5090 words, short story, REPRINT
A Heap of Broken Images
“Odette nodded at my notebook, where I was writing as she spoke. ‘Do the people in America really want to read this? People tell me to write these things down, but it's written inside of me. I almost hope for the day when I can forget.’ ”
―Philip Gourevitch, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families
“Are you going to take a picture?”
I ask it because it seems like a sensible question. The shorter of the two humans has brought his camera with him and since we entered the houses of the dead he has held it in his hands and a little close to his chest, as though he's afraid that someone might snatch it away from him, or that he might drop it and it might shatter.
I ask it because I am their guide and it is my task to show them what they ask to see, and I am wondering, now, if they really wish to see this.
The shorter man—I have been told that his name is Jacob but the syllables feel strange in my mouth and I have to struggle with them a little—looks at me as though he is only just now seeing me. He nods once. He lifts the camera to his face and I hear the soft whir of its processor. And then, as though he performed the act entirely for my benefit, he shows me the image he has captured.
Here: It’s not well framed. He clearly gave little thought for the arrangement of it. Half a skull takes up the lower left-hand corner, pushed most of the way under a desk. The fractured curve of a broken spine extends into the middle-foreground, disappearing into a fold of old blue cloth from which ribs protrude. On the right, a severed arm stretches into the frame as if reaching for the skull and the spine. It clearly isn’t from the same corpse. It’s much too small. Draped and tangled over everything, heavy flowers in brilliant red and pink, green vines, and dried skin of no color whatsoever.
There are other bodies. Look closer and you will see that the floor is nothing but bodies. That you can’t see the floor at all. That you cannot, in fact, be absolutely sure that the floor is even there. If you walk into this room, you’ll walk on the dead. So we don’t invite them to walk inside, and without invitation they never do. We all stand in the doorway and I deliver the information I have to share about this place, and then there is silence.
I feel their discomfort. I was raised in the jodenja klimenji—the Way of Welcoming. It is our highest calling to give comfort to a guest, to put them at ease. But it is also our highest calling to give them whatever they ask for, within reason. And if they ask to come here, I cannot do anything for what I know they must feel. I cannot unmurder the murdered. I cannot change who did the murdering. And I cannot tell them how they should feel, a generation after the fact. There are things I wish I could say, things I would say if everything were different, but I also cannot change who I am. So we stand in silence, and the dead are also silent, and I wait for one of the living to speak.
The first sun is low and tosses our shadows out in a long diagonal across the room. The second sun is rising behind us. The light is shifting and strange, and it makes it difficult to be sure just how big the room is. How much death it can hold.
The taller one—I think his name is Aaron—points to a stack of crates in one corner next to a row of bookshelves. Another corpse is slumped against it, scraps of dried paper skin, the head gone. “Shairoven, what are those?”
“Goods,” I say. “Clothes, probably. Foodstuffs. They thought that they could buy their lives from their attackers. You must understand that such things are not strange to us; in our culture there is an idea of a blood price. Life has monetary value.”
“Why didn’t the colonists take them?”
I shrug—it is a very human gesture but I can't help it. Five full cycles as a klimenjiani—what I have heard them call a tour guide—and I have adopted many human habits. “There are many things about what was done in those months that we do not understand.”
What I do not say is that I suspect that the killing distracted them. It must have been very distracting. It must have been very tiring, also. It’s said that all throughout the time of killing, the rank and file were urged on by overseers of death with bullhorns and amplifiers. They were given rhythms by which to work, to make it easier for their bodies to move without the burden of thought.
I have tried to understand this. When I run I think of the beating of my own heart. But then I think of blood and falling bodies and my imagination fails me. How can they be the same?
How could they have done it? Were they blind?
The flowers nod in the breeze that comes in through the open windows. It should not be as lovely as it is—all those long bones. The large, elongated skulls. The vines and the blossoms. Graceful and clean. Even the faded blood on the walls looks like an abstract mural in dark swoops and swirls. I have heard the humans say that our people are beautiful. I wonder if that is a truth that is not always true.
“We should go,” I say gently. At my sides, my hands are clenched into fists. I hope they will not see. It would shame me. “You will be late for supper at the hotel.”
