By the time Selah Palagong was born, his Moslem father had deserted his family to serve in the revolution. His mother, in a rage at the idea that her husband could simply betray his family and walk away for nothing but a wild-idea that had little hope of succeeding, picked up the children one night and knocked at the vestry door of St. Simon’s Church a half mile away from their village in the small coastal city of Kalamalatan where a groggy priest opened the door and took them in.
After several months of refuge in the old rooms that had once been a novitiate behind the main church, an area walled off from the rest of the world where Kavari and her daughter could only hear the shouts in the streets of the Islamic revolutionaries pounding at the church door and firing off their weapons, she sat down with the priest and was received into the church. Her first act as a Roman Catholic was to have her son christened. Kavari became Catherine, Anar became Anne, and the infant boy’s name was changed from Khalid, as his father had wished, to Selah.
“What does it mean, Father, this name Selah?” she asked as the priest drew the chrism across the sleeping child’s forehead and repeated “Selah, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”
The priest smiled after sealing the bond within the child and handed the baby back to Catherine. “It is an exclamation. It means, ‘here it is,’ or so we are told. I do not take naming lightly, so I spent a great deal of time at the seminary searching out the meaning of the mysterious word. It also means ‘to measure and weigh in balance’ because the poets of the Psalms wanted to think that those who heard the beautiful wisdom of God paused long enough to consider it and make it their own. You could say is means more than ‘pay attention.’ It could be ‘think about it,’ ‘consider,’ and ‘exercise good mind.’”
The revolution failed – the military invaded the Moslem quarter. There were reports of atrocities. The priest decided to move Catherine and her family to a safer place. Although he hadn’t the heart to tell her, there had been reports Saleem, her husband, had been in a cadre that had attempted to seize the market square one day when the sun was at its height. They thought they could succeed, Allah be praised, in slaughtering the shoppers to demoralize the town. Instead, the shoppers turned out to be paramilitary. Every stall was a fortified position. The revolutionaries rushed through the aisles with their guns blazing and were mowed down.
The survivors of the attackers were taken to an old cricket ground where the infield still bore the scar of a graveled pitch – a last reminder of a forgotten empire. The men of Salem’s cell vanished. No records. No marked graves. The military decided they did not deserve an iota of information. The priest hoped Catherine would pray for her lost husband, but her determination to reject him was so evident he did not share the news with her. Better she did not know, he decided. God would reveal himself in good time.
The coastal road north to the Christian dominated city of Esdran was heavily guarded. Checkpoints popped up every two miles. Beside some, there were corpses lining the shoulder. The priest obtained transit papers for Catherine and her children. A man in a collar, on a mission of mercy, passed through the checkpoints easily. “Father forgive me for the lies I told to get you here,” he said to Catherine when they arrived in Esdran. He pointed to the plastic rosary she held in her hands, folded in her lap. “The presence of the Lord did not hurt our cause.”
A family named Cruz took them in. The priest explained, “his name means cross. He is Joseph of the Cross. That is a good name for a man who says he awaits our Savior. He is your savior.”
The Cruz family had a small shed at the back of their garden that had once been the house’s kitchen when the Cruz’s were a powerful merchant family in the city. Catherine was employed for food and shelter as a maid and cook in the Cruz household. The balconies that demarcated the generations shadowed the courtyard that Catherine swept each morning just after dawn.
Times change. The powerful mercantile Cruzes had receded into history. A shipload of goods from England, on which a Cruz patriarch of the time had invested heavily, was sunk en route to Esdran by a rogue German cruiser, the Emden. As is the case with many powerful families throughout the world, a single event had triggered a sad decline in the family’s fortunes. Jose Cruz was now a tailor, and on the side he mended shoes.
Jose claimed he could transform a man from head to foot in a matter of hours. Jose’s father had taken to the sartorial trade when bolts of heavy British wool piled up in the family warehouse during the Second World War. The wool, he explained, had nowhere to go. It could not turn back and it could not head on. So, it sat there, wrapped in heavy layers of brown packing paper, taped and sealed against the attrition of insects, and hidden in the cool darkness of a long, sleep. The stacks of bolts, Jose would tell those who entered the warehouse, reminded him of the empire. “It is in darkness now, but someday its fortunes will revive and our representatives in Durham will want to do business with us again.”
During the war, the shoe trade was Jose’s biggest business. Leather kept better in the dark than wool. Aussies on their way to the Malay jungles would discover a sole was coming loose on their boot, a hat band snapped, a heel had lost a nail, or a holster was coming unseamed. Jose did well in leather while that phase of his commercial life lasted. There was little call for wool in the tropics, but always with an eye to future business, Jose saw that worsted could be traded for other types of cloth, and once the war ended a bespoke suit of jute cut just as fine a figure in the post-war world as a Saville Row pinstripe and was far more suited to life in the sun.
As Selah grew up, he would sit in the cool front corner of Jose’s shop. The old men would gather there to discuss the hardships of the country. Selah could see out the window and down the street as carters unloaded their goods and shoppers came and went. When word got around the foreign community, especially the oilmen who came from Amsterdam and London, that there was an old tailor who made a good suit from good material, business picked up. Selah not only heard the dickering over cut and price, but he also heard the exchanges between his world and the outside world.
After school one day when he was seventeen, an ex-pat Pole walked into Cruz’s Tailors and ordered a double-breasted suit. “A Pole?” asked Jose.
