This is Part 2 of an untitled ethnographic fiction short story about Gaza fathers and their children with cancer. Part 1 is here.
That had been weeks ago, weeks before the ghostly still outpost and no sign of the truck that would carry him across the border. Weeks before the dilation of the boy’s pupils and the first premonitions of death. Weeks before the raindrops began slipping out of the grim sky. (He felt several raindrops on his cheek now.) Weeks before… before it all began to fully, finally unravel. (He forced images from his mind, images of blood-stained pottery strewn on trampled crops.)
He could see the border in the distance: the wire looping archly atop impossibly tall fences; the commandos pacing mechanically, the dilapidated buildings. Far, far away, to the east, the man saw a city. It was shining under the furnace of a full sun, and the towers and spires breathed this blessed light back to the heavens. (The man stood in shadow, the unmoving cloudbank ruthless. He could see the line the sunlight stamped on the horizon far away.) He couldn’t bear to look at it: he was sure he was going there; he had never been anyplace like that. Tremors whispered along his spine. They wouldn’t let him in. He’d be run from that place like a dog, like a plague. A moaning brought him back. He looked toward the boy, despairing, hoping to not find him there; hoping, instead, to find him borne away by solemn angels. To paradise, to the release of pain. But the boy was there (or that which was the boy’s body, that which served to execute his lower functions). His eyes were hidden by eyelids sewn together with pain. A grimace wracked his entire frame. This happened often; there was nothing to be done. The man, gently resting his hand on the boy’s head, tried to imagine what must be happening inside the boy’s body during these bouts. His was never the most vivid of imaginations; he knew only that he had never experienced anything that looked so painful – so depriving – in all his life. He felt tears on his cheeks. Or was it more rain drops? He was so tired. All his life, he had been tired. There was always work to be done, crops to tend, roofs to repair, sick to mend, children to feed. But he was tired now, a bone weariness that frightened him. He shook his head. The body under his hand had ceased its trembling. The boy had finished his cycle of pain. The man withdrew his hand from the boy and brought it to his own face, resting his chin in the curve of rough skin that formed the palm. He closed his eyes, and drew a deep breath.
An uneven, murky light filled the air around him. Was it dusk? Dawn? Difficult to tell. He found himself on a road that stretched out interminably, disappearing only when it crested a hill and dipped out of sight. The road was utterly empty. The surrounding landscape was equally bereft of meaning. He was walking at an abnormally fleet pace. Was he being followed? Was he trying to get somewhere? He couldn’t place the feeling. He continued moving his legs, kept pumping his arms to provide momentum. His gaze was locked on the hill in the distance, on where the road blinked out of sight near the crest. Somehow he knew he was going to whatever was just beyond that point, whatever lay just out of sight. Presently, he noticed vegetation growing alongside the road. This suprised him; he’d not remembered seeing any just moments before. He lengthened his stride, pressed on. The vegetation grew thicker, taller, closer. There were trees now, and vines stetching between them. He quickened his step, mopped his brow. His nerves were beginning to feel plucked like some abused instrument. A canopy of trees now covered the road. Strange noises, animal noises, filled the air. The light faded by degrees, the air grew stagnant and close. Surely this was not the road he had been trodding moments before! It felt suddenly like a jungle – a jungle in the West Bank! He was now wading through knee-high grasses. The road curved sharply ahead, just beyond the boles of two great trees, whose trunks, nearly touching, shrunk the road to little more than a footpath. He slowed. He stopped. His breath came in long, uneven gasps. He doubled over, put his hands on his knees, grabbed at a branch to steady himself. It was nearly dark. Suddenly, noiselessly, two figures converged on him, moving from either side of the path. The shapes belonged to men, but the man could not make out their features. They drew up close. The man stood petrified, his joints locked. Their voices were strange, but their language was his, mostly. They were admonishing him. Demanding to know things. Curious about where he had been. What had he done with the boy? Why had he abandoned the child to die? How came he by this road? How dare he flee! Where did he think he would go? The man reeled and fell to the ground. His teeth closed hard on his tongue; he tasted blood. No! he shouted. You are mistaken! Please! I did not abandon my son! I would never abandon the child! I don’t know what you’re talking about! Please, help me. I’m lost! What have they done to my boy? The two figures opened their mouths: something vile poured forth, unfurling like tongues of smoke. Cackling: low, cruel, soulless. Why did you ever make this journey, fool? Their eyes burst into livid flame, their teeth chattered and they threw their heads back in peals of derisive laughter. One of the two came toward the man, lifted an arm above his head. The arm came down, a hammer on an anvil. His head lit up with pain, with sparks. He tasted the blood again. The arm was lifted up again, and brought down once more with joyful ferocity upon his head. His teeth sank further into his punctured tongue. The arm with the hammer for a hand drew up once more, this time much higher, as if to make this blow the final strike. The man closed his eyes, too terrified, too helpless to fight back or retreat or defend himself. He waited for the end to come.
