They were 20-meters down when the lake exploded around them. It began with a rumble—an earthquake, maybe the volcano—then huge bubbles rolled up from the depths like a bloom of monstrous jellyfish, tumbling them end to end as it turned the clear waters brown with sediment. Dave swam towards the boat’s shadow. He surfaced in a sizzle of effervescence, dazzling crystals of sunlight rendering him blind, squinting face to face with the dive master Étienne hanging over the side of the 18-foot Zodiac with mouth agape and eyes bulging blood red. The dive master dragged the edge of a flat hand across his throat, repeating cutting gestures, signaling “out of air.” Behind Étienne, two assistants clenched yellow plastic regulators in their teeth, discs tethered by dark hoses to the chrome valves they spun onto air tanks.
Fingers slowed. Spinning stopped.
The chunks of bright plastic dropped from their teeth to dance at the end of hoses. They released their grip on the steel tank rack and fell in unison, like marionettes. At whose hands?
No wounds. No smoke. An otherwise beautiful day in Rwanda.
Head above water, but with mask and regulator, Dave searched topside for Sylvia. No sign of her. When he craned his neck over the side of the boat, Étienne lunged to grab his mouthpiece, prying it from his teeth as Dave thrashed his head from side to side. There was nothing he could do for this man—for anyone aboard. If he stayed to buddy-breathe with one, Dave might lose Sylvia. After twenty years, he feared that he might lose her. That was what brought them to this day. As life left Étienne, his grip loosened on the regulator. He flopped over the side of the boat, his arm hitting the water with a familiar sound—like the warning slap of a beaver’s tail. Canada. Dave had to find Sylvia.
He dove, the water a beige color now, with only fifteen feet of visibility. The dive master’s limp arm swayed from above like waterweed. Plunging down through the boat’s shadow, Dave was relieved to spot Sylvia right away, swimming up from the murk. With auburn hair flowing and legs aflutter, she recalled the “mermaid” of their newlywed days, those shallow, sunlit dives in Lake Ontario. He swam to head her off before she could surface and pop that regulator from her mouth—as she often did when anxious to share something she’d seen. Catching her by the shoulders, he descended to face her mask-to-mask. Those green eyes.
With a gripping gesture to his face, Dave pointed to the surface. Sylvia still didn’t know about the air above, but he would be ready in case she—That thought was interrupted by a barrage above them, like meteorites breaking through a mirrored ceiling. They held one another tight in a tangle of hoses, their weight belts clacking together with a cascading echo. Was this debris raining down from Mt. Nyiragongo? The smoking volcano had been absolutely menacing that morning.
The surface stilled. Dave could see dark objects drifting, the distinct silhouette of birds’ wings creating the impression that time had slowed as a corpse flock migrated overhead.
Dave went up the ladder first, helping Sylvia back into the boat. Again, he motioned for her to keep her mask on. When she saw the three corpses, mouths ajar, he was sure she understood. Two fingers extended, she crouched to check the carotid pulse on the neck of one of the assistants. Dave could see tears glimmer through the foggy patches of Sylvia’s mask as she looked up to him. Confusion in her eyes. Muzzled by his gear, Dave couldn’t share his thoughts as his mind raced to make sense of it all. This wasn’t the volcano, nor was it some kind of biological agent or gas attack. Though the Democratic Republic of Congo was there on the opposite shore, and Rwanda just behind them, this had nothing to do with senseless, man-made violence. Sylvia found a white slate with tethered stylus, used for writing underwater. She wrote something, holding it up for Dave:
She passed the slate to him. Dave wrote a question mark, but stopped short of dotting it. He wiped the slate clean with the side of his hand. Across the water, the distant nub of the Kivuwatt gas extraction barge poked up from the center of the vast lake. It was there to separate methane from the lake’s accumulating carbon dioxide. Was that the answer?
