Fall 2023 • Vol. XLV No. 4 Food |

Three Niles

The lamb came with them to his grandfather’s house. That would be the boy’s first memory of those days in another life. The slight beast leaning against their luggage in the pickup truck’s bed, ears flipping in the wind like the luggage tags, stamped fra, tied to the suitcase shared by him and his father. The dusty white animal body rocking as they passed, uncomfortably, over the dirt roads leading from Khartoum International Airport to the residential areas north of the city. The closed eyes, the lips drawn back as if in a taut smile. The wedge of a face seeming to relish the breeze, unaware of the rough journey, the thick summer air, the man sitting across from it with his long leather satchel.

They would stay the night with them, his father had said amid the heat and noise of the livestock market. (Barely thirty minutes in this country that belonged to him and didn’t, and already the thirteen-year-old boy was drowning in strange sights and sounds and smells.) They would sleep in the courtyard: the lamb tethered to a stake, the man on a cot assembled by his grandmother. In the morning, after coffee and biscuits, the man would say the necessary prayers in a language the boy couldn’t speak but only parrot, then remove one of the knives from his satchel and run the blade across the lamb’s throat. The butcher would be paid; the boy’s uncle would drive him back to the livestock market just as he now drove them away from it; and that evening there would be a celebratory feast to honor the arrival of the boy and his father from America. There would be aunts and uncles and cousins from the surrounding villages. One uncle would drive eleven hours from Port Sudan. They would sit outside, in large circles around broad platters, and scoop hot flesh into their mouths with strips of bread pinched between the fingers of their right hands.

“All for us,” his father had said while the sheep pushed against their legs. The boy fought the impulse to reach out to the animals, to run his fingers along the spray-painted prices on their snowy hides. “You don’t have to eat much of the meat. A few bites.”

“Won’t there be vegetables?”

“There are always vegetables. This is about hospitality. Lamb isn’t an everyday thing here, and they won’t understand how you and your mother eat. Please.”

Three days, the boy thought of this quick trip tacked on to his family’s stay in Hamburg, where they’d been spending the last week of summer vacation visiting his mother’s old college roommate. Three days. Three. Two. One. Until then, he was a hostage. Even though none of this was about him anyway. It was about his father.

And so, from that rough market of waiting flesh set up in a city square, from all those half-spent lives making the boy want to weep, to this, his grandfather’s house. The home sat behind corrugated metal doors at the end of a sandy courtyard speckled with palms, built of the same bronze-colored brick as all the other houses on this street — as, it seemed, everything was here. It was the last week of August 1999, and the heat (as his father had warned him when they’d boarded at Frankfurt, leaving his mother and younger sister to fly back to Washington without them) would be fierce. Mercifully, though, much of the yard was shaded this late in the afternoon, and in this shade his grandfather waited for them to come in, with their suitcase, with his uncle’s generous bulk, with the lamb hefted in the seasoned butcher’s arms. 

As if bracing for a test, the boy struggled to recall what his father had once told him about the old man. (He had little interest in his father’s stories and refused to remember them.) Something about delivering mail down the Nile on British steamers, then becoming an imam in the village where his father had been born. Yes, that was it. Impossible for the boy not to think of his maternal grandfather teaching history at a community college in Arlington, while here, a universe away, this man on whom he’d never set eyes, aside from photographs, dealt out medicine in prayers and exorcisms and neat little cuts on fevered skin. Impossible still for the boy not to see something wizardlike in the short, slight man who came around his wife and raised his arms to them, the sleeves of his jalabiya unfurling like sails. He couldn’t stop staring at the sharp nose, at the wispy goatee beneath lips that kissed his father all over his face, that whispered his father’s name like a summoning from some misty afterlife.

Then it was the boy’s turn. He gave his best smile and stepped into those white drapes. He felt his grandfather’s sandalwood prayer beads against his back. Over the old man’s shoulder, he watched the butcher lead the lamb to a corner of the courtyard. 

His grandfather whispered, between furious kisses, a name the boy never thought of as his. When he finally finished, the boy looked to his father to translate.

