Authors: Fred D'Aguiar
TO THOSE WHO LOST THEIR LIVES AT JONESTOWN
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
—1 CORINTHIANS 13:13
dam leans against the bars of his cage and watches the settlers. It’s his favorite pastime. He sees everything from the vantage point of his living quarters, stationed in the central clearing of the commune. The children gather a little distance from his cage for their late-afternoon play. They spring about and gesticulate and talk over one another and seem to shriek and shout for no other reason than they have tongues in their heads. The light loses its muscular glare and drops in at a soft slant that’s more tolerable to his eyes. Adam peers without creasing his face.
He listens to a small group boasting about which one among them fetches water the best. Ryan, the biggest child, thinks he has the natural advantage. He says that because of the way he carries the bucket, clean without a spill, he should get a medal from the president. Rose, a sprig of a girl with missing milk teeth, counters that if fetching water from a well with two buckets were an Olympic event, she would win gold. Trina, who is bigger than Rose but not by much, points out that the constant heaving of full buckets makes their arms longer than the commune gorilla’s. They glance over at Adam. Trina breaks into a combined foxtrot and canter to mimic a loping, armpit-scratching, and chest-thumping gorilla. The others join her with teeth-baring grunts, leaps, and scratches of torsos and thumps of chests.
They look around for someone in authority—a prefect or a disapproving adult—who might reprimand them for being boisterous, and see no one, so they continue with an improvised song that they sing under their breaths, for fear of detection. Trina leads with the first line:
—Hear no evil.
The rest of her group adds the well-rehearsed response:
—Ears of the prefects behind you.
The chant goes back and forth between Trina and the group.
—See no evil.
—Eyes of the forest above you.
—Speak no evil.
—Or the commune gorilla will get you.
They glance over at Adam in his cage, watching them. Without missing a beat, Trina adds another of her lines and continues the group song.
—For this jungle far from the U.S.
—Sees all for Father.
—And this jungle that’s a test.
—Hears all for Father.
—And this jungle paradise.
—Knows all like Father.
They check Adam’s cage again and search for an older child nearby to start organizing their game. Other groups in the clearing argue among themselves about which one did not work hard enough and who was careless or a slacker. Their urgent whispers sound like feet kicking through leaves. They uncross their fingers and whisper thankful prayers and affix grateful smiles that they are not the ones sent away from the clearing by the prefects to redo chores. Two prefects from among the older children pick the teams for the game. Rose and Trina and most of the younger children edge to the front of the gathering to get chosen for the first team. According to the rules, the first team must keep running, no standing still and no hiding, until the second team catches all of the first team. When the last person gets caught, the game ends.
The members of the first team shriek as they sprint in every direction to put as much distance between themselves and the second group. Running in pairs, they head for more remote parts of the compound, away from the rows of dormitories and the preacher’s white house surrounding the square, and so farthest from the group designated to chase them. The chasers count, poised like runners at a start line. The smaller children try hard to keep up with the bigger children. Adam watches the game as the younger children stretch their legs and pump their arms and drink deep of the rarefied green air, damp and steaming.
The energy in the sprung bodies of the children seems to come from the thick vegetation, energy that bears no relation to their bodies. It looks to be energy reserved expressly for play, a newfound lease on life, that defies the many hours spent at the laundry house near the dormitories, where those on laundry rotation wash and fetch clothes to and from the network of clotheslines strung from pillar to post; or sweeping and mopping the plain wood floors of a dozen dormitories, the schoolhouse, dining hall, and assembly hall; or polishing the varnished wood floors of the main house where the preacher lives; or tidying the compound by patrolling its many pathways and central open area with the large gorilla cage, each child armed with a bag for litter and a can for any sharp objects, such as nails, broken glass, and wood splinters; or working in clusters around giant basins as they peel hundred-pound bags of potatoes and drop them in for a sound of tin muffled by shallow water; or slicing heaps of onions with faces streaming, and if they are lucky to be unobserved, whisper jibes to pick each other up from the misery of that onion burn, jibes about whose eyes suffer most and how the driest face among them makes that person the champion peeler; or scraping carrots to a clean orange shine, hands stained orange; or shelling peas until their hands are so green, they seem grafted from the vines and leaves, properties not of children but of creatures formed by the jungle—all this industry to fill pots to feed almost one thousand mouths.
The children play. The preacher frowns. Pat, Nora, and Dee, his three personal assistants, copy his look of disapproval. They frown as they stare out of a living room window of the preacher’s house. Dormitories to the left and right frame their view and flush before them the gorilla cage and the large clearing populated with the fiery atoms of children. Each assistant tries to outdo the other based on some private calculation about what the preacher wants to hear. The only thing logical about their approach is that Pat, who has been with the reverend the longest of the three, always precedes Nora, who always precedes Dee, the most recent of the reverend’s triumvirate of most trusted converts.