“I was in broadcasting before the war. Then I fled Poland. I landed in London and did propaganda work on the BBC. I got work in Shepherd’s Bush and got to know a number of the producers and newsmen. I practiced my English, and can you hear it – just a touch of an accent – to sound just a little bit foreign. That’s why they assigned me to the Overseas Service. I am here to tell the world about the lovely things in your lovely country if they are lovely enough to talk about.”
Jose smiled as he measured the man’s inseam, and looking up from his crouch asked, “And when will that be?” in perfectly unaccented public-school English.
“I will come by more often,” said the Pole. “You seem like a man who has a lot to know, and this is a cool, friendly place to spend a hot afternoon.”
That is how Selah got into broadcasting. He was told to keep his eyes open, his mouth shut, and to handle the feeds of judiciously tentative two-minute reports the Pole fed back to London.
The studio where Selah handled the Pole’s feeds was hot and airless. “I can go into the jungle or an extremist mosque, but I can’t handle that damned glass booth.” Selah sat through late nights with Tadeuscz at the lone table in the bureau. The Pole had found the bar at the Overseas Club but had returned to the office having overheard something he should not have.
“Two Americans. I can’t say more than that. Something is going down, but now is not the right time to report it. The Americans are always up to something. Did you know before the war I worked in Poland for a remarkable man? His name was Maximillian Kolbe. He was a priest. He wasn’t a Communist or a Fascist. He was a man without sides. That’s very dangerous, especially when you are brilliant. Being brilliant and dangerous is no one’s business. No one’s. And Kolbe? He was amazing. He had a newspaper going, and radio station. He even broke into television. The first television station in Poland! No one, of course, had a television set to watch what he was doing, but he was doing it, nonetheless. And his message? Simple. He said the Nazis weren’t telling the truth. They were making up stuff. And were they? Of course. You see, Selah, real journalism, the kind of stuff you and I are doing, is the antithesis of propaganda. Propaganda wants people to believe things; journalism wants people to know things and understand them. We journalists don’t care whether something glorifies the people in charge. That’s not our job. Our job is to make sure everyone knows what is being glorified and why. And tonight, I think things in glory land are going to change. Can’t say yet, but when Americans show up in the Overseas Club and a general shows up it means someone, somewhere, perhaps on the other side of the world, wants a different set of medals in charge of things.”
“What became of your journalist priest?”
“Max? When the Germans crossed the border, he kept broadcasting. He’d built a wall around his broadcast centre. He said it was his version of an abbey. I thought it looked more like a fort. He kept broadcasting. I don’t know how the information was getting in but it was getting out. It was like a candle burning down to its last wax. There was the light and gradually the light went out. The Germans stormed the place. They made him stay long enough to see everything blown up. You know what he is reported to have said? “You can’t blow up ideas.” Ideas. The very thought of ideas. They make me sad and yet happy to be what I am. I’m an idea. You’re and idea. Yes, the Nazi’s killed Max. They killed him in a concentration camp. He took the place of some man who had ten children when someone escaped from the camp and ten needed to be punished for it. He kept those ten men alive in a filthy, airless cell for a month. When the Nazis came back to see if they were all dead, they were singing an Ave. An Ave! So, the bastards pulled him aside. “We’re going to finish you. We don’t care about the others, but you have been trouble to us because you are about ideas.” So they shot bleach into his arm with a hypodermic. He didn’t die. They started to club him to death with the butt ends of their rifles. He didn’t die. “I am an idea,” he kept saying. So, they shot him. They put more bullets in him than it takes to win a battle. But did they kill the idea? No. Because someone was listening. Someone was reporting. Someone saw what happened and passed on the facts others. Eventually, a couple of years later the story reached me in London and it was I who read it on the BBC World Service to the people of my country.”
“So, why are you here and not in your country with your ideas?”
“That’s a whole other story. Men in grey. Men in green. Men in red. Men in black. Too many shirts. Here, the shirts are just one colour – no colour – and that suits me fine because ideas don’t have colour. You can see through them.”
The next day, as Tadeuscz had predicted, three tanks and a soldier on a loud speaker mounted on a troop carrier announced the city was under martial law and orders were to be obeyed. One woman decided she had stayed too long at his sister’s house and dared cross the street, only a few yards, after curfew. She was shot. Selah saw it out the window of Jose’s shop which was now shuttered except for a tiny wedge of light that filtered in between the sheet metal and the stone wall. That is where the truth lies in extreme times, Selah thought to himself in a moment of poetry, as he sat in the shop front, the room overheated from having been closed up all day. Truth lives between metal and stone. He had wanted to write a poem about it, but both Jose and Tadeuscz, who had taken refuge with the Cruz family while his bureau was sacked and his transmitters smashed, warned him that poetry in the face of stone and metal was a fool’s gesture. Better to stick with the facts when they are ready to be spread than to dabble in something that could be misconstrued as a weak-hearted lie.”
That night, however, Tadeuscz made his way through the streets with Selah by his side. He had heard that the offices of Radio Luxembourg had not been attacked, and with a report in-hand and ready to let the English-speaking world know what was happening in the aftermath of the coup in Esdran and other cities in the country, the short two-minute news item was sent. Tadeuscz was succinct. He stated that a group of generals had seized power in the capital and had declared martial law. He reported that the capital was under lock-down and that travel was strictly prohibited. He also noted that large oil tankers had sailed past Esdran the day before, presumably bound for the capital port where vast oil reserve had accumulated when the previous government had shut down exports in defiance of international trade agreements. At the end of the report, he said his name, the location he was reporting from, and the name of the BBC World Service. That was his last report.
