Fantasy Horror religion africa diamond trade

The Saint from Abdijan

By James Van Pelt
Jan 8, 2020 · 8,709 words · 32 minutes

blacksandbeach

Photo by Hao Zhang via Unsplash.

From the author: The pursuit of freedom can take many forms. For some, it is finding truth in the metaphysical. Is there God? Does God care for us? For others, the search can be both more mundane and immediate. It could just be a search for a cursed diamond.


They say the port of Abidjan is beautiful with new buildings–a bustling, modern city--but when the tugs pulled the cacao freighter in I saw nothing but a long, filthy grey steel deck an inch from my eye.  I couldn’t raise my head.  I missed the horror in the interior.  If I’d looked closely, would I have seen Seydou’s hand on my elbow?  Could I have stopped myself from being the tool?

From the time we’d hit the deep sea swell out of Melbourne I’d been sick, and by the trip’s end I was reduced to dragging the thin mattress the Liberan first mate had begrudged me from one slip of shade to the next.  The air smelled African hot, but it was cooler than in the hold.  No relief, though, now the trip was almost done: the ship’s queasy pitching had been exchanged for uneven pulls from the two tugs.

It made me think of Ireland’s St. Brendan who fifteen-hundred years ago wrote a book called Navigation describing his search for the Isle of the Blessed.  Some people claimed Brendan discovered the Americas, but he never wrote about seasickness, so I think he made it up.

I clamped my teeth tight on lunch from three days earlier, and concentrated on remembering I was going to Seguela’s diamond fields to save lives.  We’d heard rumor of children toiling in the pits, digging with pikes and shovels for starvation wages.  So I told my friends goodbye at Greenpeace Australia where I’d been interning and caught an empty freighter bound for Cote d’Ivorie and the port of Abidjan.  You’re too young, they said, too inexperienced.  Real activism, I told them, is an individual affair.  They shook their heads, thinking my idealism hung on my sleeve.  Among the fanatics, I stood out, but I’d always been that way.  In first grade I collected crushed aluminum for the poor.  My favorite magazine in middle school was the Red Cross’s in-house newsletter.  The knowledge someone somewhere is suffering keeps me awake at night.  Nothing is distant for me.  It’s next door.  It’s not religion.  I’m not religious, but all my heros are saints.

He’ll mellow when he turns thirty, one said.  But somebody has to record abuses.  My cameras were buried deep in my duffle, along with a tape recorder and notebooks.

Immigration gave me a bother about my passport--too many stamps in six months.  The introductory letter from Human Rights International didn’t carry any weight, neither did the pledge of cooperation from the Seguelan authorities, so I convinced them with smiles that a terrorist or drug runner would not go from America to Greenland to Brazil to Australia and then to Africa.  A little cash under the table could have saved me twelve hours, but I preferred not to contribute to civil corruption.  They interrogated me in an air-conditioned office high above the street.  Everyone behaved civilly, very proper.  Grey three-piece suits over white shirts.  Red ties.  “Stay out of Treichville and Adjame after dark.  There are muggers,” the cinder-black custom’s official told me in French much better than mine as he handed back my visa.  “What do you hope to do in Seguela?”

“Photojournalism.”

“Watch for the old people.”  He grinned politely, white teeth flickering, as he okayed my papers.

I must have looked puzzled.

“Old people.  The traditionals.  We are near upon Dipri, the new year celebration.  It’s a time for magical powers.  There will be panther men.”

A dozen skyscrapers blocked the noon light in the window behind him.  Even through soundproofed glass, the afternoon traffic rumbled.  This was modern Africa, the former Ivory Coast, among the most progressive nations on the continent.  Poverty I expected, crime too, but not superstition.  I nodded my head and thanked him, almost falling when I stood up.  Funny, now I walked on land, the Earth still moved.

A train took me from Abdijan inward to Yamousoukro, about a three-hour trip, which I thought would be a pleasant change from the freighter, but brightly dressed Ivorians overcrowded the car, the women in bold printed blouses; the men’s shirts unbuttoned to mid-chest.  The windows were down, blowing in swampy air, hot as a sauna, like a steaming washcloth across the face.  I breathed through my mouth, pressed between two huge women on a bench seat built for two.  The one on my left languidly dipped her hand into a paper bag between her legs to dig out what looked like a dollop of peanut butter and smelled like rancid banana, then smeared it on her gums.  She sucked at it for a while before going back to the bag.  The one on my right lolled off to sleep as the train pulled from the station and fell against me.  For charity’s sake, I supported her.  She’d have flopped right to the floor if I moved.

From Yamousoukro, I took a two-hour bus ride to Bouaflé, where a representative from Seguela was supposed to meet me, but he didn’t show up.  I decided to wait.  The saints were patient.  Many worked for years without success.  Like St.. Francis de Sales, they persevered.  In 1600 he decided to convert 60,000 Swedish Calvinists.  He brought 40,000 back to the church.  I made my duffle into a pillow and rested.  By then, late in the evening, there was no transport north until morning.  I slept on the depot’s floor between a wall and a bamboo baggage cart.  Something in a suitcase a foot from my head kept slithering.  I drifted off anyway.

My contact found me in the morning.  “Mr. Andrew Baily, of the bleeding heart liberal press, I presume,” he said pleasantly in English with a French accent.  I saw his clay-coated boots first.  He crouched before me, soiled blue jeans tucked into the boots, flannel shirt without sleeves straining to hold in his gut, sun-leathered face, maybe forty, sunglasses, a Cleveland Indians baseball cap.  Brown teeth.  “I am Marcel Devoe, of the bloodsucking, imperialist European diamond cartel.  Assistant to the assistant crew chief for Seguela mining.  Can I get you some breakfast?”