Much like the killing itself, it remains a puzzle to us, that the humans come to Lejshethra for this. Why they come. Why they want to look. These are not their dead. They pay no respects, they make no offerings. They just stare with their tiny eyes, and I can never say for sure what they're thinking.
They have told us that there are entire pathways of schooling back on Earth that deal with nothing but the killing, that try to pull it apart like a corpse and understand how it happened, why so much murderous hate could arise so suddenly in the human colonists. I have heard that they believe that it was not sudden. That it built over years, that there was tension where my people could perceive none. Two cycles ago when I first heard of this I took it to my body-sire and told her of it, and I think I was lucky to escape the back of her hand.
“Ignore such things, Shairoven,” she said to me. She turned back to the tijath she was cutting for the meal of second sun. “The humans fixate on what's past, even after blood-price is paid. Mind your manners and ignore their habits. They can't help what they are.”
My body-sire's right arm is missing. Her back is a mass of crisscrossing scars. We were told—not by her, for she never speaks of those months—that she survived the massacre of her district by hiding herself under the corpses of her neighbors. There were many who survived that way, but we don't speak much of the ones with visible scars. The blatantly accusing nature of the evidence they carry with them is a form of rudeness that can't be erased or undone.
My body-sire makes her place secure through her denial.
I have never discovered how to tell her that this makes me so sad-angry-trapped all at once, that it makes me feel as though I am buried under a pile of corpses and I am being cut with long knives and I do not understand why. We have no word in our language for such an impolite emotion.
I arrive at the hotel after the meal of first sun to collect the humans. They have told me that today they wish to travel to the city center to see the memorial that the human government erected to the dead of the killings—or to the killings themselves, but the difference has never been adequately explained to me, and I am afraid to ask. I am afraid that my people would see it as overtly accusatory, and I am afraid of what the humans might say.
In the groundcar on the way from my home to the hotel, I think about all the questions I would like to ask and never will. Why do you remember? What do you think? Do you feel guilty? Do you think that you should? Do you hate us now? Will you hurt us again?
Their leaders said, of course, that they did not hate us and that the killings will never be repeated. But I am not sure I find this convincing. I am full of doubt both impolite and inconvenient and it pulls at me like a hungry child. Many hungry children. There were camps full of them after the killings, orphans all with no mate-sire or body-sire and often missing siblings. I have seen images, and in those images what stands out most are their enormous eyes. All the confusion of an entire people could be held inside such eyes. Why? This is what they would ask the humans I am going to see. In this we are alike.
I would also like to ask whether the humans live with ghosts as we do. I wonder whether it is forbidden for them to acknowledge or speak to the ghosts. I wonder whether they can put the ghosts here aside and leave them behind. In the end most of them return home to Earth; very few humans live here now. They thinned our numbers, but in the end they were the ones who ran.
In the groundcar, the humans and I ride in silence. My head is still buzzing with questions. My mouth is sealed by my raising.
Every time, this is a little more difficult.
“How long have you been a guide?” Jacob asks me eventually, and I am relieved because this is a question that I can answer without offense. I tell him five cycles, and he smiles and pats the knee of his companion.
“We're lucky to get someone so experienced.”
I incline my head at the compliment.
“Aaron and I have been studying the massacre since college,” Jacob says after another few moments of silence. “We're both writers—did we tell you that? We're doing a series on what it's like for the children of the colonists now, so this is excellent material.”
I nod again. “I am glad to be able to help,” I say, and inside the eyes of the hungry children are growing and growing and for an instant I am afraid they will swallow me. I am glad that the groundcar is on automatic because I could not see to direct it now. Everything is questions, beating against the inside of me, smothering me like a mound of corpses, and really all the questions are a single question: Why?
Why did you kill us? Why do you come here now? Why did you build the monument, why are you writing about it, why are you sitting here and smiling at me like that when my body-sire has lost her arm and my life is all of the ghosts I will never welcome, and instead I welcome you?
We keep the houses of the dead but we would never go there if it weren't for you and every time I am there I feel that I might fall apart into hacked-up pieces and lie there among the dead because I cannot make any of these other pieces fit.
