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A Circus at the Center of the World


ISSUE:  Winter 2007

Elijah Manau was a rosy-cheeked man from the capital, and had been living in the village of 1797 for six months when the soldiers came. He was a timid man, and not without reason. To be exiled here to teach in this humid backwater was testament to his consistent mediocrity. He had scored near the bottom on the regional placement exam, well below the cutoff for a job in the city at one of the better schools. The dispiriting results were announced on the radio a few nights after the test, in alphabetical order. It took several hours. His family was neither wealthy nor well connected, and so nothing could be done. He was thirty when he left home. He had never been to the jungle before. He had never left the city.

The town, his new home, was perpetually soggy and heat-swollen. The rains came and brought little relief. He rented a room from a man named Zahir who had lost both hands in the war. Zahir’s son, Nico, was an unwilling student, and he seemed to distrust his teacher and housemate. Sometimes Manau helped them tend their small plot, but in truth he had no skill for it. The earth held no romance for him. Manau longed for concrete and everything else he had left behind. Nico’s crippled father dug holes with his stumps, he carried heavy loads on his back, balancing rucksacks on his broad shoulders with help from his son. The man was a rock. At night Manau listened to the mosquitoes thrumming in the humid air, to the distant cawing and various shrieks the jungle produced, and, with his thin curtain drawn, he checked his naked body for the progress of the sores and rashes that were always afflicting him. It was his daily chore, an exercise in personal hygiene that had devolved into a strange kind of vanity. The pitiable condition of his person played a central role in his sexual fantasies. To be nursed back to health! To be massaged and anointed in fruit essences, in herbal potions! With a cloudy shaving mirror and the kerosene lamp, he examined himself, the carbuncular skin blossoming on his back and buttocks, beneath his armpits. He was satisfied that one day, soon, he would look pathetic enough to stir something soft and generous in a woman’s heart. In the city, it was assumed that the heat made jungle women freer. The prospect of these unknown women, their bronzed and beautiful legs spread wide, had in fact been Manau’s only consolation when he was informed of his teaching assignment.

Most mornings, after the rains, Manau arrived to the school early to sweep the puddles away. The roof leaked and there was nothing to be done about it. At the very least, he could be grateful for the raised wooden floor of the schoolhouse. Zahir said it would have to be replaced in a few years, but for now it was fine: able to withstand, with a minimum of creaking, Manau’s unhappy pacing. The government had seen fit to send fifteen primitive desks where his students sat diffidently, waiting to be entertained—twenty had been promised, but an official in the village of 1791 kept five for himself and no one complained so neither did Manau. He taught cheerlessly every morning, and sent his students home for lunch a bit earlier each day. They were all primitives. Manau had hoped to be seen as a knowledgeable and cultured gentleman from the city, but instead they were amused by his ignorance of trees and plants, disappointed by his inability to distinguish between the calls of various birds. “I don’t care about birds,” he said one day, and to his surprise the words came out angrily.

It wasn’t that the children disliked him. Manau was inoffensively boring, taught listlessly, but he let them out early, on some days canceled class altogether and no one seemed to mind. The day that the soldiers arrived in a pair of rusty, creaking green trucks, Manau was quick to call off school: there was an excitement in his students’ faces that he couldn’t compete with. He’d written some rules about fractions on the blackboard. He had never liked arithmetic. Outside the engines rattled and the soldiers set up tarps in the plaza. It was, he would later learn, the first time in more than a year that the soldiers had come. The presence of outsiders was electric and disconcerting. Eyes were wandering. Manau heard anxious fingernails scraping against the desks. It was no use: go out into the streets, he ordered, learn about life! He smiled proudly as the schoolhouse emptied, as if, by dint of laziness, he had stumbled upon a new pedagogy. His students left, all of them except Victor, whom he asked to stay.

In Manau’s visions, it was Victor’s mother, a widow, who would eventually take him in. She was older, he knew that, but with these jungle people one could never tell. In his time in the village, Manau had learned a little of her past: she had fallen in love with a stranger from the city, who had disappeared into the jungle at the end of the war. People said he was dead. So she was a free woman, and wasn’t Manau also a stranger from the city? The possibilities were quite obvious. But what stirred Manau most was what he could see: she was a real woman, with substantial thighs and a pleasing weight to her. She wore her black hair tied with a red band, and her smallish mouth seemed always ready to break into a smile. She was doe-eyed, a hint of pink in her cheeks. Her name was Adela.

Now the classroom had cleared, and her boy stood before him, waiting. “Victor,” he said. “Was your father a soldier?”

The boy looked baffled. In fact, Manau wasn’t sure himself why he had asked it. Only recently had his isolation become so stark, so complete, that he had resolved to do something about it. He saw her every day in the village, carrying a tray of silverfish on her head. Her undersized boy sat in the first row, next to Zahir’s son. Manau saw them; they were there—all he had to do was speak.

“No, sir,” Victor said. “I don’t think he was.”

“Oh,” Manau nodded. The boy was anxious to leave, swiveling his head every few moments toward the door. “Do you want to be a soldier?” Manau asked.

“I don’t know, sir.”

“It would break your mother’s heart if you left.”

“Do you know my mother, sir?” the boy asked very politely.

Manau suddenly felt the red skin beneath his clothes awaken in complaint. He steeled himself against the urge to itch. “I do,” he said.

“Oh.”

“But not well,” Manau added. “Not well.”

Insinuating a woman through her child, thought Manau, what a despicable and cowardly thing to do! He wanted to be done with it. From his bag, he produced a new lead pencil. He offered it to Victor and the boy took it without hesitation. Manau meant to send the boy off, but Victor coughed into his hand and asked permission to speak. When Manau assented the boy said, “Sir, how old were you when you left home?”

“What a strange question!”

“I’m sorry, sir.”

Manau stood, and wondered what he might say. If you were born in a place like 1797, leaving was what you did to begin your life.

“I’m from the city, boy. We don’t have to leave.”

Victor nodded, and Manau was aware that what he had said was terrible, cruel, and untrue. In the city, like here, the children dreamed of escape.

“I’m thirty years old and I’ve only just left my home,” Manau said. “Why?”

The boy bit his lip, shot a glance toward the door and then back at his teacher. “It’s Nico,” he said. “He’s always said he would leave with the soldiers. He says he doesn’t care if his family starves without him.”

Manau nodded. His landlord had often confessed that fear: Without Nico’s hands, we’ll go hungry. What can I do with these stumps?

“Why is it your business?”

“Somebody should do something,” Victor said. “He’s my friend.”

“You’re a good boy,” Manau said. He thanked Victor, patted him on the shoulder and told him not to worry. “I’ll talk with his father.” He led the boy to the door, and watched him scamper off to join his friends. The teacher returned to his desk, straightened some papers, then erased the board with a wet rag. Outside the boys hovered around the soldiers, entranced. Soon, their mothers would come to shoo them away, to send them into the jungle to hide. But that fear was old-fashioned, and the children knew it. When he strolled by at last, Manau saw in their eyes looks of excitement, looks no student had ever shown him.

*  *  *  *  

Later, when his mother died and he left 1797, Victor would remember this day as the beginning of the town’s dissolution. Nico spoke of leaving and Victor worried. The two of them watched the soldiers, admired them from a distance and then up close, brought water and fruit when they were told to. After an hour, Nico asked one soldier where he was from. The young man looked barely eighteen. He gave a number and said it was in the mountains. Victor and Nico nodded in unison.

“How can you boys stand this heat?” the soldier said, scowling, his face flush. He sat slumped and sweating beneath the shade of the tarp.

“We can’t,” Nico said. “We hate it here.”

The soldier laughed and called over a few of his friends. “They hate it here, too,” he said, and everyone agreed they were smart boys.

Victor didn’t hate it. He watched his friend enumerate the town’s shortcomings for the soldier and felt ashamed. There’s no work, Nico said, but that wasn’t exactly true: all anyone did was work. Nico said there was nothing to do, but Victor still considered climbing trees an activity. All Nico’s complaints sounded cruel, uncharitable. In the afternoon, they would go swimming in the river—that’s how we stand the heat, he wanted to say. And it’s great. It’s beautiful. The water is cool and murky and at the bottom you can plunge your toes into the cold mud, feel it close around your feet, suctioning like it wants to drown you. The thought of it made him smile. You come out clean. But he didn’t say any of this. Nico spoke with such confidence that to contradict him seemed almost dangerous. He listened in silence until the young soldier eyed him and said, “What about you, little man? What do you have to say?”

The soldier pointed with a thin, bony finger. Victor looked quickly over his own shoulder and everyone laughed.

Just then, the mothers arrived and hurriedly dispersed their children. His own mother was there and she glared at the soldier. “Shame,” she said and the soldier backed away, as if from a wild animal.

“I’m fine, Ma,” Victor muttered, but it was no use. She wasn’t listening. The mothers were taking turns shouting at the soldiers; the children hung their heads and listened. Victor’s mother held his hand tightly, her voice rose above everyone else’s. There she was, with an accusing finger drawing circles in the air, upbraiding the captain. “What do you want with our boys?” she said. “Can’t you see they’re all we have?”

The captain was a burly giant of a man with wide round eyes and a mustache flecked with gray. As Victor’s mother spoke, he nodded apologetically. “Madam,” the captain said when she was finished. “My sincerest apologies. I will instruct my soldiers to avoid speaking with your boys.”

“Thank you,” Victor’s mother said.

“Do you hear that, men?” the captain shouted.

A round of yessirs came from the enlisted men. They stood at attention out of respect for the women.

The apologies continued. As the captain spoke, he twirled his cap by the bill. “I’m afraid we have sullied relations with the people of this fine village,” he said, shaking his head. “We are only here to help. It is our solemn mandate.”

The women all nodded, but Victor knew the captain was only addressing his mother. He could see it in the man’s eyes. She squeezed his hand and Victor squeezed back.

“I assure you we want nothing with your boys, madam,” the captain continued, his lips curling into a smile. “It’s the town’s women who are so beguiling.”

*  *  *  *  

That evening the restaurant was crowded with soldiers. They were stripped down to their undershirts, had taken off their boots and laid them in a pile by the door. The heat that day had been an animal thing: scalding, heavy. The entire town had given in to its weight, with the evening set aside for recovery. A breeze blew now and again through the open windows of the restaurant. Inside, it smelled of feet and beer. The soldiers were drinking the place dry, singing along to the radio. The wooden floor was shiny and slick. Manau was feeling gloomy, sharing liter bottles with a few disaffected, unhappy men. They grumbled about the dwindling beer supply and the thirsty soldiers. There was only one glass so they drank in circles. “Who do these brats think they are?” Manau heard a man complain. “They’ll leave us with nothing.”

It was a real concern among the regulars. Periodically, someone offered the soldiers a rueful smile and a toast, then mumbled curses under his breath.

Nico’s father arrived, placed his stumps on the bar, and confirmed their worst fears. It would be ten days before the next truck came. “That’s if the roads aren’t washed out,” Zahir added. He knew the delivery schedules well. Whenever the beer truck or any other truck came, he lent his broad back to the driver for loading and unloading. He had a special cart that clasped around his chest so that he could be useful, even without his hands.

Manau nodded at his landlord, at the gathered men, and felt tolerated. Nothing builds community like complaining. He looked Zahir in the eye, and knew there was something he should tell him. What if Nico were to leave? Victor had spoken of it as a child would: without nuance, certain of right and wrong. “He doesn’t care if they starve,” Victor said of his friend, horrified. Manau didn’t see it so clearly: what a place this is to grow into adulthood in! No one would starve—even Zahir must know that! Of course the boy wanted to leave. He was the oldest boy in the school by nearly two years. He had celebrated his fourteenth birthday a few months before, on a dismal rainy day, surrounded by boys that barely reached his shoulders. All the boys his age had gone off to the city. Let them, Manau thought. Let Nico go, too. It struck Manau as comic: the slow disappearance of the place, the boarded-up houses all along the streets off the muddy plaza. Padlocked, shuttered, rotting inside. Their owners don’t visit, they don’t send money. It won’t be long now: soon they’ll stop pretending, pack up en masse and close the town for good. They’ll say a prayer, turn their backs on this place, and let the jungle surround it, colonize it, disassemble it.

After the mothers came to scatter their children, a few parents had come to Manau to complain: How is it that you let them go? Why on this day? The mothers were desperate that their children stay because mothers are the same everywhere. What if they leave us? Manau’s mother had been worried for her child as well, had stayed up with him the night he listened nervously for his score on the radio. She had wept when it was announced; she knew what it meant. Where will they send you? she’d asked. Now here he was. Manau had felt for a while the unreality of his own actions. Nothing had the weight, the shape, or the color of real life: it was what allowed him to observe his naked, degraded body with amused detachment; to imagine with eyes closed Adela loving him on the creaking wooden slats of her raised hut near the river. It was what allowed him now, without fear, to glare at the captain across the fetid, smoky restaurant, certain that no matter what he might say or do, the town’s demoralized men would back him up. He hummed along to the radio, felt the distant beating of his own heart, and smiled to himself.

