There were five of us in the back of the truck, sharing the cramped conditions with a crate of chirping fluffy chicks, a goat with its limbs tied in thick fraying rope and a few wooden crates. This was the cargo bed of a faded green Ford truck, driven by a stubbornly dark-skinned local. I don’t know what he did, nor did I ask but assumed some sort of farmer or livestock transporter. Undoubtedly I had the best seat in the bed, a sizeable space, I rested my back against the driver’s cab and stretched out, as far away from the goat as possible. It was directly opposite me, its watery eyes sometimes held mine just long enough for me to feel tinges of guilt until it would fart or shit again and the Dutchman sat next to it would swear loudly and the Americans would laugh and the chicks would scream and I forgot about the stupid goat.
The Dutchman had fallen asleep, his face only a yard or so from the goat’s rear end. I got out to stretch my legs, hoping the Americans were enough of a distraction to grant me peace. I could see the Canadian about 200 metres away was getting frustrated, he wanted to kick a ball around with the poor kids, like he’d seen on TV but they were more interested in tearing the clothes off his back, fiddling with his belt, dragging their little needle fingers all over his legs. It was difficult to feel sorry for him, but after a few moments I went over and waved.
‘How do you say you haven’t got any money buddy? I don’t know a word of the fucking language’ he said as I came over, bringing twenty kids with him.
I gave him the phrase, and a few kids turned to me with wide drooling smiles as if I’d uttered an invitation. I turned back to him, ‘Don’t expect that to stop them. You’re white, you have clothes and the black box that goes click and flash- you’re just a big dollar bill’.
‘Get the fuck out of here you shit-munching brats!’
The Dutchman was awake and sprinting over to us, waving his arms like a lunatic, his face twisted into a grotesque monstrosity. He was naked to the waist, displaying a patchwork of rudimentary tattoos, scrawled haphazardly over his torso like the art of a diabolical toddler. His shorts were ripped and flailed behind him, resembling a loincloth as dirty as his skin, he didn’t wear shoes but seemed unperturbed by the rocky terrain and occasional pools of filth and garbage. He sprinted a path directly at the kids, who shot up and narrowed their eyes, like a mob of unified meerkats, to analyse this new creature. His voice continued its garbled shrieking until he reached us. He screamed his own nonsensical language in their faces. He pushed them in their heaving bony chests. He threw them to the floor, punched others in the stomach, caught little girls by their black pigtails and threw them in the mud.
They scattered in a chaos of laughter and tears, the Dutchman hounding them like a sheepdog, pushing stragglers to the floor and spitting obscenities. The women, without pausing their sewing, watched the riot from their wooden porches and muttered under their veils. The Dutchman kept up the chase all the way back to the first row of dilapidated houses, his arms outstretched like wings. He had stopped howling and was now making fighter jet noises, aiming missiles as his victims scrambled for cover in heaps of litter and pot holes. He landed his jet and threw himself out, now armed with an imaginary submachine gun. He wielded it with the expertise of Hollywood, firing round after round into their backs. The kids didn’t stand a chance, as the Dutchman pushed and slapped the stragglers, too young or too fat to keep up with the escapees’ sprint. He threw his head back and let a cackle escape into the sky. The old women on the porch tutted and shook their heads, rocking their round frames in creaky chairs.
The driver emerged, shaking his head and rubbing his belly, and gestured towards the truck. The Americans had had an argument, the girlfriend looked tearful. They were the last to jump in, the Canadian took my place furthest away from the goat, which was now either asleep or dead. I was forced to take a spot between him and the chicks, my back against the uncomfortable splintered wall which lined the side of the bed. The cage of chicks on my left and had also gone unusually quiet and I wondered how long ago any of these animals had had anything to eat. The Dutchman resumed his place beside the goat, flustered and panting, and began to roll up a cigarette. When the Americans got in the driver slammed his door, started the engine, and we got back on the dusty road to the Salt, signposted 250 miles south.
‘That was a pretty awful thing to do you know, pretty fucked up.’
