The Man Who Loved Butterflies
Copyright © by George Dickerson, 5/1/04
It was a perfect day for a kidnapping. Eric Johnson stood on his
balcony and looked out over Beirut. The pall of smoke from burning
buildings had lifted. The sun acetylene-torched St. George's Bay.
Palm fronds along the Mediterranean shore chattered rumors in the light breeze.
Just a few hunchbacked November clouds disfigured his view of the Lebanese
mountains. And only the pop of occasional sniper fire in the suburbs
marred the day-old truce. The worst always seemed to happen on perfect
"Why don't you clowns stop shooting each other and just go to the beach?" Johnson shouted. No one responded. The Arab woman beating the rug on her patio below did not look up. The inhabitants in the neighboring buildings had grown used to outbursts from the majnoon American. Well, he wasn't crazy, but he was hungry.
Perhaps today will be different, Johnson thought. Perhaps the truce will hold. And if the roadblocks are down, there would be fresh fruit and vegetables and bottled gas for his cooking stove. No more cold canned ham for a while. No more...
His thoughts were interrupted by the crackle of his long-range walkie-talkie. A tinny voice said, "Tango, this is Romeo. Are you there?" Johnson picked up the black oblong transceiver and pushed the transmit button. "No, this is your friendly ghost talking, Romeo. A mere self of my former shadow."
He had hoped for a chuckle from the man code-named "Romeo." None of the United Nations security officers, himself included, were getting enough sleep, and most were losing their sense of humor. Today, Romeo, a fat elderly Englishman was all business.
"Um," Romeo responded. "Any reports from your journalist friends? Any news of fighting?"
"Only between husbands and wives, Romeo."
"There are kidnappings," Romeo said. "Along the coast road. Also in Damour."
"Kidnappings, Romeo? In the Switzerland of the Middle East? The Arabs playground? You're kidding."
"Cork it, Tango! I saw them. Luckily the gunmen only took my car." Romeo sounded positively mournful. Other people lost lives; Romeo lost cars.
"Where are you now?"
"South of Damour. Hiding in a bunch of banana trees or bushes or whatever you call them."
"A desperate spot," Johnson said. "I'll come get you."
"It's dangerous. They really are snatching people."
"I won't piss into the wind," Johnson assured him. It was the Englishman's favorite joke.
Unamused, Romeo asked, "Any word from the family?" Always polite, was Romeo, even under fire.
"A letter from Connecticut. They're fine," Johnson said, not admitting that he was unable to read the letter...that it was a month old. When Romeo stopped transmitting, Johnson again took out the letter from his wife, with what looked like a message from his seven-year-old son in pencil at the bottom of the page. It was not until he had received the letter that Johnson realized, while able to function at a crisis level, he had lost the ability to read. His wife's elegant strokes, his son's awkward scrawl, had become indecipherable squiggly lines on paper. Only the drawing on the back --a small boy with a big grin, holding a turtle larger than himself--made any sense. Johnson traced the drawing with his finger, then folded the letter and put it back into his jacket pocket.
"It's dangerous," Romeo had said. Johnson knew he should leave immediately, but he found himself aimlessly wandering through the emptied-out rooms of their large marble-floored apartment, as if he hoped, unreasonably, to encounter someone there. Most of the furniture had been shipped out. There were a bed, a couple of captain's chairs, only the necessities left. And papers everywhere.
Yellow papers lay scattered across the red marble floor like wind-blown autumn leaves. He picked up one and tried to read his own handwriting. The letters snaked meaninglessly across the paper, but he knew what they might say: "Three Palestinians killed, seven wounded in the Tal Zaatar refugee camp. Rocket fire hitting the Christian quarter over-looking the camp. 100 kidnapped. 95 released." They were notes for his security reports to the Commissioner General. Detritus of the war. Untranslatable hieroglyphs.
He dropped the paper back onto the floor. He must shave. Less likely to be killed if he shaved. He must function. Romeo need rescuing. In the bathroom mirror, he tried to assess his image as he might a gunman on the street. The 40-year-old features, with high cheekbones and pale blue eyes, were softened by a care-worn look. "Well bred...influential," he thought ironically. The light brown hair receded from an already high
forehead. "Intellectual...ineffectual?" The scar on the upper lip from a football game. He remembered the game, the elbow flashing out, the salty taste of blood in his mouth. "A man of action...Ha!" He shaved carefully around the ancient wound.
Then Johnson noticed a crosshatch of lines on his cheekbones. They had not been there when he had come to Lebanon three years ago, or seven months ago when the civil war had started. Perhaps they were a map of the fighting, a facial code recording the stress of being on the streets with the gunmen night and day. Did they tell of loss or anger or fear? Was it horror at witnessed savagery inscribed there? He could not read the code.
The phone was ringing. His hair was too long, straying over his shirt collar. The barber was gone: kidnapped, dead, or just gone.
The phone was ringing. There were food spots on his jacket. The cleaners had been bombed, blown up one night with dynamite. He dabbed some water on a ketchup spot, then scratched at it with his fingernail.
He realized the jangle of the telephone must be meant for him and ran for the black instrument resting on the floor by the hall doorway.
"Johnson," he answered, his tone deliberately official.
"It's Mohammed Sidani, Mr. Eric. Please...please..." The driver from his U.N. agency sounded distraught. "You know all that happens. You know..." Johnson interrupted, "I know nothing. This phone is tapped. Make no comments about me. Just tell me your problem. I'll try to help."
"Sorry, Mr. Eric, please. The baby is hungry. We go for food? It is safe, yes?"
"Where are you?"
Near Unesco. There were no problems today in the Museitbeh quarter that he knew of. Johnson hesitated, then said, "Go only to Spinney's market. It may be open. Go now and go alone!" For a hungry baby, it was worth the risk.
"Thank you, Mr. Eric. Thank you, thank you..."
"Wait!" Johnson said, but the man had hung up. He had meant to warn him about the kidnappings. Was he losing his edge?
Suddenly, Johnson remembered Victor and bolted out the door. If there really were kidnappings, Victor was in extreme danger. Victor, a Christian Palestinian, risked death every day by journeying on foot from the suburbs to his failing grocery in Moslem-dominated West Beirut to scrounge the few Lebanese pounds necessary for his unmarried sister's support. The chances of survival for Christians, whether they were Palestine refugees or Lebanese, were not good. And Victor had to survive!
Since Johnson's family had been evacuated over a month ago, he and Victor had grown close, drinking coffee or playing backgammon together on a rickety wooden table and chairs set up for the occasion in the back room of Victor's grocery. Johnson made sure to buy whatever he could from Victor's diminishing wares, in order to help the man stay in business. The two middle-aged men liked each other in the way that men from dissimilar
backgrounds find comradeship when thrown together in danger. And in the way that men in war become superstitious, Johnson felt that somehow his destiny was linked to Victor's. If Victor survived, he himself would survive.
The elevator in Johnson's building was not functioning. Johnson raced down the stairs. Kidnappings! Romeo rarely exaggerated anything...
Stumbling down the last flight of stairs, Johnson ran out into the street. He braced himself for the sight of a grey corrugated iron shutter drawn down and padlocked. Instead, the shutter was up, the grocery was open and Victor was leaning against the doorway, smoking a cigarette.