“He says what a blessing it is for you to be here. He says Allah has favored him with such a strong grandson. You are dear and sweet to him, he says. You are a Muslim to make him proud.”

If only the old man knew what a fraud he embraced! The boy suspected his father kept the truth a secret during the long phone conversations he had at the kitchen table, alone, while the boy’s mother worked in the garden and his sister watched her Disney tapes and the boy stayed upstairs, alone as he preferred, with his comic books and his secret longings for neighborhood boys. Those heavy voices on the phone, calling at dawn or deep into the evening, responding to the boy’s “Hello” with a stream of Arabic so that he could only stand mute until the voices (sometimes his grandfather’s, sometimes an uncle’s) would simply say his father’s name, drawing it out like a question, and the boy would yell for his father and hand over the phone. Then his father would become someone else, if only for the span of an hour, before his American life drew him back, and it would startle the boy to hear his father speak with such familiarity in a language that sounded, to him, like something crawling up a canyon. Now, in the courtyard, the boy’s grandmother and cousins broke out in ululations, cheers, embraces, prayers in that same strange language. All that warm flesh and cool fabric, the sharp-white jalabiyas and floral-patterned hijabs, the jeans and sneakers and sandals. The photographs. The boy, his father, his grandfather — proud Muslims, shoulder to shoulder, posed like dignitaries, the moment charged with an air of solemnity that felt, to the boy, like the handoff of an empire.

His uncle brought out a video recorder, and the boy tried to dodge that sweeping arm for fear of any record of his presence here, where he’d never imagined setting foot until his father had announced the surprise trip over breakfast in their hotel. What adventure! What opportunity! They were never this close to Sudan! And what could the boy do? He was thirteen, and still at the mercy of his father. Now his mother and sister were on their way back to Washington, while he was here, broken Arabic dropping like rocks from his lips, broken English thrust valiantly before him, and his father translating for everyone.

“They are saying, ‘Welcome to Sudan.’”

“I understand that much, Dad.”

“Perhaps you don’t need me then.”

But damn it, the boy did. He was helpless, a delinquent student beholden to his only teacher, so he followed his father around the yard, embracing after his father embraced, waiting patiently for him to translate their words and his responses. The boy felt like a robot. He was afraid to touch anything, all of it ready to nip him for his years of shame. Repeatedly, he tried to tell each of his cousins his true name, not the name they used, but either they didn’t understand him or they refused to acknowledge how anyone could go by a different name. And how would his father begin to explain it? What would he say? “Because my son has such little respect for me, for this land, I sent him to a private school so he could study our language, our faith, alongside brown boys like himself. I would have kept him there, even now, were it not for the money.” And oh, how grateful the boy had felt for the financial strain that rescued him from that world of black blazers and tugged ears, that delivered him to public school, where his fourth-grade teacher asked her students if they had any nicknames, and he told her what he wanted to be called, the only name he swore to answer to for the rest of his life. That foreign final vowel, nicked off for good, neat as a circumcision.

Three days, he told himself. Three. Two. One. And already the sun was starting to set on the first. As they ate dinner in the courtyard, the boy watched the shade stretch and split the sand into brilliant lanes of yellow and gold. Along one wall of the house, under a wood awning, sat two clay pots of drinking water. The boy kept his eyes on the vessels throughout the small evening meal of salty cheese and bread and stewed vegetables. It was either that or stare at the resting lamb, to which everyone else, talking in joyous, incomprehensible Arabic, seemed oblivious. Those water pots were the only things that made sense to him. 

Occasionally the boy looked at his father. Never before had the serious man appeared so ebullient, so unlike the stranger he seemed back at home, absent without being absent, meeting his fatherly duties as well as anyone with his dark skin could in the white streets of his wife’s childhood, where they still lived. The boy knew how satisfied his father was to have him here, to be here himself for the first time since he’d left for America, in 1975. Still, the words rushed from his father’s mouth as if he, too, was aware of how swiftly time could move. Watching his father, the boy was struck with a sudden, terrible guilt at all the time his father had wasted on him — time fitting the boy for stories that clung like a tight wool sweater to his naked chest, an embarrassing family gift he was obliged to wear and give thanks for. He recalled his mother’s parting words outside the terminal gates: “I need you to keep an eye on your father. This is his first time back since he left. Try to have some fun, and make sure he does too.”

