Even in the early 2000s they could still grow strawberries in the Sahel; that’s what my mother said. In her green eyes I saw, wafting through her crumbling memory palace, wisps of fruit eaten on the back of an underpowered moto-taxi in Ouagadougou. While a white woman on a prototypical, cliché-spewing, soul-searching trip across Africa, she at least had the decency to subvert the paradigm. Instead of going from Cape to Cairo, she went (as she said) “from the door of no return to the Horn.” Dakar, then drifting eastward through Senegal, Gambia, Mali, Burkina Faso, sprinkling her passport with now-obsolete tattoos. She got as far as Ethiopia before she had no more dollars to convert to birr, and her parents’ final offer was a ticket home. I turned up in the course of things; she bought me those now-rarefied fruits when there was a little money to hand back in Wisconsin.
She was, I think, a little dismayed when I became an ambassador.
“Starchy,” she said. Her mind crackled in and out like a poorly tuned FM station, but I’m inclined to think that was the mot juste—for dutiful me, for my buttoned-down job.
She must have eaten those strawberries about sixty years ago.
Bowie says, “Ma’am, it’s time.”
Bowie—my communications expert, cum office manager, cum personal assistant—had introduced himself by declaring that his grandmother had seen Labyrinth one time too many, and christened him before anyone could intervene. He’s a ferrety little man, on his first tour. He’s eager as a Labrador, but the best one could hope for. In the circumstances.
I send an email back to Washington confirming our two-stop plan (I say, “plan”), then shut down my laptop, put it in its briefcase, and cede it to Bowie. We refresh the seals around the room. The dust will get in anyway.
“How many today?”
His even tone fools neither of us. It means our night guards notified the rump national police force that a handful of souls perished in front of our embassy, asking for water. A slight hiccup on the vowel tells me what he hasn’t said, that at least one of them had yet to walk. I have one semi-functional Bic left, and I set down on the wall, below yesterday’s entry (seven):
July 2, 2052: Five souls.
“What’s the point?” demands Lola. Her badge reflects the orange twilight trickling in through the translucent seals. “It’s morbid.”
I arch one eyebrow. She makes no attempt to obscure the sigh in her shoulders, retreats five feet to the door of my office, and knocks. “Ma’am.” She glares at the tangerine light.
I refrain from all the things I could say—rumors about her last assignment, her office floor reportedly a kaleidoscope of green, blue, brown bottles—and remember that at least I’d volunteered for this. In some sense. “They’re almost done,” I say.
“That’s what I came to tell you. Hank said they need more time.”
“We don’t have it.”
She shrugs. “That’s what he said.”
Bowie says again, “Ma’am, it’s time.”
We lock the room. Bowie removes a threadbare handkerchief from his pocket—a delicate old-fashioned habit that never fails to amuse me—and mops his brow. We occupy a pocket of what used to be the U.S. Embassy in Ouagadougou, now dubbed the U.S. Mission in the Western Sahel, covering—as a practical matter—Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso, and parts of Mauritania, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya.
No matter what Toto said—or even Weezer—there are no more rains to bless down in this part of Africa.
I work out of the Ambassador’s office; Bowie and Lola share the one opposite—the space formerly belonging to the Deputy Chief of Mission. Between—in what used to be an upscale reception area—is our living room/dining room/bedroom. It even includes a vestigial kitchen, with a bygone sink and microwave, and a tiny bathroom/shower (twenty years past functionality). We seal the offices at night to bring the central room down to a bracing seventy-eight. But I insist on using the offices during the day, eighty-five be damned; it’s impossible to work in our unwashed fiasco of a flat.
The wind howls—six on the nose; Lola mechanically takes up her radio, calls to the guards. “Ça y est.” It’s their cue to seal up their posts and wait out the vespertine dust storm.
It’s too early to eat.
Bowie goes into the safe, withdraws three bottles of water, and hands one to me and the other to Lola. “How much is left?” I ask.
Bowie just shakes his head. I count three remaining bottles.
My satellite phone rings, and I answer it. “Ma’am, it’s Hank.”
“How’re things in sunny Tambao?” They’re scratching manganese out of the ground. In industrial quantities.
“Slow,” he says, curtly. “We’ve got our orders on tonnage, and –”
“We’ve got one more day,” I say. “Washington emailed that they’re sending the plane in.”
“We need another week.”
“We don’t have it,” I say.
That had become abundantly clear earlier this afternoon. We were down to our last quarter of a tank, and, per an irate Lola, the road temperatures were approaching 122°F. “I’ve seen what happens when the tarmac starts melting,” she had said, without elaborating.
But I—over Bowie’s and Lola’s rare joint objection—had insisted on snaking my way to the guerilla leader’s camp in our wheezing Suburban. He greeted us with a bright grin: he had been sucking on what I took to be a hard candy or cough drop, and it had stained his mouth vermillion. “Seigneur,” I said. At least, I pretended I had heard him properly, and that was indeed the proper nom de guerre for Colonel Sanou, High Controller of the Airstrip and Uber Traficant in All Things Liquid. I hoped he was going for “his lordship” when he said seigneur. His pronunciation had edged toward “saigneur”. Bloodletter. I had determined it was not in the interest of the U.S. government to inquire.
“We’re going to be cutting it close,” Hank barks.
“That’s always been true.”
Hank’s harrumph rattles the receiver.
I say, “The plane will be here tomorrow. You and your men can be on it—or not.”
There is little to say after that. Hank offers me the benefit of his unvarnished views anyway.
The blowing russet sand outside and the setting sun transform the light into a shade of gangrenous rust that never fails to put me off my dinner. “Eat,” says Bowie, offering me an MRE. Meals ready to eat, officially. Meals ready to expectorate, in my view.
“Thank you,” I say, setting it down.
“It’s not any better tepid,” says Lola.
The same conversations, looping like lazy flies.
I shouldn’t say that. We’ve been here two months. I say, “I’ll go lower the flag.”
“I’ll do it, Ma’am,” says Lola. Every day.
Ambassador Marguerite Mae Vernon was the last to run a real mission here, back when the barrages still contained water and the “green belt” boasted patches of verdure—and the embassy itself held sixty Americans and three hundred local staff. Today the embassy walls still encase deep divots—the staff’s primordial attempts at boreholes. (Bowie tore down an old cubicle and used the walls to cover them—“Safety first.” He left the deepest one alone: when the moon is in the seventh house, and there’s water close enough to the surface, and the pump works, we can procure a few buckets’ worth. When that happens, Bowie bursts into my office, beaming: “Bath day!”)
Before I came, I plowed through thirty years of old cables, and a few crumbling printed-out emails some prescient desk officer had saved. A then-Management Officer had contacted the mission in Cape Town to see how they had weathered (pun intended) the water crisis from 2015 onward. The Consulate General’s chipper advice: bucket baths and—it now seems quaint—“if it’s yellow, let it mellow.” Then: decades of cables on local soil degradation read only by the State Department’s environmental experts. After that: the local government’s attempt to co-fund the Great Green Wall with the African Union, the Fulani peregrinations through Libya, or Algeria. More corpses in the Mediterranean, of course, but Washington’s eyes were on the Strait of Hormuz.
But what held me rapt was Ambassador Vernon’s first-hand account of the water skirmishes—a euphemistic name for the riots that began the current low-grade civil war—in a dashed-off email to her longtime friend and colleague, then the Assistant Secretary for African Affairs: “Adila—Military base is blazing—can hear screaming from here—whole town seems to be pillars of smoke. Contacts say tanks walling off the presidential palace and the television/radio stations—still trying to find out if in support of the government, or against. A quarter of the guards have fled. Currently fifty-four Americans at the embassy, all of us sheltering in place. All manning phones to reach other Americans in-country, but even SMS inconsistent. Have found about 150 wanting to leave. We’ll keep trying. Supplies are short, particularly water, maybe four days left. Road to airport still open but reportedly fighting around the cathedral. Egyptians (nearby) have asked to be part of our convoy. Said yes.