On the way home, Tadeuscz and Selah saw a huddle of men ahead in the road. They were carrying guns. Tadeuscz turned to Selah and told him to walk very carefully down a small alley they were passing and not to look back. Tadeuscz took off his panama hat and his jute suit jacket and handed them to Selah. “There’s money in the pocket, son, take it and be safe getting home.” Then the Pole walked forward. Selah wanted to turn and look, but as the man’s shadow disappeared off the alley wall, he knew that making a slow, quiet, passage home through the maze of streets was the only thing he could do.
Several months passed. Life in Esdran gradually became safer, though the presence of the military, soldiers stationed at street corners with rifles rested on their shoulders and their new, American-style helmets tilted back to the base of their necks, became a common sight. The Overseas Club remained closed. It had become a regional HQ of the new regime. No one came into the tailor shop. Jose fretted they would die from starvation when Selah produced some of the money he had found in Tadeuscz’s jacket. There was no word from the Pole. He had merely vanished in the night.
One morning there was a banging on the shutters of the shop. The steel sounded like trumpets. Jose cautiously opened the front door. “What do you want?” he said to the soldiers. “We are good people. We are obeying the curfew.”
“Do you fix boots, old man?”
“Yes. But I cannot open because of the curfew.” Six soldiers stood waiting outside.
“We hereby authorize you on the authority of the regional commandant to open your business and repair the boots these men have been wearing. They were purchased by the previous regime and are shoddy. They need work. Open up now.”
So, Jose opened his shop. As he stood at his cobbler’s bench, watching the men admire the samples of cloth and the mannequins in double-breasted wool suits, he felt a breeze blow in through the front windows and he felt relieved. Selah stood beside him, handing him his awls and hammers as Jose tapped and threaded and tightened the stitching before passing the boots back to Selah to be polished. By the time the guards left, Jose had sold five suits, a dinner jacket, two pairs of wool trousers, and a pair of restored brown loafers an Australian had forgotten to collect during the war. Other shops on the street, seeing Jose’s establishment open for business again, raised their shutters, and gradually men and women flowed into the streets, tired, emaciated, and ready to do business again. That is how the American years began in Esdran.
Selah returned to the BBC bureau office. The place was a shamble, but in the midst of the killing and the chaos and the weeks of silence and curfew, someone had still managed to deliver the mail. There was a stamp with Her Majesty’s profile on it, a young-looking woman who had become a ghost in cameo since Selah had last seen a British letter. Opening it, the letter inquired at the whereabouts of Tadeuscz Prokevski, and asked if any local efforts were underway to locate him as the British Consulate in Kalamalatan had exhausted all means of determining Mr. Prokevski’s whereabouts and condition. In the meantime, the message noted, the Service was in need of a reporter on the scene, and if one was available the individual should immediately contact an overseas telephone number that was written in the body of the letter.
Selah paused for a moment. The thought of spending his life dedicated to ideas seemed the noblest calling of all. Tadeuscz had taught him that. He had no way of finding ideas, yet ideas seemed to come to him, and perhaps that would be a good thing in the journalism business. “It is a tricky life,” Tadeuscz had told him during one of their late-night chats in the bureau while they sat and waited for confirmation that an item had gone through to London in good order. Tricky? Perhaps. But even being a tailor, Jose had told him repeatedly, was a tricky business. Everything was tricky. Sleeves. Soles. Lapels, especially. The customer had to be satisfied. Who were the customers for ideas? The purpose of his life unfolded before him as Selah looked at a map of the world that had not been torn down from the wall. The map was divided into time zones. When there was night there was also day someplace else, and by night or day, people would listen to a voice out of the blue sky or the starry darkness because they wanted to know what was happening in the world. Selah picked up the telephone and called the number. A few weeks later, after the American senators had come and gone, and after moderate freedom of the press had been guaranteed with the new constitution, Selah, journalist for the BBC World Service, reporting from Esdran, opened the boxes containing the new transmission devices and an over-the-shoulder reel-to-reel tape recorder and microphone. The bureau was ready to report again. Ideas lived to fight another day.
The first order of business for Selah was to determine what had happened to Tadeuscz. He recalled the favorite place for mass executions was large enclosed spaces like one might find in a cricket ground of a football field. He stared at a map of Esdran and found, on the outskirts, an old polo ground not far from the newly re-opened Overseas Club, that had been renamed the National Club in honor of the coup d’état.
With the new resources forwarded from London, Selah hired a driver, a Christian named Paolo whose background was a mixture of Portuguese – a holdover from several prior colonial regimes – and English, though his English left much to be desired, and local parentage. Selah wanted it that way. He wanted someone who knew the roads and back alleys, but not the complete depth of what might be discussed with an interview subject in the back of the car. Following Tadeuscz’s disappearance, Selah was finding it harder and harder to trust anyone.
The first stop Paolo was asked to make was at the old polo grounds. The grass had grown waist-high, and the old stands sat crumbling in the morning sun. The royal box, that had never been visited by the royalty it was intended to seat, was the first-place Selah went to survey what was rumored to have been a killing ground during the coup, and he thought to himself “this must be what kings see.” Just below the tufts and plumes of the overgrowth, Selah could make out what appeared to be an arm that was still pointed to the sky. The bastards had not even thought to return to clean up their butchery. Wading into the grass, he was not ten feet from the field’s perimeter when he stepped on a skull.
Selah looked into the empty eye sockets of what had been a person only months before. He leaned over and retched up his breakfast. Another and another lay beneath every step. He wracked his brains to remember details of Tadeuscz, what he may have been wearing. The corpses were still clothed. As he approached the centre of the field, he recalled the two-tone loafers Jose had sold Tadeuscz and Tadeuscz had been wearing the night they had parted at the alley’s mouth. It was then the smell struck him.