Dusk dropped into night. The front lamps snapped on and polished the courtyard with light, and then the boy noticed how serious his grandfather looked talking to his father. There was a pause, after which his father spoke, but the response didn’t seem to please the old man. Their conversation intensified. His uncle joined in, appearing to come to his grandfather’s defense, but it was too late. His grandfather struggled to his feet with help from the butcher (who’d been eating among them as their guest) and stalked across the courtyard to his room. The boy looked to his father for an explanation, but that lively face had settled back into seriousness. Conversation slowly resumed. His father picked up small clumps of rice, weighed them in his fingers, dropped them back onto his plate. He looked, to the boy, like a toddler pondering something serious in a sandbox while adults argued just out of earshot.

After a time, the women rose to take away the platters and plates, to transform the sitting room with its thick curtains and linoleum-covered floor into a bedroom for the boy and his father. They pushed narrow futons together, covered them in fresh white sheets. His grandmother kissed them both, said good night, and shut the sitting room door behind them. Next to him, his father lay with his eyes burning at the ceiling. 

“Dad,” the boy asked. “Did they ask why we bombed their country last year?”

The boy recalled words over dinner. Clinton. Amrikiya. His uncle miming a giant explosion and pointing over the courtyard wall. The boy wondered if more bombs would drop while they were here.

His father was silent for a time. Then he said, “Your grandfather is upset you don’t speak Arabic. He’s upset I didn’t bring your mother and sister with us. He always had this idea I’d bring her back after we’d married, that I’d be gone only for a time.”

“But you did come back.”

“Three days.”

Two now, the boy thought.

“Did you know your mother, before we married, wanted to come here?”

“No.”

“She did.”

“To live?”

The boy’s father nodded.

“Wow,” the boy said. 

“Can you imagine?”

The boy couldn’t. Her skin, so susceptible to sunburn? Impossible. Yet if he were as pale as that, he might have been spared this trip. 

“It’s you he wanted to see,” his father said. “I think he expected someone else. But you are who you are. And I am who I am.”

And that’s as much as his father was willing to say. He wished the boy pleasant dreams, pulled the sheet up over his shoulders, and rolled away to face the wall. When the boy finally heard his father’s delicate snores, he felt a profound sense of loneliness, as if his father’s sleep had severed him from all familiarity here, and it was only he, on this bed, in this sitting room, in this house, in this country, in this universe. He begged for sleep, tried not to think of the lamb outside on the sand. The faster sleep came, the faster time would pass, and the faster they’d be back in his uncle’s truck and headed to the airport. He’d memorized their flight details, saw them stretched out in front of him now, taut as a finish line: Lufthansa flight 394, departing from Khartoum International Airport for Frankfurt Airport at 6:35 p.m., connecting with Lufthansa flight 202 to Dulles International Airport at 8:40 p.m.

… …

The next morning, after prayers, there was coffee, as promised: thick and black and sipped from small cups. There were biscuits, as promised: delicate shards dipped into the coffee and rushed to their mouths before crumbling in their fingers. 

The boy and his father had traded their T-shirts and shorts for borrowed jalabiyas. Drinking and eating in the gentle breeze that slipped through the open sitting room door, wearing nothing underneath the loose garment but his briefs, the boy felt a curious sense of nudity. An illicit freedom, as if he were laid bare for all to see, and no one cared. He drank cup after cup of coffee, listened to the sounds of conversation. The boy had no idea what they said to one another, but the more they talked, the less he had to. He could sit here, drink his coffee, eat his biscuits, and wait it out. There it was, up ahead! Lufthansa flight 394!

The butcher wiped his fingers and stepped out into the courtyard. Soon the others followed. It was time. Through the open door, the boy saw the lamb, awake now and standing on its skinny legs. He trembled at the sight of that tender animal on the cusp of its own extinction. Or maybe it was the four cups of coffee circulating in a body unaccustomed to it at home. Whatever the reason, the boy couldn’t rise. He couldn’t follow the others into the courtyard.

