"Solace" by Pauls Toutonghi

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

Published August 30, 2011 1:10AM (EDT)

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.

By Pauls Toutonghi

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.

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