Sunday, December 27, 2020

Not Even Not Zen 221.7: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 7

Robert Gallagher, Wake

The End of Black Jack

When my father sent American messages, he walked from the radio room down the hall to the next room. There, on a bench, sat a machine with five wheels. He used an algorithm supplied by his duty officer to decide how to start. It was always a calculation that began with the first five or ten letters of the plaintext message. Then he enciphered the message and transmitted it.

For deciphering duty, my father intercepted Chinese and Korean radio signals in which every part of the message came to him in five letter chunks. There seemed to be hardly any attempts by the enemy to hide their war communications. Their operators transmitted over a known range of bands. Radiomen of the 126th Signal Service Company took the captured transmissions to an officer who sat nearby.

Often, the officer could put my father's message through the machine, make a few adjustments, and decode the message on the spot. Then the lieutenant, since it was almost always a lieutenant, gave the decoded text to my father to enter in the daily log book.

When there was time, the officers would discuss cipher schemes with my father. During the early months of the Korean War, the lieutenants tried to elevate the skills of their enlisted troops. When the week was too busy or everyone was too tired, as happened more often after the arrival of Captain Black Jack, no one spoke. An enciphered message came in. A plain text message left for the logs and for overnight transmission to the headquarters in Washington, DC.

The overnight transmission was the main way that the U.S. military leadership knew about the Signal Corps. The radiomen on night duty enciphered the Korean messages with American codes and sent them to the relay station in the Philippines. Other radiomen re-transmitted them to California. Finally, at around four o'clock in the morning, the messages reached army headquarters.

Black Jack took the overnight work for granted.

He had continued, as a tough-minded captain, to drill the enlisted men as if they were front line troops. At one point when North Korean forces threatened to overrun the position of the 126th Signal Service Company, Black Jack told his men they would not be following the usual pack-up-and-run procedure.

"If those bastards come for us, we'll burn the code books and fight." The captain made the announcement on his own authority to his assembled soldiers. "We'll fight to the end."

"We only have rifles," hissed a corporeal.

"And you're no damned good with them," said a sergeant.

Late that night, the veteran enlisted men held an emergency session. Could they complain to the colonel? Would other officers impose sanity on Black Jack?

"Listen, Roberts, if the place gets overrun," an older enlisted man took my father aside. "Just stay away from the captain."

"What do you mean?"

"You talk too much with the officers." He meant my father liked learning the cipher methods. "Stay away from them for a few days. If Black Jack tells us to get our rifles, you go get yours but don't come back."


"Wait until you're at the back of the line, get it? Don't get near Black Jack."

My father had just turned eighteen. He didn't understand what they were telling him. An older, more worldly private had to pull him aside later and explain.

"If Black Jack really tries to make us charge the Chinese tanks with our rifles, the sergeants are going to accidentally shoot the captain."


"The lieutenants, too, if they give us any grief about it. And then we're going to pack up the equipment and run just like we should."

As the front approached, the troops didn't see any sign of Black Jack giving up his resolve to fight. He marched his men. He drilled them with rifles. He ran scenarios for defense of the base. He forgot about the overnight block transmissions. For a few days, the radiomen working overtime sent them to Washington headquarters late. Then, after a long all-day march, the captain cancelled night shift. No radioman put in extra hours to send the batch of deciphered Korean messages.

That was too much. Washington called California. California called Guam. Guam radioed the Philippines. The base colonel picked up the phone and swore to his superiors that it would never happen again. He called Black Jack into his office. 

At long last, he shipped Black Jack out.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Not Even Not Zen 221.6: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 6

Robert Gallagher, Wake

The Arrival of Black Jack

Although the signal corps continued strong for months, one of their captains rotated out. The army brought in a replacement. The new man called the other officers 'eggheads.' He said the signal corps looked weak. He saw that the enlisted men didn't go on marches. No one did their morning calisthenics. Since the transcribers worked different shifts around the clock, they didn't meet together as a corps.

The new captain decided to change all of that. He re-instituted regular weapons training. He made the sergeants lead the troops in calisthenics. He took entire squads on marches.

"He thinks he's a fucking marine!" The older men in the corps complained.

"It's worse than that. Black Jack thinks we're all marines." Within a few days, they had assigned him a nickname. My father, still seventeen, thought it was pretty funny.

Even the officers, all of them specialists, were angered by how the captain treated them. They didn't know what to do about it, though, so all they did was complain to each other.

"He can't decode anything!" a lieutenant said and then added the bad news that Black Jack had misplaced the previous captain's reference materials. Those were essential at times. But Black Jack hadn't understood them, so he had decided they were unnecessary. He might have burned them. "He doesn't even know what we do."

The captain started passing out demerits based on improperly worn uniforms, poorly made beds, towels left out to dry in the wrong place, and not using enough boot polish. He punished enlisted men immediately before their transcription shifts, so that more of them made mistakes that resulted in unreadable codes. He took the corps on a march together so that some of the men missed shifts. Others fell asleep during their transcription sessions.

The marches tired my father out more than anything. They could start at dawn and if you had just listened to coded radio all night, it didn't matter. You had to go. He watched the older men and learned from them. He reported to work on time. He turned in correct translations of the radio code signals he'd picked up although it was a struggle.

The junior officers appealed to the colonel about Black Jack hurting the signal corps. He told them to be patient. Black Jack, he thought, was doing what new captains did. Then the colonel called the captain into his office for a talk. Lieutenants and enlisted men put their ears to the wall. The colonel shouted a bit but nothing much came of it. Black Jack was quieter for a couple days. Soon, he returned to his usual tactics.

The privates, corporals, and sergeants started to retaliate against Black Jack's inspections. One of his favorite tricks during those was to have the men stand in parade formation. He'd walk along for a minute, turn, and snatch a rifle from a private's hands. If he could snatch it away, he would give a demerit for holding the gun too lightly.

After a few more parade inspections, the enlisted men saw it coming. One of them in the line ahead of my father clutched his gun. The captain struggled with it and had to resort to ordering the private to let go. He returned that rifle and turned to the next man. He gave the gun a firm yank, expecting resistance. The private let go so suddenly that Black Jack nearly bayoneted himself in the head. For my father, it was easy not to laugh. It would have meant demerits. But the event got funnier and funnier in memory as the enlisted men retold it forever after.

Black Jack stopped using that particular trick. But he kept penalizing the privates and interfering with their code transcriptions while not actually barring them from their jobs. The enlisted men wanted to go on strike but, of course, they were in the army. They couldn't. Any real attempt at a work stoppage would land them in the stockade.

Just hearing the men talk about it made my father nervous. Fortunately, most of the corps regarded him as a kid. He was definitely the youngest radioman and they didn't expect him to do anything except stay out of their way.

The soldiers started their resistance movement in the mess hall. Organizers among them passed out word about what to eat. Sometimes it was, "nobody eat the eggs." Each time an order came, it meant a bunch of something left over. It looked bad on company reports but it didn't seem to bother the captain. So the entire corps skipped lunch, my father too. The soldiers ate double at dinner to create shortages in the ingredients. Finally, an inspector happened by when the troops skipped a meal. He saw the leftover food get thrown out. He checked the books and saw the excessive waste.