He treated me to kedjenou, a chicken and vegetable jumble sealed and cooked in banana leaves.  We ate in the depot’s café, sitting in bright orange, molded plastic chairs.

Devoe said, “This is not a good time for you to come.  The celebration days are here, and the Mandés and the Wè tribesmen get lazy.  They’re from Ghana, you know.  No work there.  They dig slower the closer we get to La Fête de Diamants.

I raised my eyebrows.

He struggled for an English word, “A holiday . . . a vacation day . . . I do not know the word.  On the new year’s day, the employees can keep one diamond they find.  It’s a tradition from the DeBeer time.”

“That’s generous,” I said through a kedjenou mouthful.  “A diamond for each.”

He smiled.  His teeth were discolored.

“No, no, no.  One diamond for all, the best one, except the Seguela mines have given nothing but industrial grade stones for years.  Still, they hope for another Light of Peace.”  He dismissed the hope for a worthwhile diamond with a derisive snort.

“I don’t know that one.” 

“The last big stone, 434 carats in the rough, found in Sierra Leone thirty years ago.  Nothing like the Cullinan, 3,106 carats, or the Excelsior at 995 carats.  You’d think that must be huge.  It’s not!  The Cullinan was no bigger than a woman’s fist, a little glass potato.  But who dreams of those?  Diamond mining is ditch digging.  So many hundred ore buckets produce so many tiny, flawed stones, only good for saw blades and polishing dust.  No, the real money is in production, and the workers give up a good day to hunt for a grand gem to retire on.  Listen to them; they already know what color BMW they will park in garages they don’t have.  Every hut with a TV and microwave.  Stupid workers.  If they found such a stone, what makes them think the company would let them keep it?”

“Wouldn’t they?”

He shook his head, as if his mind already lingered on different things.  Perhaps he mourned the lost work day.

His car, a rusty little coupé with a Korean name I didn’t recognize, rattled at even low speeds and had no shocks, so every pebble jarred us as we drove north.  The de la Maraoué National forest passed to our west, an impenetrable leafy wall exuding green smells and piercing monkey shrieks.  To the east, though, stretched flooded coffee fields punctuated with occasional tin-roofed sheds as far as I could see.  Devoe rolled a joint with one hand and held it out to me.  I shook my head.  He said, “I’m supposed to offer you a bribe, too, so you will write pleasing articles.  It’s standard procedure.  Money?  Drugs?  Women?  No?  Well, I thought not.”  He didn’t look surprised or upset.

He waved toward the jungle.  “There’s a fortune in timber in there.  If you bleeding hearts would leave us alone, we’d be rich men.  The entire country used to look like that, impassable with trees.  Gold mines with bark.”  He pointed his chin at the fields as we passed five children sitting by the road, their black skin splotchy with mud.  “Money when they knocked the trees down, and crop money every year since.”

I bit my tongue.  My friends were involved in efforts to save the rainforest. 

Soon the road climbed as we left behind both the fields and jungle, although vegetation choked every little valley and ravine.  Savanna grass covered the hills.  Dispirited telephone poles drooped with power lines for many miles, but they vanished behind as the car clattered on.  We passed through villages, houses no more than plywood leaning on beat-up frames beneath ubiquitous metal roofs.  But I also saw long expensive fences, and winding driveways, leading to beautiful ranch houses, their windows glittering in the mid-morning sun.

We turned west before reaching Seguela, into the high country. 

“They ignore the curse, of course,” said Devoe.

“Excuse me?”  The land fell away so steeply below my window that I’d been concentrating on what was road and what was air.  Devoe drove carelessly, draping his wrist over the steering wheel.

“All the big stones are cursed.  Evil follows the big ones.  If you could get the diamond without the bad luck, that would be a trick.  The man who first stole the Hope Diamond was devoured by dogs.  Who would want that?  It sank the Titanic, you know.”

“Uh huh,” I said.  Tough looking brush, higher than our bumper, filled the middle between the two, ratty ruts our road had become, and it scraped the car’s bottom.

“Yes, an American millionaire owned it, and the Atlantic took him.  His granddaughter committed suicide after wearing it.”

“So the workers don’t make enough money, and they hang on for La Fête de Diamants thinking it might save them?”  I didn’t figure Devoe would give honest answers if there were abuses, but it wouldn’t hurt to put my cards on the table.

He downshifted to get us through a deep puddle, then jumped into the higher gear when we were through.  My feet suddenly felt damp.  Water drained through the floorboards.

“My great-grandfather told me when he lived in the Alsase, he plowed his fields with two horses who lived twenty years each.  The first year he gave them sugar cubes from his coat pocket to reward them for their work.”

We crested a small ridge, and the land before us flattened.  Low mountains shaped the horizon.

“What’s your point?”

Devoe laughed.  “He only gave them sugar the first year.  For the next nineteen, when he wanted them to pull harder, he put his hand in his pocket.  They’d break their backs as long as they thought he’d bring something out.  He never did.  You know, someone writes a story about the pits every couple of years.  It never makes a change.  Africa is not like America.”

I made notes, resting the pad against my knee, the pen jumping with every jolt, recording my impressions.  Conrad wrote about Africa, but he traveled on the Congo, beating up current in an underpowered boat, the vegetation crowding against his windows.  Here, the grass rolled away, spotted with trees and brush.  For miles nothing changed: no animals, no people, just hills and curvy road winding between them.  We met no other cars.

