Benjamin Kanigi shivered in the early evening air and gazed up into the clear night sky. The stars had awoken, coming to life as the sky turned from dark blue to black. He breathed deeply of the fresh air, turned up the collar of his coat, readjusted the strap of his backpack slung over his right shoulder and made his way across the university quadrangle.
Benjamin’s path took him past the ornate marble fountain that highlighted the center of the quadrangle. Four cherubs poured water from marble urns, replenishing the pool below. A gentle breeze showered him with a fine mist. A young couple sat on the fountain’s ledge, entwined, kissing. Unbeknownst to the girl, the boy had dipped his hand into the cold water and was preparing to drizzle the contents down her neck. The muffled scream and ensuing laughter brought a smile to Benjamin’s face.
A smile on the face of Benjamin was a rare sight, but becoming less of an anomaly as the months passed. He was in his first semester, a medical student, attending this august school of higher learning. A handful of scholarships had been on offer to the students from Benjamin’s region of West Africa, he being one of the fortunate few chosen. His sponsor and mentor – the kind Priest that ran the missionary school Benjamin had attended – was an alumnus of the University and had written a letter of recommendation on Benjamin’s behalf.
It was his parent’s greatest wish that Benjamin became a doctor then return home and tend to his people. Thoughts of what had become of his people, his home, dragged the smile from his face. He wondered if after he’d completed his studies, would there still be a home worth returning to?
The village of his birth had comprised nothing more than a dozen huts constructed of straw and mud, scattered in a ragged circle around the large community hearth. As a child, a vicious civil war between the two main tribes of his land had raged across his country. During his eighth year, the carnage reached and engulfed his remote village. Early one morning, before roosters signaled the dawn, soldiers armed with machetes and Kalashnikov rifles raided their village. Some villagers were able to escape, he and his parents among them, many more were not so fortunate.
They fled through the jungle, westward, running for their lives with nothing but the clothes on their backs. The near impenetrable thick foliage and the undulating mountainous terrain provided their only cover. Thankfully, amongst the dense undergrowth, their pursuers soon lost their trail. Though, for hours, the screams of those unable to escape filtered through the thick canopy of the jungle and across the valley floor. Their haunting cries followed Benjamin and the other survivors as they moved ever further west.
Benjamin passed by the stately sandstone facade of the university library, dark but for a few lights on the lower floors, turned right at the intersection and strode purposefully ahead towards the bright lights of the main street. It was a Friday night, and many of the students from Benjamin’s dormitory had left town for the weekend. Rather than studying alone in his room he had decided to visit Doyle’s, a bar close by the campus. He wasn’t craving companionship, his poor command of the English language embarrassed him still, but the noise and bustle of the nightlife provided a welcome respite from the solitude that only enhanced his homesickness.
Doyle’s Pub featured ten beers on tap, five big screen televisions, two dart boards and live music four nights a week. The kitsch Irish decor and the lingering sour smell of stale beer could have placed it as any Irish bar anywhere in the world. Framed antique Guinness and Jameson advertisements adorned the walls, a large mirror featuring Trinity College (circa 1745) held pride of place behind the bar.
On this night, as the band set up on the cramped stage, the bar was near to empty. The evening’s bartender, Lisbeth, hoped it would stay that way. Her back-up had called in sick and the manager, Mick, was of little help. “Bless his heart,” she would exclaim, as he continually tried and failed to master the beer tap. Lisbeth, tall, slim, with blue eyes and dark hair cropped short to accentuate her slender neck, had tended bar at Doyle’s for the past two years.
– Here you go, Jim.
Lisbeth eased back the tap as she straightened the glass and placed it on the beer mat in front of Jim.
– Thanks, Lisbeth. Cheers!
Jim had been a regular at Doyle’s for as long as he could remember. Farther back, of course, from when Lisbeth had begun tending bar – In fact, he could still recall the names of the five previous bartenders. Back before bands played four nights a week. Back before big screen televisions. It may well have even been before color television became all the rage.
Jim was a veteran of the Vietnam War, in the days when it wasn’t so cool to be in the military. When serving wasn’t necessarily a patriotic choice. While politicians argued, and college students protested, Jim, crawled through the jungles of Southeast Asia. Day after day on interminable patrols searching for what couldn’t be seen and just hoping to stay alive to see one more sunrise. Of medium height and weight, Jim’s life’s struggles were defined by the deep lines etched into his rugged face.
His war ended when shrapnel from a fragmentation grenade had him airlifted from a rice field outside the village of Khe Sahn. As the chopper ascended and medics worked frantically to staunch the bleeding, Jim gazed skyward. A surreal calm enveloped him as the morphine began to dull his pain, he couldn’t be sure if he was slowly ascending towards heaven or just escaping hell.
