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Children Of Death
© 2011 Jess Mowry
“I would not want to see a child of Death!”
"Huh?" said Nate, not sure he’d heard right.
The man went on, “I find little skeletons frightening, as if they might get up to play.”
Nate struggled to come back to life, or at least reenter the land of the living. He had been lost in a book, which sometimes seemed a better place than to be “found” in the real world. He wondered where the man could have seen a lot of little skeletons, but then he remembered where he was.
The man was as black as himself. His tattered blue work shirt was open, displaying a chest like obsidian bricks and a stomach like ripples of ebony stone. Like the four other people aboard the old bus, he was covered with dust and painfully poor. His trousers were patched in several places -- you only saw that in cartoons and in Haiti -- and Nate noticed now he was barefoot. There was nothing strange about that, though Nate could have sworn he'd been wearing old sneaks when he'd boarded the bus in Cap Haitien. But, maybe he'd just worn his shoes in the city to prove he actually owned a pair? At his side was a cheap little travel tote, a child's souvenir from Disney World that featured a smiling Mickey Mouse dressed as The Sorcerer's Apprentice.
“Children Of Death," added the man, obviously reading the book’s tarnished title in gold upon a black leather cover. "That could describe the children of Haiti where far too many seem destined to die.”
It took Nate a moment to realize that the man was speaking English, and then he had to think for a second to translate his own reply... which was weird. The words sounded almost strange to his ears, the first in English he'd spoken all day. "It's just a collection old ghost stories.”
"But about young ghosts?” asked the man.
Nate tried to come out of a moonlit graveyard where memories lingered of shadows and teeth. He hadn't been sleeping well for weeks so sometimes he wasn’t sure what was real. From what he'd learned of Haiti so far, few of the poor could even read French, and most spoke only Kreyol. It had been a daily struggle for him just finding rooms and a meal now and then with only the English he spoke, and to meet someone here on a bus in these mountains who not only spoke English but read it, too, should have made him feel less lonely. But, a lifetime spent in the West Oakland projects didn’t leave you much faith in the kindness of strangers, especially strangers you met on a bus who toted gleaming machetes.
Nate told himself this wasn't a dream, that he wasn't cursed or under a spell, and this wild-looking, barefooted dust-covered man wasn't a zonbi out of a grave.
Nate wasn't dressed in dope himself; his jeans were showing skin at the knees and their cuffs were in ribbons like zonbi rags. His Nikes were worn almost smooth on their soles, and his grimy wife-beater was soaked with sweat. He hadn't been trying to look like a street-kid, a typical Haitian ri-timoun, but he seemed to fit naturally into that role, and it saved him from curious questions.
Like, what in hell was he doing here?
This morning he'd stood in his guest house room -- rough concrete walls, and a single small window overlooking an ocean of rusty tin roofs -- and scanned himself in a chunk of mirror. He didn’t look different from most Haitian boys, small for his age by American standards, as black as midnight, slenderly-boned, and casually careless of posture. His face had a rounded unfinished look of being somewhere between boy and man, with a wide snubby nose and large bright eyes below a scruffy bush of hair. His front teeth were usually on display, and his full lips always pouted at rest. His chest was compact though well defined, but at age seventeen his body was still like a younger boy’s with hands and feet a little too large, and there was graceful sway to his back, which, combined with a prominent tummy, gave him the look of a older child instead of a young adult.
Low-riding jeans were his natural style on narrow hips and a slender behind, and usually showing a lot of skin between their tops and the tails of his shirts. Haitian heat and boxer shorts hadn’t been a compatible mix, and boys of the slums didn't often wear drawers... at least not under anything. Yet even a ri-timoun had style, and he'd bought a floppy old blue denim cap in a second-hand stall at a market. A Jamaican creation for crowning dreadlocks, it kept slipping comically over his eyes, which in his dark face were alarmingly amber and often seemed to startle people.
Dressed this way in Oakland he would have looked like a fool, a Buckwheat betrayer of everything "Black" -- or at least what was currently cool this week -- but here he was simply poor and proud, and the only curious looks he got were from people who found that he couldn't speak Kreyol.
He’d been trying hard to learn, but to learn anything you needed a teacher, and that brought it back to his childhood and all the dissing he'd gotten from people for being a little different. But, Haiti had been like shock therapy; it was hard to stay shy in the shantytown where everyone seemed to touch when they talked and hugs among males were as normal as breathing. Still, a lifetime of being on guard couldn't be laid to rest in a week.
The children had been his best companions, seemingly attracted to him like younger kids had always been, and none were suspicious of strangers here... or maybe not strangers who looked like them. But the words and phrases they'd given to Nate were seasoned by salty timoun patois and sassily peppered with little-kid curses. He knew seven dirty words for his dick, but not how to ask for directions or order a meal in most cafes without pointing to somebody else's plate.
Now, aboard this battered old bus, grinding along a narrow dirt road through patches of green-lit forest at times while steadily climbing a mountainside, Nate met the eyes of the dusty young man, who was really no shabbier than himself, and tried to offer a friendly smile from under the shade of his oversized cap. "I guess little skeletons would be scary. ...Or sad to see, anyway.” He closed the book and lay it down on the tattered canvas seat.
The man cocked his head as Nate spoke. "I thought you were Americain noir. I wondered why someone would read about death in a land where so many die young.” He studied Nate for a moment, maybe noting the necklace of amber beads and bits of bone on Nate’s sweaty chest. "Are you interested in Voodoo?" he asked. "Would you like to attend a ceremony? For twenty dollars... or perhaps less... it can be arranged. We have a powerful oungan... a priest... in our village.”
Nate had gotten many such offers... at least before going native. "My aunt believed in Voodoo," he said. "So I know a little about it. She never stuck pins in a doll, or called up a zonbi or nothin' like that, but she always burned a candle for Esu." He paused to picture his aunt in his mind and say he was sorry again.
"But," he went on, "She never tried to make me believe, an' I never been much into any religion no matter what flavor it is.”
Again the man cocked his head. "Have you never felt that believing in something can put you at peace in life?”
"I don't know what to believe," said Nate. "An’ it's hard to believe in somethin’ good when you see all this suffering.” He gestured toward a window, though there was nothing but forest outside. “Hungry kids without no homes, livin' in boxes an' piles of junk. An' there don't seem to be any way to help.”
"Alas, my young friend, one cannot save the world.”
"I know,” sighed Nate. “But, it seems like you oughta try an' save something . ...Somebody, somewhere, an' sometime.”
The man smiled. "You cannot say that in English.”
"Huh?" asked Nate.
"I know what you wanted to say,” said the man. “But, in English the heart is not in the words, and so they sound foolish or insincere. It is enfants perdus to say it in French. Or, timoun nan danje in Kreyol, meaning both a lost child and a lost cause. The child in danger. The child who lives by the mercy of Death. And nothing, as you say, can be done.”
Nate frowned a little. "You think tryin' to save kids is foolish?”
"Non, my young friend. To care about children is noble and right, as all good religions say. But English is too stark and precise. The heart, as I said, is not in the words, and people become the language they speak. ...English is like a photograph; someone took a picture of something, and so it must be what it looks like. But Kreyol is more like a portrait; you must understand both the art and the artist to know what he was trying to say." Again, the man smiled. "But here I understand the artist, and I do not think he is foolish.”
"I think I see what you sayin',” said Nate. “Um, 'scuse me, but, how come you speak English?”
The man sighed, a soft but sadly audible sound above the rattle and squeak of the bus. "I lived in America for almost a year. I was seeking political asylum there. Your government called me 'boat people,’ arriving with nothing but hope in my heart and the dream of building a better life. But, though I worked hard every day, and studied English at night, I was sent back here again. They said I was only an 'economic refugee,’ and there is no refuge from poverty." He touched his gleaming machete. “And so I cut sugar cane once more. For maybe one dollar a day.”
"...Oh," said Nate. “I’m sorry.”
"When I can," the man went on. "For it is a dying industry here. More and more Haiti’s land must be used by the poor to grow food." He waved the huge knife as if testing its balance. "This is why I went to the city. ...I do not like cities. But, to do a good job, one must have good tools, and I will do nothing badly." He offered the blade, handle-first, to Nate.
The weapon -- tool -- felt good in Nate's hand. He'd never held a machete before but was suddenly sure he could swing it... like the Grim Reaper’s scythe. He probably should have bought one himself, the poor man’s protection in Haiti. "Cool," he said, handing it back. "But, how can you still believe in somethin’ after you went through all that shit?”
The man's eyes warmed. "I have a son. And every child born is a wish from God that the world will go on. Look into the eyes of a child, and you will find something good to believe.”
"I get that feeling, too,” agreed Nate. “But, it's hard to say in English, ain't it?”
"How old is your son?”
"Seven. I love reading to him, watching his eyes make portraits from words. But I cannot afford to buy books.”
Nate thought for a moment then offered his book. "Here, my friend... um, mwen zanmi. Take it. Please... um, plé kontante. It's spooky stuff a kid would like, but I only brought it to read on the plane.”
Part of that was a lie: Nate had found the book in a Dumpster when he'd been about thirteen. The stories had given him nightmarish dreams of moonlit graveyards and shadows with teeth, which had naturally made them exciting. But now he knew all the stories by heart, and it suddenly seemed like a gift from the heart to this ragged man in a hungry land where owning a book was a luxury.
"Thank you, mwen fré, my brother." The man put the book in his Mickey Mouse tote, then offered his hand across the aisle. "I am Tristan Durrant.”
Nate gripped the dusty, work-hardened hand. "Nate Brown.”
"That is surely an American name.”
"Well... it's the one my aunt gave me. ...I never knew my parents." Nate might have said more, but it seemed a lot to explain on a bus. Or maybe in English.
