When and If
Ellen Davis had no choice but to trust Daniel, even after she spied the machete in the back of his SUV. For a week she would rely entirely on his endurance, navigation skills and punctuality. When she approached him in the waiting crowd at the airport in Kigali he clutched a sign with both hands that blasted her last name in giant, red letters. His windbreaker was loose in the sleeves and his feet were clad in newish sneakers, thick blue ones with white soles, the kind her nephew wore for skateboarding.
“Right here,” Ellen said, extending her hand. “Sorry to be so late.”
“It’s okay,” he said. “Welcome to Kigali.”
“Have you been here for hours?” asked Ellen.
“It is no problem,” said Daniel, “no problem at all.”
For an instant, his eyes probed Ellen’s from beneath his wire-framed glasses. A soft spray of crow’s feet indicated he was older than his shoes suggested, forty-five maybe. Perhaps it was the cast of his gaze, the one that descends at some point in early middle age, where experience replaces curiosity, when the anticipation of what’s to come is overtaken by the residue of what’s already happened.
Drivers could be the wild card, the big make-or-break on a trip like this. Ellen only had a week to gather facts for a presentation in London. Daniel would be the key to not wasting any time: knowing the back roads, insinuating their way into tricky situations, and cajoling the improbable, like a gin and tonic out of the hotel bar after it closed. For the next week she would basically move in with him, almost marry the guy, adapt to his dietary needs, deal with his quirks, if he talked too much or not at all, if he was deferential or the opposite. He was working for her, a muzungu – a white person. But they would both, in somewhat equal measure, need each other along the way.
“Shall we collect the rest of your bags?” Daniel asked as he grabbed her carry on before she could protest. Ana, the young consultant who lived in town and had set up her meetings had also hired Daniel.
“He works a lot with foreign journalists,” she had e-mailed. “As drivers go, he’s probably the favorite.”
How unrecognizable it all was from when she was last here, she thought, scanning the closed cafes and jewelry shops on the periphery of the arrivals area. They walked out into the inky near-midnight and the acrid smell of charcoal fires. The stars seemed loose and near enough to be swiped away with a rag. A gust of hot wind snuck under her skirt.
“You must be very tired,” said Daniel as he wheeled her suitcase across the road towards his Landcruiser.
“Yes,” she said. “Dead, actually.”
“Twenty minutes to your hotel,” he said.
“That’s good news,” she said. “We had a long delay in Nairobi.”
By now the alcohol had almost drained from her blood vessels, leaving a familiar vacancy that felt almost like hunger. The flight attendant plunked a mercy vodka on her tray when they were stuck in Kenya. She washed down the second half of her Ambien with it and finally slept.
“It’s seems to be a very long journey,” he said, and hoisted her bag into the storage end of the car. Right then, Ellen caught a glimpse of the widening blade resting on a ratty blanket that bunched in places, exposing the black vinyl covering of the cargo hold. Next to it, she concluded, sat the reasons for the machete: three mesh bags crammed with mangoes, some spilling out, their skins a gauzy palette of greens, oranges and reds.
“Did you pick them yourself?”
“Yes, from the trees in my yard,” he said.
“They smell delicious,” said Ellen, leaning over to inhale the sweet pungency in one elongated breath. As she did, her taste buds were aroused, as if to imply a craving for juice, fruit, the earth, and one small moment of pleasure. “In my country, they’re never as fresh and ripe as these are.”
Daniel had yet to smile, but neither was he dour. He had the tentative stride of a former athlete, but the strength and swiftness of his gestures made him seem like a practiced bodyguard: keys to door, hands to suitcase, suitcase to its blocked-out place. He seemed to complete it all in one sweep, a competent man whose every mission, however small, was executed with precision.
He crossed to the passenger side and halted. “I’ll ride up front with you,” said Ellen. “Also, you don’t need to open the door for me. Thank you, though.”
“What time you need to be picked up tomorrow?” Daniel asked.
She fished for the itinerary in her purse. “We have to be in Ruhangera at noon.”
“About four hours drive,” he said.
She slipped into the hum of the engine, a sensation like sliding into the thickness of a warm pool.
“Seven o’clock then, I will be here.”
“We have a lot of ground to cover this week,” she whispered.
“You are a journalist?” Daniel asked.
“I work for a foundation,” said Ellen, straightening up in the seat and alert again. “A man, actually, who made so much money that now he’s trying to give it all away.”
“What does he want to buy in Rwanda?” he asked. The question was not aggressive but she was used to a tautness in such queries. Ellen knew that the Rwandans could pick their own selves up, thank you very much. They just needed a boost.
