Ancient Fire by William Siegel (Ethiopia 1962-64)
[Will Siegel (Ethiopia 1962-64) is a writer living now in Boston. I recently published on this site two stories written by Will that are set in New York City at the time of the fifties/sixties-era folk-music revival, the time that is portrayed in the film, Inside Llewyn Davis. Will, like many PCVs who were overseas at the time of Kennedy’s assassination, are haunted by those days when we were all outside the ‘family’ when death came to our president. Will solved that problem by writing a novel about Kennedy. What follows is the first chapter of Kennedy in the Land of the Dead. I asked Will to write and tell us how his book came to be.]
I wrote this chapter a number of years after Kennedy’s death trying to recreate the tenor of feelings that came up for me that day as well as some of the remembered thoughts and apprehensions. I had made a start on writing the novel after I returned to the US, but I had no idea what to say about my experiences overseas. For me it was a strange transition in the days before the term Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was coined. I wanted to capture the aura of difficulties I had in readjusting to life in the US, as well as my state of mind after the assassination; I had thought this homecoming would be relatively smooth, but in reality, I had a hard time finding my place after being jarred by the experience of living in Africa and beaten by the untimely death of Kennedy. As a student in the Creative Writing program at San Francisco State, I fell into the outlandish fiesta of the 1960’s. Years later when I began the novel that would become Kennedy in the Land of the Dead, the story seemed unmoored until the idea surfaced to anchor it with this beginning chapter on the longest day of my stay in Ethiopia.
by William Siegel
The dreamer struggles to free himself from the dream: Kicking off the twisted sheets he bounds forward. Leaping on the air, he drips with moisture. The searing sun bleaches him black. He is too late. He chases children through a meadow high in the Ethiopian plateau, shouting after them, “Get back! Stop!” A stream of silver and gold children leap over a cliff, arms outstretched in a game. He yells louder, exasperated, “Wait! Get back!” He watches helpless, as they glide over the edge. Shots ring out. The school principal, Mekonen, appears with a small revolver. We do not need you here, he says, his bald head glistening with sweat. We aim to keep our ways. “Don’t be afraid,” he shouts. “Follow me . . . ” he says. “ . . . But we are playing, sir,” these shy children beam. “We are jumping because we have always jumped. Don’t be afraid, sir. Jump with us sir, so you can know our freedom. Alight with us in our homeland, and live the life with us, just so you can know freedom, too. Freedom, sir.” Far below, small sheep and sly thin dogs wander the village in search of food among the mud and wattle huts. Children and mothers circle each other and laugh, racing to the streams carrying armfuls of clothes. Stands of eucalyptus trees ring brown and green fields where narrow shouldered men plow the rich soil with wooden implements drawn by donkeys. Daylight gives way to evening cooking fires. A wailing hyena bounds across a moonlit field, disappears into forests where lions hunt. Dark vultures glide out of the dawning sky on serrated wings, hesitate a moment in midair, flutter and settle into the flat acacias. The dreamer jumps from the cliff along with the children. Stretching his arms he’s pulled along the current of rushing air, cooling the moisture on his brow, the whoosh sings in his ears, the wind puffs out his cheeks and riffles his hair. He battles for a hold in the dream world but the dream ejects him with the force of a gun blast.
The shots are nothing but a knocking at his door. Gil wipes sweat from the back of his neck. Pulling on pants he looks out the window to see if the vultures escaped his dream. He opens the door to find several blind boys from the school in rough khaki uniforms. They stare from behind large dark glasses, heads cocked sideways, ears forward. The government exiled these children who once begged in the streets of Addis Ababa. They are hidden away in the small village of Sabatta, where Gil is the lone Peace Corps Volunteer teacher at the new Haile Selassie I School for the Blind.
“Excuse from disturbing, sir.” A senior student, Desta, steps forward. Tall and thin, partially sighted, he bows in the formal Ethiopian way. “We have news of troubles in your country, sir. Many of your countrymen are died.”
Tesfy, a small thin boy clears his throat. “The radio says there is revolution in your country, sir.”
There is revolution, sir,” Kabede, a short, dark young boy, affirms.
“Come in.” Fully awake he holds the door open while the boys file in, knocking against each other. Uncomfortable in their stiff new jackets, they are bunched together in the single room where the dreamer sleeps and eats and some nights goes crazy from loneliness and fear of the future.
