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Fair Play
Kathryn Ramsperger


March 4, 1991, Piecewood Displaced Persons Camp, Southern Sudan

Dianna parts the canvas flap that serves as the door of her dwelling and peers out on the new day. The sun melts down, and scenes become shadows of themselves, forever vulnerable, forever expendable, snuffed with the flip of a switch. Dianna’s own American wholesomeness, her pale burnt skin, the freckles on her nose, and her relatively clean clothing seem out of place, almost insulting, in this place of dirt and misery.

Things in the bush are never as simple as they appear. What appears to be a flowering shrub may not bear flowers at all. On closer examination, what was thought to be white petals are actually the flapping wings of thousands of swarming insects that have eaten any bud that tried to appear.

She feels as though she has been at this camp for a year instead of a month. Each day owns its unswerving, inevitable routine, like the sandy desert tides. She’s certain now that her schooling is a diversion, that less than a kilometer away, these boys are being prepared to shoot rifles, perhaps even missiles. Maybe she can save one or two lives.

Each day, the boys straggle in, their mouths curving up when they see her, their dark eyes bright, their fingertips reaching in her pockets for food or cigarettes. They speak to her with their eyes instead of their mouths. Her suitcase full of bribes—piles of unboxed Marlboros—is almost empty. They turn up their noses at anything, like a pencil, that they cannot inhale with their lungs or bellies. They are still a bit young to be sticking needles in their arms, but that, too, will come, once they see some action. She’d observed the dull eyes of teenage soldiers-in-training too many times to imagine these boys’ futures would turn out otherwise. The boy soldiers were starving for food, but laden with pharmaceuticals. They marched through wasted grassland covering oceans of untapped petroleum. All their fighting would never yield a drop for them.

Some days, Dianna takes out an emery board, a vestige of home. Her nails are crooked and cracked from the heat, drawing water, and chopping weeds from around her doorstep. Funny how its rough, sandy surface, which echoes this world but reminds her of another, comforts her. Right, left, right, left, she files down the nails until she reaches the skin where nail ends and finger begins. She is usually filing when the first child skips in, brandishing a knife, a rusty fishing hook, or a spent grenade.

“What?” they ask her, peering at the strange stick in her folded hands.

Time and again, Dianna will explain. Time and again, the children will fail to understand.

“Need?” they ask. Dianna is convinced that they may learn to read before they learn the use of a manicure utensil. Yet still she files. It is her statement of faith.

After class, the boys play soccer, or football as it is called in Sudan. They have a real soccer ball, although it is a bit deflated. They use tents as goal posts and the younger boys as goalies.

Some boys don’t ever show. Dianna watches them performing their chores, eating their stewy, beany fu, preparing for nightfall, marching in formation. They never meet her eye, and she knows not to push. They come to her only if their curiosity overtakes their fear of Daniel Kier’s disapproval. These children owe everything, including their survival, to him. She has a year to reach these children. Reaching even one would be enough reward for time spent in this restless, ragged heat.

When she gets bored waiting, she brings her old Polaroid camera out. The resulting yellow, blurred images create quite a stir. The children love to see themselves. They delight in making faces for the camera. They even primp in hopes that she will choose to snap one of them. It is more than a conversation starter; it is a show-stopper, marketing her words with their pictures.

Yet would words mean as much to these boys as they did to Dianna? Would they think of laying down their rifles to turn the pages of the books she provided? The smell of overused cooking oil, reminiscent of the many meals fried in it, cuts the air like a scythe. She longs for just one ice cube. That is when she sees a young child’s hand.

The hand waves at her from behind a large rock a few meters away. The rock, flat on top, nature’s idea of a throne, hides the rest of the child’s body. The hand itself, though, is a work of art. It is a hand a hyena could tear off with one swift chomp. Tiny, ragged fingernails, dirt caked over hidden fingerprints, flies buzzing this way and that. Yet his wrist is another thing altogether. Smooth and shiny and strong. She takes up her Polaroid and begins snapping. The shutter clicks and the photos whirl out one by one until the film is gone. They fall at her feet, creating a small dust storm. The specks float suspended in the air, then rest, one by one, on the photos.

She wants to wash his hands to see what lies beneath this filth. So, she walks around the rock that obscures the body that owns this miniature man’s hand.

“Hello?” She wonders if he will understand her simple greeting.

“Hey,” he answers.

How does he know that word?

“I teach myself book.” The boy smiles. “You help?”

“Do you speak English?” Dianna fumbles in a mixture of English, Arabic, and Dinka.

“Engoish.” The little boy’s smile widens. Attempting to mimic her sounds, he slaps her hand with his, reaches in her pocket, finds an English tea biscuit, pops it whole into his mouth. “Tank.”

Dianna laughs at the mispronunciation, so appropriate in this netherworld on the edge of battlefields. Her heart is in her ears. She may have found her student.

“Name?” she asks.

“Diamy,” he answers.

She laughs again, this time a broad, imp-like Dianna laugh, a laugh that she barely remembers. “No, I’m DiANNa,” she corrects. “But you?” Her fingers point to his chest, and his beautiful, muddy palm slips around them. “Me Khalil,” he answers.

