THE MAJESTIC CLOUDS
Around noon the black clouds appear seemingly from nowhere. Majestic clouds, thick and dark. They hang in the center of the sky like mirages. They appear contemplative, reaching toward the horizon, their color not much different from tar. Unbelievably majestic clouds suspended in the sky, dirty and black, darkening at the center. Clouds unlike those seen in the skies of Europe. Their sudden appearance signals that the rainy season has come to the Sudanese frontier.
Marosh doesn’t show the slightest interest in the clouds. He sits in the communications tent and nervously taps away at his laptop. The tent for the foreigners was erected at the camp’s periphery, on the hilltop. The NGO keeps its satellite phone and technical equipment there, which is how it got its name. It’s the only reliable Internet connection within two hundred miles, a weak signal from a twenty-foot-high antennae rising through the tarp.
If you stand by the entrance, you can see the entire refugee camp spreading out in front of you all the way to the red hills beyond.
Not many people live in the foreigners’ camp. The medical personnel are twenty in total. They are mostly Canadian volunteers, veterans who have already assisted in multiple humanitarian catastrophes across Africa. Marosh, at age twenty-six, is the youngest there. That he works as a journalist further sets him apart from the others. He types feverishly, bent over his laptop. Sweat paints stains on his shirt and drips down under his arms.
“At nine this morning they carried out the rite of passage,” he writes. “The foundation’s ranking doctor met at length with the Zaghawa elders, but he couldn’t talk them out of the genital circumcision of a group of twelve-year-old girls, an operation performed by women of the tribe. Initially the tribal leaders approved the doctors’ assistance in case of complications during the procedure, then the marabou, the refugee camp’s religious leader, declared the foreigners’ presence immoral and ordered them from the tent.”
After he finishes the paragraph, he rises from his camping chair. He reaches into his pants pocket and fishes out a cigarette. The lighter is slippery in the sweat of his hand; it takes a few tries to light the cigarette. Marosh takes a drag, sits, then rests his head in his hands and stares at the monitor.
“They won’t print it,” he thinks, and pictures his editor’s face twenty-five hundred miles away. Marosh had been given explicit instructions to avoid stories like this. He wasn’t supposed to write human-interest stories. The articles were strictly to be about tribal movement, the humanitarian conditions in the camps, and things pertaining to the heightening conflict in the Darfur crisis.
Female circumcision had nothing to do with the mission. They had been doing these procedures for a thousand years in this land. Seeing the preparations, the doctors objected, of course, but couldn’t dissuade the tribesmen, who said the labia and clitoris were not pleasing to the eye, plus the ritual was thought to set the girls on the proper moral path. Moreover, they insisted that if the ritual wasn’t carried out, the girls would be unable to find husbands. They simply wouldn’t be considered normal.
Marosh had photographed the entire preparation, up to the moment when the older women opened a box of blue packaged scalpel blades and led the young girls to the curtained off room. He became unsettled only on recognizing Mara among the group. He had traveled with her and her family from Daru to the refugee camp. They’d travelled in a covered United Nations truck, the trip up the red dirt road lasting three hours in the day’s broiling heat. The Janjaweed, the militia of the government in Khartoum, had demolished their village in an act of ethnic cleansing. The bodies of the dead were left unburied; Mara’s family were the only ones left alive. Marosh didn’t ask how they survived the attack, didn’t ask what they had been through, he only stared at the child’s dirty face and blank expression.
Marosh broke the ice by pulling a half-melted bar of chocolate from his pocket. Swiss chocolate, he had bought it in Libya at the duty free shop, on the way to Chad. He had even forgotten he had it, but the girl’s expression brought it to mind, as it was a basic fact of life that sweets cheered kids up.
“Chocolate,” he said, and held out the bar. The girl looked at it blankly, so he repeated, “chocolate.”
The child, in a skittish motion, took the bar, bit off a piece, then smiled when she discovered its taste.
“Mara,” she said, indicating herself, as she chewed.
“Daniel,” said Marosh, and took her picture.
Nothing more had happened. Since their arrival a few days passed during which the girl was sure to smile and wave at Marosh if she saw him at the refugee camp market. Marosh wasn’t surprised when he discovered the girl was among those to be circumcised, but became alarmed when the chief banished the doctors from the tent.
From the group of six girls, Mara was only one who developed complications. What they were he didn’t know yet, just that she didn’t emerge from the tent on her own two feet like the rest.
Marosh had a hazy idea about the operation, which he gathered from what he read on the Internet, though he wasn’t familiar with the exact local practice. A few hours after the procedure was supposed to completed, he heard voices coming from the tent. At first he thought that it was the sound of animals or a cat’s yowling. But there weren’t any cats in the camp. It was then that Marosh fled the refugee area and escaped back to the doctors’ quarters.
Marosh leans back on a camping chair and takes a drag on his cigarette. The smoke scratches his throat. He looks at his watch: it’s approaching five. “I’m not writing anything today,” he thinks. He steps out of the tent and is momentarily blinded by the clouds passing across the face of the sun, which is not shining at full strength anymore; you could look into it. The clouds are oily looking, appearing like a black bunch of grapes in the light. Marosh gazes at the sun as it reaches the hills beyond, the rock’s red outlines quivering when it disappears between them.