The Inspector General called in the colonel, who called in the captain. They wanted to talk about the reasons the men would skip meals. Finally, the troops had succeeded in getting Black Jack into trouble. The problem was, it wasn't enough.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Not Even Not Zen 221.5: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 5

Robert Gallagher, Wake

Simple Codes

For months, my father and the other enlisted men of the 126th Signal Service Company intercepted Korean and Chinese radio communications. They transcribed them, broke the ciphers - when there were any, since both sides sometimes sent in plain text - and transmitted them in batches each night to Washington, DC.

Off shift, the squad mates played cribbage, poker, and other games for money. My father was still seventeen and although he was no longer in danger of being discharged (back in the US, his mother has signed an agreement saying that he could serve), he was rightly regarded as in need of guidance. Older men taught him to play poker well enough to win money from them. They made him play cribbage so they could win it all back.

For most of the year, the intelligence corps made steady progress. The Koreans and Chinese scrambled their codebooks but continued to use substitution ciphers that the enlisted troops or their codebreaking officers could crack. My father learned to identify each telegraph operator by her 'hand.' When the operators in China got rotated or purged, the Americans could tell. The Chinese knew it, too. Some of the women cursed, in their transmissions, about or directly at the U.S. intelligence crew.

At least once, the cursing paid off for the American side. It was a day after the Chinese had switched cipher methods. That was a laborious thing to do since it involved sending North Korean and Chinese operators new code books. It was worth it to keep the Americans from reading the messages on the same day, though. The fact that the Koreans had insisted on new ciphers meant they were planning an offensive. The Americans wanted the details. However, this time the Chinese were keeping their transmissions brief. The U.S. decoders couldn't assemble a big enough sample size to figure out the new cipher method.

"Hey, look at this one." One of the enlisted men brought his message to a decoder at the same time as my father brought his transcriptions. The other operator had written down a coded message. "This is from that woman who changed cities. She curses at us all the time. Her message is the only one that's long."

"So it's got her cursing in it," the officer sat up with a smile. This was making his day. "What does she usually say about us?"

The operator and my father described the types of curses that the Chinese telegraph operator used. In less than half an hour, the code breaker iterated through his math and employed guesses about the words used to break the new code.

"Got it! Complete with cursing!'

The commanding officer passed on his congratulations. The team had done it. They'd beaten the new codebook on their first day against it.

Sunday, December 6, 2020

Not Even Not Zen 221.4: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 4

Robert Gallagher, Wake

Remembrance: As a Soldier

At seventeen, my father reported to boot camp. He'd lied about his age to sign up. Naturally he feared being caught. As tough as the training and hazing was, his exhaustion faded each time he received a written summons to see a sergeant or lieutenant. Every encounter had the potential to expose his lie. He knew he could be sent to the stockade, or discharged, or both.

He finished camp. At the end, he took a series of exams that were meant to discover his potential best fit for active duty. He really had no preference but older recruits gave him lots of advice.

"You hate KP. You'll hate cooking."

"Rangers parachute behind the lines. If you join them, you're as good as dead."

"Don't be a clerk. I'm at a desk typing all day and it's awful. Just awful."

Most of the advice seemed well meant but he knew that sometimes it didn't apply to him. His choices would be limited. He had no connections. He might be offered a chance to change his assignment. But probably not. A lot of times, there was no wriggling out of a written command, which had to be done by soliciting another command from someone higher up. When he got his official order to report to the Army Intelligence training school in California, he shared it with his camp buddies, about a third of whom were waiting for their assignments, too. Their response was, 'What the hell is that?' No one had an opinion about whether it was a bad job or not. The travel order included a free go-anywhere train ticket.

Two days later, my father hadn't responded to the order but he received a different one, also in writing: report to the colonel in charge of his army base on the next day, noon.

My father realized there wasn't much that a colonel would want to see him about. Yelling at him for being seventeen was probably at the top of a short list.

So the next morning, as early as he could manage, my father packed up his kit. They were all the possession he had anyway. Then he hiked down to the train station. That was how he joined SIGINT.

126th Signal Service Company

When I was six, my father said, "The army taught me Russian, then sent me to spy on the Chinese." He proceeded to say it again when I was seven, eight, and pretty much constantly for the next forty-five years. So he really meant it.

After World War II, the U.S. needed to downsize its military. That freed up money needed to re-commercialize the economy. It also meant that by the time of the Korean War, the 7th Fleet had one intelligence officer in the Far East Command. Hardly anyone in any branch of service knew Chinese, Russian, or Korean. Also, as my father pointed out, the U.S. mistakenly assumed that the Russians were controlling North Korea. They trained Robert Roberts, among their other intelligence recruits, to understand Russian communications. As soon as he started reading and decrypting the telegraph signals, my father saw that the Koreans were talking among themselves and with the Chinese. They weren't talking to the Russians.

The Armed Forces Security Agency, which was the umbrella Signals Intelligence organization of the time, had no Korean linguists, no Korean language typewriters, nor did it have Korean-English dictionaries at the start of the war. By the time my father arrived, the fighting had been going on for ten months. The AFSA had repaired most of their basic deficiencies. They hadn't fixed them all, though, and they didn't understand all of their problems.

When he arrived, my father trained with the best, fastest telegraph signal reader at the intelligence base. This was a man who could not only read the Chinese signal morse code but could hold sentences or entire paragraphs of it in his head. He only wrote his transcription down when he was sure he had heard the signals correctly. My father saw him listen to an entire coded transmission, pause to think, and then write out the entire text.

"If you want to be good, you've got to do the same," the best transcriber challenged my father. "If you try to translate the message character by character, you'll never make it. You'll get thirty characters in, realize that you heard something wrong at the start, and you won't have time to go back and fix it or you'll miss the rest of the incoming message. Your intelligence won't mean anything, if you're bad. You've got to hold at least a sentence at a time. The more you can hold in your head, the better."

No one had ever caught this particular transcriber in a mistake, not even when he held an entire telegraph message in his head. My father got good but he always said with a wry smile that he never got to the top. He learned to hold a few lines of code in his head and to transcribe them well. His work got the nod first from the code breakers, then from the officer in charge.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Not Even Not Zen 221.3: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 3

Robert Gallagher, Wake

Remembrance: His Childhood

He was born as Robert Earl Gallagher in Elmira, New York, in 1934. His older sister and his younger brother were both born with different last names.

In some ways, it seems remarkable that his family registered him as Gallagher, his father's family name. For the most part, the family avoided using their Irish name and took on English names for the sake of employment. My grandma June was mostly English and she went by Light, Pond, or Roberts.

When my father was two years old, his father died. As a consequence (one of many effects, of course), my father grew up as Bobby Roberts, a step-child and sometimes a homeless one. His mother June worked as a maid. She picked up more side jobs after she became the breadwinner but she had two children already and this was during the Great Depression. Even for part-time maid jobs, June had competition to undercut her. And sometimes her employers didn't pay up.

When June remarried, her new husband was out of work. Despite pooling their money, they couldn't make rent. Their landlord evicted them. June had learned a lesson, though, from her previous evictions. She knew that she couldn't pay enough, so she saved her money. By the third or fourth eviction, she had developed self-preservation habits. She saved enough to move into another apartment with the first month of rent and a security deposit. She never paid the next landlord more than that if she could help it. She knew she didn't have the income to pay a steady rent anywhere and often she couldn't pay the utilities. Instead, she fed her family and saved what she could. Usually by the time she was thrown out, she had enough saved for the first month of rent and a security deposit on their next place.