Tristan reached out and touched Nate’s arm, which somehow said enough. "Are you going to see the Citadelle? There are many old ruins here in these mountains, but we Haitians call the Citadelle the eighth wonder of the world. Its walls are almost 120 feet high and twelve feet thick. It was built between 1805 and 1820 by King Henri Christophe to stop any attempt at reinvasion by the French. More than 20,000 free black people worked to build it.”
The bus jolted over a hole in the road and dust billowed in through the glassless windows. The cap slipped over Nate's eyes again for maybe the hundredth time that day. He pushed it up a little. "I ain't really a tourist.”
"I had wondered,” said Tristan, seeming to study Nate again. “There is something very... not tourist about you." He glanced at the pack on the floor at Nate’s feet. "But, of course I did not think you smuggled drugs." Then he added diplomatically, "Though some say it is better than starving to death.”
"I ain't no drug-dealer," said Nate. "Maybe, technically, I am a tourist. That's what I had to put on my papers. I just don't feel like one." He glanced down at himself... his ragged old jeans, his big battered sneaks, his sweaty shirt baring his big childish belly. "Do I look different here, too?”
Tristan laughed. "A ri-timoun of the city traveling into these lonely mountains is not a thing you often see. It is usually the opposite.”
Nate laughed, too. "Believe it or not, I don't look much different anywhere else.”
"I have no trouble believing you. Your clothes are too comfortably worn. What gave you away as American was that you could sit there for such a long time and not say a word to anyone.”
"I always been kinda shy.”
"Haitians would rather laugh with you than at you. But, how do you mean this 'different?’ If not for your unnatural silence and eyes always hidden under your cap, I would never have guessed you were not born here.”
Nate suddenly wanted to talk, but only smiled and said: "An’ you sound more like a tour guide than a sugar cane cutter.”
The four other people had smiled at their laughter -- two women, a girl of about Nate’s age, along with a gray-haired old man -- while the bus driver grinned in his dusty mirror.
Tristan shrugged. "Many people are not what they seem. Or wish they were. Or wish they were not. The pay as a guide is much better, and my English is an advantage. But, tourists are few in Haiti these days. Haiti was once the most beautiful country in the whole Caribbean. The Pearl of the Antilles, she was called. But, European greed, and later the greed of our own rulers for what the blanc had to offer... material things and money... have left her with almost nothing today. Now she is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.”
Nate sighed. "Makes me wish I could do somethin’. ...Is that a een-fants per-dooze?”
"Only in English.”
The bus bulled its way through a jungle of trees. Leafy branches invaded the windows, and the people casually ducked. A big golden lizard plopped onto a seat, then scurried away up the aisle. Tristan didn't give it a glance, nor did anyone else on board, so Nate assumed it didn't bite.
"Can you tell me somethin' about Savann Sou Zòkòs?" asked Nate. "It's somewhere near Terre Rouge, but I guess it's too small to be on a map.”
Tristan looked startled. "Now I know for certain you are not a tourist! No one goes to Terre Rouge if they can go anywhere else. And of Savann Sou Zòkòs...” He seemed to shiver in the heat. “...Valley Of Walking Skeletons! I have heard only whispers.”
Nate felt a chill himself. "Why? Did somethin’ bad happen there?”
Tristan seemed to consider. "I have heard no evil about it, though its name paints a very grim portrait. Only that it is a place in the mountains. It is probably as poor as bones, so perhaps its name describes its people.” His tone became more practical. “And no sights to see. There are bat caves to the north. And indian carvings, very old and mysterious. But they are nearer to Dondon, and there is a better road from Milot because of the Citadelle.”
The bus had emerged from what seemed to be the last of the forest, and Tristan pointed to distant mountains shockingly eroded by rain and barren except for skeletal brush with here and there the corpse of a tree. "See there a garden compared to the land when you have passed Milot. As I say I know nothing of Savann Sou Zòkòs, but Terre Rouge is grim enough. A few people scratch the earth for a living. Children starve and die as Zòkòs.”
Nate felt another chill in the heat. "Little walkin’ skeletons!” Then he made a shrug. “But I’ll just be passin' through Terre Rouge. An’ maybe Savann Sou Zòkòs will be a better place, even with its spooky name. ...But, besides bein' poor an’ grim, did anything bad ever happen in Terre Rouge?”
"How do you mean bad?" asked Tristan.
"Well...” said Nate, not sure himself what he meant. “Maybe somethin' that happened a long time ago, but people still remember it. Like, when the ton-ton macoutes was cuttin' people's heads off.”
Tristan shuddered. "The bloody reign of the Duvaliers are only grandfathers stories to me. ...Are you speaking of a past evil brought into the present? An evil that lingers on somewhere like bones unburied upon the earth?”
"Um... maybe," said Nate.
"You are a mysterious ri-timoun! But, how far into the past do you wish to go? Haiti is much older than America, which has many bad things in its own history... the burning of so-called witches, the slaughter of its native people whose souls still cry for revenge. There was slavery, of course, and other evils still not laid to rest." Tristan faced the distant mountains as the bus struggled up a winding grade. "If there are secrets unburied up there, they have stayed well-hidden, or perhaps well guarded. ...Though, as with all of Haiti, I am sure the Lanmo Timoun comes often.”
Nate felt another chill. "What kind of kid comes often?”
"You do not know the Kreyol word for death?”
"I thought it was mouri?”
"That is the dead. Or to be dead. Lanmo is death itself... the figure, the spirit, the spectre of Death.”
Now Nate actually shivered. "The Death Kid?”
"Or, The Death Child, or The Child Of Death." Tristan regarded Nate for a moment, seeming to study his eyes. "Wi, a very spooky name... one thinks of little skeletons. But, appropriate for the region. Is it not same in any country? There are many regional and cultural names for the spectre of Death in America... The Grim Reaper, The Dark Angel, The Pale Horseman.”
"Yeah,” said Nate. “Some of the kids where I grew up called him The Collector.”
"That, too, is appropriate,” said Tristan. ”Perhaps everyone sees Death with the face they expect to see. Or perhaps with the face they deserve to see.”
"I’d hate to see Death with the face of a kid!" Nate pictured hollowness and teeth, somehow more scary by being small. "I’d hate to look in the eyes of that child!”
"Wi, a grim little portrait," said Tristan. He glanced to the desolate mountains again. "But, you are going to a very grim place.”
"Are you goin’ any further than Milot?”
Tristan turned to the road ahead, peering through the grimy windshield. "Alas, my young friend, here is Milot, and here I must leave you. But, my faith in 'something, sometime... and someone’... has been rewarded today. Thank you for the book, mwen fré. When I read to my son you will be in his eyes.”
Tristan rose as the creaky old vehicle ground to a halt. Nate got up to shake Tristan’s hand, but the man embraced him warmly instead... almost embarrassingly for Nate, chest to chest and cheek to cheek. Tristan held Nate’s shoulders. "May I give you a word of advice, ri-timoun?”
"It is difficult to lie in Kreyol.”
"The book, mwen fré. It meant much to you.”
"...Oh,” said Nate. “But, I was speakin' English.”
"But I was listening in Kreyol." Tristan touched his lips to Nate's. "I will pass that on to my son from you. And I hope you find that something somewhere that will put you at peace.”
Nate watched as Tristan padded away with his wicked machete and Mickey Mouse tote. All the other passengers followed, nodding and smiling to Nate as they passed, as if by laughing he'd made their acquaintance. The young girl’s eyes seemed to linger on him as if inviting a question, but Nate’s eyes stayed in the shadow of his cap. He watched as she walked down the aisle with her dusty dress enticingly tight. He really wanted to talk to her, but his usual shyness held him back. The warmth of Tristan's embrace seemed to linger -- funny because the air was so hot -- and the scent him was earthy and good.
The bus driver was a muscular man in bib-overalls and tire-tread sandals. He shut off the engine and stretched in his seat, then slid from behind the steering wheel and paused to look back at Nate. He said a few words in Kreyol, then repeated them in French. Neither language enlightened Nate, but he heard the word tan... Kreyol for time. The wait could be hours: backroad busses and tap-taps in Haiti didn't seem to care about clocks. Sometimes they waited until they were full -- which didn’t seem likely here in these mountains -- but mostly they ran on the driver's mood; and this driver's mood seemed manje midi... Kreyol for lunch. Bye was the Kreyol word for beer -- one of the first that Nate had learned -- and he realized he was being invited. A beer would have gone down good, but he hadn't been sleeping much at night, and was tired of trying to answer questions, no matter how kindly intended, in a language he couldn't speak very well. He smiled and pantomimed a yawn, and the driver nodded and left.
Nate looked out at a shabby station with a pair of rusty gas pumps in front. Milot wasn't very big, just a few streets of wood and brick buildings painted in faded pastel colors. Nothing seemed to be moving except for the passengers walking away... including the pretty young girl. Nate watched until she turned a corner, and cursed his shyness again. It was close to noon and hellishly hot. The sun beat down on the roof of the bus as if trying to burn through the metal and bake Nate’s brain inside his skull. The sweltering air was unnaturally still to someone used to city sounds. The ticking and clicks of hot metal came from the engine compartment, and the brake system bled a perpetual sigh.
Nate lay back on the worn out seat in the slippery mud of his sweat. He heard no children's voices outside, though even the homeless ri-timouns would have found some shade at this time of day. He almost wished he was with them again, listening to their sleepy chatter, or napping and waiting for coolness of night. His eyes drifted back to the window, and he saw a family approaching the bus, a wiry father in cargo pants, the mother slim in a cotton dress and holding a baby in her arms, and slender boy who looked about eight. The boy was clad only in jeans, which were tightly outgrown and completely unzipped. The family climbed aboard the bus and took the two front seats. Nate wondered how far they were going; maybe to Terre Rouge? Or even to Savann Sou Zòkòs? He thought about introducing himself, but maybe he should stay cool. He still knew nothing about the place...
Except it had a Child Of Death.