They giggle together. She does not know if both words form his name, whether it is a variation of some Nuer pronoun, or whether he has made it up himself. It is possible he was plucked from his village before he even answered to the name his mother called him. Many of these boys were orphans, and still others were sent away, pawning, they called it. They were lent to others so that they—and the rest of the family—would not starve. The official word was that they were child laborers. Yet turning over this practice to reveal its dirty underside showed a far grimmer picture: slaves, sex slaves, child soldiers. Sacrifices, yet sacrifices with the hope of a fuller belly, and fuller for the conscripts than for their parents.

They walk hand in hand toward the canopy. They plop onto the ground, and he curls his elbow into her lap. Polaroid pictures look up at them through the earth like a faded carpet. Khalil picks one up and squints. “Khalil?” he asks.

“Khalil,” Dianna replies. She opens a book to page one and begins to read. As she mouths each word, he repeats it after her. He points at the illustrations of full leafy branches and curvy women in full skirts and stays. He points at the letters. Beatrix Potter’s bunnies and hedgehogs dance in a land of cobras and hippos.

She has just broken a professional as well as a personal credo—never get close to anyone, ever again, especially not a client. She smiles in dazed but sated shock. She always thought it would be a tall, dark man walking through camp that posed the most risk to her heart. And here, this little boy has grabbed it with one sentence and a few fingers. She’ll give him a good washing, make sure he is free from parasites, offer him a T-shirt and a book all his own. Tomorrow, she will speak to Kier. This boy could not possibly be old enough to train.

Khalil seems in awe of her cinder-block establishment, the only one of its kind in the camp. Others must reside in thatched mud huts or sleep under flimsy tents. Many boys sleep in the open air. He runs his delicate hands over the cold, rough surface of each brick, one by one, as though it were a sculpture. If he even knows what a sculpture is. She fills a vat with all the cold water they can haul, pours soap into it, and orders him in. Khalil is having none of it. He is not getting his uniform wet. He crouches in the corner, still all smiles, but head wagging from side to side. “No.”

She hauls him, in his strange uniform, which resembles ragged shorts and surgical scrubs more than fatigues, and dumps him into the vat. He can’t weigh more than forty pounds, but he is arms and legs and sharp nails, flailing, no other sound. Then he is still, as she pours the soapy water over him, scrubs and scrubs his tiny fingernails. He relaxes and blows bubbles. And gradually the smooth, burnished skin shines through.

* * *

Kier stands outside his thatched, domed abode, which serves as home, office, and covert military headquarters, smoking a cigar and tossing ash over his shoulder. He stiffens as he watches her approach, the lion preparing for battle. She leans forward in response.

“Dr. Kier, I wanted to express my thanks for the blanket. It was you who left it at my door?” She extends her hand. He does not take it. She bows instead, acknowledging the rebuff.

“Yes, it was I.” He stares her down. She assumes he is waiting for the real reason she is here. The sun dips, barely a slip over the mountains in the distance.

“The boys are making progress.” Dianna twists the cuff of her shirt with her fingers, around and around, like her mother used to twist her hair. Nerves.

“Hmm,” he grunts. He is not giving an inch.

“I—I want to ask you about this boy I have met.” She looks at the dust on her feet, kicks it off only to find more dust.

“Yes?” He seems impatient to get on with his smoking. “What of it?”

“His name is Khalil.”

“Khalil?” His expression has changed, malleable, fluid, and his upper lip twitches at one corner. He throws both shoulders back and steadies himself on a nearby fence post. “What do you want with Khalil?”

“He knows a few words of English. He has asked me to teach him to read.” She gulps in, waiting.

The air is as silent as the static charge preceding a lightning bolt. Kier grips the fence post now, digs his feet into the dust as far as they will go, which is not very far.

She tries again. “Dr. Kier, surely Khalil is too young to be in training. He can hardly be more than seven!”

He sniffs. “Khalil is too young to learn to read.” She realizes his ironic use of the word “young,” and she finds tears pricking the corners of her eyes.

He laughs, the first laugh she has ever heard from him, and she does not like the sound of it. She backs away without thinking about keeping up appearances. He wags his finger in front of her face. “Khalil is mine, you hear me? Do not hitch your high humanitarian hopes on my boy, you understand?”

Could he mean “son”? She cannot believe he would have his own son at this desolate place, even if it is home to him. Why would his son be here without his mother? Suddenly, Dianna suspects what he means, and she gasps.

Kier’s face closes in on hers, and she can smell the cigar, pungent and alarming. “The next time I see him under that canopy is the last day you will be teaching anyone in my country,” he says, enunciating each syllable, his pronunciation impeccable. His consonants click staccato against his teeth, no lisp apparent at all right now. She realizes how his enemies must cower in front of him. Her legs are shaking, and she realizes she has pulled a button off her shirt cuff.

He turns and takes long leaps of steps toward his hut. He throws the cigar behind him. It lands at her feet.

Kathryn Brown Ramsperger is a lifelong writer of fiction and nonfiction, and her most recent stories appeared in Willow Review  and The MacGuffin. Her novel The Shores of Our Souls (TouchPoint Press, 2017)  won three literary awards, including one for multicultural fiction from Foreword Indies. She's worked and resided in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East and now lives in Maryland with husband, two teens, and two cats.