A short story about a reporter's experience in a war zone.
|No Ordinary Times
The lights flickered brighter and then dimmed as the unreliable electricity coursed through the bar. The thin animated barmaids were nimbly hopping from table to table excitedly informing their intoxicated patrons that as soon as the monsoon waters reached the wall sockets, they would all be electrocuted and burned to ashes. No one listened to squawking doomsayers; we were all too busy trying to drown ourselves in our beer glasses, on these, the last days of our lives. Plus, we all knew that around nine o’clock the winds would suddenly change direction and the swirling dam of water at the front entrance would disappear and the flood waters collecting about our feet would avalanche through the opening. We would numbly watch as another unsuspecting tourist sitting in the wrong chairs near the entrance got washed head-over-heels down the street.
The winds howled names of the dead and whipped debris around in the streets with only occasional high-pitched clashing sounds entering our domain; just aching to let us know the world spun in circles outside of the bar just as we spun in circles inside. The only difference between the two environs; we infrequently spun into one another and relished those indescribable cascades of human flesh gently, but persistently pushing back; the outside, not so much.
Every few minutes, some drunken water-logged soul would gallantly struggle to pull the inner doors open, only to be flung haphazardly across the floor, bumping off of the tables fastened securely to the floors, and coming to a protracted landing in the soft and malleable mass surrounding the bar; each person hanging on to the other for just one more round.
I sat back in the corner; my chair hinged to the floor, and hair plastered to my forehead between eyes as they focused on nothing in particular and then scanned up to the face of the next voyager entering our domain. I was expecting eyes I would recognize, but longing for eyes I would not. The stranger’s eyes were to be those of my replacement. I’d been here long enough and if this storm, the unspeakable proof alcohol, or the defiled water rising menacingly toward the electrical sockets didn’t kill me soon, someone in this godforsaken land surely would.
The war not called a war had been raging for months, and as in any war with no end in sight and no understandable beginning, people lost their fear of death and in many cases, openly courted the long and peaceful rest, buoyed by the prospect that their name would live on played and replayed in horrifyingly graphic details of the dastardly deed which preceded them into death. Of course, the story didn’t need to be true, just told over and over again to any and all who would listen. I should know. I was a listener and a storyteller. I’d met many now dead.
I wasn’t aware my eyes had closed, or for how long, when I felt a light tap on my shoulder. I was roused to a set of eyes born of an angel; my replacement had arrived. He was young, but clearly trained not to stand too close to a stranger in a bar nor even a friend who had had too much whiskey and forgotten the manners that accompanied the clothes of the civilized man.
I rose up to leave, grabbed my throbbing head, fought down some nausea, and motioned for another drink. I planned to celebrate my exit and blot out all memory of how I had ended up on the other side of this soon-to-be-forgotten hellhole.
When I came to this group of islands called a country, it was supposed to be a short visit interviewing a few notable locals, taking some pictures, and stringing together a few abstract rumors of an attempted coup to send back to the boss, and then I was supposed to be out of here and deep in the mish-mash of a civilized city. I thought I’d be done in a few days, or possibly a few weeks at most. I should have known by the stories I was hearing, the pictures I was taking, and even by the stories I was writing, this situation was about to blow up.
I’d barely gotten to know the key players and what they wanted when the first shots were fired. The government reacted with the expected swift severity, quelled a few riots, knocked a few heads, and then things went silent, eerily silent. The next few days were anxious as we waited for the next “tit for tat.” It came and then it went. It was an amazing spectacle of bombs and flares, but soon enough, it dimmed and sputtered to nothingness. I thought after a few weeks of stranded silence, I would surely be summoned home and allowed to join the community of the sane and semi-sane. I didn’t waste too much time trying to figure out who was better off; the sane amongst the insane or vice versa. I longed to be one of the insane.
It’s been a year. I’m still here and I still haven’t succumbed to insanity. I get drunk every night in this bar, write my story at this table, stumble home to sleep in a drunken stupor, and awake at noon the next day to do the same thing.
One evening while waiting for my burgeoning alcoholic buzz to kick in, a group of men, really boys, nonchalantly, but with great purpose, approached my table and asked in incredibly proper English if I would please follow them outside for a chat and maybe a cigarette. I really couldn’t refuse. It wasn’t an option as their question wasn’t really a question. I looked over at my photographer who was happily passed out across the table. Or was he? In any case, attempts to arouse him ended with him pleasantly sprawled on the floor with a smile on his face and drool on his chin. I’ve been jealous of people before, but none so much as now.