He was wearing his 30-year-old, shiny, pin-striped suit, the suit he had owned as a young banker in Palestine and that he vowed he would wear to his grave. His white shirt was pressed but frayed at the collar. His sandaled feet were dusty from his long walk. A day-old stubble glinted grey on his long sorrowful face. But the dark brown eyes twinkled in amusement.
Panting, Johnson stood still and stared at Victor. With the ever-present cigarette dangling from his lips, Victor made a catarrhal sound that was somewhere between a cough and a laugh.
"You see perhaps a ghost, my friend?" Victor asked.
Johnson rubbed his hand over the balding spot on the back of his head.
"No, I see a walking, coughing, smoking calamity."
"Not to worry," Victor said. "Coffee?"
"If it's hot. I have no cooking gas left," Johnson said.
Victor coughed or laughed and turned into the store with its wooden shelves all but empty. "You run down the stairs, you have maybe a crisis of the heart." Victor poured him a thick Turkish coffee. "You must walk to have a long good life."
"And smoke," Johnson admonished. "How's your sister?"
"As all old ladies: difficult." He laughed and lit another cigarette from the stub of the one he had been smoking.
Victor offered a game of backgammon, but Johnson declined, saying he had to go to south towards Sidon and Tyre.
"It is not wise, my friend," Victor said, draining his coffee and wiping the heavy grounds from his lips.
Johnson nodded. "No, but then it's not wise to run a grocery store when all you have left are dried beans and coffee. Or to risk your life to come here every day."
For a moment, Victor's eyes became sad and thoughtful. "I had to run from Palestine," he said. "Then I had to run from Jordan. I can no longer run, but I walk where I want." He erupted into an incongruous catarrhal spasm of laughter. "Perhaps they grow tired from shooting at me."
Johnson wanted to laugh with his friend, but could not. He had had difficulty laughing, or even smiling, since he had evacuated his wife and son back to the States. Besides, it was becoming increasingly dangerous for him to show emotion of any kind. A misinterpreted smile when he was on the streets at night assessing the activities of the gunmen, or a flicker of fear in the eyes when facing an overwrought commando at a roadblock, could mean his death.
Johnson said, "And perhaps they will be too tired to shoot on my way down the coast."
"But why do you, an American, go there? Or stay here? It is not your trouble."
Johnson shrugged. "It's my job. Maybe I can help save a life. Maybe I'm just crazy. Like you." He forced an awkward smile and headed for his car. Victor, leaning against the doorjamb of his grocery, watched Johnson open the door to his Fiat. Without taking the cigarette from his lips, Victor said, "It may be against God's will for you to go."
Johnson turned. "Perhaps." And after a reflective pause: "Perhaps I no longer believe in God's will."
Victor frowned. "It is better to believe."
"In what?" Johnson bantered.
Victor spit out his cigarette, sending it flying like a smoking missile into the gutter. "In something. In anything."
Johnson pondered the message, then nodded, not in acquiescence but in acknowledgement of the other man's caring. "I believe I'll return from Damour or wherever I'm going and have a beer with you, my friend."
"Inshallah!" Victor said and gave a chuckle.
"If it be God's will!" Johnson echoed, not wanting to offend his friend, although he thought it ironic that the Christian would speak of "Allah."
He drove off thinking: If the truce holds, the streets of the frequently embattled Christian town of Damour will be bustling with shoppers at the fruit and vegetable stalls. The peaceful clang of body-and-fender work will reverberate from the auto repair shops. And from outside the town, where Romeo was waiting for him, the sweet smell of bananas ripening in the fields will fill the air. If the truce holds....
For part of the way at least, any sense of foreboding Johnson might have had from Victor's admonition was dispelled by the Beirutis' temporary return to a simulacrum of normal life. Along the Corniche, as he drove past the wave-wracked Pigeon Rocks, Johnson was struck by the almost carnival-like atmosphere of merchants hawking their wares to a pedestrian populace anxious to buy whatever was momentarily available.
There was a seller of birds which had been indiscriminately slaughtered and strung on long strings. Another Lebanese held a baboon on a leash, attempting to make it dance to the hooting cries of the crowd. Pistachios were for sale, from God knows where, and Seiko wristwatches and silk ties, probably looted from some Hamra Street fashionable shop. One vendor sold fresh water, another cans of gasoline, at exorbitant prices. A single gunshot and the street would suddenly be deserted.
No kidnappings here, Romeo!
Just south of Beirut, the beaches were jammed with sybaritic sunbathers. Their glistening brown bodies mocked his memory of the tattered rag-doll corpse Johnson had seen discarded by the Dog River in East Beirut only yesterday. He heard an echo of Victor's catarrhal laugh.
Johnson flipped on the car radio. He caught a snatch of Arab music--the haunting quarter tones--then turned to the BBC. Johnson never understood the cricket test match scores, but he listened because they seemed to assert that somewhere in the world people could still play peaceful games. It would be nice to play catch with his son.
He forced the thought from his mind as he drove past young boys who stood along the roadside selling chewing gum and American cigarettes. Their fathers at their age were probably the ones who had tried to sell gum to the U.S. marines marching up the beaches past the startled sunbathers in 1953.
He thought: "Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose." Apparently little had changed in 22 years.
An isolated gunman pointed his machinegun at the car, did not fire, and laughed at the slight swerve of the car.
Johnson had been unusually startled, caught off guard in his reverie. Not afraid, simply surprised. In other circumstances, that might have been fatal. "It may not be wise," Victor had said.
He drove now along the divided highway parallel to the airport, where commercial flights had been suspended. In his memory, Johnson saw his wife and small son again as they boarded the shuttle bus to the last plane to leave Beirut, a Pan Am flight via London to the States and safety for them.
His wife held their cat in a carrying case. His son had a live turtle stuffed into his shirt pocket. The boy turned and waved and said, "When you coming home, Dad?" Had there been tears in the boy's eyes? Why couldn't he remember? For the same reason that he could no longer read: Memory was connective. The alphabet was rational. Yes, when was he going home? Not until someone else could do what he was doing. Or, maybe...never....
Then, as the road turned south to Damour, Johnson heard the sound of an explosion from somewhere among the green and brown hills that swept up from the shore towards the Shouf mountains. It was not heavy enough to be artillery...more likely a rocket. It had come from one of the Muslim or Druze villages hidden away in the hills, the hostile villages which encircled Christian Damour. And suddenly there were no cars coming from the
opposite direction and only one other car, a Mercedes, on his side of the road--probably a taxi.
He knew he should turn back, but Romeo was waiting for him. And then it was too late. Empty oil drums were stacked across the road. Two Mourabitoun militiamen had established a machinegun nest on a hillock overlooking the road. Two other Mourabitoun, wearing mottled green-and-tan combat fatigues and carrying AK 47s, had stopped the car in front of him. Mourabitoun were the most unpredictable, the most dangerous, Johnson
thought. They should be up in West Beirut. What were they doing this far south of the city? Stay calm or you're dead.
He watched the Mourabitoun gunmen pull the taxi driver from the Mercedes. Another gunman emerged from a cluster of trees. He took charge of the taxi driver and led him out of sight, behind the stone wall along the roadside. Johnson hoped the driver would be lucky. Maybe they would only kidnap him for a couple of hours, beat him only a little, then let him go in a mass exchange of kidnap victims.