It was the American girl’s voice which broke the silence, her tone was charged, clearly directed at the Dutchman, despite only turning to him after a severe gaze had lingered on her boyfriend. Before this interjection we had driven in silence again, and I had spent the time trying to make sense of this man sitting beside me. He sat, almost touching the goat again, in lotus position taking the occasional drag. I also watched the girl for a while, she’d been fidgety, continually trying to find a comfortable position in which to entwine her body around her partner’s, while shooting the occasional disapproving look at the Dutchman. She couldn’t have been more than 30, a very typical kind of good-looking and she’d tanned well on the beaches in the north.
The Dutchman turned to her slowly, as if suddenly alerted out of a lazy meditation.
‘What’s that?’ he replied, his facial expression unmoved from a lazy concentration. His English was easy and casual, slightly touched with the huskiness of chain smoking, and his accent was soft and neutral.
‘That stunt you pulled with the kids back at the village. Most of them were practically babies. They’re poor, they’re uneducated, you can’t blame them for asking for pennies...’ Her protest trickled into a disappointing whimper, and she glanced at her boyfriend for support. He rested a hand on her thigh, and whispered in her ear.
‘I wasn’t blaming them for anything. I’ve been sitting in this goat’s shit for three hours, I just needed to loosen up- they loved it’ he added, with a small shrug and looked to me as if expecting my affirmation. I didn’t oblige.
The Canadian must have noticed their mouths moving as he had taken off his headphones. I wondered if he had recovered from his ordeal, he still looked glum and his camera had stayed padlocked in his rucksack since we left the village.
‘Loosen up? By beating up and pretending to shoot kids? What’s wrong with you?’
The boyfriend had his hand on her shoulder now, and I could see his knuckles were slightly tensed. The goat was not dead after all, as it began bleating and struggling against the ropes which bound its limbs. I tilted my head back and saw the driver in his wing mirror, his cheek swollen and throbbing with a violent chewing motion. Occasionally he would spit a small ball of leafy mush out of the window, as if he was laying a breadcrumb path for the journey home.
‘Where did you get that painting from?’
The Dutchman was pointing at the large bag shared by the American couple. From where I was sitting I could only see the wooden corner of an elaborately carved frame. The girl, who had untangled herself from the romantic embrace of her boyfriend, was wrong-footed by the casual question. Her mouth hung open gormlessly, and her boyfriend seized upon the chance to step in and change the subject.
‘We picked it up at the Critz Market back in the capital, from a small market stall. The man there makes them himself, Eliza picked it out, she’s got a great eye for art.’
Eliza snapped out of her stupor and nodded. The Dutchman was staring at her, a half-smile forming across his sunburnt stubbly face.
She continued, speaking with the pride of a satisfied buyer, ‘Yes, it will be perfect for our apartment back home. The guy didn’t want to sell it to me at all, he had just painted it, it was for a friend he said, said it was too special, unique, we were throwing notes at him and he wouldn’t budge, said he won’t do another. It took a lot of negotiating and I know we paid far too much but I had to have it, I know the perfect place for it.’
She was talking to all of us now, and had taken the painting out for display. It was a poignant scene: a group of children looking through prison gates at their incarcerated indistinguishable fathers. One prisoner had been painted differently from the crowd, he shone; forlorn, malnourished and barefooted in his rags. He wore spectacles, and stood half turned, looking straight ahead at the gates.
The boyfriend saw this as the moment we could all become friends, he had sat up from the edge of the cab wall and put his arm around Eliza. ‘I’m Derek by the way - we’re from the States’.
That was the invitation for sweaty handshakes: the Dutchman was Johannes, the Canadian, ‘Richard, my mates call me Ricky’, and the American couple Eliza and Derek. Five of us, with aching backs and numbing feet, in the bed of a truck bound for the Salt. The goat introduced itself by urinating on the floor and the chicks, enlivened again by the sound of our voices began to scream and bounce in their cramped cage and the truck continued to groan along the road.
Johannes’s gaze returned to the painting, that half-smile had widened slightly, etched across his impressive jaw line. The sun burn suited him, as did his long unwashed hair and short unkempt beard. He had a look of journey about him, not that prepared ruggedness which you saw slapped across the features of the teenagers in souvenir rags and Made In China flip flops. Johannes, in lotus, cigarette in hand, with exhaled smoke forming wispy clouds briefly around his head, could have been in a movie. He provided out journey, as wretched and ridiculous as it was, with an essence of cinema.
