Jul/Aug 2003  •   Fiction

Ascension and Declination

by Dennis Tafoya

The UN truck comes late in the day and the moon is already out, a white hull of bone in the pale sky. My father says this is the last time we will see the UN trucks. The fighting in the countryside has gotten too intense and the roads from the cities of the plain have become unsafe. The international aid agencies are pulling back to the coast again. At night we can hear the rebels trucks moving through the brush and the sound of gunfire in the hills.

When the UN aid truck finally appears in the square in front of the burned out missionary church, there are not many sacks in the back. The dozen of us who are still strong enough to carry the food back to our families size each other up. Who will get one of the sacks of grain and who will go home with nothing?

My friend Dollar Boy hands me a long piece of metal he has pulled from the wreckage of a car and I swing it around my head, sending a message. We surge toward the truck and the UN soldiers fire a few desultory shots over our heads. The soldiers will not fire on us if we keep our distance from the truck. They are big and pale men, from somewhere cold, with cropped hair and close-set eyes. They shake their heads as Dollar Boy pushes a thin old woman down. The old woman cries and curses us from the dust, trying to push some of the spilled grain into a paper cup.

I throw a sack of grain over my shoulder and walk back to the shade of the ruined church where my sister waits, drawing stick figures in the dirt. Two men are fighting over the last sack, and she cocks her head and watches while the men struggle and heave, exhausted by malnutrition. One of them has a stump at the end of his arm. My sister sings a song in a high voice. She is twelve and has taken to wearing a white veil she scavenged from a militia camp.

I help Dollar Boy strap his sack across his shoulders for his long walk home. He tells me my sister's eyes are like the eyes of an old woman. Many in the town talk about my sister in this way and there is a fear now that she has magic. She winks at Dollar Boy and shakes the chains on her wrists. She has made herself a bracelet from bits of metal and glass, and they rattle with a tinny music. He makes the sign of the cross. I shake his hand and he walks off into the desert.

The UN truck disappears in a cloud of yellow dust. They waste no time getting back to their base—there have been attacks on UN aid trucks by both the rebels and the Christian militias. There is the sound in the trees to the east—a low, rushing whistle followed by a crash.

"Rocket grenade, " says my sister, with the tone she might use to name a bird or a familiar dog. Her skin is darker than mine, dark like the brown glass beer bottles my father collected while he was well. This is my mother's blood showing in my sister, he has told us.

"Let's get back," I say.

My father was an engineer, and he collected bits of the old world in our house—an Italian coffee maker, a Chinese rice steamer, a Swiss telescope. Most of the things he brought home were useless since the generators were all burned by the rebels, but he would get drunk on palm wine and say these items were sacred, that he was a priest of a lost church and it was important to remember that once we had some slender contact with a wider, civilized world. He was educated in London and could speak to the UN men and the missionaries in their language. He taught us to read and write. He helped the aid men from Sweden work on a dam that would have stopped the floods and made the valley green, until the militia blew up the pump house and hanged one of the aid men. The militia took my father's right hand then. He stopped leaving the yard and built a still behind our house.

My sister picks her way in front of me through the shattered wood and dusty bits of plaster in front of the bombed hospital. We cut through the old school and skirt the graveyard. Crows sit on the old stones and my sister shakes the bracelets on her wrists and claps her hands to drive them away. On the back of her left hand is tattooed a yellow sun, on the right a wide moon with his bleary, bruised face smiling. The crows rise complaining from the crosses and stones but then settle back down again in a moment.

The fighting last year near the hospital was intense, and as we walk my sister stops frequently to pick a bit of glass or a shell casing from the ground and put it in her sack. She makes necklaces and bracelets for the soldiers. She tells them the charms have magic to ward off bullets. She tells them they do not work if you have fear, and they do not work against grenades or fire. In this way, when a soldier dies his comrades will say he did not have courage to power the amulets, and they will continue to buy the necklaces. The survivors will scavenge the jewelry from the bodies of the dead, and so it will be obvious they are brave and the magic works.

My father is sitting on a pile of tires near the front door of our house. His skin is ashy—he is sick but there is nothing to be done. He is drinking milky palm wine from a plastic cup with "Texaco" on it. He rocks slightly and points to the sky. He tells again about how men have been to the moon. Human beings rode to the sky in metal ships and brought back pieces of the moon, he says. My sister brings him water and strokes his head while I take the bag inside. I have heard about the men going to the moon many times. They taught us about this in the school the Italian missionaries ran when there was still a rickety bus running west through the mountains and down to the plains.

My father has a still behind the house. At night the men come and trade him books or bits of junk for plastic containers of wine. He has a map of Cameroon, where he says my mother's people are from. He has a picture of men in bulky space suits standing beside a flag on a white plain. He has stacks of newspapers and books on science and engineering.

