Henry Elliott thought he saw the Devil, when he woke up in his hot tent and looked out into the desert. A tall, black-robed figure with glowing red eyes, stood in the distance, amidst the trees that were twisted by the heat into forms that could only have beeen birthed in hell itself.
His head felt like the infernal pits of the netherworld. He took a big mouthful of water from his canteen and let some of it spill over his chin, his neck and his chest.
He rubbed his eyes and looked again and the demon was nowhere to be seen. But he could hear his machinations out in the camp, a sea of white and blue tents in the heart of the dark continent, where he had come seeking the truth in his faith that he had lost so long ago.
He firmly massaged his forehead with the tips of his fingers. The pounding veins in his head got louder.
The nurse he had worked with since his arrival suddenly popped in and asked, “Morning Henry, I am headed for A1, you joining me? We could get some chow on the way.”
“Thanks Jonathan, you go. I will be there soon after my prayers.”
“We will surely need all those prayers, I tell ya. The rebels blew up the main bridge to Erungwa, and we are short on supplies.”
“There will be a way.”
“I hope so.”
He had one more reason to pray for. But first he wanted to seek favors for the little boy he had helped nurse back to consciousness. Mboki, had skin as dark as the night and curly hair. The boy called him “God” when he came to and then asked him if he was his father, in a frail tone. When the nurse communicated to Henry what the child had spoken, he held the tiny hand and said, “We are all instruments of the Lord here and we will look after you.”
The little boy hummed a song his dead mother had taught him and wouldn’t let Henry go till he promised to check on him in the morning.
He took another sip from his canteen, knelt on the ground and prayed.
The nightmares were relentless. His father wouldn’t let him sleep. Every time he managed to shut out the screams of the refugees, he would see his Pa, the pastor of Queenswood, with the double barreled gun in his hand. The man who invaded his dreams with grunts and mumblings and the occasional curse, “God, that fucking cunt.”
Henry prayed for the souls that tormented him from the past and the ones that he served in the present.
“A reprieve, my Lord,” he said,” I know I have sinned and betrayed your trust and that of my parish. Forgive me for what I have done. Forgive me so that I may serve your will.”
One of the assistants at the camp had challenged his prayers for a dead woman yesterday.
“What use is committing this body to God when he is the one who made her shit blood in the first place?”
Years ago, Henry would have offered some theological perspective, but he felt like a fraud these days, a cold slab of ice devoid of the divine.
He continued praying in his tent for he had to, not because he expected the Lord to guide his hand today. He wanted to gather the strength to steel himself against another day in the camp.
When he finished, he stepped out into the hot sun wearing a hat, a blue striped shirt and khaki pants. He wanted to check on Mboki before he ate.
He greeted the tired and weary faces of the volunteers that crossed his path and smiled at the emaciated souls that stared at him blankly from their tents. The smell of medicine and human excrement permeated the air.
Flies enveloped a donkey loaded with white sheets. The animal looked like it was covered in warts that moved and rippled. The pastor had no doubt it was a message.
“They lay eggs you know,” a voice said to him.
He closed his eyes and imagined the flies prying open the eyelids of the creature, to blind it with their mandibles and filthy appendages.
When he opened his eyes, the donkey was still standing there like the very representative of hope itself in this wretched place. It brayed and shivered and flapped its ears and swung its tail and most of the flies flew away, only to return with furious love.
He was watched closely by men and women reduced to skeletal forms dressed in oversized robes and gowns, some holding near dead babies with half open eyes that drew deep breaths to expand their shrunken bellies, some sat in the shade chewing on their clothes to ward off the hunger.
There simply wasn’t enough food and medicine for everyone and the steady stream of refugees fleeing the conflict in the south, did not help their cause.
Yesterday, the U.N. guards stopped further arrivals from entering the camp. So they parked their rickety trucks, their door-less cars and wheezing donkeys, under the leafless trees and waited, refusing to believe or understand that they couldn’t be accommodated. After a few hours, some of the men tried to hijack a truck carrying milk and bread. The driver of the truck was stabbed with a small sharp weapon fashioned from a goat’s horn, before the guards could silence their conscience and fire at the frenzied attackers.
A man in a white tunic approached Henry and spoke in his tribe’s tongue and Henry couldn’t figure out if it was a blessing or a curse, not that it really mattered. Henry gently touched the man’s arm and in response, a tear escaped his left eye before traveling down his dry dark skin, ending up in the corner of his grey mouth. The man stumbled away like a zombie.
When the Pastor entered Section A1, Sister Augustine blessed him and told him how the miraculous love of God had brought them an angel. She guided him in the direction of a newborn wrapped in a blanket, like the Lord himself, several centuries ago. He was fast asleep and his little eyelids broke Henry’s heart.
“He is wonderful, isn’t he?”
Henry wiped his tears and nodded, “A blessing indeed Sister.”
The mother lay exhausted next to the baby, covered in a saffron sheet awaiting death.
God’s grace was only enough for her to survive the labor. Although her body was broken her face seemed serene, as if the reason for her existence and suffering was justified.
