Joan in the Dark

Dave’s blood froze when he made out the word “kill” in the heated discussion outside his tent.

Aside from that one word in Fulani, Dave had understood almost nothing of what his kidnappers argued about until now … but what if they had finally found that damn picture in his wallet, where he kissed Kevin?

He cursed under his breath. The patchwork of militant Islamist factions fighting to establish the Caliphate in West Africa had been an abstraction to Dave back home in the relative normality of the U.S. Now, in his murky tent-prison in the outback of Mali, it had become deadly concrete. 

Dave could move his tied legs enough to push himself closer to the side of the tent where he heard the voices. He hoped he might be able to make out some more specific words. But all he got from his efforts was more gnawing from his ropes into his skin, which was already very sore and red from weeks of captivity. 

He had to know if they had discovered the photo.

But it was hopeless. He couldn’t understand much else of what was said, no matter how close he was to the tent cloth. He knew maybe 10 words in Fulani and he wasn’t even sure if they all belonged to the same dialect.

All that was left to do then was to try hard to convince himself they would ignore the photo, that maybe they hadn’t even discovered it among his meager belongings at all, and that this incessant argument outside was about something entirely different.

They would have looked through his personal items just after the kidnapping, right? And he didn’t have much more on him than his wallet, keys, necklace, and a bottle of water. And even if they by some miracle had not found the photo until tonight it was only a kiss on the cheek. And half in fun. At some party a lifetime ago. What could it matter?

But deep down he knew the answer would not be to his liking.

On his first day in Bamako, Nicole had asked him to get rid of the old photo with Kevin after that long face-to-face interview in the badly air-conditioned organization headquarters. 

Maybe he shouldn’t have mentioned it to her, but Nicole Delon was a boss that it was hard to lie to. He had asked what she thought about this token from his previous life and she had been clear:

“Jihadists are still very active where you are going to work for us. It is an unnecessary risk.”

When Dave did not reply, the middle-aged, stout woman pushed her glasses down on her nose and looked straight at him. “You know, monsieur Reese. The people of this country are the friendliest, warmest, and most hospitable I have met in my 28 years in Africa working for the World Life Health organization,” she said. “Except for the ones who will stone you to death if you don’t fit into their worldview.”

Dave twitched slightly on the wooden chair. Nicole did not blink.

“Why keep that old print, anyway?” she said in a milder tone. “You said you and your spouse had been separate for some time, correct?”

“That’s right.” Dave sipped lukewarm water from the Diago bottle he crammed in his hand. “But I always find it best to cherish the good memories, and forget the bad.”

She had ordered him to get rid of it, anyway. Or at least not carry with him into the desert region where they were to service one of its only hospitals. 

But he had chosen not to.

In the unlit tent, Dave closed his eyes and tried to force himself to think of the good memories.

During all his bouts with depression, it was the only strategy that had worked, never medicine or therapy. 

But memories were frail. You had to keep them alive all the time or they would become nothing.

*

Last Christmas, Arizona. 

They were hunkered down in Carrie and Jon’s living room in their cardboard box house in Yuma. Beyond the rows of similar suburban boxes, there was the gravel and emu bushes, all the way to the border with Mexico. 

The only indication of the season was an iPad in a rubbery children’s protection cover playing X-massy children’s songs from YouTube Kids on repeat. Most people had seemingly left the neighborhood to go somewhere more exciting to celebrate.

Michael was on Dave’s knees tamping on Carrie’s old laptop. He was barely six but already quite heavy and Dave had to concentrate to keep his legs steady. 

The laptop had several small dark islands on the screen where the pixels had died and was slow as fuck, but Michael didn’t seem to mind. In yet another new Google Spreadsheet, he wrote in the title field (and only in the title field): 

WELCOME TO SPREAD, AND SOIL, TOY STORE, AND TOILET PAPER, AND PANCAKE

All caps as usual. Some of it making sense, some of it not. As usual.

“Do you want to go to the toy store and buy soil? Hmm?” Dave adjusted Michael’s position on his knees, so the boy didn’t fall. In his eagerness to get the words out, Michael sometimes forgot his balance. The laptop was also perched precariously close to the edge of the sofa table, but Michael wanted it exactly there and pulled it closer each time Dave tried to get it a little more centered on the table.

“I think he has overheard us talking about Christmas and presents,” Carrie said. She was sitting on the couch next to them, arms and legs crossed. She gazed wistfully out the window. It never snowed in Yuma, it just got somewhat overcast during December.

“Why don’t you write to me what kind of present you want?” Dave suggested.

“Your nephew doesn’t understand you,” Carrie said. She sounded tired and resigned. “At least not very much.”

“Okay.”

“—And he’ll probably freak out if you try to type something for him,” she added, reaching for her tea. Then immediately she was back to crossing her arms again, only now with a cup in one hand. She didn’t drink.

“Just one try,” Dave said. He pointed at the word ‘TOY STORE’. “Michael, can you write to Uncle Dave what you want for Christmas? You can write it on that line if it makes you feel better.”