When I finally wobbled outside, I was motioned over to an old black Cadillac in excellent condition with tinted windows and shiny chrome rims. I was motioned to sit in the back seat and told to make myself comfortable. I couldn’t even inhale as three men then pushed inside next to me. I held steady, stifling a scream, as I was roughly blind-folded and checked for leaks by waving a gun past my face. I couldn’t see the gun, but I could smell it as it gently waved a breeze of recently being fired in my face. I couldn’t see even if I could see. I fully expected to be taken to the river, shot, and thrown in as teaser to the fish; as though they needed any more food, they’d been fed plenty better than me over the last year. Instead, I was slowly driven around in a counter-clockwise circle for what seemed like hours, but was surely only minutes: it was a small town, after all, with few drivable roads.
When the car finally came to a stop, I was not only completely lost, but a little queasy, as well. If you had asked me why, I’m sure I would have launched into the most incomprehensible babble the world had ever heard; not impressive coming from someone who earned their bread and butter connecting words together.
I was led blind-folded into a bombed out building and walked up an unconscionable number of flights until they walked me into a freshly painted parlor room, sat me in a chair, and closed the door behind me. I thought maybe they were going to kill me here and I silently began a few long forgotten prayers, for I was sure God had forgotten me. I didn’t even try to take my blindfold off and just sat awaiting my fate. Imagine how far I jumped when this voice just began speaking in this low hushed tone. You would have thought I was back at the bar and the water had finally reached the sockets. I had no idea anyone was in the room.
There was a man whispering in the background, but I listened intently as I was instructed by this woman on just what my role was to be in the coming revolution. I was to publish, through my newspaper, the face and cause of these people who wanted to overthrow the government; not an enviable position for a journalist who prided himself on his truthful independence, or at least, on his ability to pick when and if he wanted to lie. I had been reduced to a mouthpiece and I didn’t even speak the language very well, though they could not have possibly known I have an uncanny ability to pick up languages. I was assured I would learn it soon enough, and lo and behold I did.
The next morning I was to contact my newspaper and explain the proposition; either they print this group’s cause or arrange the multiple services over the succeeding months as small plastic bags containing significant parts of me would be delivered to their swanky 5th avenue offices back in New York.
Needless to say, I didn’t sleep very well that night and my buzz had completely abandoned me. I was plagued by the prospect of being cut to pieces, namely cut down to size, for nothing other than being in the wrong place at precisely the right time for somebody else. I also couldn’t rationalize the purpose: how was a published diatribe in a foreign country supposed to help bring down a government? We called it propaganda where I trained, and though it could be powerful, it was most often ignored, not by accident, and purposely by governments world-wide.
It took several calls for my editor to think I was anything other than desperate and quite possibly intoxicated. I was afraid they were going to have to send her an appendage to get her to believe, but all it took was for someone else to speak with her and describe my imminent demise. These fools couldn’t have known my editor sent me over here to be rid of an irreverent troublemaker who she could only tolerate from a concerted distance. She resented the fact that I could string several words together and make a coherent sentence about absolutely nothing at all. Now, through extortion, I had been elevated above mindless and simple to something more complicated; something she couldn’t ignore.
The next afternoon I was introduced to the laundry list of misdeeds perpetuated by a dictatorship which had at first arisen as the first hint of independence from a weak central puppet government thirty years ago. As had happened many times before, the common folk had no inkling how well off they were before their own little Napoleon arose. Now the old harkened for the good old days of ignorant ineptitude or benign cronyism and the young harkened for oblivion or anything other than all they’d ever known.
The singular event continually thrown up was the apparent mass grave found three years ago. The government claimed the grave was made up of victims of a nuclear accident. When it was shown there was no radiation, then the story changed to a chemical accident with the word nuclear being a simple misunderstanding of something lost in translation.
The government claimed the dead needed to be buried quickly to avoid the spread of disease, but the people dictating my fate claimed the dead were made up of all the heroes that had gone missing over the preceding years. I wasn’t convinced since my limited research suggested two things: one, some of these weren’t heroes and two; some of the missing heroes were people who had simply fled the country while the getting was good.
