Saturday, December 13, 2008

Short Story #2: The Desert

Disclaimer: I've been asked questions about this story and I want to make it clear that it is only meant to examine one person's strange encounter with something foreign. It is not a comment on missionary work.

 The Desert


Elaine sat in the shotgun seat, bracing herself for the coming trial. She watched as Tom Holt, a strongly built man of 31 who spoke Setswana with a strong English accent, strode out of the driver’s seat and began chatting with the children who had rushed to greet them. Climbing out of the back of the Landcruiser, Angelica, a 250 lb, 5’6” Texan, started handing out little candies the team had brought with them from their Mission in Selebi-Phikwe. Now a three-hour drive outside of the city, this was Village Ministries, Elaine’s first chance to interact directly with rural villagers. This place was unfamiliar to her and she was nervous, yes, but hopeful too. There was so much she could do for these people.

Elaine snapped out of her reverie to hear Tom instructing the team to disperse throughout the village. He spoke with authority gained from experience, and Elaine felt herself comforted by his confidence. She opened her door excitedly and was surprised by the stiff heat that greeted her. She stepped out quickly and, looking around, chose a direction where no other team members were headed. She was determined to strike up a conversation with the first person she saw. As she walked, the laughter of the children grew fainter and fainter. Elaine began humming to herself an old hymn her mother had taught her, trying to fill the silence of her walk. She reached a cluster of huts and peered inside the first. “Dumelang,” she called into the home, but she saw that it was empty. There was food cooking but the inhabitants must have recently left. A sweet aroma wafted from the open pot left above the fire. Elaine closed the door, slightly bewildered.

A bird called in the distance and behind her Elaine thought she heard footsteps. She turned but saw only the Landcruiser in the distance, sitting alone before an endless expanse of brown desert that seemed to slam violently into the cloudless blue sky. As Elaine turned back to face the huts she thought she saw movement out of the corner of her eye. Quickly she turned back in the direction of the Landcruiser and indeed, there was a man rising from the shade of a dead Baobab tree that she had passed several yards back.  Somehow she must have missed him as she had walked by.

The man’s back was bent horribly, so that although he might have once stood tall and proud, time had forced him into a submissive bow. With the help of a gnarled walking stick he began to limp toward Elaine, dragging his left foot across the hard, dry earth as best he could. Elaine stood frozen, unable to tear her gaze from this strange creature. The man returned her stare. Slowly Elaine recovered herself and hurriedly walked to meet him halfway. As she got closer she could see that his left leg was horribly warped and his rib cage pierced through his rough, hardened skin. A deep scar ran from just below his left ear all the way down to his open mouth, giving him a permanent smile. Lesions covered his body and open sores glistened red in the sunlight.

As Elaine came within a few feet of the man she nervously smiled and greeted him. He looked as if he were lost, and as his eyes met hers she peered into their depths, but she could see no sign of the soul that she had come to save. Suddenly he spoke to her.

“You are Christian, from America?” His English was slow and unsure, but his voice was ancient and had retained the earthy, almost unnatural cadence of his native Setswana.

“Yes, I am,” she replied in as even a tone as she could muster. She smiled again and calmed herself. “My name is Elaine. What is your name?”

Ignoring her he asked, “Americans are very smart, yes?” a slight tone of hope entering his voice. “You have many things.”

“Well yes, I suppose we’re a smart lot all together, although – ” she was rambling and stopped herself. All the training had taught her never to ramble, to stay on topic.

Watching her keenly, the man asked, “Do you believe in spirits? When a man dies, does he meet his family in the afterlife?”

Elaine was taken aback. She looked back at the empty huts, and then back at the man. “Well, yes. In Heaven you can meet all your family again. But first you – ”

“God wants this!” the man bellowed. Birds rose from the rotting Baobab tree behind him.

Elaine stared blankly at him, trying to find the right words. The man smiled horribly. Pleasure racked his face and Elaine tried to smile back, but the man was already walking away. He headed not in the direction of the village but out into the quiet desert expanse. Elaine watched him as he hobbled away. She wanted to call out to him but found her throat dry and her mind blank. In the distance she could hear him, muttering in the same rhythm he had used with her, though his words were incomprehensible. He walked slowly but in a dignified manner, with purpose. Gradually his babbling faded into the desert and Elaine was alone again.

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