He pulled off his cap to let his hair dry, then lay back and gazed at the roof. Flies buzzed in and out through the windows and landed on him to drink his sweat. Like a ri-timoun he ignored them. He thought about buying himself a beer, but he'd been drinking way too much, as the bulge of his belly attested. His shirt was like a sodden rag and clung to his body like slimy paint, but it seemed too much trouble to peel it off.
The boy in front began to fidget as all kids do when hot and bored. He slid from his seat and came up the aisle but stopped when he caught sight of Nate, and stared at Nate for at least a minute. He didn't exactly look frightened, but he didn't look not frightened, either. That was a little strange because kids had never been scared of him. Nate offered a smile, but that only seemed to unsettle the boy who spun around and ran back to his parents. Nate heard him say something like zòkò zyes. The word, zòkò, caught Nate's attention -- maybe they were going there? -- but he didn’t know what zyes meant. The boy’s parents turned around. Like their son they seemed to study Nate, but finally the father nodded politely and drew his son reassuringly close. The family faced the front of the bus and seemed to murmur together. Nate had the feeling of being discussed, but maybe that wasn’t surprising. They were rural people and anything new was... different, including a “ri-timoun of the city” traveling into these lonely mountains.
A few minutes later the driver returned with a half-finished bottle of Prestige beer. He started the clattery engine, and the bus rattled on out of town.
As Tristan had warned, the mountains grew even more barren and grim as the bus continued on. Sometimes it crawled at the pace of a snail, grinding up to a lofty pass, and then it would tilt steeply downward to go rocking and roaring like a runaway train. The driver didn't seem worried, steering one-handed through switchbacks and turns, though the brake pedal often thumped the floor without doing much to slow the bus. But the family looked frightened and clung to their seats... except for the boy who enjoyed the descents as if on a Disneyland ride. There were rickety bridges at bottoms of valleys that trembled and creaked as the bus rumbled over. Sometimes there wasn't a bridge at all -- or simply the ruins where one had fallen -- and the bus lumbered, splashing, through fast-flowing streams. There were only a few other vehicles, big rusty trucks and beat-up Jeeps, Nissan Patrols and battered Land Rovers. There were still a few clumps of trees here and there, showing this land had once been a forest, but the desperation of starving people had stripped the green flesh off its dun-colored bones. They passed through villages, tiny and bleak, but nobody seemed to be going their way. All had small churches and oversize graveyards with tombs and slabs that were colorfully painted, though most of the shacks and shanties were not.
Seeing all this poverty -- people struggling to grow little gardens, always guarded by children with sticks -- Nate wondered if what he was doing made sense. Did he really think he was going home? Home to what? Parents he'd never seen in his life? Parents he'd never known existed. Parents who, seventeen years ago, had smuggled him into America.
He still wasn't sure what to think about that, after living a week in the Haitian slums and trying to find a different perspective while spending his nights drinking beer with timouns and most of his days in their tumbledown dens. He'd definitely found a new point of view, but not himself in relation to it. Or maybe, lame as it sounded, his soul?
In America he'd had everything that a poor black kid was entitled to have -- and compared to Haiti that was a fortune, from free education to toilet paper -- though chances and choices were taken for granted, often ignored or thrown away, and usually valued the least of things. But, that was something he'd always known, like a child of the desert could swim.
He gazed out the window and fingered his necklace... something he'd worn all his life. Had they sent him away out of love, he wondered? There was nothing heartless in that... wanting your child to have better things along with the knowledge to use them. But, why had it all been a secret? His aunt had told him his parents were dead -- killed in a car wreck when he was a baby -- the only time, as far as he knew, she had ever lied to him in his life. It had only been after her passing a little more than a month ago, when finding a bundle of ribbon-wrapped letters he'd finally uncovered the truth.
He closed his eyes and lay back in the seat. If the reason they'd sent him away was love, then they should have told him! What good was love when you didn’t know it? Their letters were written in Haitian French, which also included a mix of Kreyol. It had taken him days to translate them. They were simple descriptions of village life, of raising crops and tending goats, of sun and rain, of moonlit nights, and funny things that children did. But each began with questions of him, everything loving parents would ask... his health, his teeth, his very first word, his grades at school, his favorite foods, and even the sound of his laughter. But, why had it all been a secret?
To say he'd been shocked -- devastated in French -- would have been mocking his misery. It felt as if something had ripped out his heart! And then he had raged at his aunt's memory, cursing her grave and the worms in her bones, spitting into her rotting face because she had hidden that love from him.
And yet he’d known this wasn't true -- if his parents had wanted him to know they would have written letters to him -- but at least it allowed him to tear things apart, stay drunk for weeks and cry like a child.
He could only guess how his aunt had replied by reading his parents’ responses. His aunt had sent them a lock of his hair, and also lots of pictures -- which explained why many of those she had taken had "never come out" to be printed -- but his parents were always happy to hear whatever it was she had told them.
The big golden lizard ran back down the aisle, but Nate only gave it a glance. Why, he had wondered in those ravaged weeks, would his parents want him to think they were dead? And, if that was what they had wanted, why would they care so much about him? But, after reading their letters again, the only thing that made any sense was danger in some kind of form... he wasn't supposed to know where he came from, so he would never try to return.
But, who was in danger if he came back? ...His parents, himself... or all of them?
Whatever the reason, he'd find it soon. He might not be welcome in Savann Sou Zòkòs, but at least he would see where he’d been born. It didn’t seem to make any sense, but he felt like his future was up in those mountains and this shabby old bus was taking him there.
His thoughts drifted into the past again: he kept feeling as if he had lost something there and only needed a clue to find it. He let his mind wander to see where it went...
He’d always been good in school, skipping a grade to graduate early; but that wasn't hard for a lonely kid. Yes, he had always been different, though part of that was a childish body he never seemed to outgrow. He was strong for his age, but he just didn't look it, and looks were what counted in that kind of culture. A few of the girls had called him cute, but cute didn't cut where "cool" was "bad," and "bad" was a big gun and small ambitions. And he'd never cared much about clothes or shoes, or all the other showtime shit that was seemingly so essential for life in the richest nation on earth. His aunt had left him what little she'd had, and he'd spent half of that on this uncertain journey.
The lizard returned, leaped on his shoulder, and then out the window, but Nate hardly flinched at the grip of its claws. His aunt had performed a few Voodoo rites, which had seemed like magic shows to Nate. His birthday parties had always been cool, and well-attended by neighborhood kids. She had mixed him various potions whenever he caught a cold or the flu, and until he'd started kindergarten he’d assumed every kid had a skull in their room to watch over them with a candle inside. His fingernail clippings had always been burned, just like his hair when infrequently cut... except for the lock she had sent to his parents. She had probably sent them his baby teeth, too -- after the “tooth-spirit” took them -- and maybe a medicine bottle of blood. She had always advised him to wear the necklace, and since it pleased her, he did. But she'd never forced her beliefs on him; and believing in Voodoo in Oakland seemed silly... though looking back from where he was now, he supposed he'd gotten a reputation of somebody not to mess with.
He glanced out the window again: funny how things could look so grim even under a glaring sun.
He supposed being tired was normal... the death of his aunt, arranging her funeral, and then the shock of finding out that he wasn't who he'd thought he was. The weeks of drinking hadn’t helped, but, he was too young to feel this tired, as if his bones were centuries old.
A person could learn to endure suffering, but it still surprised him to wake up and find that, despite the bashing and jolts of the bus, he had actually managed to sleep. It was the silence that woke him. They were parked in front of a concrete building, which might have once been a stagecoach stop in Haiti's more prosperous past... a cross between an adobe mission and a crumbling city storefront.
A faded Coca-Cola sign was nailed to a post on the gallery porch, though chiseled letters could still be seen on the high facade above. Both proclaimed TERRE ROUGE... which explained why his ‘beater was now rusty-red. The sun was getting low in the sky, but the air was still savagely hot. The family was just getting off the bus, and the little boy gave him a long last look. Nate got up, put on his cap, slung his backpack over a shoulder, and shambled down the dusty aisle. His sweat-soaked jeans would barely stay on below his roundly bobbing belly but nobody here would care about that.
Terre Rouge was one rutted street, two rusty gas and diesel pumps, a dozen structures of brick or concrete with galleries fronting their second floors, and twice that many rickety shacks of tin and plywood scattered around. It lay in a ragged gash of a valley, and tumbleweeds would have completed the picture as Nate, the stranger, rode into town.
Up the road was a sad little church, solidly shuttered and heavily barred as if God had been evicted. A sprawling graveyard lay nearby with better paint on some of its tombs than on most of the buildings in town. There were poles and wires and one street lamp, but electrical power was privileged in Haiti, and Terre Rouge was as poor as it got. Nate had never been scared of the dark, but night was different when you were a stranger. The natives might be friendly here, but it wasn't cool in anyone's culture to go around knocking on doors at night. Assuming there wasn't a guest house, a shanty family would take him in, delighted to make a few dollars, and at least he could talk to the kids.
Or, could he?
He remembered the family's reaction to him and looked around to see where they'd gone, but they seemed to have vanished like ghosts. There were still a few hours of daylight left, and Savann Sou Zòkòs might be just up the road. The driver had gone to the rear of the bus and was filling the radiator. Nate dug in his pack for his dictionary and prepared to make a fool of himself. The book only translated French and English... he hadn't been able to find one in Kreyol.
"Um... excusez-moi, Monsieur," stammered Nate. "But, um... est-ce que ce bus va a Savann Sou Zòkòs?”
The driver gave him a curious look, then set down his bucket and asked, "Americain-Afrique?”
"Yeah... I mean, oui.”
That seemed to solve a mystery. The driver smiled and replied in English, which wasn't as easy to mutilate. "No bus to there.”
"Um... maybe a tap-tap?" asked Nate, feeling as if he was asking about the Hogwarts Express.
"I know of none.”