Outside, Victor, Nico, and a few other boys stood on plastic crates, looking through the window into the restaurant. Nico’s sister Joanna was there with a friend, teasing the boys. “Monkeys,” the girls pronounced. “No minds of your own.” The boys shrugged off the charge. Nico had been at it all day, stalking the soldiers around town, even following a few that went off into the jungle on a reconnaissance exercise. He returned, not a little disappointed, and told Victor that they hadn’t fired their guns.

“Not even once,” he said.

The restaurant was bursting with noise and life. It was such an odd sight: these fifteen strangers, and in the background, a few of the regulars nearly hidden behind a curtain of smoke. Someone sang tunelessly, the melody soon eclipsed by whistles and laughter. Victor stood on his tiptoes to take it all in. Was that his teacher there, now turned away, now smirking toward the soldiers? The captain who had smiled at Victor’s mother sat in the center of a circle of soldiers, their eyes glistening with reverence. He told war stories that contained no corpses, no dead: only long stretches of marching with guns at the ready. “Nothing to shoot at. Just walking. Enough to wear out two pairs of boots. Enough to rot your feet.”

“You never found a battle?”

“The jungle is endless,” he said. “We called our squadron leader Moses. We were the wandering tribe.”

Victor strained to see. Nico, by contrast, could rest his elbows on the ledge. Still, Victor could hear all of it, and now he looked at his friend, unimpressed by these mundane accounts of the soldiering life. “That’s what you want to do?” he asked. “Walk around?”

Nico shrugged. “What do you know about anything?” he said. “There’s no war anyway.”

“It sounds stupid.”

“You sound stupid,” Nico snapped. “At least they go places.”

Victor punched him in the arm, and his friend tumbled off his crate. He didn’t mean for that to happen. The other boys stepped back, hushed.

Nico stood up. One of the younger boys started to wipe the dirt off his back, but Nico slapped his hand away. He was smiling. “An accident, huh?” Nico said.

“Yeah.”

“You’re good at those, aren’t you?”

Victor didn’t speak. He didn’t breathe.

“Say you’re sorry.”

“I’m sorry,” Victor muttered. He held his hand out, then felt Nico’s open palms shove his chest. Victor fell back, his head striking the wall. He heard a gasp. He was sure that one of the girls screamed. It was dark, then light. He gasped for air. He blinked: Nico was over him, along with a dozen others. There were haloes of light around all these young, familiar faces.

“You can’t tell anyone.”

“He’s fine.”

“You killed him …”

Once, climbing trees over the river, Victor and Nico had seen a helicopter skirting the treetops downstream, bobbing unsteadily in the sky. A vision from a long-ago windy day. They had climbed the tree hurriedly, twice nearly falling, to get a better look at it. Transfixed by its motion, Victor wondered where it would land, where it was headed. He hadn’t considered for a moment that the machine held people inside; to him, it was shiny and steel and alive of its own accord. It was male and female, a being unto itself. He saw its past and its future. It lived on a mountaintop overlooking the city. It had blood inside and a beating heart. And then, just before the helicopter faded from view, it caught the sun’s reflection: an explosion of silver light, like a star against the bright morning sky. The distant whirring trailed off, but for minutes after, Victor blinked and could still see the helicopter’s glow etched in red, burning against the black insides of his eyelids.

It was only by diving into the cool river that the last traces of the moment had passed.

Strange, Victor thought, that they were even friends.

Noise, shouting; his peers forming a wall around him. Nico crouched by his side. “I’m sorry, Vic,” he said. “Are you okay?” Victor felt himself nod. One of the girls ran her fingers through his hair, and he felt he loved her.

*  *  *  *  

At the bar, the men of the town listened with their backs to the soldiers. War stories. Manau noticed his landlord had dropped his head down into his chest, as if he were trying to see the workings of his heart. It was his turn to drink and he was taking his time. Another man was rubbing his back, and it was a long moment before Manau’s landlord looked up. He was squinting. “I don’t like this talk,” he said. He lifted his glass between his two stumps, effortlessly, raised it to his lips and drank. Not a drop was spilled. He passed the glass to Manau.