A gunman approached Johnson's Fiat and shoved his AK 47 through the open driver's window into Johnson's belly. The gunman was only 16 or 17. He was just beginning to need to shave and was already getting fat. The gunman smiled and flashed a gold tooth.
"Nations unies," Johnson said, hoping the gunman spoke French. He did not want to use English.
"Shu?" The Arab asked.
"United Nations," Johnson said in Arabic.
The Arab poked him harder with the gun and smiled. It was not a beneficent smile.
Johnson stared him in the eyes without wavering. "Diplomacy."
The gunman stopped smiling. He withdrew the AK 47 and moved around to the front of the car to look at the white diplomatic license plate. When he returned, he said in English, "You go back."
If Johnson turned the car around, the gunman might still shoot him. Besides, Romeo was waiting. "La!" Johnson said as firmly as possible, and shook his head. He pointed straight down the road. Johnson resorted to simple English since the gunmen had used it. "Diplomacy." Johnson kept his voice emotionless.
"Go back!" the gunman insisted.
At that moment, several shots rang out. The other driver had not been lucky. The young Lebanese gunman watched for Johnson's reaction. To agree to turn back now would be a sign of fear.
"I go to Sidon. Tyre," Johnson said. He pointed south toward those cities, knowing he could not mention Damour.
The gunman puzzled for a moment, then smiled his vicious gold-filled smile.
"La," Johnson lied. "Canadien. Canada."
The gunman frowned. Then Johnson's eyelid began to twitch. It was a code revealing his inner tension. A betrayal. The gunman stared at the twitch. Johnson pretended to scratch his forehead, trying to cover the tic with his hand.
Suddenly the gunman pulled him from the car and jabbed him hard in the ribs with the barrel of his AK 47. The pain shot up Johnson's chest and seemed to encompass his whole torso. The gunman motioned him to move behind the stone wall. Johnson raised his hands and shook his head in protest. Again came a sharp poke in the ribs. Johnson turned and kept moving in front of the gunman, to keep out of reach of the gun barrel.
To hold back the pain, under his breath he sang a mindless, college football song: "Boola, boola! Boola, boola..." Damn Victor's warning! Damn Romeo for needing help! Damn the war! "Boola, boola...."
They were off the road now and moving toward a white mud-brick hovel near the seashore, down a sharp incline, over wind-smoothed rocks, where little blue and yellow wildflowers broke through the stone and found a precarious purchase on life. Sliding on some loose rocks, Johnson fell. He glanced up to see the gun butt raised, ready to smash his face. Johnson said the name of a Mourabitoun leader. The gun butt hovered, then was withdrawn. The gunman motioned toward the hut. Johnson got up and stumbled along, waiting for the shot that would finish him.
The roar of the surf was beginning to drown out the chatter of the palm fronds. Sunlight danced on the green marble sea. A perfect day for a kidnapping or a death, Johnson thought, just before the gunman propelled him into the hovel and slammed the wooden door behind him.
Johnson leaned against the door and, for the first time, allowed himself to hold his bruised ribs. He realized that when he had slipped down on the rocks he had grabbed a small cluster of wildflowers, which he still clutched in his hand. He let the destroyed flowers fall to the hard-packed dirt floor. Then he nodded at the other two captives in the hut's single room.
One was a small, wiry, Arab Christian boy from Damour. Johnson recognized him as a caddy from the Delhamiyeh Country Club that was located in the hills south of town. In more peaceful times, he had carried Johnson's golf clubs.
"Mr. Eric," the boy said, in acknowledgement. The boy was only 12, but seemed older. All the boys of Damour now fought as gunmen as soon as they were able to carry and fire weapons. "Ya haram (it's a pity)!" the boy said.
"Hello, Millad," Johnson replied. The boy's name meant "Christmas" in Arabic. The unlikely name for such a sad-faced boy had always bemused Johnson. Johnson tried to make a joke. "You want to carry my clubs today?"
Millad's sorrowful brown eyes stared at him for a moment, then the boy shook his head and went to look out of the hut's lone window.
The other captive was a wizened European, perhaps 60 or 65 years old. Short and slender, with a kindly face, he wore wire-rimmed glasses, a beret and a well-cut conservative suit with no tie over his open-necked shirt. The European was balanced precariously on the only piece of furniture in the hut: an old unpainted kitchen chair, one of whose front legs was missing.
"You are hurt," the European said with some concern. The man's English was almost impeccable, spoken with deliberate care.
Johnson nodded. "I don't know. I may have a cracked rib."
The man got up and came to Johnson. The chair fell over. The man helped Johnson take off his suit jacket. Then he gingerly felt Johnson's ribs through his shirt.
"Maybe they are only bruised," the European observed.
"You're a doctor?" Johnson asked.
"Yes. Of philosophy," the man said with a shy pride. "Retired. I taught philosophy at the University in Copenhagen. I'm Danish." The Dane helped Johnson to the chair, straightening it for him so that Johnson might sit.
"It would be better against the wall," Johnson said. It hurt to talk or breathe, but it was better to talk than to think about pain or other possibilities.
The Dane placed the chair near the wall, so Johnson could sit leaning against the wall, his weight on the chair's back legs.
"I'm sorry to take your chair," Johnson said.
"It is not much of a chair," the Dane said. "It is like philosophy. You have to balance on it cautiously." He gave a wry smile. "And like philosophy, it functions best for the man who needs it most." The Dane sat down on the dirt floor next to him.
"You are American, yes?" the Dane asked.
"Canadian," Johnson said, telling the automatic lie to protect himself.
"La! He is an American spy," Millad said.
"That's not true, Millad. I'm not a spy." He said to the Dane, "The boy has a vivid imagination. I'm actually a public information officer for the United Nations." True, he had been an editor, a writer; but when the war started, he had been drawn step-by-step into security. And now he was in much too deep. Too many lives were dependent on his analyses. Anyway, it was none of the Dane's business. The real question was: Why was an old Danish philosophy professor in Lebanon when no one in his right mind should be here?
"Ah," the Dane said, absorbing Johnson's rebuttal of the boy's accusation.
"That explains why you are here."
"In this country."
"Yes." Damn the boy! The boy could be trouble if he talked too much.
The heat was building up in the mud-brick hut and Johnson wiped the sweat from his forehead. The Dane seemed not to mind the heat because, uncomplaining, he still wore his jacket. Millad, on the other hand, was trying to force open the hut's window.
"Don't do that, Millad," Johnson cautioned.
"The air is bad, Mr. Eric," the boy protested. It was true. The hut reeked of kerosene, either from cooking that had once been done there or from kerosene having been used to cleanse the floor. The kerosene had soaked in and the fumes were building up in the heat. At first, Johnson had not noticed the kerosene because it was a common smell in the poorer Arab buildings. Now the fumes were becoming overpowering.
"Yes, Millad, but they'll think you're trying to escape and will shoot you," Johnson reasoned.
"They will shoot me, yes, no matter," the boy said fatalistically.
"Mourabitoun!" Then, in Arabic, he added: "They are the worm-filled dung of camels." He spit on the floor.
The pain in Johnson's side had subsided to a dull ache.
"What did the boy say?" the Dane asked.
"He said something unappealing about camels and that the Mourabitoun are going to kill him."
"Why should they kill a small boy?" the Dane protested.
