I had a job once, trying to help people get from situations that bordered on hell – ok they WERE hell – and get them to places where they might try to take a breath and move toward some peace. It is very difficult to describe how humbling it feels to be in the presence of people who have survived such degradation and emerged with such grace. From Auschwitz to Tuol Sleng in Cambodia (where I spent one creepy and emotional afternoon), the world seems littered with the remnants of these violent convulsions that appear to have no basis in rationality. But they were orchestrated by everyday humans. Darfur. Rwanda. Srebrenica. Little Fucking Big Horn. The recent arrest of Ratko Mladic in Serbia and our recent tornadoes here in Massachusetts are to blame for this story:
The Finger of God
I cannot recall how long it has been since these things spilled out of the wind and took our world from us. The terror seems ageless. Memories of laughing children and familial bonds are today nothing more substantial than the faint outlines of a half-remembered fever dream.
We had little warning of the storm. A distant rumble every now and then.
The morning it arrived, my wife Sukarna had been out winnowing rice in the back yard. She screamed and entered the house, pointing West.
I ran to the back door and nearly fainted. I saw an enormous tower of black wind, snaking back and forth across the land. And I could tell – no, I could hear – that inside that tower was endless hate and undoing. There were angry shouts, unintelligible to me, but their meaning clear somehow. Destruction was the only message.
Shouts of warning sounded up and down the village streets. We watched the snaking black wind get closer and closer. Finally, admitting there was no way the storm would pass us by, many of us crowded into the basement of the teachers college, where we peered out the basement windows with growing horror.
As the circle of wind passed over the village, we saw trees pulled completely into the air and then propelled into the faces of neighbors and friends still outside. Little children were ripped from mothers’ arms and sent dashing into concrete walls.
The eye of the storm settled over the teachers college and the storm moved no further. It just continued to churn all around our village. After a while, seeing the storm was unmoving, we climbed out of the basement. A horrible smell pervaded the village. We walked in a daze to the spinning black walls surrounding us.
We were not able to pass through the wind to reach the outside world. We were trapped in the eye of the storm. The smell of dirt was mixed with a coppery stench of rotting blood –there were things longer dead in that wind than just our recent losses. As the wind raged past us, we saw fractured lumber, pig heads and, occasionally, the tortured faces of loved ones. We could only turn away. Move back to the center of the eye and not look anymore into that brown-black swirling.
Looking up through the center of the funnel, we could see only blackness punctuated occasionally with intense flashes of light. Down the funnel came the sounds of rape and torture.
Later that first morning, the things came out of the wind. Black, shapeless things seen only out of the corner of your eye. We kept our eyes lowered in their presence, sensing that to look directly at them was to invite unspeakable pain.
They were black ghosts. They darted and swooshed around our houses and the official buildings. If they ran into you, they knocked you off your feet. But any blows delivered against them found only black mist and shadow. This was the fate of Bao, the butcher. At one point, he charged one of the things, cleaver in hand. His blow sliced the black air only, leaving the cleaver buried in his own right shin. Bao had yelped in pain, but they took him to the teachers college where we heard him scream with more fervor all through that night. Then, all at once, just before dawn, Bao’s awful screaming stopped.
The schoolrooms of the teacher’s college were transformed into torture chambers. People under suspicion (under suspicion of what, we did not know) were taken to these rooms and came out bloodied corpses several days later. What information was gained, and how it was used by the shadow things was a mystery to us.
We are now formed into work groups, each with a specific need to fulfill. I am assigned to firewood collection. Unable to get past the swirling tower and fell trees in the surrounding forest, we have started to dismantle houses for the fires. Of course, we realize we will run out of food soon, being confined to eating only what we can find here in the circle of the storm’s eye. Sukarna, working on a vegetable team, keeps back a small portion for our family to eat a couple of times a week.
The black things seem particularly interested in our children. As the days, weeks, and months inside the storm have passed, it is common for us to wake to find a large group of children sitting before the things, apparently being educated about – or indoctrinated into – a way of being that is so foreign to our traditions we no longer trust our young.
This morning, my youngest son, Preth, is standing in the school compound with one of the black things whispering to him over his shoulder. Now, a small group of children drag Sukarna across the muddy compound. I start to run for her but several teenaged boys wielding machetes block my path.
I’m too far away to hear what is said, but Preth, sounding angry, points at his mother and makes some type of speech. For her part, Sukarna is on her knees, raised palms together. She pleads, but is not heard. Preth withdraws a large wooden club and beats his mother. I scream and struggle against the machete boys, but I am too weak to get through. After Preth throws down the bludgeon, and Sukarna lays motionless before him, I am allowed to run to my dead wife. I pray to our God to deliver us from this nightmare. To descend from the sky, to emerge from the ground, to seep out of the rivers, to stop the twister, and crush the black things. Make them call out in pain for what they have done. I no longer care for my own continued existence. I scream angry words at the black things. I disown Preth and spit at him. I take Sukarna’s broken corpse to the edge of the wind wall, her head rolled away from my chest at the end of her limp neck.
The wind’s roar is deafening. I look back. They are all watching me. Motionless.
I sit down and weep. Sukarna’s corpse splayed at my feet.
At least, sitting out here next to the storm’s wall, I won’t have to listen to the screaming from the teachers college. I do not know why they are allowing me to stay out here.
It does not matter anyway. The old world is over.
This storm can’t stay here forever. Someday it will move on to another village, taking the black things with it.
Will forgetting save us?
Or does salvation lie in never forgetting?
Sukarna’s blood leaks into the ground at my feet.
Image by Mark Rain