Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Chapter Nineteen: Flowing


[Chapter Eighteen can be found here.]

Paul and Sam walked in the direction they had been pointed by the men with guns behind them.  The ground was nearly bare and the growth too sparse to impede them, but each step was taking them further out of sight—out of sound—from the crowd.  Each seemed more difficult than the last.  The silence grew as they moved away from the road and all its traffic, and Paul was sure he could feel the barrels of the guns pointed at the back of his neck, though the gendarmes, he could tell by their sounds, were meters behind them.  Sam, incredulous at the injustice of the situation, wondered for what seemed to be the millionth time how he had gotten into this mess, what had brought him to this absurd pass.  He had faced death before: If this were the end, so be it, but it would be a ridiculous end.  Yet there was nothing he could do now but hope it wasn’t to be so.  To that end, all he could do was keep walking.  Anything else, right now, would be as stupid as everything else he had done since meeting the incompetent man walking next to him.
Walking, imagining the sound and impact of the bullets from behind them.  Realizing that they were probably over-reacting, that this would probably lead to nothing, that there was a rational explanation for leading them off into the bush at gunpoint during a war.  Each imagined a dozen scenarios, and could almost feel it, wondering if they would know anything of it at all.  Each did keep his feet moving, though lifting them was a greater and greater chore, heavier and heavier weights attached at every step.  They walked more slowly and more slowly, prolonging the time until the bullets came.  Every few steps of this, their captors roughly ordered them to move on more quickly.  They would try to do as they were commanded for a bit, but always slowed again. 
After ten minutes or so, their guards ordered them to bear to the left.  They did so, looking around to see where they were headed, but they saw nothing but more of the scrub.  Paul wondered if it wouldn’t be better to just stop, to refuse to go on, but the fact that it now appeared that they had a destination gave him a little hope.  Maybe the gendarmes were simply trying to get them a certain distance away, so that the refugees wouldn’t be disturbed, before shooting them and ridding their commander of an irritation.  But, if so, why not continue just straight on from the road?
That was ridiculous, he told himself, the idea that they would need to get far away to shoot.  What would a few more shots mean?  He kept walking, but questions wouldn’t go away.
What was going on?  Where were they taking them, and why?  He couldn’t answer but couldn’t banish them.  There appeared to be nothing in front of them.  Nothing but brush.
The day had heated up.  In the distance, the air shimmered.  Sam squinted, almost closing his eyes to order his thoughts, to narrow his concentration.  He stumbled, but kept his footing, his eyes opening wide again.  One of the gendarmes muttered something.  Another laughed, though it sounded more like a bark.  Sam looked at the ground and concentrated on his steps.  He wanted to make the small things important, keeping the large and unanswerable at bay.  This probably wasn’t anything nearly as bad as he was imagining.  The problem was, he just didn’t know.
A few meters further on, the gendarmes ordered them to the right, onto a faint, wide piste, or track.  Paul, irrationally, had started to worry about his motorcycle and their bags.  The sight of the piste relieved him.  It signaled for the first time that they could be going somewhere other than merely to execution.  It probably led back to the paved road, the stop, and the moto.  He could follow it, if ever set free by the men behind them.
Sam, too, had recognized the significance of the path.  To him, though, it wasn’t a connection back, but a route forward, to something.  As long as there was a direction, possibility, the future, wasn’t cut off.  He now walked with a little more confidence, chiding himself for imagining only the worst that could happen. 
Both of them picked up their pace.  Both of them, though not yet in any position of safety, began to feel privately embarrassed by their overwrought imaginings of just a moment before.
After walking another five minutes, they discovered, as the piste twisted around one more stand of trees, that they were being escorted to a group of official-looking buildings set alone in the bush on the edges of a turnaround marked with whitewashed stones, a flagpole at its center, the red and green Burkina flag with its central yellow star drooping inert from it.  A number of soldiers sat in the shade of the scattered trees.  Almost all ignored them, napping or cleaning their weapons.  One or two of them glanced up, uninterested, as they passed through the circle.
Their guards motioned for them to wait outside the largest of the buildings.  One disappeared inside.  The others leaned against the wall into a little bit of shade, leaving Paul and Sam standing in the sun.  Their guns were now slung harmlessly over their shoulders.  There was no possibility of danger, here, from these two befuddled foreigners.  They chatted and laughted, much more relaxed than they had been back there by the roadside. 
After a few minutes, the other one came back out, accompanied by a man in a military, not gendarme, uniform.  The new man examined Paul and Sam for a moment, then dismissed their guards, who immediately headed back the way they had come.
The military officer told them to sit under a tree he pointed to by the building, and to wait; the person who had to clear them would arrive there soon.  He walked away.  No one else seemed to want to deal with them.  The soldiers, still incurious, continued with whatever they had been doing, sleeping, talking low, or working on weaponry.  Paul and Sam did what they had been told and sat under the tree, Sam with his back to the trunk, legs stretched out, Paul with his knees up, elbows resting on them as he looked around, trying to figure out just what the purpose of bringing them here had been.
He saw little and figured nothing out.  Everyone ignored him.  He turned and tried to talk to Sam, but Sam wasn’t interested.  He lapsed into silence.
They had been sitting there for about fifteen minutes when firing started again.  It was as heavy as it had back in town, and again there were black puffs in the sky and pops from anti-aircraft fire.  They once more heard a plane in the sky and an explosion.  And more anti-aircraft and small-arms fire.  Most of the soldiers disappeared immediately, a couple running into one or another of the open doorways, the others into the bush.  Paul and Sam just watched, unwilling to leave their assigned spot, as safe there, they thought, as they would be anywhere.
A strange rustling came once and came again through the leaves in the tree above them.  After a few confused thoughts, Paul realized that bullets were causing the noise.  From somewhere, Burkinabe soldiers, he guessed, were firing in their direction or at random.  Sam was also looking up, with the same thoughts.  They got up at once and scrambled away from the tree towards the most solid looking object they could see, the wall of the closest building.  They dove against its bottom edge, lying like two logs against the angle where it met the ground.  They stayed there, lying against the cinderblock wall, for the next twenty minutes, hardly daring to move.
As they lay there, they watched the one soldier they could still see.  He fired bursts from his Chinese-made automatic rifle into the sky, looking around above him between each burst, though there was now nothing up there but a circling vulture or two.  Tensing, crouching, then firing again, he could never have hit a MiG, not even by chance.  But he was sweating, glistening enough for them to see it from twenty meters away, and serious and….  Intent, concentrating, he kept up his firing for as long as he heard gunfire elsewhere.
They stayed prone even after firing had ceased completely and the sky-killing soldier had disappeared.  They only rose as the other soldiers began returning from the bush and noticed them lying there, pointing them out to each other, and laughing.  Paul and Sam got up, feeling as though their dignity, whatever there was of it in the first place, was now in shreds.  They dusted themselves off and returned to sit under the tree, as they had been told.
Soon, an officer appeared.  It was not the same one who had spoken to them earlier.  He motioned for them to follow him into the building.  They did.  He looked at their papers, asked them a few perfunctory questions, and then dismissed them with a wave.
They walked back to the road on the trail they had taken the last part of the walk to the base. 
Even if they hadn’t known the way, they would have found it.  A large column of dust was rising above it.

[Chapter Twenty can be found here.]

Chapter Eighteen: Clearing


[Chapter Seventeen can be found here.]

