23 August 2014

The Little Boy Who Mattered

The little boy was found on a beach, naked, alone and sick. So sick he just sat there and panted. He was surrounded by a group of onlookers, none of whom wanted to take him home. To touch him could mean signing one's own death warrant. No one wanted to risk it.

To live in a poor part of town in the capital of a country, Liberia, that by many measures is also poor, is perhaps difficulty enough to forge a life. To be placed in a "holding" facility because you are sick, that is doubly difficult. To know that the "holding" facility is not really a care facility, it is to get you off the streets because no one knows what to do with you, is an exercise in cruelty.

It was a miracle and a mystery that the little boy, ten years old by local accounts, managed to get out of the facility the night before it was attacked by an agitated mob who forced a number of the victims to flee the facility. The little boy ended up on the beach where he was found last Wednesday, and witnessed by a pair of photographers covering the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. He had no clothes. He was deathly ill. No one wanted to touch him. 

Someone brought the little boy some clothes, but he was so weak he could not get the shirt over his head. The photographers gave some local women pairs of latex gloves, and the women helped the boy get the shirt on. But still, no one knew what to do with him. Understandably, they did not want to risk catching Ebola, assuming that was the affliction upon the boy.

Later, he was somehow moved to a nearby alleyway. He lay upon a sheet of cast-off cardboard, crumpled in a heap. So ill he could not move. People apparently walked by, eyeing the boy, but for a long time no one moved to help. Under the circumstances, maybe they felt all had been done that could be done.

The boy lay dying. One of the photographers, David Gilkey, took the boy's picture, later saying that the situation was an "evil Catch-22". A better phrase perhaps cannot be found to describe what they witnessed there in that alley. People want to help but they don't know what to do. They do not want to risk getting sick themselves.

By some turn of events, a neighbor took the boy to a local hospital where they had some facility to care for a person sick with Ebola. Fortune turned slightly. There was word that the boy was improving, news that was of no small import in a region so hard hit by a modern plague. Maybe the universe was not such a hard case after all.

But we know different. On August 21st the other photographer, John Moore, spoke with the boy's aunt. She herself and her children were checking into a clinic because they suspected they had contracted the Ebola virus. She told the photographer that the little boy had died of Ebola, as had his mother before him. An unsurprising outcome given the circumstances, we tell ourselves and shrug. 

I told myself the same thing. I could not insulate myself from the effects. I heard the news while driving down the highway in air-conditioned comfort, thousands of miles away from a lonely and sick little boy who died because no one could do enough. I tightened my grip on the steering wheel, choking down the lump in my throat. It is not hard to imagine that he perhaps had no one to mourn his passing. I did not curse the universe, because I know better. I know the futility of such endeavors from direct experience of the worst it has to offer. 

Later, I saw the picture of him in the alley. He had on the red shirt someone had brought him. He was sick, so sick, and I hope he did not die alone. His name was Saah Exco, and he was a little boy who mattered.

19 August 2014

Choir in the Saltgrass

The whirring of crickets is a hymn to nostalgia, droning in my ears as counterpoint to the scent of sun-warmed saltgrass buzzing in my nostrils. Warm breezes curled through the windows, bringing with them a gauzy doze. I could sleep here forever, lost, by the sea.

Summer on the headland is ever a surprise, the shock of the familiar after excess time away. Light takes on crystalline edges, burning out details most of the day. Most of the days, that is, when the downy clouds do not pull themselves over the cerulean bed of the sky, the jade sheets of the sea.

I have no reckoning of my daydream time at the windows facing the sea. That time has passed I can ascertain from the lengthening shadow of the lighter propped up on the sill. A small chromed gnomon serving as ad hoc sundial, the sun gleams from its rounded corners.

The lighter is warmed only by the sunlight. I have not touched it in days except to move it about the cottage. The last cigarette was snuffed out near a week gone. Lungs and heart having ganged up on the mind, the push came in the form of the desiccating heat of summer. It was too hot to fill my lungs with the smoke of burning weeds. 

The effort to acquire more tobacco had lately lost its charm, as well. Town was a short drive or a long walk, and I felt no inclination to do either. Such a journey would require the exchange of human currency. The bank of my soul was far too empty to make those transactions on credit. I had no energy for the.

No, far better to save that energy for something vital, like food or perhaps a quart of stout. Beside, there was no rush out here at the edge of the world swaddled in slow time. The larder was full enough. My pens and journals were laid out on the desk under the windows, the ones facing the sea. The cream-colored pages beckoned to me, some already incised with the calligraphy of my thoughts that seeped sporadically from the depths of my mind. Calligraphy, or crow tracks, depending on how one chose to view the words.

Crows. The thought of the wily birds, feet dipped in ink and skittering across the journals, made me smile. Raucous squawks from a pair of gulls down on the shingle broke my reverie. Perhaps they had read my mind and wanted in on the joke. I took the interruption as a sign that I should get back to work.

Work, such as it is. I turned to adjust the casement. The breeze was softer and slower. I heard the crickets whirr again in a melodic bleat that went on longer than usual. In that short span of seconds I found myself in the backyard of my youth. The sun was high, filtering through the lacy skein of leaves over my head. I was on a blanket. A book lay on my chest, my left thumb somehow acting as bookmark. I was perhaps twelve years old, a book worm, with no idea of the world that lay ahead of me. I drifted back into a cottony nap.