"I am a man," the 12-year-old said defiantly. "I kill many of them. They kill my family. I kill many hundreds of them." Millad's eyes burned feverishly for a moment, then he grinned and turned back to his task of trying to get the window open.
"I don't understand any of this," the Dane said. "Who are they? Why should they capture us?"
Johnson did not answer immediately. The war had made him suspicious of strangers who asked for evaluations. Yet it was ridiculous to think of this apparently gentle old man as someone planted there to entrap him. The man had been kind to him, given him his chair. Maybe he was becoming paranoid. Maybe he would need the old man's help.
"Whim. Caprice. Bad luck," Johnson replied. "Mourabitoun means 'the avengers who lie in ambush.' They're a Moslem, extreme, quasi-Marxist faction, small in number, but vicious. They started out as a bunch of local mafia-like thugs from West Beirut and now they think they're an important militia. "I've seen them gun down a friendly journalist as a joke...for kicks."
"Terrible," the Dane said. It was obvious the Dane was having difficulty comprehending the madness that the war had become, or why it had come to involve him.
"Their mothers fornicate with goats," the boy said in Arabic. Again he spit on the ground. The sputum rested there for a moment, then made a dark stain as it soaked into the dirt floor. The floor would drink phlegm or blood with the same parched thirst.
Then, except for the boy shoving and scraping at the window sill, there was silence in the hut. Johnson shut his eyes, trying to evaluate his position.
He hoped Romeo would be able to take care of himself. Romeo would know that something must have happened to Johnson. Romeo would be thinking that Johnson might be a bit whacko, but he was reliable. He wouldn't leave Romeo stranded unless he was in deeper trouble himself. If Romeo could get a car, he might come looking for Johnson. And if the Mourabitoun would give Johnson a chance to impress them with his connections and influence, he might be able to save himself. He might even be able to save the Dane and the boy, unless they realized the boy was a phalangist from Damour. He had to do something for the boy! Why was he still in Lebanon if he couldn't even save someone like Millad?
He thought of Millad on the golf course: a bright, cheerful lad, always eager to search for one of Johnson's errant drives, always remorseful when he couldn't find the ball. It had made Johnson feel guilty to watch the boy's small frame bravely struggle with the heavy bag of clubs, so Johnson had always over-tipped him. And the boy had always tried to outrun the other caddies for the privilege of carrying "Mr. Eric's" bag. Now the boy claimed to have become a hardened angry killer. Was he just boasting, or had the war accomplished that, too? Johnson opened his eyes to banish his thoughts. He wiped the sweat his from face. His shirt was sticking to his aching ribs.
Suddenly, outside in the distance, there was the chatter of automatic weapons. A brief silence. Then the pop and crackle of small-arms fire. This was followed by the crump of mortar and artillery. The Mourabitoun didn't have artillery yet. Others were now involved.
"The truce is over," Johnson said to no one in particular.
"Perhaps they will forget about us," the Dane said. He might have been making an abstract proposition as the basis for a philosophical treatise. He did not seem to be afraid of dying. What was he afraid of?
"Perhaps," Johnson agreed, but his instincts and experience told him they were in for a bad time, that the fighting could only diminish their chances.
The heat and the kerosene fumes were becoming unbearable.
"Millad," Johnson said, "take my shoe. Break the window with my shoe."
The boy was barefoot. Perhaps they had stolen his shoes. That did not bode well for the boy's future. However, to ask him about his missing shoes might only add to his humiliation.
The boy hesitated, contemplating the shoe in Johnson's outstretched hand.
Then: "Mr Eric, they will kill you when they see it is your shoe that breaks the window."
"Take my shoe, Millad, or I'll have to get up and break it myself. And maybe with the gunfire they won't hear the window break."
"The guard has big ears, Mr. Eric."
"The guard may be watching his mother with the goats," Johnson said.
The boy laughed and came over to get Johnson's shoe.
"Is it all right with you if he breaks the window, Dane?" Johnson asked.
"Yes. We need fresh air and it's a lovely day outside." The man smiled.
"A perfect day," Johnson said.
The boy tapped lightly at the window glass, but it didn't break. Finally, he swung hard and the glass shattered. He lost control of the shoe and it slipped out of his hand, out the window. The boy rushed over and sat beside them along the wall, the three of them facing the door expectantly.
Outside, there were several shouts and the door was jerked open. An overweight gunman stood there with his machinegun in one hand and the offending shoe in the other. He glowered.
"Too hot," Johnson said. "I threw the shoe. I needed air."
The gunmen pointed his gun at Johnson, then he tossed the shoe on the floor and shot the shoe. The gunman stared at the shoe to make sure it was dead. It had been a fine brown Italian loafer, but now it lay torn and dusty against the wall where the bullets had driven it. The gunman smiled in satisfaction, scratched the folds of his belly, glowered one last time and shut the door.
"Ya haram!" Millad said.
"Ya haram!" Johnson echoed.
And the three captives burst out laughing.
"The shoe was brave," Millad said.
"It died well," Johnson said.
"It no longer cares about being a shoe," the Dane said, getting in the spirit.
All three laughed again, and then they fell silent. The silence weighed heavily, perhaps because of the laughter that had preceded it. For a long time they sat there, listening to the sounds of gun and shell fire, as the light lengthened through the broken window, with the sun dropping on the sea.
It was the Dane who broke their silence. "What is the word for 'butterfly' in Arabic?" he asked Millad.
"What is this flutterby?" Millad asked.
"Butterfly," the Dane said. "It is a pretty insect that flies like this."
The Dane's small delicate hands did a fair imitation of a butterfly flying, then landing. Millad puzzled a moment, then said, "Farashah. It is a farashah."
"Farashah," the Dane repeated, savoring the word. "Thank you." He leaned back and closed his eyes momentarily as if he were storing the word. Then:
"In Tunis they call it fatatah. It sounds like the movement of the butterfly's wings."
Again there was silence in the hut as they listened to the intensified fighting outside. Suddenly a cricket began chirping in the hovel. Millad got up. The noise seemed to come from all directions. It was a particularly loud cricket. Johnson watched Millad methodically search for it, walking along the wall, tracing the circumference of the room.
"Don't hurt it," Johnson said.
"Why, Mr. Eric?" Millad asked, without interrupting his search.
"It is a small thing. It does you no harm."
"It is a bug," Millad said. "It is too loud."
"It's not necessary to kill it," Johnson said. "Just catch it and throw it out the window."
Millad stopped, stepped down hard and ground his bare foot back and forth in the dirt. The sound of the cricket was gone.
"Malesh!" Millad said.
"Mish malesh! It does matter!" Johnson said, angry now at the boy, beginning to get angry at everything.
"It was of no good to anyone. Malesh!" Millad shrugged and went to stare out the window.
Johnson suddenly felt queasy. Perhaps it was the heat or lack of food. He hadn't eaten anything all day. He stared at Millad's dirty brown feet, thinking of the cricket's remains stuck to the bottom of one of them. He grew angrier at his queasiness.
"What do you say, Dane? Malesh or mish malesh? You're the philosophy professor. Does it matter or doesn't it?"
The Dane opened his eyes. "It depends on your frame of reference. The Japanese would..."
"Screw the Japanese! Screw your frame of reference! I hate the damn word.