The boy felt his father’s hand on his shoulder. Such tenderness, so far from home! Was this the same hand that had once smacked the boy across the face for shaking his father during his evening prayer to say dinner was ready?

“Do you want to watch?”

“I’m not sure,” the boy said.

“It’s OK if you don’t.”

“I’ll stay here.”

His father went and took his grandfather by the arm. They left the boy in the sitting room with the half-finished cups of coffee and biscuit crumbs. Anxious, he began to pace. He kept his back to the open door, the open windows. He heard strips of prayer carried in on the breeze. Then a terrible silence. He waited for a scream, a high-pitched cry for mercy, but there was nothing. Or not nothing; merely a grunt, as of someone mildly frustrated. Then there were more prayers, and the sounds of his father and the others performing what the boy had been told was an old ritual from the village: hopping over the dying animal to celebrate its generosity.

Soon everyone came back inside. The talking resumed. The boy’s grandmother cleared the plates. So effortless, the boy thought, this transition from conversation to slaughter and back to conversation again. From time to time, his grandfather looked at him. All the boy could see in the lines of that face was something of his father’s when he’d say, to no effect, how much he didn’t want to speak Arabic, to pray or fast when everyone around him — not his mother, and certainly not his younger sister — didn’t have to. 

The boy willed his body up and out into the courtyard to escape his grandfather’s ancient judgment. The lamb lay in the darkening sand, still tethered to the stake. The boy leaned over and looked into its glassy eyes because he felt that’s what his grandfather wanted. He stared at the neat red cut along the throat, the bib of blood underneath it, because that’s what his grandfather wanted. The butcher stood at a remove, waiting. In time, he would carry the carcass into the kitchen and carve it into manageable pieces for the boy’s grandmother and his aunt to season and cook. The boy’s stomach lurched at the thought of all that meat searing, the pink giving way to gray. He ran to the clay water pitchers and drank down the urge to vomit.

After the noon prayers, which the boy mimed as he’d done during his private school years, as tender flesh was stripped from pale bone with kitchen knives, as it sat in oil and garlic and lemon juice, his father said they were going on a short trip.

“Where?”

“An oil refinery outside the city. Your uncle arranged it with a friend of the family. They want to impress us.”

“But it’s just oil,” the boy said as they climbed into the cab of his uncle’s truck.

“Not to them,” his father said as the butcher climbed into the truck bed.

They dropped the butcher off at the livestock market, and the boy pretended to nap so he didn’t have to see the lowing creatures, didn’t have to wonder if any of them missed the lamb that had been carried off yesterday afternoon. Then they drove west along a road cut into the brilliant orange landscape, all that sandy earth the boy thought of whenever his father spoke of his boyhood spent in a small mud room with a roof of branches and leaves just ten feet from a generous curve of the Nile River. (“The White Nile,” his father was always clear to note.) Could his father, then, have imagined where he was now? No, the boy thought. It would be as impossible to imagine as it was for the boy to see himself here and imagine not three days but an entire life. Like being stranded on the moon. And how could the boy weigh his own meager life against his father’s? Crossing an ocean to study journalism and political science at Georgetown University, then off on assignments to places that, to the boy, were merely names on giant maps rolled down over chalkboards. Living with a mustache, then a beard, then an embarrassing Afro, and now the receding hairline he wore with pride. Living with the strangeness of that dark skin against the paleness of his wife’s world, his own children’s lighter shades of brown. All that time, all those lives, all that mixing with the world, converging in this man who jostled against him in the cab of a truck as they made their way into the desert. And what did that make the boy next to him? How could he be trusted with this landscape, with the people in it, who’d seemed, until just yesterday, as uncanny as characters in his comic books? He’d never admit this feeling to his father, and maybe he didn’t need to. Maybe it was already perfectly obvious.

Up ahead, the refinery climbed like a gleaming spider from all that sand. His uncle stopped in front of a gate and waited for a security guard to approach. The boy stared at the automatic weapon in the guard’s powerful hands. 

