“Solace” by Pauls Toutonghi

On the run in Misrata, the dictator comforts himself with chess -- and casual cruelty

Topics: Gadhafi's Final Days, Books,

Do you know when the phoenix comes to Misrata?

Every 500 years. That’s twice a millennium. Twice a millennium, the phoenix builds its nest of sticks and leaves and sun-baked mud, and then it burns itself — a terrible immolation. Five centuries. Six thousand moons. From flame, a new generation.

Golden, soot-streaked feathers; its wings twitch. The new bird rises up and in its talons, it carries the ashes of its father, sealed in an egg of myrrh — carries them to Heliopolis, the Egyptian City of the Sun, for burial. Every phoenix is buried in Heliopolis, that city of the sun in the desert — like every city in this part of the world is a city of the sun in the desert.

We’re not far from Heliopolis, in Misrata. We’re only several hundred kilometers. The acrid scent of gasoline hangs over the highway that stretches between us. So if you’re lucky enough to be alive on that night, twice a millennium, when the phoenix appears, having just buried its father — stand outside, look toward the horizon. Do not be afraid. It will be a massive bird. A beautiful, wide-winged creature. It will reflect the sun as it sweeps in a great circle, sweeps out across Al Butnan and then the Gulf of Sidra and then, disappears.

We thought, at first, that the phoenix was born in 1911. We thought, next, that it was born in 1951. We thought, again, that it was born in 1969. Were we wrong? I worry that we were wrong, worry as I’m sitting here in this little, claustrophobic room, with my damn microwave and my 10-gallon container of water, and my woolen blankets, and my chessboard, and the ants, and these filthy clothes and my pistol.

- – - – - – - – - -

I stand at the windowsill. It’s a dirty windowsill. Dust settles on everything, here. Even the mortars won’t shake it off.

Everyone is bleeding. They come to me — as their brother, their colonel, their father, their comrade — they come to me in bandages. I touch their wounds to comfort them. They are different every day, these people; the old ones disappear; new ones take their place. Except Al-Mu’tasim; he’s here, each day, as always. This morning he appeared with his left arm wrapped in gauze. He was carrying a small brown bag. I looked at him and sighed.

“How were you injured, my brother?” I said. And I reached out and took his arm and held it, just here, in the center of my chest, beside my heart. I began to unwrap his wounded arm. I would touch the skin, I would press it to my own skin, and — I knew — it would begin to heal.

“Shrapnel,” Al-Mu’tasim said. “But it’s healing.”

I nodded and released his arm.

“What have you brought me?” I asked.

Wordlessly, he held out the bag. I opened it. I looked inside. Nestled in a bed of torn newspapers, slick and waxy and the color of cauliflower, was a human ear. I nodded.

“And the boy?” I said.


I nodded again.

“Bring him in.”

And so that’s what he did. The boy was young — maybe 13. His arms were thin, so thin, the arms of a child, covered with soft, feathery hair. He’d been beaten, but not badly; he had one black eye and a cut across his mouth. If he knew that he was standing two feet from a paper bag that contained his father’s ear — he did not betray that knowledge.

“Do you play chess?” I asked.

He hesitated, then he nodded.

“My uncle taught me,” he said.

“Good,” I said. “Sit down and we’ll set up the game.”

We played for half an hour. He was just a boy but I could tell he was proud of his skill. And he was good for his age — that is to say he was pedestrian and clumsy — but then again I’ve played against grand masters, against world champions, I’ve played on boards of elephant bone and onyx, of sapphire and saltwater abalone.

“What would you do if those pieces on the board were real men and women?” I finally asked him. “What if it was your family — if the queen was your mother and the king was your father?”

The boy shook his head.

“I don’t know, sir.”

“But would you play the game in the same way?” I asked.

The boy looked at me with his wide brown eyes. We waited there, for a moment, staring at each other. We waited and I could imagine the sound of the line of ants, shaking the dirt as they ate this forsaken house, one particle at a time. The boy said nothing — he continued staring at me. He would have stared for hours, I think, his eyes fierce and unblinking. There’s a Berber saying that I have always loved: Angels bend down their wings for the brave and the innocent.

Finally, I motioned to Al-Mu’tasim — who’d remained in the doorway that whole time. Al-Mu’tasim bent down. I brushed my lips against his ear. I rested them gently against the skin of it.

“Kill them in the night,” I whispered. “Do it so they do not suffer.”

And with that I had him take the boy away.

But it’s quiet here, now. Some part of me wishes I hadn’t done what was right. But in these sad, last days — what can I do? I can do nothing but tell the truth. I am the brother of the people. I am the golden bird. I am beloved by everyone.

Pauls Toutonghi’s second novel, “Evel Knievel Days,” was published in July 2012 by Crown, a division of Random House. He lives in Portland, Ore., where he's an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Lewis and Clark College.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>