Dead Calm by Carole Sojka (Somalia 1962-64)

This short story by Carole Sojka takes place in Kenya in the early sixties. As Carole wrote me, “My husband and I were Peace Corps Volunteers in the Somali Republic from 1962 to 1964. We were with the first Somalia group. There were, I think, seven other Peace Corps groups sent to the Republic  before the coup in 1969 that sent the country hurtling into its current state of chaos. I taught English in the secondary school in Merca, a town about forty miles south of the capital, Mogadiscio, where the language before independence was Italian. My husband taught English to the local officials, i.e., the D.C., the police chief, the harbor master. He also took photographs for the Ministry of Tourism. It was a hopeful time in Somalia.

Carole in Somalia with her friend, Gina

Carole in Somalia with her friend, Gina

“The story of ‘Dead Calm’ came from an experience my husband and I had on a train trip in Uganda in 1963. A boulder did fall on the track, and we were stranded for three days. The characters are of course fictional, but the subject of female circumcision or female genital mutilation, which is still performed all over Somalia, is something that greatly disturbs me. The rest of the story is fiction.”

When Carole and her husband Boris returned to Southern California they adopted a baby boy whom they named Mark. Carole went back to school and got a Master’s degree in Public Administration from the University of Southern California in the mid-seventies and went to work for the Orange County Counsel, the civil law firm for the County of Orange.

reason-killShe began to write after she retired and she has finished three novels and about a dozen short stories, several of which have been published. Her first novel, a mystery titled A Reason To Kill, has been self-published and is now available.

Carole and Boris travel a lot. He worked in China for five years, and they toured southeast Asia extensively. They have also visited South America, most of Europe and made two trips to Africa. Last year they spent five weeks in Greece, Bosnia and Croatia.

When home, they live with two dogs in Glendora, a small town about forty miles outside of Los Angeles.

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DEAD CALM

“I do not know, Memsahib,” Omar answered when Allison asked him why the train had stopped in the middle of the night.

He raised the shade in her compartment, and she gazed out at the scrubland dotted with spiky thorn bushes and baobab trees, their candalabra branches pointing into the empty sky.  In the distance, the land merged imperceptibly into the curve of the horizon.

This morning there was no sign of life in the arid landscape, but last night, before darkness had dropped over the earth, she had seen a herd of wildebeest and zebra near the tracks.  The whistle of the train had made them flee, a thundering arc of hooves and horns.   Now she thought, “I must remember to tell Tricia,” before memory shook her, and she sat quickly, catching her breath.

“Don’t think,” she told herself. “Don’t remember.”

She considered breakfast.  Perhaps her table mates from dinner, the Peace Corps volunteer, Tom, or Mahmud, the Kenyan teacher from Mombasa, would know something about the stopped train.  The fourth person at the table had been Carlo, and her skin crawled when she remembered him: his insistent hands touching her, his body leaning against her, his eyes gazing down her blouse. She had wanted to make him stop, but it seemed too much effort.

A slender, olive-skinned Italian in his forties, Carlo had dominated dinner, ordering the stewards about and complaining to Allison and Tom about the new Africa, the deplorable state of everything since independence.  He had ignored the Kenyan.

“You drink wine with me, yes,” he had said, pointedly excluding Mahmud.

Allison had been silent, but Carlo’s behavior and his voice had penetrated her numbness until even she cringed at his rudeness. She’d been glad when dinner was over.

Walking back to their compartments, Tom told her that Carlo lived in Somalia, north of Kenya, a country Tom said was still largely in the stone age.

“I’m stationed there, in Mogadishu,” Tom said. “Outside the capitol, it’s all pretty much nomads herding camels from water to grazing, with few towns of any size and abysmal poverty.   It’s independent now, but the Italians still hold the economic power.”

When the bell rang for breakfast, Allison roused herself enough to walk to the dining car, but no one knew anything about why the train had stopped.

“It is always this way in Africa,” Carlo said.  “Things break and no reason. And it is worse now-since independence.  Africans in charge!”