"Rocks from the moon," my father says, and looks at his one brown hand.

My sister massages the stump of his arm. "Yes, but do you see God was offended by this?" she says in a quiet voice. "Now the souls of the dead sit on their gravestones and call to us."

"Those are just birds. There is no God."

"God was lost to us, but he has reentered the world because of all this wickedness."

"Radio, " he says. "Microwaves. Penicillin."

"That magic has no power now."

"Running water. Electricity." He coughs into a rag. "Light."

I haul water from the well and my sister makes flat bread. My father can't keep the bread down. We light one of the candles from the church and wait by his bed. Dollar Boy comes over and sits outside. We have made plans to leave tonight, to cross the mountains and see if there is work or at least food down in the cities on the plain. Closer to the coast means closer to whatever food is coming in from the foreign ships. When the sun goes down, Dollar Boy makes a ring of stones in the yard and lights an oil lamp. My father nods off and then wakes again and sweat gathers under his eyes. He calls my mother's name. My sister shakes her bracelets and sings quietly. My father grips my hand tightly and tells me to get out of this place. Become and engineer, he tells me. Become a scientist and help our people to be great again.

When he stops breathing we wrap him in the bedding and I carry him out of the house. The flickering light makes it seem as if he is still moving inside the sheet. Dollar Boy goes through his pack. I separate the bread we have made and give some to my sister and some to Dollar Boy. We put as much of the grain as we can carry and some of the bedding in our packs. Dollar Boy shows me a Russian pistol he took from the body of a UN man. It has three bullets. We have the grain, and some necklaces and bracelets my sister made, a little marijuana and the last of my father's homemade wine.

I look at the sheet and think I should be feeling something, but I am just impatient to be on my way. He would have been unable to care for himself when my sister and I left. I look at the small pile of my father's things my sister has brought out to sit next to him in the dust. A Japanese electric razor caked with dust, a clever folding knife with many small tools, a book called "Irregular Galaxies" filled with numbers. Ascensions and declinations. Landmarks in trackless space. My father tried to explain to me how it all worked, but all I could think of was falling endlessly through a black vacuum, grabbing helplessly at the stars. There is shooting from the bush again.

Dollar Boy says, "Automatic rifle."

We hear the whine of feedback and a distorted voice from a rebel sound truck. The voice says there is food and medical aid for those who join the rebels and death for those who cooperate with the militias or the government. The truck is miles away in the desert and the voice rattles through the shattered buildings and echoes in the empty streets.

Dollar Boy rolls a joint and we sit on the tires while my sister says prayers. She dips her fingers in a bowl of yellow powder and draws symbols on the sheet—crosses, stars, swastikas, a crescent moon, a sun with spiraling rays. Across the street is low brick building, the smashed windows wreathed in soot. There are metal letters set in the wall, white in the bright moonlight. "Neil A. Armstrong Middle School." I take a map from my pack and lay it out beside the lamp and Dollar Boy leans over it. I trace my finger down from our town through Show Low and Whiteriver, San Carlos and Tempe and into Phoenix. I say the names out loud because Dollar Boy can't read. The map ends at California, but I know that across California is the sea.

More young people come out of the night and stand silently by the porch. I nod at a tall girl with black hair and blue eyes and a long scar on her neck. She carries an automatic rifle and a baby sleeps in a sling on her back. Everyone has a pack, and I have told them to bring something to trade and a weapon. In the morning, when the rebels come back, there will be no one in the town except the old and the sick and the dead.

My sister talks to two of the boys in a low voice, twins who live in a ruined gas station and are called the Sunoco boys. They are easy to distinguish because one has an eye patch and the other has white hair, though they are both adolescents. Inside the ring of stones they build an oblong pyre from the last of our firewood. Dollar Boy and I lay my father on it. My sister rips a few pages out of my father's book and I pour oil around him. She lights the pages and pushes them into the pile of wood.

When the fire catches, I put on my father's glasses, but there is only one lens and it has a crack in it, and I can't focus through it even if I close one eye. I watch the white smoke from the fire wreath the moon. The wood splits and pops and there is a shower of sparks. The crack in the lens makes the red embers jump crazily around the sky. Dollar Boy motions the others closer to study the map and shows them the way west. Some of the towns are held by militia and some by rebels. We have heard government troops are in Phoenix, but everything is rumor and story now, and we have no good information.

I take off my father's glasses and put them in my pocket. The tall girl stands by me, her hand on my shoulder. I rise and stretch, and the others circle around. The dope smoothes the way ahead, and fills my mind with dreams of moving in the black sky, the moon growing larger and brighter as I come closer. The smiling blue face fills my head. When I am close enough, I know it will tell me important things. The others look to me and wait for what I will say. In the light of the fire we are all yellow and red, all sparks that would find the moon.