He thought of the gas and of Lake Nyos, Cameroon, 1986. Photos of the 1,700 dead were still clear in his memory, people and livestock lying where they had dropped, victims of a swift, silent killer. He had read that deep Lake Kivu—like Nyos and Monoun in Cameroon—had the pressure needed to dissolve large amounts of gas and the stratification to keep that saturated water trapped below, waiting to be triggered by a volcano or earthquake. It was one of only three lakes in the world where this phenomenon, known as a Limnic Eruption, could occur, and the only one not to erupt in our times. Two-thousand-times larger and with a coastal population of over two million, Kivu had a much greater potential for disaster, but everything he had read said it was a longshot. He’d promised Sylvia it was a longshot. Dave wrote, holding the slate up to his chest:
• • •
Speeding back to Gisenyi, Dave stood at the wheel with Sylvia seated besides, surrounded by the cadavers of Étienne, his men, and a half dozen ducks. An entire flock of those birds had dropped dead from the sky, most of them scattering across the lake’s surface, drifting towards shore on a westerly breeze. He recognized the bird’s cocoa head and breast, black patches on the back, and white tail and wingtips; they’d seen these Fulvous Whistling Ducks on a dive trip to Costa Rica. They would never look at them the same way again.
Dave imagined the invisible mass of carbon dioxide moving inland now, clinging to the ground, creeping between the tall palms surrounding the Serena Hotel. The main building there, called the Veranda House, was left completely open to the lake on warm days like this, and would have offered no barrier to that carbon dioxide cloud. Sylvia checked her air gauge, coupled with a depth meter at the end of a long hose by her waist. She showed him the fifteen minutes left on its dial. He checked his own: fourteen minutes.
The boat approached a group of five orange kayaks, apparently empty. Navigating between them, their paddlers came into view: four tourists and their local guide, slumped forward, still clutching paddles across their craft. Closer to shore the Zodiac passed elegant white egrets, dark kingfishers, and huge shoebill storks—all bobbing dead in their wake. Dave worried that the air at the hotel might still not be safe to breathe when their tanks ran out in—he checked his gauge—nine minutes. That gas had come from the lake, so this was no place to be, either. He throttled the engine up and headed for Gisenyi at full speed.
Approaching the shoreline off the Serena Hotel, Dave’s first impression was that of relief. Couples basked on the beach or napped under blue and white striped beach umbrellas— there were even snorkelers in the water. Sylvia had the same impression, he could read it from her wide-eyed reaction. As they neared the long dock they had left from, Dave looked for those silly local boys, no more than eight years old. Just that morning they had been having such fun performing running cannonballs off the end of the dock into the cyan waters of Kivu. They made Sylvia laugh so hard as they entered the water holding stylish poses. If these were Dave’s kids, he would have been jumping with them, or launching the boys from his shoulders.
As they pulled up to the dock, Dave had the craziest idea: When they returned to Canada, why not adopt a whole bunch of kids? Not just one, but an entire household. When they’d had problems conceiving in the past, Sylvia had been dead set against In Vitro and surrogacy, but never once voiced an opinion about adoption. Dave had long since dropped the subject, but it could be the solution they searched for. After all, their couple was hardly a family.
As he imagined Sylvia’s reaction to a proper, boisterous household, Dave perceived muffled sobs. She was crying, looking to the shadowed pylons below the dock at what Dave thought were drifting coconuts tossed in the Zodiac’s wake. He could hear her hyperventilating through the regulator—she would use up all of her air, for God’s sake. Then Dave recognized them, those heads bobbing there. Four boys. Before he had even brought the boat in, Sylvia was reaching, pulling their bodies from the water. She clutched each child to her chest before laying them side by side. It was easier for Dave to look at the corpses of Étienne and his men than to witness those four.
Dave turned to the beach. They were close now, and it was clear that those snorkelers weren’t swimming at all, just drifting facedown. The staff, in white cotton uniforms, lay strewn like bowling pins around the sunbathers, whose heads were slumped back at odd angles or forward, chins pinned to their chests. They were all dead: the pasty-white Schultzes from Wiesbaden; Ali the Nigerian businessman in mirrored sunglasses and yellow knee-length surf shorts; the two Californian couples who argued incessantly about regional politics; the Australian couple, both men dressed in snug-fitting khaki safari gear; and a podologue from Aix-en-Provence, who advised “Sylvie” regarding the large bunion on her left foot. Those were just the friends they had made at breakfast that morning.