Allison wondered how Mahmud managed to maintain his silence and his dignity in the face of Carlo’s rudeness.  She tried tuning Carlo out, but she couldn’t entirely block out his rant.

When she left the table, she stepped past where Carlo sat smoking a cigarette.  He stood to allow her to pass, his hands caressing her buttocks as she squeezed past him.  She should say something, she thought, but the prospect of speaking made her feel limp and exhausted.  If she ignored him, he would go away.

Obedient to her ritual, she opened her book and read a few paragraphs, but then, unable to concentrate, she stared vacantly out the window, seeing the shadows flattened now as the sun rose in the sky. She watched a pair of crested cranes stalk about, their heads held high, and birds darted through the air, bright jets of yellow and red and black. She tried to keep her mind as empty as the land, but memories of Tricia danced at the edge of her consciousness: Tricia laughing as she played in the surf; Tricia dressing for school, searching for her shoes; Tricia in the crosswalk, the car bearing down on her.

Allison jerked her mind away from the horror of the last image. Delving into her purse, she pulled out the photos of Tricia and soothed herself with the pictures. Finally she dozed in the blaze of sun coming through the window.

Just before noon, there was a knock at her door.  She awoke, startled, and when she opened the door, she found Carlo standing in the corridor, a flask in his hand.

“Signora, you will have a drink with me?”

“It’s too early for me,” Allison answered, but he ignored her, muttered, “Permesso” and pushed past her into the compartment. He helped himself to two glasses and poured gin.

Cin cin,” Carlo saluted her, his glass held high.  He took a large swallow, and pulling out a pack of cigarettes, asked, “You do not mind?”

He lit his cigarette before she could answer, drank quickly from the glass, then refilled it from the flask.

“There is only you and me, Signora, while we wait for this train to move.” He jiggled one crossed leg and smoothed his dark hair, glistening with oil, as he blew smoke in her face.

He talked, in heavily accented English, about the way things had been in Africa “before this independence. I leave my country after the war when there is no future. Somalia is warm all the time, and there is land to farm.  I build my farm from nothing. The Somalis, they do not farm.  They work today, then they not work. It is Allah’s will, they say. Children!”

He shrugged.  Lighting another cigarette, he threw the match on the floor, then continued, “There is nothing for me in Italy. They act like I am no longer Italian. They do not know what I do here.”

Allison looked pointedly at her watch, but Carlo ignored her.

“I have wife for a while. From Roma.  She is not stay long. She say Somalia too hot. She miss her mother.”

He leaned forward, and she could smell liquor and cigarettes and the odor of his body. “I am good for her.  I do for her everything.  I give her house in town where she see other women.  But she all the time complain about the heat.  She is worth nothing.  She is weak, no good for Somalia. She go back to Italy.”  His crossed leg jiggled up and down.

“Now I have Somali wife. That is all I need.”  He stubbed out his cigarette on the floor.

The luncheon bell rang, and Allison stood quickly, ready for Carlo to leave her alone, but he insisted on ushering her out, then locking her door and presenting her with the key, bowing as he did so.

She wanted to stay, to cleanse her compartment of his presence, his odors of gin and cigarettes and the oil on his hair, but he walked closely behind her.  She started to say she’d forgotten something and needed to go back, but the clamor of the vendors clustered at the windows of the train, selling sambusas, chicken, and fruit to the second and third class passengers, drowned her out. Too soon, she was at the dining car.

Tom had brought a book and read while Carlo continued his monologue and Mahmud looked increasingly uncomfortable. Allison ate mechanically, without taste or pleasure. Eating was part of her daily ritual, like sleeping and dressing, a façade of normalcy. She was silent, but Carlo did not appear to notice that no one answered his incessant yammering.

After coffee, the chief dining steward read an announcement. “We are very sorry to say that a large rock has fallen on the track and must be removed before the train can go on.  Regular meals will continue to be served to first class passengers.”

There was a hubbub of questioning with Carlo’s voice the loudest, but the steward could give no estimate of how long clearing the track might take.