“Not buy, like a business. He wants to find things that he can…” she hesitated. Ellen never knew how precisely to explain what she did for the last ten years as the project manager for William Finch’s personal foundation. Even Ellen was unable to cotton how he made billions of dollars, or what-the-Christ was a hedge fund anyway. But she knew his generosity was genuine and that he trusted her, his surrogate, to do his bidding. “Invest in.” Daniel nodded. “Projects that have a promising future.”
From what she could see - hung over, jet lagged, still wearing her moist skin from the plane - Kigali was now a modern city, utterly altered from 1996. The transformation was stunning. Even this late at night, she could discern skyscrapers and BMWs, slick city roads, streetlights and billboards advertising shampoo and mobile phones. “He’s really interested in Rwanda, as lots of Americans are.”
“Because of the troubles?” said Daniel.
She hesitated a beat. “Are you not supposed to say ‘genocide’?” she asked.
“Yes, it’s okay,” said Daniel.
“Yes maybe because of the genocide. But mostly because the government here seems to doing a good job of recovering, and so the outside money will be well-spent.” The emergency fixers and disaster junkies from the UN had long since packed their vehicles and ditched Rwanda to fend for itself, gone to swill whiskey together in some other flyblown spot of earth. This country was putting its pieces back together, so here she was again, after eighteen years.
Back then, Ellen was her own brand of refugee, a nurse from Barnstable, Mass., fleeing as far and illogically as an airplane could allow. Her life had collapsed upon itself through too many miscarriages and, finally, the arrival of a stillborn daughter. A month later the Atlantic swallowed her only brother and his trawler while his haul of fish got tossed back into the sea. She knew she had to bolt from Ted, her husband, and the locked door to the nursery, and the icy fog that encased Cape Cod that winter. She needed deliverance from the drunken sorrow of her mother, already a widow, who had to bury her granddaughter and her boy at either end of the same November. Grief had stained Ellen’s 31-year old life and one day, four Marlboro lights into her morning, she noticed a flyer pinned to the bulletin board in the break room on the pediatrics floor. A Unitarian church group from Boston was sponsoring a humanitarian mission to Rwanda. She had never heard of the place, but they begged for nurses, especially ones who could tend to children.
She arrived there primed for escape but it did not come as she expected. Ellen had never seen corpses turned into landfill, or hatred that lingered like the smoke from cooking pits that curled above ruined backyards all over the city, or makeshift orphanages packed end to end with rickety cots, stained bedclothes and motherless children. Now for the first time she was back in the place that allowed her, at last, to leave Ted and her hometown and the satin-sheathed corpse of her baby lying in the Davis family plot at St. Peter’s parish. The voyage cauterized her own pain and soon, she began to disappear with one relief group after another until her tragic story relinquished its usefulness.
Their SUV pulled into the circular driveway of the hotel. It was past midnight, but a row of black vehicles sat in a row out front, engines idling. She had to yell to hear the woman at reception. A nightclub roared its indecipherable din from the floor below. The marble lobby was lined with mirrors, and Ellen caught a glimpse of herself. Sometimes she could look younger than her forty-nine years, but not tonight. Not in her practical travel skirt, with the tangle of too-blonde hair clipped loosely off her neck. Her face, lit from above, presented an array of folds and shadows that she could swear weren’t there yesterday.
The room was spacious, the linens on the bed were bleached and crisp. Ellen fiddled with the faucet and steaming water surged into the bath. A complimentary bottle of South African wine stood on the desk but she opted for a mini-bar vodka instead, which she carried with her into the tub. She stretched her legs and raised her painted toes out of the water, gripping the edge. “Beach Party” was the shade she’d selected at the manicurist, as if her feet were meant to end up in Ibiza and not Kigali. After her bath, she inserted herself between the covers, felt her body gradually warm the space under the blanket.
At five a.m, the front desk finally sent coffee. Her head was weighty as it always was after a sleepless night and her skin felt leathery and thick, perhaps because the rest of her– her limbs, her hips – were frozen in yesterday, or the day before, and therefore hardly seemed attached to the place where her organs beat and throbbed. It was her favorite time of day. The question of whether she would sleep or not would be off the table for a few hours. As was the anticipation of the little catch in her chest, when her throat would grasp for that first toasty swallow of alcohol sometime after lunch.
Ana was downstairs at 7:00 as planned, and they crossed the lobby to the restaurant, located on a terrace behind the hotel. Palm trees framed the two-level pool, as did jacaranda, dripping with amethyst-hued blossoms, and trees loaded with lemons and avocado.