Got to get local staff out this time, Adila. There are about 250 of them with their families, around 1300 total. There are pernicious and persistent rumors in the city that the embassy is hoarding water, and they’ll be in grave danger. So: roughly 1500 Americans/embassy personnel to evacuate, and Egyptians (75?) likely to request air transport too. Explosions in the distance—gotta go –
Ambassador Vernon pressed send milliseconds before the systems went down, and so didn’t receive her friend Adila’s response; she wasn’t able to engage until an earsplitting and tearful satellite phone conversation a few days later. Adila, as the State Department’s lead on all things Africa, had gone directly to the Secretary to convey the gravity of the situation. The Secretary was firm: there was no precedent for an “environmental” evacuation for staff, much less their families. Americans only.
State Department lore says Ambassador Vernon offered her old friend Adila some rather undiplomatic and biologically impossible advice for the Secretary. Adila reportedly agreed with the sentiment, but reminded Marguerite that she had a mission to lead. Marguerite reportedly retorted, “What the hell do you think I’m doing?” and hung up, thus annihilating a thirty-year friendship. Allegedly Ambassador Vernon saw the Americans settled, then tried to dash off the plane at the last moment—only to be sedated by the air crew.
Back in Washington, she refused the award the Department offered her, retired abruptly, and flew back. By that point around forty of the local staff had been murdered, along with several of their families. She spent the rest of her life trying to resettle the rest, or so the story goes. Supposedly she managed to save about five. Some say she too was murdered; some say she left this life completely insane.
I don’t think it was either. She died ensuring that she could live with herself.
Lola comes back with the folded flag, that star-spangled triangle that still causes my heart to seize. “Thanks,” I say, and finally ask the nagging question. “How do you always manage to fold that yourself? Isn’t it a two-person job?”
She half-smiles. “My mom taught me.”
“She must be a wonderful lady.”
“She was,” says Lola. Her tone discourages further questions, so I only say, “I’m so sorry.”
She looks younger, somehow, under her vinous rosacea—or maybe it’s just that it’s fading. We got through the remaining booze a month ago. She (and consequently we) had some exciting days afterward. “If you don’t mind my asking,” I say, “how old are you?”
Thirty. Half a lifetime ago. “Why did you decide to join State?”
“It was a steady government job where people weren’t shooting at me.”
“But you joined Diplomatic Security,” I point out, “and got yourself assigned to a danger-pay post.”
“My mistake,” she says. Our eyes meet.
I can’t help grinning back at her.
I eat, and the three of us watch the far-off airport spotlight flickering. When the sandstorm has died down, it shines clear, and we venture out. Lola rolls her eyes when she sees my notebook.
The tarp covering the main checkpoint window has a tear, but the guards (apart from a dust patina) are fine. Bowie goes with Issa to determine what has become of the duct tape, while I glance toward Daouda. “J’en ai trois, Madame,” he says, with a distinguished nod.
Daouda is the youngest son of Ambassador Vernon’s head of protocol, killed by a thirsty mob in the days following her departure. The family actually delayed the memorial service until she returned; she gave the eulogy. Soon after we arrived, I brought Daouda a mostly-complete list of the local staff working for the embassy during Ambassador Vernon’s tenure, and he, through his formidable social network, collects tidbits on their whereabouts. Many of them are untraceable, having made illicit treks north across the Sahara, or south to live (legally or otherwise) in Côte d’Ivoire. But some:
“He’s in Bobo, working for the mayor.”
“Dead from alcoholism.”
“She’s a teacher in Marseille.”
Lola leans over my list. “Why? It’s not like the Department’s going to care.”
“Someone will. Someday.”
Sleep will find us, but not for an hour yet. Lola, Bowie, and I twist sweatily in our cots, failing to ignore the sour-breath smell of the room. “Truth or dare?” asks Bowie.
“Not again,” says Lola.
Truth or Dare is a misnomer. Moving will make us warmer, so it’s almost invariably Truth or Truth. “We’re out of questions,” I say. That is, they’ve asked everything that a serving ambassador can appropriately answer for her staff. Also, as I say, we’re out of alcohol.
“C’mon,” pleads Bowie. “None of us can sleep.”
“Fine,” says Lola; I can hear her scowl. “Truth.”
“Worst move you’ve ever made.”
Lola is silent, and I wonder if she’ll refuse to answer. In a voice I almost don’t recognize—“Our family was part of the Miami Migration. I remember salt water coming out of the tap one day. Mama shouted, ‘That’s it! We are going! Somewhere nice!’” She sighs. “We got as far as Coral Springs before the money ran out.”