“This would not happen when the English are here,” Carlo complained.

Allison wondered what magic of colonial rule had enabled the British to prevent rocks from rolling down hillsides onto train tracks. When she had finished her meal, she was distressed to find Carlo following her back to her compartment.

When she realized his intention, she stopped and said, “I’m going to rest now.”

Carlo seemed about to speak, then said simply, “This evening, then,” and turned and walked back toward the dining car.

The odors of gin and cigarettes and hair oil tainted the air of her compartment.  She hardly breathed while she tried to cleanse her space. Rinsing the glasses, she placed them outside in the corridor, then she opened the window to the burning air outside.  Still, the compartment smelled of him. She sat and opened her book, but tired now, she stretched out on the seat and fell quickly into sleep, the anesthetic that allowed her to forget. When she wakened, drenched in sweat, memory brought the cold ache of loss.

She closed the window against the blazing air, but she could still feel Carlo’s presence.  She opened the door to the corridor, allowing other odors to enter, trying to obliterate him. She paced the tiny cabin, then giving in to the insistent clamor of memory, she pulled out the envelope of photographs again. She pored over the pictures, remembering.

She had been complete with Tricia, but her daughter’s death had destroyed her.  She had fled her home in Michigan, its lakes and forests and the towns where the little girls who looked like Tricia thrilled her with hope, then smashed her into despair. She traveled, seeking a landscape utterly different and children who could not remind her of her loss. She found them in Africa: dark children in an arid land.

Outside her compartment window was the unchanging landscape, and the walls seemed to press in on her. Finally she walked to the observation car where she found Mahmud looking disconsolate.  When he smiled a welcome, she perched on the edge of the seat across from him.  He was a small man with skin the color of cocoa, dressed more formally than most of the travelers in a white shirt and tie.  He told her that he was on spring break from his teaching job and planned to visit relatives in Kasese.

His voice soothed her, and she felt comforted as she listened to him talk about his wife and children and the years he had spent studying in England.  He was Somali. His family had lived in Kenya for many years, but his wife had been born in Somalia and left there only to marry him.

“Were you married when you left for England?” Allison asked.

“Yes, and my daughter was born while I was gone. It was hard to come back, and sometimes I feel I do not belong, but   I came back for her and because I did not belong in England either.”

“Do you have pictures of your family?”

“My wife believes that cameras can steal part of you, your soul perhaps, but I have a picture of Aminah from her boarding school.” From his wallet, he carefully extracted a photograph of a dark-skinned girl with a tight, self-conscious smile.

The girl was older than Tricia had been, and Allison looked at her without a jolt of pain.  As her lips curved in a smile at the innocent face, she realized that the memory of Tricia’s death had left her for the first time since the accident, and the absence of the familiar ache frightened her.  She rose quickly to her feet and returned the photograph, murmuring a quick goodbye.  In her compartment, she clutched the photos of Tricia in her hand like a talisman, and, lost in her memories, she missed the bell for dinner.

Later, after the steward had made up the bunk and she was preparing for bed, there was a knock. She held her unbuttoned blouse together and opened the door a crack, expecting the steward, but finding Carlo in the corridor, the flask in his hand. The smell of liquor and sweat entered her compartment as he shouldered past her.  She tried not to breathe as he murmured, “Permesso,” and announced, “A brandy before sleep.  You did not come to dinner, Signora.

You are ill?”

He did not appear to expect a reply but poured two drinks and placed one in her hand.

She put down the drink and buttoned her blouse. “You shouldn’t be here. You should leave.”

Carlo didn’t seem to notice that she had spoken. Be more forceful, she thought. Tell him to leave. But it was hard to concentrate.

Cin cin,” he said. “You say, ‘To your health,’ yes?”  He handed her the glass again and touched it with his own. The smell of him nauseated her.

Putting the drink down, she said, “I don’t want a drink,” but Carlo didn’t seem to hear her. Perhaps, she thought, she hadn’t spoken.