There were no parades when he returned home, no guards of honor at the airport, just a permanent limp that served as a painful memento and a constant reminder that he was one of the lucky ones.
He turned from the bar and watched the band set up in the far back corner. There, on a slightly raised platform that served as the stage, four men in jeans and t-shirts, all with tattoos and beards, plugged cords into amplifiers, adjusted microphone stands and assembled their drum kit. “Each generation has its own uniform,” he mused. The name on the front of the bass drum read Zuma Revisited. A Neil Young cover band? If so, something from his heyday. He looked pleased. Jim’s view of the stage was blocked momentarily as a tall, black man stepped up to the bar. His skin was smooth like polished ebony with a dulled matte finish. A thin wisp of a man. He wore jeans, a button-down shirt and a navy-blue sailor’s pea coat. A backpack was slung casually over one shoulder.
– Good evening Lisbeth, may I have a Stella Artois?
Lisbeth turned at the sound of the surprisingly deep voice, just the hint of a French accent mingling with the broken English.
– Hello to you Benjamin. Sure thing. Let me get that for you.
As she poured, Lisbeth noticed the backpack.
– Studying again?
– Yes, indeed. Much to learn, much to do to prepare for examinations.
– Good for you. I see your usual table is empty, better go claim it. Hope the band isn’t too loud.
– I shall be fine. Thank you.
Benjamin, beer glass in hand, headed for the section of the bar farthest from the band. He sat with his back to the wall beneath a picture of an ostrich with a pint glass lodged in its gullet, the zookeeper in the picture exclaiming, “my goodness, my Guinness!” He placed his backpack on the floor by the leg of his chair and extracted from it his laptop and iPod. While he waited for the screen to come to life, he screwed in his earbuds and chose something mellow from his iPod’s library.
Steve Holloway needed a drink; he also needed a job – after being fired earlier in the day by that bastard boss of his – but first of all, that drink. As he backed his beat-to-hell Ford sedan into the parking spot across the road from Doyle’s, Dave and Patrick continued their argument from the back seat, about what, this time, he had no idea. Next to Steve, in the passenger seat, sat his younger brother Luke. Sullen, as usual. Steve often wondered what went on in his brother’s mind, but thought it probably best if he didn’t know.
While Steve bounced from one lousy job to another, Luke bounced from one institution to another. And not the types associated with higher learning. Bouncing came naturally to the brothers. After their Dad died, they bounced from one foster home to the next. Their Mother had long since run out on the family. Their Dad unequipped to handle the pressures of raising two kids alone, holding down a job and keeping his addictions under control, ultimately took the easy way out. Steve, not yet ten years of age, woke one morning to find his father slumped in a kitchen chair, cold and lifeless, the needle still in his arm.
– So, what did you get canned for this time?
It was Dave speaking from the back seat.
– Bitch said I stole stuff from her house on the last job, and the boss believed her.
Up until this afternoon, Steve had worked for a plumbing company in town.
– So? Did you?
– ‘Course I did. But if that bastard had’ve paid me a decent wage, I wouldn’t have had to. It was his fault, the prick!
– See, I fucking told you.
Dave had turned back to Patrick and was wagging his finger in his face accentuating the point.
– So, screw me in thinking that Steve might have been innocent for once.
Patrick turned from Dave’s finger and stared out the rear window. His indignation not for his misplaced trust in Steve, rather, for a bet lost and the ensuing obligation to buy Dave’s drinks for the night.
Dave and Patrick followed Steve, as they had done faithfully over the past ten years and Luke into Doyle’s. None of the four could recall what first brought them together – juvenile detention was their best guess – but their bond remained strong. Forever partners in misfortune.
Jim spied the four men as they entered the bar and immediately had them pegged as trouble. He wasn’t sure if it was just the menacing sneers on their faces or the way in which they posed in the doorway surveying the room as if waiting for a standing ovation.
The band were playing a passable version of Cortez the Killer, as the four men grabbed a table in the middle of the room. Jim watched as a table of six students, four of them girls, began to distance themselves from the new arrivals. The tangible stench of body odor mixed with bitterness and rage emanating from the four hung in the air like a noxious dust cloud.
One of the four approached the bar near Jim, slapped down $20 on the countertop and demanded four beers. The four beers were poured and change made without a word from Lisbeth. No tip was left, no word of thanks. Jim blanched at the rudeness, “typical,” he mouthed under his breath.
Cortez the Killer died with a buzz of feedback from the amplifiers. The band took a moment fine-tuning their instruments before launching into their next song. In the void, the only sound heard was the heated conversation of the four men.