On the days they were thrown out of their home, my father returned from school to find everything on the curb. Part of that time, he discovered that his toys and clothes had been stolen or given away.

Each time, June told my father that he could take nothing but his clothes. She was more sentimental about his sister, Jenny, so Jenny got to take a few dolls. His little brother Jack still had a father living with them, so Jack got to take nearly all of his things. His father packed them for him. Jack was the baby of the family and Jenny was the girl. My father felt caught in the middle.

He told me later that it was always clear that his parents didn't like him. They often told him so. With each eviction came a reminder of what that meant. His brother and sister took boxes with them, usually carried by June or her husband. My father carried his clothes by himself.

Elmira is not a big town. After June's second husband died, too, it got harder to find a place to live. Some landlords would not rent to a woman. Many of them knew about her schemes by that point anyway. Her brother, Jack Light, drove up from Baltimore in a rented car. This was a big deal. It changed all of their lives. Because Jack had come to take his sister's family back home with him.

When I grew up, my father kept telling me what a great city Baltimore was. I accepted that as a simple statement of fact. My trips to Lexington Market in Baltimore felt exciting because it was apparently the best food market in the best city in the world.

(Lexington Market in its heyday had an amazing variety of local, craft foods. Most butchers in the city had a stall in the market and they brought their freshest meats. They cut them in front of their customers, sometimes a scary process for kids but often not. The vegetables, the milk, the cheese, and even the pickles were unique. In the late 1960s, I could reliably start from an entrance door and run two blocks through a crowd of a few thousand people to a particular pickle vendor that I found by the mouthwatering smell of the barrels. Even in the mid-1970s when Lexington was losing ground to supermarkets, the freshness of the food was impossible to match. Nowadays, that's still true. The close-to-the-farm distribution style no longer exists. Once, when I was fourteen, I helped pack and then unpack sandwich steaks that a butcher had cut extra thin for my father. Three of the steaks never made it to the freezer. The smell had been driving me crazy. I ate them raw on the way into the house. My father was basically right about Lexington Market. It kicked ass.)

The market aside, my father's sentiments for Baltimore didn't make sense to me even as I accepted them. Only later did I realize what the city had meant. His uncle Jack had taken him from sometimes-homelessness to a brick rowhouse with his own half-room, from being told by his parents that they didn't like him to being told by his uncle that he was fine, from having his comic books thrown out every few months to being able to collect things, even coins, without someone stealing them. (Well, except for his brother Jack, who, as younger siblings sometimes do, helped himself to the collections and spent the coins when my father was in Korea.)

Before Baltimore, my father's attendance at schools had been haphazard. Fortunately, he had turned to reading to escape the realities of his life. His self-teaching proved to be just barely enough to make it into City College. (City College, despite its name, was and is a prestigious public high school.) He ran on the high school track team, idolized the football players and decathletes, traveled after school on foot with other boys to stare in awe at the local bouncer who played for the Baltimore Colts, and mostly enjoyed himself except for the long-running feud with his mother. A few months before he turned seventeen, North Korea invaded South Korea. My father responded by walking into his local recruiting station.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Not Even Not Zen 221.2: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 2

Robert Gallagher, Wake


When I was three and living in Germany, my parents insisted that we start meals with a prayer. Often I led the prayer. My father listened to me in my sing-song voice for about half a year of our occasional ritual before he figured out that my final words at the end of each prayer were, "come in." Apparently, I couldn't make any other sense out of what grown-ups were saying at the end.

He tried to correct me. He told me it was "amen" even I though, at the age of three, that didn't make any sense. My mother pointed out that "come in" was nice. She actually defended it! That let to my father regarding the whole situation, including my mother's rationalization, as funny. So he did what he did best. He told that story about me for the next fifty-one years.

He told some good stories. He told a lot, good, bad, and just plain interesting.  He wasn't shy about re-telling his classics.

Now, an old friend of mine once said that I showed a great strength for misrepresenting the classics. In light of that strength, I will now misrepresent you The Book of Common Prayer, verse 1928, and an inappropriate passage from the Book of John.

We have in our hands our merciful father and we commit his ashes to this cigar box in the spirit of his Scots-Irish sensibilities, earth to earth, cigar ashes to ashes, wood chipper to mulch.

Let not your heart be troubled. 

In my father's house, there are many newspapers. If it were not so, we would not be such a long time cleaning up. Whatever comes next, we are preparing.

We will go and prepare a place for all and we will receive you all. Wherever we are, you may be also. And if you have known us, you have known our father also, even if you have never met him. If you have seen us, you have seen him. Do you not believe that we are in our father and our father lives in us? Our father dwells in our bodies. At times, he speaks from our mouths and we do his works.

Verily, verily, I say unto you, the works that we do, he does also. The better we are, the more to his glory.

Our father, in this cigar box, hallowed be thy name. We've read your will. Your will be done. Here, as it hardly ever was in life. You gave to us our daily bread. We forgave one another our trespasses. We mostly forgave those who trespassed against us. You didn't quite resist temptation. But you delivered us to where we are now, in a good place. Come in.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Not Even Not Zen 221.1: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 1

Robert Gallagher, Wake


My father must have had a hundred jokes. That sounds good but actually there are three hundred sixty five days in a year. And he told more than one joke per day.

Humor Crusader

When I was ten, I spent a lot of time in the math lab and the teacher's lounge at Northwood High School, where my father worked. He was the Math Resource Teacher by that time. The position gave him a bit of extra money and responsibility. He got to plan the math class schedules, hire teachers, and assign them to classes.

One day, a medium-tall black man walked into the lab. He had on a suit jacket and glasses. He asked me who I was and then ignored me while I played. When my dad walked in a few minutes later, the man greeted my father with a big handshake and a smile.

"I got the transfer," he said. "I'm already teaching history."

"Good," said my father. "How do you like it?"

"Way better than math." They both got a big laugh out of that.

I asked why the man didn't like math. At ten, I thought it was fine enough. My father responded with some sort of joke. He would never have explained it, I guess, not to a ten year old. It was the black man who spoke up.

"No one in the county would hire me," he said. "But a friend of mine told me about your dad. Your dad got me in the system. I had to teach math for a year. But I always wanted to be a history teacher. Once I was in the system, I transferred. See, I could even transfer to where they didn't want me."

"They need history teachers there, too," said my dad.

"Your father is doing a good thing."

By this point, I sensed an adult-world sort of mystery. There was something going on that they hadn't explained. I kept asking. It took them a few minutes more to fully reveal my father's method. It wasn't something my father would have told me on his own. But the other man thought it was important. He insisted. In fact, he did most of the telling.

At the time, the county teacher hiring forms went through one woman in the central office. It wasn't that this woman controlled the decisions, really, just that the paperwork all went through her. She refused to process the hiring of black teachers for any place that she didn't consider a black school. That meant there were hardly any black teachers hired each year, sometimes none.

My father didn't have the ability to hire black History teachers or English teachers or foreign language teachers. However, the county had made an exception for math teachers. As usual, no school could get enough of them. So the local principals and math resource teachers were allowed to hire candidates 'on the spot.' My father's principal had given him the freedom to hire anyone who he wanted. The word got out. Robert Gallagher was hiring blacks at Northwood High School.