“There are only two chairs,” he tells them. “The rest will have to stand.”
“We will stand, sir,” Desta declares. “The radio is bringing bad news.”
“Many are dead,” Tesfye the youngest announces.
“You heard this on the BBC?”
“No, sir. Radio Etiopia,” another boy gasps, his throat catching.
“The President Kennedy is dead from a coup d’etat,” Desta declares.
These are the same students who ask if their skin will turn white if they go to America. Declaring that such a trip might even restore their sight.
“We have elections in my country,” Their teacher says with an edge. He feels a roaring in his ears. A great wave breaks. He bends forward, crinkles his nose, narrows his eyes.
“There was revolution in your country before,” Mikhal, the historian, objects. “You have told us yourself.”
“That was hundreds of years ago,” he replies with no power.
“We too will have revolution,” Tesfye says in triumph.
“You must travel to Addis to find the truth,” Desta concludes. “Even Radio Etiopia would not make up such a story.”
The teacher makes a further try, an unseen smile. “Are you boys joking? I have lessons to prepare and tests to score.”
He’d counted on this Saturday to go off alone. During this year of isolation and listless longing, he often spends Saturdays hiking to a waterfall a few miles from the village. He sprawls next to a small stream that rushes fast over the rocks even three months after the rainy season. The water falls no more than four or five feet over crystalline granulite rocks, soothing like a song or a bath being drawn. A mild spray touches his face when the wind is right. He lays among the thick ferns and eucalyptus trees to gaze at the impenetrable blue sky. In the thick grass coddling his loneliness he wonders how he came to view the beauty in this country. Here, also, the voices of his father beat. “You’ll fall behind,” the old man told him. “Do not fool yourself. Your friends will be getting ahead, starting families and jobs, while you lose years. You will never catch up.” Gil shrugs these voices off, tries to calm his mind. “Get a move on,” the old soldier would tell him as a boy.
His eyes close to imagine a triumphant return home with this adventure under his belt; he imagines telling exotic stories to friends. How he traveled more than halfway around the world to hike mountain forests and live in foreign villages. He would drench them in these grand thoughts by the falling water, so tasty they would be sorry not to have come along. Other times sadness trips the surface across the sparkling stream; heartache and regret at being here at all, hopeless of making a difference in this beautiful ragged country, despair even, seeing the bland, unlearned distress in the faces of his students, burdened with the gigantic tasks of trying to overcome the daily toil of clinging poverty. On these days when too much of his own frustration seeps into the deep sky he falls asleep in the tall grass next to the stream. Finding himself wretched again in dreams.
Desta breaks into the reverie. “We do not make a joke, Sir. You must go to Addis.”
No BBC news until noon, the only phone in the village is locked in the principals office. Two hours to the capital – just time to shave before the morning bus. The boys follow Gil’s footsteps to the bathroom. What a fool to travel all the way to Addis on these rumors, walk into the embassy and ask for news of revolution.
As he splashes water across his face, tentative about the trip, a dark movement outside the window catches his eye. A black vulture settles in the branches of an acacia. The creature hunches under restless wings, head jerking on its bony neck, gloating out of blood red eyes. Jolted into the dream he decides to make the trip.
Inside the crowded auto bus Gil stands in the back. From the open windows a dense breeze rides his face damp and close as a razor.
“Tenystilin.” Some of the older men nod a greeting. Seldom does a Farenji ride the bus, and so they take notice. He listens to the talk, trying to translate with his limited Amharic, but he can make out nothing about disasters or calamities. His mind is calmed by the ordinariness of the ride. The passengers are country people, going to market on Saturday morning. Old women wrapped in embroidered shawls smell of butter and sharp spices; young women swaddle babies against their bosoms; men in rough twill suits covered by thin white shawls hold baskets of fruits and vegetables; children stare out of silent, aging faces.
Even before the final stop he pushes up the aisle. “Sarraya, masarray. ‘scuse me,” he says trying a casual native tone in his eagerness to get off. He slides past men struggling with their bundles and steps from the sagging, dust covered bus into the jostling chaos of the Marcado on the outskirts of Addis Ababa.
“Farenji!” A boy shouts. He holds two squawking chickens trussed together. “You buy fat Doro, Farenji!” Along with these few words of English, the boy offers a perfect smile.
