The worth of dying is variable. Why are the deaths of the dark-skin poor, who live far from oil and with names we cannot pronounce, of a lesser value? Are their smiles different? Maybe it is the way they die; how they fall and rot upon the ground.
Their foreign bones must bleach in a different way and the worms must find their flesh unappetizing. Yes, that must be it.
I am in a camp with pungent odors and clashing colors. It is near a range of mountains where internally displaced people make their way down in long, slow-moving lines as if they were blind or suffering from brain concussions. They jam the roads and trails and collapse ever so often and use their short breaths like weak frequencies that pulse unanswered Maydays.
The encampment is tightly packed and the air is stifling. Water is scarce and people live on a gallon or two a day. Shit and garbage are on the ground, while little boys and girls lie in the shadows of huts. I know that in a few weeks the black shade will take them and they will be dead and ready to join the others waiting patiently to disintegrate.
Hundreds die by the day here like a soundless thread of blood slowly snaking its way across the floor.
The feeding station is up ahead. I have been avoiding it on purpose. A few weeks ago I broke down in front of an embassy staffer: nothing major, just a few tears, a little snot, and a quick exit. Reluctantly I enter the makeshift canvas and plastic structure. After a few questions, a nurse, who doesn’t like me, puts a dead baby in my arms and tells me to take the body behind a curtain. I find a bed with ten lifeless children, each neatly wrapped and snuggling into the end. The flies are everywhere. As I leave, I vow never to return. The nurse is hooked on Vicodin and I am tolerating it, but still, we don’t mix very well.
She thinks I hate women, which is an odd thought, even one clouded by addiction. I figure she doesn’t know that I have spent most of my life worshipping women, since they are obviously better than men.
Usually you don’t find groups of women with guns blasting everything in sight, setting up torture rooms, and planning the annihilation of cities, countries, or entire ethnic populations. Most women just don’t think that way. The nurse will never understand my feelings, since she has already carved me out of ice in her mind. The truth is, I’d like to put women in charge of the important stuff. Give them a chance for a while. Men are driving the whole thing directly into radioactive brick walls that explode upon impact.
At night and in the morning as thousands of the displaced stir in their tents and cardboard boxes, the stages of history shift into one of the lower gears. The sound is strained as the crest of the next hill rises.
Groups of irregular soldiers stand smoking cigarettes, leaning on their weapons waiting for halfcocked orders. When the darkness comes, they go into the camp and drag women out and have their way with them. Usually they are high on something, but right now they look sober.
A cluster of thin-as-glass-sheet Somalis are resting under a dry tree. The shade seems confused, not sure how to behave. Behind closed eyes the Somalis are dreaming of a cool bath and fresh fruit. Three kids kick an old soccer ball and a pack of dogs fight in the dust.
Triple-priced melons are being pitched from the back of a trader’s truck and stacked near the piles and piles of stinking garbage. Only a few have enough money to buy any of the melons. Regardless of how bad a famine is, there is always food around for the wealthy who can afford to pay pirate prices or those with guns who can take whatever they want.
Maybe a week earlier, we carried a woman out of the garbage pile near my tent. She must have died while searching for something, anything. She obviously wasn’t part of the melon market. I vaguely remember hearing sounds scratch around, but I thought a night dog was visiting.
Somalis are rich in the colors of light, but not much more. The kaleidoscope of their traditional clothing swirls down the lines of the infant feeding stations and into the cots of the hospital tents and overlays the chaos of the food distribution.
The brightness of the light forces me to wear sunglasses during the day and night. It is too intense for me. I am drowning in colored light. It is all around me and I am sharing it with a million Somalis.
If only Monet were here to paint this scene, this vast tragedy, for the entire world to see. If the masterpiece hung in a museum then everyone could gaze, transfixed at the garbage and the death and it would become a much-admired French classic.
The painting of the dark-skin dead and the garbage they pile upon their misery could be bid up by anonymous buyers on the international art market. At the final sale, the well-dressed auctioneer might magically turn the proceeds into potable water.
Perhaps art is the solution to the variable value of death or maybe there’s no hope and I need to forget about it; lie down with the empty bottles in my tent and think about something else. Yeah, get my mind off of things and watch the rape victims, now labeled as whores, walk arm-in-arm along the road with slow, dusty steps.
(This is a cutting from the soon-to-be released Living and Dying with Dogs: Turbo Edition.)