author bio

Image for Ken Brosky storyOn the Tenth Day,
I Kept it Down

Ken Brosky

I awakened on January Ninth to the same smell I had woken up to for the past nine days, one that reminded me of fried bacon, the kind that popped and sizzled in its own grease over a warm flame. The kind of meat with just enough fat so that even if you overcooked it, there would be no crunch when you chewed.
           There was a time, not so long ago, when I relished the smell of bacon frying over an open flame, my wet taste buds yearning for the accompanying smell of black coffee to rouse the rest of my body from sleep.
            Not on January Ninth. On January Ninth, I woke up and unzipped the net over my cot so I could reach the bucket in the center of the small tent. The fabric of the tent was a dark color, dyed with dried berries, but still thin enough for the harsh African sun to burn through and ensconce the room in a terrifying bluish glow. This and the smell of burning meat was enough to force bile up my throat and, even though I was still a handful of steps away from the piss bucket, I managed to throw up most of the previous evening’s undigested dinner rather accurately. Over the past nine days, I had become quite a good shot.
            The sound was loud, which was probably what prompted Nigel to come in with a tray and two wooden cups of coffee. He stood next to the open flap of the tent, ducking slightly because he was so tall but not moving until I motioned for him to come closer. He did, ignoring the piss bucket and its new conglomerate of vomit, letting me choose my cup of choice and taking the reserve for himself.
            “Pleasantries aside,” he said in his thick Sudanese-English accent. It was his way of asking permission to speak in a casual, friendly tone. He reserved this tone for few whites, I had noticed with a certain amount of pride.
            “Pleasantries aside,” I said, taking a slow sip of the coffee. It was dark, bold, with earth tones and a hint of chocolate. How many bodies had died on the soil where these beans had been planted? I tried not to think about it.
            “If you do not get help, you are going to die.”
            I looked at him, wondering at first exactly what the hell he was referring to. He motioned to the piss bucket.
            “You’re worried about that?” I asked.
            Nigel shrugged, taking a sip of his own coffee. “Your body is not adapting well, but I spoke with a doctor who said he could provide some medicine.”
            I laughed, perhaps in a somewhat offensive tone because Nigel bristled from his bare shoulders all the way down to his bare stomach. He always walked around without a shirt, opting instead for a simple pair of dark blue pants that clung loosely to his thin legs. Everything about him was thin except for his belly, which protruded like a pregnant woman’s.
            “I’m surrounded by ten thousand refugees in a town surrounded by a thousand militia wielding machetes like cops with batons. There are a million other things I’m worried about right now besides  about of malaria.” I stretched out my legs, taking a deep breath through my mouth to stave off the creeping stomach pains that accompanied the process of retching. “Besides, it’s the smell. Not malaria.”
            “It’s malaria.”
            “Well.” I took another sip of the coffee, keeping it close to my mouth while I inhaled through my nose, taking in only the sweet smell of roasted beans. “I’m still not too worried.”
            “No,” he said, shaking his head with a wry smile. “There is nothing you are worried about. You are careless. You do not care about your health or your safety.”
            “No,” I said, affirming his statement with a rather long sip of the hot coffee, relishing when it burned the back of my throat.
            Nigel stared at me, holding his cup of coffee with his right hand and letting the left play the supporting role. There was little his left hand could do—only two full fingers remained, the thumb and pointer, the rest a mixture of mangled knuckles and burnt-wrinkled skin—and so Nigel had been forced to grow accustomed to it. I had, over the past nine days, wondered more about why he was named Nigel than what had happened to his hand. In Darfur, mutilation was easily explained, and a name like “Nigel” seemed so much more out of place.
            “What is it now?” I asked.
            “A Masalit town,” he said, knowing exactly what I was talking about. The smell. The smell always carried with it the same news; only the victims were different. It was either a Fur village, a Masalit town or a Zaghwa tribe.
            “How far away?”
             “Not far. They will come here soon, I think.”