The stench reached into his entrails and he felt as if they were about to be ripped out. And just as he was about to faint, he looked down and the man, the bones at his feet, were wearing the two-tone shoes. Selah bent down. Between the buttons of the man’s shirt was a medallion of a madonna, a Polish religious medal he saw Tadeuscz once tuck back in his shirt, self-consciously, while he sat in Jose’s shop. “A little piece of my lost homeland,” he had said, smiling. “The Black Madonna.” Selah reached down and pulled the chain from the body’s neck only to watch the head snap back and roll to one side.
That night, Selah sat by himself in the bureau and recorded his first report. In the two small minutes the network allotted him, and with only a faint hope the item would make it to air with all the noise of the world drowning him out with its morass of affairs and tragedies, Selah reported the death of BBC World Service Correspondent Tadeuscz Prokevski. He described the weedy patch of ground, the sound of buzzing insects hovering over the bodies, the fact no one had made any public mention of the deaths of the foreign journalists – for many had gone missing that night – or the sudden absence of the local correspondents. He left the item, against network policy, with a rhetorical question: “who will acknowledge this atrocity?” He signed off with “This is Selah Palagong of the BBC World Service reporting from Esdran.”
The next morning, Selah was summoned to the offices of the Minister of Public Information in the capital. As Paolo drove silently through the checkpoints and the roadside fields where the stalks of sugar cane stood sentry in the rising sun, he and Selah were silent. They pulled up in front of the Ministry. “If I don’t come out after half an hour, Paolo, you are to leave without me, and make many turns and U-turns as you leave the capital in case you are being followed.”
“Do as I say please, it is for your own safety.”
Selah was seated for an hour in an outer office. Inside, he could hear shouting. One voice was speaking his language and the other was speaking in English. There was a long silence and the door opened. The Minister of Public Information motioned him inside and pointed to a chair in front of a large desk surrounded by two flags of the nation. Another man, a North American in a seersucker suit, sat in the other chair in front of the desk. The minister, a colonel with ribbons and gold braid on his green uniform, took his seat opposite the two men.
“Mr. Palagong, thank you for coming today. This is Mr. Jenkins of CBS. Like you, he has been here to report on the problems that have taken place with the recent change in our government. Your broadcast on the BBC last evening has caused considerable attention we wish to address.”
“I think what the colonel is saying, young man, is you’ve raised a storm with your report. Do you have any evidence foreign journalists were murdered?”
Selah sat motionless. He did not know what to say until Tadeuscz’s words echoed through his mind. “Ideas are important.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out the Black Madonna medal he had taken the day before from the corpse in the Polo Grounds.
“Here is your proof,” he said, holding up the medal and letting it dangle in the air. The virgin and child seemed to spin as if moved by the wind. He then put it back in his pocket. “I have the religious medal, a Polish memento of his faith, from Tadeuscz Prokevski. I removed it from his body yesterday at the killing place. There were numerous bodies there. I don’t know how many of them were foreign journalists, but I know at least one of them was Mr. Prokevski. He wore this medal as a testament to his faith and to his work with the holy martyr Father Maximillian Kolbe. If you wish to suppress the proof of the massacre, if you wish to silence the truth, you will have to kill me to take the medal from me. What I witnessed is the truth and I reported what I saw because I am a good journalist.”
The other two men threw knowing glances to each other and nodded. “Would you excuse us for a moment, the Colonel asked and pointed to the door.” Selah stood up. His heart was pounding. He imagined the moment he stepped into the outer office he would be seized and dragged away. He looked out the window onto the street where Paolo had been waiting. The car was gone. “Good man,” he thought. “He will survive at least another day.”
With the inner office door closed behind him, Selah heard the two men conversing in muffled voices, and then the sound of a telephone being dialed and more muffled conversation. Selah sat in the waiting room chair. Nothing happened. He could hear traffic in the street outside, and then the sound of trucks and shouting, followed by gunshots across the road in the capital building. He looked out the window. Soldiers were rushing up the steps. The guards at the pillared entrance were gunned down and fell forward in their own blood, their bodies sprawled on the steps.
The outer office door flung open. Selah jumped to his feet because he thought they were soldiers. It was an American camera crew. The inner office doors parted and he could see the colonel standing up, donning his braided cap, as the American reporter took a microphone from his sound man.
“Are we rolling?” the reporter asked. “Good. I am with Colonel Pradagonang who has just seized power in the second coup in weeks here.” The colonel buckled a sabre belt around his waist and strode forward. He turned to the camera, drew his sword, and paused. “This is a great day for our nation. The much-needed reforms that will save our people from poverty can finally be enacted now I am President.” He walked toward Selah and put his arm on his shoulder. “I hope you have your little tape recorder with you. You are an honest reporter, a man of the truth, and you are the new Director of our national radio. You will be escorted by Mr. Jenkins and his crew who will document your new role as the conscience that will guarantee the freedom of our nation.” And with that, the Colonel calmly walked across the street to the government house, climbed the steps, and began his fifteen-year reign as the undisputed leader of his nation. It was all caught on film, and would, most certainly, make the televisions of America by the weekend.
As he took his seat in a leather chair in the Director’s office of the national broadcast headquarters, Jenkins his put his feet up on the edge of Selah’s new desk. Selah was numb.
