Art by Melissa Mead
by David D. Levine
You've got to hold to your priorities, Michelle Fletcher. That's what you tell yourself as you scrub and scrub and scrub at the crusted black grit in your one saucepan. You've got to remember what's important. Your nails are short and bare of polish, ragged and splitting where they clutch the rusty steel-wool pad, and the skin of your hands is red and rough and raw. You have to hope the constant ache in your joints is just from the never-ending effort of staying alive, and not the beginnings of arthritis. There are no decent doctors here.
You've only yourself to blame, 'Chelle. You got distracted again, got thinking about what you would have done with a nice salmon filet back in the Heron Point house, and let the rice burn in the pan. Oh, you managed to save most of it, and gave the least-burned bits to Tom and Janie, but the part you kept for yourself tasted of charcoal and shame. A fitting punishment for letting your mind wander. You have to stay on your toes if you're going to keep your family alive on a pitiful half-cup of rice per person per day.
They said there might be beans next week.
But Janie's been getting so thin....
This can't go on, you tell yourself, tears plinking into the brown wash water that stinks of rust and char. This situation simply cannot be tolerated for even one more day.
You've tried everything you could think of. You prayed, and you petitioned and pleaded and demanded, and when that didn't work you prayed some more, and when that didn't work you just placed your trust in God and waited for Heaven.
Now you look at your hands, soaking in the brown-black water, and you remember that God helps those who help themselves.
You focus again on the image of Janie and the Iranian boy, sitting side by side on the crate behind the medical tent, their hands entwined. You saw it only briefly, you tell yourself, but the shame and degradation of it burned the image into your mind's eye.
Did she kiss him? Did she... do more?
You haven't decided. What to tell Tom. How to break the news. Whether to break the news. You've been sitting on this image, letting the idea of it fester beneath your sunburned scalp, for three days now. You've gone back and forth a hundred times, staring into the unsleeping dark, listening to the low incomprehensible mutters of Iranian voices and the occasional, distant howl of a coyote beyond the razor wire. To tell or not? To let the whole hideous thing go, dismiss the image from your mind, let your beautiful daughter live her life as best she can in this hellish situation? To speak, and set in motion something that, no matter how necessary it is, you know you will regret for the rest of your life? Or just to throw yourself in front of a water truck, let yourself be crushed and ground forever into the dreadful brown grit of this place, out of shame at the very idea?
No. You haven't the guts to kill, not even yourself.
You have to tell Tom. You have to tell him now, before you lose your nerve again.
You leave the ruined pan and take the lantern with you. You'll need it to see your husband's face.