With nothing alive in sight, they would have no way of knowing if it was safe to breathe the air here. His gauge read three minutes left. After all they’d been through in those two decades, was this how it would end for them? He wanted more. They rushed ashore, desperately searching for a sign—birds in the trees, or one of the many stray cats roaming the grounds—anything to reassure them that there was oxygen. The great mango tree spreading over the lawn had been teaming with brightly colored birds that morning; now it was empty, the small bodies peppering the ground beneath. Dave led Sylvia across the lawn, spying one of those cats he’d been looking for—a scrawny calico. Stalking the birds, its body was stretched long through the plush grass, reaching. Still.
They circled the swimming pool where more bodies lay tangled together like mangrove roots—a Korean family of four huddled in terror on a single poolside lounger, and two toddlers floating in the shallow end. They entered the Veranda House through one of its open sides.
One minute left.
The air was already stuttering in Dave’s tube; Sylvia might still have an extra minute left on her tank, so he should go first. Facing her, he gripped his regulator. She moved a hand to hers and nodded. A sickness worked its way down through Dave, the thought that this might be his last sight of Sylvia and that, quite possibly, they had been slowly suffocating all these years.
They removed their mouthpieces.
Filling his lungs, the humid air felt warm, reassuring as he had never imagined it. He
threw his mask to the ground and helped Sylvia off with her heavy tank.
“Thank God!” Dave said, flying at her with one arm, his tank sliding off the other to
clank on the tile floor. She clutched him so hard he could barely move.
“All the people, Dave.”
“There will be someone, Syl’.”
“No. We’re the only ones.”
Dave didn’t respond, though he knew that couldn’t be so. The CO2 must have dissipated by now. He rushed Sylvia through the lobby’s reading room, filled with the corpses of older tourists in wicker chairs, newspapers spread wide on their laps or fallen to tent-like shapes on the floor—an encampment at the feet of slain giants. The dining room staff must have cleared breakfast, and been in the process of setting tables for a lunch buffet. The parquet floor was strewn with white triangles of broken china and shards of glass, on which the bodies of three male and four female wait staff lay. Sylvia was staring at him, lifting her chin high to avoid looking at the corpses around them.
“Dave, we have to get out of here before it happens again,” she whispered, as if the force that caused all this was listening.
“It’s going to be okay.”
“We weren’t meant to survive. Can’t you see that?”
“Syl’, you’re talking crazy. We’re alive.”
But when Dave considered how Sylvia’s family had been taken in such tidy succession, he could see how she might assume she’d be next.
Dave looked from the wait staff to a corpse in chef’s whites, and back to the old folks slumped over in the reading room.
“Shit, we have to tell someone about this.” Dave headed to the empty reception desk at the far side of the room. Only when he had leaned over to take the telephone did he see the staff—a young woman and older man—sprawled on the floor behind the counter. Dave drew back. Dressed in the same burgundy blazer as these two, there was a younger man in the rear office, stretched out on a beige shag carpet like that stray calico on the lawn—a coiled telephone cord gripped in his fist. A white desk phone lay overturned by his head.
“Dave,” Sylvia said, her voice like a creaky door.
“I’m looking for the emergency number. I think it’s like Europe, 1-1—”
“David,” she bellowed this time, her voice rising to a tremolo. He had heard this before.
It was the tone she used when she cut herself badly in the kitchen, or that time her brother called about their father. Then their mother.
The hospital that last time, calling about her brother.
Dave stepped back from the reception desk to see what she was staring at.
There at the service door to the basement stood a Rwandan man in his early 30’s. He was dressed in a grimy red parka worn out at the elbows and shedding its matted white poly-fill. At the end of his arm he held a machete, blade glistening with moisture. Glaring back at Sylvia in her black wetsuit, the man glimpsed the bodies scattered throughout the kitchen and dining area, returning his eyes to her. Sylvia shot a glance to Dave in her peripheral vision, but seemed too scared to turn away from the man with the machete. They held their ground, paralyzed as Dave approached from the side, calculating if he would have time to jump between that blade and Sylvia.
“Hello. Are you—” Dave stopped short of asking him if he was alive. No matter what
he’d told Sylvia, he was astonished to find a survivor here.
“Are you alright?”
The young man turned his blank stare to Dave. His eyes fell to the wetsuit.
“We were diving the lake when it happened.”
“What happened?” the man said in measured syllables—something between a question and an accusation.
“The lake overturned. The gas… killed everything.”
“Everything?” The man said.
“Every living thing.”
“And you two?”