“You’re one lucky sonnuvabitch, I can say that for you. You were in the right place at the right time. I’ve known the Colonel for some years now. I followed him as a jungle fighter when he was busy seeking out an imaginary Jap invasion force in the hills. There were no Japs. They never got close to this god-forsaken place, but that didn’t stop him from hunting them. And he cut quite a figure doing it.” Jenkins reached into his pocket and drew out a cigar. “Smoke?”
“No thank you. Mr. Jenkins, you appear to be a cliché American, right down to the cigar. May I ask, simply from one reporter to another, what is in this for you? You are obviously not merely a reporter for an American network. I cannot imagine you selling soap or cars or cola. Your camera crew was waiting for the shots to be fired. You knew something was going to happen.”
“That’s perceptive of you, son, but none of your goddamned business. I’m here. You’re here. You’re not dead. In fact, you’ve been given a plum job.”
“I can see that. I’m obviously not seated here for interrogation. Why was I given this job and approximately how long will it last before I’m taken off to the nearest polo grounds for lead poisoning?”
The American threw back his head and laughed. “You’re here as long as he’s here, and he’s here as long as we’re here, and we need a free press or this whole reform business and our plans won’t work. Go ahead. Don’t stare at me in disbelief. I want you to keep track. I want reporters crawling all over the place. I want every iota of rotten truth hidden in this country to be exposed, reported on, revealed. The whole truth and nothing but the truth, or so God help you.” He winked at Selah and drew a long puff on his cigar and exhaled before waving his hand in the air to clear a path for his exit. “Son, you are just what we need here.”
“You still haven’t told me why I am here and what this whole business is about.”
“See you at the National Club. Drop by and have dinner with me when you’re back in Esdran to collect your things. Maybe I can talk you into some good old single malt and you’ll see the sense in all this. Remember, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. I want investigative journalism at its finest.”
As soon as Jenkins left, Selah put his head in his hands and began to weep.
Not long after the colonel’s nearly bloodless coup d’état, Selah met a very beautiful journalist, Naomi Dakanagong who had been training in Canada at the Globe and Mail. The open door was now presented to her to return to her country and work as an investigative reporter – partly to right the wrongs that had been inflicted on her family and that had caused them to flee shortly after the Second World War, and partly to indulge her nose for expose journalism – was too much of an attraction to turn down. After several months of stellar reporting, the young leader of the broadcast team presented her with an elegant assignment: marry him. And she did.
Together, the nation’s new power couple purchased a house on a hilltop overlooking the capital. It was an old colonial home with a spreading terrace off the dining room. At night they would stand on the terrace and look down on the lights of the capital and quietly whisper to each other the stories of blood and terror that had shaped their lives. The air on the hillside was full of ghosts in the darkness, and the lights of the city below, even in what seemed an ideal and benign time for the couple, only served to remind them both of what they had lost and could lose in the high stakes game of show and tell that entwined them both. It must have been about five years later I met Selah.
I was working on an Asian assignment for NKP, on loan to them from the CBC. The Japanese were wonderful to me. They gave me a go-anywhere pass on JAL and all its associated airlines, and when I wasn’t covering an event – a bombing, a trade agreement, or a new industrial initiative, I was encouraged to enjoy myself and see as much of Asia as I could. The CBC and the BBC, in a joint venture, asked me to go and interview Selah Palagong and his wife Naomi and to do a radio documentary, something I could cut together quickly, and then enjoy the beautiful beaches on the country’s coasts, before heading back to Tokyo for a Monday morning meeting. I met the couple, asked the questions, and then something I don’t usually permit myself to do happened: I became friends with them. One question has stayed in my mind from that interview. I don’t know why I asked it. It was a minor issue at the time, though minor issues of today often become the headline of the future. “The Moslem population here, they are growing, how shall we say, uneasy with the state of things. You once mentioned that your father, who you never knew, was an Islamic revolutionary. How do you feel about extremists?”
“Extremists only believe what they believe because they have chosen to believe it. I know that is circuitous logic. A Moslem has every right to his faith, as I have to mine. A Moslem will defend what he believes in as I defend what I believe. I do not fear them. I honor them because to have convictions a world where so many great human capacities – faith, courage, honor…those Faulkner things – are so easily cast aside. It takes courage to believe in what you believe.”
Selah asked about Canadian culture and during the conversation he drew out of me the fact I had published two books of Canadian short stories. He thought this was fascinating and asked me to send him some of my work to be translated into his language. I had not heard of any Canadian fiction being translated and published in his tongue – the network owned a thriving publishing business, although their distribution was limited to their own country – and by the time I was back in Tokyo I was writing to every Canadian author I knew, and some I didn’t know, and they sent him their stories. Like me, they hadn’t the heart to ask for any payment for their work. What would have been a paltry honorarium in Canada was almost a year’s wages in Selah’s country. A group of us returned two years later a tour sponsored, of course, by our generous funding agencies, and our reception made us feel like rock stars. Selah stood up in front of a packed auditorium and introduced me as his friend, fellow journalist, and cultural activist, Dave Benton of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. I could not help but like the guy. The look on his face was genuine. He was as proud to be my friend as I was to have him as mine. Life in his nation was good and often, on those winter days when it snows sideways for hours and hours, I wished I lived on that beautiful hillside. Selah’s nation had become a veritable Shangri-La.
But in every letter we exchanged, I sensed a growing anxiety in Selah, and while the Colonel grew older with each passing year, the oil money that rolled in with the departure of each super tanker seemed to cement the old soldier’s place at the helm of the nation. Despite the newfound wealth, most of which was leaving the country because the old Colonel had refused to enact nationalist policies, the poverty rate climbed and social unrest, trouble in paradise, started to spread. Old men, especially old leaders, have two things to fear as they age: inevitable death and those who would hasten their demise.