He moved over to sit beside her. “Come. Have a drink.” He placed the glass in her hand once more, put his arm around her and guided her hand to her mouth. She sipped and felt the brandy burn in her throat.  She gagged at the taste.

His arm remained around her, and she couldn’t summon the strength to move away.  She felt frozen, paralyzed. She would have to push him out the door if she wanted him to go, but that seemed too difficult.

“I am ready to go to sleep. You must leave,” she said.  Forcefully, she thought.

She closed her eyes, thinking, “When I open them, he will be gone.”   She felt his weight shift, and she thought, “He’s leaving,” but when she opened her eyes, he had merely refilled his glass.  He drank his brandy quickly, then took the glass from her hand and put it on the floor.

He pulled her to him and kissed her. The taste of brandy and the odor of his body made her gag, and she pulled back, but he held her tightly, kissing her harder, scraping her face with the stubble of his beard.

“Relax, cara. Everything is fine.” He kissed her again, and she squirmed in his grasp, retching. She felt her eyes fill with tears as she tried to push him away.

He ignored her response, pushing his tongue into her mouth, probing. She whimpered and turned her face away, but he forced her back and pressed her mouth open.

He pawed at her breast and worked on the buttons of her blouse, then unfastened her brassiere. When he touched her nipple, she could feel it stand erect under his caress.  She shook her head and said, “No,” but he held her tightly, ignoring her protest.

He slipped off her blouse and bra, moving his lips down her throat. Then her mind seemed to separate from the body he held, and she watched from above as he caressed her naked shoulders and breasts.  She saw herself as he handled her, but she wasn’t there to push him away.

Bella mia,” she heard him murmur.  “Beautiful, very beautiful.”

He raised her to her feet and undressed her like a mannequin, unzipping her skirt and pulling her panties down.  His hands were rough and tore at her skin, but she could no longer struggle. She was no longer there.

He murmured, “Cara, cara mia,” his words mechanical.

He opened his pants then and pushed her beneath him on the bunk.  She could feel his hardness on her leg, and from above she thought, “Push him away. Get up.” But she couldn’t move her body, and she watched as he pushed her legs apart and entered her. She was dry, and she heard herself utter a cry of pain.

“Shush,” he said, placing his hand over her mouth.  “Hush.”  He plunged into her again and again, murmuring, “Buono, buono.  Bella, cara bella.

As he moved more quickly, his murmuring stopped.  She watched herself lying rigid and still as he plowed in and out, breathing hotly in her face.  How much longer, she wondered.  When will this be over?  Finally she felt him spasm, then he collapsed against her.

When she felt her body again, she said, “Get out.”

Con piacere,” He sat up, buttoned his pants, and tucked his shirt into them. “It is like making love to a dead thing.”

“Get out-now!”  She stood up and pushed him toward the door.

“I am not trouble you again, Signora.”

When he was gone, she vomited in the toilet until there was nothing in her stomach.  Then she retched again and again until she was exhausted.  She opened the window of the compartment and breathed in the dry, clean air.  She wet a towel and scrubbed at herself until her skin was red and sore, but she couldn’t rid herself of his smell. Finally, she covered herself with a blanket and lay on her bunk until sleep blotted out her revulsion.

That night she dreamed about Tricia’s terrified face as the car struck her. She woke up crying, her body shaking with rage. She splashed water on her face and sat staring into the darkness. After Tricia’s death, she had been empty, but no one had seen. Now she had a gaping wound like an injured antelope attacked by a hyena.

She fell into an uneasy sleep near dawn, not awakening until late in the morning.  If Omar had knocked, she hadn’t heard him. The train had not moved, and Carlo’s smell still lingered.  Airing the compartment and scrubbing her body did not get rid of it.  She dressed carefully for lunch, wearing dull brown, the color of the landscape. In the dining car, she heard Carlo announce loudly that he wished to change his table, ordering the stewards to find him another place. He nodded at her, and she turned her head away, swallowing the bile that rose in her throat.  Tom and Mahmud seemed both surprised and pleased when he was gone.