The Arabs abuse it to cover their misdeeds, to excuse their incompetence or their indifference. If they're going to shoot you or me or him, one of them might just shrug his shoulders and say 'malesh!'" Johnson had gotten up, forgetting the chair, which toppled over onto the Dane. Johnson paced back and forth, becoming consumed with rage. "Or how about bukra? There's another great word! 'Tomorrow.' The indefinite tomorrow. A word that would make the Mexican's manana sound more like 'pronto.' Bukra! The tomorrow that will never come if you want something delivered or repaired. The eternal lie to alibi their laziness. Are you hungry, professor? You want food? Bukra! How about you, Millad? You want somebody to help you stay alive? Bukra! Well, there just might not be any bukras left for any of us! Malesh!"
Suddenly, Johnson grabbed Millad and began shaking him and then he slapped him. The boy looked at him in fear and humiliation. Then Johnson found himself at the door, beating at it with his fists. "Let us out of here!" he shouted. "We've done nothing. I'm a diplomat! United Nations! Nations unies!"
He checked himself in the middle of his rage. He had completely lost control. It was dangerous. It was foolish. He stood facing the door, too embarrassed for the moment to turn around. He expected the door to be jerked open and he would be shot. He should be shot for such an outburst.
The door did not open. He stood there until he was calm again. Then he turned and faced the Dane and the boy. The Dane had dealt with the chair and was again leaning against the wall with his eyes closed. The boy had not moved from the window. Johnson went back and sat in the chair. "It's not fear," he said to no one in particular. "I'm just tired of the madness. I'm sick of this country."
Again there was silence. After a while, the Dane opened his eyes. The slate grey eyes were gentle, understanding, accepting. What gives a stranger the right to understand or forgive or accept? Why couldn't he, Eric Johnson, feel those same things?
"You don't really know this country, Professor," Johnson said.
"True. But my wife loved Beirut," the Dane said. "We came here several times on vacation, many years ago. She loved to look at the sea and feel the heat of the sun, then turn to around and be able to see snow on the mountains... in the summer. It entranced her. She thought it was paradise."
The shooting tapered off, then died altogether. The three captives listened to the silence, waiting for something to shatter it. They could hear nothing but the sea.
After a while, the Dane spoke again. "Paradise. When my wife died last year, I took our savings and decided to revisit all the places my wife and I had gone together. I wanted to share them with her one last time. I had promised her I would take her back to her favorite spots. And, once we were there, I would say the same silly things to her I had said before, and she would say the same things to me. What I could remember. And we would hold each other and laugh at the funny things people did, the way we had always
The Dane smiled in recollection. "This was my last place. I saved the best for last. Yesterday I pretended we ate fish together in El Bahri, down at the port. Then we went swimming in St. George's Bay. And I stood with her one last time on the Corniche and felt the sea-spray splash our faces.
And I watched as she turned to look at the mountains. You see, American, this is the last place."
The Dane smiled at him and Johnson nodded in recognition of the Dane's sorrow. He was a stranger to the Dane and he wanted to feel his sorrow, but he didn't have time. He had to do something about the boy.
"I'm sorry for hitting you, Millad."
The boy turned to him. His face was red where Johnson had slapped him.
There were tears in his eyes, but he was fighting against crying. "Malesh," the boy said.
"No, Millad," Johnson said, gently. "Mish malesh."
"You are not very brave, Mr. Eric."
"No, I am not, Millad."
"If you are brave, you help me."
"We kill the Mourabitoun. Together. Forget the old man. You and me, Mr. Eric. Like on the golf course. Together."
"And how would we do that, Millad?"
Flies had found their way into the hut and were buzzing about Johnson's head. He tried to swat them away, but they kept coming back. One fly was walking on the back of the Dane's hand and the Dane was watching it with what seemed like a detached curiosity. Arriving early to eat the dead, Johnson thought.
Millad came over from the window and stood near Johnson. "You stay next to the door. I call the Mourabitoun. I run to the door and am lying on the floor. He opens the door and sees me and bends down. You hit him with the chair. You break his head. Then you choke him to make sure."
"You want me to murder him? With my bare hands?"
"Yes. You have no knife. You have no gun. You kill him."
Johnson shook his head. He had never killed anyone. He had always believed somehow that civilized men should talk things out. He swatted at a fly on his arm and managed to kill it.
"Like the fly, Mr. Eric."
"And suppose I mess up, Millad? Suppose I miss him or don't hit him hard enough. Then he will certainly kill you."
"No matter. I am truly dead if you do not help. You do not care if I am dead, Mr. Eric."
Johnson got up and pawed at the air, at the swirling flies. "Yes, dammit, I care. And if more of your people cared, you wouldn't be tearing your country apart and creating so much grief!"
"You know too many words, Mr. Eric." The boy turned away in disgust and dejection. He moved back toward the window.
The boy was right, Johnson thought. Sometimes words were pointless. Sometimes words were just an excuse. If it were his own son, he wouldn't think twice about doing whatever it took to save him. "All right, Millad. I'll do it. I'll kill him."
The boy looked at him curiously, suspecting something. "Now you are joking, Mr. Eric."
"Oh, no. You call the guard. I'm going to kill him." He thought maybe he could hit him just hard enough to knock him out. But if he miscalculated....
Johnson grabbed the chair and carried it over to the door. He raised the chair over his head and felt a stabbing pain in his ribs.
"Now, Millad! Call the guard!"
The chair was wavering in his hands. The pain was becoming unbearable.
"Now! What are you waiting for?"
Millad was watching the chair waver.
"Perhaps it is not a good plan, Mr. Eric."
"Why not? What's wrong with it?"
"You will not hit him to kill. You are too afraid. It is like the sixth hole. You will not hit him well."
Johnson lowered the chair. He was gasping for breath, but he tried not to show the pain.
"For God's sakes, Millad, what do you want from me?"
Millad came over and took the chair from him and carried it over to where the Dane was still sitting. The Dane had been watching them intently through all of this.
The boy sat in the chair. "You do not have it in your heart to kill this way. There is too much talk in you, Mr. Eric. Talking does not make good killing. You are not a man the way the Arab is a man...even when the Arab is but a boy."
"I would have done it for you, Millad. I..." Maybe. No one, not even yourself, can know what you will do until you actually do it...until it's too late to snatch back the act. That's the terrible part about being able to think. Johnson went over to the window and tried to breathe some fresh air. He tried to spot the guard, but all he could see were waves breaking along the coast. "Hey!" he shouted.
A bullet slammed into the outside wall near his head. Johnson jerked back from the window. Millad laughed. Then the Dane laughed. And, finally, Johnson laughed, although that hurt his ribs, too. Johnson went to his gun-blasted shoe and started to try to put it on. He seemed not to be able to bend over. So he kicked off his other shoe and left the two of them there in the corner.
"Maybe you have pain, Mr. Eric. Maybe you sit down." Millad got up from the chair.
But Johnson did not sit down. To sit down would confirm his weakness in the boy's eyes.
For a moment Millad looked like the impish boy who had carried Johnson's golf clubs. Johnson thought back to a time when the war had not yet begun.
"Remember the sixth hole, Millad? You mentioned the sixth hole. Remember it? The day I lost all my golf balls?"
Millad laughed. "Too many balls."
"You'll enjoy this, professor. The sixth hole, you see, went across this ravine."
The Dane shook his head. "I do not understand this game of golf, men hitting at a little white ball and chasing after it."
"You don't have to understand it, professor. It's really a tale of human spirit, or folly, depending on your point of view. You see, from the point where you tee off...uh...first hit the ball, to the green...the place where the ball must get to...there is only a large ravine in between. One day, as I'm getting ready to hit the ball over this ravine, Millad says that he will bet me one Lebanese pound that I can't make it. Well, usually I had no trouble with this hole, so naturally I take him up on it. And I swing my club and the ball disappears down into the ravine. And Millad starts laughing. Well, I laugh, too. So he says he will bet me again on the next ball. And I agree. And sure enough, the next ball goes down into the ravine. And he is laughing harder, but I am not laughing as much. It goes on this way until I have put every one of my golf balls into the ravine.
And Millad has won sixty-three pounds from me."
Millad laughed. "Seventy-three pounds, Mr. Eric."
"Was it seventy-three pounds? What difference does it make? The fact is that Millad had secretly greased the head of my golf club." Johnson waggled an accusing finger at him.
Millad shrugged. "It was a big joke, Mr. Eric."
"Yes, and I made you go down into the ravine and find every one of those seventy-three balls."
Millad shook his head. "La! It was only sixty-three, Mr. Eric."
"Perhaps you're right, Millad. And when we get out of here, I'm going to watch you very carefully on the golf course."
Suddenly the door was flung open and two Mourabitoun entered. Millad went over to the window. Neither one was the fat man who had shot the shoe. Johnson was sorry it wasn't the fat man. They looked at Johnson and the Dane, then at Millad who had turned his back to them. While one of the gunmen stood guard by the door, the other headed towards Millad. Johnson ran to shield Millad, but the Mourabitoun knocked Johnson to the floor with his gun butt, hitting him in the back and shoulders. Then the gunman grabbed Millad from behind, with his arm around Millad's throat.
"No more golf, Mr. Eric," the boy said, as the gunman dragged him from the hut. The other gunman spit and slammed the door.
The Dane tried to help Johnson up, but Johnson just waved him away and stared at the dirt floor.
"Will they kill him?" the Dane asked.
Johnson hesitated, then said, "If he's lucky." People did not seem to be having much luck that day.
"That is a bad thing to say," the Dane reproached him. He walked over to the window and looked out.
Johnson sat in the middle of the floor, unable to move for the moment. He seemed to ache all over.
"The way they dragged him from the hut, they'll not let him go. It's better if he dies quickly...with little pain. I hope they shoot him."
"You have seen too much," the Dane observed, not unkindly.
Johnson started to shrug, but the movement of his shoulder made him wince.
"Millad was a good boy. He used to make me laugh. He used to..."
Then they heard the first of Millad's screams. It was a scream louder than a mortar or a rifle shot. It seemed to silence the sea.
There was a pause in which both men held their breaths and then the second scream came and they both knew that Millad would not die quickly.
Johnson wanted to cover his ears, but he did not. He felt it would not do justice to Millad's pain to try to ignore it.
The third scream came, and then there were long moments of silence in which Johnson could hear his own breath rasping in his throat.
"Do you think they have finished?" the Dane asked. He had moved away from the window and was standing in a corner, facing the wall. Johnson could not find words. The Dane turned and saw the answer in Johnson's eyes. The Dane nodded. He walked over and sat down with his back against the wall, near Johnson.
After a while, to cover the waiting silence, the Dane said, "My wife and I loved butterflies. It is the reason I collect words for butterfly in various languages. It is more humane than catching butterflies and killing them and pinning them to a board. This way we only catch them in the mind and they flutter there forever."
Millad screamed again. The scream became a grenade exploding in Johnson's chest.
As if he had heard nothing, the Dane said, "I know the word for butterfly in 53 languages. Whenever I meet someone who has a language other than my own, I ask him the word for butterfly. It is better than looking it up in the dictionary. That way I acquire a feeling for the meaning of butterfly for that person in his language."
"Please don't talk," Johnson said.
"No," said the Dane, over the sound of a scream. "It is better to talk.
You must talk." He was surprisingly firm.
Johnson nodded. "I don't...I can't...uh...."
"Do you know the word for butterfly in French?" the Dane asked.
Johnson could not think. A scream erupted in his head. Johnson shook his head as if trying to get the scream out.
"You must. I heard you speak French."
"Papillon," Johnson said. "Papillon." Ii seemed to take all his strength to release the word.
"Yes," said the Dane. "That's better. Now, the German?"
Johnson struggled. At last he said, "Schmetterling."
"Correct," said the Dane. "Japanese?"
"No," Johnson said. "That's all I know."
"Surely you know the name of Madame Butterfly from the opera?"
All he knew was that Millad's scream was becoming a blinding white light in the gathering dusk.
"Madame Butterfly," the Dane coaxed. "Cho..." Johnson muttered. "Cho-cho!"
The Dane nodded. "Italian!" he commanded.
"Farfalla," said the Dane gently.
"Farfalla," Johnson shouted in defiance.
Then the screaming stopped. The two men sat listening, hoping that Millad was dead. At last Johnson whispered, "Farashah," in memory of Millad.
After a silence that lasted as long as a scream echoing in their minds, the Dane asked, "Do you have a cigarette, American?"
Johnson reached for his shirt pocket. Then, realizing it was empty, responded, "I'm sorry. I'm trying to quit."
The Dane nodded. "I, too, have given up smoking." A pause, then: "It is absurd, yes?"
"What's absurd?" Johnson was having difficulty focusing on the Dane, who seemed to be wavering, like a flame guttering in the shadows.
"To give up the pleasure of tobacco," the Dane, quietly, "when one is so proximate to death."
"Proximate...to...death," Johnson echoed. His mind seemed to examine the words individually, as one might pick up pieces of shellfish at the shore and try to reconstruct their former unity and meaning. Johnson rose and went to the window and stuck his head through the opening.
No one shot at him. After a moment, he pulled his head back in and turned to the Dane.
"Are you afraid of death?" Johnson asked.
The Dane pondered for a moment. Then, with a slight smile, he answered, "Descartes said...and Bergson said...and Heidegger and Kant, they..." He shrugged, the smile gone, the eyes behind the wire-rimmed glasses suddenly old and tired. "Too many arguments," he said, "by old men who forgot what life is about. Death is loss. Death is the parts of us that have been lost in other people who themselves have become lost...and so on...When I lost my wife..." The Dane paused, apparently grappling with something. He got up and paced around the room furiously with more energy than Johnson could imagine him having at his age.
Johnson, meanwhile, was feeling less pain. He grabbed the chair and started smashing it against the wall.
"What are you doing?" asked the Dane.
"I'm trying to get another leg off this chair." Smash!
"The chair is most difficult to sit in already."
"The chair is no longer for sitting, professor. I'm going to break off a leg and kill whichever Mourabitoun thug comes through that door next."
"It is too late to save the boy."
"You don't need to remind me of that." Smash. There! He almost had another leg free. Smash! Done!
"You would be killing for the wrong reason," the Dane said.
Unaccountably, the Dane had again gone into a corner and was facing away from him.
"Well, Mr. Philosophy Professor, give me the right reason." Johnson waved the chair leg in the air with as much force as he could muster without aggravating his ribs.
Still not looking at him, the Dane said, "May I confess something?"
Johnson wanted to say "no." Instead, he said, "Okay. Sure. Get it off your chest."