His uncle rolled down his window and leaned out to speak to the guard in Arabic. After a minute, his tone deepened.

“Closed,” his father said. “He’s telling the guard we have a visit specially arranged. He’s saying we came all this way.”

Another minute of conversation passed. His uncle pointed directly at him.

“Now what’s happening, Dad?”

“He’s saying, ‘Don’t insult the Americans.’”

The security guard peered at the boy and his father. He smirked, made the sound of a bomb blast, and chuckled. The boy recalled a brief moment that previous spring, when they’d been on their way to the mall and his father had accidentally cut off a motorcyclist, and the man had rumbled up alongside them at the next stoplight, leaned into the open passenger-side window, and said, over the boy, to his father, “Nice driving, you stupid fucking nigger,” before roaring off through the red light. His father had worn the same look he wore now: a blank, depersonalized stare, as if his brain, caught between anger and shame, couldn’t figure out what to do next and so did nothing. Just as the boy had done nothing; had, in fact excused himself from the situation by thinking how unlike his father he was, by convincing himself that word, that agony, was his father’s lot and not his. 

Eventually his uncle conceded, or perhaps realized, with his American brother beside him, it wasn’t worth a protracted argument or ridicule. His uncle and the guard smiled at each other as if this misunderstanding had been nothing but a game. His uncle backed the truck away from the refinery and turned east along the main road. The words between the boy’s father and his uncle were sparse, hushed; their Arabic sounded wilted and in need of water. The boy searched the sky for planes: American bombers, German commercial carriers. 

They returned to his grandfather’s courtyard to find it already filled with arrivals for the evening feast. More faces, more introductions, more embraces, more photographs. Wide blankets and cots were brought into the courtyard, and the boy lay among his cousins and smiled and nodded and did the best he could with the little he had. For a time, he joined them in kicking a soccer ball back and forth, more to escape the thick smell of grilled meat coming from the kitchen than anything else. The finish line, he thought as he played. He could feel it already: the judder of wheels rising up into the plane’s belly. He could hear it: the growing hum of their plane heading up and up and up, home and home and home. 

When the lamb arrived, that breeze-loving face now just thick squares of blackened meat rimmed by rice, the boy looked to his father. He wanted his father to notice the effort he made to tear away a piece of bread, to grip the smallest possible piece of flesh, to slip it between his lips. The chewing — oh, how awful! But he was determined to make a show of gratitude, and when his father acknowledged what he’d endured, when the boy kissed his fingers like a chef to show his uncle’s video recorder just how delicious the lamb was, he hated every single person in that courtyard for what they made him do, what they reminded him of. 

After dinner he and his cousins resumed their soccer game. As they played in the dusk, the boy noticed his father and grandfather arguing once more. The boy took advantage of missed goals to chase the ball toward their argument. He caught those words, like a common refrain. Clinton. Amrikiya. His uncle looked aghast at what his father was saying. The boy’s grandfather sat there between his sons, in silence. He gestured to the boy. The boy’s father made a show of shifting his body, so that now he sat with his back to his kin.

After a moment, the boy left his cousins and dropped down next to his father. 

“They think I’m responsible,” his father said once he’d finished his mouthful of meat and rice. He laughed and shook his head in disbelief. “I didn’t send those planes out here. They wanted to know how it makes me feel to raise you and your sister there, if I feel wrong about it. But I don’t. I told them that given the chance, they’d want what I have. I chose to leave, they chose to stay. Now I feel like I’ve forgotten how to talk to them. I don’t know what’s happened.”

There it was again: that gleam of tenderness, that breach in his father’s armor. It was enough for the boy to whisper as if they were a conspiracy of two. 

“Lufthansa flight three ninety-four,” the boy said. “Lufthansa flight two-oh-two.”

“I don’t understand.”

“One more day, and then we’re going back home.”

His father looked at him and considered this. The boy was prepared to fall into his father’s arms, right there in front of everyone else, but one of the guests announced his departure. A family member? A friend? The boy had already forgotten, but it didn’t matter. The gleam was gone, the breach closed. His father helped his grandfather to his feet, obediently. Together they led the guest to the courtyard doors. 