Yes, you had to teach math in your first year. After that, you were expected to transfer out to the job you really wanted. Then my father would hire another black teacher and the cycle would start again. It was their way of beating the county hiring system, which was one that wasn't admitting more than the minimum quota of African Americans.

It wasn't a major rebellion on my father's part, I think. He felt that he was doing the right thing and it was nothing more than that. He never said anything more about it aside from that one conversation. He was committing a series of small acts that, by necessity, flew under the radar of everyone except his principal and a few fellow teachers. For a while, one of those teachers he hired, Regina Skyles, did socialize with us and we got to know her family until she transferred. Other than that, the teachers remained co-workers who we, in the rest of the family, never thought about.

For less than a decade in the late sixties and early seventies, my father found it necessary to trick the system a little. Tricks like those were his strength. And mostly, he did them with a laugh.


An addendum:

I think my father and his principal pushed through as many black math teachers as they could. That meant having enough math classes to occupy them.

It’s hard to schedule for extra math teachers if you don’t have a need for them. They had to go an extra step to create an extra need.

In those years, my father taught psychology, philosophy, and Russian classes. I think that in most of those years he only taught one or two math classes. That was his course load as the math resource teacher: pretty much anything but math. Surely it must’ve seemed unusual. It also meant that other parts of the school were chipping in for the civil rights effort whether they wanted to or not. There must have been some risk of complaints. Part of the principal's role in the scheme must’ve been to quell those complaints. Quickly, with emphasis. 

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Not Zen 201: The Breakthrough

Straight jacket by Rodw, Wikimedia

The Breakthrough

This is the scene: a crazy man stands on the edge of a garden, waiting to attack.

Why he waits is hard to know.  He stares at Eqbal, the groundskeeper.  Eqbal's job is to cut the grass, trim the hedge, and supervise the five supposedly-therapeutic gardens.  He kneels, now, in a vegetable patch.  He holds a small hand spade in his left hand.  The crazy man, whose name is Monroe, stands at the edge of the patch.  He is pale and wears a straight-jacket.

The straight-jacket has not become untied.   It is simply old, as many of them are at the home.  The straps were frayed.  Monroe broke out.  He popped five straps at the seams, where they had been re-sewn many times.  Now they flap as he moves his arms.  This is his third time out of a jacket.


Monroe is taller than Eqbal but less massive.  The gardener has very strong arms, a lot of bulk.  He looks less like a desert Arab and more like a drawing of an old Persian king, except for in his face.  His face is plain and, because of it, Eqbal appears slow-witted.  He is not.  Even some of his friends think he has a dull mind; this is because he does not speak much and is reluctant to act on an impulse.  Also, he has not been to school since he was nine.  He only came to America on the recommendation of one of his younger brothers.  It was this same brother who got him a job at the home.

So Monroe stands trembling, hovering at the edge of the garden, as if waiting for Eqbal to become aware.  It would not be fair to say the two do not know each other.  Eqbal has often been cruel to Monroe.  He has described the horrible things doctors will do, has made faces behind his back, has made hand gestures towards him, and has been a general nuisance.  These are all things he does out of fear.  Eqbal cannot understand why the violent cases are allowed to live.  He does not like his job and, in the morning, trembles at the thought of going to work.  His wife tells him he is silly, a coward.

And here a violent man is, free, standing at the edge of the tilled soil.  Eqbal, who had been bending over to check a sprout, feels the shadow across his back.  He stands up.

He stares at Monroe.  In the first second, he thinks, Where did this man come from?  Why is there no nurse with him?  In another second, he wonders, Is this patient escaping?  Why did he come here?  To find me?

Monroe trembles.  He begins breathing louder.  Eqbal can see the terrible, unreasoning rage in those eyes.  

Monroe runs into the garden, a mad bull, an animal, swinging his fists for twenty feet before he even gets to Eqbal.  When Eqbal gets hit in all this flurry of limbs, it surprises him.  It knocks him back a step and turns his vision purple for an instant.  Monroe swings again.  So Eqbal hits back.

Up to this point in his life, Eqbal has never hit with all the force of his being.  This punch is inspired by fear.  It has all his concentration.  It sends a shiver through his body.  Monroe goes down.  A second later, he pops back up, swinging all the while, driving Eqbal out of the garden.

A few punches later, flesh stinging, Eqbal says to himself, Enough of this, and hits Monroe again.  This punch is like the first one, only more deliberate.  Even Monroe notices it; he coughs up a bit of phlegm and falls to one knee.  By his knee is the hand-spade.  Monroe blinks at it.  He picks it up.

Holding the implement like a knife, the patient charges.  At last Eqbal knows what to do.  He steps to the side as Monroe begins his wide, wild swing.  He grabs the offending arm by the wrist and twists, hard.  It is an old army move.  His reflexes are in action now.  He twists and drives Monroe to the ground, slams an open hand to the back of Monroe's elbow, and feels a pop.  He thinks he has broken Monroe's arm.

"Drop it," he says.  "Drop the knife and I'll let you up."  He knows his accent is not good.  For a moment, he is afraid the patient cannot understand him.

Monroe thinks about it.  His eyes are watery now, not only because his arm nearly snapped but also out of frustration.  He strains, kicks, tries to stand, to shake Eqbal off him, but Eqbal is immovably immense.  He lets go of the hand-spade.

"Okay."  Eqbal grabs the spade and throws it into the bushes, where Monroe will think it is lost but where it can be found later.

While Eqbal throws the gardening tool, Monroe rolls and scrambles, fighting to get to his feet.  This isn’t necessary.  Eqbal lets him.  Once standing, Monroe dashes away toward the trees for three or four large strides.  Then he turns around again and rushes back, swinging his fists on the run, at Eqbal.

Eqbal is all army, now.  He takes Monroe up, puts him down, hard, on his back, on the ground, on a little piece of shale that bruises Monroe in the middle of his spine.  That done, Eqbal steps away.  He cannot bring himself to do any more.

Uneasily, Monroe stands.  For a moment, he wonders where he is.  He feels his need to fight draining away.  In its place, a sickly dread arises.  The world seems new and terribly uncertain.  He wobbles; he cannot believe his legs will not obey him.  He makes fists but they feel weak.  He is afraid to charge again.

Eqbal studies him, waiting for the attack.  He does not accept that Monroe is no longer dangerous until the pale, mop-haired man begins to cry.  The tears well up and the sound that comes out of Monroe's mouth is a wail Eqbal has never heard before.  It is a sound he does not want to hear, a beastly cry, the cry of a child's voice in a man's body.  It is horrible.  Yet even after this cry begins, Eqbal cannot believe Monroe is not dangerous.  The crazy man leans back and cries to the sky, to himself, to everything.

Eqbal takes half a step forward.  Monroe does not move; he only cries.  The next few steps are more difficult.  Eqbal is trembling.  He is still frightened by Monroe but, of course, he has learned he can beat him, can beat all that rage and hatred by sheer, physical force.  Eqbal walks forward because he must do something to stop the crying.  He holds up a hand; Monroe only cries.  He embraces Monroe.  Monroe cries.

Then something strange happens.  Monroe puts his arms around Eqbal, gently, as if afraid to touch him, afraid to hurt him.  He hugs Eqbal and his crying changes.  He begins to say the first words he has said in two years, though he and Eqbal have no sense of that.

"Oh God," Monroe says.  "Oh God, oh God, oh God, oh God." 