“We were underwater. With air tanks.” Dave turned to Sylvia for confirmation, but she
was too frightened to speak. She nodded her head slowly, as if not to startle the man.
“How did you manage to survive?” Dave asked him.
“I was…” he motioned to the basement stairs with his machete. He must have just then realized what he held. He threw it to the floor. “Sorry. My name’s Daniel.” He shrugged off the parka.
Daniel nodded, trying to force a smile.
“I was in the walk-in freezer clearing away ice.” He pointed to the machete on the floor.
“There was so much ice covering everything—I must have been in there a long time.”
“It didn’t take a long time,” Dave said, looking off to the corpses spread throughout the room, wondering if they had dropped together like a flock of birds, or did some have to watch their friends collapse and suffocate, before succumbing themselves. Daniel followed his gaze, walking past Sylvia to wind between the bodies. He crouched to touch the cheek of a young woman.
“Why—” He choked on the word.
Dave knew the scientific explanation for all this, but that wasn’t what this man was
asking. Dave didn’t have an answer for that.
Sylvia hated herself for taking Dave’s advice. That afternoon he suggested she rest in the bungalow—sending her away was his favorite tactic to avoid a discussion. He knew she couldn’t sleep in the daytime. After what had happened, she wasn’t sure if she’d ever sleep again. Placing her hand on the white wall, Sylvia could almost feel death in the next bungalow, just meters away. The night before had been stifling; their neighbors slept-in that morning, screens open to the lake breeze. Decisions.
Sylvia hadn’t dived with Dave for at least five years, but that morning she felt she should for some reason. Maybe it was just nostalgia for other dives in other lakes. For other days. Better days. She once would have believed she was meant to have that air, in that place, at that exact time. This was no miracle, though, it was a disaster. Something like a curse.
She’d forgotten what an absolute pain it was to put on a wetsuit, so much easier over a more youthful body. But as awkward as she felt with all those rubbery flaps and bulges, once below, none of that mattered. Nothing mattered except the flying: the sensation of being enveloped, the weightlessness. She really missed that.
The dive trips had started soon after she met Dave. Her job as an environmental lawyer, and his as a branch manager at First Ontario, had been stressful enough to require they blow off a little steam on the weekends. Their friends were all busy with kids, so it was better to have some mutual activity. Lake Ontario was just five minutes away from their home in the suburbs of Hamilton, with Lake Erie an hour’s drive south on Route 6. They were in their late twenties then, and could get away anytime on weekends.
Both had wanted children, but for the sake of their careers agreed to wait well into their thirties to start a family. Sylvia’s parents had been fairly young when they had her and her brother; she always felt that had spun her parents’ lives in a direction they never intended it to go, but maybe that was just what happened when you had kids. Then her dad died—just like that. A massive heart attack. She suddenly felt an obligation to provide her mom with a first grandchild: the offspring of her offspring. Sylvia’s brother Ted was unmarried—bipolar, according to her parents. She was still not sure if that had just been their own diagnosis, but she did know Ted was never a happy person.
Dave’s parents had been much older, and passed away some time before. They had already had grandchildren from his siblings, so he never felt the same pressure. Nevertheless, they tried. It hadn’t been easy becoming pregnant those first few months, but they had kept on just the same, turning intimacy into drudge work. Then, seven months after her dad’s death, a call came from Ted that Sylvia’s mom had died of a cerebral hemorrhage, just as suddenly as her father. She was dead before she hit the ground, he said. Emotionally and financially dependent on her parents, Ted took his own life three days later. And like that, Sylvia’s family was gone. Her own death that morning would have been a quick one, too, she considered.
Sylvia tried to imagine the corpses in the next bungalow. Would they be lying side-by- side or braided as lovers? It didn’t matter, of course: lovers never survived—only strangers. Sylvia lay back down in bed, playing dead herself. She thought of Dave, and how he had pushed the theory that having children would be the perfect way for Sylvia to “move forward.” Back then Dave couldn’t begin to fathom the burden she felt, the ghastly good fortune of surviving all others. Now he could.
When it had become clear that they were indeed infertile, Dave insisted they try IVF and gestational surrogacy, but by then Sylvia had already begun to make her case for a life without children. The prospect of loving—and losing—all over again was unbearable. Sylvia realized the position she had morphed into on the bed—knees up and legs apart. With all-white walls, floors, and linens, it felt like she was in a maternity ward, ready for delivery. Sliding her legs out flat, she was a corpse again.