Unfortunately, I was in no position to prove anything and doubted pictures of their heroes alive and well in Florida would be appreciated, just as pictures of the bones from the mass graves were unidentifiable and spoke few truths. My first story was printed on the back pages and quickly disproved by my own newspaper. We were off and running. I expected to be killed at any moment, but suddenly, I was a star; not so much for my stories, but for my plight. Each side of this battle accused the other of propaganda and each side had its believers and its detractors. My stories and the reports generated around them provided ample fodder for each side. I found myself actually having to do some journalism; each error required an explanation.
One night as I pondered my participation in journalistic whoredom, I got a phone call from my editor. We had together gotten several weeks of headlines out of my plight and I thought she was calling to inquire of the next several weeks. Instead, she called to ask how I was doing. I told her I was holding my own, literally. She laughed. She had held mine and let me know she remembered it fondly. We both laughed. We should both have known better. When it ended, I was flat on my back and so was my writing. Now, I was back and in a big way. Our next steps were to figure out how to get me home, and in one piece, not that we would be revisiting the past. It needed to stay where it was, but I could assuredly come home.
During my discussions with my editor, she began asking if I had determined who these revolutionaries were. I admitted I’d been too scared to inquire and the lower level leaders were always masked in our photos, but now that I had picked up the language, I thought I could begin to piece it together.
I began listening for names. I began storing phone calls I overheard in my mind. None of it made any sense for a long time. Then one day, one of the drivers slipped up while answering a call and mentioned the name “Esther.” My editor did a search which I assumed would end up nowhere, but alas, “Esther” was a rare name, indeed, and shared by the daughter of the dictator, himself. Our questions were the quintessential, “did he know and when did he know it?”
I’d never laid eyes on the leaders of this movement, but I had heard their voices. When my editor played a rare recording of Esther over the phone, I knew. Even over the phone her voice was unmistakable. I was prepared to say it was her when another voice came across the recording. It was the revolutionary counsel’s leader’s voice. Now they were identified. Now we had names, voices, and faces. Now, we had more questions. How was it that the two voices of this revolution belonged to the dictator’s own children; his youngest son and daughter? Was this revolution real, and if successful, would anything really change? Or was this just a family squabble? And more importantly, was I still a viable mouthpiece?
With the identity of two of the counsel’s leaders known, the other names came in rapid succession. They were all children of the elite and privileged and all in a position to know certain facts. Could it be the propaganda was truth? We were forced to consider the very real possibility they were telling the truth. Maybe some of the bones in the grave could speak. I asked for a skull and a bone fragment. The skull I had photographed in excruciating detail and with the fragment, all were sent to Rockefeller University. After several weeks, lightening speed for a university, we had our answer. This particular bone did belong to a notable missing person. It was the skull and bones of the dictator’s eldest son who was reportedly in permanent exile in England. Now we had proof, but proof of what? The bullet hole did suggest murder as his form of permanent exile.
The skull provided did suggest that Esther and Sabo wanted their elder brother’s story told, but also suggested they didn’t want to be the source for the story. I decided to write the story as I got it. I’d gotten a skull and bones and had it identified. Either the government would admit to Janjo’s death and investigate the circumstances, or deny his death and somehow produce a living body in his place. There weren’t too many options.
The dictator chose the route least expected; no response at all. We couldn’t figure out why. Suddenly, all went quiet. There were no attacks on or by the rebels. A week after our story ran, two days of mourning were called for Janjo. I was summoned to the official palace for a meeting with the President. I was called on my cell phone and told a car was waiting down stairs. I wasn’t escorted down. There were no armed guards, but I still didn’t feel obliged to refuse.
When I arrived at the palace, not blindfolded or dizzy from driving in circles, I was brought into a room to await his Excellency, the President. When he entered, I was struck by his small stature and humble handshake. He was an unassuming gentleman and asked me to sit in perfect English while at the same time dismissing his staff. As he sat, he looked across the desk at me and smiled a tired smile.
“I didn’t know, but I suspected Janjo was dead,” he said. “I want to thank you for clearing the confusion, however you came across the information.”
I sat quiet. I had not been asked a question and quickly learned I wouldn’t be.
“I have ordered an investigation into his death, but I believe I know what happened.” He smiled again looking directly at me. “The investigation may or may not bear out the truth, but it will be good for us in the end, as all fresh air generally is.”
Then he rose and left. Nothing else was said. An aide walked in and escorted me back to a waiting car which brought me here. I ordered a drink and have been drinking since. And now my replacement is here. The water has receded from the electrical socket, and tomorrow, I go home. I leave with fewer answers than when I arrived.