Bombs started going off among the shops. Selah was worried for Jose and called him every day. “I am a shoemaker who will live forever,” the old man laughed. Selah hadn’t been back to Esdran in three years. His last visit had been for the funeral of his sister who had died from cancer. Selah blamed the fact her house was in the path of the oil smoke from the refinery that had gone up beside the beach where they had played as children. Anne’s death had made Selah feel mortal. It had shaken in him some of the bravado that had been the hallmark of his captaincy at the network. The network had begun to receive threats, but Selah was assured by visiting foreign broadcasters that crackpots are a dime a dozen everywhere. The bombs did not help allay his fears.
That is when the Moslem clerics started to disappear, mysteriously by night, and their disappearances were followed the next day by angry marches through the streets. The shopkeepers kept their shutters half closed just in case they needed to shut their gates in a hurry. The half-closed steel barriers looked like the eyes of a tired man. And when the shutters were completely closed, slogans in Arabic would appear spray painted across the metal shutters in the night. The Colonel ordered a curfew after eight p.m. Shots were heard nightly in the streets. The patrols did not ask questions.
But even with the violence and the turmoil in the Moslem quarter, life continued as it always had. The Colonel announced he would have one more election – he had had six over the fifteen years of his regime and had won every time, each vote monitored by international observers and the main party that stood against him, in the British tradition, calling itself “the loyal opposition.” Life was business and everyone accepted it as that. The press was free, and the network ran the documentaries Selah and Naomi had become so adept at producing.
They had proven, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the junta had taken the life of one Polish journalist and umpteen other international reporters was Soviet backed. They had proven, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that the turmoil in the Moslem quarter was caused by Jihadi forces based in Pakistan and real Moslems, true Moslems, condemned the violence and the unlawful acts of rage as being totally against the beliefs of good Moslems and good human beings.
Everything was life as it should be until the morning Selah and Naomi woke to the cries of their children and the sound of gunfire rising from the city below. Naomi picked up the telephone to tell the school the children would not be in today only to discover the line was dead. Selah told his family and his servants to stay put, to lock the doors, pull the drapes, and if anyone came to the door not to answer it.
“What is happening is not good. It is probably a coup d’état. None of us are not home today if anyone calls or comes to the door, and above all, do not answer the door.”
Paolo would be bringing Selah’s car around at the usual time in a mere fifteen minutes and he would go into the broadcast centre and collect what information he could. As the car pulled up, Selah saw that Paolo had been shot. Selah and Naomi ran to the car, grabbed Paolo, and, bending low in case there might be more bullets, helped the driver into the living room where they laid him on the couch and raised his legs.
One of the servants shouted she would go for a doctor, but Paolo called her back. “You will be killed,” he said, and winced at the burning sensation at the base of his neck. “The militants are everywhere. The city is being seized. The station has gone off the air. I think the militants have taken control of the radio and government house.”
Naomi, trying to keep her cool, knitted her brows and said, “They can’t be everywhere. That’s impossible. There aren’t enough of them. They can’t take the city let alone the country.”
Selah turned on the radio and heard only static. Then, out of the chaos of broken sound, he heard the sound of a Mullah calling the faithful to prayer, a call that echoed daily through the Moslem quarter but the rest of the city ignored as a matter of getting on with their days. The call was followed by blaring marching music and the sound of a voice in Arabic.
“What are they saying? What are they saying?” Selah shouted. One of the servants spoke up.
“I know a bit of the language. They are saying they have taken over the nation. The Colonel is dead. The army have been trapped in their barracks, and if they do not co-operate, they will be shot. No ships are permitted to leave the harbour. All travel is banned. God be praised. That’s all they’ve said. They’re just repeating it now.”
Selah sank into the closest chair. He stared straight ahead. “My God,” he said, and crossed himself. He reached beneath his shirt and took hold of Tadeuscz’s Black Virgin medal and tightened his fist around it. “We are in grave danger.” The music blared from the radio. More frantic marching bands. “Turn that fucking racket off!” Selah shouted. “I’ve got to think.”
An explosion shook the hillside. The children and the maids screamed. Selah and Naomi leapt off their chairs to the floor. One of the French doors to the patio cracked wide open. Selah ran out to the patio to see what had happened. Had it been the oil depot? The government house? He scanned the horizon of the capital. The militants had blown up the army barracks.
He came inside. “The barracks.” Naomi gasped and put her hand to her mouth. One of the maids wept inconsolably. Her husband was a sergeant. As the tears flowed from the children and the maid, and Paolo shook and cried softly with the pain, Selah and Naomi sat in silence. He looked over at Paolo. “I can’t just let him sit there and die,” and with that Selah left the house. He scrambled over the patio parapet and eased his way down the hillside. He crouched low in the scrub growth and made his way from tree to tree. He realized his white shirt might give him away, so he took it off, rolled it in a ball, and stuffed it under a fallen log among a hoard of ants.
He waited and then darted across each of the winding hillside roads, hoping no one would see him as he crossed each gap. He finally reached Dr. Devakutty’s house and made his way through the shrubs in the front flower bed and knocked on the window glass. The doctor appeared at the window. “Palagong, what are you doing in my flowers?”
“The city has fallen to the militants.”
“I was curious about the gunfire. Another coup?”