He keeps repeating it.  The words have become his litany, his wailing.  His hug grows tighter and tighter still, until Eqbal is trembling under it.  He is amazed by the strength in Monroe's arms and further amazed that he is not hurt by it.  Monroe continues to say Oh God, Oh God as he cries.  Eqbal wails along with him.  It is too horrible for one person, alone, to be as sad as this.

Out the window of her office, the Chief Psychologist sees Eqbal and Monroe embrace.  It takes her a moment to realize what it is because most of what she sees is Eqbal's huge back.

She drops her fork and part of her carry-out Szechuan Chicken lunch.  Coincidently, the words she utters to herself are, "Oh God."  This comes when she recognizes Monroe for who and what he is.  She prides herself on knowing many case files by heart and she knows instantly this is the first friendly contact Monroe has made in years.  A breakthrough has been made.  She rushes out of her office and down the stairs.

Monroe seems better for a few days.  He talks, though he does not form complete sentences.  He eats his meals with a fork and takes his medication orally.  There is no repeat of the hugging incident.  He refuses to let the doctors touch him.  When his relatives come to visit, he becomes violent.  He blackens his father's eye.  The old man is nearly eighty and quite frail; he is fortunate not to have been hurt worse.

That afternoon, Monroe is put back into the straight-jacket.

A doctor recommends electroshock to return his lost complacency and the administrator agrees.  Up to this point, the family has resisted permission.  After violence toward one of their own, however, they seem to relinquish their previous sense of hope.  Over the course of the next month, Monroe's father, mother and older brother are won over to the idea.  They agree there is no possibility of a cure.  Fortunately, the therapy goes well.  The patient is reduced to manageable hostility.

When the administrators find out how this all came about, this is what they do for their poor, Arab groundskeeper: they fire him.  Witnesses say he provoked the violence and that he is cruel.  Eqbal does not argue.  The administrators tell him they will refer him to another facility if he will agree not to contest the decision.  His brother advises him to agree.  So he does.  He goes to his new job, in fact, before Monroe has had shock therapy.  When he leaves, he thinks that his new friend is on the way to a cure.  On his way out, he stops by Monroe's room to say goodbye.  Monroe cries and tries to hug Eqbal but he is confined by a straight-jacket.  He touches his forehead carefully to the gardener’s forehead.

The attendant starts to make a note about this additional incident of friendly contact but, feeling tired, she sets it aside for later and never actually writes it down.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

Not Even Not Zen 220: Snake Dance

Snake Dance

His wife screamed, "You hit it!"

as he got out of his car to look, hands on hips,

scowled at nine feet of black snake, head as big as his fist.

The serpent regarded him not at all

and only continued its slow crawl across the gravel.

"It’s fine," said Theseus. “I didn’t hit it.”

Then he surveyed the watery ditches on each side

and complained, “There’s no way around.”

"Well, you can't just run over it."

And that was that.

He picked up a dead branch and snapped off the twigs,

paused to loosen his belt a notch,

nervous and overweight, a long time since

battling Sinis or Skiron

or the embarrassing incident with the snapping turtle.

This monster looked heavy, riddled with rabbit-sized lumps,

then chipmunk-sized, mouse-sized towards the middle, 

nibbles at the tail.

Quick, like a whip it snapped

when he touched the body with the stick.

His wife screamed.

The serpent did not bite,

nor did it even even try, 

but hissed from the indignity,

Weary, it twitched to avoid the stick,

and in a minute hissed again 

from the ditch on the other side of the road,

after he tossed it a few feet 

to where it wanted to be.  

It crawled into the grass, invisible in a few seconds,

ready for the next unwary chipmunk.

They stared for a moment, silent,

at the tall weeds and ditch water.

Although Theseus killed the centaurs 

and the minotaur, long ago, to his shame,

he did manage to rescue one thing, at least.

He tossed away his weapon

and swung back into the car.

His wife tucked in his shirt.

“You’re getting slow,” she said.

“Yeah, yeah.” He slipped the car into gear

while she flicked off leaf fragments and dirt from his jeans.

Her lips brushed against his cheek

and they rolled forward

slowly, again, through another enchanted forest.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Not Even Not Zen 219: When Others Have Passed

When Others Have Passed

Wounded are the weak and mighty
Yet few of us laid low.
Our arms may shine with sweat
And our spirits brightly glow.

We shall toil and rage and cry and sing
Like others, bear blood upon heroic masks.
Despite the bruises from our struggles
We persevere in loving tasks.

You will carry on your work, love
And I'll toil by your right arm
And I'll dry your tears of anguish
And I'll shelter you from harm.

Wounded are the weak and mighty
And those who don't yet know their might
And some feel half-defeated
But you and I persist to fight.

When you're tired, I'll lift you up.
I'll heal your wounds and soul.
You're mightier for each recovery.
You will again feel whole.

Your sadness, it injures me,
But it won't tear me apart.
I'm tougher now than ever, love,
For wounded is my heart.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Not Zen 200: A Sum of Evils

Glantz Island, McConnolley, Wikimedia
The gang worker punched Daveed as he stepped off the ship. A second punch, aimed at his head, knocked him to the ground. He lay in the dirt, which was really a porous rock made of compressed black and grey pebbles, and he waited for the beating to continue. It didn't.

“Get up. Move on,” someone yelled. He did.

Daveed rose as the man behind him stepped off the gangplank and got punched. The fellow grunted but didn't fall. They had all been beaten worse aboard the ship. Apparently, the foreman for the job felt the need to hit each worker as he arrived. Daveed thought his arms would get tired that way.

“Here.” The next man on shore, as strong as the foreman but better dressed because his shirt was cleaner, thrust the handle of a shovel at Daveed.

Daveed glanced to either side as he brushed grit off of his hands. To his left, other captured men, many of whom he recognized from his village like Nissim or Anish, labored in a row of nine. Each man had a pickaxe, shovel, or two wheelbarrows. They seemed to be chopping up the ground and carting it away. Beyond them lay the island itself, a mound of grey soil with a few rises adorned by bushes and scrub grass. It was not possible to see across the main hill but Daveed could see the curve of a rocky shore to the west and possibly a flat beach to the east. 

To the east, his right, there was a teenager, Joseph. Daveed had gotten to know the young fellow during their voyage in the holds of the ship. Joseph held the haft of a pickaxe in both hands. Its iron head had dropped to the ground, seemingly too heavy for him for him to hold aloft.

“Go to that one,” said the equipment man. He pointed to Joseph. “He is your partner. You will
start the new line.”

Daveed didn't ask questions. He accepted his shovel. He stood in place as the foreman and his assistants formed a new work gang from the arrivals stepping down from the ship. It took ten minutes. Everyone got a wooden or steel tool, cheap but functional. The ones with barrows got two, one stacked on top of the other. That seemed mysterious but he trusted that the reason would become apparent.

“I hired on for bookkeeping,” Joseph protested. He should have known that was a lie from the way he had been treated during the sea voyage. “Where is my cousin?”

The gang chief had finished assembling the crew, so he strode forward and punched Joseph. Unlike the greeter, his arm was not tired. Joseph's head snapped to the side. His knees buckled. A second later, he cried as if his eye had been cut. His left hand covered his face. He dropped his pickaxe.

“Probably dead, your cousin. You will be, too, if you don't march.” The man in the almost-clean shirt gave the fallen Joseph a nudge on the shoulder with his boot. “Rise. Head that way. I will show you the job.”

