A Short Story – An Ethnographic Fiction

The sun had not yet risen. The horizon was an inky muddle of gray; something far, far away. The man had not yet woken. The chair in which he sat – chin resting on his breastbone, shoulders slumped – was made of metal and plastic. It was unyielding, rigid, upright. How the man ever managed to sleep in the chair was a matter of some speculation among the clinic’s staff. Some posited that he must have drunk himself to sleep on the draught of some flask hidden among the folds of his clothing; others declared that he did not in fact sleep, but simply rested, eyes closed, weary frame folded in on itself. Still others claimed they never saw him eat or drink, or use the bathroom. But all of this was the province of conjecture, from a staff as equally bereft of rest as the man crumpled in the rigid, upright chair by the window.

A bank of monitors, lights bickering incessantly, lit up the far wall of the room. Numbers streamed in a constant line down one, a twitching line ran up another, and others were – to the man sleeping in the chair – cryptic enough to be a code embedded by some enemy military. The monitors bathed the far wall in a perpetual twilight. They fought the sun’s light during the day and engulfed the moon’s meager offerings by night. How anyone ever managed to sleep – not just the man in the chair but anyone staying on the ward – was an even deeper mystery to the nurses who shuttled patients back and forth all day, inserting tubes and checking vitals. And yet, the man went on sleeping in the chair, erect as a sphinx. And the boy in the bed went on sleeping, his chest rising and falling in regular beats like some drum struck by a shaman. The boy had been sleeping for hours now. Days, weeks, months. A year? The sleeping man had lost track. The hours streamed into the days which tumbled like river rocks over the weeks. Would it really be time for the season of fasting again soon? The sterile tile whitening the floor, walls, and ceilings wouldn’t offer any suggestions. The low buzz of dimmed fluorescent lights overhead, hung from walls, leering out of corners, remained silent. And so the room carried on in much the same way it had for days, weeks, and even months now: powered by an endless supply of coal-based energy, and propelled by an equally endless supply of the human capacity to endure suffering.

The sun had not yet risen, but it was on its way. The man began to stir. Almost imperceptibly, his eyebrows twitched, followed by his foot. Something like a sigh passed his lips. A technician entered the room, walked briskly toward the bank of monitors behind the boy’s bed, nodded satisfactorily (if not a bit mechanically) and walked back out. The door was never shut, so there was never fear of waking either the man or the boy with sounds of creaking hinges or snapping latches.

Soon, a nurse entered the room. She walked with tender steps toward the man stirring gently in the chair by the window. She stooped over him and tenderly replaced the frayed blanket which had slipped from the man’s lap. The nurse then approached the boy in the bed. She placed a warm hand on his forehead, clicking her tongue against the roof of her mouth. He felt warmer than she had expected, though he wasn’t running a fever. She began speaking to him, softly, and in a language she knew he couldn’t understand. Even so, it was better than nothing. She knew the hardships the boy and the man had faced in coming here: the wife and mother and children and siblings left behind, the near impossibility of return, the exclusion and isolation, the loss of identity, the language barrier, the cultural impasses faced on a dizzyingly consistent basis.

When the sleeping man finally arose, the sun had just split the horizon. It was impossibly blockaded by clouds. The scene was gray, yet somehow hallowed. Disorder reigned in the city far to the east. Lines of cars could be seen snaking their way up and through intricately, poorly designed highway systems. Faint sparks of sunlight, occasionally escaping the towering wall of cloud, glinted off of buildings which thrust their spires crudely at heaven. Heaven. What a word. What a mirage. Smoke billowed up endlessly, spewn from great furnaces belching in hollow metal bellies below the city’s bloated skin. The man had never seen so many cars, so many things moving, so much metal, so much polished, gleaming handiwork. Hardly anything in his world worked. Here, jets cut the sky overhead, trains shook the earth. The world was busy, the world was at work, moving, spinning, traveling, circling around itself. The men went here, now there, now here again. On apace, the women did the same. It all revolved back on itself. And still, the man had never seen so many riches.

His eyes refocused on the room behind him. On the bed opposite. On his son, comatose, breathing steadily, pale as death. He watched the internal goings-on of the clinic. The men and women came and went, gaily, passing candy to their children, speaking freely of things the man could neither understand nor guess at. It had been some time since he had spoken to anyone in anything but shattered phrases.