‘Can I take a closer look at it?’
Johannes’s focus had not left the painting, and without waiting for an answer he extended a lean tattooed arm and slipped it out of its protective sheath. We all watched him watch the painting. I no longer feigned interest, but put my notebook away and sat up from the cab wall. Ricky had quietly unzipped his camera case and was attaching a lens. The animals were quiet, but Eliza was stammering, her eyes wide. Derek attempted to calm her again, with an awkward manoeuvre of simultaneously placing one hand round her shoulders and the other on her trembling knee. If Johannes had noticed her trepidation, he didn’t let it distract his attentions from the painting, which he was now inspecting at an inch away from his peeling nose, his eyeballs darting erratically in their sockets, that half smile still frozen his face.
‘I could only stomach the Critz Market once. There was a woman there who I’ll never forget.’
He spoke slowly, his attention still on the painting, pausing his speech whenever his focus grew too intense for multitasking. He looked up and offered each of us a cigarette. I was the only one who accepted and shuffled forward to accept the added gift of a lighter. He looked round at the others and laughed.
‘You don’t smoke yet? You just have to stick around long enough, cheaper than medicine… unless you’re just here for the Salt… no real need to stay beyond that… This place is…’
He broke off. A few seconds of silence passed before Ricky inquired,
‘This place is what?’
Johannes looked at him and smiled wide, ‘A complete and utter shithole.’
Derek laughed nervously, willing Johannes’s comment into an off-hand joke. I tried my best to smile with him, I could see he was sincerely trying his best.
Johannes was looking down at his feet, his speech drifting into a self-directed mutter with the unlit cigarette hanging from his lips. He was still concentrating, his brow was furrowed and he would slowly shake his head intermittently while talking. He lit the cigarette and there was silence in the cab while he took the first few drags. Then, looking directly at me he opened his mouth to speak again.
‘You probably know what I’m talking about, how long you been here? Three months? Longer? Shit… after a month I had all the habits, all the clichés…ha, the smokes, the drugs…it’s easy here, so easy, and shit, the stuff’s cheaper than medicine.’
I found it difficult to keep looking at him. I could feel a sliver of empathic understanding crawling over me but I didn’t want to hear it explained, it sounded so absurd to hear it set out so matter-of-factly, made so prosaic.
‘The Salt won’t ever look as good as some pro photographer’s picture. Nothing is ever as good as those brochure photos. I guess I have the memories…but when all’s done how do you weigh it against what you’ve lost you know? After all the flights and trains and buses and cars, you count a cost. It’s not expensive I suppose, not compared to medicine.
‘You can tell the people who have been here long- they don’t tell stories. No jokes, no funny tales about that one time they got stranded at the bus station. Instead they sit back. Like they’re drained. And you wonder what the fuck is wrong with this guy? Is tryin to act cool? Patronising us with his silence? Nah, chances are he can’t be fucked with it all and he’s angry he’s travelled to the other side of the world to discover that. If this land is supposed to be the medicine, then what have we got left to cure ourselves?’
I stubbed my cigarette out forcefully on the side of the cab, and chucked it into the path of an overtaking motorcycle.
‘Anyway, what was I saying? Yeah, the woman at the market…She wanted to buy a genuine handmade idol, you know, one the ancients worshipped. Still worship in some parts. The guy working the stall was real nervous, he was only a kid. He wanted to make the sale but this woman kept with the questions. It had to be authentic, the stuff these guys actually worship. It couldn’t be just a shit piece of wood she’d find in duty free, the real deal or nothing for her. She already had the baggy pants, and the local jewels hanging all over her, and she had the tribal skin patterns, which fucking hurt to get trust me, and even worse getting rid of them I’ve heard. Well she had to complete the set.’
He laughed and picked up the painting, the cab had grown still again, even the engine’s wheezes seemed quieter. The wind picked up distorted melodies from the driver’s stereo and wafted a hoarse woman’s voice back to us. The painting was on Johannes’s lap, but he looked away from it into the desolate landscape, a yellow brown plain splattered with the occasional mess of green, the sporadic single storey house with its customary herd of kids and dogs. Johannes remembered he was telling a story, his expression was more serious now, the pace of his speech quickened slightly, and the sun, suddenly low in the sky, cast long signpost shaped shadows over his face, shrouding it in moments of acute darkness.
