The leader dragged his dead right leg like an ogre.
“Pretty, hey?” he said.
“Perleese,” her father pleaded, “perleeese….”
A hand went up her dress: what attractive vulnerability, the leader’s smirk said.
The girl’s chest heaved as her father’s eyes resembled a horse’s escaping a fire. A swat-crack: a blood-jet streamed from her father’s head….
The hammering in of steel tent pegs clanged on like our unfulfilled desires.
Dick’s army experience had given him the credentials to organise the camp’s logistics.
A searchlight painted granite electric-blue. Orange rimmed the horizon, hills featureless; only the big picture remained, details lost in blackening distances.
The paramilitary had placed a pistol against Denusha’s mother’s forehead, a hand placed on her mother’s throat, her mother’s arms flailing like electricity cables. Soldiers had grabbed her mother’s wrists, slapping her mother’s face. Her mother had spat into theirs. Expanding red had looked unnatural – like paint. A soldier had grabbed her mother’s mouth and had said: “Tell that bastard you created that the sperm source that led to his miserable existence has been eliminated.”
Dick surveyed his staff’s work. As tents rose, families moved in.
NVA rocket launchers had sat on a mountain above a river that had flowed by Dick’s barracks in Vietnam. Gun-ships had pounded the mountain. Crack booms with gun-ship fire; heat-shimmer shock waves rushing up the valley, “knocking you back in your seat,” Dick said, “and parting your hair.”
“Did you see much action?” Dick was asked.
Dick nodded, gravely: “Yes, but veterans avoid talking about it. I had to do certain things. But I’ve never done anything I’ve ever been ashamed of.”
The refugee camp’s moonscape was under fluorescent lights. Hyena-like dogs, from the rubbish dump next door, had eyes that glinted hungrily.
The refugees’ possessions were strewn around. Dick barked out orders, forcing families, unbeknown to each other, to live in the same tents.
Clanging mallets upon steel pegs, with arguments and outraged eyes, predominated. Dick told his translator: “Everyone gets the same. Tell them that.”
Denusha’s mother was on a boulder. After her husband’s death, she had been pushed out of the house, her daughter pleading: “Mum – let’s go!”
Blizzard tears had rained. A tank, firing into the house, had left a black hole shaped like a heart.
Dick: “We don’t have enough tents. They have to live with those people whether they like it or not.”
Reassuring stars above suggested that paradise exists.
After leaving the house, Denusha and her mother had gone to the road. Insects had sung in a parallel world. Black birds had flown out of wheat, like Van Gogh. Fifteen kilometres to the border.
A baby with a spike through its back had been against a fence post, its lifeless placidity making it look like a doll. A severed horse’s head had been against a tree trunk, the tree swaying with lugubrious disenchantment. A cart, towed by the horse, had been cut in half, charred cart boards facing upwards. Clothes and cutlery littered the road, a boot squashed flat by a tank. A dog had ripped flesh off a corpse. A sickly stench suggested that bacteria had invaded every molecule.
Denusha’s mother had vomited.
“I’m going to kill myself,” her mother had sobbed.
Tears fell under cold azure. Vomit’s stench had complimented death’s pong. Nature’s ever-flowing hushing had continued as explosions had dissipated into irrelevance under the sun’s raging.
Denusha’s mother’s eyes had become chiselled sharp by terrifying visions. A sound, like an injured bird, being tormented by a cat, had come from her mouth, her crying amplified and ejected by a heaving heart, her daughter having clung to her, tenaciously.
Two hours, Dick thought, and this tent building will be over.
There hadn’t been time for sleep; the refugees had been pouring in for days, urine and faeces on the buses’ floors, people crammed in like cattle going to market.
A man said his wife was “dying”. Dick’s suspicions rose. The wife’s glum eyes were empty, her head bowed.
“What’s wrong with her?” Dick asked.
“Pains,” the man replied, “in the head and stomach. Terrible.”
People lied to stay in the hospital.
“Has she got a long-term illness?” Dick asked.
“Have you got documents proving this?”
“They were burnt in the house!”
“Sorry, the hospital can only deal with people in desperate need.”
A choked exclamation bellowed from the man’s mouth.
These people, Dick thought, will try anything! Even when so many others are suffering!
Denusha had got her mother to stand up, the high sun smothering shadows, like senses floored by overwhelming thoughts.
Denusha’s mother had buried her face into her daughter’s shoulder.
“We’ve got to move, Mum. We can’t stay here.”
Flames had emerged from a barn’s roof. Black rafters had protruded at injured angles. Coiling smoke emerged from windows, thinning into eternity, like disappearing spirits.
Unpunished indiscretions have an immediate poignancy that belies their triviality in time’s magnitude. The house had been their first port of call; but the machine-gunned owners, burning in its doorway, only confirmed that the faint laughter that had reached Denusha and her mother over the land’s frozen crests was death’s chuckling, uncertainty hissing, like reeds, in their heads.
Volcano sweat became tears. A determination to express what she had witnessed had inspired Denusha to pull up her mother and announce: “Let’s get to the border.”
The barrel-coughing guffawing heard over the land’s unreal contentment had been the gunfire that had killed Denusha’s cousins. Rapid gasping sucking mouths had suggested that only oxygen can stop insanity.
Few refugees were now left “to be housed,” Dick already thinking of the reward his staff were going to receive: free beer and yet another opportunity to listen to Dick’s tales of war.
A staff member started arguing with a woman who was “ranting.” Denusha’s mother had grabbed an unwrapped tent.
“Tell her,” Dick said, “that she’s already got a tent, and that there are others, who are just as badly off as she is, who need that tent.”
Greed amazed Dick. Everyone gets the same and that’s that. They should help each other!
Convenient ideas are like mythical characters, iron-clad in manicured morality.
Dick saw Denusha’s mother saying something to the Albanian aid worker.
“What did she say?” he asked.
“She says,” the aid worker replied, “that she’s sorry – that she doesn’t want to cause inconvenience.”
“Good,” Dick replied. “Thank her.”
“I’ll give it back to you later,” the aid worker told her, as Dick thought: She should be ashamed of herself, stealing tents, while others are suffering!
The aid worker had seen the disbelieving hysteria in Denusha’s mother’s eyes. The tent she wanted represented more than just an increase in living standards.
Denusha’s mother’s throat, contracting and expanding, was like an organism of panicked agitation, “that man,” coming from her mouth. “That man….”
A limping man was supposed to be sharing a tent with Denusha and her mother. The iridescent repudiation in Denusha’s mother’s eyes shone with frenzied horror.
“It’s amazing,” Dick said, “how people cheat when everyone is suffering.”
Denusha’s mother screamed when the man dragged his left leg into the tent.
“We can’t share this tent with him,” Denusha told the aid worker. “He looks like the paramilitary who shot my father.”
Her tears were silvery in the artificial light.
“Please, we can’t stay in this tent.”
The man emerged from the tent and said: “All I see is the bastard who shot me and killed my wife and children.”
Denusha’s hands rushed up to her face.
“Everywhere,” the man muttered. “Every fucking where….”
Profile: Kim Farleigh