That night, again sleeping chaste next to Lori, Paul awoke to an incredible urgency in his bowels, and also in his stomach.  He grabbed something to wrap around him and ran to the latrine (“We call it a ‘vay-say’ here, coming from ‘water closet,’ shortened to wc, then into French as ‘doublevay-cey,’ then ‘vay-cey,’” Lori had explained).  He barely made it, diarrhea exploding from him as he whipped the wrap—a towel—away and drew down his boxer shorts. 
There was no seat, merely a hole in the cement slab under his feet.  The need forced him to stay crouched there until his legs started to ache, his stomach churning all the while.  Just as he finally was able to stand, the urge to puke finally overwhelmed him.  Turning around, boxers still around his ankles, he let go into the hole, involuntarily taking a deep breath through his nostrils immediately afterwards—and catching full force the smell from below.  That made him puke again.  And again, until his stomach was dry.  He put his hand out against the wall by the door, shook his feet out of his shorts, and leaned there, naked, the towel lost somewhere on the floor.  He tried to breathe evenly and through his mouth, hoping and praying that simple act would still his insides.
However, as soon as his stomach quieted, his bowels demanded urgent attention once more.  He turned around and squatted—just in time.  By the time he was done, he realized he was sweating profusely and was quite cold.  And panting.  And was so weak he could hardly stand.
Lori had a roll of toilet paper in there, he knew.  Feeling around, he finally located it, picked it up, and cleaned himself up as much as he could: the mess, he could feel, was extensive.  He picked up his boxers and dropped them again almost immediately.  They were no longer wearable, he could tell, with nothing more than a touch.  He groped for the towel, found it, wrapped it around him, and stumbled back into the main hut, knocking over a stool.  Lori sat up in bed.
“Are you all right?”
“No.  I, I’ve been throwing up, I’m chilled, I’ve diarrhea.  Something’s wrong.”
She pushed aside the mosquito net and reached for a blanket, which she wrapped around him.  “And you made it to the vay-cey?  That’s not bad.  It could be much worse.  Here, lie down.  You probably just have a spot of food poisoning, maybe a bit of giardia.  Don’t worry, it’s probably not malaria.”  She paused, then spoke in a no-nonsense tone.  “But I want you to do two things.”
“Uh.”  He curled up into a ball and drew a blanket around him, not wanting to listen, not wanting to say anything more.  Wanting only to lie still in the hopes that his insides would be still, also.
“First, you gotta make sure you don’t get dehydrated.  I’m going to make up some rehydration formula for you.  Sip it, even if it makes you feel you are going to throw up again.  Sip it very, very slowly, but do so.  And keep doing, whether you want to or not.”  She started moving around the room, collecting what she needed.
“Second,” she set a large metal bucket in the corner farthest from the bed and put a roll of toilet paper next to it, “use this, for your bowels.  And don’t be shy.  The vay-cey is not where you want to be when sick.  I know, I’ve had to use it.”  She put a large bowl by the bed.  “And use, this, when you vomit.  This may be bad for a few hours, but let’s try to keep my home at least reasonably clean.  If it’s food poisoning, you’ll just have to let it work through.  Same, if it’s giardia.  If you aren’t a little better, well, then we’ll see.  But let’s make sure you remain hydrated.  That’s where the danger comes from, dehydration.  So drink.”
Paul tried to nod, but felt needs again from his bowels.  He pushed away the bottle Lori was offering, flung the blanket off, and started out the door but realized she was right, he wasn’t going to make it to the vay-cay.  He turned to the bucket, glad it was dark.  He was embarrassed, even through his sickness, by the sounds he was almost instantly making—and not just the gaspings coming from his throat.  He cleaned himself once more, his hands shaking.  Lori quickly picked up the bucket as soon as he was away from it and disappeared outside.  As he crawled back onto the bed, he heard water splashing someplace close by.
He must have slept for a moment, for the next thing he knew, Lori was handing him a cup filled with a sweet and salty liquid.  He tried to sit up but groaned and lay back down, pulling the blanket around him as he started to shiver.  He sipped, trying to do as she had told him, though his stomach was close to rebelling.  He could hardly do more than wet his tongue, but he kept trying.  Lori lit a mosquito coil to mask the lingering smell.
“Well,” she said as she sat down in a chair near the bed, “I guess neither one of us is going to get much sleep tonight.”
Paul nodded and sipped again, then put down the cup and puked into the bowl.
“Don’t worry, just keep sipping.  It may come up, but some will stay down—or you’re going to get really sick.”  She picked up the bowl and once more disappeared through the door.
The entire night went like that, with a patient Lori emptying pail and bowl and keeping Paul sipping at the rehydration formula.  In a way, he thought, in one of his more lucid moments, it was a good thing he was too sick to think.  He tried to laugh; Lori looked at him strangely and forced him to sip more of the rehydration formula.  He fell fully asleep, finally, just before dawn.  Lori bathed him with a sponge, cleaned up, then pulled the blanket off of him and replaced it with a sheet (it would be getting hot, soon) and crawled in next to him, exhausted.
When he awoke, Paul felt weak and achy but his stomach seemed to have settled a bit—he could move a little, at least, without needing to throw up—and his bowels were relatively still, though he could feel that he would need the bucket soon.  He looked around: Lori wasn’t there, but the bottle of rehydration fluid was.  He reached for it and sipped, still cautious.  He felt a tremendous relief as he realized he wasn’t, after all, going to die: he hadn’t known what was wrong with him, though Lori had said it was probably just food poisoning and not even giardia, whatever that might be.  For a time, he had been sure he had some dread African disease, but was too illiterate in African medicine to imagine what, but was sure it was fatal.  Now, he felt he just might survive, though he was shaky and feeling weaker than he had ever been in his adult life.
After pulling on a pair of clean shorts (wondering what had happened to the soiled ones he had left in the vay-cey), moving with some difficulty and slowly to control the shaking that was still with him, he tried to stand, but had to sit right down again, dizzy.  He made it to a chair, though, reaching for things to steady himself on, stumbling but managing to take the bottle of liquid with him, though he had forgotten the cup.  The door had been left open, he saw, and he found he could watch the courtyard from his chair while he sipped some more.  Not much was happening outside, but he could see that a slight breeze was rustling the leaves of the mango tree just beyond the compound wall.  He realized he was still breathing hard as he stared at the rippling depth of the green as he continued to sip his drink, now wondered once more just what he was doing there, endangering himself.  In light of the night he had just spent, he was feeling both stupid and scared, out of his element and at risk.
During the hour he sat looking out the doorway and sipping at his bottle of rehydration fluid, he tried to order anew the experiences of the last couple of weeks, to figure out just how he had come to be sitting here, sick in a mud hut in the middle of nowhere.  And, as far as he knew, with no medical care available anywhere nearby.  He was stupid.  That much was clear.  Still, there was a certain weird logic to it, to this journey that had dropped him at this unknown crossroad, he decided.  It was like he was running away, but not just that, shedding things so he could become a new person.  And last night, he sure had shedded.  He laughed.  Well, thought about laughing.  His head still hurt too much for the actual act.
But what new person was he likely to be, were this really some sort of life change he was going through?  What would he become?  He could understand that he had to abandon his past—he hadn’t ever been a happy person.  He could see that, now, through the forced introspection of the past weeks—but why abandon one thing if there’s no replacement around?  Why not keep what you’ve got, at least until something else comes along?  He groaned.  His head was starting to pound, not just ache.  Closing his eyes, he sipped again from the bottle.  He was beginning to feel as though he were hung over, though he recognized that many of the symptoms, too, were caused by dehydration.
Maybe something else had, in fact, come along and he just didn’t yet know what it was.  Or maybe it was coming along tomorrow or the next day, or even the day after that.  If so, Paul wished he had at least an idea of what it was.  But he did not.  He kept his eyes closed and tried to sleep, there in the chair.  Maybe what he needed was to just learn to be patient and let things come as they will.
Yet, that didn’t change the fact of the matter: the choice remained, asleep or awake.  Should he go back to the being he now knew he did not care to be, or go forward to an existence of a sort he really had no picture of.  Take a risk, or accept his limitations.
Which way?  He didn’t think he could know; he hadn’t had enough time to know.  This trip had been too fast, the experiences too new.  His growing understanding of himself was still too limited.  He had to decide on a lack of knowledge, for decide he must.  There was no sitting here.  He remembered Yogi Berra’s ‘if you come to a fork in the road, take it.’  Should he just flip a coin?  He opened his eyes, fully awake for the first time that morning, with that thought in his head. 
Staring out over the mango tree, he realized that he was being stupid.  The decision had been made two weeks earlier.  He had just been putting off admitting it.  The fork had already been taken.  One way, here, would just be a detour, for his destination was clear, either way.
Lori appeared outside the open door just as he reached this realization, carrying a large canvas bag.
“Ah, you live!”  She gently spilled the contents of the bag onto the table after lifting out four eggs wrapped in crumpled newspaper.  “I almost thought I was going to have to ship you to the states as baggage.”
“That’s what it felt like.”
“I know,” she said, “I heard you.  You were pretty scared for a bit there.”  Paul winced at the thought of what he might have said during the night.
“Thanks, by the way.  Thanks.  I can imagine—though I don’t want to—what you went through last night.”
She shrugged.  “I’ve been on your side of it, and someone took care of me.  Just as you will take care of someone, one day.  And I’ve been sick here, with no one to take care of me besides the Kiemas.  Though I love them, they’re not the best nurses, and they don’t provide the connection with home that another American can, connection with home that, we all learn here, all of us strangers, makes the suffering a little more bearable.”  She did not look at him while she talked.
She took out a pan, turned the knob on the top of her gas bottle, and lit a flame on her little stove.  She put on the pan, poured in a little oil, and then started washing and cutting up the onion, pepper, and tomato she had carried home.  Then she cracked the eggs into a plastic bowl and mixed them.
“I’ll give you an omelet of sorts.  I couldn’t think of anything that would be better for you or that you might be able to eat.”
“Thanks.”  He wasn’t sure that food was the right thing but, he decided, he was willing to try.  After all, she seemed to know what would work, what was needed.  He continued, weakly.  “By the way, I think I’ve come to a decision.”
“About what?”  She poured the eggs into the pan.  He knew she knew what he meant, but was just giving him an opportunity to say it.
“About staying or going back home.”
“And?”
Her back was to him now, as she manipulated the vegetables into the pan with a spatula and onto the eggs, which she folded around the vegetables.
“And I’m going to stay.”
“Oh, I knew that the moment I met you.”  She turned to him, spatula in hand, and he saw that she was looking at him in a way he hadn’t before seen.  Her face looked sad.  She reached her free hand around his head and kissed him on the mouth.
“What was that for?”
“Mmm… because I knew you would stay, lost soul, and you have confirmed my intuition.  And that is very flattering.”
“That’s all?”
“Well, not quite.”  She scooped half the food on a plate for him, half onto one for herself and set them on the table, which she pushed close enough so that he could reach his food.  “I promised myself something when I first heard you talk about staying.”
“What’s that?”  He took a little bit of egg onto his fork and put it in his mouth.  It tasted awful and his stomach tightened, but he managed to swallow it.
“That if you decided to stay, I would make you my lover, at least for one night.”  She dug her fork into her food and took a big mouthful, grinning broadly.  “And I knew you would like that.”
He took another small sip of his rehydration formula and, feeling too sick to even think about sex, wondered just what sort of a world he had gotten himself into.

[Chapter Nineteen can be found here.]

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Chapter Seventeen: Crawling


[Chapter Sixteen can be found here.]