The men in Daveed's work crew exchanged glances. No one seemed inclined to protest after the examples that had been made. Joseph, the former bookkeeper, managed to rise, although he was unsteady. Head down, he glanced up at the chief as if he wanted to say something. Instead, he grabbed the wooden handle of his pick and dragged it behind him as he started to move. The chief quickened his stride and led the way. He spoke as they traveled.

“The grainy soil under your shoes is gold,” he said. “Farmers pay big money for it.”

“It's guano,” replied a voice at the back of the line, someone who knew the difference, probably
a farmhand.

“Bird poop, mostly, and some bat poop, layers of it, centuries of it. It's worth more than gold.” The chief shook his head. “The guano is at least five meters thick in this part of the island. You will dig it with the picks, fill the carts with the shovels, and run the carts back to the dock.”

The ship had arrived in port in mid-afternoon, which had led to yelling between the captain and the foreman. Now Daveed understood that their anger had been due to the timing, which meant part of a workday would be lost. He was grateful for it because he understood his predicament. Soon he saw, too, that it was a blessing to have Joseph as a partner. The thin, young man could barely lift his pickaxe.

Joseph begged the gang chief for a different tool but the chief refused. So Daveed had more time to fill the wheelbarrows. Gaurav, their third partner, ran one barrow to the ship while Daveed filled the other.

Gaurav, too, seemed grateful for the lesser pace.

“As long as we don't have to switch jobs,” Gaurav murmured one time as he traded wheelbarrows and waited for Daveed to finish. “I can do this.”

By evening, Daveed knew it couldn't last. He could see twenty-one lines of nine men on the plains of the island. In one of those lines, maybe ninety meters distant, a man had started to cough amidst a cloud of grey smoke. He fell to his knees, wheezing. The nearest head lineman screamed at him. He bellowed at the rest of the laborers to keep working. He pushed aside the fallen man's friend. Then the headman, after seeing the problem continue, grabbed a shovel and smashed the asthmatic man's head. He struck and struck again until the man stopped moving. He made a carter run the body to the sea and dump it.

“Everyone keep working,” shouted Daveed's head man. “Stop looking at the other lines.”

“What was wrong with that man?” It was the voice of the former farmhand.

“Don't worry about it." The lineman chopped the air with the blade of his hand. "Mold, probably, and allergies. If you are a faker, don't think about faking illness here."

"I don't think he was faking."

"Yes, well, they are terrible workers, the ones who wheeze in this dust. The foremen tell the head linemen not to tolerate them.” 

“In time, what we are digging will affect everyone. Did you hear how badly the veterans workers breathe? They are all getting problems.”

The lineman did not reply. He turned to Joseph, who had paused. The teenager noticed and, not wanting to be hit again, he resumed his inconsistent pick-axing of the soil.

That night, the crew of nine marched about a kilometer into a squat, wooden house with the other work gangs. The foremen shoved all of the laborers into a pen together and locked the doors from the outside. Inside, there stood eight tables stacked with of canned, cold beans. Daveed saw how it would work immediately. Men began push. They grabbed whatever they saw. In less than a minute, the biggest men had started fights over the food. Daveed was able to get one of the can openers and a can but he didn't open his food until the fights stopped. Some men had ended up with armfuls of food but no openers. Daveed bargained with one of those for an extra can in return for opening six of his otherwise useless cans.

While he ate, Daveed talked with the men he knew from his village. Some had gotten no food and no implements, so Daveed bargained for their sakes with the fighters who had won many things. As an experienced laborer told them, supervisors would come with weapons in the morning to take everything anyway, so there was no point in saving. No one would be permitted to establish a food reserve lest they plan to escape.

“You are being very kind to share your dinner,” said a voice he recognized. He had been listening for it but he had doubted that the fellow behind it still lived. “Would you spare any for your uncle?”

“You wrote to me that the work was fine.” He poured cold beans and sugar paste into his mouth. He chewed for a moment. “You said you were in a paradise.”

“What can I tell you?” His uncle Samson, much thinner and dirtier than Daveed could have ever imagined him to be, sat in the guano soil next to Daveed. “They have some guns, here. They put one to my head and told me to write. I wrote.”

“Of all of the evils being done, your letter was the worst.”

Samson slumped. He had always been a strict, demanding man. He had compelled Daveed to learn sports. He had insisted that his sister's children go to school, even the girl. He had always seemed as invulnerable as a force of nature. Of course, he had usually been in debt due to his desire to dress like an upper-class business owner.

“There is so much bad here, so much death." His voice rasped. He shook his head. "I am not the worst. You would not say that if you saw the killings. And you will see. No one leaves alive.”

“If you knew that, why did you lure me here?”

The older fellow shrugged.

“I told myself that you wouldn't get the letter. Or wouldn't read it. Or wouldn't believe it. All of those things. Just like the men on the ship that brought me. I heard them tell themselves, and me, that it wouldn't be so bad. Soon, they expected to start bringing men back.”

“Then they have never done it. They never will.”

“My foreman also has a reason to justify his evil and his killings of the weak. The sailors obeyed terrible orders from their captain rather than risk slavery themselves. The captain obeys evil orders from a rich man who controls many captains.”

“So, it is all due to that one man?”

“No, that is not how it works. The rich man understands that he is doing bad things but feels no choice because other rich people will reduce him to poverty if he does not. Those other rich men do not even see the evil they encourage but know about it distantly, in an abstract way. They compete with other wealthy men and are not willing to stop, all of them separated from the evils that they cause, each committing only the smallest of moral crimes, nothing illegal. Yet they each start a chain of evil acts that lead to the kidnapping and enslavement of other men.”

“All due to rich men, then.”

“Farmers buy this fertilizer. I'm sure that they suspect the evils that are being done here. Yet they pay for it, hundreds of thousands of them.” His shoulders heaved. “Will you share your food? In the morning, I got none. I am dying. I must have food.”

Daveed was reluctant to share anything with the man who had led him into this disaster. It must have showed. The village men who knew them moved away. His uncle frowned and leaned closer.

“If you share food, please, I will share with you my secret. Because you are my blood.”

“I do not care about secrets any longer.” In the end, he gave food to his uncle out of pity. But in the middle of the night, his uncle woke him. Although they spoke no words, Daveed understood that this must be the time of the revealing.

His uncle had chosen the southwest corner of the hut for his bed. It was a corner that had been mostly swept clean of pebbles. Without a sound, he crept to the wall boards. Daveed followed. His uncle pressed their hands against a wall to show that it was solid. Then he knelt and removed a board from the base of the hut. Like a magician performing a trick, he pulled a support beam from deep in the layers of guano. Someone, years ago, had built a previous hut. The remains of it lay where their current captors had built this structure.

The board hid an underground hole, a slightly darker black than the inside of the workhouse. Daveed and his uncle wiggled through the hole and came out in a bush a few meters from the hut.

“You see?” his uncle whispered. He extended a hand to lift up his nephew.

“Shhh.” Daveed expected to be shot.

“No, there are no guards. Because all of us laborers, we are locked in. Come, this is not the secret. There is more.”

His uncle had pushed a piece of wood in front of him as he escaped the hut. He continued to carry it. For almost a kilometer, they hiked in the dark. Birds that were roosting on the path squawked. They shuffled aside to avoid the humans. Daveed helped his uncle carry the plank, which grew heavy over time or at least grew more awkward. It was taller than either of them. Finally, his uncle stepped into a grove of bushes. He moved his arms from one side to the next.

