A CIA station chief reflects on the cost of his mistakes.
Like a klaxon call the rain pounded a deafening pulse on the tin roof, startling me awake. I sat up quickly sensing something was wrong. A bead of sweat stung my eye and I rubbed the palms of my hands into them; my eyes easily adjusted to the darkness reminding me that the power was out... but, then the electricity normally runs until at least two or three so I fumbled around for the alarm clock until I finally found it: half past midnight. My heart jumped, though I reasoned there could be any number of reasons for the outage. The rain lessened as my breathing leveled. I laid my head back on the hard damp pillow and I felt my hand slide down past my navel. I exhaled slowly, imagining it was hers....
At the start I often wrote to my wife, attempting to describe this place. But nothing I had ever seen or heard or thought or imagined could approach it. It is an underworld, an alienation; here up is down and down is much, much deeper than you ever thought possible. After nearly year of silence I received her short note: 'Please just sign the papers.' Around that time I met Patrice Lumumba for the first and last time. He, the stoic, smelling of feces, the first and last great man to emerge from the great rift valley where even the sunlight withers through the canopy all sullen and estranged.
The team was hastily thrown together and we gelled like the pancakes prepared for breakfast: dry powder milk and egg yolks deep-fried into a slimy puck; there were no illusions of taste, or friendship. In the late mornings, the heat and humidity, and our shortsighted intentions divided us as naturally as oil and water, and something yellow and runny, but much more humiliating than cowardice. Everyone wanted out. The operation had already been extended three times and besides, Lumumba had been arrested and his supporters scattered. Despite our reports to the contrary, we hadn't spotted one Soviet agent since arriving. Each week arrived promising to be the last, but the Congo plays host like a boa.
Another bead of sweat stung my eyes and interrupted me. Laying there, all I wanted was to finish the task at hand, then fall back asleep and leave this place forever. When I opened my eyes a centipede was mid-way across the ceiling above me. I wanted to capture it, to pull it down and reform it. But it slowly escaped, taking a hundred steps to move only an inch, up and out of Africa, a million miles away to a Christmas night so crisp my breath hung on my face like a Marlboro drag... I dare not blink, else the scene before me fade so soon: the windows are fogged and the snow real, with a tree, and lights, and ribbon, and even a gingerbread house with us sleeping in it. I'm reaching out to feel her, but tears cloud my vision and freeze against my cheeks. Suddenly I’m embarrassed, and then annoyed—my eyelashes are frozen. I rub them again and suddenly she’s next to me, on top of me, and I’m paralyzed. Then a crackle of gunfire interrupts us; I squint trying to memorize the sight before me, her lips, her eyes, but it’s too late, I’m gone again, back in the Congo.
Reflexes direct my hand under the pillow, reaching for my pistol. I snap back the slide to chamber a round and slide off the bed onto the floor. Prone, I'm transfixed on the door, waiting for them. Suddenly, sharp angry shouts of automatic rifles destroy the silence. Green and red tracer rounds raced back and forth illuminating my room in yuletide array. Before I can even react the bunker at the carrefour is silenced and the shooting stops just as quick as it started. I jerk my neck to the window, the rain has stopped too. Standing up I knock over something on the table, my radio or flashlight—I glimpse batteries scattering across the tile like cockroaches for cover. I’m disorientated, wondering how much time I have...
The mature Congolese cockroach grows its wings for one night of frenzied copulation and then death. The entire species waits for a particularly hot rainy night and then it devours the jungle and never stops growing. It has no capacity to doubt fate, to question God, no time to pause for reflection or a moment of contemplation. And therein is the problem, because if even a thousandth of an ounce overweight the termite cannot fly, cannot mate, cannot die on course with destiny. As such, there are always a few out of a million, flopping around in vain attempts to flap their wings. Then the sun rises and they’re still alive. Worse, they’re born again, dreadfully, woefully alone.