“Is this the main road?”

“There’s a train and an airport, but it is easier this way for me.”  Devoe nodded his head back to boxes piled where the car’s rear seat would have been.

“What is it?”

“A man has to make a living.  An assistant to the assistant manager’s job, whew!  The paycheck does not keep him in socks.  I have family in Europe.  They expect money every month.”

We turned a sharp corner around a thick cacao trees stand, and entered Seguela.  Crumbling brick facades whipped by my nose, inches away.  Pedestrians slipped into doorways as we passed.  Then we hit a larger street, crowded with busses and rusty streetcars screeching down the middle.  I had no time to form an impression other than dusty age.  I saw no shiny thing.  As quickly as we entered town, we left, climbing for several minutes on a path that tried to rip the transmission right from the car’s bottom.  John the Baptist, the patron saint of roads, would have found nothing to like about this trail.  One more good jolt and I figured my head would be on a platter.  The clutch clattered while Devoe cursed the car up a last, rock laden, rutted stretch that would have challenged a four-wheel drive vehicle.

“This is the back route.  It’s quicker.”

“If we make it,” I said, bracing my hands against the dash.

Dirt ground against the undercarriage, then we topped the hill, heading for the mountains.  I didn’t speak.  Past Seguela the air grew heavy--more moist or stagnant, as if a thunderstorm threatened, although the skies were clear.  Breathing the weighted vapor repulsed me.  I wanted our bouncy trip to end.  Devoe’s casual dismissal of the workers nauseated me, or maybe it was a persisting effect from the long sea voyage.  I shut my eyes and pictured the serene St. Sebastion’s cathedral in Josephine Bay in the afternoon, where the stained glass art glowed and the Chesapeake glittered outside the heavy, wooden doors.

At seven I saw the cathedral for the first time.  My father gave me canned food to put in the basement: creamed corn, tomato soup, mushrooms, asparagus.  He stored them there for emergencies.  There was a little survivalist in him.  Instead, I put the cans in my wagon and pulled it to the Sisters of Hope shelter next to St. Sebastion’s.  It took most the afternoon, clicking wagon wheels over concrete sidewalk seams to reach the shelter.  Sweat ran down my face.

An elderly nun, her knuckles painfully large, dampened her habit’s sleeve in a fountain and bathed my forehead.  I remember the cloth’s smooth coolness; how camomile followed her.  She took me into the cathedral, showed me the heavy leaded glass, the wall of martyrs, sun shining through beatified faces.  I had never been inside a church, and I wondered if God lived there, but I didn’t see him, only mellow sunlight transformed in colored glass.  The nun said, “They were God’s tools.  The spirit filled them like empty vessels, and they did God’s work.”  She held her hands clasped at her chest.

“My family is atheist,” I didn’t although I didn't even know what it meant then.  “But I want to give these cans to the poor.”

She said, “You’re an absolute saint, child.  An absolute saint.”  My wagon floated on the way home.  I went back often afterwards to do chores for the nuns, and when I wasn’t busy, I crawled beneath the pews, searched the vestibule, peeked in the Father’s private study for some sign of God, but I never found him.  I prayed for God to fill me, to make me his tool, but my folded hands were empty when I opened them, and even as a little kid, I thought speaking words to a silent room was ridiculous.  The saints were real, though.  The devout turned them into paintings and leaded windows.

I saw nothing so moving again until at twenty I visited the Vatican’s library.  Morning light pierced the high reaches where motes swirled like tiny angels.  Intricately illuminated texts, hundreds of years old, lay open in heavy glass cases.  And once again, saints and martyrs stared out, their heads shrouded in halos, their images curiously separate from the background scenes, as if they didn’t belong to the landscapes.  These men and women gave all they had to their faith.  They persevered in service, a greater good than their own.  I rested my fingers on the glass, and, before I left, burned a votive candle for them.  “Hail Mary,” I said, “full of grace,” but I didn’t know the rest.  To be full of grace.  To be utterly outward turned.  To do good.  It’s corny sounding, I know, but it’s the highest calling.  I didn’t believe in God–I saw no evidence for the supernatural–but I believed in good.

We arrived at the mining headquarters at sunset.  Sun burnished hilltops, while shadows filled the valleys.  The foreman’s shed, an unpainted two-story building with plastic sheets for windows leaned against a sandy bluff.  Below, huge pits tore into the grass and brush.  Sterile dirt piles, plantless and cut through with erosion channels, surrounded each pit.  Devoe parked our car beside one, the sloped sides falling twenty feet down to a lumpy and muddy bottom that reached a hundred yards to the other edge.  Dirt crumbled under my shoes, so I backed away.

I couldn’t see the latrines, but I could smell them.  My nose wrinkled as I pulled my duffle bag from the car.

Devoe shouted a French phrase at workers below.  Some looked up, but none waved.  I hadn’t noticed them at first; they were dirt colored, and moved slowly, like animate rocks, bent over, digging with picks, dumping pebbly soil into bags beside them.  A worker–I couldn’t tell the age or sex–slung a bag over a shoulder and climbed toward us, one hand pressed against the ground for support.

“They take the ore to the stream to wash it,” said Devoe.  “Shaker boxes separate worthless material from the diamonds.  Maybe we find a couple thousand carats a year.  Last year the company made 73 million francs from this pit . . . um . . . about $120,000 American.”

The thin-limbed worker pushed toward the top, every step up resulting in a half-step slide back.  A yard from the edge, the worker looked at us; a girl, maybe twelve or thirteen years old.  I couldn’t tell; she was boy-slender but tall.  Mud dappled her face, and her eyes looked tired.  Very wide, and tired, as if she needed to sleep for a year. 

