See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories.
This is a multi-chapter novel. Chapters: Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7 | Chapter 8 | Chapter 9 | Chapter 10 | Chapter 11 | Chapter 12 | Chapter 13 | Chapter 14 | Chapter 15 | Chapter 16 | Chapter 17 | Chapter 18 | Chapter 19
Author’s Note: I rewrote the ending of the last chapter, and I’ve included it here.
“I will tell you a secret. Some of the flock stayed with you, or they joined you. They have been with you all along. They have never stopped loving you. Who are they? You know them by what they do.” – Tio Niko
Back From the War
He showered in lukewarm water with a light spray – the first since the fire. It was painful but good. His mother’s story had provided no genuine resolution, but really, what could she say? Yet he felt his depression lifting. The words of one of Tio Niko’s poems, one Omar used to recite often in his youth, popped back into his mind:
I thought I was drowning
but God was in the water
and I breathed
where I should not have been able to breathe.
I felt hands of flame upon me
stoking the embers of my soul
and I was baptized in rushing,
until I understood
that I must not take life for granted
and must neither fear death
nor greet it at the door.
After praying dhuhr and putting on some clean clothes, he headed downstairs, where he found Fuad sitting at the kitchen table with Samia and Nur. Fuad could have been an Indian fashion model with his olive green suit, immaculate haircut and perfectly trimmed beard, while Ivana, to his surprise, was at the stove cooking. Mama was there too of course, as well as her husband Masood, who looked like an Arab diplomat in his tailored white suit and Italian loafers. Berlina sat at Masood’s feet, and he reached down now and then to rub her ears.
Nur was drawing, and the rest were watching Ivana cook, except for Samia of course, who kept asking Ivana questions about her preparation method.
From the stairs Omar smiled weakly and greeted them, then said, “Hey Nunu. Do you have a pinwheel to put on the gate?” To his amazement the boy cried, “Papá!” and ran to him as if he were a soldier returning from the war. Nur embraced Omar’s legs and chattered excitedly about the new set of drawing pencils that Uncle Fuad had given him, and how a picture of an alien city he drew had won first place in a drawing contest at school.
“Come and sit, primo!” Ivana exclaimed, speaking in English but using the Spanish word for first cousin. “I make you a meal fit for a man risen from the dead.”
“I wasn’t dead.”
“Playing dead, then,” she enthused. “Like an opossum. You know they do not only pretend? When I was a girl my father used to take me to walk in the forest. Many people do not know that Cuba has the largest virgin forests in the Caribbean. We saw all kinds of animals. When an opossum is threatened, it slows its heart and breathing, de verdad, and becomes like a dead thing.”
“I don’t know if that’s a fair comparison,” Omar grumbled.
“Be silence,” she said sternly. “Sit.”
He sat, and she placed before him a sandwich made of sliced bread that was grilled and pressed flat. It was stuffed to the breaking point. Beside it she set a small dish of fried plantain slices.
“Cuban sandwich,” Ivana said, beaming as she also served sandwiches to Masood and Fuad, and a mini sandwich for Nur. “Turkey, Swiss cheese, sautee onion and pepper, pickle and mustard. Little bit olive oil and vinegar. Simple. Food of the campesino.”
“What about us?” Ximena complained.
“No, only for brave, strong men who protect us.”
“Doesn’t seem fair,” Samia muttered.
Omar looked at Ivana, with her broad smile and white teeth. What was she playing at? “Why did you call me primo?” he repeated. Of course he was her cousin, but it surprised him that she would acknowledge it.
“First, eat the food.”
He took a bite. Instantly, his mouth began watering like Angel Falls. He hadn’t realized until this moment how hungry he was. Hungry wasn’t even the world. He was famished, like a jaguar lost in the desert for a month. The sandwich was indescribably good. The flavors complemented and merged like a symphony.
Ivana sat across the table. “His name,” she said in Spanish, “is Santiago Francisco Bayano Benjumeda. He was born in 1935 in Portobelo, on the Caribbean side of Panama. Sam Sharpe, the Jamaican slave who fought the British, was his great grandfather. His own father – our great grandfather – traveled to Venezuela to fight with Simón Bolívar in the campaigns of the Orinoco River basin. Simón Bolívar, the great man himself, can you imagine? I am not defending Santiago’s actions. I am saying that he was raised on a diet of revolution going back generations. It’s in our blood.”
Omar hadn’t grasped at first who Ivana was talking about, but it dawned on him after a moment that she meant Melocoton. Santiago Francisco Bayano Benjumeda. So that was the man’s real name. He stared at this woman, waxing poetic about a deadbeat. Omar might have been outraged, might have told her he didn’t want to hear it, except that the sandwich was so exquisitely good that he couldn’t stop eating. Ivana had, he realized, manipulated him perfectly.
“Santiago believed,” Ivana went on, “that the Cuban revolution was the key to social justice for Latin America. Cuba would become a staging point to return power to the campesinos, the indios, the Afro-Latinos. But he saw Castro becoming paranoid, suppressing free thought and speech. So he left and went to China, where he believed that Chinese Communism represented a break from the oppression of the past. He didn’t know that my grandmother was pregnant, you understand? He didn’t know that my mother existed. That’s why he was so shocked when you said that he was my grandfather. He was grief stricken.”
“But,” Omar said in the middle of chewing, “he knew my father existed, yes? Yet he abandoned my grandmother.”
Ivana nodded, yielding the point. “He knew. In China, instead of the progressive revolution he imagined, he found a backward country, with people starving to death due to nationalization of agriculture. He worked on a farm himself, just a pair of hands. They called him Taozi or “Peach” because of his frizzy hair. No one cared about his knowledge or experience. The Cultural Revolution followed, and he learned to keep his mouth shut or be labelled as counter-revolutionary. Still, he was patient. He believed in the Chinese socialist experiment. But after Tienanmen Square he knew that China had lost its way.”
“He returned to Panama. He tried to be a part of your father’s life. Your father suspected that Santiago might be his parent, but Santiago always denied it out of shame. His whole life was based on false assumptions, you know? The revolutionary zeal had been implanted in him, but all he found was people selling out their ideals, intoxicated by power, repeating the same dynamics of oppression they had fought against. You can’t believe how wracked he is with regret. And he loves you, Omar.”
At the utterance of the word love, Omar felt a surge of anger. He held up a hand. “Back up with that nonsense. It was a nice story. But whatever Kool-Aid you drank, I’ll pass.”
Ivana tilted her head as if considering her next line of attack. “Eat your plantains.”
He ate one. They were fried crisply on the outside, but soft and buttery inside. All his anger faded as he chewed the delicious morsel.
“Forget that word,” Ivana said. “Could you at least consider that he is not a bad man? That he made a mistake, and it was such a big mistake that he couldn’t recover? That he is, in fact, human?”
Omar ate another plantain slice. “I’ll consider it.”
Ximena’s phone rang. She answered it, argued with someone, then hung up. “The hospital,” she said. “Stupid doctors. Don’t they know who my brother is? He’s not someone to just die in a bed like -”
“Mamá,” Omar broke in. “What did they say?”
“They claim he is near death. A few hours, they say. And he is asking for you, Omar.”
Omar wiped his mouth with a napkin. “Then let’s go.”
The smells of lemon-scented cleaning fluid, bleach, and the faint trace of vomit, all blended to form that unique scent known as eau-de-hospital. This was not a scent, Omar thought, that Puro Panameño would incorporate into its products anytime soon.
Tio Celio was in the burn unit at Punta Pacifica Hospital, a private facility that was the best in Panama. He’d been taken to Hospital Nacional first, but quickly moved to PPH because they had a hyperbaric oxygen chamber. Omar had never been here before and was impressed by the massive size and gleaming floors. Nevertheless, hospitals were hospitals, and he was tired of the same old institutional scents, lights, food, and colors. He would be happy never to set foot in another hospital in his life. Yet he had to be at Hospital Nacional tomorrow for another procedure on his knees.
Walking down the whitewashed corridor with Samia’s arm linked in his, and with Ximena and Masood behind, they arrived at the waiting room for the critical care unit. They’d stopped by Nadia’s house and dropped Nur off, knowing that children were not allowed in this area of the hospital. Ivana had elected to stay in the car, while Fuad, who worked in this hospital, had gone off to do rounds.
The small room was packed. Men and women of the Ngäbe-Buglé tribe filled the room and spilled over to the elevator lobby. Omar recognized Anibel Guerra, the krägä bianga, and Amauro, the broad-shouldered governor of Kädridri district. The men wore Sunday slacks and dress shirts, and some held brimmed hats in their hands. They were stony faced and silent, typical of the Ngäbe around outsiders. Nearly all the women wore nagua dresses of various colors. Their long black hair was tied either in ponytails or braids. Many were red-eyed from crying.
Omar looked at them. These were poor people, among the poorest in Panama. Most were not literate. Some were highly religious, and most were suspicious of outsiders, even paranoid. Omar had once met a North American Peace Corps volunteer who’d worked for three years in the comarca, teaching the Ngäbe how to treat diseased cacao trees. Even after three years, the man said, most of the Ngäbe remained suspicious of him. They believed he had evil intentions, that he wanted to survey their land for mining companies, or sell it to the Chinese. Some thought he was there to bring war, though it was unclear with whom.
Alcoholism, teen pregnancy and violence were all problems among the tribespeople. Yet these were the hardest working people one could meet. They were farmers and warriors, and strangers within their own country. They were Omar’s people, as much as anyone else.
They recognized Mamá. Those who were sitting rose when she entered – all except for the krägä bianga, who remained seated, back straight and eyes lidded.
A knot of middle aged men and women approached Mamá and engaged in rapid conversation in Ngäbere, of which Omar grasped only a few words: eteba meaning brother, rünkwe meaning father, and the words for death and God. His mother’s tone was heated. She turned to him: “These are Don Celio’s children. Your cousins.” She indicated a man who was more elderly than the others, a short, teak-skinned man with bloodshot eyes, who wore a black necktie. “Nicho.”
Nicho stepped forward and seized Omar’s shirt with both hands. Though the man was short, he was phenomenally strong, and actually lifted Omar onto his tiptoes. Nicho’s face twisted in anger. “What did you get my father involved in?” he demanded in Spanish. “This is all your fault.”
Omar smelled alcohol on the man’s breath, and realized the red eyes were not only due to grief. He relaxed his muscles, turning his body into dead weight, and said nothing. To his shock, his mother slapped Nicho across the face. The man released Omar and staggered, then turned and walked away.
“What were you arguing with him about?”
His mother’s nostrils flared. “Nicho signed a do not resuscitate order. I told him he was a fool. The doctors will let my brother die because he is the Black Knife. What do you say?”
Why was she asking him? It wasn’t his place to speak about such a thing.
“Omar,” someone said.
He looked around, and spotted Tio Niko and Tia Teresa sitting in a nook some distance from the other Ngäbe. He hadn’t noticed them there. With his mother at his side, he walked to them and embraced them. Teresa was a tiny, slender woman, and looked like a younger version of Omar’s mother. Niko’s upper body was hard with muscle. It was like hugging a fire hydrant. His legs, however, were as thin as beanpoles.
“Did you come to see him?” Ximena asked her sister.
Teresa shook her head. “Our thing has never been right. But I couldn’t stay away.”
Niko nodded to Omar. “Walk with me.” He propelled his wheelchair into motion down the corridor, further away from the crowd. When they were some distance away he said, “I saw what happened. Are you upset?”
“Yes. But I don’t know why.”
Niko nodded and gestured for Omar to come closer. Omar squatted next to him. Because he knew uncle Niko well, he knew a poem was coming. But that didn’t bother him.
“The poet Ricardo Miró,” Niko said, “wrote about a seagull who is left behind by his flock. The flock disappears to some unknown shore, and this seagull is left flying alone, forgotten by the others, and filled with a growing and persistent longing.
“Imagine, Omar, that you are that seagull. But the flock did not abandon you. Rather, you chose to go your own way, seeking a new land. At times you are happy with your choice. You see beneath you a brilliant white shore of virgin sand. You are carried high by the wind, seeing above the clouds for the first time. You witness things the flock will never see. The truth dazzles your eyes. You have moments of anger, but it’s not clear if you are angry at the flock for leaving, or yourself for letting them go. You cannot shake the longing for something you cannot name. This is how I see you, my nephew. From the first moment I knew you, clear eyed and curly headed, this is how I have seen you.”
Omar didn’t fully understand what Niko was saying, but the words moved something inside him, some untouched chord that had been aching to be plucked, to vibrate and hum. Some truth that no one else had seen. He felt like a boy again, running away to Teresa and Niko’s house, and he remembered how that had been his only refuge during those years after his father died.
Niko put an arm around his shoulders and said, “Now I will tell you a secret. Some of the flock stayed with you, or they joined you. They have been with you all along. They have never stopped loving you. Who are they? You know them by what they do.”
With that Niko embraced Omar tightly and kissed him on the temple. Then he said, “Go see Don Celio.”
Hell And Back
In order to avoid passing any infection to Don Celio, Omar and his mother had to don gowns, gloves and masks, and even wear protective booties over their shoes.
Tio Celio was asleep. Omar was shocked at the man’s condition. A blanket covered his body, but his arms were outside the blanket, resting on his chest, and Omar saw that they were heavily bandaged, and that – he looked carefully to make sure he wasn’t imagining it – three of the fingers of the left hand were gone. One of his eyes was covered with a bandage as well, and his face had the pallor of ash. An oxygen mask was fitted over his mouth and nose.
A bald, middle-aged doctor was reviewing Celio’s chart. Mamá made a sound of choked surprise, and said to the doctor in a tone of barely concealed rage, “What did you do to his hand?”
The doctor looked up. “Señora Bayano. I’m sorry, the fingers developed a dangerous infection. We had to remove them. The same with his eye.”
“You – you took his eye? You monsters. You’ll do anything to stop him.” She took a step forward, and Omar thought she might attack the doctor. He gripped her arm tightly to retrain her. “You took advantage of his son’s stupidity,” she went on. “When Celio gets well he’ll deal with you.”
“Señora Bayano,” the doctor repeated. His face was grave. “I’m sorry to be blunt, but as I said before he has major burns over a significant portion of his body. We gave him hyperbaric oxygen therapy for three days and I believe it helped tremendously. But the odds are slim that he will survive. We could probably keep him alive for another few months with multiple skin grafts, but he would be in constant, severe pain. That’s not pessimism. It’s an honest assessment. His son was right to sign the DNR.”
“Stop, Mamá,” Omar said.
She turned to him with pleading eyes. “I always thought he would die on his feet, fighting for justice, like your father. Not in a bed.”
“Our Prophet, sal-Allahu alayhim wa-sallam, died in a bed.”
His mother fell silent at this, and Omar saw her face change and soften, as if she had just understood and solved some strange puzzle that had been tormenting her.
“Why is everyone… talking about me… like I am dead?” Celio said in a whisper. He’d pulled the oxygen mask aside to speak. His face was taut with pain.
Ximena began to apologize, but Omar said, “You are one crazy old man, Tio Celio. I can’t believe you did that, back there on the bridge.”
“I feel… like I’ve been to Hell… and back… I must say… the experience… does not bear… repeating.” He broke into a coughing fit that ended in a groan of pain.
“Señor Natá,” the doctor protested. “This won’t do. You must put your mask back on and rest. These people can come back later.”
“What later?… You just said… I am dying. Leave me… You too Ximena. I want… to talk to my nephew.”
“But Señor Natá -”
“Leave us!” Celio devolved into another terrible coughing fit.
The doctor shook his head in disgust, but he left the room, as did Omar’s mother.
Omar let his eyes wander around the room. There were no flowers. There was a strange smell in the room, familiar yet unidentifiable. A leather cord bearing a long, curved tooth and a huge black feather hung from the IV stand. Omar guessed they were a jaguar’s tooth and harpy feather, symbolizing the Ngäbe-Buglé throne. His gaze wandered down Celio’s body to the old man’s jutting feet, hidden by the blanket, and he realized there was something wrong with the silhouette they presented.
“Did they amputate some of your toes?” he asked.
Celio flicked a finger. “Doesn’t… matter.”
