[This is the first in a series of blogs about my 120 days incarcerated in an African prison — Fractal Bob]
The boy had just run into the blistering sun and across the yellow yard when One-Eyed Paul, the bandy-legged prophet, entered the narrow shadow under the eaves of Cell #3. Our home.
“What do you want with this boy, Blue-Eyed Devil?”
My eyes are brown, not blue, with flecks of green, a lover once observed as we lay entwined in her bed one dulcet spring afternoon an epoch ago. In a last gasp of male narcissism, I remembered what she said about my eyes, but I have forgotten her name.
“I’m his father as long as I’m here,” I said. “I see that he is fed. I take him to the toilet. I tell him bedtime stories.”
“What is so special about you? There are many fathers here,” One-Eyed Paul said.
The boy came back, skipping like boys do. “Look, Father Bob, I found a stone in the yard,” he said. “We can make soup.”
“No one can make soup from a stone,” Paul told the boy.
“Chill out. It’s just a story,” I said.
“I am watching you,” One-Eyed Paul told me before he left us. “You will not break the rules.”
Prisoners were the law here, and they had scrawled the rules in chalk on the black walls of the cell. No nakedness. No stealing. No begging. Paul Banda was our magistrate, the little king of everything, and indeed, the Rules also said there would be no sodomy among prisoners and certainly no ungodly treatment of young boys. But that was not what Paul feared between the white American man and the African boy. The White Devil told many lies that a boy might believe.
Legson crouched next to me in the shade, and we looked out over the yard where our fellow prisoners were smoking and talking or playing games they made up on boards they had drawn in the dirt. The hot sun conspired with starvation to wither the flesh of these unfortunates. My body had succumbed, too, after sixty days locked up in this African nightmare. The bike muscles in my calves and thighs had begun to atrophy. I’d lost the padding in my butt, so I learned to rest on my haunches to avoid the cleaver edges of my pelvic bones.
“But you have a nice tan,” Legson said and then he smiled with his big white choppers. “In a few more weeks, you’ll be as dark as me. They’ll think of us as brothers.”
These clumsy quips in the Queen’s English, these dazzling toothy grins were a shock to my system every time he launched them at me. Legson Mapanje was 9 years old and a long way from his village, where he went to school and sung in a choir. We had something in common with a handful of the other 163 inhabitants in Cell #3. We were not guilty, this boy named for the poets of his nation and me. But this meant nothing to anyone, not the judges of Malawi, not a friendly NGO operating here in “the warm heart of Africa,” not our families and friends who had stopped looking for us. Not even to God.
“God is busy, Father Bob,” Legson said, his chin propped up on knobby knees as he watched a man kick a can into the air in a whorl of yellow dust. “The world is full of suffering. We can take a little more of it.”
Meanwhile Paul Banda, distant cousin to a harsh regime, watched me with one black iris moving back and forth like a sentry while the other bobbled opaque in the neighboring socket.
“What is he thinking?” I said.
“He thinks you have the diamonds,” Legson said.
“You know I wouldn’t lie to you,” I said.
Legson grinned. “I should lie if I were you.”
“I should lie, too, but I don’t have to. I don’t have any diamonds. Where would I put them? Sew them into my bodice? Stuff them up my bum? Try that with dysentery, kid.”
But thanks to the magistrate of Cell #4 next door, everyone on the yard believed me to be an international jewel thief. And the weight of his accusation was unmovable in this captive court of opinion. The magistrate of Cell #4 was a white man, an American, a man from my own village in the oilfield protectorate of Texas. ‘Nuf said.
He was known as Chrome Yellow and, unlike the waggle-eyed Paul, he was an unimpressive presence in a faded polo shirt, torn jeans and Nikes sullied with yard dirt. I might have knocked him on his ass and, with my foot on his throat, demanded he tell the truth. But this was against the Rules — all physical violence was — so Chrome Yellow could bear false witness against me and there was nothing I could do about it but return the favor. I might be just as good at making up stories about the Chrome as he was at making shit up about me. Maybe better.
“It will not work,” advised Legson, wise beyond his years. “The first monkey to throw his shit is a witty, clever fellow. If you throw shit back, you’re nothing but a bad loser.”
So I’d lived with the Chrome’s big yet ridiculous lie that he and I were shot down over Namibia with a case full of diamonds. That as he crawled out of the smoking hull of the company helicopter, I was running away, a backpack full of jewels. Chrome took what I left behind but only to salvage it from marauding tribal pirates. And for his trouble, the Diamond Company had him arrested. And me, too. My goodness, what are the odds, Chrome said—and the prisoners nodded in wonder—that two men from Huntsville, Texas, would end up working for the same diamond mine a world away, would be on the same helicopter on the same day, would be shot down together and, while the pilot bled out wearing a crown of windshield glass, would live to skulk away? The only thing that distinguished us as we clambered farther in-country was our motives. I was a thief; he was the savior.
So today, as One-Eyed Paul gazed at me from across the yard, I called him over, and he dropped to his haunches in front of me, twirling a piece of straw in his mouth with the tip of his bright red tongue.