*        *        *

The train remained motionless for three days while the passengers slept, ate, complained, and sat in the observation car staring at their slice of Africa.

On the morning of the second day, the generator powering the air conditioning unit broke down. In the silence, it seemed the interior of the train had melted into the barren landscape.  The train grew as stifling as the heat-stricken land, cooling down only when the sun dropped suddenly below the empty horizon, and it reeked of sweat and human waste overlaid by the smell of disinfectant.

Although Allison took daily sponge baths, the odor of Carlo lingered in her nostrils, and she never felt clean. She spent hours in dazed sleep in her compartment, and finally the odor of her own body overcame the smells that Carlo had left.  Most of the passengers looked and smelled disagreeably human, and only Mahmud managed a clean white shirt and tie daily, looking as fresh as on the first day of the journey.

Although Allison dutifully opened her book each day, she spent most of the time staring at the frozen landscape outside the window. There was little change except for the lunch vendors, an occasional African child herding goats, or one or two adults traveling on foot who  appeared as though from nowhere, stared for a while at the stranded train, then disappeared again.

When she could no longer summon sleep and the compartment, now ruined as a refuge, had become unbearable, Allison wandered down to the observation car where she found Mahmud and Tom. She did not join in, mostly listening as they talked.  Tom spoke about his experiences as a Peace Corps teacher in Mogadishu, and Mahmud told stories of his students and his family in Mombasa.

One afternoon the picture of Mahmud’s daughter lay on the table in front of Tom.  The two men stopped talking when she joined them, and Mahmud looked worried and sad.

Mahmud picked up the picture and turned to Allison, his voice hesitant. “When I return, I must tell my wife whether she can arrange to have Aminah circumcised. It is a Somali custom.”

“I’m surprised because she is so much older than the usual age,” said Tom.

“My wife promised she would not have her cut while I was gone, and she did not, but now her family is insisting. Fatima says I do not understand how important it is.”  Mahmud frowned, his face creased with worry.  He carefully returned the picture to his wallet, then changed the subject to the efforts being made to move the boulder on the track.

“It sounds as though we’ll be here forever,” said Tom.

Allison sat, worrying, while Tom and Mahmud talked until finally Mahmud excused himself before dinner.  What had Mahmud meant when he talked of cutting?  The word frightened her.

“What was he talking about?” she asked when Mahmud was gone. “He said having Aminah ‘cut.’ What does that mean?”

As Tom hesitated with his response, she felt a sense of dread creeping over her.  Whatever Mahmud had meant, it was something awful.

“Female circumcision,” Tom finally said.  “It’s done all over Africa, not just among the Somalis. They mentioned it in our Peace Corps training, and I talked to the Peace Corps doctor about it once. A female volunteer in our group was even asked by a student to be a sponsor or witness to her cutting.”

“I’ve never heard of it. What do they do?  What happened?”

“She said her student was really excited because it would make her grown up.  She was probably about six or seven.  That’s what’s so worrying about Mahmud’s daughter.  She’s much older, and it’s more dangerous for her.

“Anyway, Shelley, the volunteer, told us all about how she’d been asked and how pleased she was to be included. She didn’t talk about it later, and I asked her how it had been.

“She said it was horrible. It was done in a little thatched hut with a dirt floor, smelling of charcoal and animalshey gave her sweetened camel’s milk to drink and kept refilling her cup, and she smiled, and sipped, and tried to be polite. The girl, Habiba, was all dressed up, and the Somali women made a great fuss over her. Apparently, Shelley’s task was to be one of those who hold the girl’s legs and arms to keep her still.

“There was a dull razor with an old rusty blade, and of course no anesthetic.  They placed the girl over a stool and held her, then using this rusty razor blade, they cut off all the flesh outside the girl’s vagina.”

“Oh, my God.  Oh, my God.” Allison swallowed and covered her mouth, feeling the acrid taste of bile rising in her throat.  Anger washed over her, and she wanted to hit someone, but there was no one to strike.  She didn’t want to hear the end, but she knew she had to.