—You see how joyfully they run.
—Yet they complain of always being hungry, and they drag their feet at their chores.
—Yes, Reverend. Maybe we need more discipline.
—Hungry or not, they’re flying because they’re doing something they really want to do.
—Yes, Father. Maybe they need to hear more lessons from you.
—If I preach any longer, I won’t get any sleep.
—Yes, Reverend. I mean they need to hear your wisdom more often.
—The success of this mission cannot solely depend on me. I need help.
—Yes, Reverend. We must all teach the children.
—Look how happy Adam is to see them play.
—Yes, Father. A dumb animal is easy to please.
—Adam is smarter than you think.
—Yes, Reverend. I mean he reacts to things more easily.
—Not just react, my child. The gorilla is infected by the children’s joy.
—Yes, Reverend, positively possessed.
—That’s the kind of enthusiasm I want to see in all things that we do at this mission.
—We have no better guidance than yours, Father.
An older child in the chasing group latches on to Trina and closes in on her. Trina has a wide-eyed look, as if she cannot believe she is about to get caught so soon and left standing on the spot to stew in her failure, while the other children in her group run far and wide and take a long time to enjoy the feel of the ground at their feet and the air in their faces and no one to tell them not to do this simple thing of running when everything that they do, night and day, is subject to regulation. Trina narrows her eyes as if resolving on the spot that she cannot and will not get caught so soon, that she will do whatever she needs to do to avoid the older girl on her heels. She heads straight for Adam’s cage. Trina must calculate that the older girl will give up the chase, because there is not a single child or adult, except the preacher, who is not afraid to get close to Adam. The children usually hurry past the cage at a safe distance and pause only to pick up something loose to pelt at Adam before running away. The thought of running close to the cage, of disobeying every adult warning, makes the little girl tremble, must make it hard for her to breathe, but Trina behaves as if the dangerous approach is her sole option. Just this once, she says aloud to herself, or I sit out the rest of the game.
The older girl lunges at Trina, stretches out her arm for the child in order to bring an end to the chase. Trina twists her body away from the older girl’s outstretched hand and jumps toward the cage. The older girl, her first capture almost within reach, abandons her pursuit and veers toward another target at a safer distance from the gorilla. The older girl shouts:
—I’ll tell a prefect you’re too close to the cage.
—There’s no rule against it.
As she replies to the older girl, Trina appears pleased about the success of her gamble; there’s a half-smile starting little fires around the corners of her mouth and eyes, and the tension of her body’s spring-loaded joints loosens, and just at that moment she stumbles in a stop-and-start move that turns out to be too gymnastic even for her lithe, spidery frame. Adam watches her body as it collides with the cage at the gorilla’s favorite spot where he presses against the bars and watches the children and perhaps sees himself out there with them, running, jumping, and dodging.
The second Trina crashes into the cage, she realizes her mistake. She does not bother to look for the gorilla. No time. She pools all her energy into making one leap away from the cage, back into the thick of the game, renewing the chase, no one about to shout at her to stop her wildness.
But Trina needs eyes in the back of her head to see Adam. She cannot hear him, either, not above the din of the children chasing one another, the children chased by their sounds, their shouts and laughter powering their chase. But surely she smells gorilla: a strong, distinct nose-sting of a smell that she finds impossible to ignore, less an outright stink and more a case of some secretion that sits on the skin too long, so long that it becomes a layer of its own, a suit of armor that commands a wide aromatic field. Adam’s smell turns the child’s mind to the tomato vine that stains her hands with summer, vines that fail over and over to bear fruit, despite the soil’s legendary fecundity. She has to rub paraffin on her hands to take away that smell of a lost season in the abandoned country of her birth. Paraffin followed by copious amounts of soap and water, which soon give way to sun, steam from the trees, grass caresses, red earth, sweat, and the rare luck of her mother’s rosewater smell transferred by an embrace.
Adam leans there at that very collision point. He follows the flicks back and forth of the children. His eyes dart from one to another as each body with its signature sound flies this way and that across the open and vies for his fleeting attention. In that split second Adam, accustomed to seeing a child draw near and then dart away, marvels at the audacity of this particular child, closer than usual and now so near that only the bars of his cage separate their bodies. Adam simply opens his tree-trunk arms and clasps them around the child. She screams and right away begins to wriggle, twisting and elbowing to free herself. Adam tightens his arms a little to keep her from slipping away. His face creases as he narrows his eyes against her ear-piercing screams, no longer a child’s shriek of excitement that informs play but something harmful. The children in both groups freeze and stop and stare at the cage. They add their voices to Trina’s screams. And from one child’s fear, and her small voice that announces it, comes a collection of children’s voices raised in terror. Some call their mothers. They grab each other, and some of them shout: