A Return from Exile

Paul Kasmai

The charred, exposed interiors of the gutted tenements shook from the sound of the plane’s engines as it passed overhead, and Ismael watched as one floor collapsed into another. The plane was the first he had seen in many months, the first since the latest political rearrangement left him stranded in the country and promised one old order to replace another. He lifted the camera that hung from his neck and snapped a few pictures. Though the lens was shattered and there was no film to be had anywhere, he squinted through the viewfinder and went through the motions all the same. He looked out toward the former government zone in the distance and the airport set in the desert beyond it. He smelled the air and the air smelled foul.
            He was in a park at the base of the tenements, still cool and untouched by the morning sun. Abandoned by the residents, the structures served as massive canvases for propaganda and proverbs painted haphazardly on their outer facades. Sprayed over one wall, rising four stories and covering communications scrawled in a language Ismael could not read, was a picture of the former leader, Corlear. Ismael lifted his camera and pressed the shutter release.
            The grass in the park was unkempt but the fountain still pumped clear water. He reached in and began to wash his hands. His clothes were soiled and torn, this man who once possessed a passport with a photo inside he could now only vaguely recall. Nearly one year had passed since he last saw it, when one of the rebel gangs on the far edge of the city took it from him and burned it. He was on the phone with New York, describing the status of his assignment, when the lines all went dead. He took his camera and dutifully walked out of the hotel, into the city at night. He would have waited for his guide but his guide was dead. The sky seemed to descend and with all its weight choked the light from the world, and beneath that celestial overstory Ismael began to photograph the crowds in the street. Groups of emboldened young men emerged from alleys carrying rifles ranging from barely operable to totally nonfunctional. They stepped forward and asked Ismael who he was with.
            “I’m a journalist,” he had said.
            They threw him to the ground and kicked him. One pointed out that Ismael was white, as if this information was revelatory, and they told him the spreading rumors of Corlear’s return were false. His supposed backing by western powers was a myth. This zone was now theirs, they said, as they called Ismael a sympathizer and kicked him in his head.
            “I’m a journalist,” he spat out. “I’m not on anyone’s side.”
            His pockets were emptied. The money disappeared but his passport was torn to pieces, burned in a little pile before him. They took the small pictures from his wallet and burned those too. He looked up at them with blood in his mouth, the flames casting inhuman colors across their faces. He lifted the camera and photographed them, the young men striking poses with their weapons.
            At the fountain Ismael washed his face. The passport was long gone and he envied the man who had existed within its pages. He was once stamp upon stamp, an itinerary and a way of life. He was movement itself documented on paper and questioned at border crossings. He had a wife and a child growing rapidly out of infancy, agents of a strange progress to which he no longer had access. Now, Ismael undressed and stepped into the fountain to bathe, something else entirely.
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Corlear’s handlers met him at the airport outside Buenos Aires, where he was to board an overnight flight to Frankfurt. The handlers were sweating when they greeted him, men unaccustomed to such heat and humidity. Though he wore a suit and an overcoat draped over his shoulders, Corlear did not sweat. He was whisked through checkpoints and past back offices, where the handlers pressed inquiring faces back with their accented Spanish. At a terminal window they stood and watched the plane as it was readied for takeoff.
            “A kind, modest old man is always on business, or on the way to see loved ones. This man does not want to draw attention, so he eschews travel by private plane or military transport.”
            “It feels a little haphazard,” Corlear said.
            “The work has been put in…the necessary preparations. You see none of that, just the result.”
            “Great events need only a moment, is that it?”
            “Yes, absolutely.” The handlers looked briefly at one another.
            “Am I to know who will greet me in Frankfurt?”
            “A woman. She will take you the rest of the way. Once you’re home, expect parades and press coverage, expect to hear your name chanted by millions. But Frankfurt…Frankfurt is one woman.”
            “I am a modest old man, as you said.”
            “You consider what they expect of you, the idea they have come to await. They know what they see, and they see what they are told. You will descend from the sky, but you will descend as a man. A leader is made by applause and fanfare, all that your people have in store for you.”
            “I do not want your men following me. I need no protection.”
            “Don’t worry about that.”
            “Her name?”
            “How will I know her?”
            “She’ll find you.”
            He boarded the plane and they watched grimly, wiping the sweat from their foreheads.
            “A businessman,” one said with a slight grin.