At about the same time, she began to lose interest in their weekend diving trips, devoting her time to fitness-oriented swimming in a pool. Dave’s buddies at the dive club had been on him to certify in deep wreck diving—entering the compartments of sunken ships, breathing nitrox mixtures—as opposed to merely swimming over open, sunlit wrecks as they had done together. Soon Dave began to leave on overnight trips with the boys, travelling west to Thunder Bay, and way up to Manitou Passage. There was a lot of boozing on those trips, she soon discovered, a habit that began to spill over into Dave’s workweek.
Though Sylvia had stopped diving locally with Dave, the precious few holidays they tookback then usually combined an animal encounter with some sort of diving for him. They did the Great Barrier Reef with a marsupial rehabilitation center in Wooroonooran National Park, the Red Sea with an eco-camel caravan on the Sinai, and Costa Rica’s Bat Islands with a trip to rescue baby tree sloths tacked on for her. At the time, Sylvia had been a huge fan of the film “Gorillas in the Mist,” which she’d first discovered from an old VHS tape Dave had. She had proposed a trip to Rwanda’s Volcanos National Park to see those endangered creatures while they still could, but there was no legendary dive location nearby, so naturally Dave wasn’t interested.
Then, with their 20th wedding anniversary approaching, Dave sprung this trip on her. He was still complaining how expensive the permits were to visit the gorillas, considering that they only bought you one hour with the creatures, but for Sylvia it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
After ninety minutes of hiking up into the foothills of Mt. Gahinga with a guide and two porters, they found the Sabyinyo gorilla group they had been tracking: three curious youngsters and their mother. The guide then pointed to something black and bushy poking up from the underbrush 30-feet away. It the head of the great silverback Guhonda—the largest gorilla ever recorded in Rwanda. The 485-pound male plowed his way through the foliage and into the clearing, the dark knuckles at the end of his hulking arms sinking into the damp forest floor as he plodded forward. His eyes were fixed on hers.
“Don’t look in his eyes,” the guide hissed from behind, but Sylvia couldn’t break the stare.
As she gazed at that white wall now, the images were so vivid, they seemed projected there. She hadn’t flinched as Guhonda advanced towards her that day—probably never would have if it hadn’t been for the guide pulling her back into the bush with him. Only when they were retracing their path out of there did the massive Guhonda stop, fists together on the ground, arms extended forming a tall “V” that framed his well-muscled torso. He released a forceful, pig-like grunt which, while threatening, expressed profound disappointment, she felt.
Not far from the gorillas was the closest thing Rwanda had to a resort town, Gisenyi on Lake Kivu. Dave had seen an ad for a diving company here—Mr. Étienne and his assistants. They touted the safe, crystal-clear waters, absent of hippos and crocodiles. When they learned that Lake Kivu shared a potentially deadly characteristic with those lakes in Cameroon, both of them dismissed it as highly improbable. After all, Yellowstone Park sat atop one of the world’s largest active volcanoes, yet tourists didn’t seem to worry about a cataclysmic eruption there.
The walls of the bungalow were rumbling now. Was this the lake again, and if so, where was Dave? She should run. How long could she hold her breath before reaching Dave and the Veranda House? What then? Dave might have already found refuge and been out of sight, perhaps down in the freezer with Daniel. The windows were closed around her, that might keep the gas out. It might not. Dammit, why did they have to come there in the first place, she’d only wanted to see those gorill—
That was a honk. Trucks growling.
They weren’t the only ones.
Daniel had just finished covering the bodies with Dave when the aid convoy came
thundering into the parking lot.
“Finally,” Dave said.
Daniel just nodded, keeping his eyes on the neat white bundles stretched out across the lawn. Dave had helped him drag the corpses there on a blue plastic tarpaulin.
“Is it the army?”
“No. Probably some NGOs. Red Cross or MSF.”
Dave joined Daniel’s stare across the field of white rectangles.
“They can take these away at least.”