"Well, do you know how far it is? An’ which way?”
"Only stories," said the man. Then he laughed. "Zone of Twilight.”
"It's real," said Nate.
The driver patted the bus's behind. "We are not of this region, thank God, and do not believe in its stories.”
"Well, it's real," said Nate again. "So they gotta be some way to get there.”
The driver shrugged. "Enfants perdus.”
"Deja vu," muttered Nate. He searched through the book. "They get mail in Savann Sou Zòkòs. That's real enough, ain't it?. ...Mail? ...Letters? ...LET... TERS. ...Um... Damn! ...Poste?”
"Mwen zanmi determine," the driver chuckled. He waved toward the station and added in French, "S' informat, Renard.”
"Um... Oh. See Renard. Merci, Monsieur. Merci beau coup.”
"Je vous en prie," the driver replied. "Bonne chance, ri-timoun." Then he added as Nate walked away, "Mefye, li mëdes.”
"Huh?" Nate looked around for a dog or a lizard. "What bites? Um... kisa mëdes?”
The driver laughed. "You will see!”
Nate had reached station steps when a pack of dirty and near-naked boys came bursting out of the doorway. A bottle hissed over their nappy-wild heads and shattered out front on the stony red ground. A mix of French and Kreyol curses had followed its tumbling flight. "Enfant sauvages! Sal timouns! Rats! Vermins!”
Nate dodged aside, expecting more bottles, but the kids didn't seem to be worried and stayed in the shade of the porch. Nate warily entered the building. The station was large for such a small town, a crumbling relic from better days when Haitians had planned for a future. Its windows were tall and high off the floor, set in thick walls and massively barred. They hadn't been washed in so many years that the sun shone through with a bloody-red glow. The floor was cement and incredibly dirty, but also polished shiny and smooth by countless generations of feet. Dusty light fixtures dangled from wires, but their bulbs were as dead as the ceiling fans and just as heavily spider-webbed. A few people sat on wrought-iron benches that looked like expensive antiques. Their baggage, if any, were bundles or boxes bound with ragged pieces of rope. Two more people were leaving this town than the four in the family who'd come.
The kids had trailed Nate back inside, maybe using him for cover, but only the most optimistic-looking, a boy about ten, approached him to beg. He was also the oldest, the obvious leader, and his posture gave him a jutting tummy despite his lack of personal mass. He was clad in only the tattered remains of somebody's ancient boxer shorts, tied with string like a failed experiment and drooping too low to conceal anything. The other kids watched from a wary distance. Three of the boys, including their leader, had soggy cigar butts clamped in their teeth, but none were alight, and probably wouldn't. The youngest boy was probably four; and all were dressed -- and that was a joke -- in various rudimentary rags, as if any attempt, however pathetic, to cover that one little part of themselves could somehow prove they were worthy to live.
Nate gave the oldest boy a shock by handing him a dollar bill. The other kids scrambled like fighter pilots, pushing and shoving, demanding the same. Their hands touched Nate wherever skin showed as if to make sure he was real. They smelled a lot more than a little bit mighty -- of dirt, kid-sweat, and wild dusty hair; of sun-hot skin and small bare feet -- a burning, bitter but earthy aroma that could have been the color of bronze. Nate understood most of what they were saying. That might have surprised him a few days ago, but their language reflected themselves... small, dirty, and uncomplicated by anything not of the moment. It wasn't that they were stupid, there was just so little to put in their minds except all the desperate knowledge and skills of how to get something into their stomachs. Nate gave away about ten dollars; but the ri-timouns left him with more than they took... if scent could be considered a gift.
At the rear of the room was a worm-eaten counter defended by rusty iron bars; and a fiftyish man with a caramel complexion was scowling at Nate from behind it. He was obviously the bottle-thrower and likely at war with the ri-timouns, but unless he wanted to leave his cage he couldn’t keep them from stealing his shade. There was nothing else in the place they could use and, assuming they didn't shit on the floor, he should have left them in peace. They chorused remesyes -- thanks in Kreyol --then scurried off to a shadowy corner. Nate locked and loaded his dictionary and went to play the fool again.
"Um, excusez-moi, Monsieur Renard?”
The man was eating a massive sandwich, while a newly-opened bottle of beer stood foaming near his elbow. He was fat by Haitian standards -- a bit overweight by America's -- and rolled his light eyes in disgust. "Yes, noir-Americain... boy. I am Monsieur Renard. And you are the fool!”
Nate already felt like one; but Haitians were usually patient people and interested in strangers. The mouth was full and the accent French, so Nate wasn't sure he'd heard right. "What?”
Renard finished chewing and leisurely swallowed, then stabbed a finger at the kids. "Are your ears as dirty as theirs? You certainly smell no better! I said distinctly that you are a fool... boy... gason! ...And I know your kind!" He took another bite and continued. "There are too many rats in this land already! Do you think that a few of your dollars will save them? Merde! Even if you were a millionaire ... and I see that you surely are not!... would you give one dollar to each starving child as if you were Death granting miserable mercy by letting them live one more day?”
Nate had gotten a similar dissing from a high-yellow clerk in a Port-au-Prince bank. He scowled but tried to stay cool... sunset was near, and he couldn't afford to waste any time. "Even one day of life is a chance," he said. "You give what you can when you can. Like, if everybody did that...”
"Then the world would be swarming with their kind and yours!”
"Look," said Nate, trying bite back his anger. "I just come here to...”
"Does granting your miserable mercy help you to sleep at night... boy?”
The cap had slipped over Nate's eyes again and he shoved it way back to glare at the man. "Does stuffin' your mouth in front of them kids help you sleep at night, you... chen-mouchin' enbesil?”
"What did you call me?" roared the man, his caramel face flaring to red.
"A dog-blowin' moron!” bawled Nate. “An’ don’t pretend you don’t understand Kreyol! I seen plenty of your kind, too! Stupid, ignorant... heartless... haters who ain’t done one good thing in their lives! I wouldn't grant you a minute of mercy!”
Renard looked about to explode. Nate wondered if he might have a gun; but then the man's eyes went suddenly wide and he choked down his mouthful of food.
"I... apologize, Monsieur," he stammered. "Forgive me please." He fanned a hand in front of his face. "The heat... It is always bad before a rain. It makes one not himself." He tried to smile, which was nasty to see. "It has been the long day. You know how it is. ...May I assist you?”
Nate looked over his shoulder, thinking the driver must have come in and Renard might want to act civil, but the people were boarding the bus outside, leaving only the kids in the corner. Then he faced Renard again, now almost trembling in fury. Renard had simply concealed his contempt like slipping a simpering mask on his face, but rage was a harder thing to hide. Nate sucked a breath through tightly-barred teeth. "I be tryin' to get to Savann Sou Zòkòs. The bus driver said you might know a way.”
Renard looked strangely scared again. He straightened some papers that didn't need straightening, then glanced at a canvas bag on the floor. Some of the nervousness left his voice, replaced by a slimy civility. "You are fortunate, Monsieur. It is once a week the postal truck comes, and that is today." He glanced at his heavy gold Rolex. "It must be here soon, I lock up before sunset. Of course, one never knows with... them. But, the new driver has been punctual." He seemed to be torn between two emotions, but one of them, stronger, won out. "I am sure that I could arrange things, though it is against regulations. A small fee. ...Perhaps twenty American dollars?”
Nate's rage had been cooling a little, but now it flared up bloody red... twenty dollars could feed all those kids for a month! He suddenly wanted to rip down those bars and get at this greedy old maggot! Trickles of sweat ran down his chest and over his belly to spatter the floor. He sucked another deep breath. “I give you ten.”
Renard was also sweating now. "I... think it can be done.”
"Yeah. I think so, too." Nate pulled a bill from his pocket and dropped it on the counter. Renard's hand was a cockroach feeding on trash. Nate saw himself in the beer bottle glass, an amber image of glistening black, but small and shaped like a child... a round-tummied, harmless, pissed-off kid. He glanced at the big meaty sandwich. "There a cafe in town?”
"Across the street, Monsieur. I will send one of those... children, to notify you when the truck arrives.”
Nate pulled down his cap, almost hiding his eyes again. "What's it look like? I'ma take them kids for a meal." Then he smiled very widely. "Grant them a little mercy.”
Renard retreated a step or two, though safe behind his bars. "It is a Land Rover... green... very old.”
"Mer-fuckin'-see." Nate turned around and walked away. He was just about to lose his jeans, so the meaning should have been clear enough in anybody’s language.
The cafe was more like a Haitian truck-stop, the remains of an ancient garage. A tin roof shaded some rickety tables scattered around on hard-packed dirt. Two big old trucks were parked in the street and seemed to be loaded with tree roots. Their shirtless drivers were trading tales over sweating bottles of Prestige beer. They grinned at Nate and called, bon soir, as Nate and his posse of timouns approached. The elderly woman proprietress seemed happy to see them despite their smell. Curried rice and goat was being served today -- a wonderfully rich and spicy aroma -- and the woman produced brimming plates. The kids ate until their tummies were swollen, as if this one meal had to last for a month. They told Nate their stories while stuffing themselves: life wasn't easy in Terre Rouge... though having nothing to measure it by they couldn't imagine how hard it was, or how small a chance they had of surviving. There were many deaths among their kind, and they often buried their own. But, children accepted such things. None had been more than a mile out of town, but they spoke of going to live in the city where people threw food and clothing away! It was clear that they knew only stories, because those who had gone had never returned to tell of the urban shantytown hells.
Nate didn't try to discourage them: there was little enough to be found in the slums, but nothing out here in these mountains. Food could be stolen in the city, but here there was nothing that wasn’t unguarded. All the kids asked for cigars after supper, and sprawled on the benches in ecstasy, stroking their stomachs and too stuffed to move, sipping the last of their strawberry sodas while Nate drank a bottle of beer. Finally, chorusing thanks again, they staggered away, leaning backwards for balance. Nate watched them go with a smile: maybe the mercy he'd granted meant nothing, but he felt a lot better anyhow.
