TFT Exclusive Excerpt: The Black Nile by Dan Morrison
Dan Morrison’s new book, The Black Nile, chronicles his journey along the Nile River from its source at Lake Victoria to its exit 3,600 miles later at the Mediterranean Sea. In this exclusive excerpt, the author describes an eventful night in the Sudanese border town of Malakal.
The power was out when I returned to the Adventist Relief guest house, the room quite warm. I lit the candle nub, drank the remains of my ouzo from the night before, polished off the last of the ginger cookies, and sat listening to my roommate’s shortwave.
Pushing the dial down into a valley between the otherworldly squeaks and whines, something truly exotic — an American Bible program — came into the clear. I leaned toward the sound, and in the dull planar tones of another universe, a Midwestern woman was asking the host if the prophetic impulse wasn’t an aspect of the Holy Ghost and, if so, how then could each person have it? How indeed? The Nile journey so far had shown my prophetic gifts to be nil. Now, after several days of lumbering alone through Malakal, I feared I was losing track.
No one in the United States cared about a months-old spell of terror and death in south Sudan. They barely cared about Darfur, and Darfur was the rage. I needed a thread that would take me from Malakal to the oil areas, a thread to connect this stop to the next and the one after that. I needed for something to happen and I feared I might plod through the next two thousand miles as I had plodded through Malakal that day, without luck and without connection.
“You make your luck,” I said to myself. It was a rebuke: Today I hadn’t made any. Would I snap out of it? So far, the Holy Ghost hadn’t given any sign. I switched off the radio, blew out the candle, and fell to sleep.
My roommate John Ivo came back sometime in the night, still in shock over his elevation to the commissionership of Maban county. In my slumber I could hear him laughing with the others in the courtyard, their celebration punctuated by a series of pops and bangs. I had long since gotten used to the absolute lack of regard people could have when it came to the peace of others, but this — fireworks, at this hour! — was too much. In time I noticed that the fireworks were happening in many places at once, not just in our courtyard. And they weren’t fireworks.
Gunfire was popping outside our gate, near the Sudanese Armed Forces barracks up the road, and, it seemed, everywhere else. I sat up on the edge of the bed. You should be on the floor, I said to myself, and then sat there some more as my ears trained to bursts of automatic gunfire, some close and some very close, and to the creepy skin-crawling sound of ululating men running by.
I got down and squatted on the cement floor and pulled my flashlight from under the foam mattress. Where was cover? To the left were windows into the courtyard. To the right, the bedroom door of thin sheet metal, followed by the wide hall and a steel door to the back walk. Safest, I thought, to take a piss. The outhouse at the end of the walk was windowless cinderblock and would give me cover and time to clear my head. I dashed out, took a long one, and tried to think.
Would they come over the wall? They were coming over the wall.
What would I do? They would kill me no matter what I did. I didn’t want to die in the toilet, cowering over a shitty hole in the ground. I left the outhouse in a low crouch and against all sense I pressed my eye to a small hole low on the fence to see three shirtless men sprinting in the mud past the compound, rifles in hand. One appeared barefoot. All they had to do was leap over the drainage ditch that separated us from the road.
One warrior, his spiderweb-scarred chest clear for a second in the moonlight, seemed to look directly at me. He made the sound, the same creepy war call, and I pulled my head away and duckwalked back into the house.
John Ivo, Ter Majok, and the other guesthouse boys were sitting in the dark living room. What the fuck is going on? “They are shooting,” someone said. Who? “Militia. It was a shootout with police.”
The town outside was well lit — a full moon and low clouds alive with horizontal tendrils of lightning. “I saw it driving here,” Majok said. “Two cars, a joint patrol, were heading to the SAF barracks when paw-paw-paw-paw! You see?” he said to James, another Adventist Relief man. “I was right to change my route. We could have been in the middle. I came a different way.”
Apparently, a police patrol had come across some of Gabriel Tang’s fighters walking armed outside the Sudanese base. The gunfight erupted when they refused to lay down arms. Even in his absence, Tang was toxic to the city’s peace.
Everyone was reclined on lawn chairs or on string beds listening to the gunshots advance like a rippling breeze over the town. I sat on the floor in the corner, keeping my head below the windowsills. After fifteen or twenty minutes, Ter went outside to peek over the fence. “They are moving,” he whispered. After more waiting they opened the gate a foot and he peered out into the street. He gave a quiet order and they threw the gate wide while he sprinted to his abandoned Land Cruiser, cut the machine a hard ninety degrees, and drove it into the compound.
I heard bursts of AK-47 fire. I heard the single pop-pops of handguns and I heard the whooom of rifle rounds passing close, very close by, parting the air and sound itself like they were flesh. I went back to my room and sat on the floor in the corner. I ran my thumb along my sternum and ribs and thought about how fragile this body is in the face of physics, of that single round during the November fighting that had passed through two metal fences, a trailer wall, and ended up in a friend’s filing cabinet, a pristine pointed stray that simply ran out of momentum.
John poured some ouzo and drank deep. Then he walked into the dark kitchen, probably the safest room save the toilet, and sat there on a lawn chair in gloomy darkness, surely thinking of Nebraska and seven-year-old Telly. He came back twenty minutes later, slumped into bed, and was soon snoring.
I pulled my sleeping mat from the rucksack and lay on the floor in my sweaty clothes. During a lull in the shooting the bullfrogs emerged, at first slowly and then with gusto, reclaiming their sonic territory. The birds joined in, followed by the pariah dogs and the asses in an evening chorus. It went on thusly past dawn. At least once an hour someone would start shooting and the toads of Malakal would go silent and wait the bums out. I heard the last shots sometime after 5 a.m.
Along the way I dreamt I was looking through a pile of sensitive documents, maybe Somali, with a colleague who was a star reporter at a well-regarded newspaper, but I wasn’t clear if the documents were mine or his or ours or just there for the taking.
Was I glomming? Was he? The scene shifted. I was in New York, and Rudolph Giuliani was belittling me at a press conference. This had happened many times during my days reporting from City Hall, but on this occasion all the other journalists were joining in the ridicule. As if to salve that mental welt, I then dreamed I was on the precipice of seducing two long-limbed young women I had happened across at a backyard swimming pool. But the prospect of straying from marriage, even in slumber, only brought additional stress. I awoke aroused and with a migraine, stinking of panic.
I sat up at six, having slept no more than an hour, and most of that in ten-minute parcels. In the open field across the road a cluster of cows lay hobbled in a semicircle, each waiting to be milked by a man in a turban working the teats of a contented Sudanese Bessie. Women in long Shilluk tunics walked down the road in groups of three and four, and near the gate children poked at ticks in the dirt, comparing prizes. All appeared normal after the passing storm of Kalashnikovs and testosterone.
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