I remember when I arrived home on leave she tilted her head like a perplexed puppy, ‘what are you doing here?’ The earnestness of her question caught me off guard. The truth is, I didn't really know. But, I always had an answer for her, no matter the question. This one thing I realized: there wasn’t a lie I couldn’t build a life on. And that’s what makes an 'agency man'. That’s what makes you one of theirs.
The team never asked such a stupid question. Generally, we never talked. We chose to believe Lumumba was a communist, and that his assassination was yet another hole in the iron curtain. But the truth is it didn't really matter at all; in the Congo, the details rarely do.
I found Lumumba's mistress in a village outside Kinshasa, formerly Leopardville, formerly hell. A few burned out blocks and a looted market were all that remained. Stories come but those stories don’t go. They claim that cobwebbed corner of your mind. This story is about a village girl who wouldn’t leave her lover's side, about contras, about a gang rape and about machetes. This story is about a pool of blood and a breast tossed onto his lap, all they left of her. This story is about me, sunken into the puddle, late to meet her for the very last time. I had used her to get to him. I had loved her to get to him. And as I sat there silently for hours I breathed her memory through the pores of my skin until a dark red rage arrived.
By the time the team arrived back in the capital I had devised a plan. The agency be damned, no more talk of “steady state” or “strategic realignment”. There was only carnage, anarchy, only the monsters we’d animated. It would end badly, but it would end.
Ryan was patient with me some, and then asked me to explain it all over again. He was like a teenage bride, compulsive to the tiniest of details and unaware of the larger implications. I ran through it again, slowly: plane lands, militia leaders board, short tour ‘to show the people who’s in charge,’ then detonation, crash, burn. He didn’t speak any words in the effect of agreement, but he took notes, so I assumed as much.
I found both batteries and jammed them into the radio. A few steps and I run smack into the door, face first. Stunned for a moment, I dab at my nose and realize its dripping with blood. A few moments later and I slide myself through the barricaded entrance of our safe room: four solid walls with two exits. Mark is expressionless, cross-legged on the floor pushing bullets into a magazine. Ryan is focused on the frequency dial of the radio. With a flashlight in his hand, I watch as he meticulously nudges the squelch higher. It seems like a séance as effervescent spits and pops began to fill the room each time the signal strengthens. Suddenly a skittish Belgian commander barks orders in French, followed by a terrifying scream in the background: ‘Commandant! Aide!’--a nearby explosion shakes our house. From the corner of my eye I see Chris slip in the door. He holds an automatic rifle in his hand and looks at me wide-eyed. I realize its my bloody face: ‘the door,’ I answer.
More terrified soldiers fill the airwaves: ‘hold the line!’ they plead with each other in curt, accented French. ‘Where are they?’, one demands. Ryan throws his hands up in exasperation and turns to us, ‘gentlemen, this won’t last long.’ Outside, another explosion shakes the house.
‘Its gonna be us or them, call the plane and let’s get the hell out of here!’ I turned to face Ryan. ‘No—they’ll hold the line till daylight.’ I feel desperate. ‘Forget the plan! Call the plane!’ Ryan has never openly challenged me before and I want to hurt him. ‘You're a goddam coward,’ I snap. Outside a steady burst of automatic machine gun fire bursts, this time close by. Ryan peered into me and spoke softly, ‘why do you want to die here?’ But I had no answer this time; no lie to tell. Behind me I sensed Chris and Mark start to turn to him. In Ryan's eyes I recognized their approval.
And that was that. I was leaving her there, in that hut, in that puddle. Behind me, Ryan shouted code into the radio and my gut turned. Outside demons were marauding the city, while in my soul they were poised to begin.
I shivered as the cab pulled away from the curb and disappeared. I stood on the edge of the driveway watching houselights extinguish along the block. I imagined the two of them in bed together, making love, growing old and dieing content that the evils of this world were at bay. The dancing, red and green lights taken down, the decorated tree long gone, my gingerbread house had crumbled away, and I was leaning again into that depression, that rift, my own private Congo. I was alive, but worse—-I was reborn, and flapping my wings in a vain attempt to fly to her, and to arrive just in time.