They rode on slowly, still at the side of the growing crowd of refugees, Paul using his feet, one then the other, to keep them upright, Sam sitting as quietly as he could, watching the people as they went by.  He was amazed at the variety, the diversity.  A tailor walked along as he might have for work, his sewing machine on his head.  Another man had motorcycle tires slung over both shoulders, and was followed by two boys, each laden with bicycle tires.  A third had strapped a pile of books together with a belt and carried them on his back.  Another pushed a bicycle loaded with suitcases as though it were a cart.  Most of the women carried children on their backs, as did the girls.  Even one of seven or eight could carry a baby, and often, Sam saw, they did.
They passed a family of five, with luggage, chugging along on a moped that could hardly pull the father; passed women trudging with bundles on their heads larger than they were; passed people hanging off the sides of trucks and clinging to the roofs of buses.  Every vehicle they overtook held more than any on them likely would have believed possible.  Some were so burdened they could hardly move and had to be pushed every little while. 
The refugees were no longer silent, as they had been in town.  Everyone slogging on foot begged to be allowed on each vehicle that passed them by, no matter how loaded it already was.  Under each tree sat people whose legs had too quickly given out, or whose packages had fallen apart.  Some slept; others attempted to rearrange their belongings, to get back on the road.  Others ate, or drank whatever liquids they had managed to carry with them.  Those still moving ignored the ones they passed. 
Just a little way outside of town, they came to a control post, a little hut set back from the road and a moveable barrier across the road.  It was down, but most traffic was simply flowing around it.  Only the larger vehicles were stopped by it, forced to pull off the road by the hut, the drivers (under the watchful eyes of uniformed men with guns at the ready) taking their documents to the table set up outside.  Normally, Paul knew (for he had traveled this road to Tougan a number of times before), this gendarme station, responsible for checking those leaving and entering Ouahigouya by this minor dirt road, had little business.  Maybe it would be staffed by two people, or three.  Now, there were dozens of gendarmes around, hot and scared, many of them arguing with one another or with civilian drivers.  The gendarmes were, Paul suspected, on the verge of collapsing as an operating organization.  At least, those at this post were.  Most were sweating profusely, their eyes darting here and there, making it obvious that they were ready to run if things got any more confused than they already were.  Many probably, Paul suspected, had arrived there as they had tried to leave town themselves and had been forced to stay by the officer who was standing with his sidearm drawn behind the little table.
Dozens of people—no, many more than that, Paul saw when he looked more carefully—sat huddled on the ground under the trees nearby, their belongings scattered around them, watching everything that went on with forlorn expressions. 
Paul slowed, moved as close as he could to the hut, and put down his feet as they stopped.  The bike rocked gently as Sam put his down, too.  Paul turned off the engine, pulling his helmet from his head and telling Sam to do the same.  As foreigners who, in the eyes of the officials, had no real business being there in the first place, he could not afford to go around the stop with the other small vehicles.  They had to be careful, respectful and polite.  Paul didn’t want one of these scared and itchy men to start shooting but believed, after all of the gunfire they had heard that day, that they easily could.
As they waited in the line before the table, Paul saw why the gendarmes were requiring only the larger vehicles to stop.  They asked the driver of each vehicle to take a couple more people, intimating that they would not be allowed to leave, otherwise.  They would point to one or two of those sitting under the trees, who, suddenly brightening, would rush to the vehicle and climb on.  These were probably the friends and families of the gendarmes, as desperate as anyone to be able to get out of town but lacking the means.  They had done the best they could, following their son or brother or father to this stop, hoping escape could be commandeered.  Sometimes others were forced to get off and wait when there wasn’t room, given promises that they would be put on another vehicle later.  This scared Paul: the armed men likely resented even the space on the road the two foreigners were taking up.  They were as afraid as the refugees, as much as Paul was, as Sam was.  It was possible that they would decide that the motorcycle itself should be commandeered, to be made use of by more important people.  Paul made sure that he had the key securely in his pocket.
Paul knew that it was extremely important that he act calmly.  He had to approach the gendarmes with care, with a little humility but also with a little arrogance and confidence (he didn’t want them to think him weak), but his hands were shaking from the strain of controlling the motorcycle.  He quietly handed another key to Sam and asked him to unlock the chain wrapped around the bike’s handlebars, take it off, and wrap it through the chassis and back wheel and lock it.  A couple of the gendarmes were already looking at the moto too keenly.  He did not want to tempt them.

The line of waiting motorists moved forward slowly.  A couple of people ahead of him were two tall, blonde men who, Paul was sure, had pulled up in the small white pick-up with an “NL” sticker on the back—for these two could be nothing but Dutch.  When their turn came, Paul heard them arguing a bit as the gendarme insisted that they take on a couple of additional riders.  Their truck was already packed with a number of crates and people on top of them but, somehow, two more squeezed on the back even while the men argued that they could take no more.  A few minutes later, Paul finally found himself up to the table, where he and Sam, who had returned from his task, were scrutinized by that man standing behind the table, the one with the drawn pistol who seemed to be in charge.  The gendarme sitting at the table reached out his hand; they presented their passports and Paul gave him the papers for the motorcycle.  He glanced at them briefly and said something to the man behind him.  That man grimaced, retorted harshly to the first, then spoke to another man.  That one motioned with his AK-47 for them to move, to follow him.
He led them over to the side of the hut, then barked his own orders at a group of three gendarmes standing a little further from the road in the shade of a large bush.  Those men, though they moved over on his command, started arguing with him, shaking their heads, refusing some order or other.

Paul tried to follow the conversation, but the men weren’t Mossi and he didn’t know their language.
Finally, the commander back behind the table yelled at some other men to join the one escorting them.  They did, lining up behind him, facing the three defiant ones.
After a moment of glowering back and forth, the three refusers lowered their heads.  The commander walked over and barked some orders at them, they nodded.
“You will go with them.”  He turned and spoke to Sam and Paul, in French, and pointed toward the bush.  He turned and stalked back toward the little table outside the hut, where the seated gendarme was still checking the papers of other drivers.
Paul and Sam glanced at each other, neither liking what they saw or thought, neither willing to speak.  They had no choice, anyway, but to obey.  Slowly, they started to move in the direction the commander had pointed, the reluctant three men spreading themselves out behind them.  Metallic clunks told them that the men now had their guns raised and ready.  For what, they could not, would not imagine.  They looked at the ground and walked, one foot in front of the other, each knowing now that the other was as frightened as he was.  Each wondered where the path before them, just a small trail into the bush, would take them.


[Chapter Eighteen can be found here.]

Monday, September 26, 2011

Chapter Sixteen: Crossing


[Chapter Fifteen can be found here.]