"It would relieve me. Especially if I do not leave here alive, it would be important to me."
Johnson had gone to the door and was trying to listen for sounds of the guard. "You're going to leave here alive, professor, but if you're trying to distract me from...
"I tried to kill my wife." The Dane had turned from the corner and was watching for Johnson's reaction.
"What did you say, professor?"
"I tried to kill her. It is that I must confess."
Johnson started to laugh. The Dane sat down in the corner and put his head in his hands. Johnson went and stood over the Dane.
"Let me get this straight," he said. "You tried to kill your wife and you have scruples about me killing a vicious gunman?"
"My wife was dying of cancer a long time."
"I'm sorry, I..." Johnson sat down a few feet away from the Dane.
The Dane continued, speaking in a low voice barely audible above the sounds of the sea: "When she could no longer bear with the pain, I wanted to help her die. I bought some pills. They only made her sicker for a while. Then one day I sat beside the bed and took her pillow and put it over her face and held it there. And I was praying to God that he would forgive me. When I took the pillow away, my wife was still alive. And she looked at me with those eyes that used to smile all the time. And I could see that she was begging me to do it, so that it would finally be finished. But I did not have the strength to do it again...to take away her pain...to help the person I loved most."
The Dane paused and chewed on his upper lip. He did not look at Johnson. Johnson scratched at the floor meaninglessly with the chair leg.
Finally, the Dane started speaking again: "It is a bad thing, but the most terrible thing was that part of me began to hate my wife...because I did not have courage to.... Sometimes, in the darkness, I still see her eyes staring at me...waiting...pleading." The Dane looked over at him.
"You can't always help." Johnson said. "You can't necessarily prevent other people's pain."
"I know," the Dane said.
Johnson fumbled for something else to say: "Look, professor...." There was something in the Dane's eyes, something elusive that was just out of Johnson's reach. "You made that up, didn't you, professor? To make me feel better...about... Millad."
The Dane looked at him steadily, revealing only an immense sorrow. "If there is a God, do you consider that he will forgive me for trying to kill her?" he asked.
"Oh, professor, I'm sorry." Johnson didn't know what to think anymore.
Would he know the truth if it punched him in the gut? Finally, he said, "If there is a God, one who is not the god that allows this terrible war to go on, if there is such a merciful, beneficent God, I am certain he could not help but forgive you."
"And do you think my wife has forgiven me?"
"From what you've told me about her, I'm sure she has."
"Thank you," the Dane said. "I am relieved."
Johnson got and threw the chair leg into the corner next to his useless shoes. He felt exhausted. He was battered and bruised and weak from hunger.
He went to the window to look out. The sun was starting to go down. Johnson tried to imagine what his own wife and child were doing at that very moment. It would be morning in Connecticut. Perhaps they were walking through the woods, collecting autumn leaves. He tried to picture himself with them, but there was only the two of them, hand in hand, as if he had died. As if he had never existed. He shivered. He laughed and he couldn't understand why.
Without looking at the old man, he said, "You've come here to die, haven't you, professor?"
The Dane didn't respond.
"Well, I came to this Godforsaken country to try to do something for the refugees," Johnson said. "Then, when the war started, I stayed, even after my family left, to try to help save lives. But there has been so much destruction. And now Millad. And I wonder, what is the point in living anyway? Perhaps the doctor of philosophy could tell me that?"
The Dane shook his head and laughed ruefully. "No, American, the professor has retired." The Dane looked down at the floor and began to draw something with his finger in the dirt.
Johnson watched him. From where he stood, it looked like it might be some mathematical formula, or the signs and symbols of a syllogism.
Abruptly, the Dane brushed away the formula with his hand. "You see, Mr. Eric, how easy it is to wipe out thought and argument? But I will tell you this from my heart, if you can bear listening some more to a silly old man. I know only one thing truly. It is pointless to fight for the big things. When you have won them, you have won nothing. Only the small things in life are truly big: a gesture, a smile, a lock of hair across the pillow, a child laughing at a caterpillar. Forget ideologies and philosophy, American. Forget trying to play God. Live for small things." He paused, then smiled.
"Words from the grave," he said.
Johnson did not have time to contemplate the Dane's argument. Fighting had broken out again. A mortar round shook the hut. There was an exchange of machinegun fire nearby and the shouts and footfalls of running men. And again silence. Johnson and the Dane were both back against the wall. They stared at the door expectantly, as both intuited some result of the fighting.
When the door opened, it opened slowly. Someone was being cautious. In the fading twilight, Johnson could see that the gunman standing there was a Christian, probably from Damour, a phalangist. There was the camouflage battle dress, and over the face a plain leather mask with holes cut out for the mouth and nose and eyes. Most important, there was a gold chain around the man's neck, holding a gold crucifix that dangled against his chest.
Johnson laughed, one brief staccato laugh, in relief. Immediately he realized it was the wrong thing to have done. The gunman tensed and the hand holding the pistol swung towards Johnson.
"Thank God you've come," Johnson said. "We..."
"Who kills the boy?" The gunman said, accusation in his voice.
"Millad? Look, we..."
"You kill the boy?"
Before Johnson could say anything, the Dane made a movement. It might have been no more than a greeting or a gesture of conciliation, with the hand flung in the air: a small boy's hand trying to get the teacher's attention. The gunman aimed at the Dane and shot him once in the stomach. The shot thundered in the small hut, covering the sound of the Dane's body as it smashed against the wall. Quickly, the gunman turned back and pointed the gun at Johnson's face. The finger tightened on the trigger.
Johnson saw it in slow motion, an eternity of freeze-frame moments. His mouth came open as if to form an impossible question. But no sound emerged. Johnson stared at the leather mask of death, at the dark implacable eyes behind the mask, and waited. Then he realized that the shot hadn't come.
The finger was still tight on the trigger, but the gun was wavering.
Johnson found his voice, a dry voice that imitated rustling leaves. "Go ahead!" he whispered.
The wavering of the gun became more pronounced.
"Come on! Shoot me! What are you waiting for?"
The Arab made an unintelligible sound, perhaps a guttural laugh. "Bukra," he said. He turned and ran from the hut into the gathering dusk.
Johnson stood frozen for a moment. It made no sense. The gunman must have known they didn't kill the boy. Yet he had shot a defenseless old man. Why? He shouted after the vanished apparition of death: "Tell me why!"
His words echoed hollowly down the corridors of his mind. He heard himself say, "Please!" But it was the Dane who had said, "Please!"
Johnson turned. The Dane was crumpled against the wall. His beret had fallen off, revealing a totally bald head. The Dane was holding his stomach with both hands. Blood seeped from between his fingers. His wire-rimmed glasses were lying in a widening pool of blood that was spilling faster than the dirt floor could absorb it.
"Please come closer," the Dane whispered with some difficulty.
Johnson kneeled beside the Dane, unmindful that the blood was soaking into the knees of his trousers. He picked up the glasses, wiped them off with his handkerchief, and carefully hooked them over the Dane's ears.
"Damn you, professor! Why did you have to move?"
"I thought...he would shoot you..."
"No, you were determined to get yourself killed."
"That truly might be a sin." The Dane grabbed harder at his belly and uttered a small moan.
Johnson tried to pry the Dane's hands away from his belly. "Let me look at the wound."
"Please do not," the Dane said. "I am trying to hold me in."