            “I thought they were already here,” I said. I followed him outside and we stared out over the open expanse of dry desert. Behind us, eight hundred large berry-dyed tents provided by Worldvision were housing ten thousand starving human beings clinging to life by threads, much like many of their extremities that had been hacked recklessly by Janjaweed militia and left to rot off. More would come, fleeing the Masalit town that had been ravaged by the Janjaweed. It was always the same—I had been here nine goddamned days and I already understood everything. Rebels, the government … no one was really on the side of these villages being destroyed.
            In front of us, three Janjaweed stood only a hundred yards away, lazily leaning against their Jeep, rifles following suit next to their feet, feet that were protected from the sun by Nike’s latest fashion. It was unusual for them to have a jeep and not horses; however, being here for nine days had eliminated many misconceptions I originally had about this place. The Janjaweed weren’t just being financed by the Sudanese government—the Janjaweed were the fucking Halliburton of Sudan. Their foot soldiers pillaged and used the money to buy that which they believed to be theirs by birthright.
            “Every day I wake up and I check my body,” Nigel said. He was staring down at his coffee. To even look at them, even from so far away, was a death sentence for a black male. So I stared for the both of us, mustering as much venom as a middle-aged white bastard from America possibly could. If they were threatened by my evil eye, they hid it deceptively well. One of them lit a cigarette, exhaling it with a casual, Hollywood-style whisp.
            “Yeah, well.” I took a sip of my coffee. “That’s just a reflex for you now. They wouldn’t touch a U.N. adviser, would they? That would mean … I don’t know. They wouldn’t do that, right?”
            “Probably not.”
            “I mean, seriously.” I looked up at him. He turned and stared back at me but I could tell it was the three men in his peripheral vision that was capturing his attention. “They won’t harm you for helping me, will they?”
            “Probably not.” He took another sip of his coffee. He was maintaining a level of cool I never could under the circumstances. As a white male, it was assumed I was under some sort of protection. But for the black males, there was no protection.
            “Because I can find someone else,” I said. “Maybe someone from the African Union peacekeeping force. Someone with more protection. You’ve already done so much.”
            “No,” he said, quickly. “I need the money.”
            “I’ll still give you the money.”
            He laughed and turned back to his empty cup. “How many years you spent saving your money, and here you are in the middle of nowhere throwing it all away.”
            “I need to find him,” I said.
            Nigel pursed his lips, such an American thing to do in these situations. I wondered where he had picked that up. “He is probably dead.”
            “Maybe,” I said. I wiped the sweat away from my forehead. It couldn’t have been later than ten in the morning and already the temperature had begun creeping into the high eighties.
            “An aide truck is traveling through Khartoum. They’re picking up an aide worker and then heading to the refugee camp in Kalma. We can hitch a ride.”
            From the window of a plane flying in, the refugee camps look like clusters of American suburbs. From a distance, the pain and hunger and despair blend in with the brown and red tents that hang clumsily from tall desert shrubbery so that they look more like colored European buildings. Nigel always said he could tell the differences between the refugee camps. On the third day I had asked him how, sure he was simply guessing, and he told me it was the color of the sand under the tents, how much blood and tears had been spilled.
            “Fine,” I said. “Whatever gets us there.”
            “He is probably dead,” Nigel said. Over the past few days, as we traveled from camp to camp, he had grown quite fond of being the pessimist. Or realist, as he preferred to call it.
            “If he’s not there,” I said, “then he is dead.”
            A strong wind came past us, hot, reigniting the stench of fried bacon. It came from the north. Two children ran past us, quickly skirting my tent before ducking into the much larger canopies leading to the center of the camp. The boy had a stump where his right arm should have been, and the girl completed the macabre image with an identical, fresher injury on her left arm, so fresh the stump was still bandaged and bleeding through. I took a sip of my coffee, flinching when a third child bumped into me with his crutches. Slowly, he ambled his way behind my tent in the direction of the other children, the mangled remains of his left foot hindering any possible concept of “speed” and cursing him with little more than an awkward limp.

