- They hadn’t been hiding, and they weren’t hiding now, her parents said—but then, she couldn’t have said what they had been doing, other than hiding half-asleep in the grain shack, waiting for night, when they could finally go out to beg food from the least hostile neighbors. That’s what they’d been doing all along: waiting. What was her parents’ plan? Would they keep waiting for every night to come, eat dried tubers and reboiled bone soup, and then nothing more before the next night?
- You can’t trust identity cards, they’re too easy to fake. You just do what the men in charge in the city say. They’ll tell you who’s what, man or cockroach. And then local knowledge, reports from the next town over, and also the neighbors’ reports. That’s what you can trust. The men in charge in the city will tell you who’s what, and then the villagers will tell you where they are. The men in charge in the city have a way with words that just makes it clear what has to be done, and what you have to do so that what has to be done will get done, because what counts is working together as a team, in teams, as a people, to make short work of what has to be done. And every team has a role. The men in charge in the city know every team’s role, because their role is to know all the roles, and because everyone in every team has a role, too, they know what your role is, and they tell you, and train you.
- Yes, Scott, you have a question? Yeah. Yes, what is it? Well, it’s more of a statement, I guess. It’s just, a lot of these stories that we’ve been reading this semester, it seems to me at least that it’s, well, they describe all these evils but that’s really it and they’re just using it as entertainment, so it’s like we’re just being entertained. And someone’s profiting off the entertainment. And that seems wrong to me at least. Ah. I see. Well, Scott, I don’t think it’s like that at all. The stories we’re reading are helping us, you see, helping us to empathize more broadly. We can experience what it’s like to be involved in these events in some small way. I know it’s not direct action, per se, and I’m not going to stand here and say that reading, say, Saramago, is just the same as working with Médecins Sans Frontières, but I do think that we can understand these works, not just Saramago’s but all the pieces we’ve been reading, as a kind of societal justice.
- When her parents said that—We’re not hiding—her brother asked, But what are we doing?, and then mama said Sh. The four of them stilled to hear the voices outside, far too many for that time of day: mass was finished, it was too early for Maghrib. Is it market today? No. No market, no prayers, just too many voices all in the street asking questions in angry, upriver dialect.
- After training you know your role—scout, guard, supplies, transport—or if you don’t get it that we’re all part of a team and you have to play your role but also everyone has to go through the trial together, has to face those fears and harden, become unafraid, become strong, grow together, if you don’t get it, you don’t make it. If you showed weakness in training, if you stumbled or cried, you’d be whipped, but once the welts healed you’d realize the men in charge in the city don’t want you to be afraid, they just want strong teams, so then you can be not afraid. So you’d be whipped if you cried, but if your team covered for you, even if the men in charge in the city knew you’d broken, even then, nobody’d be punished. And when you’re out at a village or preparing for a mission, you remember it, and sometimes you wish you were back in training, watching your spirit break but also watching the others hold you together. They knew what it was like for you. They’d felt it before, and they felt it with you, and that made it safe.
- I guess I know what you mean, Professor, but then it’s like who’s reading this stuff except the people who already know it’s bad, not the books I mean, but the bad stuff they’re about? Isn’t it just, like, preaching to the converted? Well, I grant you that’s something worth thinking about, Scott, yes. Does anyone have any suggestions for Scott on this question?
- And then, after the angry questions, the answers in quiet, downriver dialect. Not I don’t know, not Not here, and not In the next village over. Only There. They’re in there.
- And even after the training, even when the men become your men, even when the men in charge in the city have told you what needs to be done, and how you’ll be remembered, and how you’re cleaning the land, and how you finally deserve your name, now—even then, the first time, it takes work to kill your fear. But you’ll do it. Someone will cross your forehead with earth, and give you the drink, sour herbs in a gritty paste, and give you armor and arms. And they give you amulets. You know they don’t work, but the villagers don’t know that, they see the amulets and become like children, like tame antelope, the men in charge in the city say, because they know what the amulets can do. But you think, if they’re so scared, maybe the amulet really has that power. But No, the men in charge in the city say. No. The amulet gives nothing to your spirit. Your spirit when you’re all together, that gives the amulet power. And that’s what the villagers see.
- Yes, Jennifer? I think one thing that we could say to Scott is that the books we’ve been reading, they—I guess, I want to be using scare quotes maybe?—but I want to say that books like this kind of form our soul, and also broaden it or maybe I mean that they let it broaden. I don’t know. Should I have said minds? Well, no, I think soul is fine in this context, although of course we have to be careful with words like that, yes. So that’s what these books can do, they can let our souls broaden themselves and then I guess connect up with other people. Or reconnect. Especially with the marginalized and oppressed. So they help us recognize our privilege vis a vis the marginalized and oppressed and connect with them. Excellent, yes, very good.
- It seemed like as soon as the neighbors said There, in there, the others were in with the four of them. Her father pulled her behind his legs, and her mother pulled her brother behind hers, and they waited for the others to start asking questions. But they didn’t. Her father asked them, What do you want? She could see that he already knew what they wanted. He just wanted them to say it out loud. But the others acted as if he hadn’t spoken. The old one in front held out a small wreath of twigs and shook it at them until the little bell in its empty center rang. And then he, the old one, said, Now we know what you are. Vermin.
