting Guardia that never showed up.”
“There is no village at La Florida.”
She looked at him. “Not now there isn’t.”
“Not now, not ever,” he said. “No one from la Florida is registered with this office.”
“So they don’t exist?” She shook her head. “Is that the policy?”
“The policy is this: there are metrics for ascertaining existence.”
“What the hell are you saying?”
“I hope all Christians do not speak as you speak, Ms. Riley.”
“We were told there would be Guardia in the area.”
“I have always considered Christians pious.”
“Not me,” she said. “Never me.”
He nodded as if accepting a difficult truth. “There is no need for Guardia,” he said. “No one is in la Florida.”
“Send someone and find out.”
He looked at her like a patient, if exhausted father. “Why would we send someone to find out what is already known? I can show you the papers if you like.”
“That’s your census,” she said.
“If you like.”
“Your headcount. You’re talking about meaningless numbers when your job is to protect these people.”
“Everyone south of the city must register with the Ministry. That is the law.”
“Some of those people have never left the campo,” she said. “Some of them have never been more than a few kilometers from their homes. You expect them to come here and register? To initial your little forms and check your boxes?”
“I expect them to obey the law. For their own good, yes.”
“Then let me register them.”
He batted his acrylic eyes. “Please, Ms. Riley.”
“Let me register them. I could do it in a week. That, or send someone from your office. I’ll be happy to take them.”
“But, Ms. Riley.” He put both on hands on the table, palms up so that she saw the map of his hands. He appeared to be pleading “Why would I send someone from this office? There is no one registered in la Florida or anywhere else. If anyone was in la Florida they would be registered. Do you understand what I am saying? We are not in the habit of sending Guardia into harm’s way when lives are not at stake.”
“You mean unregistered lives.”
“I am afraid we are talking in circles.”
She leaned forward. She could feel sweat weighting the waistband of her underwear. “Effectively,” she said, “you don’t care about the campesinos.”
“What sort of photographs do you send home to your donors, Ms. Riley? Do you ever send photos of our thriving middle class?”
“You don’t care what happens in the campo. They’re poor. They don’t vote.”
“Do your donors believe we all live in mud huts, Ms. Riley? Are we all stock characters with bare feet and no teeth? Do your villains stroke oily mustaches?”
She took her forearms off the table and watched the moisture dissolve. “If we focus on certain people it’s only because you have ignored them. This situation—”
He raised a hand to stop her.
“You are posturing now,” he said. “Please. This is moral posturing.”
“‘Effectively.’ No,” he said, “‘effectively’ is the wrong word. I am almost certain of this. Nor is it a matter of caring or not caring.” He relaxed into his chair. A frog—that was what he put her in mind of, bulbous and wet and crouched in his chair. “But I am curious about your presence in Colombia. You are here on a tourist visa—this is correct? Renewable every three months?”
She felt something in her throat not unlike thirst. “What are you implying?”
The smile had bloomed, the slight incision now parting his swollen face. She smelled eggs.
“I imply nothing,” he said. “Only that I wish you well, Ms. Riley, and that I wish you would stay out of the campo. The campo is a dangerous place.”
“I keep hearing that.”
“As well you should. We must be mindful—that’s all. There is violence with the guerilla and we cannot expect it not to spill into parts uninhabited.”
“Like la Florida.”
“Well, that’s why I’m here. I’m here to serve.”
“And not merely to see the sights?” He smiled. “Now I am joking,” he said. “I do joke on occasion.” He put both flabby hands flat on the table in a way that indicated the interview was over. “I am not the bad man here, Ms. Riley,” he said.
She said nothing.
“Something larger than all of us is happening and I am trying to stay out of its path. I am trying to be prudent. If I am forced to avert my gaze from certain things it is only because I know nothing is to be gaining from staring. Staring is a preoccupation best left to the rich. As for me, I am focusing on self-preservation—that’s all—and I’m advising you to do the same. I would certainly prefer it another way, but I remind you that it is your government funding these wars, buying these drugs, sending the military aid.”
He opened the door for her. “In the end, Ms. Riley, you are still just another gringo down here telling us how to live.”
He dropped his chin and blinked three times. “Forgive me for saying as much. But I am not the bad man, no matter how you choose to look at me.”
She walked until she was lost, until around her was nothing more than a random neighborhood, Asian massage parlors and florists with bright day lilies blooming from watering cans, sidewalk trash everywhere. They were beginning to decorate for Carnival, and Laura moved swiftly through the streets, eyes squinting, Bonhoeffer tucked beneath her arm. She had no idea how far she had walked, miles probably, back across the river and along the concrete promenade, past the strings of colored lights hung like garland, far enough to sweat, fingers moistening the dust jacket of her book. If she could find a still place she would most definitely read, read and pray. Perhaps she would even think.
She had heard all the arguments against her presence. Do your donors believe we all live in mud huts, Ms. Riley? Are we all stock characters with bare feet and no teeth? It was the white savior complex. It was just another form of imperialism. Those were the charges leveled against her. She knew, too, she could never be in complete solidarity with the poor because she chose a life that was forced on others. There was always the option of changing her mind even if she knew, swore, promised she never would. It wasn’t her faith in action that had wavered. She still believed in what she was doing. Maybe it would be as fruitless as her time in Guatemala or El Salvador—probably it would, almost certainly it would—but she couldn’t control that.
What she could control was in front of her.
She thought of Jonas. At some point in his life he seemed to have discovered certain things, inner resources and simple formulations—the ability not to hate; the Way is a way of life—and that was what she was reaching back to, not certainty but the certain faith she had once felt. But it felt tenuous, the entire construction teetering, as if at any moment she might find herself amid the shambles, the edifice of belief having toppled around her.
She took a bench outside of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, and opened Bonhoeffer on her knee. She turned to her bookmark, but something caught her eye and she flipped back to the first blank page. Jonas’ name was written there in square letters. She had taken it from the communal shelf and had no idea it was his, or had been, at least. Jonas’ book. She stared at the printed name and realized she wouldn’t be able to read, not now at least. Instead she prayed, or tried to pray, shutting her eyes and fighting the same blackness that had pervaded her thoughts for weeks. The Unbeing. The sudden desire to extinguish her form, narrow enough that she might pass through the Eye of the Needle, alone and purified.
She opened her eyes. The light hurt beyond belief, but perhaps yet she would face it. She put her fingertips on her temples, very lightly, and focused on the Christ who hung crucified within the church. Senor Caido. Not yet floating but no less fallen. The Christ who hung amid the Last Things.