I smile at them, at these writer humans who walk oblivious among the ghosts. It is said among my people that the jodenja klimenji is the most demanding of all the disciplines, and the most pure, because it means the utter denial of self. And every moment of it I wonder if I am really strong enough.
And every moment of it I wonder if it is right for me to be so.
The memorial itself is a single black spike one hundred feet high. It impales the sky. Every time I come here, I think, It looks so angry. And I am never sure where the anger comes from or where it is going. Perhaps it is my anger that I am feeling. Inside the spike, it is apart from me and safe to face. It stabs and stabs blindly, forever.
The spike is bounded by a circular plaza dotted with stone benches. There are no trees. We three are the only ones there. We stay for a few minutes, and then we return to the hotel in silence.
There is a river that alternately circles around and cuts through our city. Its banks are part of what make this region so excellent for farming, and I understand why this was the initial locus for the human colonization. The river is the center of many things. After second sun, after I have returned to my home and bathed and oiled my skin, I dress in the lighter clothing of repose and walk down the broad path that leads from my street to the river where it touches the edge of my home district. The bank is paved here, lined with flowerbeds and hanging colored lanterns.
It is lovely. It is all that I remember seeing here, but I have been told by humans and by human texts that the paving and the flowerbeds and the lanterns are all recent additions. Before, this was all rich red soil and black rocks, like other points along the river's bank, and then at the time of the killings it was paved with bodies as people tried to flee across it and were cut down or trampled or carried away and drowned.
There was a major sanitation problem in the weeks after the greatest bloom of killing, which added to the already rising tide of human refugees flooding back to Earth ahead of their fear and their shame. The water was choked with bloated corpses and undrinkable. This is what I have been told, by humans and by those of my own people to whom I know I should not listen. But though they tell the same story, the humans and a few of my people, the telling is so different that I cannot think of it as the same.
It is the river Laijan, which means purveyor of life. I stand at the edge of the paved bank and I look into its depths. In the twilight the water looks like black blood, calm and placid and flowing without a heart to pump it.
Tomorrow is the last day that the humans will be here, and before I said goodbye to them today they asked me for a favor. It is not the first time I have been asked for what they want. But I have always said no, impossible, it cannot be done, no one will agree to it.
And I have been lying.
And today I said that I would try.
I do not know if this is dishonor or a fulfilling of my raising. I am pulled between what I have been taught and what I have been taught; again I think I could fall to pieces, and then I think that maybe I have always been in pieces, broken apart from myself, and so there is no more damage to be done.
I look into the flowing black water and I think of empty eyes and outstretched hands reaching up from those depths and beckoning me. There were many bodies that were swept away by the river in the growing-season flood that year and many were never found. They are all still there in the life of the river. There are other people strolling, idling along the bank in the cool of the evening; I could call, Don't you see them? Don't you hear? How can we deny our own spilled blood, whatever price has been paid?
My mouth is full of ghosts. I place my hand against it and hold them in until they are silent again, and the ones in the water fall silent as well.
I am in pieces but I am alive. Tell me how this is a reasonable thing.
Before first sun I am awake and back in the streets, leaving my body-sire and my two siblings sleeping at home. They do not know what I intend; if they did they would try to stop me, for this is not shame of any accidental kind but shame that is sought for, and that is the most profound shame of all.
The streets are still mostly deserted but I keep to the shadows, moving as quietly as I can. I live in one of the more affluent districts and I am passing into places that are clearly less so, with waste uncollected by the entranceways and roofs in need of repair. And on, further, into a place of real destitution, where the cracked and dirty street is dotted here and there with people who have no roof at all but sleep surrounded by whatever they can carry with their mangled limbs—in whatever sleep their rage allows them.
This is the district of the self-exiled. They Who Will Not Release Their Grasp. I was taught to pity them and fear them, for they carry the specter of what was done to us in their minds and bodies like a plague and they will not give themselves over to denial as my body-sire has done. They stand and they insist that we look on them, and the pain is too great, and we fear what the humans would do or say, despite the fact that the humans themselves seem to want to see such things.
Sometimes I think our ways have become confused, like tangled limbs that no longer fit the body to which they were attached.