But Daniel wasn’t ready for that. Not yet
The aid workers came swarming over the lawn. Daniel knew most of these men and women by name, for the Serena Hotel was a favorite drinking spot for the nongovernmental organizations in Northwestern Rwanda. Some of their staff even drove over from Goma, next door in the DRC, to indulge in the Serena’s better-than-average selection of drink. Where minutes ago there had been only the hypnotic buzzing of flies, now a dizzying array of uniforms and insignias whirled around Daniel and David, hands patting and poking them, as if to confirm they weren’t just ghosts.
“Daniel? Thank God.”
It was Robert, the regional coordinator of Médecins Sans Frontières. From his side hung an enormous nylon trauma bag, bursting with tubes and clamps.
He half-hugged Daniel with his free arm, then extended a hand to Dave.
“Glad you made it. Robert Merson.”
“Dave McKay, great to see you guys.”
“How many are you?” Robert said to Daniel.
“Three. There’s Dave’s wife, too.”
“Three?” Robert said. Daniel could see him calculating in his head. “Just three, okay.”
“How many dead do you think there are?” Dave said.
Daniel wondered if the fifty-eight bodies in front of them weren’t enough for Dave to come to terms with. They hadn’t even cleared the bungalows, or retrieved the dozen or so corpses floating off the beach.
“Initial reports are in the low thousands so far, but that’ll rise as we clear bodies from the roads and can reach Kibuye and Kagano, down the coast.” Robert said. He looked the two of them over in disbelief. “Just three here?”
Like stagehands the Red Cross moved around them in white Tyvek suits, yellow rubber boots, and facemasks, busy undoing all the work Daniel had done with David that afternoon as they stuffed the corpses into plastic body bags and sealed them with a zip. No time for the dead.
The NGO workers seemed to have learned the ability to dehumanize at will, which Daniel could understand; it was a mechanism of protection, just like those suits and gloves and endless protocols. Without all that, one would just have to live it.
Dave’s moan drew his attention to Sylvia McKay, staggering onto the lawn to weave her way through the corpses and faceless suits. Seems she was choosing to live this reality, the one her husband had tried so hard to protect her from. Though a seven-year-old Daniel had had no choice in the matter, he knew now that it would be better for Sylvia to see all this—it was the price of survival, after all.
• • •
That night, David and Sylvia joined Daniel at his table. The great lawn behind them fell dark beyond the floodlights’ reach, but the bodies were there, faintly glowing in pale body bags, jumbled like spilled grains of rice. The NGO personnel knew the lay of the hotel—at least the bar—and Daniel supposed they were running a tab on the liquor they consumed. Wouldn’t matter anyway, his boss was dead. One of the agencies had set up a buffet to feed everyone, though neither he or the McKays had eaten much of the chicken-rice in front of them.
“Guhonda understood,” Sylvia said from out of nowhere.
“What?” Daniel said.
“That was a… it was the name of a gorilla we saw,” Dave said.
“He understood, Dave.”
“What was this? What did he understand, Sylvia?” Daniel asked.
She shifted to face Daniel.
“He had this look, and it wasn’t just my imagination. He knew that he and his kind were destined to disappear from this planet. He knew that we knew that, and it was humiliating for him. Can you imagine, this parade of humans each and every day, heads down, never making eye contact, like he and his family were invisible. And when he tries to confront these people they just back away without a fight, never to return, as if what he has isn’t worth challenging. Like Guhonda and his family are already ghosts.”
“I never heard anyone describe it that way,” Daniel said.
“It left a big impression on her,” David said.
“But I think you’re right, Sylvia. That big old gorilla probably knows his time has come. He’s got something on the rest of us, then.”
He knew little about these Canadians—had just met them this morning. They seemed to have a problem communicating with one another, but what she’d said had resonated with Daniel. Whether dead in one breath, in 100 days, or dying out in an era, there were the victims in this world and the survivors. The comfort for those left behind was that no one survives life.
• • •
The next morning in the Veranda House, Daniel jumped back into his old routine as best he could, though it was odd to be doing the work of the kitchen and wait staff as well. Flo’, a doctor in her thirties from MSF, came from the kitchen carrying a plastic dishwasher rack of coffee cups wide in her arms. She set them down on the buffet table and began stacking them into a pyramid beside a machine Daniel was filling with ground coffee. She smiled.
“Bonjour,” Daniel said.
“Comment vous tenez le coup?” she said, running a hand through her short-cropped hair.