            “It’s only business,” said the other. “From far enough away, calm and chaos look the same.”
            Then it was the blinking lights, the fumes, and the dark matter of the ocean. Rotating crafts and vessels passing in the night transmitted only signals of proximity—always warnings and never greetings. Corlear watched through the window and thought, this is the sound of the world’s pain: a begging to be trod upon.
            Seated beside him was a mother with her infant. The child cried but Corlear’s smile soothed it. On his other side sat a man stricken with panic and air sickness. Corlear talked him down, convinced him there was nothing to fear. The flight took many hours but Corlear did not sleep, did not move once from his seat. He refused meals and drinks, needed nothing to entertain him. When they landed he emerged refreshed, with not a joint stiffened or an extremity numbed. He planned to notify Soraya of all of this, to ensure that she knew just who it was she was assigned to lead home.
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The Frankfurt of a new day: the sun drifted from one tentative position to another, soon to lower itself with radiant arms braced over the horizon like an immense ship sinking in the sea. A shuttering and disappearance to follow. Soraya stood at Gate 15, watching the seating area as it filled gradually. They were mostly families, with only a few tourists from Sweden and the Far East, backpackers in clothes beaten by uninterrupted use. Three Americans she studied very carefully. She twisted about in her own clothing, a loosely fitting pantsuit tailored to allow swift movement. Her hair was pulled back from her face and tied into a tight ponytail and she held only a clipboard in her left hand. All day she had watched the airport’s ordered upheaval, crowds forming before scattering again and again, gates assigned and reassigned to one flight and then another, all the visible workings of a place that could only function in such a state of constant turmoil. She checked her watch and saw there were still a few hours remaining before she could expect to see him.
            She saw a man playing with his children and she thought of her own father, his unseen death as it came and went. She sometimes imagined she had spent every moment afterward consumed by it, by thoughts of revenge, but such violent obsession was only recently cultivated amid sign-waving protests and histories unwound from spools of microfilm. Her mother created fictions regarding her father’s whereabouts and upheld them for years. Once the truth was known any moments of levity and carelessness in those years and the ones to follow began to take on a pollutant aspect. She had laughed, made friends, learned German, watched cartoons, dreamed. This new life built over the body of a man that served as the bridge between worlds, his execution the propellant force that moved Soraya from one to another. Scuttling across the desert with false papers, the child looked back thinking she might see her old world collapsing. Instead she saw sand dunes as they were blown apart and immediately reconstructed.
            It had been in the Ministry, her mother told her at last. “It’s really just as you would expect it, just as you see in newsreels and films. They brand them as traitors, march them along past the offices…”
            “And?” Soraya asked.
            “And what? They kill everyone.”
            In the airport she reached into her jacket and adjusted the pistol she carried.
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As the day leaned toward dusk Ismael rounded corners carefully, unsure if he would face hostility in each new area. He passed through a vaulted pishtaq connected to nothing, the arched entryway all that remained of a great hall now blown to dust and rubble. He made his way past naked supports and pillars with nothing to uphold, bizarre architecture begun by ancient men and completed by war’s masterless framework. A circling bird surveyed the scene but soon flew away.
            Ismael came to where an old projector was set onto a pile of cinder blocks, a film playing silently over a twenty-foot stretch of ground. It was an old reel of Corlear in his youth, walking past a long line of subjects solemnly waiting to greet him. The images of the clean faces were beamed onto stones and gravel that filled them with burnt pockmarks, while the image of Corlear seemed only to wash against what smooth traces of cement and stone remained in the place. Ismael walked around the projection delicately.
            The brothel he neared looked like a plain domicile from the outside, the door propped open by an infant’s tiny shoe. Ismael reeled when a cloaked woman suddenly emerged from the darkness within to beckon him inside. She removed the fabric from around her head but the rest of her body remained completely covered. He told her he had no money and she asked where he was going.
            “The airport.”
            “Whose side are you on?”
            “Nobody’s. My own.”
            “Before the airport is the Ministry, the old government zone. It’s the core of Corlear’s support.”
            “I’m hoping they’ll be friendly. I’m waiting for Corlear’s arrival just like them.”
            “So you are on his side.”
            “I’ll be able to leave, to go home. They say he’ll restore order. They say he’s backed by the west.”
            “You believe that?”
            “Do you?”