Devoe stood back, his arms crossed on his chest.  “The biggest diamond we found last year was just a half carat, not gem quality.”

I offered a hand to help her up.  She stared at it for a long time, not moving, a hand jammed into the dirt, the other clenched around the bag’s top.   Then she reached for me.  Her fingers were callused and hard ridged, almost stone themselves.  “Merci,” she said.

“Be careful of that one, Bailey.  She thinks she’s a shaman.”  Devoe winked at her although she had looked away from him.

The bag may have weighed more than she did.  She walked around the car to a path along the bluff’s base.  A stream burbled in the background below a constant rattling.  Later I found out these were Devoe’s fourteen shaker boxes, three-feet wide and eight-feet long.  Water poured in one end where the workers dumped their bags.  Old men rocked the boxes from side to side, washing away dirt and separating the sand from the occasional diamond, shiny chips that looked like quartz or hazy glass.

“One day we’ll find a big diamond, and I’ll be quit of this place,” said Devoe.  He took a folding table from the car’s trunk and set it on the uneven ground.  Then he tore the top from a box in his car.  Batteries filled it.  “I make more selling these than my salary.”

“Batteries?”                                                                           

“Twenty kilometers to Seguela from here, and no other manager thinks to bring back batteries. These people all have a radio or a tape player or those little hand held video games.   They don’t mind my markup.”  He grinned his brown smile.  I wondered when he’d last seen a dentist.

The girl came back, her bag empty, and trudged past Devoe as if he weren’t there. 

“Her name is Seydou.  Hey, witch doctor Seydou.  Show the foreigner your scars, eh?”

She turned at the pit’s top and spat French and a dialect I didn’t recognize at him.  He lifted his hands, palms up, eyes wide and mock-innocent, as she slid down the slope toward the other workers filling their bags.  In the pit a child set torches in cast iron sleeves on the ground, igniting each with a lighter he wore around his neck.

“She’s beautiful, no?  If you are lucky, she will show you tribal marks.  They’re on her backside.  I’ve seen them more than once.  Yes I have, I’ve seen them.”  He licked his lips and rolled his eyes.

By the time I thought to take pictures, darkness had risen.  Torches flickered in the pit, belching gasoline odors.  Shadows moved: workers, the new shift, digging, filling bags, toting them one by one to the stream for washing.  Beyond, in the hills, other lights pulsed sluggishly.  Devoe told me the company ran fifty-six pits like the one at our feet.  Silent blacks formed a line ending at his table.  Men, women, children.  Many children, underfed, muddy clothes.  I wondered how they afforded radios.  Most wore the same outfits: canvas shorts, short sleeved tee shirts, all mud stained.  Nothing like the colorful prints the natives displayed on the train.  Women wore scarves tied over their hair, or braided it into a dozen tight strings.  They slid small papers across the table to him, then he counted out batteries, sometimes clinking them together like dice.  Mentally, I took notes.

None looked up.  Their hands dangled at their sides.  When they bought their batteries, they vanished into the darkness.

“Where do they go?”  I said. 

Devoe waved behind him, encompassing half the night.  “Villages back in the bush.  Don’t go there.  At least not during Dipri.  These are Wé tribesmen.  I told you.  They walked here from Ghana.  It’s not the Twentieth Century there.”

“I want to see.”  If I was going to accomplish my mission, I’d need documentation.  If what I suspected was true, I’d find indentured servitude, an obvious arrangement.  The tribesmen moved to the pits for work, where the company provided food, clothing and shelter.  They were charged more than they could earn, so they fell behind until they had to trade away wages they wouldn’t earn for months for today’s goods.  When the debt became impossible, they offered their children’s work.  The basic con.  Amnesty International ran seminars on it. 

Devoe shook his head.  More batteries came from his box in exchange for scrip.  The line shortened.  A face at the end caught my eye.  Seydou looked at me, eyes much older than twelve or thirteen.  No expression.  Unblinking.  I raised my hand for a tentative wave.  She didn’t move at first, then she lifted her head in acknowledgment.

“You’ll need a guide.  You already know Seydou.  I’ll have her take you in the morning.  There’s a room in back for you, and food in the kitchen.”  He said something to Seydou in the same indecipherable French hybrid.  She answered back, her tone curt and dismissive.  When she passed her note to him, he grabbed her wrist, his hand looking huge on her delicate arm.  He forced her hand over and pushed an extra battery into it.  After he let go, she dropped the batteries into her pants pocket.  She didn’t walk away from the table though.  Without looking away from him, she licked her palm and wiped the dirt off her cheeks, one at a time, a deliberate gesture.  The whole performance looked prideful and insulting.  She licked slowly, staring, then rubbed the dirt.

“Come,” she said to me in clear French.

Devoe said to my back as I followed her.  “Make sure you see her scars.  It’d be a pity to travel so far and miss a treat like that.”

In the room Seydou showed me to, I found a mattress, a near duplicate of the one I’d used on the freighter, except not as clean.  A good shaking freed several nasty looking bugs and a suspicious waft of old urine. 

Seydou picked up one of my books I’d dumped from the duffel, Butler’s Lives of the Saints in French.  She thumbed to the illustrations.  “Are you Christian?  A Missionary?  You don’t look like one,” she said, without looking up.

“No, neither.  I read it for the stories.”  I straightened my clothes on the table, worried suddenly that she’d find my possessions ridiculous.  “I don’t believe God exists, actually.  The saints and martyrs are inspirational.”