A wind raises a swirl of dust causing the Farenji to squint in the bright November sunshine before being swallowed in a sea of Ethiopian faces. Merchants and buyers take a moment to shower him with curious wary glances. They follow his movements through the buzzing crowd, past dusty produce stalls offering round baskets of vegetables and beans. Patched pieces of canvas hung over eucalyptus poles shade fruits of every sort — mangoes, kiwis, oranges and small green and red apples – sheltered from the hot sun along with hanging cuts of stringy meat . Rich spices burn his nostrils. Clay pots and stoves, old tin cans, pieces of wire, pipes and wooden hammers overflow the utensil stalls. The market vibrates with shrill shouts and haggling; mongers of jewelry and black and white monkey rugs press their wares on him. Surrounded by the exotic cries of these peddlers, after more than a year among the Ethiopian people, he remains uncomfortable with his foreignness. He’s jumpy and suspicious. Maybe his students are right.
Gil walks over to an Arab bět to buy a package of Gissilas. He taps the pack nervously against the back of his hand before pulling out a slender Ethiopian cigarette. The tobacco smells raw. After a snap of the match inside his cupped hands fire catches the cigarette in a movement not quite as smooth as he would like, awkward in fact. Although smoking is not a habit, there are times when the only way he can keep a stiff upper lip is to mouth a cigarette.
“Taxi! Farenji. Taxi,” a voice calls from a blue and white Ceccento. The driver, dressed in a wrinkled beige canvass jacket and pants, holds the door open. Gil bends deeply to fit himself into the back seat. Immediately several squawking sellers surround the small taxi offering their wares. One holds out a set of steak knives, another a paper bag of oranges, and still another, an old man with a toothless grin, offers bottles of perfume and shaving lotion.
“Magzat. Magzat,” they shout through the window.
“Kalakkala, kalakkala ” the driver says, shooing the hawkers away, turns, “Wada?”
“Americano Embassee,” Gil says.
The driver maneuvers the car through the choreographed maze of people, horses and donkey carts.
“‘Taliano?” The driver asks, peering over his shoulder. “Parlare Italiano.”
“Americano.” Gil answers.
“Oh, ho.Tts, tts, tts. America morte,” the driver says. He shakes his head. Further up the dusty road toward Addis, he adds, “Morte. Morte.”
“Ware, ware!” Gil pronounces the Amharic word for rumor.
“Imbe, imbe. Morte!” The driver persists, holding up a transistor radio playing reedy Ethiopian music.
In the stuffy back seat, smelling of roots and cayenne pepper, Gil holds back any thought of Kennedy — but the Lincoln Memorial haunts. The sun burns through the dusty window. The dirt road from the Marcado is lined with rows of whitewashed wattle houses. Donkeys and horse drawn carts trudge out of the path of swaying lorries. The trucks are loaded high, ready to topple off the road with each turn. Old women with creased stoic faces trudge from the market carrying bundles of firewood on their backs.
Fifteen months before, Gil’s first sight of Ethiopia offered extravagant evergreen mountains floating on a sea of desert. Groggy and weary after 18 hours in the air, the plane-load of Peace Corps volunteers crowded the windows, leaning over each other to catch a first glimpse of blue Lake Tana, mother to the Nile. During their first week in Addis Ababa, Haile Selassie himself received the group in his Jubilee Palace. Waiters in red uniforms wearing white gloves served champagne in crystal glasses.
In his early wildcat teaching, he left discipline to the side, feeding his student’s hungry questions – any questions. In curious tones and random order they asked him to explain the world outside their isolated homeland. Raising their hands they strained to ask and be heard. Reared on hearsay and movies from the west, most longed to study in the states. The older boys, proud and confident, were eager to stride across continents and oceans to bring back riches. Mostly boys, but a few girls in shawls – some recruited from small villages in the provinces perched in eagerness to learn about the other world. They sensed this other world offered more than theirs. They sensed riches only the Coptic bible spoke of. They longed for freedom from dumb poverty. They longed to live clean among modern peoples. They were shamed by lack. They were not amused by the romance of hardship and adversity. They did not trust political solutions; they sought justice because it was just and obvious and thus promised. Gil, the dreamer, their teacher, tried to explain the world so different from the one they knew. With wily grins to cover their hearts they asked about the feel of snow? Why hadn’t an Ethiopian invented the steam engine? Did he have the answer to the university entrance exams? Could he get them to America? They willed themselves aware, proud they spoke decent English, determined that education would make them prosperous. But they dreamed of justice. They were bright and matched his own eagerness but they were impatient with the rudiments. They wanted the wireless before they understood the wire. The principal warned him not to speak of politics. Gil learned to stick to lesson plans, diagramming sentences, writing paragraphs, working on pronunciation and vocabulary.
He rolls the window lower for relief from the sun, but the rush of air remains warm on his arms and face, blowing through his hair. In the Piazza he searches among the modern shops and storefronts for some evidence of catastrophe. No suspicions in the outdoor Italian espresso bar where he sometimes sits with friends; the Greek Travel Bureau, Phaedra Express, appears open. He looks up Churchill Road past the Giannopoulos book store. Business continues without interruption – a good sign. Foreigners stroll the Saturday afternoon streets. He wants to stick his head out the window and shout – “Has some great calamity befallen the earth?”
At Arat Kilo the driver turns into the honking traffic of a roundabout between the Ministry of Education and Haile Selassie I University. In the center stands a statue of Menelik II astride a horse, Ethiopia’s first modern emperor.
The driver points to the statue, “Ras Menelik. Atse nigusa nigast.” Then he gestures beyond the green misty mountains that ring the city. “Ah-mar-ica,” he says, shaking his head.
Moving up the hill on Haile Selassi I Boulevard. over toward the Embassy onto Algeria St, deep inside this most exotic rambling road curving, donkey and horse drawn city of honking taxis and busses and puzzled faces of women in shawls and men wrapped in blankets hurrying somewhere with bundles, he remembers his student’s urgent faces for him to make sense of it all. A dull knot of pain grabs at the center of his back. He tries to focus on the eucalyptus and banana trees that grow along the avenues. They pass the French school, the Jesuit school, the Ministry of Culture and other government buildings. West of Sidist Kilo, along the crest of the highest hill in Addis, the little Fiat pulls into the wide gravel drive in front of the American Embassy. Stepping out of the taxi, Gil hands the driver two Ethiopian twenty-five cent pieces.
“Tts, tts.” The driver shakes his head slowly. “Ah-mar-ica.” A wrinkled question crosses his face.
The dazzling noonday sun reveals a naked landscape. Light pierces the eucalyptus leaves and sets them glowing. The stone buildings take on an opaque shine. The pavement shimmers in the heat. From here he can see Addis Ababa against the background of the surrounding mountains. A thin cloud of smoke from cooking fires floats under the blue enameled sky. The few tall buildings jutting from the area of the Piazza break the otherwise low and ragged skyline.
Gil turns toward the embassy. He recognizes a solemn group of fellow volunteers milling about near the entrance. The embassy itself, set back in a grove of trees, is hidden inside a high walled compound. Two concrete pillars support large wrought iron gates with the outline of an American eagle in the middle. He once attended a reception in the Ambassador’s residence here.
Gil hurries toward the band of fellow Volunteers near a dirt basketball court adjoining the embassy compound. He spots Ernie in faded sweatshirt and jeans. A few others stand with him. They greet the dreamer with various attitudes of despair, small hand waves and head nods.
“Kennedy’s dead,” Ernie says when Gil walks up to him. “Johnson and the Texas Governor may be, too.”
“I don’t believe it,” Gil snaps, breath snorting. He’s trying to ward off the hot vapors rising inside. “How?” He asks. “Haah?”
“Some crazy gunman in Dallas. We don’t know anything else.”
“When?” He pushes himself back, trying to catch a breath. A cloud of shock shrouds him. His stomach contracts in a current of agony. He melts into a forsaken castaway, stranded on a rock in the high African plateau.
“How could they let it happen?” His words are chunks of stone. Torrents of unshed tears rip at his eyes.
“The Charge’ came out a while ago and read the announcement.”
“It’s a hellava day for the Irish,” Matt Noonan pipes up from where he sits on the ground. He scissors a basketball between his legs. “Let’s have a game,” he says. Noonan, a stocky fellow with reddish hair and a space between his front teeth, wears a crimson Harvard sweatshirt. He’s a gargoyle of a fellow.
“I can’t believe it,” Gil speaks to no one in particular. He cannot weep. He cannot find the emotional buttons. He reaches out with an imaginary whip to crack the neck of the man who pulled the trigger. He conjures science fiction machines that bring the dead to life, miracles performed for the good of mankind, stones rolled away from tombs. We must reverse time, he thinks, nab the culprit before the crime. He’d tasted real grief but once for the loss of a dear aunt – felt pummeled by God himself, singled out from the rest of the world and scored for countless small infractions. Now he’s been forsaken among these African mountains. He must devise a way to bring him back Gil thinks in his skewed mind. He is hungry for grief now, but cannot touch the shrieks straining his throat.
“It’s true, Gil,” Ernie says without flinching.
Where are his dreams now? With the veil torn away, his motives spill out to reveal a petty fantasy of glory. How can he return empty-handed? He asked not what his country could do for him. He staked his ideals on grappling with the solid earth of forgotten worlds. He thought himself something of a hero following a hero, never a thought to overcoming such a crater in the wall of his belief. He was young, he was old, the victim of his own arrogance and inexperience; he falls into fantasy, remaining invincible while those around him fade into the fog of an existence among shades.
His brain rumbles to the Kennedy who inspired him. Twice he shook the man’s hand. The first time, during the West Virginia primary in the chapel of his small college, under leaded-glass windows and vaulted Gothic arches, the man brought a thin cast of religious fervor to Gil’s eye. He had no doubt Kennedy would win. Kennedy awakened a fire in him. The candidate delivered his basic Appalachian speech about education, relief for black lung, and diversifying the state’s economy. He dropped the names of local people and towns handed to him on scraps of paper only a few minutes before. The usual whistle-stop stuff, but the way he said it made the difference. He spoke about the Peace Corps, too, and caught Gil on an upward draft of idealism.
Gil remembers how the candidate appeared restrained sitting on the stage, waiting to be introduced. He crossed his legs and then uncrossed them, a bit nervous, impatient perhaps. A mischievous smile barely visible gave way to the confidence he radiated when he stood up. He kept one hand in his suit pocket, afflicted perhaps, clenching his fist against some unbearable pain that he carried for them all. Then he leaned across the lectern. His upper-class Boston accents so foreign and hypnotic to those used to dry Midwestern American or the dreaded West Virginia stressed “r’s’ and dropped syllables resembling clacking washboards.
After the talk Gil walked over to the Senator. He looked full of curiosity. Close up Gil could see the lines at the corners of his clear eyes. He wore an expensive-looking dark suit with barely visible pinstripes. Gil never dreamed a more luminous moment.
“I intend to go into your Peace Corps when I get out of here,” Gil said. He put his hand forward.
“What’s your name?” Kennedy asked. He held Gil’s hand, stopping the impatient line forming in back.
“Gil,” he answered. “Short for Gilbert.” He stammered to meet some imagined formality in the future president.
“I like Gil,” he said and laughed. “We need young people like you to teach where they have no teachers.”
The young soldier in him nodded a salute.
Kennedy continued to hold the Gil’s hand. “If we win here,” the politician said, “we have a good chance to go all the way. And if we do, I’d be pleased to have you in my Peace Corps.”
Gil had read that his idol’s right hand became bruised from thousands of handshakes through the primaries but his hand felt warm and strong holding the boy’s.
“I’ll be ringing doorbells and passing out leaflets,” He’ said. Here stood the General Gil could die for. Never did he breach the thought that the immortal before him could fade away.
Two years later, on a muggy August day, motorcycle police — sirens wailing — escorted Gil’s Ethiopia-bound group of Peace Corps Volunteers in a motorcade of busses from Georgetown University to the White House. They filed into the Rose Garden and gathered on the lawn like new picked cabbages. In a moment the President stepped onto a portico to greet them, flashing his confident smile. He spoke of commitment; he said something about daring, something about idealism and freedom.
“Teach these new friends the best of our ways,” he told told them. Standing on the flagstone terrace, one hand in his suit pocket, he spoke of going and then coming home aware and ready to teach in the schools and serve in the government. He asked these raw volunteers to vanquish the image of the “ugly American,” and build a new reputation for service. He said they would learn more than they could ever teach. Gil believed him, every word.
Noonan slaps the basketball and looks up. “Here’s t he outcast of Poker Flats, where the blind lead the blind. Now we can have us a game.” He stands and bounces the ball, passes it to Gil.
Gil’s body is grateful to catch the ball, though his mind balks. He can’t find the strength to resist Noonan who possesses the knack to intimidate most everyone around. In his first run-in with Noonan during Peace Corps training, Noonan approached Gil after a spirited pickup game. “So, what college you from,” he had asked. “You play like you come from Williams or some nice place like that?”
Gil mumbled the name of his small, obscure college. “It’s in West Virginia,” Gil explained.
“Oh,” Noonan said. “A log-cabin college. Part of the Lincoln Brigade.”
Walking off the court, burly Noonan put his arm around Gil’s shoulder. “You play pretty good for a softie,” he told him. “The problem with you Lincoln Brigade sorts is that you think you can change the world. You don’t believe this Peace Corps shit, do you?”
“Yeah, I believe.” Gil had no comeback.
“The Peace Corps is gonna look good on my resume when I knock on the President’s door,” Noonan continued. “He and my old man were in the same house at Harvard. Couple years of graduate school, first thing you know, I’m running the State Department, or maybe I’ll head up one of those corporations that runs the State Department.”
Noonan squeezed Gil’s shoulder. “There’s a Harvard education for you, Lincoln Brigade.” Noonan let go his shoulder. Walking away, he turned to the shrinking Gil with a big laugh, projecting a practiced alter-boyish grin. “Hey, I’m only kidding, Mr. Brigade. We’re all in this together. Brothers under the skin. You know, we got to have a few laughs.”
Gil didn’t like the guy. He was loud and embarrassing; in the next moment Gil became exhilarated in the ring of Noonan’s bold presence. In spite of being tongue-tied, Gil felt awe. After that, the Harvard man would call him out across the campus. “Hey Lincoln Brigade,” smiling with that gap-tooth grin on his round freckled face.
“This is no day for games.” Ernie breaks into Gil’s thoughts.
“Begorra, it is.” Noonan bounces the ball. “This is the best day for a game. Gilbert here is already wearing his low cuts,” Noonan says.
Gil tries to find some sense of outrage, but he’s bowled over by a sense of unreality – the sway of the trees turning up the white underside of eucalyptus leaves, the shimmering stones of the embassy compound wall, the luminescence of the cobalt sky. Here in the land of Africa, there must be some shaman magic capable of raising the dead. He’s coaxing a miracle, an awakening from the dream. He doesn’t want to think about why they’re loitering in front of the embassy, but he can’t resist Noonan. The thought almost makes sense that athletic Jack would champion a game in his honor rather than a sulk? Gil quivers, unconvinced, but his body wants to move.
Tom, tall and slim, shakes his head, “You got no shame, Noonan.”
“Will it bring him back if we don’t play?” Noonan insists.
“Show some respect,” Ernie says.
“Tell that to the gunman,” Noonan spits back.
Gil wants to side with Ernie – keep to the edge of the court with his arms folded, but he can’t overcome Noonan’s warped face. He grits his teeth, rocks on his heels.
“Come on, Lincoln Brigade, we’ll show ’em how to play like Shakespeare.” Noonan pulls Gil onto the court.
Intimidated, he staggers without looking, catches the ball and passes it back, incriminating himself. Does his stomach’s torment come from news of Kennedy’s death, resentment of Noonan, or his own failings? Alone on the court, they shoot baskets and toss the ball back and forth. Gil holds his breath. Inside some ancient arena the dreamer becomes a gladiator about to kill or be killed. After a time, Noonan cajoles Tom to join. He calls Howard out, too. One by one, Noonan wheedles fellow volunteers into playing.
Only Ernie stands unmoved, his arms folded, eyes blinking in the sun. Marian and Phyllis, Barbara, Sally and Maggie, some wet-eyed, flash wary, sideways stares and talk among themselves. From a distance, the scene could be any Saturday afternoon, but it plays out on this Saturday.
“Tom and me and Gil against the rest of you pushovers,” Noonan commands.
They warm up, passing the ball back and forth, but Gil can’t look anyone in the eyes.
Shouldn’t we be solemn today, muster up a prayer? No, he tells himself. Don’t give in to sentiment. Don’t be afraid. Don’t cry. Don’t let this throw you. Retrieve the numbness.
Ringing gunfire stops the game cold.