“Looks like Beverly Hills,” said Ellen.
“They’re trying for sure,” said Ana. “Did you sleep well?”
“Great,” Ellen said. It was pointless to expect a twenty-four year old to fathom Ellen’s churning wakefulness on any given night. “We have a busy week. Thanks for all the advance work.” She buttered a roll and scraped a blob of chocolate-brown honey off the side of a spoon.
“So listen, what’s the deal? Do people talk about the genocide or is it still pretty taboo?”
“Of course people talk about it,” Ana said. “You’re just not supposed to say, “ she looked around her and whispered, “Hutu or Tutsi.”
“What, they’re going to arrest me?” said Ellen.
“Not you,” said Ana. “It’s an entirely different place, even from when I arrived three years ago. But underneath, probably not much has really changed.” Again, the furtive scan around the room.
“Oh, it’s changed,” said Ellen. “Believe me.”
Daniel was outside in the parking circle. Ellen installed herself in front with him. As they drove away from Kigali, they quickly passed into what seemed like a new, poorer country. Within a few miles, the humming city streets gave way to mud roads and tea plantations, countless hues of green that rolled up, down and across the horizon. Her recollections of the mesmerizing landscape began to return in rapid-fire snapshots. Children in plastic shoes lined the road in baggy school uniforms. Women weighted down with jerry cans scaled the steep red-clay hills, or adjusted clumps of unripe bananas on their heads. White sacks bulging with potatoes lay flopped across bicycle handlebars, which men rode uphill with no visible struggle.
They found themselves in the heart of a settlement where traffic was stalled due to a burgeoning crowd. A milk bar, a shop with loaves of bread piled high in the window - all were decked out with violet fabric. A group of women, some with babies strapped to their hips, hoisted banners while people streamed towards a plywood stage on a small clearing by the storefronts.
Daniel negotiated the narrow road, expertly dodging pedestrians in his path, and veered past a hotel, so close Ellen could see the outlines of a few chairs scattered around the darkened lobby. He gestured towards a lanky, stooped man in a dark suit. There was a shriek from the crude speakers, which, when he tapped his fingers on the microphone, squealed louder still. He moved with the same stiff stride as Daniel towards the speaker and fiddled with some controls.
“It is their memorial day,” said Daniel.
Ellen checked her watch while people continued to pack the narrow town center. They were due in Ruhangera in three hours. The man grabbed the microphone from its holster, stood to his full height, and the crowd cheered.
They continued onward, and Daniel slugged water from a bottle. “Was that man from the government?” she asked.
“He is with the Ministry of Culture. Back then he fought with the rebel forces, as everyone did that now serves the President,” he said. “He was from here. His family was killed. He is announcing the construction of a new memorial in the village. Every town is supposed to have one.”
“So this town was…” Ellen hesitated and looked back at Ana, who had headphones on and was transcribing something onto her laptop.
“It was all Tutsi here,” he said, massaging the shoulder closest to her with the fingers of his left hand while he clutched the wheel with his right.
“How many people died there?” asked Ellen.
“Three hundred,” he said. “So, not many for Rwanda.”
“What happened to the bodies?” Ellen regretted her question. She knew. She had been there in the aftermath, changing bandages and sterilizing thermometers. One day she was asked to assist the group of Boston doctors lay out skeletons of the dead. The bodies had been exhumed from mounds of dirt alongside a river so they could be buried.
Daniel waved his arm towards the hills outside. His look of contemplation was eclipsed, with a flick of his brow, by one of distress.
“How do you speak English so well?” Ellen had been prepared to peck away at her spotty French.
“After the war I taught myself.”
“That’s impressive,” she said.
“There was not much else to do.”
At noon, they closed in on a concentration of people and cement at the base of a hill, where women burst from the drabness in dresses of lime green, orange, cherry red. The air smelled of cooking oil and damp earth. The villagers gathered to gawk at the muzungus, and most – especially the children - pointed and laughed. Ellen and Ana waved, shouted greetings, shook hands as they were directed by Marie - the translator whom Ana knew - to the meeting spot, an empty room wedged into a row of vacant shops. Along the way, they crossed over pools of rainwater that flashed with blue reflections of sky. Ellen perched on a table.
She was there to wield her opinion as if it sprang from any reason at all. Finch had resolved to spend the balance of his fortune in struggling backwaters like this, but Ellen’s job – to choose the worthiest projects - was by definition impossible. Sometimes, she could rely only on a moment that carved itself into her with particular force. At the end of the week, she might recall a woman like the one who rose to speak, Immaculata with the don’t-fuck-with-me stare that shifted to wide-open rapture when she cleared her throat to address the pack of women, all with HIV, most contracted from rape those years ago.