"I'll get a doctor. Somewhere I'll find one," Johnson said.
"Do not go. It will not be of use." The color was rapidly draining from the Dane's face.
Johnson covered the Dane's chest with his own suit jacket.
"Thank you." The Dane's voice had become a tiny whisper, but to Johnson it seemed amplified until not even the hut could contain it.
"Don't die on me, professor."
"You know, Mr. Eric," he said. "Descartes...wrote:...I bleed, therefore ...therefore...I..." The Dane forced a small smile that was part grimace.
"Descartes was full of shit."
The Dane started to laugh, but the laugh hurt him.
Johnson lifted the Dane slightly and straightened out his legs which had been bent awkwardly under him. He put his arm around the Dane's shoulder and began stroking the Dane's forehead. The Dane seemed to be growing smaller. Johnson felt like a father trying to comfort his prematurely aged son.
"You are...basically...a kind person," the Dane said. His breath was comin in short gasps. "You need...someone...to accept...your love."
Johnson did not know what to answer. He felt the Dane shiver and he held him tighter.
"Remember...it is...the small things...they cement the...the disparate parts...of life...together."
The Dane closed his eyes and was silent for a while. Johnson thought that he might have died. Then the Dane opened his eyes.
"I have been with...my wife," he said. "Did I tell you...American...she started the butterfly...the names?"
Johnson said softly, "Yes. She must have been a lovely woman." It seemed like an inadequate thing to say.
"Agavne," the Dane said.
"What?" Johnson asked.
"Butterfly...Armenian," the Dane responded.
Then he began telling the words for butterfly in many languages, caressing the words, fondling them almost as if he were praying and the names were his rosary beads. "Vlinder...Dutch. Faoileachan...Gaelic. Skoenlapper...Afrikaans. Hwu dye...Mandarin. Babochka...Russian. Fjaril...Swedish. Thithli...Hindi. Chem-chem-lhamo...Tibetan. Buom buom..."
He did not finish. His eyes were closed. Johnson shook him gently.
"Please go on. Please."
The Dane's eyes fluttered open. "Viet...nam..." His face was ashen now.
The eyes began to dull.
Johnson shook him again. "Dane. Professor. What's your name? Please tell me your name."
The eyes refocused slightly, puzzlement in them.
The lips opened only slightly, and the sound came hardly louder than a sibilant breath. "Sommerfugl..."
"Sommerfugl? Is that right? Dane, just nod if that's right."
The Dane smiled. Then Johnson realized that the Dane might be smiling at his wife; he was gone. Still Johnson clung to the Dane, rocking him gently in his arms. He did not know how long he stayed like that in the hut.
Sometime later, Romeo found him stumbling along the beach. Johnson could barely recall that he had found the hut no longer guarded and had simply walked out the open door.
In Beirut at dawn he stood before what was left of his apartment building after the rocket had hit Victor's grocery store. The building was tilted and seemed about to collapse. Its facade was gone, sheared off, so that one could see into the shattered remnants of the apartments--a broken doll's house. Victor's grocery was no more than a black hole, a hole which had swallowed Victor and the Dane and Millad and...himself.
He tried to convince the United Nations doctor that he was all right, that he could still function, whatever that meant. The doctor, a tall pinch-faced Frenchman, asked Johnson to hold out his hands. Johnson could not keep them from trembling. The doctor frowned and ordered Johnson's evacuation. Romeo drove him to Damascus and saw that he got safely on the plane. It was another day of so-called truce. Another perfect day.
In Vienna, where Johnson was supposed to change planes for the U.S., he suddenly bought another ticket and boarded a plane bound for Copenhagen. If asked, he could not have found a reason for his behavior. His family was in Connecticut. He knew no one in Denmark. And, certainly, that night in Copenhagen no one could have accused him of being rational.
A truck backfired. Thinking it was a bomb, he threw himself flat on the sidewalk. In a late-night cafeteria, he found himself shouting at the diners: "What are you doing here? You could all be killed! It's night...no one goes out...it's..." He ran from the place, indifferent to the stares and whispers that followed his departure. He thought he heard Victor's catarrhal laugh under the rubble. He turned to find Victor, but there was
His hands were trembling; he badly needed a drink. Johnson found the University Bar by chance, stumbling into it after midnight. Crowded and noisy, the bar was filled with drinkers whom Johnson assumed to be students and artists. Someone was playing a guitar. There was singing. Why would...?
Yes, it was good that someone felt like singing. Johnson sat on a stool by the bar and clutched his beer glass with both hands to keep them from shaking.
"I've never seen a man drink with two hands," a feminine voice said.
He glanced up and realized a young woman had sat down on the stool next to him. She was sipping her beer and staring at him quizzically. A pretty redhead in her early 20s, she had the fresh features of a country girl. She was about the right age to be a college student.
"You look terrible," she said. "That's why I'm talking to you."
"It's a new habit."
"What? Looking terrible?" she laughed. A plangent waterfall in a wooded glen. It had been a long time since he had heard anyone laugh like that. It was a laugh free of guilt or fear or desperation. A sweet troubling music.
"Drinking with two hands. That's new. It's something I'm perfecting."
She saw the pain behind the joke and did not laugh. "It's all right," she said gently, and put her hand on top of his. There was nothing insinuating in her touch, only an open solicitude. "We are all friends here."
Johnson glanced around at the other patrons of the bar. They seemed to be carefree and having a good time. No one was paying any attention to Johnson and the girl. "You're Danish," he said. He was groping for something to say to someone so young and relatively innocent. Had he ever been that young? Boola boola.
"Actually, I'm Icelandic," she said. "I'm here at the university." She had not taken away her hand, so he was unable to drink.
He looked down at his beer and looked up into blue eyes. "I've been in a war," he said. He hadn't meant to blurt that out. He wasn't trying to impress her.
"Oh. I have heard of it." She removed her hand and sipped her beer. She looked over at her friends, making a decision, and then turned back to him.
"It must have been bad."
"If I told you a story about the war, would you listen?" He felt like a supplicant at an altar.
"Yes," she said. "I want to learn."
He told her about Romeo and the Dane and the boy and the hut. And when he had finished, only the two of them were left in the bar with the bartender, who was busy polishing glasses.
"I'm just a simple girl from a small place. I do not understand these awful things," she said.
"It's better not to," he agreed. "You've been very kind to listen."
"You needed to talk to someone," she said. "You will go back home to your family now?"
"I don't know." He didn't really know where he was going.
"It would be good to be with your family. They must be worried. They must be waiting to take care of you."
He nodded, to reassure her.
Then, with some difficulty he asked, "Tell me. Sommerfugl...is that a name in Danish?"
"Yes, that's the word." It was the last word the Dane had spoken. "I want to know if that could be a man's name, a family name."
She laughed. "It means butterfly."
"Butterfly?" he said. "Butterfly!"
Suddenly there were tears in his eyes. Then he was smiling, crying and smiling at the same time. And his hands were no longer shaking.
"What's wrong?" the girl asked.
"Nothing," Johnson said. "I'm going to be all right."
He picked up his beer and sipped and wiped the foam from his mouth with the back of his hand.
"You're drinking with only one hand," she observed.
"Yes," he said.
"That's all you need now," she said.
"Yes, that's all I need."
[Reprinted from Penthouse, December, 1985]
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