Benjamin was engrossed in his study of the endocrine system and how the body’s system of glands secrete hormones to regulate various bodily functions. He thought the human body an incredible machine and wondered if he would ever be capable of mastering all its intricacies. He also wondered, a lingering concern, was becoming a doctor an impossible dream? Whenever these doubts entered his mind, as a motivating force, he would recall his younger days, and of the struggles he and his family had overcome. The three-day trek from his village to the shantytown across the border. The refugee camp that became his home, and where his parents still lived. And the kind Priest who had set up the missionary school just outside the camp’s barbed wire fence, who one day invited Benjamin to attend.
The elderly Priest, with his ruddy complexion that refused to tan even after years under the African sun, was the first white man that Benjamin had ever seen. Though fearful at first, he slowly came to accept and trust the tall stranger that spoke his dialect haltingly and with a strange accent.
“Your son has a gift,” his parents were told by the Priest. Benjamin quickly took to the books and learning like a duck to water. While the other children his age kicked a makeshift ball around the sunbaked dirt playground, Benjamin lost himself in a new world. His mind expanding like a sponge that had been starved of water for too long. He was the only person in his family, and the first in his village, that could read and write. Benjamin knew he carried the hopes and dreams of many. He could not, would not, quit. One day, he would return to his people.
To those that remained.
Benjamin paused at the end of the chapter, stretched and rubbed his eyes with his slender fingers to ward off the tiredness. Noticing his glass was empty, to made his way up to the bar. He passed by the table of four men all talking animatedly. He noted their shaved heads, long-sleeved checkered shirts, jeans and boots and wondered if they were in a club of some kind. In his homeland the distinctive attire would have signified a certain tribe, he wondered if that was the case here.
At the bar, he watched Lisbeth pour his beer and noticed the small, colorful, tattoo of a sunbird on the inside of her bicep. He noticed the bluish tint of the breast, the reddish wings all a blur and its long pointy beak. As Lisbeth brought him his drink, he spoke.
– That is a most beautiful sunbird you have.
– What? Oh, thank you. Here it’s called a hummingbird.
– Ahh, I see. It is very similar to our sunbirds. Sunbirds also are very colorful. A deep blood-orange under the neck that fades to a vibrant yellow further down the breast. Their wings are a beautiful bluish-green that seemingly disappear in flight.
– If you two are done talking about birds, do you think a man can get a fuckin’ beer over here?
The man the others called Steve had his elbows resting on the bar, a half-empty glass in front of him.
– Four more sweetcakes and snap to it will ya’. And you, big fella’, why don’t you go back in ya’ little corner over there where you belong.
Benjamin turned from the bar, and the rude man, and noticed another of the four standing beside his table.
– Hey, Steve, you should see the gadgets this fella’s got over here. Must be worth quite a penny.
– Please, do not touch my things.
Patrick just laughed in response.
– Please? Did you hear that, Steve? Please? Fuck you! How’s that?
– It is for school; I attend the University.
Steve re-joined the conversation. The note of bitterness in his voice palpable.
– University? How does some poor bastard from bumfuck Africa afford University?
Benjamin turned to face him. Standing proud.
– Excuse me, sir, but poor does not mean stupid, and I received a scholarship to attend.
– Fucking scholarship? Foreigners get scholarships now? I was born here, and no one gave me no fucking scholarship.
Dave suppressed a chuckle.
– Hey, Steve. I think you need to pass more than the tenth grade to get a scholarship.
– Shut the fuck up, Dave.
Steve spat out the words as if they were burning his throat and swept the glass of beer from the bar towards the table and Dave. The glass glanced off the surface before shattering on the floor.
The singer warbled on in a faltering falsetto the chorus to Heart of Gold for a moment before realizing the band behind him had stopped playing.
– Okay, that’ll be quite enough.
The manager, Mick, had come to life, he calmly folded the newspaper he’d been reading, plucked the earplugs from his ears and rose from his stool behind the bar. He may have been the worst bartender known to man, but when it came to wielding a baseball bat, he was second to none. He gently placed the bat on top of the bar for all to see.
– I think it’s time for you four to be on your way . . . Now!
The four men stood and drained the remains of their glasses, all the while staring daggers at Benjamin and the manager.
Steve finally relented.
– Come on, let’s go. The beer tastes like warm piss here anyway.
Lisbeth breathed a sigh of relief, and Mick placed his “baby” back under the bar.
Jim realized he’d been holding his breath for an inordinate amount of time. As he emptied his lungs, he wondered, was this the future for which his generation had fought?
Benjamin returned to his seat, opened his laptop and began the next chapter on tissue function.
Outside, Steve paced back and forth before heading in the direction of the University, his head bent low, seething with anger. Dave, Patrick and Luke followed in his wake not knowing where they were headed, not really caring.
The four men had not shaken Benjamin in the least. From the atrocities committed upon his people; to the squalor of the refugee camp. In his short lifetime, he had observed and endured much worse.