“Hmm. I heard you were asking for me.”
“You know… what I want. I have… a vision… of you… on the throne… You will lead… our people… into the future.” Celio replaced the oxygen mask and took several deep breaths.
Omar shook his head. “I can’t do it. That’s not my vision. Besides, I don’t believe in kings. No man has the right to absolute power. And there’s only one King. Maliki yawmid-deen.”
“Iyyaka na’badu…” Celio whispered, “wa iyyaka… nastaeen.”
Omar’s eyes widened. “You know Surat Al-Fatihah?”
“I told you… I have traveled. In… the Muslim world… every meeting… is preceded… by Al-Fatihah.”
“But you don’t believe in Islam?”
“I am… as my people… require.”
Omar experienced a moment of revelation. Not a religious revelation, but a pure thought that seemed to come from outside himself. These last few months had turned his life upside down, but if his life was a puzzle then this was a key piece falling into place, and along with it an entire plan that unfolded in his mind like a map to the future. He knew what he had to do.
“I have an idea. A counter-offer, if you will. And a condition to go with it.”
Celio looked at Omar and nodded at him to continue. On impulse, Omar took out his phone, set it to video record, and propped it on the table beside the bed. Celio saw this but said nothing.
“I will work for the Ngäbe-Buglé,” Omar said, “full time. Not on the comarca but in the city. I’ll quit my job at Puro Panameño and open an office to help not only the Ngäbe, but also the Venezuelans, the indentured Chinese, and any other dispossessed and oppressed people in Panama. I’ll have lawyers to help the Ngäbe fight land takeovers. I’ll find volunteers to teach literacy, dig wells and install solar panels. I mean, I’m improvising at the moment but I’ll work with Amauro and the other governors. They’ll tell me what they need and I’ll do my best. That’s my offer. Take it or leave it.”
Celio removed the mask. “Yes. I accept your offer… You have… my blessing… And… The condition?”
Omar swallowed and moved closer to his uncle. He hesitated, then looked the old man in his one good eye. “Say, ‘Laa ilaha il-Allah.’ You know that too?”
Celio nodded, then replaced his mask and shut his eye. His breathing slowed, and Omar started to think the man had fallen asleep. He looked around for a chair but there were none. Finally Celio opened his eye and said, “Water.”
There was a jug of water on a counter against the wall, and a wrapped plastic cup. Omar poured water and brought it to Celio’s dry lips.
When he was finished, Celio said, “You speak… and I… will repeat.”
It took a moment for the meaning of the words to sink in. Omar swallowed again, his mouth suddenly dry. “It has to come from your heart. You have to believe it, to mean it.”
“I never… do anything… without total… commitment. Say!”
It took a long, painstaking time to give Celio the shahadah, first in Arabic, then in Spanish. When he was done, Celio replaced his mask, closed his eye, and set his hands on his chest, one over the other. Tension seemed to drain out of him. Even his face relaxed, as if the terrible pain of his injuries had vanished. Omar thought Celio was dying right now, before his eyes. But no, the chest continued to rise and fall, and Omar knew the old man had fallen asleep.
He too felt as if a massive weight had been lifted. It was as if he’d broken all the bones in his body at some point and had been living in a full-body cast, and now the cast had been removed. He suddenly realized what the strange smell was that he’d noticed in the room. It was the smell of burnt agave leaves. The krägä bianga had performed a ritual here. Well, maybe it would help. It had certainly helped Omar himself.
How would he tell all those anxious Ngäbes outside about this? Would they look upon him as a foreign carpetbagger, come to steal the soul of their king? Would they seize him and throw him out of a window? Should he even tell them? Was it any of their business?
He leaned down and kissed Tio Celio on the forehead, then slipped out of the room. He felt in his bones that he would never see the old man alive again. But he would keep the promise he’d made.
In the lobby, people gathered around him silently, looking to him for news about Celio’s condition. Omar’s hands moved before he knew what he planned to do. He took his phone out of his pocket and played the video he’d just made, holding the phone so that the people around him could see it. If he was going to work with these people, if he was going to help them, then they had to know he was doing it with Celio’s blessing, or they would never accept him.