“That’s pretty rotten,” agrees Bowie.
“Truth or dare?” Lola says to Bowie.
“Dare,” he says.
“I dare you to do a handstand,” she says. Bowie—as usual—performs beautifully, this time walking around on his hands in the airport’s spotlight gleam to liven up the execution. We applaud, dutifully.
“Not very creative,” he says.
“It’s your turn,” she replies, flatly.
“Truth or dare, Ma’am?” he asks me.
“Truth.” The truth is, even thirty years ago, I couldn’t have done a handstand.
“Why did you take this assignment?”
What can I tell them that won’t damage their fragile trust? That I aspired to see the word Ambassador in front of my name at the end of a long career, knowing my mother was fading, having parted ways with the notion of a family of my own, having mislaid my friends along the way? That the option was this or an ignominious retirement? That there was no one else willing to take on this dubious assignment?
“Because,” I say, “at the end of the day, I took an oath to the Constitution of the United States.”
Bowie makes a noise reminiscent of a Jeopardy! buzzer; Lola, an air horn. “Cop out,” she says.
“Maybe,” I reply, briskly. “Truth or dare.”
“Truth,” she says.
I consider returning the question, but that is cruel and a cop-out. “Favorite family member.”
“My abuela,” she says. There’s an unprecedented catch in her voice; Bowie and I both shift toward her. “My dad wasn’t in the picture. Mom was cashiering at Walmart, but it wasn’t paying the bills. So she joined the army.” She breathes. “I stayed with my abuela when she deployed. I was twelve…she didn’t come back.”
“I’m so sorry,” I say again. It’s just as pathetic this time.
Bowie says, sympathetically, “That sucks.”
“Yeah,” Lola says. “Truth or dare.” A beat. “Ma’am.”
“What are you most looking forward to at home?”
“Strawberries,” I say.
The day doesn’t so much dawn as hurl itself at us; the sand is a thing alive, flinging itself around the embassy. Tightening its silicon noose.
“It’s the last day!” cries Bowie, when he sees me. He zips out of the room and goes outside to hoist the flag.
“Someone’s in a good mood,” says Lola, but the corners of her mouth lift a little. “We’ll be back in the States soon.”
“Yeah,” I say. “Dome sweet dome.”
She just shakes her head, and goes into the office she shares with Bowie.
It’s already an old joke.
But that’s why we’re here, even if no one has said it out loud, or acknowledged it in any way. The water situation is…well-known; in the United States, air quality too has also gotten so bad that it’s affecting even the wealthy. Still unwilling to recognize that any real public policy solutions were fifty to seventy-five years in the past, our Congress endorsed the next best thing: military contracting. Some combination of the Marine Corps of Engineers and the artist formerly known as Halliburton are encasing America’s cities in giant geodesic domes.
Each will come equipped with giant purifiers to cleanse the air; the “panes” will be glass at the very bottom and semi-permeable membranes above; they’re planning to monkey with the air pressure to allow the rain to trickle in, but reduce the amount of fresh water lost to evaporation. I could go on at length about the cost/ludicrousness of this “plan,” but it was enacted under the state of emergency three years ago. Hadfield steel has come roaring back to life (American jobs!) and Tambao is the world’s largest untapped source of manganese, its critical alloy. Congress is boasting that it has revived industry. I am here to oversee the evacuation of the miners and the precious manganese before the token local government collapses entirely.
And takes our fig leaf with it.
We pack our suitcases, and Bowie puts them in the car. I spend the day dry-mopping my office—an exercise Lola correctly identifies as pointless—and adding both the death tallies and Daouda’s news of the former embassy staff to my journal. I remind Lola, pointedly, to go get the plane permits—a polite fiction that we and the residual government maintain. She goes. I log into my computer and read a few reporting cables from around the region. Embassy Abidjan’s latest notes clashes between Burkinabé refugees and Ivoirian populations, and describes the precarious ethnic balance and upcoming elections as “a tinderbox in an already hot country.” Embassy Algiers is reporting on sex trafficking among recent migrants…
I move to turn it off. Time enough when we get back.
Before I can even touch the button, the power goes out.
We’ve been through this before, and there are only two options: opening the windows and choking on blowing sand, or keeping them closed and slow-roasting. We have a backup generator, but the (since-fired) Post Management Officer who equipped us refused to believe we might ever need it 24/7. A particularly bad patch in week two depleted our supply.
So we sit, and try not to move. Bowie, bless him, fans us, but he waxes purple in the process, so I tell him to stop. “How’re you?” I ask Lola.
Why only now, at the end? I wonder. And then this thought is interrupted when the phone rings.
“Hello, this is –”
“Ambassador, it’s Hank. The plane got to us in good time. The load-in didn’t take as long as we expected, so we’re coming your way now.”
“That’s a problem—the permits are –” I see Lola signaling with more vigor than she’s shown to date—“Actually, there are two problems: one, your landing permit isn’t valid until four o’clock this afternoon, and two –” Lola has scribbled the word tarmac on a scrap of paper—“the runway –”
“Too late, we’re already moving.”
Bowie antes a “Shit” and I raise him a “Damn,” and then Lola goes all in. We ooze toward the vehicle, rounding up the two day guards and telling them to call Issa and Daouda, to announce that they’re coming to the airport with us if they want to get paid. We offered American dollars and they unanimously agreed that they preferred cases of water. I asked Washington to put their salary-equivalent on the plane for us. The guards will keep some for family use, but the rest should fetch a small fortune on the black market; it should cover their travel north. Or south. Or west. But out.
“Wait,” I say.
There’s no time for any actual ceremony.
I lower the flag.
Lola helps me fold it, and I tuck it into my tote bag beside the laptop.
We lock the gates. One last time.
Bowie drives. It takes years off my life listening to Adama’s poor navigation and Bowie’s worse French, but we manage to reach Issa’s house, and he (very sensibly) takes the wheel and drives us to Daouda’s, where we come to a rolling stop and he piles in. Issa, who used to drive for the French ambassador (and was subsequently fired for stealing water bottles from the car cup holders, so we got him at a bargain-basement rate), has mastered every rut, manhole cover, and pothole along the route. The dust storm has started early; our visibility has gone from “low” to “everything is orange” to “praying without ceasing”—but we are delivered unto the airport. Shaken, but, fortunately, not stirred.
We arrive in time to see the plane touch down, and to watch its wheels lodge in the glutinous asphalt.
There’s an abandoned stair car fifty yards down the runway, with the key taped to the wheel; Issa expertly guides it up against the plane.
The pilot, co-pilot Hank, and Hank’s crew emerge, just as several men in camouflage approach from the southwest. “Government,” Lola announces. Everyone pretends they’re not relieved. Hank says, “First thing, we need to dig out –”
The government men are waving their two copies of the triplicate form like displaced NASCAR officials: white flag, yellow flag. Final lap. Hazard on the track.
They start to argue that our plane can’t be here –
“Attendez,” I say, to the officials. “Wait,” I say, to Hank and his crew. “We need to pay our guards, and then we can deal with everything else.”
Hank and his men fetch some of their shovels to help dig out the wheel.
In short order—and in blatant violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act—we manage to settle our airport dispute with a case of water for each of the officials. Having rendered them contented, we offload the crates for the two day guards, and Issa and Daouda, which they load into the Suburban. I turn to say farewell, but they are making their way back toward the plane, picking up extra spades, plunging them into the liquid tar with gusto.
“Mais –” I begin.
We’ve settled up –
Daouda turns back and smiles. “Sans problème, Madame.”
It is a kindness I cannot begin to repay; the only thing to do is to emulate them. I take off my blazer and fold it, set it down on top of my tote; I take off my hat; I grab a shovel, too.
We do not whistle while we work.
For a few moments, all is digging and silence.
And then there are more men—dozens, hundreds—in camouflage, and they, too, are crying out, and Lola yells, “Take cover!” a split second before a bee whizzes past my ear.
It isn’t a bee.