“Dave, Dave—” Carrie interjected. “My little pliskie is a savant with writing random words but he doesn’t talk, doesn’t understand what he is typing—you have to make it much simpler.”

But then Michael took Dave’s hand and led it to the keyboard. He made Dave tap:

PEPPA PIG GLOWPAD LIGHT-UP DRAWING PAD

Holy Shite—” Carrie leaned forward so fast she almost forgot to get the tea out of the way again. “How did you make him do that?”

Dave smiled. “I think he just did it himself.”

“That’s not what I mean, you daft lump.”

She tried to sound angry, but he could see he wasn’t. 

They had spent hours discussing if there was a way for either of them to do more with their almost ludicrously delayed ambitions for a creative life. It was insane because he was going to Africa in two days, and maybe not be home again until next Christmas. 

But somehow that seemed to move him to want to give some kind of vow, that he would finally get something done. Write something. Finished something. And Carrie had to hear it.

Her situation was not one in which she liked to make vows, though. But none of them needed to. 

They just needed to talk about it. Again. 

What if … 

Carrie—his stressed-out sister-in-law with two kids (one with a diagnosis)—would, somehow, make the time to draw some story of his. Of course.  

And he, Dave, would find some way of closing that big maelstrom in his heart from the day when his father burned his notebooks when he was 12, (which was when he had first hit Samuel Reese). 

So they would have their victory, Carrie and Dave, against all odds. They just needed to talk about it a little longer. 

Now, though, their focus had changed.

For the rest of the evening, everything became about Michael.

Until Jon came home with Emma from the X-mas toy market downtown, they each took turns playing with Michael and trying—gently—to prompt him to communicate something via the laptop. 

Anything … 

And when Dave returned to Philly after Christmas, and his packed suitcases, it felt like he was getting ready to leave someone to work overseas come new year.

Not just an empty apartment.

*

Outside the heated discussion about killing continued.

Dave thought he at last recognized one of the voices, although he still understood almost nothing except … that word.

The voice, which was calm and distinct, could belong to a man, whom Dave was sure had been there the very first day and whom he had seen often since then, at a distance. 

He didn’t know this man’s name either but thought of him as ‘willow’ because he was thin like that tree and somewhat pale for a local. Willow had explained their situation to them in perfect French when they had been taken from the hospital and dumped in a truck, gagged and bound:

“Even if you do escape you will die. There is nothing but the desert out here. Remember that. The desert is not your ally. It is ours.”

There was nothing out here. 

The landscape looked like Death Valley, where he had once driven through in their rundown motorhome when he was a kid with Jon and his parents. It had been one of those never-ending treks around the States which was Samuel Reese’s idea of a perfect vacation. It was also just as hot.

No vegetation. No animals. Just rocks and sand, sand, sand.

Since the day they were taken, he never saw the others. Like the land around him, they might just as well be dead.

If he died out here, how soon would anybody know? His brother? Carrie? Little Michael? Would Michael ever understand what had happened?

What about the boy who came in every day with his food, and emptied the waste bucket? The young silent 15-16-something whom he had seen talking often with Willow? 

The boy came each day in his tent around noon, like clockwork. Without a word and only a plate of the same millet porridge Dave had been fed all those weeks

Would the boy care if this ritual suddenly ceased? Probably not. But he would know. 

If they killed Dave, the boy would know. And that seemed … wrong. But why? He was one of them, after all.

Dave forced himself to focus on another memory.

But it became harder each time. It was like even his good memories were beginning to wither. 

He would start with something that at least gave him a feeling of comfort and then at some point he would discover a shadow, like a dark spot on an x-ray.

Would it be like this until the end?

*

Summer last year. Rouen. France.

It had been their final vacation together before the break-up. Kevin paid for most of it, but so what else was new?

Dave craned his neck to see up to the top of the ominous tower, which looked like a frozen giant in the middle of the busy modern street. The last relic of an ancient nightmare. 

He’d always wanted to go to France, for some reason. It was so odd. Like missing a place you had never lived. And now, for the first time, he felt like it had been a trap.

Like the tower had been waiting for him. To remind him of feelings of darkness he’d rather have forgotten.

“Not so nice, huh?” Kevin was beside him, resting one hand on the rugged wall of the tower. 

Dave looked at him, then over his shoulder at the people going to and fro. Work. Vacation. Fun. It was July. You did these things. You lived. But as he placed his hand on the wall he felt only a chill, as from a tombstone.

“This is it?” he asked, although he knew the answer.

“Well,” Kevin said, with the casual confidence of an experienced francophile, “it’s the only thing left of the Medieval castle, but she was kept in another tower. Not this one.”

“You sure?”

Kevin grinned. He was beautiful when he did that. And so many other things.

Beautiful despite last night, when Dave had had to walk the streets near Place du Vieux Marche alone for several hours until he felt it was right to come back to the hotel room. Kevin had been asleep. In the morning they had not talked about the fight. It still worked.