It never did. Instead, a voice split the air.
“Wake up! Wake up, wake up, wake up, lazy bag of bones! We don’t have all day. The sun is sinking behind us already, and we’re here waiting on your stinking Gazan carcasse to wake up. Unsurprising, considering you’re a Gazan: sleep the day away, eh? Am I right boys?” At this, a modest cheer erupted from the back of an open flatbed truck whose diesel fumes were filling the evening air. The man lying on the ground grabbed at his head, looked about him. The boy had already been lifted onto the truck’s bed by several energetic persons. His inert form was lying prone on a homemade stretcher. The man could see the boy’s chest rising and falling. He sighed relief. He tasted blood; putting a finger in his mouth revealed a raw wound. He had bitten his tongue in his sleep. “And I’ll clip you again on the head, you lazy bastard, if you don’t get up and get you in the back of that truck!” What kind of country can you build for yourself, boys, if you lay around sleeping all day like these Arabs, eh?” The soldier mimed a man at repose, to the delight of the ‘boys’ filling the rumbling truck bed. The soldier pointed at the man whose mouth tasted of blood, the man who had been waiting for a truck to carry him across the border. “You, my friend. Are you coming, or not? We will be happy to leave you here to wait for the next truck – whenever that may be!” His Arabic was lousy, but the man rubbing his jaw had no delusions about the threat. He climbed gingerly onto the lorry, rubbing his aching face as the truck lurched into motion. The man laid his hand to rest gently on the boy’s arm. Ahead, far, far in the distance, but visible to the strained eye – the border, the crossing, hope.
The man sitting by the window in the clinic noticed movement in the distance. This was hardly unusual: the city teemed with life at all hours. He went back to dozing numbly. Several minutes passed, and he extended his gaze once more through the double-paned glass. Where there had been mere movement moments ago, he seemed to see something more. It looked like… a person. Two people, perhaps? He, or she, or they, were moving rapidly in the direction of the clinic; their line was less that of a human and more that of a bee or a dog. Frenzied, erratic. The man blinked, widening his eyes, then pulled himself fully upright. He focused his aging eyes directly onto the strange scene unfolding below, growing closer with each passing second. It was a figure – a man? – running. There was something in the man’s arms, hanging limp. A child? A boy. The clinic was solidly constructed: no sound came through from the outside world. The man sitting rigid, tensed, in his chair by the window could see the running man’s mouth moving: he was shouting, sobbing. There were tears streaming down his cheeks. The boy’s limp form – corpse? – jangled recklessly, almost comically against the maddened, sprinting strides of the man. From underneath the sitting man’s window, clinic staff appeared, rushing out to the running, stumbling, weeping man with the boy in his arms. The sitting man was now standing at the window, his palms pressed against the pane, his heart thumping hard against the cool of the glass. The running man had collapsed. They boy was being hurried away to the clinic by staff members who were waving arms and shaking their heads. The man in the grass, on his knees, lifted his skinny fists like antennas toward heaven, toward the infinite above. No sound came to the man standing behind the pane of glass. But he could see the man in the grass shaking, shouting, sobbing, finally collapsing in a spasm of surrender. He turned back to face the child lying still in the bed on the other side of the room. He thought of the boy being carried into the clinic at this moment. Would the child live? Was he already dead? Had he been dead (that is, doomed to die, beyond saving) for days, weeks even?
The man at the window slumped into the rigid, upright chair, grinding his eyeballs into his knuckles. In doing so, he bit down ever so gently on his tongue. The pain shot through him like an arrow. He stuck a finger in his mouth to survey the damage. He felt the old scar there, right where it had been for some time now – on his tongue. He tasted a faintness, an iron something, a tang of blood. And he looked at his faint reflection in the glass of the window, and he looked across the room at the boy who had lived long enough to live a bit longer by the help of doctors, nurses, and machines, and he thought of that day, perhaps a year ago now, maybe more, maybe less, but somewhere near a year ago, when he had been waiting for an eternity for a truck to come carry him across.