The driver of the jeep was a local, but he wore the insignia of the African Union on his tattered military vest—blue camouflage, the kind used by U.N. peacekeeping forces. His “uniform” seemed to act more like a motley assortment of charms blended together in order to ward off evil forces. He stared ahead, northeast, where there was nothing but dry yellow desert and an imminent threat of danger carried south by the wind that still carried with it the stench of fried meat. He adamantly refused to take us with him, arguing that he could make better time alone, and Nigel argued that he was good with a rifle and could provide help should they require it. The man pointed to his A.U. insignia, saying “Protection, protection” over and over again but relented immediately when I placed the fifty dollar bill on the dashboard.
            “Your funeral,” he said in a thick, booming voice that had a Jamaican twist to it when he pronounced “Your” as “Ya.”
            The driver said nothing as we crossed the open desert. Nigel sat in the passenger seat with the rifle under his feet and I sat in the back of the jeep, clutching the rolling bar with one hand and doing my best to avoid breathing in through my nose. The smell of frying bacon was getting stronger now, with just a hint of mesquite that made my stomach churn.
            When the smell grew too strong, I finally turned my head to watch the burning village come into focus as the jeep drove closer. The driver was heading directly for it, and Nigel had begun speaking one of the native languages low under his breath. The driver ignored him, steering the jeep around the village at the last second and slowing to a crawl to survey the damage. His head scanned the village with precise movements but his eyes darted about frantically, desperately searching for any signs of survival, betraying his businesslike posture and revealing a more personal attachment to the smoldering combination of wood and flesh.
            There was nothing left. Huts—fifteen, from what I could count—were all burnt black, collapsed inward and smoldering. Black smoke jutted up in columns from each one, twisting and turning in the wind like carpet vipers. There was one pile of bodies on the far east side, another on the northern end. Every single twisted, blackened shape was too small to be an adult. Some looked no larger than a loaf of bread. Mangled prepubescent arms reached up for the sky, the bodies of the younger ones—who had only days ago still sucked haplessly from their mother’s dry breast—simply crumpled and twisted inward, resembling dried grapes.
            “We should go,” I said.
            The driver motioned ahead, farther north, where a Humvee sat on the hilly horizon. “Too late.”
            “Turn around,” Nigel said. “Back to the camp. We can try another day.”
            “Too late,” the driver said again. He was looking in his rearview mirror. I turned around and immediately spotted the men on horseback who were now emerging from between the burning huts of the village, through the smoke. Many of them were clutching handfuls of objects—cloth, small boxes, possessions meaningless to all but their owners—that had been inside the huts. They cared little for the smoldering flames all around, stepping carelessly over the coals and adjusting their balance to ensure none of the valuables were dropped.
            “Let the white one talk,” Nigel said, holding one hand out to calm the driver whose hands had begun to shake on the steering wheel.
            The black Humvee sat and the men stood patiently in front of it, not bothering to lift their rifles as the jeep made its way toward them. They were just teenagers, all smiling, confident because they had us surrounded and also they were high on something, maybe weed or something worse. Their teeth were blindingly white.
            The driver stopped the car and we watched the three teenagers approach. One of them was much taller, older by maybe a year or so, made evident by his curly patches of dark facial hair. He had designated himself the leader, and spoke in Arabic to the driver. The driver didn’t respond, so the boy turned to me, still smiling, the sun reflecting off of each pearl tooth.
            “Where you going, son?” he asked.
            “Khartoum,” I said.
            “Why?” he asked.
            “To pick up an aide worker.” The boy relayed this information in Arabic to his compatriots, who laughed.
            He turned back to me, still smiling. “We will take the niggers, son.”
            “The niggers are mine,” I said.
            His smile faded, however slightly. “Not a request.”
            “I know,” I said. “But they’re under orders from the African Union to pick up the aide worker. Without them, I won’t be able to find the aide worker.” I spoke slowly, making sure to emphasize the A.U. to make sure any weight the name still carried would sink through the haze created by whatever drug the teenager had most recently consumed.
            “No niggers allowed on my land,” he said, gesturing in the direction of the burning huts.
            “I’m under orders,” I said. “I’m also under orders to pay if necessary.”
            The teenager’s eyes brightened. A mercenary, through and through, just like all the rest. Only their leaders had the government’s money. Only their leaders made the purchases and the Janjaweed militias survived by razing and looting. But money. To hold it in one’s hand and hold access to the richest parts of the country … that was something else entirely. Money came before the ethnic cleansing, before God Himself. These boys had murdered and raped and pillaged, but they recognized and respected the weight an American dollar carried in such a despotic country.
            “What you got, son?”
            I pulled off the fake Rolex I had purchased from a street vendor during my layover in Barcelona. “This,” I said.
            He grabbed it, looked at it and slid it over his wrist. It hung loosely around the bony flesh. “Don’t fit, son,” he said.
            I reached into my pocket again and pulled out a hundred dollar bill. My palms were sweaty but my hand did not shake when I reached out to give it to the boy. I felt a sense of calm perhaps associated with being a white male in such a dark land, although in retrospect it most likely was a heatstroke. “There,” I said.
            He looked at it, holding it up for his companions who cheered and said something in Arabic. Then he turned back to me, his smile faded completely. “More, son.”
            The remaining bills of U.S. currency burned against my thigh. “No more until we reach Khartoum. You’ll be our escort.”
            His smile returned. “How much more?”
            “Two hundred,” I said. “But I can’t pay you until we reach a bank in Khartoum.”
            “Deal, son.” He stuck one long, bony finger in my face. “But if you lie, we kill all three of you in the street, while everyone watches.”
            “Understood,” I said gently, laying on a quiet tone of respect that he seemed to immediately recognize. The boy smiled and turned back to his companions. Without saying a word, they jumped into the Humvee and started the engine.
            “They probably wouldn’t have done anything,” the driver said, pulling along behind the Humvee and matching its speed. “I have this,” and he pointed to his A.U. insignia again.
            Nigel snorted loudly.