There were some quiet exclamations of dismay at Celio’s deteriorated condition. Once Omar’s words sunk in, however – his offer to dedicate his life to helping the Ngäbes, and Celio’s endorsement of his idea – he saw many dark eyes looking at him speculatively, and with a newfound respect. He almost stopped the video at that point but… he didn’t. He let it play.
The people watched intently as Omar gave Celio the shahadah, word by word. He saw many frowns of confusion. As the import of his words sunk in, however, a myriad of reactions broke out. There were some angry exclamations. A few people raised questions: “What language is that?” And, “What does all that mean?” But Omar saw others silently mouthing the words of the shahadah along with Celio. As he realized what he had done, it shook him. These people practically worshiped Celio Natá. As their king did, so would they do.
His gaze shot to his mother, who stood with Masood at her side. He saw, for the second time in one day and the second time in his life, that she was weeping. Beside her, Samia’s mouth hung open. When the video ended, Omar stood awkwardly. His mother came to him and kissed him on the cheek.
“You’re not mad that I’m leaving the company?”
She shook her head. “No, baby.”
“I don’t know what to say to these people right now.”
“You go. I’ll talk to them.”
Omar took his wife’s arm and left.
They found Ivana sitting in the car, listening to Cuban salsa and waving her arms. Fuad, she explained, was still seeing patients. He would take a taxi home later.
“So what happened with your crazy uncle?” Ivana wanted to know.
In response, Omar again took out his phone and played the video. Ivana watched intently. When it was over, she had a fascinated yet confused expression on her face. “I don’t understand,” she said. “What does that mean? That he took your religion?”
“It’s so easy like that?”
“But why would he do that? He is an Indio, not an Arab.”
Omar was tired. He was still not fully recovered from his injuries, and from his extended bout of depression. He tried to answer, but no words would come.
“Tell me something,” Samia said. “Who are you, Ivana Soto Serrano? Sometimes you’re a party girl wearing European fashions and bragging about being a beauty queen. Other times you extol the virtues of communist revolutionaries like Castro and Che Guevara. But today, I heard you criticize those same revolutionaries as you spoke about the failings of socialism. So who are you?”
Ivana shrugged. “I am all of those things. I’m a woman and a Cuban. We are self-contradictory by nature.”
Samia nodded. “We all are.”
“You are all women and Cubans?”
“No, self-contradictory. And I think Celio Natá understands that. He understands that only under laa ilaha il-Allah – there is no God but Allah – can our conflicting practices and yearnings be resolved. You want revolution? There is nothing more revolutionary than laa ilaha il-Allah. It says that all human beings are equal before God. In one swoop it invalidates monarchy, dictatorship, tribalism and racism. Imagine what this would do to Latin America, the most racially polarized continent in the world. Yet at the same time, it does not strip away people’s wealth and property. And it doesn’t negate the value of beauty – in fact the Prophet, peace be upon him, said, Allah is beautiful and loves beauty.”
Omar sensed that Samia could have gone on, but she restrained herself and fell silent.
Ivana held out her hand. “Let me see the video again.” Omar gave her the phone and she played the video, this time repeating the words of the shahadah along with Celio, in Arabic and English. She returned the phone.
“What – ” Samia stuttered. “What were you doing?”
“I said your saying. I am Muslim now, yes?”
“But… Do you believe it?”
Samia touched a hand to her mouth. “Then yes… You are Muslim.”
“Okay! That’s good. I think it will be good for my marriage too, you know? My beloved baby will be happy.” With that she put the car in gear and began to drive.
Samia touched Omar’s arm. Her face bore an expression that seemed to say, “What just happened?”
Omar patted her hand, but could not respond further. He was so tired. He laid his head back against the seat and was about to let himself drift off to sleep when he saw something on the side of the road that made him exclaim, “Stop the car!”
“What?” Ivana looked around, slowing. “Is there a doggie in the street?”
“No! Just pull over, stop the car.”
Next: Day of the Dogs, Chapter 21 – The Conch
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Wael Abdelgawad’s novels – including Pieces of a Dream, The Repeaters and Zaid Karim Private Investigator – are available in ebook and print form on his author page at Amazon.com.