What is it like to lose everything? Younis was first asked this question by a well-meaning development worker, a friendly young man whose specialty was working in war zones. They sat across from each other in cheap plastic chairs beside a bomb-scarred house that served temporarily as a hospital. Just for a chat, he had been told. Just to see if he needed help, to see if he could be helped.
"It must be so difficult," said the man, whose face was serene, "to wake up one morning and see that life as you knew it has ended, that so much has been destroyed."
Despite his youth, Younis sensed immediately that the man was trying to get him to do something dangerous. His first instinct was to play it off, to make a grim joke of itthe house was getting old anyway; destruction as a form of camouflage; at least now we dont have to maintain the roofanything to deflect the course of the inquiry.
But this would not do, he sensed, not with this man who sat across from him, this friendly man with his placid, expectant face. So how to answer?
Should he talk about his shaking hands, his trembling limbs, the ringing sound in his ear, his blurred vision? Should he describe his physical injuries, show him his wounds, the rudimentary stitches, now nearly ready to be removed, underneath the bandage on his forearm? Should he discuss the numerous times, after he fled into the mountains surrounding the village, that he stood at the cliff edge, wind rushing up into his face, and nearly felt himself take a step off, unconcerned whether he fell or flew?
Or should he talk aboutand this was what he found to be the odd thingthe blessing of it? The surprise of finding himself alive, finding himself connected to life. Should he talk about the days after he ran into the mountains, about feeling surrounded, even in that barren place, by life? About the plants that seemed to vibrate with it? Butterflies and rock mice and ants and caterpillars and snow hare and everything he looked at, even the stones, seemed alive. On the mountain he once came face-to-face with a dark falcon riding low on the thermals, wind whooshing through his feathers, and felt one with him, felt peace, as though just by watching the great bird, just by following his example, he could stretch his arms and lift his feet from the ground.
Or should he say that the thing was now part of him, defined him, founded him, that he could no more describe its effect than he could describe being born?
What is it like to lose everything, they ask. The question takes various forms, and that day, sitting in plastic chairs beside a shattered house, he developed his one and only response.
"What is it like to lose everything?" asked the man, the stranger who was there to help.
And Younis fixed him with his pale green eyes and said, "What is it like not to?"
He has a memory, or thinks he does.
They are on the train, the old colonial line running alongside the river to the capital. He lies on the wooden, time-polished bench and rests his head in his mothers lap. Thinking he is asleep, she has draped a loose muslin cloth over his head to cut the sunlight that flickers at them through the passing trees. They are going to meet someone, his father, he thinks. Every so often the wind puffs through the open windows and billows the soft cloth, startling him with a strobe of sunshine, like the bright end of a run-out movie reel.
On the station platform, they stand under a broad roof, which is supported by riveted metal beams, and the engine whistles out a last burst of steam. When the fog clears, a man stands as though he has been waiting since the station was built. He is dressed strangely, in Western clothes, jeans and a starched button-down shirt. His face is freshly shaven, and he carries a backpack made of rough canvas. He takes something from one of the pockets, a little square parcel, carefully wrapped in brown paper and tied with twine, and hands it to Youniss mother, who tucks it quickly away into her shift. It is this he remembers, this package, this passing of something important between them. He has so many questionsWhy is he dressed this way? Why has he shaved off his beard?but when he turns back to ask, the man has gone, disappeared into the throng outside the station gates.
Excerpted from The Book of Jonas by Stephen Dau. Copyright © 2012 by Stephen Dau. Excerpted by permission of Blue Rider Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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