- If you don’t go in, once the villagers have told you, if after that you stand outside or pass on, what will the men in charge in the city say? And what will be said of you after you die? Traitor? So in you go, the men in charge in the city told you what they are, and you knew they were here, because the villagers pointed and smiled. But what should you do now that you’re here? The cockroaches will want to talk. They’ll pretend they’re not what they are. But if they aren’t, why hide in the dark? You watch the men who’ve done it before, you let them take the lead, you learn from them, the amulets, the performance of certainty. You watch the roaches’ faces lie, as if they’re surprised that you know what they are, as if they haven’t been feeding off the people and fouling the house and rotting the wood with every evil breath.
- And how do you all feel about Jennifer’s point here? Yes, Hamish? I really like how what she said kind of matches up with my reading experience of these stories which is that when you’re reading them I really become aware of my own privilege and then because I’ve experienced that it means that I can be more vigilant about giving it up. Because I can see what it’s like to be a victim and I can identify with them and just kind of really feel with them. If that makes sense. Sure, sure. Yes, Jennifer? Yeah, that’s right, and also I forgot to say before how this semester’s readings really increased my sensitivity to violence. We’re all so desensitized to violence by our everyday life, I mean it just surrounds us, you know, on TV and online, but there’s something about these readings that really helps us see what it’s like to suffer that. So I absolutely agree with what Hamish is saying. Very good.
- You are vermin, and, they said, even vermin know what vermin deserve. The man with the amulet grunted and one of the others—slender and young—tied her father’s hands, and pulled his head back, even though she was still standing behind his legs. The older man with the amulet winked down at her. The two others laughed, and one took mama, and one took brother, and they told father they’d put butterflies in the bellies of roaches, and they started to do what they’d said they would. When father tried to close his eyes, the slender one forced them open, and the amulet man stood next to the slender one, holding a knife, and the two big others started yelling words she didn’t understand, and the amulet man cut father’s throat, while mother and brother watched, and once father had fallen, the two others twisted mother’s neck and brother’s neck and let them fall. Then the others turned to her. And what, they said, do you want?
- The elder will take the lead, he’ll tell you what to do, but you’ll feel inadequate to begin with—you hate that you can’t do what the others can, that your job is so insignificant, just tying the vermin up and watching while the others do the important things. But this is important, too, it’s important that you learn how to be unafraid, important that your team does what has to be done, and the elder takes your hand and nods, yes, this time you just watched, but even that is important, is cleansing, even that is a great gift to the people.
- Now, Erin has had her hand up for a while. Yes, Erin? I think, I know everyone seems to agree that these books are important, and they are good, but actually I think we have to revisit Scott’s point. Because we say all these things about literature helping us give up our privilege, or helping us to understand the victims of injustice, but I just worry that there’s something else going on here. Yes, go on. I like to think that, if I was put in these situations, I like to think I’d help, I do. But I just—how realistic is that, really? Well, Erin, I’m not sure I understand? Does anyone else—No, Dr. Toews, I don’t think it’s hard to understand at all. The problem is that everyone reads these books as if they’re about what it’s like to suffer, and we imagine how we’d suffer. But really, we should imagine what would actually happen, which is that we’d kill. We should imagine ourselves raping and stealing whenever someone in charge told us to. Because that’s what we’d do. That’s why we can afford to be here, even, at this college. I have to say, you’re being very hard on your classmates, Erin, I think everyone in this room is capable of drawing these ethical distinctions and living by them, Erin, I really do.
- She knew what she wanted; she held out her hand and took the knife from the older amulet man, and he let it go, smiled, and nodded. He laid his hand on her head, and the others cheered, and called her butterfly, and she felt needed—her parents hadn’t needed her, they could barely feed her, but these four men in the grain shack wanted her, they needed her. She’d heard the amulet’s bell, and she’d felt their power, and she wanted it, so they offered it to her. Become like us, they said, and the elder shaved her head with his knife. You can be a little boy, he said, for now. And then you will grow into a warrior. And she’d never been so proud.
- But eventually the elder will hand you the knife, and he says, You make me so proud, butterfly, now make me prouder, and points to the little girl in the corner, the one too young to bear seed. First clean the blade, he says, and the five of them mutter a prayer, and then they tell the story, your story, the little girl who grows into a warrior. You are a warrior now, they say. You must act like one. And you remember how it started, these four men carrying you from the grain shack on their shoulders, singing a beautiful song, but that was five years ago, now, two years of following them and cooking their soup, two years of training with the men in charge in the city, and one year holding open the roaches’ eyes when they tried to deny what they were. Now, five years to the day, the elder said, five years to the day, it was time not just to be like the others, but to be an other yourself. The blade is clean. You pull back the little girl’s head.
- That would be nice.
Justin Evans graduated from Otis College’s MFA program in 2014, and now lives in Washington, DC. He’s recently published essays and fiction in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Golden Walkman, and Dissent.