A few minutes pass before he realizes that music is playing. Quiet, solemn music, trickling scratchily between the tents. Classical music, he surmises, once he is able to make out the wind instruments and the singers’ voices. Somebody is listening to classical music.
He heads toward the sound. He walks between the awnings of the tents, which stand facing each other, lined up along the length of the hill’s periphery, to where the tent of Henderson, the head doctor, stands.
There, in front of the tent, sits Henderson, drinking whiskey, music coming from his laptop. Henderson is in his late fifties: a severely balding man from Dublin, who has spent his whole life in Africa. You couldn’t call him old though: the young volunteer doctors couldn’t compete with his experience, though it’s true, there wasn’t a rush to try. Marosh is in the camp only through his permission.
“Good evening,” says the man when he sees the journalist.
“Shall we share a drink?” he asks and holds the bottle out toward Marosh. Marosh drinks.
“Have a seat. Bring out a chair,” says Henderson, and gestures toward the tent, where another camp chair sits by the bed. Marosh brings it out and sits.
“The afternoon was a stormy one.”
“Yeah. I knew one of the children.”
“What will become of her?”
“We can’t say right now. What’s sure is that she lost lots of blood. She has a fever. Hopefully the wounds won’t become completely infected, in which case there aren’t many options. But, like I said, it’s impossible to say what will happen.”
“Shouldn’t you help?”
“We can’t do anything.”
“You are still quite young, which is why you don’t understand. We can’t risk an open conflict with the tribal leaders. If we don’t keep to the rules, they won’t cooperate with us. Then the mission will be a total failure. Imagine how many dead there would be if they didn’t let us tend to the wounded. I feel bad for these children, but we can’t risk it. In Africa, you need to make sacrifices.”
“Okay,” Marosh says. He feels a cramp in his stomach, and he shuts his eyes. In front of him he can picture the girl’s small, undeveloped body, damp with sweat, black flies gathering around the blood.
“Have some more to drink. Relax. Tomorrow will bring a new day, with new problems. But today is over,” says Henderson. He passes the bottle to the journalist; Marosh takes a long swig. When the whisky reaches his stomach, the cramping ceases. The alcohol takes effect. They sit for a few minutes listening to the music and looking up at the black clouds.
“Do you like opera?” asks Henderson.
“I don’t really know much about it.”
“Do you know what we are listening to right now?”
From the speaker comes the sound of two female singers performing a duet.
“No, but the tune is familiar.”
“Really? From where?”
“It’s the British Airways jingle. On TV these days.”
Henderson smiles and takes a long swig, then continues.
“It’s originally the ‘Flower Duet’ from Lakmé.”
“The ‘Flower Duet’?”
“Yes. The heroine and her servant are singing about flowers.”
“Because they are young and the buds are opening. It takes place in India. Lakmé, the heroine, is the daughter of a high priest. She meets and falls in love with an English soldier. The conflict comes from their having different religions. Love, of course, overcomes this. The Hindus, however, stab Lakmé’s love. Lakmé saves his life and nurses him back to health, and in the course of events she gives him her virtue.”
“Beautiful,” says Marosh.
“Isn’t it? Now we would hope that story has a happy ending, but a friend of the man, named Frederic, appears and reminds him that it’s his duty to join the war with his departing regiment, and he should leave the girl. And so he does, abandoning Lakmé.”
Suddenly the sky rumbles. The clouds thunder so loudly that they drown out the music and Henderson’s words can hardly be heard. The electric tension in the sky paints the air blue. A chill takes hold.
“The rain will start soon. But don’t worry, the camp may get soaked, but we won’t,” says Henderson.
Marosh stares silently into the distance, then tosses the empty bottle. It makes a dull sound as it lands and rolls down the hillside. His mouth is totally dry, like that of a beginning drinker. He feels suddenly faint, though it comes with no real dizziness.
“If you like the music, I can copy it for you,” says Henderson.
“What will happen to the girl?” asks Marosh. “What will happen to the girl in the end?”
“Like in any good opera, she’ll die.”
“She’ll die,” Marosh says, though Henderson doesn’t hear him from the mounting thunder. Thick, big drops of rain begin to fall, pelting the two of them wildly, with tropical rage. The two men stand for a bit longer at the front of the tent, staring at the storm. From the majestic clouds majestic lightning strikes at the camp.
SÁNDOR JÁSZBERÉNYI (1980) is a Hungarian writer and Middle East correspondent who has covered the Darfur crisis, the revolutions in Egypt and Libya, the Gaza War, and the Huthi uprising in Yemen, and has interviewed several armed Islamist groups. A photojournalist for the Egypt Independent and Hungarian newspapers, he currently lives in Cairo, Egypt. Born in 1980 in Sopron, Hungary, he studied literature, philosophy, and Arabic at ELTE university in Budapest. His stories have been published in all the major Hungarian literary magazines and in English in the Brooklyn Rail, Pilvax, AGNI and B O D Y. His first collection of short stories, Az ördög egy fekete kutya (The Devil is a Black Dog), was published in late 2013.
The Devil is a Black Dog, translated into English by M. Henderson Ellis, is being published in December 2014.
About the Translator:
M. HENDERSON ELLIS is the author of the novel Keeping Bedlam at Bay in the Prague Café (New Europe Books, February 2013). He lives in Budapest, where he works as a freelance editor at Wordpill Editing, and is a founding editor at Pilvax magazine.
Read more work by Sándor Jászberényi: