Fiction from Michael Garret Ashby II
Saving the Gladiator
HE PULLED the trigger while he was sitting right next to me. When I first heard the shot I kept trying to tell myself it was just another clacking of the train on the rails, but trains don’t splatter blood over windows or dress shirts. I felt guilty in some respects. From the moment he sat down next to me I was wishing, praying, that he would just leave and let me have a few moments of peace. Then he shot himself, and everyone keeps trying to speak to me about what happened. I don’t know what happened. “I’m just a sports writer; I’m on my way to Kinshasa. I have a story to write. I have a story.” One of the train’s operators was looking at me with a horrified face when the police officer handed me a towel.
“You have a lot of mess on your face.”
I wasn’t made for these kinds of situations. I fantasized about them a lot when I was younger. I went to school for journalism, but it all never really worked out. I had spent the last four years writing small articles for sports magazines. You need a lot of empathy to be a real journalist, and I just wanted to relax before the fight.
My job was to write an article about the first major boxing match in a long time. It was going to be a massacre. The two men involved were both hailed as legends of the sport, but there was a considerable size difference. I imagined my articles sitting next to a black and white photo of a crushed corpse with boxing gloves on. The conductor moved me to one of the nicer cars, as a consolation I suppose, and I was joined by the cop from before. He would be my company for the rest of the ride.
“You ever seen anything like that before? A suicide that quick?” The officer was staring at me sort of expectantly. I never imagined I would be the one consoling him.
“No. I’ve seen athletes get their limbs nearly torn off, but I’ve never seen anyone just up and decide to off themselves like that.”
“What is this world coming to that people are shooting themselves on trains? It’s beautiful outside. I love Africa. It’s gorgeous.”
“Maybe that’s why he did it? He didn’t want to go back home.”
He sat there and looked out the window, then at his gun, and back out the window. People get very touchy about death. They don’t like to be reminded things like that happen. Well, they don’t like being shown that things like that happen, they love to read about it. I had interned with a small publication back in America. The Chief-Editor used to scream, “You wanna be a journalist? You need to handle the grime. People love that garbage; they eat it up like its chocolate.” Violence and God, they’re the best sellers.
The officer leaned in closer to me. “You travel a lot don’t you?”
“I travel more than most people sure.”
“Do you believe in God?”
“I don’t think so, no.”
“Come on man, you’ve got to be seeing hundreds of places a year. Mountains, hills, plains, oceans, caves, that kind of scenery, it’s got to inspire some sort of awe right?”
“It’s beautiful. I don’t know that it’s holy.”
He rubbed his hands against his eyes, letting out a sigh. A cop that needs validation, I feel very safe knowing I’m in his care.
“I see these things. I’ve cleaned up a lot of suicides, homicides, and I see these places. I see Africa. I see America. I see Britain. I think there’s a God in that. There has to be. Otherwise I think I would just start leaving the bodies where they are. There’s no point in cleaning up sad-sacks.”
“Other than cleaning up the house so it can be sold again, I don’t know that there really is a point.”
We both looked back out the window. We had just entered a clearing, a healthy change from the trees we had been seeing for miles, and animals were running around in circles outside our windows.
“You’re here to write about the boxing match?”
“Yeah, it’s going to be a big one, that’s what they tell me at least.”
“That kid is going to die, and we’re all just going to cheer.”
When I got off the train in Makala I was immediately greeted by a teenager in a dull newsboy cap with glasses the size of saucers. When I use the word greeted, I use it very loosely, the boy had my bags in his hands before I realized he was sent to pick me up and guide me to my hotel.
“Where do you get the kind of nerve to approach a stranger like that, kid?”
He didn’t look like a kid with a lot of nerve. He looked like a kid that got picked on and kicked around in the dust.
“I know you sir. You’re Jonah Harper, the writer.”
“Yeah, but we haven’t met before—forget it. What’s your name kid?”
“Obasi, sir, I go by Obasi.”
I was ready for the boy to start saluting me. These weren’t the kind of children I was used to seeing back in America. He was young, full of life and respect. He was fit. Not like those fat little monsters that ran back and forth through the office, playfully calling themselves interns. I worked from home. I never even went into the office, but when I did, I hated them. Obasi wasn’t anything like those kids, and I still hated him.
“So where are we going?”
“To the hotel, sir.”
“Is it a nice hotel?”
“They have gotten you the nicest hotel available.”
We took a small cart down a clay walkway through the area surrounding the train station. It wasn’t anything like what I had expected. There were white people all over the beach. There wasn’t a shack in sight, and there were jeeps. Those were probably the last two things I expected to see, white people and cars. There were taller buildings off on the horizon, like a modern city scape. They reminded me of spending time in Atlanta.
“Has it always been this nice here kid?”
“Ever since I’ve been alive, yes it has been this nice.”
“It’s hot, but it’s beautiful. Like Florida or the west coast or something like that.”
“Oh it’s not America sir, but this is my home.”
The hotel was on the bank of a river. It’s where I saw the white people bathing. The coast was separated from the shore by a foot-tall stone wall and there were tiny umbrellas with an array of colorful plastic chairs placed upside down hiding from the sun. None of it felt authentic. I had come here to write about a boxing match, in which two Americans were going to attempt to kill each other, and the whole country felt dressed up and fake for my arrival. Sometimes life feels like a plastic fruit.
Obasi dropped me off at my room, and returned my bags. I was going to be staying in the African equivalent of a Ramada Inn for my entire trip, what an adventure.
“I will be by to pick you up tomorrow. We are going to see the town.”
“The morning, so you can begin your writing at night.”
I hadn’t planned on doing any writing until after the fight. The towns, the sports, it’s all the same, regardless of the location.
“Are you rooting for anybody Obasi, any of the fighters?”
“I like the big one. He’s going to crush the other fighter.”
I decided to get comfortable, to feel out the room before I did anything else. There was a mural plastered over my bed that featured multi-colored humans in masks, at least I think they were humans. They were holding scythes and spades, typical farming equipment. The mural was the closest thing I had seen to my traditional thoughts of Africa, and it was in my hotel room. The rest looked like a normal hotel, off-colored comforters and sheets, drapery that looked like it belonged in a thrift store, and imitation wood chairs and tables. It was all there, where I expected it to be.
After rummaging through the minibar for a few hours I started looking for the standard hotel notepad. It was in the drawer next to a small leather bound book with golden engravings. The book’s cover said “Sai”.
The stadium was completely empty aside from Obasi, the event manager, and myself. If I screamed my voice would have echoed through the rest of Africa. It only took us a few hours to get to the stadium from the hotel, and Obasi was excited to show me the buildings and half-made skyscrapers that he was so proud of. “It’s like the Empire State Building.” He said that about every building we passed. It’s odd to think that I was expecting something different and more vibrant from this country.
“This is where it happens, like the ancient gladiators of Rome, eh?”
The event manager was a six-foot tall ape-like-man. I was tempted to make jokes about his “monkey suit”, but he could have squashed me with one hand if he wanted to. I didn’t want him to.
“Yeah, it’ll be a blood bath all the same I suppose.”
“In the best of ways, yes. These rings, they are where men come to showcase their talent, their raw power. Gladiators used to die in the ring for others’ entertainment, boxing is not as dramatic, but we still share in their traditions. Many of these men, they come from nothing, broken homes and poor families, but here they’re stars.”
That’s the American dream isn’t it? To come from nothing and turn yourself into a symbol. A person so unreachable and powerful that people want you to sign your name on pieces of paper, to wear a belt with validation on it.
“A lot of the gladiators used to be slaves, actually.”
“Yes, yes, my father taught me all those things. I am well versed in that.”
Obasi was standing in the ring while me and the event coordinator sat in the bleachers. I scribbled notes into the notepad I took from the hotel; they looked a bit like this:
Opened in 1952.
Something from nothing
I never used these notes for anything but flair. They made the articles look like more than a score card, you finish thinking you learned something. It’s the whole reason they fly you out to other countries and give you free rooms, so it doesn’t feel like you watched the match on television and reported it.
“I think I have all I need. I appreciate the chance to sit down with you Mr.?”
“It’s Eugene, and the pleasure is mine.”
His handshake threw tremors into my arm, and he smiled like he knew. He could probably kill me right now if he wanted to, Obasi wouldn’t stop it, no one would.
Obasi took me through the rest of the city. He wanted to show me the progress they’ve made, the magnificent city and its people.
“I have a question for you kid. I was looking through my hotel and I found a Bible with the word “Sai” on it. What does that mean?”
“Sai is a local shaman.”
“He has his own book?”
“He is a conduit for something malevolent. He writes many books.”
“Does he stay somewhere around here?”
“Sai preaches in the city, and provides sermons in his home. He is strongly despised by many around here. He talks too loudly for a lot of citizens.”