“Ça peut aller.” Daniel said with a shrug. Did he have any other choice but to endure? He watched her MSF identification card swing from a red lanyard around her neck.
Back in ‘94, Rwandan ID cards listed a person’s tribal identity—an obsession of the Belgians before—so it was simple for the extremist Hutu government to organize the killings. They simply went house to house.
Daniel was the only one of his family able to hide that night—watching from the armoire, where he loved to play astronaut. Four young men from the Interahamwe hacked down their door with machetes. His father knew what was coming, and seeing that one man had a sidearm, begged for him to shoot them all. Bullets are expensive, the man said. Five bullets would cost him 10,000R₣, about $40 at the time. Daniel knew that money was just above his head, hidden in a shoebox on the top shelf. His father even took a step towards the armoire, but must have remembered Daniel was in there, and turned back on his heal. The boy wondered if he should just throw the money out to these men, but he didn’t want to see his family shot, either.
If he had ever seen someone killed with a machete, he would have gladly handed over that money—even if it meant a bullet for him. Daniel watched for the next twenty minutes as his family was cut to pieces, not just murdered, but mutilated beyond all recognition, as was the mission of these Hutu: they wanted to eliminate all trace of the Tutsi from the face of the Earth.
At least 800,000 people died in those 100 days. Daniel would be called a survivor.
What a waste it would be not to survive now, and he didn’t mean yesterday’s catastrophe: It would be a waste not to survive the horror and the grief, to squander away the leniency God had shown to him by drinking himself to death or living a half-life, like some sort of hollow man.
“Mazuku?” Flo’ startled Daniel with this word. It meant “evil wind” in the Kinyabwisha dialect, the traditional word for what had come from this lake.
“Mazuku,” he said, as if admitting guilt for such a horrible thing.
“Best not say that too many times.” A deep voice boomed from behind. It was Isaac, a stout Ugandan from the Red Cross. “Not that I’m superstitious or anything.”
He turned to Flo’.
“Are my trailers blocking your vans, Florence?”
“I hope not. We’re heading out in an hour.”
“So soon?” Daniel said.
“There’s nothing for us to do here, really. There are no wounded. Everyone’s already dead,” Flo’ said.
“Yeah, it’s basically a disposal job now—front-end loaders and dump trucks. The bodies are everywhere, I mean thousands and thousands them,” Isaac said.
“It’s crazy this thing, ‘Mazuku’,” said Flo’, hugging the empty dishwasher rack tight to her chest, “‘Et je m’en vais, au vent mauvais, qui m’emporte deçà, delà, pareil à la feuille morte.’”
Daniel had learned that poem in high school.
“That’s Verlaine’s version of Mazuku,” he said to Isaac.
“I’ll take your word for it, man.”
“‘And I go away in the evil wind…’” Daniel said.
Over Isaac’s shoulder he glimpsed Sylvia in her swimsuit by the pool—a towel over one shoulder. David followed close behind, calling her name. Without a response, she continued down the lawn, the sound of her flip-flops trailing off.
“Hey, excuse me.” Daniel slipped by Isaac with a pat on the shoulder.
“If I don’t see you…” Florence started.
“I’ll be back,” Daniel said with a raised arm, halfway to the pool already. The McKays needed to get to Kigali, but buses weren’t coming anywhere near the lake. Perhaps they could get a ride with MSF if they were ready in time. Sylvia was nearly to the empty beach.
“Sylvia!” David shouted from a distance.
She didn’t acknowledge him, instead dropping her towel and plunging headfirst into the water. While Daniel was reluctant to even venture near the shore now, Sylvia had just dived into the lake without a moment’s hesitation. Once you were a survivor, you realized you could continue to survive. No—you realized that you must survive. That didn’t make it any easier, though.
Daniel watched David fidget, waiting for Sylvia to surface. Even Daniel half-expected the lake to eat her alive. A moment later she emerged in a vigorous crawl stroke, legs fluttering, arms reaching forward, head pivoting from side to side. As Daniel watched, he wondered how he could convince her that they all deserved to survive. The last stanza of that Verlaine poem returned to him:
And I go away
in the evil wind
blown here and there
like the dead leaf.
About the Author
Tim Bridwell is a graduate of the MFA in Writing program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and author of the novel SOPHRONIA L. (2014, Folded Word Press). He lives in Paris.