They turn to see a ghost-parade of 30 or so Ethiopian soldiers dressed in black berets and Korean War-vintage American uniforms. They march down the boulevard with guns raised, firing volley after volley into the bright sky. Behind this group, a cadre of Ethiopian women in dark veils and black mourning shawls raise their voices in the traditional high-pitched wail, “Uluuluuluuluuluuluu, Uluuluuluuluuluuluu.” Some women carry portraits of Kennedy on raised placards. Gil thinks of the times he’s been in Ethiopian homes, and there along with photos of Haile Selassie and Coptic saints are pictures of Kennedy cut from magazines. Gunfire rings off the mountains while the marchers pause in front of the embassy. They remain at attention for a few minutes and then continue down the boulevard, marching to rouse the city.
He’s dizzy. How could this happen while they are stranded on a god-forsaken rock? Would anyone in Washington care about the Peace Corps now? Would they be called back? The dreamer’s frail hopes of making a difference yield no more than a loose thread. He should have listened to his father. Gil recoils, abandoned by a dead President and the folly of coming to a mountain in ancient Abyssinia, 5,000 miles from home. The reality threatens to plummet him to the bottom of the ocean. He chokes in the backwater of the news, flailing among the rocky waves just to stay afloat.
“Everyone loves a parade,” Noonan says. “But let’s play ball.”
Before they resume, a deep booming voice rings out from the far end of the court. “What is this?” Hamilton, the American charges’ d’affaires, stands with his arms akimbo in suspenders and shirtsleeves. His eyes are red and filmed over, almost hidden by steam. After staring the players down, he walks in their direction. “What’re you boys trying to prove?”
Noonan bounces the basketball.
The Charge’ and Noonan scowl.
“You gonna bring him back with indignation, Mr. Ambassador?” Noonan maintains his ground, while the others turn and skulk off the court, a pack of wounded cats.
Hamilton directs his comment to Noonan’s sweatshirt. “You boys have a knack for going too far. But this is far too far. Can it. Do you hear. Can it!” The Charge’ turns and walks back toward the embassy.
“Gil put us up to this.” Noonan smirks to Ernie standing on the edge of the court.
“None of us civilized boys would vilify our dead President on such a God-forsaken day.”
Even though Noonan’s con is weak, Gil cannot help responding. His face burns. “Come on,” he says, voice cracking.
Noonan turns with his smirking alter-boy look.
“Don’t blame me, you arrogant bastard,” Gil shouts.
Noonan, a head shorter, stomps over to Gil and thumps one stubby hand into Gil’s chest. Gil shoves back.
“Hey, you guys.” Ernie yells. “Cut it out.”
“Where does this fool get off calling me arrogant? How do you think I feel?” Tears show up in Noonan’s green eyes. He shoves Gil again and again.
Gil grabs Noonan by the shoulders, realizing his mistake too late as Noonan places his right leg in back and shoves Gil to the ground. Fists clench. They tussle in the grass. Tom and Ernie pull them apart hoisting and pulling the two play-makers up panting.
“You two are crazy,” Ernie says.
Ernie’s angry voice stops Gil, but Noonan shoves Gil one more time before he picks up his basketball.
Gil catches his breath and releases his fists, flooded with sorrow for all of them abandoned on this mountain outpost, cut off from the grief of their countrymen. Looking toward the horizon he spies a single black vulture. Its gliding circle beckons. He’s ready to take the first plane back, give up this ghost and run as fast as he can to some cave.
“The grass doesn’t stop growing ’cause some crazy bastard knocks off the President,” Noonan spits out. He takes the basketball in his right hand, whirls like a discus thrower and heaves the ball with all his might over the wall into the Embassy compound. Without looking back he walks away in the direction of the faint gunfire echoing from the hills. Gil searches the sky for a crack, a way out.
The wretched news rips the future from the dreamer’s grasp. The memory of afternoons by the waterfall dim. Over in the patchy grass near the Embassy driveway Ernie and Marian and Sally, Herb and Suzanne and others cluster in small groups as distant as the village huts in his morning dream. Gil drops into the depths. The tiny band of hopeful teachers and health care workers stand wretched against the unbreakable Ethiopian sky. Their vision evaporates into the dry mountain air. A cinch tightens across Gil’s stomach; his pipe dreams of a better world die away into a longing for home.