The mound of vegetation parted to reveal a raft. It was twice as big as a person but, to Daveed’s eye, it was not seaworthy to hold anyone. The structure was only most of a raft.

“I did not build this,” his uncle admitted with a tilt of his head. “I'm not good at such things.”

“Who did?”

“A man they killed. I watched him gather wood each night from my place in the corner of the hut. I saw him escape and come back. It was so dark, I couldn't figure out who he was. After a few weeks, I thought I knew. I approached the fellow and begged to give up my sleep for him, to give him my labor. He refused. I didn't blame him. Anyway, when I couldn't sleep, I helped him dig out a log or two so that he could carry them off. You know, I was hoping he might change his mind about me.”

“How did he die?”

“Someone else saw us. They reported on him and on another man, one who looked a bit like me. The guards executed them right away. After, they searched for the raft.”

Daveed let out a bitter laugh. “That was done in the wrong order.”

“Yes, and I am grateful. I knew that they did not find the raft. They did not even look for the buried wood, only inches under the ground. They cursed about it for many days. But I could not go searching for the raft while the man who informed was still alive. They promoted that one to be a gang chief.”

“He lives?”

“They sent him to the shack with head linemen. That meant that I could sneak out if I could be careful. I had figured out the trick of the hidden, old hut timbers and the hole my friend had dug. I knew I could go try to find this raft that must exist. I spent half an hour each night, no more. One night, while I was looking, I saw another man in the darkness near the shore. He was doing more than looking. He had found the raft. As he swept aside the plants that disguise it, I hit that man in the head with a wooden beam. A few seconds later, in the moonlight, I saw his face. It was the man who had informed. So I finished him. I put his body into the sea.”

That night, only a minute after he had confessed to murder, his uncle tried to show Daveed how to lash a stick to the raft. Daveed knew more about making ropes from grass and sedge than Samson did. It was Daveed who did the teaching. The lesson lasted no longer than half an hour.

“Because we must rest,” his uncle explained. “We must live. Or else this is all no good.”

By day, Daveed shoveled soil and he tilled it, too, after his line boss gave in and let Daveed switch places with Joseph. Both of them promised Gaurav that they would not require the wheelbarrow to work much faster. Their boss would be satisfied if they kept an average pace. Near the end of the first day during which he didn't have to wield the pickaxe, Joseph began to cry. Daveed understood that they were tears of relief. The other men were harsh about it, however, and the head lineman beat Joseph for crying.

After that, though, they all settled into a pattern. Daveed tilled the soil and came home exhausted every day. He ate from cans of random, salvaged food at night, things that had been stolen from the shipments that were being used to conceal human trafficking. Each night, Daveed woke to a shove from his uncle and, every time, they would quietly dig out a slab of wood, or carry the wood, or make reed ropes, or lash a piece to the raft.

For three weeks, they built. The missing sleep and bad food did not agree with Samson, who kept getting thinner. He complained about his stomach. Each morning, he spent extra time in the outhouse. When a new group of forced laborers arrived, he complained about them, too. They spoke in a different language and had names like Da, Awut, Phala, and Cham. Their group stayed mostly to themselves but, in honest appraisal, Daveed saw that his group of villagers did, too. Despite the physical distance between them, his uncle lived in fear that one of the strange men would notice their work at night and turn them in.

“I'm worried,” said Samson one night as they lay down to rest. “There is a fellow in my work gang who is making comments to me. He knows something. Or he suspects something.”

“They buried the old foreman today.” Daveed had been thinking about it. They seemed to bury a different man each week. A foreman, chief over even the head linemen, was unusual. “Tied some rocks to him and tossed him into the sea.”

“I know, I know. Are you listening? We have a problem.” 

Daveed thought back on the words. He shook his head. 

“The raft isn't big enough for two people yet,” he concluded.

“One of us will have to hang on the side.”

It would have to be Daveed. The problem was, he barely knew how to swim. Yet he knew his uncle would never make it. Any escape trip would take them four kilometers to the next island east, eight or more to the south. 

He touched his forehead as he envisioned clinging to a rope. “I can do that.”

“Can you swim?”

“You taught me.”

“When you were eight? Maybe.” His uncle sounded doubtful. “The previous barracks and one of the other buildings show us that this guano mining has been going on for ten, maybe fifteen years. It has always ended in death for the workers. But not for you and me, Daveed. It won't end that way for us.”

That night, when they woke to build more of the raft, they found that there was another man between them and the underground hole. In the darkness, they couldn't tell who it was but the figure moved to keep them from leaving. All three of them shuffled back and forth. No one could start a fight without waking the workhouse. The fact that the stranger didn’t do that meant he would try blackmail in the morning, probably. But it was possible that instead he would try to turn them in for a reward that came only to him. Maybe he stayed quiet so he didn't have to share his benefits with the other workmen.

For the last hours of darkness, Daveed crept back to his sleeping spot but he couldn't rest. He wondered about the men who had been shot for this before, what they had felt. He knew it had been quick but he hoped it had been dignified as well, that there had been no ritual torture, just a bullet.

In the morning, his uncle woke early and complained, as usual, of a bad stomach. He trotted to the outhouse.

Afterwards, a head lineman in a blue shirt approached Daveed. He said, “I think your uncle is in trouble.”

Daveed did not know how to respond. This was a man who his uncle had identified as a killer.

“He may need to flee for his life. I overheard men speaking.”

“My uncle is weak. It is a small island.”

“You are a good, young man. You have not tried to make friends with the dangerous ones, the security officers. So you don't know that they have only one boat left with a working engine. We used it to catch a man who tried to swim to freedom last week. It is nearly out of gas. The officers will be afraid to go far in it.”

“So a swimmer might escape.” Daveed did not want to reveal too much.

The lineman turned and walked away to the south. A moment later, a group of men strode out of the warehouse to the west, where the security officers lived. They marched past the outhouses, where Samson hid. In the center of the group walked Joseph, who had grown leaner in these few weeks, and perhaps meaner. Joseph started pointing to one thin figure, then another. It seemed that he hadn't recognized Samson in the blackness of the prison hut at night. He was willing, though, to turn in all of his suspects. Daveed decided he had better get his uncle. The group made it easy to do. They continued marching east and searching among the laborers.

Daveed met his uncle as the man stepped out of the outhouse. From the look on the Samson's face, he had immediately seen that something had gone wrong.

“Is that them?” he said. “I see guns.”

“Turn around. Move.”

They marched but they did not run. Samson did not permit it, partly because of his health, partly from fear that they would be noticed and shot. Unfortunately, they still had to walk over open ground. They were being missed, almost certainly, even as they escaped. The boat lay on the southeast corner of the island. When the guards did not find Samson among the laborers, east was the direction that they would search next. It was not a big island. No search anywhere would take long. 

By the time Daveed and Samson cleared the raft, they discovered that the thinner fellow could not budge it. The bottom of the vessel had two round poles lashed on as sledges. There was extra reed rope, so Daveed could make handles to pull. But his uncle's help amounted to nothing and, anyway, it hurt his stomach. Already, their plan had gone wrong. They had counted on the watercraft being light enough for two men to move. Really, they had only Daveed. He yanked. He could make inch or two of headway each time. To help, his uncle began to dig a trench for the boat, hammering the guano and the sand with a loose plank while Daveed pulled the pile of wood topped by their precious open food cans filled with rainwater.