            “What will you do when he gets here?”
            “I guess I’ll take his picture.”
            “You’re a journalist.”
            “Yes. I hear he looks kindly upon journalists, photographers. There are no others quite like me, he’s bound to take notice.”
            Ismael shrugged. “I’ll take pictures, tell him where I’m from. He’ll help me to America just to get his photos printed there.”
            She studied the broken camera, his face and his clothes, and breathed slowly. “Back there, the direction you came from. See? Rebel outposts with black coils rising from them, dead men and women at the bases of those coils. The smoke here only just cleared, understand? They will accept you at the Ministry. For now, at least.”
            She retreated into the brothel and he went on, taking hours to cross scarred land where the bruit of distant shelling echoed. He stopped at a school just outside the Ministry’s perimeter and walked briefly through classrooms stripped of all their books, the desks left oddly untouched. Some still had sharpened pencils resting upon them. The chalkboards were scrawled with layers of writing, the topmost praising Corlear while those beneath detailed secret prisons and abuses of power. Ismael could read none of it, the partial phrases leaking out from the edges of complete sentences. Arrows pointed to blank spaces where pictures of disappeared loved ones and protesters had been ripped away. He lifted the camera and pressed the shutter release.
            He heard footsteps and turned to see three young men pointing rifles at him. These looked to be in working order, a far cry from what the rebels carried. They asked what he was doing.
            “I’m a journalist, on my way to the airport.”
            “Why are you here?”
            “I look at things. It’s my job.”
            “And the airport?”
            “I want to see his arrival.”
            “So you’re with him?”
            “I’m trying to be a neutral observer. You can search me if you want.”
            They did so, turning out his pockets and patting him awkwardly all over. One took the camera in his hands and inspected it, held it up for the others to see. They smiled mockingly.
            “So you aim to photograph him?”
            The young men spoke to one another in their own language, glanced at Ismael, then seemed to come to a decision.
            “We can take you to the airport. First we have to stop in the Ministry, to buy fuel.”
            “They sell fuel in the Ministry?”
            “Yes. Fuel and everything else, maybe even film. You like to look, don’t you? Come with us.”
            They walked together through more classrooms, some with bloodstains on the floors.
            “This place is a sight,” Ismael said.
            “A school is the best place to execute traitors. It’s poetic. They did the same to us when they controlled it.”
            “Until you took it from them.”
            “This whole sector has gone back and forth for many years now. This time it stays ours. His return will change everything.”
            They exited the school and made for the Ministry. They passed barricades and sentries, wove around scaffolding set against the building’s damaged exterior. Inside, men and women swept the floors and worked to reinforce the bullet-riddled pillars. They shuffled past carrying boxes of what records remained, paper materials meant to prevent entire lineages from being forgotten, whole histories annihilated. Desks were moved into offices and official seals were polished.
            Ismael and the young men descended into the basement where an enormous bazaar had grown and spread between concrete supports. Crates overflowed with black market goods whose designation as such depended on the administration of the day, the month, the year. They offered everything from clothing to tobacco to electronics. Polished rifles, brand new, stood upright like jagged stalks amid mounds of duffer. Ammunition was in such great supply that loose rounds lay spread over the floor akin to some hellish scattering of sawdust. Buyers and sellers were nearly indistinguishable, their items bartered and exchanged in an endless flux. New vendors arranged their goods in a line of stalls that grew longer each moment. One of the young men separated to buy gasoline siphoned in small quantities from a drum while Ismael picked up a stained stuffed animal and thought of his child, thought of the view from an airplane as it passed across arbitrary borders. He placed the toy down as he walked through the bazaar in search for film. He found none.
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Corlear walked up and down corridors where plastic sheeting and loose construction equipment belied the cost of progress expressed elsewhere in eight-digit figures. He descended into a tile pit where shops sat back to back, narrow openings connecting each to the other. He purchased a tiny bottle of rye whiskey and a bottle of water. He emptied most of the latter and mixed in the rye, drinking from the humble plastic container. He watched news of his movements on a mounted television, question marks on a map indicating possible routes for his return east. A panel discussed the whereabouts of this man whose absence carried mythical qualities.