I fling my arm out in an unmistakable gesture to tell the guards to run; they take the Suburban and go with a merry, “Que Dieu vous bénisse!” May God bless us all, really, I think, but Bowie grabs my shoulder, pulling me down ahead of him; we run at a crouch to cower behind the stair car. The guards are unarmed, but Hank and his men apparently aren’t; they’ve scrambled back into the plane for their weapons. I hear them above, shooting, using the plane door as cover.
Lola fells two men without blinking.
“Ma’am.” A rasp. A rale.
A red butterfly racing across his chest.
The Department put me in a class on this, just before I left…the instructor said I’m supposed to put plastic over it, to prevent a sucking chest wound. My kingdom for a sterile dressing, or even that duct tape we used on the tarp yesterday. Oh God. Bowie…I’ve got to say something…it seems hours have passed but it’s just nauseating panic; it’s surely been only seconds…
“I’m here for you.”
I take off my button-down—mercifully I put on an undershirt this morning—and use it as a compress/seal. It’s terrible, completely inadequate, but there’s nothing else.
“Don’t speak,” I say, rubbing his forehead. I start calculating how we can possibly get him to a hospital…but now there’s bloody froth at his lips, like bubbles in a strawberry soda. Lola ducks behind the stairs with us, takes one look at Bowie, and shakes her head. A spasm rocks my entire body as he coughs, spurting blood—a fountain in the desert.
“Bowie,” I whisper. My entire profession is words, and I have none that rise to this occasion, when the only light left in my life is about to go out. “Thank you for your optimism, and your kindness—and your handstands—in an otherwise irredeemable situation.”
He makes no answer, but he smiles faintly…
I recognize the voice.
He’s been saying Saigneur all along, I realize.
He goes on at some length, very formally, in a three-pronged argument (this, I note, irrelevantly, is one of the more persistent and annoying vestiges of French rule) and notes that we have a) not gotten his permission to land at the airport, b) have been giving away the water we promised him, and c) are generally behaving like entitled white colonials.
I can’t argue with that last point and won’t try, but we did tell him yesterday that we were coming through. And it’s not true that we’ve given away his precious loot—the cases for the embassy guards were a separate allotment, and the ones we gave the airport staff part of our getaway kit. I begin to describe these arrangements—but warlords in every place and clime are not known for paying heed to females. Even a duly accredited envoy of the United States.
The conversation devolves to the point where he calls me a cheat (“Tricheuse!”) and I say, “I’m sure we can work something out,”—surely there’s booze on the plane?
“Yes,” he agrees. His tone puts me in mind of winter mornings in front of the television, the Grinch deciding to relieve the Whos of their moveable property. “My final offer is: anything drinkable on the plane except for the one case I’ll leave you…and I’ll let you go.”
Lola looks at me, and I look at Lola.
She shakes her head.
In answer, I pick up my hat.
And put it on her.
Even in the shadow of the stair car, I can see her blanch. “No!” she hisses, even as I pick up my blazer and start slipping it over her shoulders. “Ma’am, this is crazy –”
“It’s a calculation,” I say. “The options are: you go and I die, I go and you die, we both try to go and, not only do they shoot both of us, they put dozens of bullets or an RPG into the plane, and take down the pilots and Hank’s men. Survey says –”
“Dolores,” I interrupt. “Please call me Sophia. It’s been a pleasure serving with you. Now, as your ambassador, I’m ordering you to get on that plane.”
How Casablanca, I muse, demonstrating that the human mind is ever-capable of inappropriate whimsy. She frowns but slouches into my hat and blazer, and picks up my tote. We embrace, very briefly, very awkwardly, and I say, “Good luck. Please give my notebook to the historian’s office.”
“I will,” she says, offering a funny nod, and—keeping her face carefully turned away from the gunmen—starts up the stair car steps, as three of Hank’s men carry down the rest of the beverages and leave them at the bottom. I obediently roll the stairs away from the plane, keeping myself in their bulky trapezoidal shadow, until the silver bird is airborne.
Soon enough, the minions round me up and take me to their leader.
“Vous êtes bien folle, Madame l’Ambassadeur,” the Saigneur says, cracking a hard candy between his teeth.
I don’t dispute his (not unreasonable) proposition that I am, indeed, crazy.
He places the gun to my temple. “Au revoir,” he says. And—how can it be?—how?—the ester trailing from his lips conjures a ripe, red strawberry.