“We are grateful for your visit,” she said. “Our request is simple. We need thread and looms and supplies for our designs, and better mobile phones and charging stations to bring our products to market.” She approached a young woman bouncing a baby, and pointed. “My daughter.” Immaculata reached for the infant and balanced her in her forearm. “My granddaughter.”
Ellen discerned how gracefully the woman hopscotched the interlocking realms - urgency, pride and something like disdain for the absolute power of Ellen’s position, a fact they both understood too well. Two ladies appeared at the door, one with bolts of multi-colored cotton, the other lugging a couple of crude stands on which dangled necklaces, headbands and bracelets on two-inch nails. She raised the jewelry up to the window to make it sparkle.
“They’re lovely,” Ellen said and removed a strand of midnight-blue beads, which made her recall a pair of dressy, navy satin heels she once owned, lifetimes ago. She regarded it in her palm as if it were a living thing, a newborn chick that deserved nothing less than the tender gaze. “May I buy this one?”
“They want to give it to you,” said the leader. Ellen was shaken into wondering if the truth of her existence would surprise them. How she drifted from one hotel bar to another sucking down vodka on the rocks – in Port-au-Prince, Juba, Katmandu, El Paso - and flew back to an apartment in Cambridge with a box of stale Earl Gray in the cabinet to remind her of the woman meant to occupy the space she called home. How could they know she could never have a child, or that her family consisted of three people: a soused mother in the family homestead, a sister-in-law and nephew, whom she rarely saw, nearby?
It was 1:00 and the heat bathed Ellen’s shoulders. Maybe this is what it was, she thought, that brought her back time and again to places like this one. She craved this searing sun that melded her skin to the universe, like it did when she was a girl that first fine June day by the bay in Barnstable. There was a moment that arrived each year on Cape Cod when the stench of salt water gave way to the perfume of honeysuckle, and the heat formed a halo over the peonies.
Daniel waited for them with a pile of biscuits wrapped in newspaper and warm rolls from their last stop.
“I’m sorry, I should have brought sandwiches from the hotel,” said Ana.
“I didn’t think of it either,” said Ellen. “We can’t ask Daniel to work all day without eating.” She shrugged. “I’m used to skipping meals.”
“My wife packed a small lunch, and we can share the mangoes if you’re hungry,” said Daniel cheerfully. Sometimes, drivers had huge appetites and ordered four-course meals whenever possible courtesy of the Finch Foundation. Daniel opened the back of the car and removed three ripe fruits and the machete. Ana and Ellen looked at each other uneasily. It was a simple tool, with a primitive shape and plastic handle. But one April night in 1994, it transformed into the instrument of countless tragedies. Like the men who had wielded it, the machete had lost sight of its ordinariness and in so doing, had altered its place in the universe.
Daniel held the mango and slipped the blade smoothly into the skin, onto which trickled a thin river of juice. Then, in one motion, he peeled it and cut the bright orange flesh into six slices, as easily as Ellen might rip apart a clementine. Somehow the fruit stayed loosely attached to the stone. They removed one piece and then another, allowing the nectar to drip over her chin, hands and wrist. Daniel got a large bottle of water from the back seat and poured it on the women’s hands, rinsing them clean. Finally, he dumped what remained in the bottle on the machete, turned the blade over, and wiped it back and forth on his trouser leg to dry.
After the next meeting, they deposited Ana at a provincial bus station. Ellen was relieved. She needed Ana’s help, but not the camaraderie. She didn’t want the younger woman to witness how her head fell back in stolen moments of sleep all day, how lifeless she might appear and how unmasked. She didn’t want to dampen Ana’s fervor. By now, Ellen had seen too many malnourished babies, entire countries full of the geographically unlucky where people died from mosquito bites, civil war and other stupid reasons. She had erected her wall and lived behind it, or tried her damndest.
“How old are you?” he asked, barely audible over the purr of the tires.
Ellen smiled. “You’re not supposed to ask that,” she said. “But I’m 49.”
“How old are your children?”
“I don’t have any,” she said. “I can’t have them, actually.” It was safe territory. Ellen surmised he wouldn’t ask her why she didn’t adopt, or go through the litany of prying questions everyone seemed duty-bound to ask a childless woman who was getting on in years. She ached for the imminent glass of something to smooth the tightening in her neck, and braced for the bromides- it wasn’t meant to be, it was God’s will, some people aren’t meant to have children. They never came.