The woman came to clear up the wreckage of empty bottles and spotless plates. She saw Nate gazing after the boys, and said that such things were very sad, but what in the world could be done? She fed them herself when she could -- which wasn't often or very much -- and the truck drivers left a few gourdes in a jar. She shook her head. “They live at the mercy of Death.”
Nate asked about the church up the road... closed again for lack of a priest, but really for want of money. Missionaries had come a few times with plans for a childrens refuge and school, but they never stayed long in Terra Rouge. She scowled at the station across the street... and food, clothing, and medical things often got "lost" before reaching them.
Nate bought another beer.
The sun was impaled on a mountain top when an ancient and battered Land Rover pickup came rattling down the rutted street and squealed to a stop in front of the station. It looked like a prop from an African movie; its aluminum body was savagely scarred, and scoured almost paintless by tree limbs and brush. Nate half-expected a white b'wana in safari jacket and postman’s helmet, but a boy got out, as black as himself and maybe thirteen. He was clad in nothing but soccer shorts of faded red and blue. His body was typically Haitian and very much like Nate's: his chest was small but well-defined, his biceps round as river rocks, and his back was swayed by a cartoonish belly that far overshadowed his low-riding shorts. His hair was like a lion's mane of wild and woolly dreadlocks that tumbled over his shoulders and back and almost completely concealed his eyes. He paused for a moment to study the sky, then trotted up the station steps.
He looked like a tough and feral timoun, and would probably speak only Kreyol. Nate could pass with little kids, but an older boy would be regionally cool and probably not as forgiving. Nate considered communication, then finished his beer and bought seven more... all the old woman had left. He slipped the bottles into his pack, dropped a ten-dollar bill in the timouns jar, then crossed the street to wait by the truck.
Steam was ghosting from under its hood, its windshield panes were webbed with cracks, the cab and doors didn't have any glass, the tires were bald and a headlight broken. It looked like a mechanical zonbi that had dug itself out of a wrecking yard. Nate looked around at the darkening mountains, noted gathering clouds in the sky, and wondered where this journey would take him.
The boy came trotting back down the steps, his belly bobbing comically and his shorts about to abandon his hips. The mail bag he carried looked almost empty, but might have contained a few books. He flashed a startling smile to Nate, which seemed mostly teeth in dreadlocked shadow. Although he appeared to be taller than Nate, it was only his bushy jungle of hair. His teeth, like Nate's, were large for his face, and his eyes like Nate’s were alarmingly amber, though only flickers could be seen. Nate thought about roots for a moment, and wondered if he'd be recognized as finally belonging somewhere. It was almost a feeling of deja vu when he saw the boy was wearing a necklace that could have been a twin of his own. But, many Haitians wore Voodoo charms, and it didn't seem to surprise the boy that Nate's old necklace mirrored his.
"Salad," said Nate.
The wild timoun gave Nate a shock by replying in Kreyol-accented English: "I think you mean salud, dude. I usually have 'salad' with supper." He tossed the bag in the back of the truck, the effort leaving him technically naked, his narrow hips and spherical tummy seemingly renouncing his shorts, and held out a puppishly oversized hand that made a good match to his big bare feet. "I am Evan Bré." He laughed. "And you, I assume, are the ‘sal-mouthed noir-Americain savage’ who hangs around with ri-timouns and wishes to go to Savann Sou Zòkòs?”
Nate shook hands with the boy and smiled. "Nate Brown. You speak English better than me.”
"My parents sent me to Port-au-Prince when I was only an infant. My uncle there is fairly well-off and I went to good schools. I have only this month returned to my home.”
"I guess Renard told you about me an' the kids.”
Evan laughed again. "Mostly that you seemed to be one. But your liking for them is no mystery." Evan grinned and flared his nose, wide and snubbed like Nate’s. "Who else would have let themselves be touched by little timoun hands?”
"Well, I ain't had a bath since I got here last week.”
"You do not offend my primitive nose. But, we will be close for a very long time, and I hope you can learn to live with me.”
Evan's shorts were soaked with sweat that streaked the dust on his body, but it was a good earthy smell like Tristan Durrant and the ri-timouns. "I think we'll get along,” said Nate.
Evan studied the sky. "We will both be having a shower soon. So, Nathan... do you mind if I call you Nathan?”
"It's what my aunt called me.”
"So, what did Renard extort from you as payment for your journey?”
"He tried for twenty dollars but I only gave him ten.”
"That was ten too much. The greedy bastaed!”
"What about regulations?”
Evan patted the Land Rover’s fender, crumpled like an old cigarette pack. "Mouche regulations, and this is my truck. A cool ride, huh?”
"...Yeah," said Nate, though slightly amazed that the wreck even ran. "It’s cool.”
"Shall I get the money back for you?" Evan smiled very widely. "It would be a pleasure.”
"That's okay, man. I don't wanna make no trouble.”
Evan looked suddenly grim. "Trouble will find Renard soon enough! He grew prosperous under the old regime and virtually ruled this town. His power is somewhat less these days, but also more insidious... the minor official, the slave of the house." Evan spat on the station steps. "He sells 'travel permits' to the poor. And other useless paper. His tickets can also be quite expensive for those who cannot read.”
Nate looked down the road at the boarded-up church. "An', things get 'lost'?”
Evan's eyes narrowed in their ebony shadows. "Of course he hates children. Children watch and listen. Children see everything clearly. And children remember when they are wronged. What if they should live to grow up?" But then he looked cheerful again. "He did not frighten you, I see.”
"I think I scared him," said Nate. “But I can’t figure out why.”
"Zòkò zyes," said Evan, smiling very widely again.
"...Huh? I know what zòkò means, but...”
Evan reached out and lifted Nate's cap. "Your eyes, Nathan, so bright in the darkness. The eyes of a child that see everything clearly.”
“Huh?" said Nate again. “’Walkin’ skeleton eyes?’ That sounds way past scary.”
Evan shrugged. “Only if you believe the old stories.” He went around to the back of the truck to wrap the bag in a piece of canvas. "Myself, I find your eyes quite charming.” He tied the canvas with rope and glanced at the sky again. "The rain will soon be upon us. The road is a horror even when dry, and there is a river to cross. Come, we can talk on the way.”
Nate got into the Land Rover’s cab, putting his pack on the floor at his feet and raising a puff of dust as he sat. Evan slid behind the wheel, slammed the door, started the engine, and pulled out into the street. The little truck kicked up a rusty-red cloud as they rattled past the rows of shanties. Nate saw the boys on a tumbledown porch. All of them smiled and waved.
"They live by the mercy of Death," sighed Nate.
Evan waved back to the kids. "Death has more mercy than some people have.”
Nate dug in his pack and offered a beer as they passed the dead church and its glutted graveyard.
Evan grinned, taking the bottle. "You are a brother after my own heart.”
"A brother without a bottle opener.”
"I use my teeth when desperate, but here is a pair of pliers." Evan laughed. "Though I don't know why they are called a pair when there is really only one.”
Nate shrugged. "English. ...Too bad we don't have more time, I coulda bought you supper.”
"I have had manje midi, thank you,” said Evan. “And you were kind to feed the children." He patted Nate's belly like it was his own. "All timouns should be shaped as we." He took the bottle Nate opened, and drank, then passed it back like a kid would do before Nate could open another. "We have a long journey ahead, mwen fré. The moon will be full, but clouds roll in so we may not have its light. And if the rain is very hard, we may have trouble crossing the river.”
Nate took a swallow of beer, then asked, "So, what's all this stuff about zòkò zyes scarin' people 'round here?”
Evan swung the rattling truck off the road and onto a trail that wound up a ravine. "Do I look scared of you?" Viewed in profile with all his hair, only the tip of his nose could be seen.
"Renard sure did," said Nate. "'Least till his greed took over again. An' I scared a little boy on the bus.”
Evan drank, and returned the bottle. "It is an old story, Nathan. You would probably call it superstition, being raised in America.”
"Maybe not," said Nate. "My aunt believed in Voodoo.”
"That is cool. Do you?”
"I woulda said no if you'd axed me last week." Nate looked out at the desolate mountains where shadows were creeping down the canyons and filling the valleys with night. He drank, and passed the bottle. "But it’s easy to believe in it here.”
"That is natural,” said Evan. “Here you are close to the source.”
The Rover jarred over rocks and ruts as the road became steadily worse. Evan stopped and shifted to four-wheel-drive before taking another swallow of beer. "It is said in the story that those who are heartless, especially to children... who show them no mercy... should beware of boys with eyes like yours because they are the Children of Death.”
“Like the The Death Kid?” asked Nate. "The Lanmo Timoun?”
Evan passed the bottle. "Wi, that is one of his names.”
"Renard believes in Voodoo?" asked Nate.
"Renard hates children," Evan replied. "Therefore he has no heart, so his mind denies what his bones believe and his greed dulls his fear like a drug. But he probably does not sleep very well, even behind his iron bars." He accepted the bottle from Nate, and drank. “The story of the Children Of Death belongs to this little region. Haiti is like that. The poor do not often travel, and beyond the next mountain lies mystery.”
"Are you a storyteller?" asked Nate as Evan returned the bottle.
"All poor Haitians are storytellers.”
"What about rich ones?”
"They have television.”
Nate drank and passed the bottle. "So, you know about the Lanmo Timoun?”
"The Child Of Death," said Evan. "He is the last thing we see in this life, and the first thing we see in our death.”
"Like The Grim Reaper,” said Nate. “But, why a kid?”
"Why a black goat?” returned Evan. “Or a white tiger? Or a skeleton horse? Everyone sees death with the face they expect, or perhaps with the face they deserve to see.”
“Have a lot of kids died around here?”