“No, the Islamists have seized the core. The explosion a few minutes ago was the army barracks going up. I suspect we are defenseless, and to make matters worse, my driver was shot on the way here. Can you come with me? He’s bleeding heavily.” The doctor grabbed his bag, threw some syringes and bottles into a paper bag, and together he and Selah started the climb up the hill. Selah stopped momentarily to catch his breath and saw his shirt swarming with ants. “That was my shirt,” he told the doctor.
The doctor looked at his own white shirt. “I’m not taking mine off and giving it to the ants if that is what you are thinking.” By the time the two reached the top of the terrace and pulled themselves over the parapet, Paolo was dead.
The phone started working again and rang. Selah, confused and shocked to tears stood over Paolo’s body. One of the maids answered it, as she was trained to do. Selah looked up, horrified. She extended the receiver toward him. “It is for you, Mr. Palagong. They say it is someone important in the new government.”
“We are going to kill you. You are an enemy of Islam. Your father was Islam, no? You turned against your faith. You will be killed.” The person on the other end hung up.
“Who was that?” Selah shouted at the maid. The woman broke into tears again. “Who was it? Who was it?”
Naomi intervened. “Stop it, you are frightening the children!”
“You were the one who translated the radio broadcast,” he shouted at the maid. “Who the fuck was it?” The woman did not answer. “Get out. Get out now and don’t come back. You’re fired. You hear. Fired! And tell all your friends in the quarter they can’t just seize a country, Moslem majority or not.”
The day passed. Darkness settled over the hillside. The house began to fill with ghosts. Selah wondered who the ghosts were, whether they were shades of the old colonial days, lost souls of coups that had unsettled what the British had left behind, stunned spirits from the barracks looking for their paths beyond the turmoil, or merely the echo of a man who knew the roads of his country well and drove someone to places where the truth could be discovered.
I was getting ready for work when my phone rang. My story for the day was going to be about the overthrow of Selah’s country by an Islamic fundamentalist movement.
“Dave, this is Selah. I’m not sure how long I can talk or who might be listening, but I have received death threats every hour since the morning. You know what has happened here, don’t you?”
“Yes,” I said, not knowing what else to say. “Is everyone okay there?”
“No. Paolo is dead. I recall you were fond of him and gave him gifts every time you left. We need to get out of here and as quickly as possible.”
“How should I contact you?”
“I don’t know. I’ll let you know. I’m sorry. I’m exhausted. Everything here seems to have gone to hell and in just a matter of a few hours. I remember us having a conversation about tragedy in light of the journalists who were murdered during the coup years ago. Well, this is Aristotle’s reversal. Everything has fallen apart. Can I beg your assistance?” I was just about to agree whole-heartedly when the line went dead. That was not a good sign.
I went into the newsroom at the CBC and strode up to the assignment editor.
“What have we got on that Islamist coup?”
“Not much I’m afraid.”
I immediately called Susanne Whittington at Words Without Frontiers. They are an international organization that “extracts” authors and journalists from situations that are untenable. “Have you heard about what’s going on with Selah Palagong? Can we save him?” I explained he had called me as I was leaving for work and told her what I knew. She agreed to call the members of the emergency council and get back to me.
I called again the next day? “Was there any word from the council?”
“We’re trying to meet.”
“Aw, c’mon. For fucks-sake. The guy is in danger. Hell knows what’s happened to him between then and now.”
“Have you tried calling him back?”
“Yes, and all I get is ‘Your call cannot be connected as dialed. Please try again later.”
“There’s nothing going in or out of the country. You’ll just have to be patient.”
“Susanne, the guy is in danger. He may already be dead, as far as I can tell.” I gave her Selah’s number and I related his background to her so she’d have something to put before the emergency council. A few hours later I was asked to sit in on a conference call, not with Selah, but with some very influential people – a former Governor General, the head of a large publishing firm, and a writer who had won an international short fiction prize. We discussed what we could do and what we couldn’t do. We couldn’t call him directly. We couldn’t fax him – this was before email became what it is now. We couldn’t write him any special delivery letters or any letters, for that matter. We couldn’t send him a package. I felt as if we were leaving Selah in the dark to die.
“We have contacts on the ground,” said Susanne. “We can communicate with him, but it will have to be delicately. The wire services just announced the American consulate in Esdran and the embassy in the capital have been sacked. The ambassador, the consul, the non-national staff all escaped by helicopter. There is word the nationals who were working for the Americans have been shot. Dave, I know you are anxious for Selah, and we can probably figure out a way to get him out, but it will take time, and if he lands here in Canada he will have to come alone. His wife and children will have to go to another location or he won’t receive refugee status.”
“That’s absurd,” I said in protest.
The former Governor General cleared his throat. “I’m afraid the red tape kicks in the moment we try to get him out. I know it is a mess, but we can only do what we can only do.” I asked the council to keep me posted. I heard nothing for another two weeks. I watched the wire services. There were scant reports from Selah’s country. Knowing nothing is the worst situation. It is a vacuum where one is left to guess. Finally, Susanne called me. “I spoke with Selah several days ago, and he said he had figured out a way to get his wife and children and himself out of the country. I tried calling him today and reached his home but they knew nothing. There was a second number in Esdran and an old man answered. He said Selah had disappeared. I’m sorry. That’s all I know. I have to go now. There’s another meeting waiting for me.”