That night, everyone who stayed slept outside on cots or blankets with their faces up to the cooling air. The boy lay alongside his cousins, and while they slept he projected himself into the next evening, when these three days would be behind him, and as he did, his father made repeated trips to the unventilated outhouse. The boy watched, through half-closed eyes, his father slink across the yard with one of the rolls of toilet paper they’d brought from their hotel in Hamburg to spare the boy from wiping with his hands. He imagined, with a fair share of glee, that intestinal distress, his father’s exploding guts chiding him for being gone too many years, for the audacity to come back, to act as if nothing had ever changed. 

… …

Back now in his familiar khaki shorts. Back now in his familiar sneakers, the familiar dark blue T-shirt he’d worn the morning they left Hamburg. How ready he was, how happy! How he woke up with the dawn, performed the morning prayers with gusto! How he drank his grandmother’s coffee and ate her bread and hardboiled eggs with such relish — all while his father pulled himself along and waved away the invitation for the food his son happily accepted on his behalf. 

And then they were back in his uncle’s truck, not headed to the airport, not just yet, but for a morning excursion downtown, arranged by a friend of the family.

“The same one who planned yesterday?”

The boy’s father was in no mood for such wit. He climbed into the truck bed with their suitcase and braced himself against the wheel wells.

“You can go inside,” the boy said.

“I’m fine here. It’s safer for you in there.”

“Your stomach.”

“There’s nothing left to get rid of. You have your camera, yes?”

The boy pulled the palm-sized disposable out of his shorts pocket and held it up to his father’s exhausted face. 

His grandfather rode next to him in the cab. What could the boy, alone, say to the old man? They smiled at each other, both of them idiots for a time, then turned their attention to the passing landscape. His grandfather seemed morose, disdainful. The boy weighed his grandfather’s joints and wrinkles, watched his fingers fumble with the strand of sandalwood prayer beads. When the trunk bounced over an uncomfortable patch of road, they looked back to make sure the man dear and frustrating to them both in different ways was still there. 

The family friend had made calls, many calls, and when the small caravan of overnight guests pulled up to the docks outside the National Museum of Sudan, there were nearly three dozen people milling around the wide stone steps with sacks and backpacks and picnic baskets. Behind them rested the double-decker diesel-engine ferry chartered for a three-hour trip along the river that ran through the city like the fat blue veins in the boy’s brown feet. 

His grandfather said something as they made their way up the gangplank.

“This is just like one of the British steamers he used to work on,” his father said. “He can’t remember the last time he was on a boat like this. Up and down the White Nile, delivering mail to the British and the Bedouins. Remember that story?”

“Yes,” the boy said.

Slowly, so slowly the boy didn’t even notice until everyone began to cheer and clap, the boat slipped away from the dock. The late morning was overcast, so the landscape appeared flat and gray in the disposable camera’s viewfinder. He knew that when they returned and his father had the photos printed and the boy dutifully laid them out in a photo album he’d squirrel away high up on a shelf in his bedroom, all those shots would make shameful representations of the sweeping riverbanks, the trees leaning toward the river like crowds before a famous painting.

His father joined him at the gunwale, and for a time it was the two of them there, outcasts of a sort. The boy followed his father’s finger with his camera, continued to take pictures. He felt like the worst kind of tourist: one who shoots where told, follows where led. 

An ivory stalk and a dome poked over the tops of the palms.

“The Mosque of the Two Niles,” his father said.

A stretch of pale brown building that looked, to the boy, like an egg crate.

“The University of Khartoum,” his father said. “Where I went to school.”

A white fort teeming with windows and terraces and soldiers.

“The Republican Palace,” his father said.

The boy looked to the graying sky for the jigsaw shape of stealth bombers. He imagined these buildings, this landscape, obliterated from the face of the earth, as he’d worked so hard to obliterate this world from his life. He spied his grandfather sitting alone in a white plastic deck chair, watching the riverbank. He took a photograph.