‘She kept asking him whether he had made the idol himself. The kid looked at her like she was crazy. Of course he hadn’t made his god, it made no sense. He kept shaking his head. So she pointed at another idol and another, asking him if he’s crafted them. The kid must have thought she was either insane or evil. I tried to explain to her that these were not souvenirs in the usual sense, the idols were for believers, converts maybe. She couldn’t understand how a man could sell what he considered sacred then. I told her he’s religious but he has to eat, you buy a Bible right? Meanwhile, the kid was struggling to keep track of the conversation, and I didn’t speak the dialect too well back then. He offered various other idols, maybe thinking it was a problem of taste. The woman was getting more and more huffed, haha, tell him to get me one he’s actually made himself, like carved out of the wood with his own bare hands. She said, I want one worshipped by a real tribesman. I told her that’s not how it works, she wasn’t satisfied, it’s tough to translate their system you know? It’s a fucking philosophy! She kept asking me to ask him where she could find the people who carved them, the ‘original manufacturers’, still can’t believe she used that phrase. Like they were Barbie dolls, ha. I didn’t have a clue how to translate. Their process of creation is completely different, she couldn’t get it. They sell it cos we buy it, but don’t claim anything.’
Johannes was looking at Eliza now, who had sat back. Derek was no longer touching her, but instead looking out at nothing. The road was sparse, with only the occasional lorry or coach transporting livestock and tourists overtaking us. Johannes stretched his legs out of the lotus position grimacing and chuckling, and handed the painting back to Eliza. He reached into one of the pockets of his loincloth. It was a tattered photograph, ripped and browned at the edges. He poked Eliza with his toe and extended the photograph to her, the echoes of his last chuckle still visible across his features. She took it and frowned, and as she held the image closer to her face her eyebrows tightened in furious confusion.
I snatched the photo from the cab’s floor, and sensed Ricky shuffling round to my right shoulder to share a look. He had an imposing bulk and a sweaty odour filled my nostrils. His shoulder was stiff against mine, and blocked much of the little light that survived the passage through the tree’s branches. I had to resist a sudden maniacal urge to strike him. I brought the photo closer to our faces, and out of the corner of my eye I noticed Johannes looking at us, smiling again.
The photo was instantly recognisable: the gates, the children, the prisoner. It was identical to the painting. Despite its slight fade and the smears of dirt which clung to much of its surface, the image captured a moment which struck me in a way the painting hadn’t. The prisoner’s eyes had been magnified by this cameraman’s lens, and drew my attention. The prisoner’s face, the single clearest section of the photograph, was a mirror.
‘Why the fuck are we still here? Did he say why we were stopping? It’ll be the middle of night when we get to the Salt and we won’t see shit. Everyone gets there early afternoon. That’s the best time.’ Eliza’s voice was shrill, and she struggled to carry the forced expletives of her anger over the sound of the wind, which swayed the branches ominously above us, and rattled the walls of the bed.
As if he had been merely waiting for someone to ask, we heard the driver’s door slam and his light footsteps approach the back of the cab. He gave us a half-apologetic look, face still full of the shit he was chewing, the residue dribbling through his beard. He grabbed the goat, which immediately started kicking and screaming, and slung it over his shoulders. With it precariously balanced across his shoulder blades, he attempted to reach for the cage, where the chicks had got excited again, slamming themselves against their bars in delirious frenzy.
The driver was struggling, caught in this absurd gladiatorial tussle with one hand trying to retain his grip on the goat and the other trying to pull the cage into the crook of his arm. Ricky had had his camera out for some time, playing with the buttons. It flashed and snapped, forcing the driver into a comical blinking fit, while struggling to keep his balance. He shot us, the audience to his comedy, a loathing look, then returned his focus to the cage.
