“Young one, do you know what to call me?”
The old man nearly whispered the words, his mane of hair curled over his face, his head down and knees wrapped in his arms. The face now, the reporters proclaimed, had become the mask of a clown, long and drawn, darkened, mean. Gadhafi Deposed … Libyan Despot Desolated … Gadhafi Hunted … the news ticked in his head. But the ease with which he countered it amused him. I am the hunter, the colonel thought, they the hunted. He and the child were in a black box, a small space 10-by-10 in the middle of the city. From the seams where the wall met the ceiling, light pierced the room like lines of fire in the blackness. They’d been here seven days, undiscovered. His own secret cell, an encasement he’d made for himself long ago with 12-foot-deep concrete walls, hidden in the midst of all. Air vents, small propane cook stove, a bed, water, no nurse, no tent, nothing else now but the boy, and the body of the boy’s father in the corner of the room covered by a blanket. The boy’s father had died two days ago. No radio, no contact. The colonel hadn’t yet planned how or when he might emerge. Not now, he knew, but when, he didn’t know.
They’d had to come in so quickly, there was no time to gather food. And the place was not pre-stocked correctly. There was only water, gallon jugs that lined the walls. Thin roof from which to emerge through a hole when ready, secure enough to ward off enemies, secure enough for concealment, but like a tomb, he thought. With a missile from above he’d be obliterated. But no one would think he’d be here in the middle of everyone, among over a million people, and they wouldn’t kill their own; that was the difference between he and them. They’d be tracking him east and west with their agents, their dogs, that and manning the waters like fools in their little boats. He’d wait them out right here.
The boy was silent, his small arm locked under Moammar’s, child hands gripping the man’s bicep. Moammar spoke aloud now. “Do you know what to call me, little one?”
“No, Momo,” the boy said.
“Call me the King of Kings,” he said. A joke now, here. But nothing was funny anymore. He pushed back his hair and stared at the boy. The only one left to him now, his first son’s youngest, first son from the colonel’s second wife Safia Farkesh, his first son dead on the floor in the corner of the room. The boy was the newest grandson. Called Saif after his father, although the boy’s name was something else. Everyone was dead.
The boy turned and placed his head on his grandfather’s lap. The colonel dreaded the next step. Nothing for it, though, he told himself, he would commence with it tomorrow and it would be done. The boy must survive and get to exile, and return as a man. He had thought he would do it today, but instead, now that the light waned, he took the boy and lifted him in his arms and kissed the boy’s face, his cheeks, and lips, and carried him to the bed and lay down with him until the boy slept and the colonel rose and returned to the floor and held his knees in his arms and stared straight ahead.
The following day, near night, he heated the cooking pan. He set the boy’s hand on the floor, drew the knife and cut off the last joint of the boy’s pinkie finger on the left hand. The boy yelped with pain and fear and clutched the hand as blood purled over the surface of the skin. The colonel took the boy’s hand and pressed the stub end of the pinking finger into the burning pan on the stove. He held the boy’s squirming, shrieking body and gripped the boy’s hand and pressed firmly as the flesh burned. The boy screamed and did not stop screaming even when the colonel removed the boy’s hand from the pan and held the boy to his chest, and sat with him on the edge of the bed, holding the boy as his small body heaved and sound came like a siren from his chest.
“Remember this,” he whispered in the boy’s ear. “This cutting, this burning … they did this to your grandfather, the King of Kings.” The boy’s screams became sobs as he huddled against his grandfather’s chest. He carried the boy to the body in the corner of the room, and pulled back the blanket with the knife and showed the boy his father’s face. “Remember this,” the colonel said. “This they did to your father.” He leaned and touched the lips of his dead son. “Avenge your father,” he said to the boy. “Avenge me.”
He covered the face again, and carried the boy away from the body toward the bed. The boy clung to him like a fierce creature. He pulled the boy from his chest and held him up and looked into his eyes. “You have my strength,” he said. “Survive. Thrive.” “Fear Allah that you may prosper,” he said. “God is with those who persevere.”
He draped the boy on his back. “Hold my neck tightly,” he said. He carried the boy up the wall ladder to the hole in the ceiling where he worked the lock and opened the trap door and emerged to his chest. There he set the boy out on the surface.
“Go,” he said, and the boy fled, frantic like a wounded man, holding his hand to his chest as he ran across the rooftops further into the city. The colonel watched until the body was a small light that merged with the darkness and was gone.
Then the colonel closed the trap door, set the lock, and descended the ladder. He took the knife from his belt again and walked and lifted the foot of the blanket in the corner of the room. He carved two long strips from the calf muscle on the right leg of the body. He returned to the stove and set the strips in the pan. So little time now before the body would sour and the meat would be inedible. Carved thin, the cooking would not take long. The smell was something akin to incense and wild animal. The smoke fed itself into the air vents and disappeared. The colonel turned the stove off, took the pan and sat cross-legged on the floor. The meat, he carved into small pieces. “Flesh of my flesh,” he said, and fed himself.
When he was filled he leaned his back to the wall and closed his eyes.
When the room was black he went to the bed and slept and did not dream.