Tom looked at her.

She swallowed again, the bile subsiding, but the anger still in her.  Then she said, “I’m okay. I want to hear the rest.”

“Shelley said there was blood everywhere, and Habiba was screaming and fighting to get away. Shelley nearly ran. Then the women sewed the girl up with thorns, just leaving a tiny hole, and tied her legs together so she would heal.   Shelley said none of the other women seemed upset at all, even though the child was screaming.”

Allison’s face flamed, and she stood, unable to sit any more.

“How could a mother see that done to her daughter?  How could she?” She could barely speak, her voice strangled.

“Apparently, it’s the women, more than the men, who keep the practice going.  Many men won’t marry a girl who is not circumcised, and the women are afraid their daughters will not find a husband. It makes sure they remain virgins, I guess. The Peace Corps doctor told me that often the girls have to be opened surgically after marriage. I suppose that’s done the same way.”

Allison paced, seeing Tricia’s death, the car bearing down on her.  She saw her daughter’s mangled body lying in the street, her blood pooling around her.  She had not known what would happen to Tricia, but Mahmud did.  How could he do that to his child?

Tom watched her as she strode back and forth.  “Are you all right?”

Finally she sat down.  “How could a father allow his child to be tortured?  How could a mother?”  The picture of the butchered child and the women who managed this ghastly ritual would not leave her mind.

“What will Mahmud do?” she asked Tom.

“I don’t know. It can be dangerous at Aminah’s age, and Mahmud and his wife both know that.  But for his wife, this is the way to assure a good marriage for her child.”

Allison shuddered as tears came to her eyes.

*        *        *

That night she dreamed of Tricia again, of the accident.  In the dream she was with Tricia when the car came at them. She stood in front of her daughter and pushed Tricia out of its path.  The tears ran down her face, soaking her pillow. She thought of Aminah. The little girls came to the mutilation in ignorance, but Aminah knew what faced her. How could any mother do this to her child?

Allison’s rage returned, then her tears.  Finally she dried her face, dragged her suitcase from under the bunk and took out a small tissue-wrapped bundle.  She tore off the tissue and pressed Tricia’s teddy bear to her face, inhaling the smell of baby powder and soft skin: the odor of her daughter. She held the stuffed bear in her arms and sobbed convulsively until she finally fell asleep.

*        *        *

Meals continued, but the tablecloths were no longer white and the fresh flowers long  gone.  The number of courses was reduced to one, and by the end of the third day, that appeared to be made up of leftovers composted into a kind of stew. Bananas and other fruit from the local vendors were served as dessert. The hot air was a miasma that felt dangerous to breathe, noxious and stinking.

The day came when Allison met Carlo in the corridor on the way to breakfast.  She was alone. He looked at her with contempt.

“Will you play the whore with every man on the train, even the blacks, before we’ve moved?”

She felt the blood rush to her face and press against the top of her head.  Her hand curled into a fist.

“Bastard,” she spat.  He hurried away.

*        *        *

At breakfast on the fourth day, as they ate dry toast and drank tea without milk or sugar, the stewards instructed them to put their bags in the corridor and be prepared to change trains.  There was tired applause from the passengers at the imminent end to their ordeal.

As they got up to leave the dining car, Allison said to Mahmud, “Forgive me.  I know it is not my business, but have you made a decision about Aminah? You must not allow your wife to have her circumsized. You cannot let that happen.  I had a daughter, and the idea . . .,” she paused and closed her eyes as the pain hit her. “It’s horrible. You must not let it be done.”  She felt tears prick at her eyes.

Mahmud did not look at her and said softly, “I must let my wife decide.”

Anger flooded over her at his answer, and she grabbed his arm as if she could stop him.  “You must not allow it!  You cannot!” she shouted.

Mahmud looked surprised at Allison’s tone and said, “My wife knows what is best.”

Tom pulled at Allison’s arm.  “You don’t understand.”

“I do understand!  He knows he must not let it happen.”

“I am sorry,” said Mahmud. “I must let my wife decide.”

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