Authenticity, that was my first thought. An outcast religious zealot in the heart of Africa, that’s authenticity. The only breathe of it I had felt since I had arrived. I knew right then that I wanted to meet him, to see a sermon, to write about him. If gladiators sold papers, gods had to sell books.
I met god in a small shack, hardly hidden under the brush of two or three trees. The roof was covered in leaves and long sticks that reminded me of the overhangs you would see in public parks, and the floor itself was comprised almost entirely of mud. I have to admit that the thought crossed my mind that if Jesus were the real thing, he must have taught in a similar space.
Sai was standing on a small wooden stage that was raised just above his audience. The first thing I heard him say was this:
“If one were to play the devil’s advocate, then he himself would be doing something atrocious. We consistently place our prebuilt expectations on nature and situations. Who gave us these expectations? They are not from me, I tell you this. They most certainly are not from me, but rather the advocates that would see my hanged.”
I looked at Obasi. “They want to hang him?”
“We all do. He threatens a lot of the citizens. He threatens our way of life and our security.”
“Mine is included, yes.”
Sai walked towards a man sitting in the front row and placed his hands over his eyes. He shouted something aloud, but all I understood was “lest he be well again”. When he lifted his hands the man fell on the floor and began rolling around. I turned to Obasi again. “The whole thing is staged. He’s so full of himself.”
The entire sermon was over by the time Sai had collected himself. He had supposedly restored a man’s sight, but of course no one knew he was blind before Sai’s performance. It all felt cliché again, like a play or a plastic doll house. The mud didn’t even seem real anymore, and Sai, in my mind, was just a man and not the god I had hoped he was.
“Introduce me to him, kid.”
Obasi looked at me with concerned eyes. “You want to talk to this man? After all this?”
“It’s a story, kid. Maybe it’s worse than the fight, but it’s a story.”
He was just standing there, waiting for us to come talk to him, and that’s exactly what we were going to do. I still don’t know fully why I wanted to speak to him after his display, but it seemed important at the time.
“Welcome to my church. I am delighted to have you on such a joyous day.”
His eyes were shining, glimmering with some sort of light.
“I’m a little surprised at what happened here today.”
“Well, miracles are rarely expected.”
“I expected you to be more authentic, not full of parlor tricks.” I wasn’t pulling any punches, not while talking to a man called god.
“You mean the miracle? a parlor trick?”
“I mean healing a sighted man, yes a parlor trick.”
“I promise there are no tricks. Would you believe in God if he was a meek and silent man? I don’t think you would. It takes change, a radical shaking of one’s foundation to wake a man from his sleep.”
“I don’t think this was radical or shaking, as much as it was staged.”
He stood back for a moment. Seemingly shocked that I didn’t believe in his miracle, but I couldn’t help myself. I was upset. I thought I had found it. The real Africa, the authentic life blood of the country, I thought I found it in this man, but he was just another plastic tourist attraction.
“Pretend for a second, pretend that you believe in who I am, and what I preach.”
“I’ll humor you. Sure, I’m pretending.”
“Now ask yourself, why I believe what I believe, what made me believe what I believe. And please come back and see me tomorrow.”
Ridiculous, that was the only thought I had along the way home. It was all ridiculous. My brain was racking and raging against this disappointment preaching in a shack, all while Obasi cursed and ranted about his ways. My African-Ramada room was waiting for me at the end of the road, and I loathed looking at that mural more than I hated thinking about Sai.
When I woke up I had a different thought, maybe it was the re-emptied mini bar or the mural slowly driving me insane, but I wanted to go back. I wanted to see Sai preach a calmer sermon. I wanted to go without Obasi. I wanted to experience the real country, and I wanted to experience it without a guide. I brought my Bible, and for the first time I noticed that there was a message written on the inside. It said, “The author would like to meet you.”
Sai was speaking on the stage when I got there. Part of me felt guilty for showing up late, but I had no idea when his sermons began.
“If there are faithless, then bring me the faithless. If there are faithful, then bring me the faithful. I will protect and provide for all, and we will protect and provide for one another. The fate of all of us is the fate of one of us. I have felt the presence of the gods, and I have become one of them. There are many, but I am yours. The Greeks, the Hindus, they know of these things, but the Muslims, our Muslims refuse to accept these facts. We must play our part in change. We must revitalize their sight, and remove the scales that have been placed there for so long.”