The Peugeot diesel engine that had been dropped into the red truck a couple of years earlier started immediately the next morning, much to Eric’s professed surprise.  Brian had been out earlier looking around, and had somehow and somewhere found a mechanic who said he could put the windshield back in, so they loaded their bags and Eric drove them to the roadside shed that served as the man’s garage.  While the work was going on, the five of them found a bar nearby and ordered a morning round of beer.
“This,” Paul tapped his bottle, “seems to be the primary similarity between you and the Togo PCVs.  You all drink too much.  But I think you do it more.”
“Don’t talk.  You joined us of your own free will.”  Brian held up his glass in mock toast.  “We may be drinking now, but we do a lot more… drinking, the rest of the time.”
“Actually,” Jerry ignored Brian’s jokiness, “we don’t get that much of a chance to drink, so have to take advantage when we can.  Normally, all we can get is weak dolo and the occasional So.Vo.Bra.”
“So.B.Bra,” Lori corrected him.  “That’s the national beer.  They changed the name when they renamed the country.”
“Little hard to keep up with things there, right now?”
“Just a bit.”  Eric put down his empty glass and got up.  “The guy should be done with the windshield by now.”
“If not, maybe we can hurry him along.”  Jerry rose, too.
“It would be nice to get to Koupela today.  Got things to do.”  Lori followed them.  Shrugging.  Brian got up, too, and Paul followed a little more slowly. 
The others were already in the truck when he got there.  Eric jammed it into reverse, nearly stalled, then managed to get them moving.  The truck rocked from side to side as Eric manhandled it onto the road, shifting with the forward of two sets of gear levers.  “The Peugeot transmission wouldn’t fit into the Comer couplings and shaft, but would into the Comer gearbox itself.  So, the guy I bought this from simply shortened the drive shaft and put in both transmissions.”  He grinned at Paul, who was standing behind the front seats watching, arms stretched to each side, for stability.  Lori was stretched out on one of the couches behind him, Jerry sitting on the other.  Brian occupied the other front seat.  Eric pulled the truck onto the paved road, aiming them towards Burkina Faso.
The guards at the Togo side of the border, when they pulled up an hour or so later, remembered the truck and its drunken occupants from the morning before.  They let them through quickly, with a joke or two and a request that they buy them beer next time through.  On the Burkina side, however, even the fact of having Burkina plates didn’t speed thing up.  They had to go through controls for customs, the army, the gendarmes, the police, and the CDR, all in separate places.  They were crossing on a major trucking route, which accounted for a part of the control, and into the domain of a nervous, new regime, which accounted for the rest.  Though they had reached the border at Sinkassi only a little after nine that morning, they weren’t through and on the road to Koupela before two in the afternoon, progress of about fifteen kilometers in five hours—slow walking speed.
Paul watched his companions with growing amazement.  That they could be so patient in such a ludicrous situation seemed impossible, especially in light of what he had seen of them over the last day.  They were polite at each stop, almost obsequious, doing exactly what they were told, never complaining, even if what they were told was simply to wait, which they did a lot of, smoking cigarettes and, from time to time, playing hands of gin rummy in the back of the truck while the relevant official took a long lunch somewhere else, or was in the middle of an important meeting.  “Look, there’s nothing we can do about it.  Bribes don’t work, under the new regime.  And we want to stay in the country.  So, we learn a little patience.  Eventually, they let us through.”  And, eventually, they did, at each post.
That road to Koupela, Paul saw, once they were past the last stop, was much straighter and flatter than anything he had seen in Togo.  Its unrelenting precision made the land seem stark and undifferentiated, though he knew from his time in Massiga that the view was deceptive, that life—all sorts of it, lay hidden in the wide spaces.  At first, he sat in the front with Eric, engaging in desultory small talk.  Later, he sat on one of the benches in the back of the van and listened to more stories about the revolution (the PCVs especially, who had lived through it on a personal level, couldn’t seem to stop talking about it)—and thought about what he should do once they got to Koupela.  The road they were on ended there, making the base of a “T” against the route that ran from Niamey to Ouagadougou and beyond.  One way or another, he realized, it was bound to be his decision point.
“If you can’t decide which way you’re going to go, you’re welcome to stay at my place for a few days.”  Paul had earlier told them that he didn’t know if he should go on with the van to Ouaga or wait for a bus to Niamey, in Niger, where he could eventually pick up his flight home.  Lori’s offer, though, took him by surprise.  He looked out the window for a moment, staring at the low fields that had been blending into one vast savannah, then nodded.  That would be perfect.  He could wait there until a decision came clear to him.
Just a little later, Eric pulled the van to the shoulder so that Lori and Sam could descend and walk the short distance to her house.  There were no real goodbyes, just curt waves as Eric forced the shift lever into place, revved the engine, and eased out the clutch.  They were, Paul saw, on the south edge of town, just where buildings were starting to crowd together, zinc and thatch roofs differentiating the compounds and other buildings.  They stood and watched as the van reached the intersection just a hundred meters away, its left turn signal blinking brightly, the noise of the diesel still carrying to them.  Lori led him around several compounds to the place where she lived, a single room in the compound of a family named Kiema.  When she introduced him to the parents, Abel and Marie, he noticed that they referred to him as her frere, her brother.  When he had a chance, he asked her about that.
“Oh, to Africans, to the Mossi, at least, family is more important than anything else.  If you move somewhere and have a house, and a cousin comes to town, that cousin will stay with you.  There’s no other way.  On the other hand, no one here can conceive of allowing a mere friend to stay, certainly without paying or working.  As the Kiemas don’t think you are my lover, you must be a relative.”
They were then sitting in what might be called a trucker’s bar, a round building set well back from the road at the top of the T intersection, with plenty of space in front of it for the 18-wheelers coming up from Lomé, some soon to be heading off to Niamey to the right, others leftward to Ouaga.  Around the inside walls were crude paintings of black pop starts, from Jimi Hendrix to Bob Marley to Alpha Blondy.  Lori said it wasn’t a place she liked to go to, but it was the only real bar in town—the only one with cold beer, at least.
“Tell me about them, the Kiemas.  What’s it like living with an African family?”
“Oh, I like them a great deal.  They’re a Christian family, Catholic.  Abel does a lot for the church, and his sister is a nun somewhere in Senegal.  He’s a farmer, but a fairly successful one, for around here.  He doesn’t drink at all, which is a little bit peculiar—even the Moslems will drink if no one is looking.  Marie has her own fields, and grows mainly millet, which she makes into dolo and sells on market days.”
“So Marie drinks and Abel doesn’t?”
“Actually, neither of them does.  She just makes and sells the stuff.  You’ll smell it, when she’s making a batch, if you stay more than a day or two.”
“I’ll have to try some, if I do.” 
Lori smiled, “It’s generally pretty good, but it depends on the batch.”  She paused for a swallow of beer.  “The oldest son, Michel, isn’t here.  He lives in Ouaga, where he works repairing radios and other small electrical items.  If you go to Ouaga, I’ll tell you how to reach him.  He’s a nice guy.”
“The rest of the kids are all here?”  Paul avoided the question of where he would go next.
“Yeah.  Marie has given birth to seven or eight kids, but only four have survived.”
“I only saw two at the compound, one that looks to be about five, and the girl.”
“She’s twelve.  She has an older sister who you’ll see sometime, about fifteen.  The youngest, by the way, is deaf.  You’ll see people signing to him.  There’s a sort of hand language for that, that’s grown up over the years.  Almost everyone knows a little of it.”
When they left the bar, they took a few bottles of beer back to the compound with them.  There were places closer to the house where beer could be bought, Lori explained, but it would not be cold.
They sat in an alcove that had been reserved for Lori back at the compound, drinking, talking, and listening to Marie bustling about the fire as she prepared dinner.  In honor of the visitor, she had added a bit of meat to the gumbo sauce she soon served the family and Lori and Paul along with their millet paste.  Lori showed Paul how to take a bit of the paste in his fingers and make a small scoop with it before dipping it in the communal pot of sauce.  It was quite spicy and rather greasy, and Paul wasn’t sure how much he liked it, but he was rather hungry, so managed to eat enough not to embarrass himself or, he hoped, to be considered rude.
After dinner, the family members disappeared to their own tasks and lives, leaving Lori and Paul sitting alone in front of her hut once again, drinking the remainder of the beers they had brought back from the trucker’s bar.
“I heard you say you came to visit a girlfriend in Benin.”  It was dark enough, now, so that Paul couldn’t see Lori’s eyes.  “Too painful to talk about?”
“No, I guess not, though it was… though I don’t like to think about it.  She dumped me, didn’t even show up at the airport.  Guess she wrote me not to come, but the letters didn’t get there in time.  Oh, well.  I’m here, and trying to make the best of it.”
“Well, if it’s any solace, that happens a lot.  Maybe it’s not so dramatic as that, as landing to an empty airport, but I don’t know anyone who’s relationship back home has survived Peace Corps.”
“What about you?  Did you leave anyone?”
She nodded.  “Yeah, and he came to visit soon after swearing-in.  He even wanted to stay, to try to get some sort of job here.”
“What happened?”
“When I saw him at the airport, well, I knew.  Even in the three months of training, I had changed.  I couldn’t go back anymore, not home.  I had committed to this and had shed him with the rest of it, I guess.  It almost made me ill just to think about it, to imagine ETing, early terminating, washing out and going home, not finishing up what I had begun here, and there he was, the central part of a life that was gone, suddenly inserting himself into my new life.”  Paul was glad Lori couldn’t really see much of his face through the gloom as she talked.  He purposely had not considered the other side, the pressure he had put on by announcing he was coming without really making sure he was wanted.
“What did you do?”
“What could I do?  He had come all that way.  I brought him here… I had told Abel that my boyfriend was coming, but he interpreted that as my husband… and he stayed for a while.  Eventually, I had to tell him it wasn’t going to work.”
“And he went back home?”  That, Paul thought, might even be harder than handling the shock he’d experienced at the airport.
“Yes.  He didn’t seem to like it here, anyhow.”  She got up, walked to where the alcove joined the main compound, looked out, then walked back again, adjusting the pagna wrapper she had changed into after dinner.  “It was hard.  It would have been easier if he hadn’t come, or if I had realized earlier that it wasn’t going to work.  I still feel bad about it.”
“Well… ”
She interrupted him, holding her finger to his lips.  “Shh… let it go.  It’s too far and too much.  Think, instead, about what you want, what you want to do.  Look forward.  Do you go to Ouaga and stay longer?  That seems to be what you are thinking, sometimes.  Or go to Niamey, do a little sight-seeing, and go home?  But tell me—maybe I can help you with this—what would you do in Ouaga?  Do you have any ideas for staying longer?”
“I was talking to Eric about that when I rode in the front and the rest of you were sacked out in back.  He says life in Ouaga is cheap, and, if I want to stay in Africa awhile, I could probably teach a little at the American Cultural Center there, or maybe even a math or intro physics course at the university.  I’ve taught university level, tutored, at least, when I was getting my Masters, so….  ”
“So you can get by, should you decide to stay.  Or might be able to.  What about your ticket, though—will it still be good if you don’t use it now?”
“Yeah.  I paid full fare, so have some time.  A year, I think.”
“Why would you want to stay, though?  Even if it turns out you can.  What would you want from Burkina Faso?”
“I’m not sure.  And that’s the problem, really.  I’ve been seeing something here, though, and I’m not sure how to define it.  But I am intrigued by it, and might even feel regret if I don’t take the chance and explore it.”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t really know.  Look, I’ve lived alone, pretty much, since I was sixteen.  And my father worked most of his career for DuPont, and was transferred around a lot, generally every year or two.  I think I went to fifteen different schools before I graduated from high school, and I graduated a year early.”
“So, what’s that got to do with being here?  I’m not sure I see what you are getting at.”
“Two things,” he held up a couple of fingers, gaining a little confidence from her gentle questioning.  “First, the Africans.  They don’t live so individually as I have.  They seem to care about their homes, their families, and their communities in a way I have never experienced.  I would like to get to know something of that.  Second, the PCVs.  You guys have something special, an attachment to each other that I envy.  Something again that I have never experienced.”