            He rode a monorail that stalled briefly outside and offered him views of the Frankfurt skyline. He placed his hand against the window and the car moved once more. He spoke briefly with a revolving group of passengers, none of whom recognized him. Back in the terminal he disembarked and entered the bathroom. In a stall he took a pen from his pocket and on the wall he wrote a poetic verse first in his own language, then in English. He signed his name.
            He carried photos of himself and he hid these in various places in the airport—between the pages of books in the shops, beneath telephones at empty ticket counters, tucked into the outer pockets of unclaimed luggage at the baggage claim. This took some time and led him all over the terminal, the soles of his shoes clicking on the hard floor. When he was finished he adjusted his overcoat and made his way toward Gate 15.
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Soraya watched him intently as soon as he came into view, and she raised her right hand in recognition. Once he acknowledged her with a distant wave she lowered her hand and slipped it into her jacket, bringing the clipboard over it in a movement practiced many times in the very clothes she now wore. She continued to watch the Americans but they paid no attention to her. So there were no bodyguards present, just as she had been assured.
            She felt a bead of sweat roll past her eye and not into it. She took hold of the pistol and watched Corlear’s face for signs of suspicion, finding none. As he came closer he recalled the events of his flight and ordered the words he would impart to this young woman, though the audience he sought was already intimately acquainted with him.
            Outside planes were refueled and guided about the runways. Tourists wandered freely and Soraya realized she was counting Corlear’s steps so carefully she was growing unaware of his proximity, the measure of distance replaced by meaningless numbers. Eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen. The last one meant something but she had forgotten the gate number. She forgot the name of the city, the name of this man, her father’s face. Her thoughts came to her in an odd amalgamation of languages as he drew nearer, a man whose very corpse would live on in images. She was picturing distant cities as she drew the pistol and lowered the clipboard, put three rounds into Corlear’s chest. He let out a short gasp and fell to his knees as she walked toward him, unsure if her ears were ringing, if the sudden silence was a result of that. Corlear slumped backward onto the floor with his soles still flat on the tiles. Soraya stood over him and fired twice more into his head as a plane outside the window took off, the roar of its engines impossible to hear.
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Ismael rode in the bed of a truck as they drove through a stretch of desert. The dust the tires kicked up rose into the air and hung suspended in a translucent cloud, a brede over the earth stitched of its own once-wombed sediments. The stars were visible in the sky now, deceptive icons for a great many of them were nothing beyond dead light traveling paths endless and unfathomable. Ismael studied them over a mountain range that looked like crumpled paper in the darkness. As the warm air was stirred around him he felt he could recall his passport clearly, the life he led across its pages and the photo inside. When he looked up again he saw not a night sky but an immense corridor, path on path free of restriction.
            The travelers arrived at the airport to find a structure mostly hollow, though sweating crowds bustled throughout.
            “Look at this,” one of the young men said. “It’s all barely even opened up and already there are too many people. Not enough flights.”
            “I’ve seen more and more planes flying in overhead,” Ismael said.
            “That’s what word of his arrival is doing. This place was being used as a detention center, tents and fencing on the runways. Now they’re scrambling to change it back. Once he’s here it will be a real airport, in a real country. None of this nonsense.”
            They pushed their way to one of the few desks in the place and asked the man behind it for information about Corlear’s flight.
            “I don’t know,” he said. “The lines keep going in and out, it’s been hours since I’ve received any news. Last I heard he was preparing to board in Germany.”
            Chants could be heard through loud speakers and when Corlear’s name was uttered a cheer erupted. The place was all chaos and human smells, a density of bodies through which nearly nothing could move. The noise slowly died down.
            “Now’s the time,” one of Ismael’s escorts said. “Hold up the camera.” He did so and the young men announced him as a foreign journalist. A lane was soon opened and they moved slowly through the crowd, the escorts smiling as they neared the stained windows and the front-row view they offered. Ismael soon found himself at one overlooking the runway. The lights glowed like neon frost in the dark and he saw small vehicles amassing at the far end of the tarmac. When the plane appeared it appeared suddenly, and those at the window pointed their fingers at its approach. They cheered once more as it touched down and skidded before coming to a stop. One of the young men placed a hand on Ismael’s shoulder and squeezed gently. Ismael turned to nod at him with tears in his eyes before returning his gaze to all that existed outside. He lifted his broken camera and snapped a photo.

Paul Kasmai was born in Houston and currently resides in Southern California. His fiction has previously appeared in Gravel, Gone Lawn and The Legendary.