Evan sighed. "Far too many." Steering with one hand, he took a drink while guiding the Rover onto a trail that switchbacked up a mountainside. The sun had set and the clouds were dark, but a bloody-red gash like an open wound still lay in the sky to the west. Evan turned to Nate and smiled, his face only teeth in the gathering gloom. "But, perhaps for a child to see Death as a child is not such a frightening thing.”
"I didn’t think of it that way." Nate recalled what had come to his mind when Tristan had talked of the Child Of Death... shadowy hollowness, glittering smile. "Um, what's he look like?”
Evan laughed. "We will both meet him in time.”
"Guess you right," said Nate. "...Well, you traveled. So, what's a still a mystery to you?”
"Greed, cruelty and hatred are still mysteries to me because none are essential to life." Evan drank the last of the beer and tossed the bottle out the back window where it clattered around in the bed. Then he reached over and took off Nate's cap, dropping it onto the seat. "You will not scare anyone where we are going." He fingered the necklace against Nate's chest. "And this is all the adornment you need.”
Nate leaned close to scan Evan's necklace. "What's the story with these, man? Yours an' mine are exactly the same.”
Evan smiled. "Bits of bone and amber glass. The beads are cast from old beer bottles. They are sold for five American dollars at tourist ‘Voodoo shops.’ But still they are cool, are they not?”
"Oh," said Nate, feeling disappointed. "Yeah, they cool. I just thought they might be relics.”
"These are not a day older than you or I.”
Nate opened another bottle. "What about the pieces of bone?”
"There are unburied bones all over this land,” said Evan. “But, the story of the Children Of Death is old enough to be called a relic.”
Nate took a drink and passed the bottle, then gazed around at the darkening mountains. The bloody red glow lingered faint in the sky, but some of the peaks were shrouded by clouds. "Is it scary?”
Evan drank and burped. "Eskiz mwen. Only to those who deserve to be scared. I tell it often to little children when I give them rides. ...Would you like a cigar? In the glove box. Light one for me also, please." He slipped the bottle between his bare legs, needing both hands to wrestle the truck around a torturous bend in the trail. They had already climbed very high up the mountain, and Nate looked down at a shadow-filled canyon where a little stream glimmered like polished gunmetal. He found the cigars and a lighter. He lit them, then slipped one between Evan's teeth.
"Thank you, Nathan," said Evan, blowing out a ghost of smoke. He wrestled the truck through another tight turn and dropped it into its lowest gear. They climbed a slope so incredibly steep that it seemed they were headed into the clouds and leaving the earth behind. The engine howled like a tortured thing, and loose rocks tumbled away from the tires. They crested a ridge like the edge of a knife and descended, growling, into darkness. There were trees in the narrow valley below, and soon they were down among them. Evan pulled the headlight switch, and the single beam was more yellow than white. There was a small hooded bulb on the dashboard, illuminating the instrument panel and dimly lighting the cab.
The forest down here was tangled and tall as it must have been in centuries past. The trail was choked with broad-leafed ferns, and barely wide enough for the truck. Brush and branches clawed at the doors, while vines slithered over the roof and hood like twisting, sinuous snakes. The trees were massive and shrouded with moss, their boughs interlocking high overhead and totally hiding the sky. The air had grown hotter, humid and thick, as if weighed down by the gathering clouds. Wraiths of steam floated up here and there, and drifted about like ghostly smoke.
Evan drank, then passed the bottle. "But, before I begin, what do you know about Savann Sou Zòkòs and why do you wish to go there?”
Nate killed the bottle, tossed it out the rear window, then pulled a another from his pack. "I don't know much, but...”
He paused to look around, seeing only the nighted forest and swirling shapes of drifting steam. He suddenly realized where he was, all alone with a boy of -- thirteen? -- who came from a place that was either unknown or was shunned by those who lived nearby; in a half-dead truck in the dead of night in a country that seemed to be starving to death... a land of walking skeletons.
And there wasn't a single soul in the world who cared what happened to him. Or even knew he existed, except...
Tristan Durrant, a sugarcane cutter; an elderly woman who ran a cafe; and some dirty street kids in a dead little town. It was strange to suddenly realize this... strange because it should have scared him. But somehow it didn’t.
He thought of Tristan: was he reading the book to his son right now and seeing Nate's face in the eyes of his child? Had Tristan kissed the boy for Nate with lips that had touched his own? And, had that somehow connected them? People said that every day -- give him or her a kiss for me -- but maybe, sometime and somewhere, it had actually meant something deeper? Nate thought of the food now filling his stomach, touched by the old woman's hands. And the way the little kids in town had put their hands all over him.
He handed the bottle to Evan. "I was born there. My parents sent me to America when I was only a baby.”
Evan's body was shiny with sweat in the dim yellow glow of the dashboard lamp. His face was concealed by his jungle of locks but his voice didn't sound surprised: "That would explain your eyes," he said. "And the necklace becomes no mystery. The children make them in Savann Sou Zòkòs. And meaningful ones... real ones... are given to every child at birth.”
He puffed his cigar and turned to Nate. The ruby ember reflected his smile, but his eyes were hidden beneath his hair as if watching unseen from a secret place. "The others are sold to 'Voodoo shops' at about ten dollars a dozen." He drank from the bottle while threading the truck through a towering grove of silkcotton trees. "These mountains hide many old ruins; forts of stone that were built by the Spanish using the labor of slaves, and later occupied by the French. Savann Sou Zòkòs is such a place, though now almost buried in foliage and ferns. But, we have fields that provide us with food, as well as goats and other things. And there is a waterfall into a pool that is very beautiful. ...Cool, I think. Despite what some call a scary name, Savann Sou Zòkòs is the home of people who who truly have hearts and understand mercy but who tend to prefer their own company. The soldiers and thugs of many regimes... the corrupt and even the not-so-corrupt... have learned it is wise to leave us in peace.”
Nate saw the ghost of Evan's face mirrored in the windshield glass. His hidden eyes were amber sparks in the feeble glow of the dashboard lamp, and now they seemed to harden. "Savann Sou Zòkòs, though not so-named then, was once the home of a French governor, his family, his soldiers, and of course his slaves. A man of small power among his own kind, but a tyrant here in his fortress of stone. He kept a fierce pack of dogs, and he used them for what he called 'sport.’ And that was the hunting down and killing of what few native people remained. Runaway slaves provided 'sport,’ too.”
The mirrored eyes narrowed to glittering slits. "He seemed to love the hunting of children." Evan sighed smoke and passed the bottle. "This is also a mystery to me because he had children of his own. How can a person love one child but show no mercy to another?”
They came to a stream like silent obsidian flowing beneath the starless sky. Evan eased the truck down the bank and into the quiet water. Steam rose up from under the hood, fogging the windshield and filling the cab.
"Is this the river you were worried about?" asked Nate.
"Non. Even in the rainy season, one can always cross.”
The little truck lurched from side to side as it splashed across the stony bed. Water bubbled in under the doors and slapped to and fro on the floor. The truck clawed its way up the opposite bank where the trail tunneled into the forest once more, and branches reached out like skeleton hands to rake its battered sides. The air seemed to grow even hotter. Nate's shirt was like a sodden skin, and he peeled it off his glistening body. Yet, in spite of the heat he shivered, peering out at the vine-tangled trees that seemed to press in on either side, giving way reluctantly to the feeble stab of the headlight, and only kept from attacking their backs by the bloody retreat of the dim tail lamp. He could almost picture himself as a child, running in panic and blind desperation, hearing the howling of dogs behind. He glanced at his own phantom face in the glass, and then to the specter of Evan's.
Evan asked, "Do you feel them? All the dead children out there in the night?”
"Yeah," said Nate, drinking deep.
"If I were to stop and shut off this engine, perhaps you might hear them as well. And then, if we were to wait for a while..." Evan accepted the bottle and drained it. "But, we are in a hurry tonight.”
Nate opened another sweating bottle as they continued on. The darkness and shadows seemed to threaten, as if he were being tested somehow. He wondered what would come out of the dark if they were to stop and stay quiet? What would they look like, those long-dead kids? Like the ri-timouns in town? Or would they be only zòkòs? He glanced at the ghost face beside him again, intent on the trail as it climbed. "I guess you'd call this a haunted forest? Like somethin' in a story.”
A smile appeared in the glass for a moment as Nate passed Evan the bottle. "You have nothing to fear from the dead, mwen fré. It is only the living who haunt this world." Evan drank while steering one-handed, then sighed out another ghost of smoke. "No one knows much about the first people who lived in these mountains. The Spanish killed many when they first arrived. Others were captured and shipped off for slaves. But, most died of European diseases before our ancestors were brought here in chains. They may have once been a great people. You can still see their faces carved into rock on the wall of a valley near Dondon.”
The Rover emerged from the dark valley forest and growled up a bare, rocky trail. With the clouds so thick in the sky overhead, it wasn't much lighter up here. They topped a ridge and descended again, switch-backing down toward another dark valley. Nate couldn't measure the miles they had come -- his childhood travels had always been blocks -- but they seemed to stay long on this stark mountainside as Evan spoke of the past. Nate reached into his pack again, surprised to find only two bottles left; and yet they were still on the same stony slopes. The narrow road was cut into rock, with a wall of it rising on Evan's side and a drop into darkness on Nate's. The air up here was a little cooler, but Nate didn't care to be clawing along on the edge of empty nothingness.
Then he felt the faintest breath of a breeze that died before it really began. Then a few raindrops spattered the windshield as if in warning of what was to come. And then it was like the whole sky had torn open! Rain rattled the roof and pounded the hood and drowned out the sound of the engine, cascading in through the windowless doors like the sea would fill a sinking ship.
"This is bad!" shouted Evan above the roar. "We must get to the valley and cross the river before it rises too high!" He thrust the bottle between his legs and drove with his head out the window, pressing his bare foot down on the gas despite the blinding downpour. "Watch your side!" he yelled to Nate. "Warn me if we get too close!”