Every bit of progress spilled the rainwater. There was no help for it. Daveed yanked hard. He broke a rope, then another. It took fifteen minutes to pull the raft onto the beach.

That was when the shout went up.

The voices of the guards on the other side of the rise forced Daveed to make a last, concerted effort. To his surprise, the sledge runners slipped across the sand. His legs splashed into the cool water as he ran backwards. The raft seemed to leap after him, almost bowling him over.

“Get on!” he shouted to his uncle. The makeshift craft bobbed next to him in three feet of water.

“It is sinking.” The weaker fellow put his hands against the raft and tested it. The raft bounced. Its waterline was low but, as far as Daveed could see, it was floating well enough to carry at least one person. Daveed could swim.

“It's fine!” he huffed. “Get on!”

“First, I must erase the sledge tracks. You know why. Then I will get on if you do.”


He clambered aboard. Moving the raft had taken so much effort that he need to catch his breath. He was happy that his uncle felt well enough to erase the tracks of the raft in the sand. It was what they had agreed to do during their work of many nights.

For a moment, he closed his eyes. When he heard a splash, he knew it was his uncle returning. He lifted his head to notice the fellow flailing in the surf. Daveed reached out. Instantly, he felt a shock as he realized how small Samson's wrist had become. Then he had him. They paused, gasping. He pulled the older man aboard and found that the raft held them both. Waves sloshed over them. But the water, at least for the moment, felt good.

The problem was that their boat was not moving.

Wordlessly, Samson slid off the edge. He had always been a strong swimmer. He had tried to teach his nephews. Now he kicked while Daveed rested. As he took deep breaths, Daveed shielded his eyes with his elbow. He heard his uncle kicking and pushing against the raft. He heard seagulls. He heard a fish plop back into the water, close by. Finally, he heard a distant shout. It was followed by silence.

When he looked up, he saw that Samson had disappeared. The raft had moved a long ways but it was still within sight of the beach. There were men on the beach.

Daveed started to scream for his uncle but he realized what the result would be. At this point, no one on the island had noticed him or the raft, which was not very big and did not shine. The situation would change when they heard his voice. So that could not happen. But where had his partner gone? He laid on his stomach and scanned the crests of the waves.

Minutes passed. Daveed thought that his raft was moving farther into the ocean. More men appeared on the beach. One of them wore the same blue shirt as the killer who had warned Daveed this morning. Two of the men, one of them the killer, passed something between their hands. It was a spyglass. The killer raised it to his left eye and scanned.

At that moment, Daveed’s uncle appeared. He surfaced in the swell of a wave to the east. A man close to him saw the dark hair against the white foam and yelled. Another man pointed. A third ran up from thirty meters away. When he continued his sprint into the waves, his companions shouted at him. They threw fistfuls of guano and pebbles to make him stop.

That was when Daveed noticed that a security officer had drawn his pistol. It was an old revolver, greasy and stained. All weapons on the island had seen decades of use. The officer fired once, whooped, and fired again, missing his companions, who flinched, and also missing Samson. The next shot jammed in the chamber. Two men begin to crouch over the hot pistol, trying to release the jam. Another officer bellowed advice.

“Stop!” David yelled when he saw what his uncle was doing. He stood up on the raft. It held him for a moment. Then it rocked. He slipped and his head slammed backwards onto the boards. Grass reeds pressed into his left ear. His vision blanked, although it returned a second later. In his mind, he focused on what he had seen.

It was his uncle, swimming to the shore.

Daveed rose to his knees. His raft seemed to be farther out than ever. Was he caught in a southern current? If so, was that a good thing or would the ocean sweep him away from the islands? He didn't think, at this point, that he could make it back. He couldn’t pull enough water with his arms to move against a tide. Ahead of him, his mother's brother revealed more of his body. He had tossed aside his too-big shirt. That revealed his formerly fat chest, now narrow with loose skin. He reached the surf line at the eastern beach of the island. 

With a howl, the shooter aimed his pistol at Samson and fired. The noise was swallowed by the ocean. Samson staggered or possibly he only tripped in the surf. It was hard to tell.

Behind the first shooter, the man in the blue shirt raised a rifle. He fired, too, more carefully. Maybe he fired more than once. It was hard to see when the waves were rising to block Daveed's view. Daveed searched for his uncle to see the result. He couldn't find the figure that was so familiar to him. His uncle had been the only one shirtless, the only one wading. He was gone.

For a while, Daveed lay down on the raft. It had no problem with his body mass. His uncle had weighed so little at the end that his presence had probably meant nothing to the watercraft. It could have held both of them together.

Daveed gazed at the beach without sitting up. He could only catch glimpses of the shore when his raft was at the top of the waves. There were still a few men there. One of them was his uncle's head lineman, the one in blue. That fellow raised his spyglass again and scanned the southern waves. This time, he pointed his line of sight farther out. It was at the right level to catch Daveed. A slight hesitation in the man let Daveed know that this had, in fact, happened. But the fellow looked away.

It was odd. Daveed was sure that he’d been seen. Yet the killer deliberately pointed the spyglass to the east, back to where the linemen and foremen had previously spotted Samson. After a few seconds, he put down the spyglass and pointed for his companions to look eastward. The remaining men began to gesture to one another. There was nothing in that direction but a flock of gulls.

The flashes of white seemed to excite them. One of them ran, then three together, back up the rise. They were returning to the settlement. Perhaps they would sail away in their only working boat. But it seemed that they would head east in it.

Daveed watched the island disappear and reappear with the rise and fall of the water. A minute later, at the top of the island's gentle rise, he saw the killer turn around. The man hesitated and glanced south at Daveed. He stared. Then he lowered his gaze, turned, and disappeared down the other side of the rise.

Hours later, as the southern island came into view, Daveed tried to understand. He was sure his eyes hadn’t fooled him. The killer had noticed his raft. He had seen Daveed and could have turned him in but he hadn’t.

Daveed knew that his slavery had been the end result many evils, great and small. They added up like droplets in a wave, a wave with enough force to sweep Daveed into slavery. Even this tremendous total, though, could be wiped out by a small kindness, by an otherwise evil man who looked away.

“You say that there is another guano island?” asked his rescuer later, a fishing ship captain who doubled as coast guard officer. “This is big news.”

“With many slaves.” Daveed had changed islands twice, always moving south, before he found a settlement with a dock and a ship. The ship's captain had given him drink, food, and a change of clothes.

“That is illegal. But the guano, it will make our country more rich. We will bring better equipment for the work. We will wipe out those bad men.”

“Do not hurt them. They were prisoners, all of them. Especially do not kill the one in the light blue shirt.”

“You just told me that this man has killed many others. You think he shot your uncle.”

“He was trying to live.” Daveed had taken many days of travel to think about the viewpoint of the killer. He thought he understood the crimes. The reasons behind them were the same as those that made the man take a calculated risk in letting Daveed escape.

It was hard to explain how he felt about this to the captain, a stranger. Murder was an enormous crime. Nevertheless, it seemed minor compared to the total of the evils that had stranded them on the island of slavery and disease.

“He was desperate.” He reached out for the captain’s hand and squeezed. “I want him to live.”