“I think you are deluding yourself,” she broke in before he could continue, but quietly, “for what you are seeing in the Africans is simply the remains of a rural life, of a subsistence agriculture life—like that found all over the world, even in America, until recently.  It’s almost gone and, if you live in Ouaga, you won’t see much of it at all.  As to the other, well, if it’s so—which it isn’t, not really—you won’t be part of it, anyway.  I mean, you are not a PCV and won’t be, if you do as you say you might.”
“No, but I can see that it’s something different from my experience, and I can try to understand it.”
“Then you’ll learn that it’s artificial, that there’s as much pain in these groups as love.  As much hate.  But it’s not something even other expats really understand.  They don’t think much of us, for the most part.  And the young ones, the travelers who come through and even stay for a time, they haven’t shared the intense training and don’t live the same way we do—couldn’t, I don’t think.”
They sat for a while in silence before Lori spoke again.
“So I don’t see it, don’t really understand what you are thinking of.”
“Guess I’ve been realizing, since I got here… “
“What’s it been, two weeks?”  For the first time, she sounded slightly sarcastic.  Paul ignored that.
“Yeah, two weeks.”
“Be careful of decisions come to so fast.”
“I know, that’s why I’m not sure yet what I’ll do.  Anyhow, something’s been missing from my life, and I don’t want to go back to that emptiness.”  He looked at her.  “I guess that’s the simplest way to put it.”
“A lot of us here, all of us expats, are avoiding something back home.  I’m not sure that’s the best way, though.”  She spoke softly again, and Paul wondered what she was remembering from back home.
“I don’t think I’m avoiding, but seeking.  Before, I don’t think I even knew I had something to look for.  Before two weeks ago.”
“Hmmm… well,” she stood up, “we can talk about this more, if you want to.  Now, I think I want to go to sleep.”  She got up and walked into her hut.  He followed.
“Where do I sleep?”  There was only one bed, even though a large one.
“Here.  But let’s just sleep, huh?  You’re nice and all, but I’m tired, and not sure if I want a lover right now.”  She pulled her wrapper tight and removed her bra without taking off her tee-shirt.  While she was lowering the mosquito net, Paul, with a shrug, shed his pants and shirt and climbed in. 
He slept well, which surprised him when he woke, the net no longer bothering him and the presence of the woman not even distracting him.  Though, he saw, she had risen before him and he was now alone in the bed.
That day was market day in Koupela.  Paul and Lori went with Marie to set up her dolo stand and sat with her for a time, each drinking a calabash full, but neither wanting more, certainly not after the amount of beer they had drunk the days before.  Lori showed him around the market, introducing him to friends and explaining what things were when Paul asked.
A little before noon, they heard drumming from across the market and Paul asked if they could go over to see and listen.  Lori nodded, and led him to an open area, crowded with people, where three men with long drums hung by straps from their shoulders were playing to the accompaniment of a fourth man with a small, wooden flute who was swaying forward and back as he played.  A number of women were dancing in an open space in front of them.  They stopped at the back of the crowd to watch, both of them tall enough to see over the crowd.
The dancers were all dressed in pagna wraps much like the one Lori had worn the evening before (now, she was in jeans, as Paul was), generally the same pattern on their wrapped skirt, their top, and their headwrap.  Some had babies strapped to them, using the same cloth even for that.  The babies didn’t seem to mind their mothers’ dancing, not even when they bumped hips—quite forcefully and to the applause of the watchers—with other dancers.
The flute, Paul saw, only had two finger holes, one on each side, and the player blew across another hole in one of the ends.  Like the drummers, he played with his eyes closed about half the time, the other half, glancing about as he bobbed up and down, apparently watching the reactions of their audience.  The drummers seemed to play mainly with their palms, using their fingers for accents.
One of the dancers was a woman who had been disabled by polio or, Lori said, possibly by a poorly administered injection when she was a baby.  “It happens a lot,” she told him, “hits a nerve and leads to withered legs, just like hers.”  None of the dancers seemed to mind, though she couldn’t do the steps the others negotiated with ease.
Soon, Paul and Lori found that the crowd had grown behind them.  Several hundred people, now, had gathering around the drummers and the dancers, and all were in a in festive mood.  Occasionally, a new dancer would join and another would leave, almost always with a cheer or clapping for the exhausted one, who would fall into the hands of her friends.  The lame woman, however, kept dancing, though sweat sprayed from her face and had soaked her blouse.
After a time, one man, obviously drunk, decided he didn’t like the way the lame woman was dancing, and so he started yelling at her to leave the group of dancers.  Lori translated for Paul, saying he was telling her to get out, to let better dancers have a chance.  The woman ignored him, but Paul could see that she had heard.  The drunk yelled at her a couple of more times, then pushed her, trying to get her out of the way.  She fell down.
The players saw this.  Without losing a beat, without any obvious communication with each other, they started moving.  A couple of women got the fallen one up and out of the way as the drummers and their flute player surrounded the drunk.  He didn’t notice, not until it was too late.  Suddenly, on the closing of their circle with him at the center, the tone of their playing changed.  Paul suddenly realized that they were no longer playing for their audience, but were playing at the drunk, who quickly saw that he was surrounded and in trouble, turning his head back and forth, trapped.  He tried to break through and away, but the drummers blocked him, and the crowd, mainly women, formed a solid circle around them, making escape for the drunk impossible, even if he could manage to break through the smaller circle.
“He’s from another village.  He’s a Gourma, not a Mossi.  I could tell by his accent.  Moré is not his native tongue.  There are lots of Gourma here, but he isn't one of them.  He didn’t know who she was, or what could happen.”
“Who is she?”
“I don’t know her, but I’ll bet she’s a relative of one of the players.  They’d probably get after him anyway, but they are really angry.”
The drunk turned around a few times, his eyes now glancing over the heads of the musicians as though something in the sky could save him.  Slowly, he then sank to the ground, covering his ears and head with his arms, as though protecting himself from the musicians.
“What’s he doing?”
“What do you think?  Giving up, I expect.  Asking for mercy.  They will continue the drumming for as long as they think he deserves it, then go back to playing for everyone else.”
Paul didn’t want to leave, but Lori pulled him away, saying she didn’t want to watch anyone’s humiliation.
“It just seems a little too voyeuristic to me.”
“I don’t know.  I’ve never seen anything like it, a group of people so seamlessly, so effectively… it’s hard to express, but they were taking care of their weakest, even without urging.”
“Did you notice that the other dancers were courteous to her, even before?”  They were now walking toward the Kiema compound, crossing an empty space south of the village.
“No,” Paul was surprised.  “I just thought it was odd that she was dancing.”
“I did, but didn’t think I should mention it right then.  You saw how the women bump butts sometimes?”
“Yeah.  They seem to get a kick out of that.”
“When they do that with another healthy woman, they smack with a great deal of force.  Good dancers can bang together quite fiercely and not lose the beat.  That’s when they get the most applause.
“They’re considerate, though.  They never smack into someone they might knock down, not without easing up so they don’t hurt the other.  It’s almost as important that the other person not lose the beat as not losing it oneself.”
“So it’s not a competition?”
“No.  And I saw that all the women were particularly careful to look like they were bumping hard against the disabled woman, but they must have been taking it easy.  Any of them would have knocked her down, otherwise.”
Paul didn’t know what to say.  He thought back to what he had seen.  “Surprising people, these Africans,” was all he could come up with.
Lori frowned at him.  “How so?”
“They care about each other more than I would expect.”
“More than you’re used to, perhaps?  Maybe it’s America that’s strange, where family and community have been shrunk to the nuclear family and a couple of friends, if that.  Here, people aren’t rich enough for the luxury of individualism and separation.  They have to help each other, or everyone would die, eventually.”
They walked on in silence for a bit before Lori continued.
“It’s not that these people are any better than anyone else, it’s just that they face problems more immediate than anyone else’s.  They are poorer, their healthcare is worse… and their governments have almost nothing to do with or for the people.”
“That much, I’ve noticed.”  Paul wondered where she was going with this.
“But think about it, about government: If you pay attention to experts on Africa politics, you’ll hear people say that the best thing Europe ever gave Africa was its national boundaries.”
“So?”  They had arrived at the compound.  Lori unlocked her hut and pulled out her two chairs, which she placed under an awning in her alcove, for the sun was still high.
“So, these borders, which everyone thinks so much of, are part of Africa’s problems.  They have nothing to do with ethnic divisions, and they force Africans into entities totally alien to their cultures.”
“What do you mean?”
Countries.  Countries, in the European sense, don’t fit with Africa.  So, they become completely new entities, entirely outside traditional governmental systems.  To be effective, they have to be based on force.  Otherwise, they would be ignored.”
“Aren’t some of the traditional chiefs involved in some of the governments?  I know that in Nigeria….  ”
Nigeria?”  She cut him off.  “Do you know how ridiculous it is to try to call that mass a country?  Do you have any idea how many people died just to keep it one?”
“No, sorry.  I don’t know what you are talking about.  I don’t know that much about Africa.  I’m just trying to learn.  Remember, it has just been two weeks.”
“Sorry.”  She lowered her voice.  “Millions of Igbo died in a civil war not all that long ago, but a war the world has forgotten.  They tried to separate from the rest of Nigeria, called their country ‘Biafra.’”
“Biafra.  Yes, I have heard of that.”
“Anyway, the borders here, the very countries themselves, were created for European colonial needs and through European colonial competitions.  They have nothing, let me repeat, nothing, to do with African cultural realities.”
“I never thought about that.”
“Sorry I’ve been going on about it, but it’s a passion of mine, and it makes me sick.”
“Yeah, I can see that.”
Lori told the Marie they wouldn’t be there for dinner that evening and they walked to a place near the crossroads where a man was grilling chicken for travelers and a woman was serving rice and sauce.  Lori ordered chicken for both of them and Paul managed to get rice and sauce for himself, as well as a couple of bottles of beer.  They ate by the dim flames of the chicken cooker and the headlights of passing trucks.
“Have you decided which way you are going to go?”  Lori dipped her fingers in a small bowl of water she had placed at her feet and flicked them dry.
“I don’t know.  It’s tempting to try to stay here.  I mean, I’ve been having the best time of my life, when I should be miserable.  And I don’t know if I can face life back home again.”
“Sounds like you’ve been bitten by the Africa bug—but I knew that as soon as I first saw you—takes one to know one.  Don’t worry.  It happens all the time.  But it’s an up-and-down thing.  You’ll go through periods where you regret even having heard the word ‘Africa.’  Then something will happen to make you love it again.  It’s also a hard thing.  There will be times when you will be desperately miserable and alone.  But interspersed with real joy.”
“I know.  I see it in Brian and Jerry, and even Eric.  I saw it in Togo, in the guy I told you about, who I met on the plane, though only hints of the up side.  But I don’t know, yet, if it’s for me.”  He put down his empty plate and took a drink directly from the beer bottle he had placed on the dirt next to him.  “Also, the thought of spending the next two weeks wandering around Niger by myself makes me rather sad.  It seems pointless.  I’d be lonely, and would know I had turned my back on something I had only tasted, but that had beckoned me.”
“When I watched people leave, in stage, especially after the first month, when those who got sick or couldn’t face it or were pulled away, I always imagined it was me.  I saw in their faces what I would feel, an incredible loss, a realization that they would never drink deep from the well of Africa.  Leaving here can feel like real failure.  Though staying isn’t always much better, at least it keeps the loss away.”
“If I go back, I think I will feel something of that loss.  Maybe not to the extent of someone who had, after all, planned on coming for two years and was leaving early, but loss, nonetheless.”
“Then you should stay.”
“If only it were that simple.  What would I stay for?  What would I be trying to accomplish?  What would I do for a living?  Would teaching a class or two be enough?  And why should I stay?  Is this vague wanting enough?  I won’t have a purpose or a plan, the things Peace Corps gives you.  I won’t have a community, just the people I meet.  What would I be heading for?”
“I don’t know.  Guess you’ll have to answer that yourself.”  She got up, collected their dishes and empty bottles, returned them to the vendors, and made clear to Paul that she was ready to walk back to the house.