There was a shining in his eye as he glared down towards the ‘blind man’ from yesterday’s sermon. The whole thing reminded me of Catholic Church growing up. The grandiose speeches and rituals, all of them put in place to give off the feeling of significance.
Sai called me up to the stage, and I joined him.
“You’ve been drinking, my son. I can smell it on you.”
The mini bar was still fresh on my breath.
“Even Jesus turned water to wine, Sai.”
“Kneel for me, child.”
I found myself on both my knees in front of a sea of black faces. I started thinking about the mural, about the minibar, about the fight, about the massacre I was going to report on, but before I could think any further a warm feeling spewed out onto my body. It was water, warm water.
“I am rebaptizing you. You are no longer the product of a false prophet, but rather a champion of Sai. You are reborn unto me, your new father.”
My hands hit the stage floor, and I started crying. It all felt so real, a warm wave of reality crashing over my head, washing the plastic lenses off my face and eyes.
“Thank you. Thank you. I feel-I feel alive.”
“You are alive, child. You are alive.”
The entire performance was cut short by the front doors of the sanctuary flying open. There was shouting all around me. Sai had disappeared along with most of his follower while I sat on my hands and knees, water still in my eyes.
“You weren’t at your hotel. You need to get up.”
I recognized the voice. It was the only person who could have been looking for me. It was Obasi. I wiped the mixture of water and tears from my eyes.
“I was busy, kid. Why are you here?”
“The fight starts soon. It is my job to prepare you. Clean yourself up, come.”
I didn’t want to go to a fight. I didn’t want to see a massacre. I wanted to go home. I wanted to be done with the whole country. Whatever newness I felt wore off when Obasi came through the door. He must have interrupted something, it all felt unfinished.
Obasi took me back to my muddy Ramada, and I changed into my formal wear. I grabbed my notebook. I would go to the fight. I would finish my job, and then I would go home and be done with it.
I had never seen thirty thousand people in one place. It looked like a coliseum, there was no roof, just rows and rows of voyeurs chanting and cheering. The stadium felt like it was shaking from the sound waves. I sat directly in front of the stage for the fight; the event coordinator sat just rows away from me, slightly raised from the crowd, like a makeshift emperor. The gladiators came out, accompanied by their lavished parade of female show horses. I wanted the large one to die. I wanted to see the underdog win. For once I just wanted to avoid the massacre, to avoid the impending doom. I wanted to change the outcome.
“And he’s down.”
I snapped out of whatever concentrated haze I was in, and looked up at the stage expecting to see blood and bone strewed out on the white fighting mat. I expected to see a monster standing over a gladiator. There wasn’t a massacre. There was a gladiator standing over a monster. Obasi was yelling next to me. The coordinator was smiling ear to ear, and the stadium was shaking harder and faster than before. I couldn’t escape the feeling that it was all connected, the shooting, the baptism, the surprise victory, all of it intertwined by some sort of determining factor.
“Obasi, I think I controlled the fight.”
“Then you are a just and powerful god, sir. No one could have changed that fight.”
I wrote the entire article on the train ride back. It was over. I was glad it was over. I was glad something had changed. In me? Maybe. One can’t be too sure of these things. I looked over at the passenger sitting next to me and started thinking about the man on the first train, the mess on my face and the ordeal that this trip started out as.
“I met God down there, you know?”
The stranger stared back at me. He was dressed in a trim grey suit with white accents. It seemed to shine as he looked me up and down.
“In Zaire? You met God in Zaire?”
“Yes, he gave me this.”
I handed over the Bible that was left in my hotel room, and flashed a smile before going back to my article. The headline would read “How I Saved the Gladiator”. I imagined it being my breakthrough to real journalism.
“You believe in Sai?” The stranger turned back to me, with the Bible open in his lap.
“Yes I do. He baptized me in his church.”
Three shots rang out. For a moment I tried to imagine that it was just the clatter of the train running over the steel bars, but a strange pressure started forming in my stomach and head. It felt like warm water was rushing out of my body and onto my skin. I felt my hand grab onto the stranger’s jacket. Passengers began screaming in the background and the noises bounced along the walls. I felt tired, tired of this trip and the train. I just wanted to go home.
Michael Garrett Ashby II is a writer and poet based in South Florida. His works have been published in literary magazines and journals such as Spark Anthology, Digital Papercuts, eFiction India, Touchstone Magazine, and Coastlines Literary Magazine. More information about the author can be found here: http://www.writerashby.com