“I didn’t steal anything. I never met that bastard Chrome before we ended up in the same prison. Why is this so hard to believe?”
“Because Chrome Yellow says — ”
“I don’t give a rat’s ass what Chromium says.”
Paul took the straw out of his mouth. “But you care what I think. You care what they think,” he said, waving to include the prisoners on the yard.
“When every one around you is evil, it is easier to be evil,” Legson said. “When every one around you is good, it is still hard to be good. The easy way is the way it must have been. That’s why they believe.”
“Wow, you just shoved Occam’s Razor up the moral ass of the U.S. Constitution,” I said. Because I am an arrogant man, the overeducated underachiever who enjoys the erudite joke with himself in front of lesser minds. This passes in Huntsville all the time, but here today in this yard, One-Eyed Paul pegged me and he snickered. I shot him a look, and he shrugged with a sly smirk. “I went to Jesuit schools,” he said.
I got up, determined to tend to this once and for all with Chrome Yellow, magistrate of Cell#4.
“Bob,” One-Eyed Paul called after me as I crossed the yard, “you have the soul of a fool.”
The Chrome was ensconced on an upturned bucket, holding court amongst the English-speaking prisoners, and I halted on their edge as they looked at me like surly thugs. “It’s OK,” Chrome assured them with a mannerly wave. “Yet another country heard from.”
On the day I was arrested, I had been helping people build a highway. And when it was finished, big trucks were going to drive down it bringing equipment to drill a water well in my adopted village. I’d told Legson that and everyone else in Cell #3 who would listen. And now I was telling it to Chrome. When I finished, Chrome laughed.
“You really can’t do any better than that water well story?”
I kicked the bucket out from under the Chrome and he fell on his ass, still laughing. Then I was grabbed from behind and pummeled until Chrome called them off me.
“It’s OK,” I heard him say as I was doubled over in the dirt. “He’s my homeboy.” Then he shooed them away and knelt over me to see how bad I was hurt.
“You’re not from Huntsville,” I said. My bottom lip was swelling.
No, he admitted, but he’d met another white man, a Texan in Cell #15. This guy might have a lawyer or some way to get word out and, if I would do the Chrome a favor or two, he would ask this Texan if he could help me.
“Sodomy is against the Rules,” I said. “In our cell anyway. I don’t know what you Cell 4 assholes do for fun.”
Chrome chuckled through a smirk. “I’ll think of something you can do for me, and when I do, I’ll send somebody over to give you his name.”
“Where are you really from?” I said as the Chrome helped me to my feet. “And why were you arrested?”
“Ohio,” he said. “And I killed a man. And so did that boy you’ve taken up with. Oh, you don’t believe me? Ask him yourself. Even Africans don’t lock up random school boys.”
I went back to my own yard and scowled furiously at One-Eyed Paul who was laughing at the sight of me.
“Howzit, broe?” said Legson, grinning as usual.
“I may be a diamond thief, but the magistrate of Cell #4 says you’re a killer.”
Legson was silent and just before I took it all back, he began to cry. Then, without a word, he left my side. I spent the better part of the afternoon picking apart the ambiguity of it. He wept because he was outraged by my hypocrisy and lack of faith. He wept because he was guilty and could not face me. He wept because I had, without compassion, reminded him of an unspeakable injustice in which the legal concepts of “murder” and “innocence” were not relevant.
Later, as the evening meal of corn porridge burbled in the communal cauldron outside the kitchen, Legson came back. His dusty little face was rigid and streaked with tears, and yet he sat down so close to me the seams of our pants touched.
“Salty or sweet?” I said.
After several seconds, Legson sighed. “Sweet.”
We leaned our heads against the walls of the cell block and closed our eyes.
“Syrup, so thick you can’t taste the corn or even feel the grit of the meal on your tongue. You smell flowers, you feel your mother’s touch or the softness of a warm breeze. It’s almost too sweet, this thick syrup, as it glides across your tongue and down your throat. You swallow and you can still taste it, it is so sweet.”
Legson worked his mouth, tasting an imaginary nectar, as we stood in line with our bowls and wooden spatulas. As the sun slid down in the slate sky, we ate our supper. I longed for a glass of water, and Legson sipped what I had scooped from the tank of the only toilet that still flushed.
I washed our bowls in that same toilet. One-Eyed Paul came up to take a piss as I dried the dishes with the tail of my T-shirt. I grabbed his arm before he could reach into his fly.
“Jesus, Paul, go piss in the yard.”
“I am not a pig and this is not a pig sty.”
“It isn’t?” I said, but I let go and watched him pee. Then he yanked on the handle, and the toilet flushed, shooting clean water to whirl around the bowl before it was sucked into the septic tank. I couldn’t help but look into Paul’s good eye and smiled. We bumped fists.
“White man,” he said, “you live a charmed life.”
Then Paul’s face hardened and his one good eye was sharp as flint. I whirled around to see one of Chrome’s thugs coming right for me. I rooted myself to the spot as all eyes pierced the dimness of dusk to watch what would happen next.
“Chrome Yellow sent me with the name of the guy you need to see,” the thug said. He leaned forward to whisper it: “Charles Forbus.”