“Are you married?”
“I was,” Ellen said. “Long time ago.”
Daniel offered a gesture of acknowledgement.
“What about you?” Ellen said. It was an awkward line of questioning for a Rwandan. Who knew what he had lived through? He was somewhat tall and lean, as opposed to short and stout like the Hutu were meant to be, so Ellen guessed he was Tutsi. But it was impossible to discern.
“I’m fifty,” he said.
“I meant, do you have a family?”
“Yes, my wife. She is studying to be a teacher. And two daughters, Grace and Princess.”
“Eight and six.” He beamed.
“You’re lucky,” said Ellen. “Do you have pictures?”
“I’ll bring some tomorrow,” said Daniel. For the remainder of the ride, Ellen floated, waking up for brief moments to see great hills and acres of pasture, banana and coffee plantations speeding by her consciousness. The blazing sky turned pink, and she succumbed to the spell of the highway. She could not remember this place, not exactly, but the landscape enveloped her as if it were an old acquaintance.
On the third day her meetings were clumped together in one area, far in the mountains, so Ana had arranged an overnight in a decent hotel. Daniel was in the parking circle, his shoes tidy as ever, his eyes inscrutable behind his glasses. He often made the same nervous gesture, as if he needed to keep his extremities occupied. First, he gently ran his left a hand over his other bicep, covering his chest with his forearm. Then he would make a fist and splay the fingers on his right hand, out-in-out-in.
He had picked up her lunch from the concierge, two ripe bananas, passion fruit juice, and a sandwich of some sort. Daniel nibbled all day like a bird, munching on a bag of nuts or tearing from a loaf of bread he kept beside him.
“I’m not sure if I’ll ever sleep again,” said Ellen, leaning back into the seat. She felt the sting from an errant drop of sunscreen, too close to her eyes, before she even knew there were tears, only one of which managed to skid to rest on her cheek. “I’m sorry,” she said.
“You’re working too much,” said Daniel.
“You too,’” she said. “Have you always been a driver?”
“I was a farmer,” he said.
His girls now joined them on the road. Daniel had taped their photos under the stereo system. Both wore pigtails. The younger one, Princess, grinned delightedly at whomever took the picture. She seemed to be lit with joy from a secret source of light. Grace wore a white satin dress affixed with lacy frills.
“Daniel, I know you’re not supposed to talk about the genocide, but you see lots of journalists so they must ask a lot of questions.”
“I can talk about it,” he said. She could see his neck grow rigid, as if to gird his stare to the road. He forced a wan smile.
“You know, I was here in 1996,” she said.
“No!” he exclaimed.
“Yes, I’m a nurse. I came with doctors and church people from America. I remember nothing except the clinic and some people, of course.” It smelled like death and Kigali was a cluster of shattered souls. The country and everyone in it was in ruins.
“The war was still going on at that time,” he said. “We have come very far since then.”
“How do you teach your children about what happened here?” Ellen gestured towards the sweet girls in the photos. “I mean,” she hesitated and opened her palm. “Can you tell me what you are?”
Daniel understood her question. “I’m Hutu,” he said. “They say we are all ‘one Rwanda’ now, but that is an hard thing to ask the people of this country.”
“What do your children know?”
“We try to explain. The school tells them that the Hutu killed a million Tutsi, and they are not supposed to know they are Hutu, but they do. Everybody knows. These identities have not just disappeared. And it wasn’t very long ago.”
“Did you lose anyone?”
“My sister was killed, many of my cousins and friends,” he said. “We are tall, and we look rather like Tutsi. I could not count. My father was the first.”
Ellen thought of her teenage nephew, who never knew his father and bore that cross in his own brave fashion. True, her brother’s death was irrational, from a wave that split his boat and sent him under the waters of Nantucket Sound. But at least there was an explanation. A fisherman, in a boat, that sank. It’s sad but not altogether rare in towns peopled with men who, for centuries, have left their rocky coastlines to mine the sea. But here, the horror was infinite, and sorrow drenched the rutted earth.
“How did your sister die?”
“She looks like I do. She was thin and tall, and when the government gave orders to ‘cut down the tall trees’, she was murdered,” he said flatly, as if reciting a grocery list. “It was very bad luck to look this way.” He had, she suspected, voiced this litany of anguish before, with a grief too deep to summon.
There was nothing to say, no comfort or buck-up-ism. Just a space they shared that no empathy, however sincere, could fill.