We arrived in Khartoum and the teens escorted us through a busy street to the nearest bank. It stood out in the large city only because it was so run down, its sandy brown exterior stained with running lines of dirty water and the glass covered in metal bars. Everything else was thriving, like the downtown of Boston or maybe even Washington. On the other side of the street, a coffee shop, internet bar and restaurant sat together on the first floor of large buildings that were not quite skyscrapers. Parked alongside the roads were Mercedes Benzes, all varying shades of black. On the sides of the buildings, satellite dishes hung, patiently facing the sky..
            The teenagers followed me up the stairs of the bank to the small familiar-looking machine that would not accept my check card even if I wanted. Behind me, I could hear the boys lighting fresh cigarettes regardless of Islamic law. I pretended to use the ATM, reaching into my pocket for my wallet and the other hundred dollar bills, aware that the driver and Nigel had already left the scene and blended into the cityscape as planned.
            I turned and handed the leader two more crisp hundred dollar bills. They had left their guns in the Humvee but not their smiles.
            “Now we take the niggers,” he said.
            “Go head,” I said. “They’re not my problem anymore.”
            The boys turned, looked down one direction of the street, then the other. A Jeep would have been easy to spot, standing out against the backdrop of Benzes and BMW’s. It was not in sight, and the boys, having made enough profit for the day, shrugged with indifference and got back into their Humvee. They followed the road leading south out of the city.
            I turned and started walking down the street, passing first the internet café and then a Mercedez Benz dealership. Everyone, each with a varying shade of brown to their skin, walked up and down the sidewalk with expensive-looking dress clothes and tiny cell phones. Some were white, but not many. I continued down the next street, walking slowly and keeping lookout for Nigel and the Jeep. I took in the scenery and the more I took in, the more I hated everyone here. I wanted to scream to them at the top of my lungs, force them to turn their attention southwest, to the pillars of black smoke still visible on the dusty yellow horizon.
            Before my anger could boil over, the jeep pulled along the side of the road. There was a white man sitting in the back, young with thinning black hair and a goofy-looking safari outfit that had already been soaked through with sweat. He smiled when I got in and sat down beside him. The jeep merged back into the traffic of luxury cars, heading west through the city.
            “You must be Dave,” the man said, extending a hand. “I’m Teddy.”
            “Teddy,” I said, shaking his hand once. “Cute name.”
            “Yes,” he said with a smile. “Just like the bear! It was a nickname I picked up in the States that I never quite liked. But everyone else did, and I suppose it’s grown on me. I thought it would be nice to introduce myself as such here, to maintain a more brotherly feel.”
            I heard Nigel laugh from the front seat.
            “This is quite exciting,” Teddy said. “I hear you’re on a quest of sorts.”
            I grunted. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the Mercedez dealership that was slowly disappearing into the background of the city. I tried to imagine one of the men at the refugee camps sitting inside one of those black, polished SUV’s, flies sticking to the open wounds on his skin while one useless limb fumbled desperately with the gear shift and/or clutch pedal.
            “I’m looking for someone,” I said finally.
            “A boy, yes.” Teddy wiped the sweat away from his forehead. “Nigel told me as much. Malachi, right?”
            I nodded.
            “Must have met a few by that name here, I would guess.”
            The jeep jumped slightly as the concrete road of the city receded into gravel. The buildings, the internet cafes and Italian restaurants and oil dealers and businessmen all faded into the horizon quickly now as the sun cast a haze over the desert, obscuring time and distance into one blurred, soupy discharge of brown-and-yellow.
            “I have a picture,” I said. “And I know the village he belonged to. It helps.”
            “Can I see it?”
            I pulled out the picture, handing it to him. He looked at it and, perhaps on instinct, turned it over. There was writing, scribbled in blue ink, a handful of sentences that were burned inside my brain and would remain there for the rest of my life. They put a person behind the face in the picture. They were the reason I was here, why I had dropped my investments and flown over here to the middle of nowhere upon receiving a call from the adopt-a-child program that “my child” had gone missing and, sorry, he was probably dead, used for kindling and left for the vultures who had begun to develop a taste for barbeque. I hadn’t thought about it immediately, not until I received the letter that must have been sent before Malachi’s village had been attacked.
            “My life is such that I want see my parents smile,” Teddy read aloud. The words bit into my soul. “I want see peace in Darfur, if God accept. Thank you.” He handed the picture back to me. “Sweet kid. He mentions God … is he a Christian?”
            I was taken aback by the question, the way he worded it as if there was no other answer other than Yes. “I would assume he’s Muslim. Most tribes in the region are.”
            “Oh.” Teddy slumped down, thought a moment, then craned his neck in Nigel’s direction. “Are you a Christian, Nigel?”
            “No,” the man said matter-of-factly.
            “Do you believe in God?”
            “Of course,” Nigel said. “How could I not when we are sitting in the center of Hell?” He glanced back at me, raising an eyebrow and we both laughed. I felt like we were brothers, like we had known each other all our lives and right there I wanted to empty my bank account and give everything to him, to send him to Europe and have sex with every woman he possibly could to keep his family name alive, to pass his story down to new generations that would spread across the globe and never let this happen again. Maybe, even, he would mention me in his story, and would refer to me as “Friend.”