Three cycles ago I came here for the first time because of a request like the one that sends me here now. I turned away then, at the cusp of fulfilling what was asked of me. I could not bear it. I am not sure what has made me decide to try again, but I know that all night I tried to resist it and it would not be held back.
Down a narrow, stinking alley I find the door I am looking for. I lift my head at the same moment that I raise my hand to press the call-bell and I see the sky lightening for first sun, pale pink. I think of blood just under thin skin, warm and alive.
The door opens and the sky seems to fall away again.
She is missing an arm like my body-sire is, but there the resemblance of their scars ends: her face is practically half gone, twisted with scar tissue, hairless and purple and swollen. One of her eyes is not there at all. The scars wind down her long neck and vanish under her worn tunic but I know they continue. She is stooped with pain that never goes away. Her ghosts are vengeful and they tear at everything that comes near, including her.
“Shairoven,” she says. She sounds unsurprised to see me. I incline my head; I am not sure how much respect is due to her, and again my heart says one thing while my raising says another. She is lower than a beggar, lower than a criminal, because she has committed the unforgivable sin of inhospitality to those who have, in the end, observed the proper rites and dues, and paid the owed blood price.
And what I cannot tell anyone, not even her, is that my heart tells me that she is braver than anyone I have ever met.
“Jaishevkin,” I say. With clear effort, she stands aside from the door and invites me in.
Inside is dim and cramped and smelling strongly of old rotting grass. I can barely see the chair she motions me into. Thin light seeps in through the threadbare curtains that cover her single window. She sinks down onto the cot that serves as her bed and leans over her knees. Whenever she moves I am freshly reminded of how thin she is, as though she is already one of the dried corpses in the houses of the dead, animated by the sheer magnitude of her indignation. Whereas they remain quietly and unobtrusively dead, as is right.
“You have come to ask me to meet them,” she says. I am not astonished that she should guess this; there is really no other reason for me to be here. So I nod.
“Before, you ran away.” She has only one remaining eye but it is like a knife, cutting away pieces of me and letting them fall to the floor. I cannot move under its edge. “Every time you run away. Will you run now?”
I am not sure how to answer that. The directness, the bluntness—close to brutality. No delicacy in her approach. It has been cut and burned out of her.
“I don't wish to run,” I say finally. My hands are turning over and over each other in my lap, as though I am washing them.
“You all run,” she says. At last she looks away from me, turning her horribly scarred face to that thin light. “They run too, even if they think they do not. They study and they write and they talk, and they congratulate themselves on their bravery, but they are still running. And they are putting it all into little boxes with clear tops, so they can look at it without feeling any pain or dirtying their hands. They don't feel.”
She turns back to me and her single eye is blazing. “None of you feel. You have forgotten how. We remember. And we frighten you.”
I did not come here for this. I came here to ask her to accompany me back to the hotel, and to offer her payment for her time and her effort. Now I am not sure why I am here at all. I am sitting under a knife; I am drowning in a river of old blood; I am buried under the pieces of myself and I cannot breathe, and I was never even part of this, does she understand that? I bear no scars. When it happened I was not even born.
I open my mouth to say I am sorry that I disturbed you. If you will not come with me I will go now. And then I think I am running again, and I don't wish to, and what comes out of my mouth instead is, “Why?”
Jaishevkin looks at me for a long time. I cannot read her face under the scars and this is only part of why I have never felt easy around her. But her eye is still a heated knife and I am still trapped under its edge.
And, strangely, part of me is content to be so.
“They have very many reasons, don't they?” she says at last. The words are accusing but all the bile has gone out of her voice and now she sounds only sad and very, very tired. I think that I have never been as tired as that. But I am beginning to feel how one becomes so. “They say that it was land restrictions. They say that talks broke down. They say that it was many accumulated cultural misunderstandings.” And there again is the bile, the bite, just for a moment and gone again, like something emerging briefly from black water before sinking back out of sight. “I have heard them say that it was the delayed mental strain of encountering a new sentient species. I have heard them say that it was simple fear, that they thought that we would attack them and so they struck at us first. I have heard every reason, Shairoven. I have heard them all.”