“She was a teacher and brought her pupils to hide in a church.” Daniel adjusted his glasses from the bridge of his nose. “ You heard these stories when you came here.”
“Yes,” said Ellen. “Did you live in Kigali?”
“We were about a half hour away, near the forest.”
“Is that where you still live?” Ellen asked.
“I live in town,” he said. “The rebels burned my village at the end of the war. Perhaps for the best.”
“You still can’t escape it,” she said.
“Everyone has some sadness,” he said, “which is actually some comfort to know.”
They arrived at another settlement, this one on top of a flowering hill rimmed by a range of mountains. Fig trees dangled fruit above the town, and people mustered on a blackened patch of earth. One after another, they took the floor to present their plans for a cassava farm. Ellen was a deft commander in the art of conveying interest and awe. Her responses were practiced, even clinical, she feared, and she was quick with the back-up tidbits that Ana had slipped into her notes (‘bad flooding last rainy season and widespread dysentery’). Daniel and the leader escorted her as she negotiated departure through the crush of children who clung to bits of Ellen’s blouse.
She shut her eyes to punctuate the sudden quiet in the car. The gesture was the only bulwark against her emotions in a place like this. “Let’s get lunch,” she said. “Do you know anywhere nearby?”
Soon, he led her through a thatched open-air structure to an outdoor table by the water’s edge on the shore of Lake Kivu. The place was filled with the greasy, crackling aroma of roasting chicken and it made Ellen hungry. She slipped off her sneakers and socks, and swished her feet in the sand. The lake spread to the blue-gray horizon, up to the border of the DRC and Uganda, before lapping right here at her pink Beach-Party’d feet.
“It’s as big as an ocean,” said Ellen. “I feel at home here.” Daniel raised his hand and the waiter walked over. “I’d like a Primus to start. Do you want a beer, too?” Ellen always hoped she wouldn’t have to drink alone, even with the man who was driving her on bad roads across Rwanda.
“No thank you.”
Ellen emptied the bottle into the glass. “Do you ever drink alcohol?”
“No, I once did, but not any more,” he said.
“No meat, no beer,” she said. “You’re a virtuous man.”
“No, not virtuous,” he said with a quick eruption of laughter.
“I’m from a family of drinkers,” said Ellen. “I wish I weren’t.”
“It causes bad things to happen,” he said.
“I suppose it does,” she responded.
“During the troubles, the genocidaires were all drunk on banana wine,” he said. “It made them very violent.”
There it was again, raw pain burned every heart. It was too soon for the country to be wholly normal, in spite of the splashy new shopping centers and five star Belgian hotels. Even in this beachside grill, with birds of paradise and wild iris and the sun beating down forcefully enough to cast an amnesiac spell, everywhere were embers.
“How did you survive?” she asked.
“I escaped to the forest,” he said. “For three months.”
“Isn’t this hard to talk about?”
“No. Some people had it worse,” he said. “My friend’s entire family was murdered, right in front of him.” Ellen placed her glass on the table.
“It’s impossible,” she said.
“Can you imagine?” Daniel placed his hands on his lap and looked down. “He was Hutu and his wife was Tutsi. He had two sons, and they were considered Tutsi. They tried to make my friend kill his own family.”
“I….. So what did….”
“He begged them to kill him instead. They sliced him on the arm so he would bleed and made him watch as they….”
Ellen studied his profile as he fixated on the expanse of water. His face softened again, his voice was low and measured.
“Daniel,” she said. Grief descended in its pale, familiar way, like the vapor that forms in March, thick as oatmeal, after a day of melting snow.
“Can you imagine?” he repeated, shaking his head.
“Where’s your friend now?” she asked.
“He tries to get on with things.”
“And the killers?”
“They confessed, went to jail and were released after ten years, like everyone.”
Daniel gazed out, as if whatever hovered in the distance could detach him from the past, or help it make sense.
“Is happiness even possible in this country?” Ellen asked.
He still wore his windbreaker in the bright sun, and as he looked up an electric blue lizard scampered up a palm tree, which shifted slightly from the breeze off the lake. Ellen could only stare out over the shoreline while clutching her glass of beer.
“Yes, but only for those with short memories,” he said. “But everyone is trying.”
Lunch arrived and Ellen forced herself to swallow a mouthful of chicken and a bite of sweet potato. It would have been delicious had she an appetite, but she no longer did. So she shook the sand out of her shoes and they ventured again into the mountains.