She shut the book crisply and replaced it on the table, as if she’d come to a conclusion about me.  “Funny book for an atheist.”

I raised my estimate of her age.  Her eyes, after all, were so much older, and the vocabulary didn’t sound young.  Still, she was only a child, and an exploited one at that.

Seydou leaned against a wall then slid down so she sat on her heels.  I offered her the mattress: I’d sleep on the floor.  She shook her head.  Obviously she intended to spend the night that way.  

I was so tired, I didn’t argue.  A dirty mattress is better than none.  St Francis of Assisi may have slept on an oak board most his life, but I’m not so resolute.  My blanket went over it.  Daytime air stifled the room.  Getting cold didn’t worry me.  My coat made a good pillow.  I turned off the battery lamp Devoe had given me and shut my eyes.  I thought Devoe intended me to have sex with her.  He sickened me.

Through the walls came the picks’ muted blows.  The brook bubbled, and the shaker boxes rattled.  It was almost soothing.  I wondered if they worked all night.  Then, from far away, a thin shriek.  I bolted upright, straining my ears.  It came again, a weird, wavering, thready scream on a human throat’s raw edge.

Torch light leaked between the room’s rough boards.  I couldn’t see Seydou, but her eyes glistened.  She turned her head, and I could see her in profile, a silhouette cut out across the wall.  “Tomorrow is Dipri.”  She said.  “There will be panther men.”

Much later than I would have thought, I fell asleep, dreaming of a huge diamond in the ground, a bloody lump wallowing in bloody mud.  Devoe said, “Bad follows the big stone, and bad will find it.”  I reached to pick it up, then dogs began to howl.  They were behind me, running closer.  Their hard nails clicked against rock.  In the dream I knew, they were coming to eat me.

As far as I could tell, Seydou did not move all night.  Her chin rested on her chest, but she still leaned against the wall.  When I got up, her eyes flickered open.  We shared a cold porridge and thin coffee.  Outside, someone shouted, and there was chanting.  I cleaned my plate and walked from the building to the pit’s edge.

Beneath me, the workers sat in a large circle, talking.  Unlike yesterday, many wore bright clothes.  None had picks.  How were they to find their diamond if they didn’t have the tools to dig?  Devoe manned his table with batteries spread out like fat seeds, but no one lined up.  “I won’t sell a thing on Dipri,” he said spitefully.  “They’ll move no ore on the company’s behalf either.  When you write your report, you be sure to include we allow them this luxury.  You social activists are all of a type.  Because the pay is low, or the children work, or we work on weekends, you assume we are brutes.  This is not Europe or America.  You ask them.  They are glad to be here.”

He rolled batteries beneath his hands.  “You’ll see when you go to the village.  Be sure to show him, Seydou, and remember I warned you not to go.”  

I’d slung a camera bag over my shoulder, strapped a canteen to my waist and packed some granola among my notebooks.  Seydou led as we walked around the pit and headed toward the forest above the compound.  Already the sun pounded with moist power.  Wispy tendrils eddied off pools in rock hollows, and now that we were beyond the latrines, the air smelled of green vines and mossy undergrowth.  Seydou took long strides, her dark legs eating distance.

I thought about African saints, most were martyrs in the north.  St. Zoticus, St. Victurus, St. Ammon who died with forty-four other Christians in Membressa.  The Romans slaughtered dozens in the early years.  St. Theophilus and Helladius were killed by being thrown into a furnace.  How did they do it?  Did they think they saw God at the end?  What would it take to face the furnace?

I argued with a man once who claimed Jesus couldn’t be in heaven because he committed suicide.  He made an analogy: if a man stands in a highway, knowing a truck is bearing down on him, and he does nothing to save himself, then he killed himself.  Jesus, he said, knew crucifixion was coming and did nothing to save himself. 

I said there is no philosophic intent in suicide.  A martyr dies for a cause.  Suicide is self-serving.  Martyrdom is selfless.  Intent makes the martyr.  But isn’t it at least a kind of death wish? he said.  Why seek death?  I don’t know.  It could be a death wish.  My friends at Greenpeace accused me of as much when I left.  “Lone activists don’t come back,” someone told me.  “They just disappear.”

But I didn’t feel like my way to death walking behind Seydou.  The sun was still the sun, though a little hotter than I liked, and the good ground felt solid beneath my feet.  Nothing appeared any different here than it did in Abdijan or Sydney or Santiago or Chicago.   It’s a part of Earth’s wonder: at the same time New York literati gather to toast some poet’s latest book, down the street cancer kills a young woman in the oncological ward, while a block away a seventeen-year old basketball player passes an Algebra test for the first time, while across the globe a child who thinks she’s a witch doctor digs for diamonds in the day and is molested by the assistant to the assistant crew chief at night. 

Same planet, different worlds.

Seydou led me on a trail through the brush.  Higher on the hills, the ground was dry, dusty and porcelain hard.  Animal musk, oxen or cattle I supposed,  mixed with hot ground.

Seydou said in strongly accented French, “Where are you from?”  She asked me her question twice before I got it. 

I’d been to so many places in the previous years, I wasn’t sure how to answer.  “I’m from Abdijan, and I’m here to help.”

She nodded emphatically as if she knew what I was talking about.  What would she take from that?  I wanted to prevent the child labor?  Surely not.  Or I was investigating Devoe?

I asked her how many children worked in the pits.  She shrugged her shoulders.  “All of them.  Have you seen Dipri before?”

“No.”                                                                                                  

“Do not talk to anyone.  They will ignore you.”  She stopped on the trail, and I almost ran into her.  “Are you a good man, like your saints?  They say God used them.  Would you be a tool for good?”