[Chapter Seventeen can be found here.]

"And We'll Have Fun, Fun, Fun... "

In his brilliant short story "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote," Jorge Luis Borges has his narrator comment:
There is no exercise of the intellect which is not, in the final analysis, useless. A philosophical doctrine begins as a plausible description of the universe; with the passage of the years it becomes a mere chapter--if not a paragraph or a name--in the history of philosophy. In literature, this eventual caducity is even more notorious. The Quixote--Menard told me--was, above all, an entertaining book; now it is the occasion for patriotic toasts, grammatical insolence and obscene de luxe editions. Fame is a form of incomprehension, perhaps the worst.
The story was in my mind yesterday as I was going over page proofs for mine (and Robert Leston's) forthcoming book, Beyond the Blogosphere: Information and Its Children, where I use the story to illustrate a point.  Naturally, then, I thought of it this morning when, in The New York Times, I read William Egginton's piece "'Quixote,' Colbert and the Reality of Fiction."

Who says serendipity is dead?

Anyhow, Egginton takes issue with Alex Rosenberg's contention that literary theory, like fiction (in his view) is merely entertainment, nothing more than fun.

Personally, I don't believe that fun excludes import or intellect--but that's another topic.  Let me just say, in regard to that, that entertainment is one of the best entranceways to knowledge... probably the best, when coupled with a little guidance.

But, as I said, that's another topic.  What interested me in Egginton's piece was his depiction of Don Quixote.  He quotes, approvingly, Harold Bloom from his introduction to Edith Grossman's translation of the Cervantes work, that it “contains within itself all the novels that have followed in its sublime wake.”  If that were not enough, Egginton then claims, "What he passed down to those who would write in his wake... was not merely a new genre but an implicit worldview that would infiltrate every aspect of social life: fiction."

Personally, I am not sure who Egginton is talking about, Cervantes or Menard.  The book published in the early 17th century, or the book Egginton reads (and writes, as he filters it through his own mind).

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Rugged Individualism

My father liked to tell the story of a series of talks given at Denison University in the 1950s by members of the Ohio Self-Made Millionaires Club (or some such name).  The students set up betting pools: at what point during the talk would the speaker reveal that he (it was all men who spoke) was not, in fact, self made?  Someone collected each week, for each millionaire, generally unintentionally, let the cat out of the bag.

The story came to mind this week through two things, Suzanne Mettler's  op-ed in the New York Times, "Our Hidden Government Benefits" and Elizabeth Warren's comments during the start of her campaign for Scott Brown's Senate seat in Massachusetts:



At one point, Warren says:
You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear: you moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did. There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody.
Scratch the surface of anyone who claims to have done it all on their own, and through 'enlightened self-interest,' and you will find someone who has used other people for their own advancement.  This is the lie that Ayn Rand and all those who believe in 'the virtue of selfishness' propagate: it is the rugged individual who gets things done, and who does it despite society, despite other people.  Not so.  Even our very language is the work of others.  Everything we accomplish is due to the work of others.  Most Rand followers, most everyone, would quickly die if forced to rely only on themselves.

Not "most."  "All."

Today, more and more of us are willing to accept belief in our own ability to make it on our own because our government structures much of its aid to us in ways that won't interfere with our flagrantly false belief that we do it on our own.  Mettler writes:
Americans often fail to recognize government’s role in society, even if they have experienced it in their own lives. That is because so much of what government does today is largely invisible.
Invisible so that we can look down upon those who rely on governmental largess without being forced to face our own.  Invisible so that we don't have to recognize our own hypocrisy.

Until we can start being honest about how much each of us gets from our communities, movements like the tea party, stoked by people on government dole of some sort themselves but not wanting to admit it or share it with others, will continue.

More critically, not until we can start to honestly face how much we need government as a means of working together for the good of all will we be able to get through our current political and economic crisis.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Chapter Fifteen: Turning


 [Chapter Fourteen can be found here.]

Turning back, they saw that the bustle of Ouahigouya had disappeared.  Even the hurrying soldiers were gone.  The shops, so recently so busy, were shuttered, the marché vacant.  On the wide, empty streets no youths peddled cigarettes or lounged in the doorways, no women sold soap from their little hand-made stands in front of family compounds.  No children peeped out from entranceways—their disappearance an eerie cause for comment. 
As they walked, quiet, spooked by the emptiness especially as they both knew that the spaces behind the walls had to be crammed with people, the apparently empty roadside became more and more repellant to them.  They angled toward the middle of the street as they headed back toward the compound where they had last felt any sense of safety, hurrying, but trying to look unconcerned to unseen eyes.  As far as either of them could tell, the only other things moving were vultures circling quietly against the pale blue sky overhead, their wings beating only occasionally and ever so slowly.  After a few minutes, the bleakness above pushed them back toward the walls where they could walk under the trees lining the road, feeling a little less vulnerable.
Paul led them away from the main street as quickly as he could, taking them first down the centers of broad, silent avenues lined with banco buildings, then threading them through narrower streets toward the Sawadogo family’s home where they had slept the night before, walking quickly, ever close to the buildings now, hesitating at every vacant corner.  He said nothing to Sam, motioning for him to shut up the few times it looked as though he were about to question him. 
Following through the twists and turns, growing more anxious and lost, Sam finally recognized the Sawadogo restaurant before them, orienting himself for the first time since the gendarmes had told them they couldn’t leave town.  They had rounded the last of what had seemed to him to be interminable corners, moving as fast as they could, still in the shadow of the banco walls.  The restaurant building was shuttered and as barren as was everything they had passed, but at least it was familiar.  The silence they were fleeing had transformed it from a piece of alien landscape into a warm and beckoning haven.  He stared at it with longing and picked up his pace, hurrying after Paul, who was already rounding the corner toward the compound’s entrance on the street behind the restaurant.
No one came out when Paul clapped softly.  They waited, unsure what to do, looking around for signs of life.  People had to be there.  They stepped toward the open-air stove, moving a little off to the side to reduce their visibility from the road.  Finally, across from them, the cloth hanging over a doorway at the back of the restaurant moved aside and a hand and face appeared.
Venez.”  Come.  Almost silent, more motion than words.  An older man, one of Yusef’s uncles, ushered them into the dark room shrouded by the curtain.  “Come in.  Quickly.  It is not safe to be out there.”  He sounded almost angry, but relieved when he was able to let the cloth back down.  “Yusef is not here.”
Immediately after he had ducked through the curtain, Paul asked the uncle what was going on.  Both Americans quickly shrugged off their packs and sat, when the uncle did, on low stools while they waited for an answer.  The uncle looked away, the deepening lines on his face reminding Sam of a slowly deflating balloon.  The uncle was silent for more than a minute, perhaps unsure of what to say.  Finally, he spoke, keeping his words simple, without emphasis or, or so it seemed, judgment.
"La guerre.  War."  Reluctant, expressionless.  His eyes stayed averted, but they seemed somehow accusing.  "Weren't you in town?  Thought I saw you walk that way.  You should know.  Mali bombed us.  Hit the cattle marché.  Killed some children."  He stood and walked deeper into the darkness of the restaurant before returning to them empty-handed and sitting once more.
Paul looked at Sam and paused before translating.  He had known, of course, that war was a possibility, but had never really believed it would come.  It never had before, after all, not while he had been in this part of Africa, at least, and that had been some years.  Certainly, there had been chances.  Certainly, there was strife, and conflict, but all-out war took money, and few of these countries had enough of that to waste shooting at each other.  War, he had felt, also required either desperation or greed, and he had never believed that any of the countries around had reached the required pitch of either.
There had been conflicts—still were.  The Tuaregs in Mali and Niger were armed and sometimes fought the governments, as did a variety of other groups.  The various coups—including the recent ones here in Burkina Faso—could be bloody.  But the worst of the quarrels, the Biafran War, that Nigerian civil war, had ended over a decade earlier.  He hadn’t believed that the days of warfare would start again.  There was too little to fight over, too little to gain.
So, he didn’t know how to react to the reality of what he was hearing—or even if the uncle knew what he was talking about.  But something had happened, something bad enough to bring an entire city to ground. 
So, Paul stalled, again looking at the uncle.  Somehow, putting this into English was going to make it too real.  Watching Sam’s reaction was going to force him to consider that their situation might really be desperate now.  He’d rather put that off.
"Do you have any other news?  Who attacked first?  Where do things stand now?  Anything?  Have you heard anything?"
"No."
"Is there fighting around here?  Were other places bombed?  How serious do you think it is?"
"I don't know."
"Well, what do you know?  Tell me."
Not much, it turned out.  He had seen little more than Paul and Sam.  He had been trying to open the restaurant when soldiers came by, yelling at everyone to get off the streets.  So, he had pulled the shutters to, and had waited in the dark, since.
When Paul finally turned to Sam, he starting out by telling him that they would still try to leave town as soon as possible, and would continue on their way south.  If they had to, though, they would sleep there in the Sawadogo compound once more, and leave in the morning.  Things should be quieter by then, he was sure, but he doubted there would be any bush taxis going.  So Sam was going to have to travel with him, riding on the back of the motorcycle.
“But it is war,” he said, speaking as quietly as he could, perhaps lessening the impact of his words, “and we may be right in the middle of it.  Discomfort is going to be the least of it, as long as we can get out of here.”
Sam stared at him. 
“I’m sorry,” Paul continued, “I should have told you to stay in Mopti.  Nothing would happen to you there.”
Sam continued looking at Paul, his eyes shaded in the room’s gloom so that Paul couldn’t see them.  “Look, it’s not your fault,” Sam said, finally.  “I’m the one who decided to go with you.  And I couldn’t stay there, anyway.”
“But you shouldn’t have to face this.”
“None of us should.  But even this is better than that sitting in Mopti waiting.  At least I know I’ve tried something, that I’m not just a sitting victim.”  Sam looked over Paul’s head at the vague shapes in the darkened restaurant as he spoke.  He was scared, of course but, as he had meant to imply, he had been scared before, and had learned that fear, by itself, holds little threat. 
Strangely, Sam realized, he was also feeling relief.  It didn’t really matter where he was; he didn’t have control of this situation.  Much less experienced with Africa, best he could do was rely on the others.  He wasn’t responsible.  His own decision had been made, back there in the Mopti taxi gare.
So, he couldn’t blame Paul for getting him into the war.  He had made the choice to accompany him rather than continuing to wait for someone else to get him out of Mopti, where he’d been stranded by language barriers, bureaucratic errors, and antagonistic police.  He had an ally here, at least, something he had lacked back in Mali, where there had been no one he could really talk to or plan with, not at the hotel, not anywhere in town.  Almost all Europeans had left at the first sign of trouble, the first hint of border conflict.  Paul had been the only one who that he could talk to.  And, though he looked like a bum, he knew a lot more than Sam did about Africa.  No, it was better to have left with him than to sit, unknowing and inactive, in Mopti.
Though Yusef’s uncle refused to speculate about the events of the morning, both Paul and Sam willingly did, especially once they had been sitting in the darkened restaurant for an hour or so and were feeling starved for information.  Once the uncle had gotten up and disappeared into the dark leaving them alone.  Speculation broke the tension and passed the time as they waited, wondering if and when they could leave—and how.  They planned.  They tried to decide what they should do if they were even able to get out of the compound.  Paul argued that it just did not make sense to stay in a war zone any longer than necessary.  As soon as they had some idea of what was going on, he said, they would leave.  Neither country could possibly be equipped for a war reaching much beyond the common border.  He was sure of that.  Paul explained that it shouldn't take long to get out of the problem area, especially on a motorcycle like his Yamaha.  A good, strong dirt bike, 250cc, it could take them across the countryside off-road, if need be.
Sam at first argued that they should wait, at least a little while, but not passionately.  He knew he really had to let Paul make the decisions.  The uncle, on one of his short stints sitting with them, agreed (Paul translating), but he didn’t make the case loudly or firmly, either.  The natural inclination to hole up until he could make sense of things propelled Sam’s thinking, but the idea of staying in such an alien and dangerous place also repelled him, as it had in Mopti, and it eventually weakened his enthusiasm for staying put. 
Paul couldn’t tell why the uncle agreed that they should stay; he assumed that the family might be better off with the Americans gone.  His point that they had to move simply because they were only a few kilometers from the border finally convinced both of the others: being close to the action could get them into trouble, even just by sitting.  Paul and Sam were strangers, after all, though Paul had spent much time in the region, making them immediately suspect to any scared soldier or gendarme who might come across them.  And, no matter what they did, someone would soon point them out.  And someone would come for them.  They were too different, too clearly foreign.
Shortly after dusk, after a long day of waiting, eating only cold food, and venturing no further than the compound entrance, Yusef himself finally appeared, sneaking into the courtyard over the wall from next door.  He told them he had spent the day at the house of another uncle, until finally deciding it was dark enough to make his way home, avoiding the streets as much as he could.  He had seen nothing on the way, no soldiers, no one.  Everything was quiet.  Maybe the one bombing was all that would happen. 
Paul wanted cigarettes, and Yusef knew one of the youths across the street who usually sold them.  They pushed through the curtain and walked quietly over to the compound entranceway and peeked out.  Two children, the first people they’d seen on the street since the bombing, saw them and ran up to them.  They silently held out pieces of twisted metal, bits of the bomb that had fallen that morning, or so they said, speaking in hardly more than a whisper.  Would the nasara like to buy them? 
“No.”  Both Yusef and Paul shook their heads quickly.  "No."  They decided to forget the cigarettes and stay put for the night.
It was still an odd feeling, next morning, looking around at emptiness where normally life should thrive.  They peeked into the street where, every day of any other year, vehicles—cars, trucks, bicycles, mopeds, donkey carts—were constantly passing, where people sat in doorways watching and waiting, others walking through selling fruits and vegetables, and even chickens.  Not even the dust, so normal in Burkina Faso, hovered in the air.  Everything had settled; all was still.  After a little hesitation, Yusef and Paul walked slowly across the street and into the compound opposite to find the kid who could sell Paul a pack of cigarettes, a chill seeming to shiver the heat around them.  The purchase quickly, quietly and furtively made, they hurried back to the Sawadogo’s.
They had spent most of the previous evening with Yusef’s uncle and Sam, just the four of them in the shuttered restaurant, Paul doing most of the talking and drinking, buying beer from the uncle (though neither Sam nor the uncle drank), the doors and windows pulled tight around them, a hurricane lamp turned low their only light.  At one point they had stepped outside, just to look about.  The town was black.  Silent.  They hurried back inside, Paul to another beer.  They tried to sleep in the restaurant on cushions Yusef dragged from somewhere, though the stillness kept them awake.
Things were as quiet as the evening before as they crossed back to the Sawadogo’s, though a few window shutters had been thrown back and, here and there, drying laundry fluttered.  Paul wondered at the incongruity: who would have gotten up to wash clothes at a time like this?