Nate leaned out into primal fury. The raindrops seemed to rip at his eyes and slash his chest and back like teeth. The truck was already too close to the edge as far as he was concerned, but he tried to maintain six inches of cool before yelling a warning to Evan. Loose stones skittered from under the tires and plummeted into roaring space as the little truck lurched and tottered along. Water poured down from the rock face above, sometimes so hard that it shoved the truck sideways; and Nate was sure they'd be washed off the edge. But at last they descended a muddy slope and finally reached the forest below. The ruts of the trail were deeply flooded, and rain still hissed in the branches above, but here were only glittering ribbons that penetrated the tunnel of leaves. Evan shifted to a higher gear and sent the little truck bounding and bashing, flinging up sprays of muddy water and skidding wildly around the turns.
Nate saw the gleam of a river ahead, framed in a gap under massive old trees. On the ferny bank was a small open space, roofed by branches and twisted vines. A spire of stone stood stark in the middle, ten feet tall and covered with moss. The trees all around were unguessably ancient, the biggest he'd seen in Haiti so far. Their boughs ached out so high overhead, their foliage so thickly entangled that only slim trickles of water got through. Evan swerved around the stone, then stomped his foot on the brake, sliding the truck to a sideways stop at the very edge of the river. He leaned out to study the roiling water, then burst into ri-timoun curses.
"Damn it to chen-blowing hell! We are too mouching late!" He pounded the door with a fist in frustration, but finally relaxed and drew back inside with rainwater pouring off his locks. He shut off the engine and switched off the headlamp, but left the bulb on the dashboard alight. Then he turned to Nate with shrug.
"There are many worse things in the world, mwen fré. As you have surely seen for yourself. A storm of such fury cannot last forever, and there will be peace in the morning." He lounged comfortably back on the wet seat cushions and took a long swallow of beer. His smile was wide in the faint yellow glow as he passed the bottle to Nate. "I have you all to myself tonight. ...Is that cool?”
"Yeah," said Nate, returning the smile and seeing their ghost-faces doing the same. "I never been campin' before.”
Then he looked out at the shadowy forest. The only sounds were the rushing of rain on the leaves far above, its whispering hiss on the fast-flowing river, and the liquid music of falling water that trickled down from the branches and vines. The air was hot, and haunted with mist. Steam rose up from the moss on the ground to drift among the dripping ferns and shroud the trees in ghostly gray. "It's a good thing you ain't scared of me, Evan... ‘cause of my eyes, what I sayin’.”
Evan laughed like a child -- or the way all children should have laughed -- and again he seemed younger than he probably was. “I, too, as you’ve noticed, have zòkò zyes.” His body glistened like polished midnight, a mirror of Nate's in the windshield glass; and his eyes were as bright as the beads of his necklace gleaming like gold in the dashboard light. Water drops scattered like amber jewels as he wildly shook his tumble of hair.
Nate couldn’t have gotten any wetter, but defended his face with his hands. “Jeeze, man! You’re dangerous!”
“I used to be a collie before I got run over.”
“I guess you did not see the film.” Evan sprawled at ease with a leg on the seat, now facing Nate, who passed the bottle. He tilted it up and drank the remains, then sighed with pleasure and stroked his belly the way the kids in town had done. "I am very fond of beer," he laughed. "Which is cool, because we need the bottles.”
"Yeah," said Nate, patting his belly with wet smacking sounds. Then he scanned the forest again. "Beer makes the nights shorter, too.”
"Surely you are not afraid of the dark?”
"Don't call me Shirley.”
"That is a relic.”
Nate shrugged. "Bein’ scared of the dark ain’t one of my problems. But, ain't there snakes an' stuff that bite?”
"Nothing that is poisonous." Evan tossed the bottle out the rear window, then studied Nate from under his locks. "What have been your problems, Nathan?”
"...Well, nothin' like the kids' in this country. Compared to those my problems ain’t shit.”
"But they were real to you,” said Evan. “Tell me of them.”
"...Well, always bein' different. ...Not cool.”
"I know that feeling well," sighed Evan.
"'Course, now I know why," added Nate.
"Sure, man. I was born here. Like, it's in my bones. Like, I always missed this place. Like... somewhere inside I was always connected." Nate paused. "I wish I could say that in Kreyol." He touched Evan's foot with a fingertip. "I mean, like, somebody touched me here. Like with real love.”
"I am sure that is true," said Evan.
"Anyway,” Nate went on. “I know I missed somethin’ about this place... my 'roots,’ or maybe my ‘soul.’ ...But now, like you said, I'm back at the source, so there's one mystery solved." He spread his arms as wide as he could in the cramped confines of the little truck’s cab. "How old you figure I am?”
"I would say the same age as me.”
"Then you'd be wrong by at least four years.”
Evan laughed his child's laugh again. "You are not an old relic of twenty-one.”
"Huh?" Nate leaned close to Evan, almost bumping noses in shadow, inhaling the scents of beer and rainwater. Although he couldn't see much in the dark, he seemed to get an impression. "...Oh," he said. "Sorry, man. I guess it's them dreads that make you look cute.”
Evan appeared to roll his eyes. "Cute is not a curse, or you would be equally cursed.”
"Well, maybe not here," said Nate. "But, like I said, mwen fré, those kinda problems ain't jack in this place.”
Evan's teeth shone brightly again. "I like for you to call me brother. Please always do.”
"Sure,” said Nate. “An' you do the same." He turned to watch the fireflies as they wove a ghostly yellow-green dance around the mossy standing stone, which leaned as if toppling through the ages in infinite slow-motion. "So, you really believe in the Children Of Death?”
Evan’s smile grew wider. "From them you have nothing to fear. I only hope that my company does not bore you to death tonight. I have never been cool.” He sighed once more. “Ask any girl in Port-au-Prince.”
"I thought bein' cute wasn't a curse?”
"My curse, I fear, is being shy.”
Nate laughed. "You're shy, man? Somebody who drives over mountains an’ rivers, an' through the middle of haunted forests!”
"Whatever small courage I may possess always fails me with girls.”
Nate laughed again. "Oh, that's cool! I'm too cute to get girls in America, an' you’re too shy to get 'em in Haiti! We gonna make a good team. ...Um, are there girls in Savann Sou Zòkòs?”
"Oh, wi!" said Evan. "And there at home I am not so shy. ...Though, still a little different. But, I am learning to live with that as you have laid your ghosts to rest." Then his expression turned serious -- or at least Nate felt that it did -- and he pointed. "That stone marks the grave of the evil French governor, his soldiers and his savage dogs. Do you not think it fitting they’re buried together?”
Nate stared at the stone in surprise. "...It's like, what goes around comes around.”
"There is much truth in that,” said Evan. "In life as well as in death. ...Eskiz mwen, nature calls." He got out and walked to the stone, then drew down his shorts another half inch and pissed on the mossy old monument. Nate considered the significance of that, then got out to do the same. They both swayed a bit on their feet, their shoulders touching, slick with rain.
"We gots en more bye, mwen fré," said Nate. "In a while we can show that heartless ol’ bastaed what we think of him again.”
"I could drink many more," laughed Evan. "And piss all night on his grave." Then he turned to Nate and asked solemnly, "Do you think I am cool?”
Just as solemnly, Nate put his hands on Evan's shoulders and leaned beneath Evan’s dreads. Their noses touched in the darkness. "Yeah, mwen fré. You the coolest dude I ever met. I feel like I known you all my life.”
Evan lay his arms over Nate's. "And not too mouching cute?”
"Nah, man. Even if I can't see nothin'. ...Um, you think I'm cool, too? An' not too mouchin' cute?”
"I see you clearly, Nathan. I can only wish to look as cool. And I also feel I have known you always." Evan stepped away and slipped out of his shorts, standing naked in the mist. He spread his arms and leaned far back as if to welcome the unseen moon. A ribbon of rain from the leaves overhead pattered his chest and ran down his body to spatter the moss at his feet. "I am a child of Death!" he shouted.
Nate wondered what this was about... some sort of Voodoo thing? But it sounded like something a child would say to make up his own magic rites... even if it sounded spooky.
Nate's jeans clung heavy and low on his hips, a burden like an unwanted skin. The air was hot and wet with steam. Water was everywhere, cleansing his face, washing the dirt and sweat from his body. He was thousands of miles from anywhere, far from a world where he’d never belonged. He had started his journey in a flying palace, a multi-million-dollar machine. And now?
He glanced at the battered old Third-World truck. He seemed to be losing things on this journey... possessions, his money, and who he had been. What did a few rags matter? He gazed around at this misty, ferny, forested place, then kicked off his shoes and peeled off his jeans. The spice-scented moss felt good underfoot, and the streamers of steam caressed him. Spreading his own feet and arms, he offered himself to the unseen sky. “I am a child of Death!” he shouted.
Suddenly, Evan caught him.
Nate tensed for an instant, maybe in fear, locked in Evan's sudden embrace. But then he felt a sensation of peace, warm like the trickles of rain all around. He could feel Evan's heartbeat against his chest, and its rhythm matched that of his own. He hugged the other boy tight in return. Evan's kiss seemed a natural thing, tasting of rain and salted with sweat, which was also the flavor of tears.
Evan whispered, "Welcome home, my brother.”
Nate felt clean when he let go of Evan. He drew a deep breath of the hot steamy air, the seminal-scented aromas of earth. "Now I feel like I really am home.”
He gazed around once more. "But, this place is so strange to me. At first I thought I was only coming to try an' find my parents. To axe 'em things. Like any kid has a right to do.”
Evan was leaning against the stone, a shadow in shadows, his shoulder to moss. His arms were folded across his chest, and one bare foot cocked over the other... a ri-timoun stance like a kid in a doorway. "Can you tell me these things you wish to ask?”