A sweat sheen glistened on her face.  Sometime before we’d left, she had cleaned herself and changed.  Where I thought she was skinny before, I saw wiry strength.  “Yes, I would.  That is why I’m here,” I said without hesitation.

“I thought so.  I can tell.  Devoe does not like you, you know?  He mocks you when your back is turned.  That speaks well for you.”

I mulled that over.  It didn’t bother me Devoe didn’t like me.  He was a part of the problem, the lower, brutish part that implemented policies formed in some distant, clean boardroom by men who never went to where their policies ruined lives, but a part just the same.  It did make me think I should watch Devoe.  After all, if my report did any good, he could lose his job, perhaps even be arrested.

“Thank you,” I said.  Ahead I saw buildings, not the tin-roofed ones I’d seen everywhere between Abdijan and Seguela, but sturdy mud-walled houses with darkly thatched roofs.  On the first house we passed, a humped thatch pile turned to watch as we went by, and I realized someone was in it.

Seydou noticed.  “It is a panther man.  He will come down soon and take part in the ceremonies.”

I walked backwards for a few steps, watching him, afraid he might leap from the roof.  What, exactly, was panther-like in the panther men?.  His eyes peeked out beneath thick, dried leaves.  Some strands had been braided into circles above his head.  But other than his eyes, which I hadn’t seen at first, and his hands poking out from the costume, I wouldn’t have known he was human if he hadn’t moved.

“They are not civilized anymore,” she said.  “They spend seven months in the bush, living as wild animals, to prepare for Dipri.  They search for the animal spirits.  They search for God too, Baily, like you.”

She baffled me.  How could she come to that conclusion from a book and a short conversation?

The Wè village marked the boundary between Seydou’s universe and mine.  Even the sun’s quality seemed altered.  Colors sharpened.  Nothing seemed fuzzy.  A fly landed on a bucket twenty feet away, each leg distinct and individual.  I felt I could identify that particular fly if I saw it again.  In a swarm, I could pick it out.  For the first time in my life, I felt as if I were an alien.  The village operated in a different dimension.  Only Seydou acknowledged my presence.  Only Seydou knew I stood there, but I was invisible to the rest.

A woman staggered by us, bumping into a wall, stumbling for a moment, then going on.

“What is wrong with her?” I said, truly rattled.

Others walked around the village in the same condition.  We were in the center of thirty or forty houses where there was a well.  Their eyes bulged blankly, and their postures were contorted.  Some moaned.  Others babbled in Dioula, a dialect in this part of the world I didn’t understand.

“She is possessed by sékés.  They control our bodies.  Sometimes there are self mutilations, but no pain.”  Seydou sought for the proper word as we wove between other villagers, some who seemed fine.  A young man smiled at Seydou, and she smiled back.  “The sékés are beneficent spirits.  Some come from the forest, and from the river and mountains.  We hope this Dipri to attract a diamond sékés.”      

She sounded reasonable.  Intelligent.  Well spoken through accent.  “You do not believe in these spirits, surely.  This is hysterical behavior.”  I pointed to the woman who’d bumped us.  She thumped into a wall, turned and went the other way.

“And how long have you been seeking God?” Seydou said enigmatically.

“I’m not seeking God.”

Her mood shifted, became dark.  “This is not good, here.  The company does not care for us.  We don’t have schools.  We don’t have medicine.  During droughts, we suffer.  Mothers dry up and their children die.  Our elders are buried without ceremony.  But we listen to radio.  In Seguela, we have seen television.  Some of us have gone to schools and come back.  We do not have to live like this.  We need the price out.”

“A diamond?”  I focused my camera on a woman in a one piece dress.  Barefooted, cheap plastic gold earrings, close cropped hair; she walked with a limp; one shoulder drooped, as if she suffered from a stroke.  She ran into a man seated in the road.  He didn’t react to the blow.  She almost tripped, then continued her unbalanced walk away.  “Maybe you don’t want one.  Devoe says bad follows the big stones.”

She said, “And bad will find one.”

Startled, I put my hand on her arm.  Those were the words from my dream.

“Everybody knows the stones are cursed.  How can a good people find a big diamond without bringing the curse too?  It has always been the problem,” she said.  “Here, come up and we can see the ceremonies.”

We climbed stairs onto a small platform overlooking the street.  I saw several others like it in the village, but I never learned what function they served.  In the meantime, it was a good place to watch where the possessed wouldn’t run into us.

Soon a sort of parade formed.  Several houses up the street a crowd gathered, chanting, moving to the chant’s rhythm.  They made their way toward us, a hundred villagers.  A panther man, brandishing a thick-headed club, scuttled by, his leafy outfit rustling.  He threatened an old couple, and they flattened themselves against a wall.  Some in the parade wore costumes and masks.  The masks . . . oh, the masks were arresting: black helmets that covered the face, white shells in lines striping the head or outlining the mouth, or pointing out around the eyes.  And red tassels dangling from their chins or lining the foreheads.  Their bodies too were striped in white and black.  A giant rose up from the crowd.  I swallowed a scream.  Seydou looked at me and smiled.  A man on stilts, wearing a grass skirt, red and black pants to where his knees would be, and blue cloth to his feet, walked among the revelers.

Five dancing, muscled men painted in black and white proceeded the parade, leading it to the our platform.  At first I thought they were performing for me, but they weren’t.  They looked up, but through me as if I didn’t exist.  They performed for Seydou.  She stood beside me, her hands on the rail, nodding as they danced.  Who was she?  Maybe she did act as a shaman to these people.  I felt as if I’d entered a cathedral and stood beside the priest.  I almost expected her to raise her hands in benediction.