Today was a new day. But somehow the memory of the fight came back. And much more. Dave removed his hand.

“I wish I could have met her.”

“Joan of Arc?” Kevin’s grin changed into a knowing smile. “Yeah, many people do, I guess. She was one of a kind.”

They left the tower to walk a bit, down Rue de Donjon. People still flooded the streets around them, like waves of color and laughs. Dave put his hands in his pockets and looked down.

“Hey,” Kevin’s hand brushed his discreetly. “Having the gloomies again?”

It was their slang for Dave’s periods of melancholy, or almost-depression, or whatever the hell it was. 

“No, no.” Dave shook his head unconvincingly. “But the story of Joan was one of the first things that got me interested in France. That and Richard the Lionheart.”

“Oh, yeah,” Kevin shrugged. “Dickie Lionheart was kind of French. That’s right. But what’s up?”

Dave glanced around him. The old streets seemed distant, like images from a brochure, or something staged.

Coming to Rouen felt so different from what he had imagined.

“It’s nothing,” he said. “Maybe I was just thinking about how everything good—really good—seems to be the first thing God kills.”

“You don’t believe in God!” Kevin blurted.

“Don’t I?”

“Well, you never told me that you did?!”

“You never asked.”

Kevin frowned. “Look, hon, I don’t know what to say to that. But your La Pucelle there—” he nodded back towards the tower that Joan of Arc had seen but perhaps never set foot in “—she died believing she did it for God.”

“Why should God require us to die to believe in Him?” Dave said, more to himself than to Kevin. “That is the question.”

“David, we are on vacation. You are thinking way too much about this.”

“I just wonder …” Dave said, and now his voice felt unreal. “If you are in prison, waiting to be executed—burnt at the fucking stake—is it enough to know that you die for God? Is it enough?”

“You mean—why would anyone die for God or…?”

“Yes!”

“Well, she had visions.”

Dave shook his head. “I don’t think I could die for God, for anything, even if I had a vision. I don’t want to die.”

“You’re not going to.” Kevin put an arm around Dave’s shoulder. It was very affectionate and everyone passing them could see. Perhaps that’s why Dave appreciated it so much.

It was the last time Kevin had touched him like this or in any other way. Two weeks later they were history. 

Ashes.

*

The discussion had stopped. Dave had not heard the word “kill” or anything else he recognized again. He hadn’t heard anything either that could give him a clue to what was going on.

And now there was only the wind, rustling the tent’s flaps.

It was as if a storm was coming.

Dave wondered if the weather was deteriorating, and if they had to move again.

He had to keep his thoughts in check.

Old Samuel Reese had always said, “He needs to get his shit together. He’s always running in seven different directions. Boy has to learn to focus—to make it to something.”

And Dave had learned but not in the way Dad had liked. The first time had been when he had taken those six months in juvenile detention. 

Jon had stolen the car, but Dave did not want his brother to go to prison, and he was old enough for it—that was for sure. 

Dave would barely make it to juvie, and he didn’t want Jon who had always taken the beatings for him—he didn’t want anything to happen to his big brother. 

So Jon had protected Dave for years in the streets of San Pedro, after they had left Louisiana. Jon had taken care of the gangs to help Dave survive. Dave got his shit together and repaid his big brother. Samuel Reese went ballistic, but no one, except Jon and Dave, knew the truth about what had happened that night and the admission was enough for the cops who just wanted to fill their quota. 

His father never forgave him and his mother, well, she withdrew even more. He wondered how she was these days. Could she still recognize him?

So that was the first time in prison, or what went for it. The only valuable thing he had done, but he also paid a hefty price for it. It taught him the simple math, though. He was using that now, trying not to go insane in the tent prison here on the edge of the Sahara:

It didn’t matter that you were going to lose, and hurt and maybe die. As long as you could think of enough good things, you’d get close to evening the score, maybe even surviving.

It wasn’t a matter of suppressing the fear and anxiety, but of lighting something else in your mind so you could endure them. Like back in the day when they had used booze to get soldiers crazy drunk before they sawed their shattered leg off.

You saw what happened, you even felt it, but the booze had numbed you. So you could endure the horror. Most of the time, at least.

And Dave had a lot of things he needed to numb, so this wasn’t anything new—the horror of being a hostage and maybe getting a bullet through your head behind some rock in the middle of nowhere, if his employers didn’t play ball. Or if they discovered the photo … 

Dave would never lie to himself. Just as he knew he had been a failure in life, he knew his life was likely to end here, in the desert.

But he would try to even the score, in his mind, or at the very least get close to it.

The only problem was, how many good memories he could force himself to think of would equal or maybe even outweigh his impending death?

*

DAVE, late DEC 2015, MALI

*

To be continued in the upcoming collection “Heritage”

If you would like a free review copy, email me:

chris AT shadeofthemorningsun DOT com.

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Cover photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash

Sahara from Wikimedia Creative Commons – by Fraguando

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