“And which do you believe?” My voice is very soft. Suddenly I feel breathless. I am afraid. I am on the edge of a great unknown expanse. I am spreading my arms because I am just mad enough to think that I might fly.
“I believe all of them,” she says. “Or I believe that they believe them. And now I think you will ask me what I really believe.”
Jaishevkin gets slowly to her feet and makes her way over to the little window, pushing aside the ragged curtains with her remaining hand. In the brightening light of first sun the scars on her face are sharper, darker, but their jagged lines are also smoothed out into something almost beautiful.
I wait. I don't ask.
“I don't know why,” she says softly. “I have thought and read and argued and I do not know. There are all the reasons. And then there is what happened. And in between . . . ” She falls silent.
And I am silent. I am trying to understand this. I have taken this—the Not Knowing—for granted, because while I have asked the question I have never seriously pursued an answer. It has never until now occurred to me that perhaps there is no answer, no one answer, that any one person can find.
And now I am wondering about the questions. About the right ones.
“Will it happen again?”
Again, she does not answer at once. Her fingers move across the curtains, dancing in a vague kind of pattern—it seems strangely appropriate that the hand they left her would be entirely unmarked, graceful, lovely.
“That all depends,” she says at last, “on how we remember.”
I want to ask more, because now I am full of new questions. How we remember? How should we remember? In the human way? In our way? In the houses of the dead or in their studies and writing? In the ghosts that float in the river Laijan and dance on their banks? In the flesh of my body-sire? In that black spike stabbing always up into the sky? In the way we make it so heavy and so big with our careful silence and our smiles and bows? In the way that I fear it might crush us one day, once it is too big and too angry with being ignored?
How do we remember?
But Jaishevkin is already shaking her head. “No more questions.” She turns away from the window and she is blanketed in shadows. “I will not meet with your humans.”
Everything in me sinks in disappointment. I am confused, I am breathless with fear, and I feel as though everything is slipping away from me and whirling into a mess of color and time, but I had hoped to at least be able to fulfill the jodenja klimenji and bring my guests what they want. I was holding to the idea of it like the one solid thing I can see. “I understand, Jaishevkin,” I say. “I will—”
“You should meet them instead.”
I stare at her. I do not understand this at all. Have I not already met with them? Have I not been meeting with them every day for over a week? Have we not spoken, do they not know my name and the pertinent details of my personal history, have I not given them all the information they require?
“You should meet with them,” Jaishevkin says again. “You should meet them as you are. You should let yourself feel.”
Our farewell is mostly silent. I am so confused as I make my way back through the dirty streets that I barely see them at all and more than once I nearly make a wrong turning. That I should meet with the humans? That I should meet them? I think about everything that Jaishevkin said, about what she might have said if she had agreed to meet them after all. About their writing. About how they smile at me.
About how they remember.
And I think, My body-sire will never be whole again.
I listen to the soft padding sound of my feet against the pavement and I think about that sound multiplied a hundred-fold, a thousand-fold, as we all ran for the river. For Laijan, for life, with death following behind.
When it happened, I was not yet born. From what I know of human lifespans, neither were Aaron and Jacob. We are looking back behind us at the death that follows us wherever we go, and we have all three been told here is how you are to look at so much death so that it never catches you and here is what you are never to do. And here is how you should look at the ghosts.
And here is how you should look at each other.
They smile at me that way because they are trying very hard to not see me at all.
When I am home I am still the only one awake. I bathe myself and dress in my formal klimenjiani clothing, light and softly hued. I do not know exactly what I will say or how I will find the words to tell what I feel. I do not know what my body-sire will say when she hears of it, and I do not know if I will be allowed to remain a klimenjiani. I do not know what will happen after today. I do not know if my body-sire will ever be whole, or if I will ever be whole, or if any of us will. I do not know what Aaron and Jacob will say to me. I do not know if the death that follows us will catch us someday, or if Laijan will carry life, or if the ghosts that surround us will ever truly be seen.
But I am going to meet the humans.
Originally published in We See a Different Frontier: A Postcolonial Speculative Fiction Anthology, edited by Djibril al-Ayad and Fábio Fernandes, 2013.