In the late afternoon, Daniel dropped her at a plush resort on the shores of the lake, where her arrival was greeted with a flute of champagne. The place was scattered with the palest of souls, aid workers on R & R from the DRC, who sat by the pool hunched over an endless stream of Bloody Mary’s. She chatted up one or two of them, but was too tired to be lured to the bed of the Danish infectious disease doctor, even an attractive one stationed in Gulu. Everyone courted the Finch Foundation, and people were eager for her good graces. She knew how scarce donor money was and Finch had pots of it, so men desired her, even if she knew it wasn’t always for the purest of reasons. Another time she might crave some company, but tonight she needed to try to get a decent night’s sleep.
She lay under her mosquito netting and listened to the waves outside. Above her balcony, she could see the orange volcanic crest of Mount Nyiragongo across the border in the Congo, boiling sparks up into the night. Her head seemed to have the weight of granite, so heavy with exhaustion was it on her pillow.
On the way back to Kigali the following afternoon, Daniel asked, “Would you like to see the most important genocide memorial? It’s about an hour from here. You might find it interesting, since you were here before.”
“I want to go,” Ellen said. “But…”
“It’s okay,” said Daniel. “Some other time.”
They were still deep in the countryside. Ellen’s head fell softly against the window, where it lay for several minutes. When she stirred, she saw the same lush hills, the same scarlet bougainvillea.
“I changed my mind,” she said. “Let’s go.”
“Okay,” he said.
“So,” said Ellen, grabbing a handful of cashews from the paper bag she now shared with her driver. “Tell me more about this friend of yours. Does he work?”
“He works, yes,” he said.
A pile of fat nuts rested in her hand. “He must still be in shock.”
“He lives a quiet life,” he said. “With another wife. She had her own story during that time. Everyone does.”
“Does he have children?”
Daniel turned off the highway onto a dirt road, and they drove under a canopy of jacaranda, whose petals formed a soft purple carpet on the ground. He stopped the Toyota at the gates of a low brick church, where two men stood guard. One asked them to wait as he dialed his cell phone. A woman soon arrived to give Ellen the tour.
The first building, a shed, contained six large burlap bags affixed with hand-written tags.
“Full of bones dug up this week in the corn harvest,” said the guide.
“Twenty years later,” said Ellen.
“Sometimes dogs will find them,” she said.
“And these of course belonged to the children,” she said, pointing to a mildewed pile of textbooks, math exercises, and lined paper filled with homework. “They thought they would be safe, so they brought their lessons with them.”
She thought of Daniel’s sister, the schoolteacher. They were not far from Kigali.
They entered the church, where clothing was stacked in gruesome still-lifes on the benches. In the rear stood rows of deep shelves completely filled with bones. Skulls on the left, limbs in the middle, and on the right, the remaining bits of the human skeleton: pelvis, ribs, vertebrae, feet.
“The majority were killed from grenades,” she said. “After, they came inside and finished off the rest. If you look at the skulls, you can see the three methods. “These people were crushed with clubs,” she said, “And these ones,” she picked up a skull with a single perforation, “were gunshots.” She pointed to one specimen with a four-inch gash. “Farmers are very good with machetes in this country, and everyone has one.” Ellen resisted turning her head towards Daniel, but she could see his shadow in the periphery, at the entrance of the tiny mausoleum.
She handed the skull to Ellen. With the pad of her thumb she traced up and down the elongated void made by the machete and placed it back on the shelf. A nurse, utterly at ease with the desiccated remains of a former human being.
“Twelve hundred died here,” the woman said. “Their personal effects are just as they were found. You can see them over here.”
They walked across the room, accompanied by the squeak of her sneakers on the tiled floor. There was a lipstick and a faded pot of Vaseline, many pair of glasses, identity cards, toothbrushes, empty boxes of biscuits and jars of preserves with moldered labels. Ellen stopped in front of what was once an altar and turned to see Daniel beside her, making the sign of the cross at the racks of remains.
Ellen played with the hem of her t-shirt, turning it over between her thumb and forefinger, as if the action could keep her steady against a storm of anguish when she learned what she already knew.
“Do you think you’ll ever know which bones are your sister’s?”
“No, but I still look,” said Daniel. “You can’t even tell a man from a woman.”
She willed her spinning mind to stop so she could extract another word from the chaos. “Daniel,” she said.
When he turned his head to her, his compassionate expression also disclosed something like relief.
“It wasn’t a friend who lost his family, was it,” she said.
“No,” said Daniel. His voice emerged like a splinter from his throat.
She was descending into the chasm, black as a snowless winter night. She no longer knew if she was a real woman or a phantom listening in to her own unutterable dreams. She had shielded herself from the risks inherent in living a life and thought her heart could never crack again.