A young girl, wearing a beautiful white-feathered headdress came from the crowd–she might have been eight years old–and joined the dancers.  One dancer bent down, forming his hands into a cup; she stepped into it, and he stood, sending her into the air, high above their heads.  Two other dancers caught her, bouncing her up again.  She spun back to the first who now had a partner.  The men tossed her back and forth to the crowd’s applause.  Every flight changed.  Gravity didn’t hold her.  She spun, flipped, rotated backwards, all with long limbed grace.  Then, the fifth man stepped into the space between them.  The girl flew over his head.  He pulled a narrow knife from his waistband, holding it high.  The girl bounced back, her arms extended, her back arched, as if in a swan dive.  As she reached her peak, the knife tip appeared to touch her.  I held my camera at my chest, afraid to raise it to my eyes.

She flipped, kissed the knife as she went over; he appeared to catch her on knife point, to lift her up.  The villagers clapped and chanted.  The sun beat down and their feet raised dust.  My camera dropped to the rail, stopped by my neck strap.  I would have fallen; my heartbeat flooded my face, pulsing in my ears, but Seydou touched me.  “She’ll be fine,” she said.

Then, the girl sprung from two of the dancers in the other direction, landing on her feet.  The knife man howled, his eyes rolling back.  He staggered once in a wide circle, his knife blindly in front, and the crowd retreated.

“This is good.  The sékés visit him.  It means our quest will go well if a dancer receives a spirit.”

The man howled, his back distorted, eyes unfocused.  He waved the knife, edge careless, and it caught him on the upper arm, opening a long cut.  Skin flapped while blood ran to his elbow.  As he twirled, the knife passed by his face, and he seemed to see it for the first time, as if it wasn’t in his hand before.  He stood below us, his head level with knees, two feet away.  The knife came down, rested on his belly.  I could smell his sweat, he posed so close.  He looked down at the knife, watching it touch him, and he became very still.  The crowd hushed.  The knife moved, almost on its own; the dancer did not appear to be in control.  It rotated out, so the point stayed on his stomach.  He gripped the handle with his thumb on the end, and the blade entered him.  Two or three inches disappeared.  He cut a slit to the side, then dropped the knife without reaction.  No pain displayed.  No moan.  Blood soaked his shorts; it washed down his leg, over white paint.

I stepped back, chills rushed in my back, goose bumps everywhere, my skin as cold as stone; my gut tightened.  The sun, though, still pressed down, sharp edged, flaming tiny reflections from earrings, from the knife at his feet.  Dust caked in my mouth.

He reached into the cut, pulled out a section of his own intestine, then turned to the crowd.  They moved in.  When he fell in contorted rigor, they caught him.

“He’ll be fine, too,” Seydou said.  “They will rub his wound with herbs so he will heal without infection.”

Everyone chanted, bouncing to the rhythm, the heads rising and falling like waves, and it felt as if I were on the ship again, a deep sea swell moving through me.  Seydou left the platform and walked into the crowd; they parted to make room for her.  She waited for me, then directed me from the village. 

I’m not very old, but I’ve been places.  I’ve seen things most people have never seen, but I’ve never felt anything like Dipri: people bouncing around me, calling out words, chanting; I heard pattern in the chaos, and they pressed between the houses.  Some laughed and chattered, but beneath it was their feet sounds moving down the path, and Seydou’s hand on my back, keeping me in line.  A woman bumped  me, her eyes roved through the space I occupied, never pausing.   She couldn’t see me.  Again I felt as if I’d stepped onto another planet.  I didn’t belong.  Some other day, perhaps, but not today as they walked and danced toward the diamond pit.

It had taken twenty minutes to walk to the village.  No time passed before we were at the raw gouge again, over the edge, sliding toward the bottom.  The huge pit held us all, the entire village gathered in the middle.  They jostled me, but Seydou kept her hand on my back, pushing now, moving to the center.  I didn’t feel afraid, but it was as if I’d lost volition.  Somewhere between the time when I’d ascended the platform and now, I’d surrendered myself to the day.  Villagers’ sweat-damp skin rubbed by me, boys, men, girls, women, the elderly, dancing in the pit.  Here their feet dug into mud.  Steps spashed.  Mud splattered to their knees; on some, it stained their shirts, smeared their faces.  People I ran into turned to look, but I had become a space in the crowd; their eyes grew wide.  Seydou said in French to them, “It’s fine.  Don’t worry,” then she spoke in Dioula.

A voice rose above the chants, swearing.  “Whores, you black sons of bitches!  Let me go.”  Heads turned in that direction.  Seydou’s final push brought me to the center, a cleared area ten feet wide.  I stood in the middle, Seydou behind me.  Two burly men held Devoe between them, pinning his arms to their chests.  He roared something in another language, it might have been German, but it sounded obscene.  Then, he saw me.  “Baily, tell them to let me be.”  His face twisted in fear.

Around us the villagers pressed in close, quiet now and intent.  Seydou moved beside me, her face shining, then she handed me the knife the dancer had used to cut himself, pointing it toward Devoe who stood a foot away.  The closest villagers leaned back.  The air crackled.  Voices murmured.  A man said, “Ça plane!”  I didn’t understand.  It floats?  He looked at my hand.  “Le couteau  Ça plane!”  It means, “The knife, it floats.”