He first learned the fate of his village from fellow tribesmen that had witnessed the attack’s aftermath. The tale was depressingly similar to that of many other villages across his homeland. The older women were first raped then disemboweled. The younger ones taken as sex-slaves. The young boys hauled away as new recruits for the army. The men left behind were assigned “short” or “long” sleeves. With long sleeves, hands were hacked off at the wrist. Thus, making them incapable of firing a rifle or wielding a machete. If you lived, your enemies had no fear of reprisal. Short sleeves – where arms were hacked off above the elbow, were a death sentence.
Benjamin had survived the carnage in his country. He had survived on the meagre food rations supplied by relief agencies. Had survived the disease-ridden camp. And had survived to gain an education and an opportunity on the other side of the world. No, four men with a grudge to bear did not concern him.
Near closing time, the band finished their set with a rollicking version of Rockin’ in the Free World that melded seamlessly into Sedan Delivery, the six students at the table near the stage stood and cheered their approval.
Meanwhile, Lisbeth washed and rinsed glasses in the sink beneath the bar. Jim tapped his foot in time with the beat and settled his tab. Mick sat on his stool behind the bar, ear plugs in place and re-read that day’s sports section. And across the room, Benjamin packed away his laptop and iPod into his backpack. He waved goodnight to Lisbeth and pushed through the front door and out into the cold of the night.
Benjamin, head bowed into the freshening breeze, hands deep in his coat pockets, made his way down the main street. Traffic was sparse, all the stores closed at this time of night but for a late-night pizza shop. At the first side street, he turned left in the direction of the University campus. Large oak and elm trees lined both sides of the street, the branches forming a canopy over the roadway. On both sides of the street, large two-story homes were set well back from the roadway. From a few windows came the bluish glow of a late-night television program, or the soft light from an upstairs lamp.
The hand that grabbed the top of his backpack and jerked him to a halt came as a surprise. He turned thinking he must have left something at the bar and a kind patron had chased him down.
The right fist that pounded Benjamin in the stomach emptied his lungs of air and doubled him over. A two-handed club over the back of his neck dropped him to the pavement.
Benjamin lay curled on the ground, helpless, as the steel-toed boots of the four men that surrounded him delivered blow after blow. He felt two ribs crack low on his right side; he hoped that a bone shard would not puncture the lung they protected. A split-second before the searing pain engulfed him, Benjamin heard the crack of his orbital bone, possibly the zygomatic, as the heel of one boot stomped on him as if squashing a bug. He greedily sucked in great gulps of air through his mouth attempting to refill his battered lungs, his broken nose no longer capable of assisting. He worried that his kidneys would be damaged beyond repair from repeated kicks to both the front and back of his midsection. He retched, again and again, his stomach had long since emptied, but the bitter taste of bile lingered in his throat and mouth.
And, a moment before he lost consciousness, he thought of the examination on the endocrine system scheduled for Monday morning and if he would be missed.
The elderly veteran of the Vietnam War was the first upon the scene. From three houses away, he caught sight of the four men surrounding the prone figure and yelled a warning. Realizing they had company, the four men scattered, like hyenas disturbed at the kill, across the street and into the shadows beyond.
Porch lights, illuminating the home’s manicured lawns, came on in two of the houses just as Jim reached the prone figure. He knelt by the unmoving body and screamed for somebody to please call an ambulance. Jim swept the blood and vomit from Benjamin’s mouth in an attempt to unblock his airwaves. Blood ran freely from the wounds to Benjamin’s eyes, nose and mouth. He cradled the battered head of the tall black man and waited impatiently for the sound of a siren.
Overhead, the stars in the clear night sky struggled to penetrate the thick canopy of leaves and cast light on the scene below.
On the other side of the world, in a small West African country, at a border town that housed a squalid refugee camp, the Mother and Father of an exceptional child slept soundly. Above, in the early morning sky, a handful of lingering stars fought their lonely battle against the encroaching dawn. Soon, the sun would rise above the highlands to the east, bringing with it the unrelenting certainty of another long, hot, day in the valley below.
The Mother woke as the first rays of sunlight slowly crept over her body. Without waking her husband, she rose from their bed, rubbed her face with the heel of her palms and blinked the remnants of sleep from her eyes. The acrid smell of wood smoke and the preparation of morning meals wafted in through the paneless window. Taking the water jug from the shelf in their makeshift hut, she pushed aside the curtain that served as a door and stepped outside.
Careful to avoid the rivulets of sewage leaking from the latrine compound, she crossed the red-dirt field to the well on its western edge. She worked the pump handle, up and down, using long, languid strokes. As she waited for the first slow trickle of water to appear, she thought of her son. Her son, Benjamin, across the vast ocean and wondered what he was doing at that very moment.
And how he was blessed to be free of this savage land.