"I wanted to know why they sent me away. But I think I figured that out myself.”
"Did you, Nathan?”
"Yeah. Maybe the same reason your parents did. To get another perspective on life. Maybe to make me appreciate things I might have taken for granted... a chance to really live a life instead of just surviving.”
"I understand," said Evan.
"An’ I thought they could tell me who I was." Nate touched Evan's shoulder. "But, you did that.”
"Yeah, mwen fré. I'm someone like you. I'm cool in this place." Nate looked down at his glistening body. "Just like I am, here in my skin." He fingered his necklace and laughed. "Which is all I ever had anyway.”
Evan’s teeth shone bright in the shadows. "Thank you, Nathan, mwen fré." But then the smile faded to darkness. "But I am not doing a very good job of helping you learn of yourself." He hesitated. "I have only just found out who I am.”
"Huh?” asked Nate. “What you talkin' about, man? This is the very first time in my life I ever felt I belonged somewhere.”
Evan's smile flashed for a moment. "The night is still very young. But, what was your third question? Or, is it only for your parents?"
"How you know I had another question?”
"Because I, too, had another.”
Nate sighed. "Why did they let me think they were dead? Like, I didn't have no family, an' no one who loved me except my ol' aunt who would probably die while I was still young.”
"As did my uncle," said Evan.
Nate considered. "An' then I'd be at the mercy of Death with no one to give me a reason to live. I had to figure that out myself. An' then I had to find my way back.”
Once more came the bright gleam of teeth in the dark. "And you have.”
"Do you know my parents?" asked Nate.
"As well as you may soon." Evan lifted his face toward the unseen sky. "The rain will not last much longer and we will be home in the morning.”
Nate also looked skyward, seeing the faintest glimmer of moonlight trying to penetrate the leaves. "It's cool bein' here with you. I wish it could go on forever.”
"I also wish that," said Evan. "Just you and I here in this place with no more of life to trouble us.”
Nate smiled. "Well, since we are here, wanna have the last beer an' finish the story?”
"Ah, wi, the story." Evan went to the truck and hopped up on the hood. He settled with his back to the windshield and Nate joined him a moment later. They sat for a minute, slick shoulders touching, the gentle rain falling warm on their skin while Evan seemed to gather his thoughts. Finally, he took a sip of beer and handed the bottle to Nate.
"As I said, little is known about the first people who lived in this land, and by the time the French arrived there were only a few left alive. The governor seemed determined to wipe out even their memory. A handful of runaway slaves had joined them. There were rumors of mingling African Voodoo and native magic, casting spells to protect themselves. This enraged the governor, who no doubt believed in a god of his own... though seemingly a heartless god. The hunting of children became an obsession, even perhaps a holy crusade, and the dogs were allowed to tear them apart. It is said that even the soldiers grew sickened. Some deserted, hoping to join up with pirates whose ships often touched the northern coast. But that made them traitors to the governor's god and their fate was the same as the children's.”
Evan's eyes seemed to glow in their shadows. "It is said that one night, at the full of the moon, the governor learned that the last of these children had taken refuge in this valley. Despite the reluctance of his soldiers, he set off at once to kill them all." Evan looked to the river: the rain was hardly a whisper now and the silver moonlight was growing brighter. "He never returned. Days passed. At last his remaining soldiers went searching.”
Evan faced Nate once again. "They found the governor and all his men lying dead in this very place. Their hearts had been torn from their bodies." Teeth shone suddenly stark in the shadows. "The fate of the heartless, dead without hearts." He touched Nate's chest. "And dead without souls, for there is no soul where there is no heart and that is death forever.”
A chill ran down Nate's spine in the heat. He looked at the old leaning stone, and then down at the moss-covered earth as if bones and skulls might come rising up. Finally, he took a big gulp of beer. "Um... so, what happened? Did the kids attack 'em, like, by surprise?”
"So it was judged by the blanc," said Evan, and teeth gleamed again in a very wide smile.
"But, what do you think happened?” asked Nate.
"Some people spoke of children's prayers that called forth a vengeance upon the heartless, and that is what I believe." Then Evan shrugged. "But, whatever had happened, this place was abandoned by the French and many of its former slaves escaped to join and care for the children. They are our ancestors, Nathan.”
Despite the story's grimness, Nate smiled. "An' we all lived happily ever after. No wonder little kids like that story.”
Evan nodded. "Old stories are important because those who do not learn from their past are always doomed to repeat it. But the world out there does not listen and learn.”
Nate turned to the shadowy tunnel of road that led back to Terre Rouge. "All children are born knowing how to love, but they have to be taught how to hate.”
“And it is the heartless who teach them,” said Evan. “And thus many children lose their souls before realizing they have them. This place became known as Savann Sou Zòkòs, and to this day the heartless avoid it, and those who are fool enough to come here are often found with their hearts torn out, as dead in death as they were in life.”
Nate turned back to Evan, but could only see the gleam of teeth in a hollow place of darkness. He almost let out a sigh of relief when Evan's eyes caught the glint of the lamp still burning inside the cab. Evan scooted across the hood to sit on the fender and gaze at the stone. His face was hidden in profile again beneath his dripping mane of locks. Nate took a drink, then shifted position to sit beside Evan. The words sounded childish, but he couldn't think of anything else: "So, I guess that's the end of the story?”
Evan's face was still turned away: not even the snub of his nose could be seen. He sat for a time in silence. Finally, he shrugged. "Perhaps someday and sometime it will end, when everyone lives and dies with hearts. But, not long after those events, a child was born in Savann Sou Zòkòs with eyes like yours and mine. Zòkò zyes. Eyes that frightened some people because they seemed to search the heart. ...Or, as we say, for a heart.”
It suddenly felt as if all the wet heat had turned into ice on Nate's body! Evan's shoulder was still touching his, but it might have been the burial stone for all the warmth it possessed. Something flickered deep in Nate’s mind, the ghost of a shadow from far in the past... maybe what he'd been trying to find ever since his aunt had died? He realized that Evan's face had never been completely seen... mostly hidden by his hair, or shrouded in darkness for most of this night. But that had only been natural. It wasn't as if...
Nate’s mind shied away from that hollowness... of course Evan had a face! There were full pouty lips, the large amber eyes, and gently rounded childish cheeks... Nate had seen them in sunlight. ...He was sure he had. It wasn't only shadows and teeth!
The chill seemed to pass, but Nate was still trembling. He set down the bottle and raised his hands -- the left to Evan's nearer shoulder, the right across Evan's chest to the other -- to turn the boy to face him. Evan's skin was slick with rain, warm and glistening ebony; the same as it had always been... the same as when they had kissed as brothers.
Evan didn't resist the touch, but softly murmured, "I warned you I was not good at this.”
Nate hesitated, one hand still on Evan's shoulder, the other still reaching to turn him.
"Perhaps," said Evan. "You should not look.”
Nate's throat had gone dry, and he had to swallow before he could ask: "What am I gonna see?”
Evan took Nate's hand in both of his and pressed it over his heart. He lowered his head and his locks tumbled forward, hiding his face even more. "I do not know, mwen fré. Maybe what you wish to see. Maybe what you fear to see. ...Perhaps what you deserve to see.”
Nate was surprised to feel Evan tremble. The heartbeat had quickened beneath his palm. The warm shape of chest muscle shuddered as if Evan was fighting back tears. Nate swallowed again. "Do I have a choice?”
"I do not know that either, Nathan. I only know that I have made mine. I found my own way here alone, and then I made the choice to stay." Evan's grip tightened, holding Nate's hand. "You don’t have to look, not in this place. I could take you back.”
Nate's eyes went to the shadowy trail, but then he shook his head. "Back to what, Evan? If I don't belong here, I don't belong nowhere.”
Evan let go with one of his hands and pointed to the windshield. The rain-washed glass was an ebony mirror, dimly lit by the glow within. "Look there and you will see the same face. We are twins, mwen fré.”
The shock was a small one to Nate; a truth already half suspected. He almost turned to look at himself, but wondered if that would make any difference. Whatever face he saw in there would be looking out of every mirror for all the rest of his life. He kept his eyes on the boy beside him. "That's why I was always so lonely. I missed you.”
"As I always missed you." Evan lowered his head again, and recaptured Nate's hand in both of his. "It has only been weeks since I have returned. And it might have been me who is sitting there now and feeling what you are feeling." Then a small note of hope came into his voice. "I have been waiting for you. I thought it would be so very cool to have my brother beside me again.”
"...Again?” said Nate. “...Oh, yeah. Again.”
Evan almost looked up, forgetting himself. "You could wait until morning, Nathan. Our parents can explain much better. You have waited for seventeen years...”
"No!" With a sudden fierce effort, Nate turned Evan to face him and saw what he deserved to see.
The rain had stopped and the clouds were lifting somewhere high above the trees. Moonlight shafted down through the leaves to gleam on the fast-flowing river. Mist still drifted among the foliage, and water continued to trickle and patter. Fireflies wove their ghostly dance around the ancient mossy stone.
And two boys sat on the riverbank among the steamy ferns.
Nate asked, "Does everyone here have eyes like ours?”
Evan smiled, and the moon shone bright on his happy face, the gently-rounded, snub-nosed face of a boy who was older than he looked. "Non, mwen fré. Only us, the Children Of Death." His teeth gleamed brightly, a little too large. "We will always be different, even here. ...Do you remember now?”
“Yeah, I remember everything." Nate looked at the ancient moss-covered stone as it toppled in infinite slow-motion. “Everything since then.” He turned to the river, which mirrored the moon. "When can we cross?”
"Soon after sunrise," said Evan.
Nate sighed. "The night is still young.”
Evan sighed, too. "I wish we had more beer.”
Nate looked back at the trail to town, then he smiled very widely. "I know someone who should have some beer.”
Evan reflected his brother's smile. "He is long overdue for a visit from us."