The man was waiting for the truck that would carry him across. He had been waiting for three days. The sky, hung with clouds like curtains, had not parted them in all that time. It rained sporadically: the rains would soon be at hand. But fortunately, nothing beyond a few stray warning shots had been felt. A real rain would have swamped the man now and ruined his plans. He was already several days away from his home, and to turn back now would be disastrous. The old man in the market had assured him the truck would come to carry him across the border. “Make no mistake about it: the truck will come”. “When??” he felt like shouting. Clouds rolled over clouds, banks upon banks, serpents coiling and uncoiling their might. He felt several drops on his hand – little things, nothing to worry about. The rainy season was weeks away, or so it always had been. The seasons were shifting, creeping inexorably each year. Things, many things, were different. Many things were now broken that had always been whole. The man wondered if the pieces would ever fit back together – like an earthen pot he had once mended as a young boy. “Enough to hold water”, his grandmother had told him. “That jar will never be perfect again, never what it once was. But if you can patch it enough to hold water, we can count it as a blessing.” He had moved his unskilled hands, heavy with mud, over the scars and seams of the pot during the course of one interminable day. The rain filled it that night, and sure enough, the water was still there by morning. But one could see the mender’s work – could touch and feel the scabs that would never hold as firmly as the original clay. (Later, much later, when the soldiers came through the village, drunken, seething, the vessel was smashed – along with everything that stood in the way. The man’s father had tried to shepherd his family to safety – but at the price of his own life. Even now, the man remembered the blood, the ochre rivulets pooling in the sacred places – his desecrated jug mere shards, the blood collecting in the unfired patches his hands had inexpertly placed years before.)

Yes, things were different, things were falling apart. He forced himself to turn his gaze to meet his son’s eyes: those dimming orbs whose candles grew shorter each day. The boy stared blankly, unblinkingly into the clouded sky; he was beyond saving, everyone knew this and had told the man this. He was wasting his time, his money, he was risking his life. They all said it was a longshot at best, a death sentence for him and the boy at worst. But he ignored them. He had been ignoring what they had been saying as long as he could remember. And though he was far from a wealthy man, he was loved and respected widely by all who knew him. So, he had brought the boy, to see if he could save the boy’s life. He knew it would probably not make any difference now – those eyes, dull obsidian ovals, sinking mercilessly into that milky haze he had seen whenever death came to collect its due. And yet he didn’t care. He didn’t care what they said, how hopeless the situation was. This was suddenly the only thing in the world that mattered to him: trying. Trying to save the boy’s life. All the healers and medicines and prayers in his town had failed to produce anything. The only chance to rid the boy of the cancer that had latticed his bones was in crossing the border; so, here he was, awaiting the truck that would take him across. The old man said it would come. He said to be patient and wait, and that it would come. “And where are you??” he demanded. He felt several drops of rain alight on his eyebrow.

The crossing presented a challenge: he was a poor, Arabic-speaking man from a long line of nobodys. He did not have official documents, of any type. (What need had he of official things in the fields he tilled on the outskirts of the slum?) He did not speak Hebrew. He did not pray to the God of the Jews, did not know their signs, their sayings, their symbols. He had no money to offer, no food with which to bribe. He could not write, he could not read. His shoes were too small and full of holes. The wind whistled through the open sores of his jacket. The boy could not walk, or speak, or eat on his own. The man had no friends here, knew of no friendly contacts, didn’t even know where ‘here’ was. He did not know what he might have to do if he was held up at the border, detained interminably, separated from his son. He tried not to think about it, but he dared not think of anything else; his mind inevitably went to food. And thinking of food was equally painful: he hadn’t eaten in two days.

Supposing I do make the crossing, he thought to himself. How can I be sure that the people the old man sent to guide me are trustworthy? The old man had guaranteed safe passage. Safe passage and a guide and interpreter. Also, papers for him and the boy, paperwork for the clinic, letters of introduction, instructions for medical workers on how to handle the child in the event of his death, some small moneys, and smattering of Hebrew phrases written on a sheet of paper. All for the small price of the man’s life savings. To hell with it, with all of it, he had said. If this boy was going to die, he was going to have a damned hard time of doing so. But the truck that would carry him across contained all these things, and there was still no sign of it.


I’ll post the rest of the story soon!

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