We arrived in the refugee camp in Kalma, which looked exactly like every other refugee camp. Almost as an ominous signal of our arrival, two Sudanese jets flew overhead, causing the crowd of thin black bodies gathered around the aide tent to scramble in panic, back to the center of the camp where safety was more than a whisper. No one ran—rather, they hobbled, limped or dragged one twisted, thin black limb. No one ran.
            “Not good for the Teddy Bear,” Nigel said. “These are mostly Fur tribes, and they believe in portents and signs. His coming with the jets flying overhead will mean he is cursed and they will not touch him.”
            “We need firewood,” Teddy said to the three other plain-dressed aide workers huddled in front of the crowd of incomplete bodies. “We need a couple of strong men from the camp to gather firewood so we can cook hot food.”
           “They’ll kill them,” said the female aide worker—Sarah, I think her name was. She wore a pair of jeans and thin white T-shirt through which her bra had become visible after being soaked through with sweat. She was holding a small, rail-thin baby swaddled in cloth that had either been dyed red or was wet with blood. “The Janjaweed kill any of the men if they leave the confines of the camp.”
           “Then we’ll send a few able-bodied women,” he said, holding onto his Jesus-like tone of authority.
           “They rape the women,” Sarah said. “Sometimes worse.”
           “We need peacekeepers to protect them,” he said, his authoritarian voice cracking slightly. It was hard to watch, and yet I couldn’t turn away.
           “There are none,” the aide worker said.
           Teddy exhaled, deflating in the process. “Then what do you do?”
           “We don’t do anything,” Sarah said. “Sometimes the women volunteer.”
           I turned back to Nigel, who couldn’t collect himself quickly enough to hide the pain that the conversation had caused. The mention of the rape, of the humiliation and disgrace endured by wives who went out to scavenge affected him on a level that I could only assume was personal and that was all I needed to know—he was my friend and bringing up the subject to learn more would accomplish nothing.
           “Are you ready?” he asked. I nodded and we traveled deeper into the camp, past the huddles of half-starved bodies lying outside of the tents waiting for food rations, through the medical tents where European doctors dealt with amputees on a level so high that they kept large plastic bags to collect the useless limbs. The entire camp had the smell of clotted blood sutured to its proverbial skin.