The man’s eyes rolled up to their whites, and he passed out, sinking to the ground.  Their stares were on the knife.  In the sun, in the glare, I couldn’t see my hand, but the blade stood out, solid and sharp.  Had I really disappeared?

Seydou said something.  I didn’t get it.  I shook my head.  She repeated herself, and I thought I understood the words, but they didn’t make sense.

What was I doing there?  I wish I could give you the dislocation, the weirdness, how removed from my experience.  My life had been spent trying to ease suffering, to calm my sleep so I wouldn’t think about pain a half a world away.  But how could I help here?  Where did evil reside?  Who suffered now?  Devoe begged with his eyes.

Seydou said in my ear, “Bad follows the big stone, and bad will find it.  Remember, you did no bad.”  She licked her palm and wiped Devoe’s cheek; he looked at her without comprehension.

I knew what she intended: I was to kill Devoe, with the knife heavy and blood-sticky in my hand.  They wished to avoid the curse.  Why would she think I would do this?  I put my arm down and stepped back.  “No,” I said in English.  “This is not for the good.”  No one reacted to my words; it was if I’d not spoken.  Their eyes locked on the knife.  I turned to walk away . . . and I turned . . . and nothing happened.  My skin cooled, but not as if a breeze came up.  More like a cold liquid filled me.  An interior cold.  The knife came up, dragging my arm with it.  Then it flew forward.  For an instant, as I lunged toward Devoe, I wondered if my eyes bulged blankly.  Was this a sékés?

Something inside him grabbed the blade, a muscle spasm; the knife twisted in my hand, then it pulsed.  His heart beat through the handle, and all become wet.  My feet were wet.  Blood covered my wrist, splashed on the ground; I tasted it on my tongue, coppery and warm.  Devoe’s mouth opened as if to speak.  Instead, he coughed, lightly, a pink froth on his lips; I barely heard it.  He convulsed, tearing the knife from my hand.  The men laid him back, the knife a black and silver cross sticking from his stomach’s Golgotha.

Whatever filled me poured out.  It fled through my fingers, through my feet.

I rubbed my hand on my pants.  What I wanted to do then was kick off my wet shoes and pants.  He was on me, touching my skin, squishing between my toes.

Seydou pushed me back and knelt.  At first I thought she prayed.  I held my hand before me; the palm was clean, but red marked the creases in my fingers.  She dug at Devoe’s feet, where the blood had fallen; she scooped out rocky dirt and placed it in a pile to her side.  It oozed, and the ooze was blood.  She scooped again, then sat back, still holding the gruesome handful, and I could see it in the hole: a red glint.  I knelt beside her, placed my hands on the ground.  In the tiny pit’s bottom, the sun reflected off a lumpy glass ball the size of a ping pong ball.  Blood marked it, and bloody mud surrounded it.  For a second, I thought it beat, like a heart, a throb I felt through my palms: once, twice, the mud swelled and receded, then it was still.  Seydou dropped the dirt.  She cupped the rough diamond so it rested in her hand, then stood, holding it out from her.

“It is done,” she said.  The celebration began.  Shovels appeared.  They dragged Devoe away, buried him deep in the pit’s side.  They danced and chanted and sang.  More were possessed, and there was much running into each other.  Among them all, the panther men stalked, and people gave them room to move, gave them the jungle respect necessary to men who sacrificed their humanity for seven months to live with animals.

Seydou came to me in Devoe’s car.  When I could not find the keys, I’d put my head down on the steering wheel and waited.  I didn’t care if they killed me.  It didn’t matter, because I couldn’t get the knife’s shape from my head.  Devoe’s pulse remained in my wrist, transmitted through the killing blade.

She spoke through the passenger’s window.  “Bad follows the big stone, and bad will find it.”

The hard plastic steering wheel had become warm beneath my forehead.  A single blood spot marked my pants above my left knee.  “So you brought a curse upon yourself,” I said heavily.

“We did no bad,” she said.  “We didn’t kill him.  You held the knife.”

“So the curse comes to me.”  I didn’t care.  The conversation was irrelevant.

She said, “Intent makes the murderer.  I needed you to hold the knife because you weren’t us.”

I didn’t know if what she said was true.  Was there no intent?  When good men do nothing, evil flourishes.   I held the knife.  I didn’t move it myself, but was I sorry when it sped home?  Devoe died.  They didn’t even steal his batteries.  I raised my head and looked apathetically into the pit.  The villagers had gone, walked away or turned into wisps.  Who could know?

Seydou reached into the car, touched my cheek with her knuckles.  It was opposite from what she had done to Devoe.  It felt as if she were rubbing something onto it.  “We have our price out.  The debts will be paid, and my people will not work the mines again.  We will recover our relatives, the ones buried in the fields, and find a better place for them.  You have done much good here.  I had a vision a man would come to us from Abdijan.”

She backed away.  “I can give you something too.  We found a diamond today.  A big one, and it will have no curse on it.  You should think about how we found it, how it came to us.”

I thought about the knife in my invisible hand.  The pouring blood.  Was the diamond there before Devoe died, or did his death bring it?  For a moment I saw his blood mixing on the ground, and the stone shaping itself.  Even as Seydou dug toward it, the mud coming together in its perfect form.

She said, “Magic works.  It is a rare thing for a man to see who does not believe.  But if there is magic, Bailey, if there is magic, isn’t there a chance there is God too?  The saints were God’s tools.  He acted through them. 

Today you were a saint for us, the saint from Abdijan.”

This story originally appeared in Extremes: Darkest Africa.


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James Van Pelt

An interviewer asked the author if he wanted to be the next Stephen King: he said, "No, I want to be the first James Van Pelt."