Given the apparent calm, Paul and Yusef pushed open the restaurant’s front door and stood on the verandah that served, normally, as the main dining room looking up and down the street, hoping they could see something, anything that might tell them a little of what was going on.  They turned back inside, leaving the door open to throw a little light on the stacked tables and chairs against the wall.  Sam, who had been sitting on the steps beyond the curtained doorway looking into the compound, came and joined them. 
The three of them talked over their situation, Paul translating, all keeping their voices low, oppressed by the general quiet.  They decided that it would be best for the Americans to try to leave as soon as possible, perhaps pushing the motorcycle until they were out of town to keep notice of them to a minimum.  Yusef said that the soldiers were sure to be jumpy.  Sam nodded, though the idea of riding behind Paul into who-knows-where still did bother him slightly.
Paul, strangely enough, now didn’t seem quite so sure.  Staying in the known might be better than making Sam face something all the more uncertain.  Yusef, though, pushed for leaving.  The military was scared and itchy, he said.  He had seen that as he made his way home.  And so were the cadres of the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR), those kids with automatic rifles.  Paul and Sam, he argued, did not want to deal with them in a situation so uncertain.  And, Paul was sure, Yusef was worried that having two strangers around was endangering the Sawadogo family.  And he couldn’t blame him for that.
Heeding Yusef, Paul and Sam finally hauled out their packs and tied them to the moto’s rebar rack in front of the tool kit and directly behind the seat.  After thanking Yusef for all his help and advice, Paul, began pushing the bike to the entranceway.  He looked around for the uncle, but the man seemed to have disappeared.
A pop.  It could be barely heard, but all three noticed it.  They looked up.  A burst of black opened above them.  More pops, a little louder.  More black clouds.  Then the scream of a jet, and an explosion, loud, close enough to shake the ground under them, the walls near them.  Without thinking, Paul quickly wheeled the moto back into the compound.  Yusef and Sam ran before him into the restaurant, Sam pushing himself as far into the darkness as possible, into a chair among the stacked tables, Paul and Yusef following. 
Silence.  After a moment, Yusef and Paul crept to the still-open doorway, stopping on opposite sides of it.  Both moved their heads slowly, hoping to peek out.  But small-arms fire erupted, the first they had heard.  They scurried back and sat with Sam.  It wasn’t worth drawing any attention right now, not even pulling the door closed.  The three of them waited in silence as the shooting continued, gunshots occasionally dying down, leaving them in silence for a moment or two, then picking up again. 
Eventually the shooting quieted for longer periods, then stopped altogether.  After about an hour.
As though on an unheard command, people were suddenly running past the restaurant, filling the empty street, silent but panicked and clearly intent on getting as far away from town as possible.  There were more and more of them.  Surreal.
But gunfire began again, clearing the streets once more.
Other lulls followed, each culminating in a rush of people, each ending in renewed shooting.  From where they sat, the three could see just a slice of the street, their longing for a sense of safety frustrating their desire to learn what was going on around them. 
Once they had gained a little confidence, one or the other of the three would creep over to the doorway and look out—only to scurry back when the shooting once more got too close or too frequent. 
Yusef’s uncle eventually rejoined them, from somewhere.  After a time, astonishingly, he asked them if they would like something to eat. 
Paul stared at him.  He said he had a fire going, so why not?  When Paul translated, Sam, to Paul’s additional surprise, nodded, and asked him to get him something.  The uncle disappeared, returning some minutes later with a tray with bread, coffee, and eggs on it.  Paul and Yusef watched, amazed, as Sam made himself a sandwich, cutting bread with a fat Swiss army knife.  Shrugging, the others eventually did the same.  As they ate, they continued to watch the activity outside, sometimes now even daring to stand in the doorway, ducking again back, as was becoming habit, when the shooting started to get loud and too close.
They didn’t talk much, but each noticed that time was allowing their fears to be transformed.  No longer did they want to burrow and hide, though none seemed quite ready to venture into the street.  The uncle had again disappeared, but they didn’t think he would have attempted to leave the compound, either.
It was Yusef who made the first joke.  Paul ducked his head to laugh as Yusef giggled.  He wasn’t sure he should translate it for Sam, but decided he had to.
“Yusef says he’s just learned the new Burkina national anthem.  He hopes he doesn’t have to start on the Malian one now.”
Sam looked at them both for a moment, then laughed, too, setting the others off again.  It was a stupid joke, yes, but….  They started telling other jokes, all as bad as the first, but they laughed anyway.
Every once in a while, something would happen to sober them up again, usually gunfire, unusually close.  A couple of times it was the sound of jets again, though no more explosions followed.
Yusef’s uncle appeared once more.  He watched with them for a while as people continued to race down the street during the lulls.  When firing had died down for a longer period, twenty minutes or so, and the numbers fleeing had been reduced to little more than a trickle, he announced he would ride his Mobylette the short distance down to where the bomb had fallen—when they went to the door and craned to the left, they could see the black smoke of fires it had started—and find out what had happened, how many had been hurt, or killed.  Part of his wife’s family lived down there, he explained.  He had to go; she demanded it.
When he came back, he told them that at least nine were dead, many more hurt, most missing limbs.  From the description, Sam told them that it must have been some sort of anti-personnel bomb that had fallen.  Its fragments had torn through the mud walls of the compounds. 
He had only been allowed in the area, the uncle said, because he was known to the military who were taking care of first aid and transportation of the wounded to the nearby hospital.
Most of the injured and all of the dead were either very old or very young.
And by the way, he said, there are no Malian troops around.  They were safely on the other side of the border.
Though the sound of AK-47’s still recurred, it now rarely sounded close enough to startle them.  Some nervous soldier, they told each other, accidentally firing off a few rounds.  Others would hear, and start shooting, too.  It continued around the town, rising in one place and eventually dying out somewhere far away.  Sometime later, it would start again, from someplace else, and circle around the town again.  But it was nothing like it had been.
Though the number of people running had died down for a time, now more people seemed to take the chance to run toward the bush, to escape town, the gunfire, and the chance of more bombs.  In the relatively longer silences, the street was now constantly packed with men, women, and children, all scurrying from town, on foot, on bicycle, and, now, occasionally on moped or motorcycle, in car, on truck.  More, and then many more.  More than Sam thought could have possibly lived in the town. 
Most carried hurriedly-packed parcels.  All were so silent, so intent that it was almost a shock when a motorized vehicle moved among them, scattering them.  Some lugged chickens or other valuable household items.  Many pulled children after them, or carried them.  As before, as soon as firing started, they would disappear—all except the vehicles, which would then speed up, rocketing around corners as quickly as they could—leaving Sam again wondering where so many could have gone so quickly, until the road filled once more as guns went silent.
Far down the street, just in sight as they stood on the restaurant’s porch, cars and trucks had started lining up—back around the block and out of sight—waiting for gas from the BP station just barely in sight.  Every five minutes or so, some armed official vehicle or other would roar past the others toward the station, certain to demand its prerogative, leaving those in the waiting vehicles, Paul imagined, angry but necessarily silent.  Most, when the line moved, pushed their cars forward, rather than starting them and wasting gas.
Though the crowds leaving town were huge, a surprising number were staying, and many were doing nothing but watching like the trio in the restaurant, heads popping into windows and around doors.  Paul, Sam and Yusef could see them up and down the street.  A few others now came into the restaurant or onto the verandah, purchasing cups of coffee from Yusef’s uncle who seemed happy for the business.  Now that gunfire had stopped for quite some time, one or two were sitting on the curb in front of the restaurant.  Paul, Yusef, and Sam joined them, sitting with their own plastic cups in hand. 
A little later, in a thunder of starters and accelerators, the vehicles waiting for fuel raced and roared away, speeding in every possible direction, each driver seeking to beat the others to some place where fuel could be found at whatever price asked—for the BP station, evidently, had run out of gas.
“Have you ever experienced anything like this before?”  Sam was clutching his coffee cup and staring down the road, which was quiet for the moment.  No one had told a joke for some time, or talked at all.  Watching the intensity, the single-mindedness, on the faces of those fleeing down the road in front of them had taken the last remnants of that away.  It would have seemed like laughing at a funeral procession.
“No.  The worst I have been through was a coup attempt.  That was crazy, and pretty scary, but it was nothing like this.”  That one had merely been military trucks roaring down Ouagadougou streets.  No shooting where he was, no flight.
“Doesn’t it bother you?  I mean, you just seem to keep on like you were before.”
“Nothing else to do, I suppose.  I mean, what can we do?  But, yes, it bothers me.  I guess you just get to a point, around here, where you are well beyond surprise.”
He set down his cup and walked back into the restaurant.
The flight finally seemed over.  Yusef and Paul decided the streets were now safe enough and clear enough for the Americans to follow.  They pushed the moto onto the street.  Paul, now astride the bike, having decided that noise, at this point, wasn’t going to matter, jumped and came down on the kick-starter, the roar of the engine breaking the silence once again dominating the neighborhood.  He motioned for Sam to get on behind him, gunning the engine a bit to smooth the idle.  Over the roar, Sam asked if the Sawadogos were all staying.  Paul answered that most of the family had already left.  Those staying remained only because they had been delegated to protect family property.
“Did they volunteer to stay?”
“I doubt it.  I’m sure Yusef’s grandfather made the decision.  Now, put on your helmet.  We really do have to get out of here.”
They waved back at Yusef.  He stared after them, not moving.
After the first turn, they were stopped by a group from the CDR, not one of them more than twelve, all armed with automatic rifles.  Paul slowed as they came running out of a building, forming a cordon across the street, guns pointed at the Americans.  Carefully, he pulled to a stop in front of them.  They asked who they were and what they were doing, shouting in high, belligerent voices.  Paul and Sam held their passports out to them.
Normally, CDR kids were swanky, proud of their status and their guns.  These were scared.  They wanted to get back inside, where they might be safe from the Malians, more than they wanted to deal with Paul and Sam.  They spent little time over the papers before scurrying back to the safety of their comic books.
It didn’t take long for Paul and Sam to catch up with the crowd heading south.  First they passed ones and twos, then larger groups, then found themselves riding at the side of a gigantic, slow-moving worm of people.  Paul took the motorcycle off the road, for they could move faster over the fields, though the going was bumpy.  They were far enough out from town to be away from the buildings that would make such maneuvering difficult.  He kept them close to the road, though; a motorcycle racing off-road in the middle of a war might prove too tempting a target for a skittish gunman.  Still, with the weight of another person behind him, plus bags and a tool kit, the motorcycle was extremely difficult to manipulate at slow speeds.  So Paul found what paths he could, close to the road, never straying too far from sight of it.  Most of the column of refugees ignored them as they passed, zigging closer for a stretch and then zagging away again. 
The sun glared; Paul stopped for a moment and put his feet down so that he could fit his sunglasses behind his goggles.  His hands were already shaking and numb from the work of keeping the moto up and on track and sweat was dripping down his arms and into his gloves.  Sam, fortunately, was doing what he had been told, staying still on back of the bike, uncomplaining.
Aside from the noises of the engines straining to take people away from town, Paul realized, the day was still and quiet.

[Chapter Sixteen can be found here.]