The steamer churned alongside a stretch of land set like a comma between the cities of Khartoum North and Omdurman.

“Tuti Island,” his father said, and pointed up ahead. He told the boy that was where the White Nile and the Blue Nile converged, becoming the single great river that wound north, as if dragged by a massive finger, all the way to the Mediterranean Sea. The boy looked to a spot where he saw, or thought he saw, a shifting band in the river where the two currents, one murky, one milky, met and intertwined. But there was no crash, no violence. No spectacle to suggest different currents fighting for dominance. The river ahead was complacent, the merging silent and unremarkable. Easy to overlook, were it not for his father’s finger showing the way. The boy took a photograph, for all the good he thought it would do. What would the image be, back in America, but a four-by-six of river water, as innocuous as any stretch of water anywhere in the world?

Behind them, some of the women broke out in song: a popular tune, his father said, in praise of Sudanese fashion. Why dress in jeans, his aunts and cousins sang, why dress in a suit, when you can wear a jalabiya? How else will you feel the breeze kiss your body? The men danced in slow circles to the women’s voices, kept time with their upraised right hands, goaded on the raucous singing and clapping and ululating. The boy watched his father’s left foot tap to the rhythm of those voices. He waited for his father to leave him there, alone against the gunwale. He waited in fear for someone to come lead him into the dance, but when his uncle eventually came toward them, it was only to hand them two sandwiches wrapped in waxed paper.

“Cold cuts,” his father said when he pulled apart the white bread.

The boy noticed the pained look on his father’s face, wondered if they were now being teased. The Americans and their delicate stomachs. He knew all about taunts — one didn’t make it through the world with his name, his skin color, and not encounter them. But to be taunted here? The river grew choppier, and as it did, the boy grew angry. He wanted to step into the center of all that dancing and singing, to silence it. He couldn’t speak the language, no, but he could point at his digital watch. He could tell everyone aboard just how close to 6:25 p.m. they were. He could point to the sky, could mime the movement of Lufthansa flight 394 heading west. That, he knew, anyone could understand.

His father turned back to face the river.

“You want mine?”

“No,” the boy said. “I’m not hungry either.”

His father looked over his shoulder, then surreptitiously let the sandwich drop into the river. The boy did the same. It was the closest he’d felt to his father since they’d arrived here. Maybe ever. 

Soon the steamer turned and began cruising down the opposite coast of Tuti Island. The current intensified, and now they had to hold on to the gunwale with both hands. There, the boy thought. The convergence. That’s more like it. Then he noticed the clouds, the great paw of thunderheads creeping toward them, and frowned. 

“They won’t cancel our flight, right?”

“I hope not,” his father said. 

Everyone else, of course, ignored the skies, the approaching storm, until rain suddenly fell in sheets and wind rocked the boat more than any boat, the boy felt, had a right to be rocked. They joined the others huddled at the center of the boat. Their feet slipped on the deck; their clothes stuck to their bodies. Still, there was singing and eating, and the boy surged with anger. His grandfather sat patiently among them in a white plastic deck chair, another upended over him as a makeshift umbrella. There was something religious about the image. It struck the boy, in that moment, that had his father not left Sudan, this could very well have been him, wearing a wet jalabiya, caught in the mouth of two plastic chairs, sandalwood prayer beads dangling from his right wrist. That was his father’s alter life, just as the cousins laughing around them were his. 

Again, the boat heaved under their feet. Sandals and sneakers squealed. The laughter turned slightly uneasy. The land around them became a blur in the falling rain. Were they on the Blue Nile now? The White Nile? What did it matter, when the river tossed the steamer the way the boy would toss a tennis ball between his hands? Another dangerous lurch threw everyone about, sent them clutching for whatever was nearby: arms, tables, parts of the boat. The boy moved for his father’s arm, grasped it with both hands, and it was then he saw, so swiftly that for a moment he wasn’t sure he’d seen it, the starboard side of the steamer lift from the surface of the river and his grandfather, still seated in his plastic deck chair, tilt over and slide off the boat through a gap in the railing.