At dusk, I began setting up the mosquito net over my cot while Nigel brought in a fresh bucket of warm water for me to wash. As always, he opted to stay closer to the center of the camp where it was safer for the dark-skinned men.
            “I am sorry,” he said. It was the fifth time he had apologized.
            “It was a long shot,” I said. I finished setting up the net and turned to him. In the dimming light, he looked like a shadow clinging to the fabric wall of the tent. “What do we do now?”
            Nigel shrugged. “Tomorrow morning, we will drink our coffee, and then you will leave this place.”
            “I can’t leave this place.” I opened my mouth to say more, but was unable to present any words that would adequately describe what I was feeling.
            He nodded, understanding without further explanation. “We will drink our coffee then, and see what help we can provide.”
            I nodded and watched him leave. Through the tent, I could hear Teddy’s voice directing orders to the other aide workers. He was speaking of Christ, of the power of salvation in a dark land where salvation was little more than a pipe dream. Even the people from Worldvision weren’t that stupid, and here was this young man who trusted in Jesus to drive away the Janjaweed.

I didn’t wake up until the sun was directly overhead, burning through the thin purple fabric. The stench of frying bacon hit my nose immediately and I ripped through the mosquito net to reach the piss bucket in time. Only this time, on the tenth day, I finally held it down. I fought back the urge to vomit, widening my eyes and staring hard at the dry ground, trying not to put images to the smell sifting through my nostrils. I could do it. The human body, it could get used to anything, even the scent of its own kind catching flames.
            Teddy walked through the tent, his hair disheveled and his boxers askew. He stretched, nodded in my direction and smiled. “Upset stomach?”
            “No,” I said, righting myself and slowly getting to my feet. “I’m fine.”
            “I don’t see how you couldn’t be,” he said, still smiling. “Do you smell that? Breakfast is ready.”
            Sarah rushed into the tent, throwing aside the fabric flaps with a wild sweeping motion. She looked at me, then Teddy, then turned back to me. “There’s been an attack.”
            “What?” Teddy said, his mouth agape.
            Sarah glanced at him, then turned back to me. “They came last night and took an entire tent. The women were raped.”
            “What about the men?” Teddy asked, grabbing her shoulder and forcing her to turn back to him. Her body turned, but her head remained in my direction.
            “They killed the men,” she said. “And burned them in front of the aide tent.”
            Teddy fell back.
            Sarah continued to stare at me, piercing my soul with ocean blue eyes that were pleading for some sort of response, a reassurance. My thoughts were only on Nigel, on the fact that he had not arrived with coffee.
            “Oh God,” Teddy said, holding his nose. He gagged once, took two steps toward the piss bucket. His knees buckled and he fell over, spewing vomit across the sandy ground.
            Ten days ago, the smell of frying meat made me hungry.

Author Bio

Ken BroskyKen Brosky's first short-story collection, Leaving Dodge County, will be available next year courtesy of Brown Paper Publishing. He is also an award-winning short-story author with close to a dozen publications.

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