I could have shuffled two metres to my left and grabbed the cage and at least carried it off the truck for him. It would saved the driver the humiliation, the others would look away out of embarrassment, trying not to catch eyes with the awkward tourist assisting the local’s third world work, inwardly debating whether it was a kindness or a condescension. But I sat there in barbaric fascination, one hand tightly gripping the photo, the other in my dirty underpants, scratching an insect bite on my balls.
The driver, sweaty and murderous, muttering curses under his breath, viciously pulled the cage, slamming it against the back wall of the bed, creating a sound which violently cut across the gusty symphony.
The sound woke Johannes out of his coma and he immediately gestured an offering of assistance to the driver but it was too late, the driver had already thrown his head back to roar at the heavens as the cage had broken and thirty forty fifty chicks were streaming out onto the broken ground in a mucky sticky river of yellow feathers and pathetically flapping wings and beaks and and tiny black eyes revolving round and round and round, eyes which screamed almost as loudly as their shrill beaks whil they toppled and I turned round to watch their descent and the other members of the audience joined me on my edge of the bed, I could feel Eliza’s breasts pushing into my back and strands of her hair tickling the back of my neck and my crotch grew warm for the first time in many weeks.
Most chicks did not survive the fall. They lay on the floor wretched and twitching, tiny heads and wings contorted to grotesque positions, swimming a pathetic stroke in their own miniscule pools of pink brown blood. Others stoically bore their broken limbs and twisted wings in an aimless march across the road away from the truck. The little refugees were faintly illuminated by the streetlights, representing a measly attempt to sanctify their mass hobble to some unknown destination, but then a pair of headlights would appear and herald tyres hurtling to destroy the struggling lives. We watched as vehicle after vehicle raced eagerly to obliterate the chicks, which one by one disappeared in a short futile moment. Eliza, with quivering lips and shaking hands, afforded each one a funereal sob.
There were maybe a dozen survivors left now, dragging their broken bodies over the strewn carcasses of their fallen comrades. The driver kept looking to make lunatic darts into the road, desperate to gather what little product remained, but each time he placed a step into the road another machine would race past horns blaring, and another chick would disappear. In the end he collapsed to the ground cradling his goat, which had respectfully fallen still and silent, shouting the injustice at the sky.
We turned from him, and resumed our normal seating, Ricky zipped up his camera, Johannes and Derek were smoking. The driver intended to take the goat towards a small building I had only just noticed, about a quarter of a mile beyond the stretch of trees which lined the road. The cab was silent, the painting lay in the centre, Eliza had left it unsheathed. Derek must have noticed I still had the photo in my hand and asked Johannes where he’d found it. He was looking at the driver, who was struggling to get back to his feet with the goat, and without turning replied,
‘I took it myself on my very first trip here, years ago when I was the photographer. I’d heard about the prison, how you pay the right guy the right amount you get inside and take a look around, but cameras are strictly forbidden. So I slipped the officer something special to sneak my disposable through, a little something for the travel album. I spent a good amount of time in there and got to know a few of the prisoners quite well. Specially that main guy in the photo. Yeah, he was an interesting chap. Eldest son and heir of Uzcancero, one of the biggest drug kings on this continent. His dad was getting a bit of pressure from the police, and the bribes were no longer enough, they wanted a decent arrest to splash across the news headlines. So he offered his eldest son he does four years inside, and after his father rewards his sacrifice with a mansion in California. He was becoming all holy when I met him, the boredom of prison had forced him to read and he adopted those prison rags out of some dedication to…what do you say… asceticism? Yeah he’d picked something like that up. He loved going out to see the kids, who’d come to the gate every day after school to wave at their dads and pass money or food or notes from mum through the bars. I took the picture just before I left, he made me promise to pass copies on to his friends and family on the outside, maybe as proof of the epiphany he’d had. Some talented souvenir painter gets hold of it and there you go, my scummy photo gets the arty treatment and a drug dealer ends up on the wall of a flashy American apartment. I haven’t seen him since’
He had picked up the painting again, laughing and shaking his head with the cigarette dangling from his lips. Eliza looked nauseous, and she was shivering. Ricky, who had read about prison visits in a guidebook, questioned Johannes for more details. I stared again at the photograph, the dark flimsy rectangle in my hand. My grip on it loosened, and the wind swept it up and over the side wall of the cab, where it nestled reverently over the cemetery on the road.