“I never told anyone, I mean, like you,” he stated.
“Why did you tell me?” asked Ellen.
“I wanted to. Beyond that, I cannot explain.”
“It was your right shoulder they sliced,” she said. “You are always rubbing it.”
“Yes.” He smiled weakly. “I forgot you are a nurse.”
“You must have a terrible scar,” she said. He nodded once.
Ellen raised her head to the vaulted ceiling. A Catholic church, the only sanctuary she ever knew growing up, and it had failed her too. She genuflected, and crossed herself: finger to forehead, to sternum and then either side of her chest. It was a habit in such a place, as natural as drawing breath.
“Sometimes I see one of the men who killed my family. He was my neighbor. I pass him as if he is a normal stranger. I think he is haunted,” he said. “We all are haunted.”
“Do you believe in God?” she asked.
“God, no. Forgiveness, I suppose yes.”
“I had a daughter,” she whispered. “I named her Charlotte.” Ellen saw herself kissing the baby’s lovely cheeks, adjusting the cap, and holding her robust body through the hospital blanket, as if she were napping and soon to be roused by the need for milk. “I can’t begin to understand.” She wiped her cheeks with both hands. “This or you or anything else in this fucked-up world.”
The two of them drifted outside, to the hard light and cobalt sky. She climbed in while he shifted into gear and cleaned the sweat off his forehead. He started up the car and merged back onto the road. They drove across barely-wet streams, over dense orange soil, past orchards and patches of crisp farmland. She began to recognize the terrain, especially this: a great, sludgy river framed on either side by boulders and roots as thick as tree trunks. A turnoff through a tangle of flowering trees that at one time, at least, led to a small village with a clinic. “Is this the river that goes to Tanzania?” she asked.
“Yes, that’s where it ends up,” he said.
“I know this place,” she said. “I was here before.”
“There is a new health center down that road now. Would you like to see it?”
“No,” she said. “I’m alright.”
In about 200 yards, he veered to a worn patch by the edge of the road. He raised his glasses and with the back of his hand, rubbed the corner of his eyes.
He pulled into the hotel driveway where the staff outside bellowed a welcome to Ellen, another honored white guest investing in the promising future of Rwanda. She patted her head for her sunglasses, but they must have dropped somewhere on her path. Ellen could see the wariness of the bellmen at the sight of her, but she did not conceal that she had been crying.
“Tomorrow,” she said. They stood on the curb and Daniel handed a doorman her canvas bag. Ellen glanced down at her feet and looked up, exhaling loudly. He stood before her. “We start at 8. I’ll see you then.”
“Thank you,” said Daniel as he closed the door of the back seat. She turned to his hunched body and embraced him. He held her, too. It was brief. A pair of worn figures, living with all their might the only life they were ever going to be given. She watched him move, that now-familiar gait of a man who will never leave prison, no matter how full of comfort and beauty his sentence might be. “Get some rest tonight.”
Above the hotel entrance fluttered the ever-present purple banners commemorating the anniversary of the tragedy. It may as well have been yesterday.
Up in her room, Ellen called Ana to cancel dinner, too much work to review, could they have breakfast instead? Then she hung up the phone, and as she did, she stopped to look in the mirror. Her face was a filthy mask of dirt and tears. There she was, the person she knew, alone like everyone else in the world, none of whom had any say about where they were born, if their mother was a Tutsi, a Hutu or a potato famine Irish drunk. She stripped off her clothes, started the water in the tub, swiped a vodka from the mini-bar, and gulped one swallow straight from the bottle. The liquid, so familiar and still so surprising, blanketed her ever so gently. For years now, that second of transformation was the sweetest pleasure her body could know. She screwed the cap on and put the bottle back in the fridge, which she locked with a turn of the key, and descended into the waiting bath.
Her despair dissolved into nothingness, a few grains of soot drifting on the surface. She was buoyant in the salt shallows near Gray’s Beach, when the August sun had finally warmed the ocean clear to the sand bar a hundred yards out. She never thought about it, but she always knew this expanse of sea extended thousands of miles to strange coasts that might welcome her, where people lived and died just as she did. Ellen could swear she was still a teenager, and the reflection off the water seared her shoulders, rendering them the deepest copper. Delicious sunlight. She dug her toes into the packed sand underfoot, and it clumped up to her ankles before the wave broke and set them free. Lord, she was tired. She knew she would sleep tonight. She knew she would sleep until the light poked through the blinds, nudging her towards another morning in Rwanda, another day under that great sun, another day seeking mercy on this relentless earth.