What elegance, Manau thought. He emptied the foam on the floor, nodded to his landlord. The soldiers were boisterous and happy, and Manau was sure he hated them. They would come and go, they would forget. He would stay. We will stay, Manau thought, and that pronoun crackled in his brain. In the local dialect there were two kinds of we: we that includes you, and another that does not. Barely anyone spoke that language anymore—a few of the antique women of the village and no one else. But a few of the old words had slipped into the national language, and this was one of them. It was one of Manau’s favorite words. On this evening, as he watched his landlord raise a glass and lament the distant war, he felt something like kinship. It was the drink. It was the heat blurring everything into a gauzy half-light. The soldiers were unrepentant strangers, the captain a morbid comedian, but Manau belonged.

Victor’s mother stepped into the restaurant. She was met with cheers from the soldiers. The captain, his ruddy face beaming, proposed a toast. “To the children!” he shouted importantly. Manau watched Adela blush and then frown. Were they making fun of her? The idea scandalized him. She wore a simple blue skirt and a thin white T-shirt decorated with a sailboat. The shirt was old, the neck stretched wide enough to reveal her right shoulder. She was barefoot. When the toast had finished, the captain insisted she sit with them. “For only a moment, madam,” he said. She demurred, instead walked up to Manau and asked if she could speak to him. In private.

It took his breath away. “Of course,” he said too quickly. He almost added, “Madam,” then didn’t. He wondered if the word was bad taste. Did his breath smell of beer? Did he seem drunk? He offered her a smile and pushed these thoughts aside. Was there a trace of romance in her tightly pursed lips?

He followed her outside. The children didn’t bother scattering. They stood crowded around the window, surely up to no good. Tonight, he thought, we are the carnival. We are the circus at the center of the world. Let the generator hum and the music play; the glasses clink and the bottles clang! God bless the coarse men and their churlish grins, the soldiers stupefied by drink—they are the children’s heroes! Again, the word we passed ahead of him, a flittering banner, and Manau made a decision to improve his posture starting the very next day. It was a beginning, a place to start. He would improve everything about himself. Become a better man and make his mother proud. He followed Adela into the darkness that began just a few meters beyond the restaurant. She held him by the arm, as if he might get away. “Your son is a good student,” he said as they walked. Was he slurring? “A real smart one.”

“I see him reading all the time,” she said. “Old books his father brought him.”

They were a distance now from the restaurant. It hadn’t rained all day long, and the air was humid and full of insects. They walked slowly along the town’s empty paths, almost to the end, where the forest began.

“You asked him, Mr. Manau? About my boy’s father?”

“I did.”

“Why?” she asked.

There was a strength to her he admired. When she passed through town, Manau always noticed her calves, her supple leg muscles. They made him feel weak. Her hand was wrapped loosely around his biceps, but he knew she had him. His body, no matter how disfigured or warped by the heat, would never be to her liking. An itchy patch of skin smoldered beneath her faint touch. He had the irresistible urge to be honest. It didn’t come often.

“I’m lonely,” he whispered, shutting his eyes.

He opened them a little later—a few seconds, a minute—and she was still there. Adela had softened a bit, or seemed to. It was hard to tell in the weak light. She touched his face. “Our teachers never last very long,” she said. “It’s not easy.”

“It isn’t,” he insisted in a low voice.

The night seemed to be momentarily empty of all sound. It was her hand on his face and only that. In an instant, it passed. She withdrew her touch and, in the darkness, he followed her hand with his eyes. It dangled by her side, a glowing thing, and then she clasped it with the other and hid them both behind her back.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

Adela shook her head. “Victor doesn’t know the whole story. He was very young.”

“I won’t ask again,” he promised.

“It’s okay,” she said. “You didn’t know. I’ll tell him. Soon.”

“I should be going,” he stammered.

“Of course,” she said.

He wanted to leave—he meant to—but instead found himself looking down at his feet, immobile, planted in the earth before her. He met her gaze. She was waiting for him.

“Yes?”

“It’s a terrible thing to ask of you.”

She shook her head, not understanding.

“It’s my skin,” he said. “I itch.”

Her head turned almost imperceptibly. “Are you asking me to scratch you?”

He nodded—was she smiling?

“Where?” Adela asked.

They were hardly a hundred meters from the restaurant, from the soldiers and the children and the war stories. It was a universe away. The night was pierced with stars. When she died, he would remember this, this touch: her fingers clawing his back, softly at first, then vigorously, as if she were digging in the earth for treasure.

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