Another squawk from the gulls. A resounding boom and hiss as what must have been a seventh wave pummeled the shore. My feet tingled from a deep vibration that worked its way up through the sand below the plank floor of the cottage. I sat up straight, intensely aware of the afternoon slipping away. Fingers curled reflexively as if to strike the lighter.

"There is no past, there is no future, there is only this now," I muttered to the salt air. The gulls struck out over the deepening green of the waves as I picked up a pen. My hand trembled slightly as I bent my head to write. Sunlight sparkled off the lighter, while below in the saltgrass the crickets sang to me of youth and wisdom.

17 August 2014

Magpie Tales 233: Crossing Waters

Yell Sound, Shetland, 2014, by R.A.D. Stainforth via Magpie Tales

Straps dig in the back
Shift the pack while stomach drops
Thrum of engines, bass in the gut
Gulls wheel and cry tears, 
like those of Ma and Da
when home is left behind

31 July 2014


The Elders released him into the multiverse with fanfare and deep blessings. They sent him forth to become a Creator, just as they had in their own millennia. The formation of stars, new whorls of dust marked his entrance. They noted the spontaneous appearance of sentient life in more than one system. Such a miraculous occurrence had not happened in eons. The Elders marveled at this omen, and wished him well on his new existence.

What they did not do is warn him of the sacrifices he would be required to make, if he was to fulfill his destiny among the fabric of Creation. There was no talk of the pieces of himself he would lose in creating stars, molding planets, blooming life. They did not tell him of the pain. All for the best, the Elders agreed, relying in wisdom that was older than anyone knew.

Pain would speak for itself. Among a field of carbon and proto-stars, in a small galaxy born of his first efforts, he knew loss. It blinded him for a thousand years. What he thought would be a double star of unsurpassed beauty turned into a neutron star orbiting a black hole. He was unprepared for the ferocity of their gravity. They screamed in x-rays, gamma radiation howls mauling the fabric of existence. They lasted only a few beats of his cosmic heart before he lashed out to end their misery.

Among a cloud of diamonds the size of moons, he wept. The pain was beyond imagining. If a creature of energy, of dark matter and light, could be said to have nerves, his were stretched across the infinite. Background radiation, the hiss of hydrogen were rasps across the fibers of his being. He took refuge in the heart of a white dwarf, the spinning of which camouflaged the sound of his suffering.

The Elders watched from afar. From a cocoon of hydrogen gas and ionized iron tinged with copper, they nodded what passed for heads, murmuring to themselves but offering no counsel to their suffering son. They could not. They would not. Such advances would undermine everything they sought to teach. The propagation of the multiverse depended on the understanding at a molecular level of the cost of creation.

His heart bled. Star systems coalesced. Planets came forth from the terrible fires of agony. He let himself slide down a gravity well into the heart of a black hole. White hole of rebirth and a new layer of the cosmos lay before him. Fingers the size of galactic whorls reached out to collect dark matter, light matter, all that became clay under his caresses.

Moon and planets and star systems lay in regal opalescence on the blood-soaked canvas of what could only be called his mind. Energy, diaphanous and pure, yet fragile like the collateral creatures that sometimes came to existence on what they called planets. He would not know 'planets' or 'blue' or 'heart' as they. He was energy. He was Universe and Being, spanning eons and the distance between the Big Bang and the nothingness at the edge of creation.

Still, the ache of shattering loss haunted him. After so many millions of years like hours he felt drained. Too many fragments of himself scattered across the layers of the multiverse. He felt he could give no more. Weariness demanded he rest. Sleep frightened him, from his need of of it and the grinding anxiety of wondering if he would ever awake from it. But he gave in. The upper atmosphere of a gas giant served as blanket. A flock of moons, large and small, served as distraction to lull him into a sleep of ten million years.

In sleep, there were dreams. Solar flares become demons become lovers. In his dreams, he was potter, surgeon and blacksmith. He wielded tools measured in light years. Light grew within him, suffused him bore him out on interstellar winds until he knew not his measure. Something stirred in his core. A metallic brightness filled him with increasing heat. He laughed, and stars were born.

The heat grew. Soporific pleasure slowly transformed into a gnawing pain. He grunted, contracting around the ball of light and pain consuming his insides. His consciousness flickered in and out in a rapid coruscation through so many layers of the universe he lost his bearings.

He screamed. Stars expanded, planets burned. Galaxies reversed their spins. He thought he might die, if energy could be said to have the same failing as mortal flesh. The stars went out, then he awoke.

Yellow-white sunlight warmed his face. It streamed through a large window, eight panes of wavy glass in heavy wood sashes. The striped cotton of the armchair in which he lay was cobalt and white, pure white that reminded him of galactic whorls he once knew, upon which he once fed. Through the glass he could see a wooded valley floored with grass the color of emeralds. He knew that once, too, as the heart of stars. He was not alone.

There was a heaviness in his arms. He cast his gaze downward, shocked by what he was holding. It was a child. A girl child, from the looks of her. It sighed and breathed softly in its sleep. He felt his limbs become heavy, as if he were wearing sodden clothing. A smile stole over his face, and his momentary panic transformed into languid peacefulness. The girl opened her eyes. She studied his face, seeming puzzled but unafraid. She smiled back.

He knew then that he would no longer roam the multiverse, fashioning planets, stars and galaxies out of primordial flux. He would know pain, it was true. But he would know love. He was human now, and the stuff of life was in his heart, his arms and in eyes of purest blue.