He coveted the peaceful sleep of the child and the surrender of the mother. Both gifts denied to him. The Lord did not forget his sins and that of his father’s. He sighed in resignation, but that precious part of his heart that held onto hope told him that his journey had only begun, that he must have patience.
Sister Augustine was the reason why Henry was here. He had met her on several occasions in Sydney, at revival camps where she would make fiery speeches and show slideshows of her work in Africa. A year ago she had convinced him that he might find atonement for his sins and an understanding of his path at one of her camps. She had paid for his tickets and he had arrived from rural Queensland, unprepared for this the “battlefield of Lord and Satan” as the Sister claimed.
“To save a soul here is to deliver it to the grace of God,” she decreed on his arrival.
Henry looked around for Mboki, but couldn’t find him. He was certain that the child had beed there last night.
“What are you standing around for? Make yourself useful child, I will see you later at the prayer hall”
“I am looking for the little boy Mboki.”
Sister Augustine considered the information for a second and said, “He was taken to the Red tent.”
Henry exited the A1 section and headed in the direction of the Red tent which was the intensive care unit at the camp
When he entered the tent, the doctors and nurses, tired and worn out from stitching and cutting and cleaning and soul searching, milled around him without making eye contact. He walked past rows of beds, some shared by more than one patient, looking for the boy.
There was a huge pool of blood accumulated in one area and he heard a doctor shout in frustration for someone to clean up the mess, then the man realized that people were not alert to anything but the task at hand and he stormed to the storage area presumably to get a mop and bucket.
Henry finally spotted the little one closer to one of the exits. There were tubes running from his mouth and his tummy had swollen to the size of a football and his nappy was a soaked in blood. He gently patted his head and gave him a kiss. He went in search of a doctor and found one smoking, just outside the entrance.
The German doctor extinguished his cigarette when Henry gave him the bed number and described the child.
“Ya, I know the one.”
The doctor continued to squash the butt under his foot. He noticed the Bible in Henry’s hand
“He is bad, the child. Developed some internal bleeding overnight. Might not make it.”
Henry grabbed the doctor’s hand, “Do you think there is hope for him?”
“I don’t know, you are the one with the prayer book.”
The pastor let go of the doctor’s arm and clutched the Bible closer to his chest.
“I have been noticing something Father,” the doctor said pointing to a flock of carrion birds in the distance. “They have been moving closer everyday, just a little bit, step by step. And I look at those cold black eyes and I think, they know, we won’t be able to save most of the people here.”
Henry watched the birds half spreading their wings and preening as they watched the camp.
“They know, don’t they, what you have done, what I have done, what all the sick and dying have done. And look at them, just sitting there waiting, to judge us all,” the doctor said with a grin. He shook his head and walked into the tent, amused by his observation.
Henry stood there watching the birds for some more time till his eyes started to hurt in the glare of the afternoon sun.
He walked into the tent and approached Mboki’s bed. The little boy lay like a bloody angel of love that the Lord had given up on. The child shivered suddenly and shook his head several times before settling down again.
Henry placed the book at the foot of the bed. He stood in silent contemplation for a moment. Suddenly something whispered cold and burning words into his ears.
He shuddered, took a deep breath and wrapped his hands around the boy’s neck, “Mercy.”
Someone screamed nearby and he snapped out of the trance.
A woman was wailing and banging a plate on one of the steel beds where her child lay in a pool of vomit, thrashing violently. A doctor and nurse came running to the bed.
Henry pressed a hand to his chest and coughed and felt his throat go dry, and he couldn’t breathe for a while thinking about what he had just attempted.
He knelt and prayed for the little boy, for all the little children who lay dying and his own soul and the God who wasn’t here to tend to his flock.
Outside, the birds moved closer in anticipation.
Nikesh Murali’s work-comics, poems and short stories-has appeared in more than 80 publications worldwide. His poems have been translated into Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and French. He won the DWL Short Story Prize in 2012, Honorable Mention for the Katha Short Story contest in 2012 and The Commonwealth Short Story Prize for the Asian region in 2011. His poetry was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2007. He has a Masters in Journalism from Griffith University and was awarded the Griffith University Award for Academic Excellence in 2005. He is working towards his Doctorate in Creative Writing.
The judges were Tania James and Amit Majmudar.
Judges’ Comments: “We liked how this story represented a break from the others regardingsetting, theme, and subject matter. With its chilling imagery, “The Burning” lingered in the mind long after reading.
Tania James is the author of a novel, Atlas of Unknowns. Her most recent book is Aerogrammes and Other Stories, which was named a Best Book of the Year by The San Francisco Chronicle, Kirkus Reviews, and Library Journal, as well as a New York Times Editor’s Choice.
Amit Majmudar is a novelist, poet, and diagnostic nuclear radiologist and was a Katha Short Story contest winner himself for two years in a row. His first novel, Partitions, and two poetry collections were published to wide acclaim. His most recent novel is The Abundance. Visit www.amitmajmudar.