The laughter halted, abruptly, and when it turned to outright screaming, he knew he wasn’t the only one who’d seen. His father let go of him, told him to stay put, and rushed out into the storm. His uncle followed. There were cries and signals for the boat captain to stop. But what could the captain do? What could any of them do in such a tempest but hold on while the steamer continued to pitch and yaw toward shore? 

Even after the steamer finally jolted against the dock, that great paw continued to press down on them with thunder, with rain. Everyone stumbled and tiptoed and leapt down the gangplank. The boy’s grandmother rushed along the dock to try to spot his grandfather somewhere out there in all that muddy churn. The boy’s father and uncle scrambled up the wide stone steps toward the museum, cried out to onlookers for help. Dumbstruck, the boy realized he had no idea what the Arabic was for the word.

The steamer captain now blew the ship’s horn, a deep bellow to summon the boy’s grandfather back from the water with his plastic deck chairs, his sandalwood prayer beads. Back from the depths to watch his son and grandson with something that wasn’t quite judgment, wasn’t quite love. Caution, maybe. Concern. A slight frown and lowered eyes that said, Who are these sons, and what are they to me? The boy imagined he was the one who’d gone overboard into that mighty river. His was the corpse carried along beneath the surface, to be found, as he knew his grandfather would be, farther downstream. His was the body buried in a sandy cemetery, over which prayers were said. But found when? Buried when? How long would that take?

He broke away from the panic around him to find his father and his uncle and was halfway to the museum when they emerged. They nearly tripped descending the steps in the shattering rain. The boy’s uncle pushed past him to where the rest of the family stood in a line along the dock.

“Dad,” he said. 

His father held fast to the boy, as if the boy were the only thing keeping the rain from washing him down the museum’s stairs. The ship’s horn boomed around them. The boy’s grandmother, looking out at the river, began to wail. The boy’s uncle yelled up at them; his father yelled back.

“Dad. Dad, what’s happening?”

“They’re sending police. They’re going to search the river.”

His father looked over the boy’s head at the steamboat, the thrashing current beyond. The boy looked over his father’s shoulder, at the still-dark sky, for any sight of Lufthansa flight 394.

“Dad, how long will it be?”

Had he said the words aloud? He must have, because his father looked down at him, aghast, as if the boy had suddenly appeared in front of him. He let go of the boy’s arm and trembled as if fit to explode in one of the rages the boy knew so well. The boy waited for a slap. Instead, his father raised his hands to his wild face and began to screech.

“A’aba ja,” he cried. “A’aba ja! A’aba ja!”

His father was a babe again, and these were his first words, the only words he could shape with his trembling mouth. The boy stood next to him on the steps, in the rain. A missing grandfather, a missed flight home. He wanted to cry alongside his father, but his eyes wouldn’t cooperate. His father kept wailing, and the sound drew more cries from everyone on the dock, drew the attention of bystanders at the museum, seemed even to draw down on the boy the grim, unforgiving faces of the armless Nubian pharaohs alongside the museum entrance. 

“Dad,” the boy said.

He reached for his father, tried to pull the hands away from his face. His father resisted. There were only his knuckles and fingers, his cries. 

“A’aba ja! A’aba ja!”

The boy had no idea how to arrange his father’s noises into something coherent, something that could make sense to him. It sounded like something his father had been saying all his life, a primal cry dredged up from a time before the boy existed. 

“I’m here,” the boy said. “Dad, I’m right here!”

The boy shook and shook, but his father wouldn’t remove his hands from his eyes, wouldn’t stop wailing. He made to continue blindly down the steps to where the rest of the family was, but the boy held him back. He stood between his father and the rest of his family, an arid patch of land among all that unrelenting wet. A’aba ja. Was this some story his father had told him? If only he knew, they could weep and pray and rend their soaked clothes together, they could find something to fill the space between their miseries. But first he needed his father to stop wailing. He needed his father to translate. 

Photo of Zak Salih

Zak Salih is the author of the novel Let’s Get Back to the Party (Algonquin Books, 2021). His fiction has appeared in Fairy Tale Review, Epiphany, The Florida Review, Foglifter, and other publications. He lives in Washington, DC.

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