I put down the receiver. Had Selah been saved or not? I would not know the answer to that, or even a partial answer to that for several years. That afternoon, the U.S.S. Forestall pulled up along the coast not far from the capital. The defenseless city was bombed, mainly the oil depots and the refinery. There was American film footage on the evening news of bombs exploding over the tangle of tiny houses and the knots of small streets in the Moslem quarter. Within days, Selah’s country had ceased to be newsworthy, as is the case with all news. It only lasts as long as it lasts.
I had once asked Selah as we sat on his patio why he believed Tadeuscz. “I mean, Tadeuscz was working propaganda. The now sainted Maximillian Kolbe was a propagandist, albeit for the the cause of freedom of speech and belief.” I recall Selah smiled.
“There is no such thing as absolute truth, but there is the truth one feels in one’s heart, the truth that cannot be denied, that speaks to our ability to embrace ideas the way we embrace those we love. I chose, and Tadeuscz chose to speak for what he believed, his side, his perspective, because it was his and his alone, and no one told him what to believe. I bet on myself, Dave. I bet on what I can determine given as many facts as I can discover. Yes, I’m wrong sometimes, more times than I care to admit. But it is my wrong. It is a wrong that I arrived at not merely with my mind but with my heart. It is the wrong of one’s own ideas, and that for me is the freedom I defend every day with my broadcasts.”
Ten years changes a country. When I returned to seek out any trace of Selah Palagong, to find his body in the polo grounds of that portion of the world that slips so easily from the evening news no matter how hard we try to keep it at the forefront and no matter how tough our questions are when we are confronted by events, the whole place had changed. The hard-liners were gone. Revolutions eat themselves eventually. The house at the hilltop was boarded up. The capital had become a dirty backwater. The oil was almost gone, and Selah’s nation was little more than a broken dream. I found nothing in the capital that convinced me Selah was there, so I hired a driver – he reminded me a little bit of Paolo – and headed up the coast to Esdran.
During my short story trip, Selah and I had gone up the coast. We had gone to visit his childhood home. “You need to meet Jose,” he said. “You will like him.”
At that point, Jose must have been in his mid-nineties, and although he had some years on him, he looked far younger and his handshake was firm as he gripped my hand. I met him while he sat at his cobbler’s bench. His supply of wool had long run out or been eaten by moths and insects or had merely gone out of fashion like everything else from the age in which it had been spun.
As I approached the old tailor shop, I saw the shutter was up and I thought it a good sign. It was as I remembered it. Through all the change and turmoil, there was Jose hammering away on his cobbler’s bench. I approached through the open front and stood watching him for a few minutes. I said hello, but he didn’t hear me. Then he looked up and a smile rose like dawn across his face. “My friend! My friend!” he shouted and stood up. I moved toward him to grab his arm and he waved me off. “I’m still good at standing.” He shouted something back to the house and I saw a woman hurry across the courtyard. We moved to the window seat where Selah used to spend the afternoons of his youth, and Jose motioned me to sit down as he pulled up a battered chair.
Shortly, the young woman from the courtyard returned with a tray of tea and some sweets, and Jose told me about Selah.
Selah and his family had made it through the checkpoints because he had decided to escape the capital on a Friday at midday when the guards were at jummah. Jose contacted a local fisherman who had a boat – one of the few permitted to enter and leave the harbour in the days after the revolution. The fisherman’s wife was a Moslem and her brother was the harbour master – Jose wasn’t sure of the details and waved them off with the palm of his hand.
Early the next morning, as a heavy fog sat on the bay and the boats bobbed on the surface as if they had resigned themselves to their fates, Selah and his family were at the dock with Jose. The people in Canada could not find a way to locate Naomi and the boys in the same place as Selah, and Selah refused to be separated from them.
“His love for his wife and children was greater than his love of life. He could not leave them behind. For him, it would have been wrong. He put them in the boat, and I thought he was going to get away – they did. They’re in Mumbai now along with so many other refugees from this place. They’re still not permitted to return. Just as the boat was leaving its mooring, Selah leapt out. Naomi screamed and I asked him what he was thinking and he shouted at the fisherman to go on. He knew he had to stay. The children were bawling their eyes out. Naomi could not bear to look. He stood there, not waving but just watching as they disappeared in the fog. Then he turned to me and took the medal from his neck. ‘Someone who defends ideas will come in search of me,’ he said as he closed my palm around it.”
Jose reached into his shirt pocket and held out the medal. “He was aware of all your efforts, Dave. He told me if I ever saw you to thank you for what you tried to do. He said ideas had to be defended no matter what, and no question is ever completely answered – it is father of the next question. Please take the medal. I’m an old man now. I shall go on mending shoes, maybe until the last day before eternity comes. You must have what Selah treasured and then pass it on to the next person who goes in search of the truth.”
“Do you know what happened to Selah?”
“No, he walked off into the thick fog and I have not heard from him since. There were rumors several years ago, that someone in the hills had been doing broadcasts on an old short wave the Aussies left behind, but no one has a short-wave radio anymore – they were banned by the Revolutionary Council – and if it was Selah, no one can say for sure. You know where the abandoned stadiums and the lost polo grounds are, and I know you will search them until you find what you are looking for. If I am still here when you are certain of the answer of the question you carry with you, please come by and tell me, and I shall put a new shine your shoes for you.”
Bruce Meyer is author or editor of 64 books of poetry, short fiction, flash fiction, and non-fiction. He has won the Anton Chekhov Prize for Fiction and been a finalist for such prizes as the Bath Short Story Award and the Fish Fiction Prize. A collection of his flash stories, Down in the Ground (Guernica Editions) will appear in 2020. He lives in Barrie, Ontario and teaches at Georgian College and at Victoria College in the University of Toronto.