CHAPTER 16 – AFRICAN NIGHT
SABURIA, MAY 2025
The king was coming. Workers swarmed the military base weeding, pruning and raking, throwing up ladders for painting and repairs. The cats darted out from bushes being trimmed. Watch dogs barked madly in their crates. Indoor, squads of servants swept through with brooms and dusters. Fighting each other with sticks and toy guns in games, the local boys ran around the village next to the base. The girls stuck to hide-and-seek and hopscotch.
Bemused by the excitement, Kochanski passed by Eleanor and the Egyptian, who were directing the placement of floral arrangements.
“Big day tomorrow,” he said. “I’ve heard of such things before: fear, awe, wonder, keeping people loyal to their king.”
“The way I see it,” Eleanor said, “when it makes people feel proud, royalty is the apotheosis of a culture.”
The next morning, as the Eastern dawn broke over the Red Sea, the base hummed with final preparations. The German Shepherds were returned to their crates and given extra food to keep them sated and quiet.
Resting barefoot on steps in a patch of shade outside the kennels, the dog handler awaited the call of the horns announcing the royal arrival.
“No,” he told an Indian passing by, “I haven’t seen Leo today.”
He scowled. Those foreigners had made the cat tame, even named him. If it weren’t for the jackals and hyenas, the place would be overrun by that animal’s offspring. The only cats he liked were the beautiful wild lyuma packs native to Saburia.
Some time ago, the Polish man’s young daughter had approached him in her Western clothing and uncovered hair. Through her translator, she said it was cruel that the base dogs were “semi-starved.” He had apologized and fed the animals more while she was visiting, a shame because then they were no longer hungry and vicious at night.
He liked Dr. Sheraton even if it was scandalous that an unmarried woman, divorced too, spent so much time alone with Mr. Kochanski, also unmarried. She also drank alcohol. But at least she was always covered up and minded her own business.
Then there was the titillating story about the Chinese pilot and the officer’s wife. He stopped any impure thoughts. About those foreigners, he firmly lectured his wife and children on their low morals. The Saburian way was best. If he worked hard, perhaps he could afford to marry a second time.
His wife was a good woman, but after four children her body was no longer the same. Then she would have extra help around the house, and a dowry might bring more money into their home. Unlike foreign women, whose husbands discarded them, she would be cared for always by him and their sons.
From the highest points of the military buildings, the royal motorcade appeared as a black dot on the horizon. Standing with Elise, Campbell, and Dr. B., Kochanski watched the line of military vehicles burgeon on the dusty road. Excitement tightened his chest.
Campbell was standing as straight as he had ever seen him. Knots of enthralled Chinese and Indians stood near them on the patio. The Saburians had scattered to perform their assigned tasks as their families waited behind the ceremonial ropes below.
Kochanski spotted Ali, the boy the dogs had mauled, with a garland of braided purple and white flowers. Kochanski and Dr. B had already requested the Health Minister to send the boy abroad for plastic surgery and an artificial eye. They had been turned down.
“We’ll try again, Michael,” Dr. B. had said. “Let Ali garland him. He’ll have to give the kid a reward.”
The motorcade rumbled to opening gates. Blocks of guards emerged in ornamented dress uniforms and marched forward to line the road three-deep. More horns blew. The king in white robes stepped out of the first black limousine. Men emerged from the cars behind him, also robed or wearing black suits.
Queen Noru emerged last, round face impassive, head and body covered in traditional hijab. She stood to her husband’s right, her eyes straight ahead so as not to meet the gaze of other men. After Ali garlanded the king, the Saburians cheered proudly, a wave of sound that echoed around the base.
King Saburi next made his tour and stopped in Kochanski’s office. They discussed the completed construction of the clinic while reviewing pictures on the wall monitor.
“Your Highness, with your generous support, Soria has also equipped and staffed our military hospital. That includes two doctors, Dr. Bhattacharya — maybe you remember him — and Dr. Elise Sheraton. We also set up the AI Drukker computer for research trials. We came in below budget and on time.”
The king nodded his approval. “And where is Dr.Garcia? I want to meet this genius.”
“He’ll be here in two weeks.”
“And his son?”
“For that, we need help.”
The king turned to the man on his right side who nodded.
“OK. And one more thing,” the king said, getting up. “Michael, for my wife, we need her lady doctor to be a woman of good character.”
A flush crept up Kochanski’s neck and warmed his ears. He leaped forward to open the door. Neither official flanking their leader looked at him as they walked out.
Later, he talked to Eleanor.
“You’re right,” he agreed, “no more wine delivered to Dr. Sheraton’s room, no more alcohol of any kind if she will be at a meal.
“There’s one more thing you have to do for me,” he said, showing her a photograph. “Do you know this woman?”
“One of the queen’s attendants.”
“Please deliver this personally to her,” Kochanski said. pulling the purple Drukker case from a drawer.
“You gave David a picnic basket,” he said. After everything I do for you, what?”
When Kochanski visited the clinic later that day, Dr. B. was grinning. “I did it, Michael. Ali will go abroad for more surgery.”
“Is Mary in 728?”
“Oh no.” Dr. B. glanced at a closed door. “She’s here, resting. 728 goes to the royals.”
In a whisper, Dr. B. added, “Steroids are hard on old bodies.”
The king’s men fanned out over the campus. Gifts were distributed: wooden carvings of lyumas for the men, jewelry with semi-precious stones for the women. Sweets and treats, colorful drinks and Western ice cream were given to the delighted children. As the sky dimmed and cooler night breezes flowed in, the military caravan withdrew its tentacles and crawled out of the campus, its grinding hum fading as it disappeared along the desert road it had come on that morning.
Queen Noru however stayed. In Room 728, she perched on the edge of the king-sized bed in pajamas and looked over to Aisha, a spectacled woman in her 70s, who was stitching the hem of her cloak.
“Hmm,” the servant grumbled. “This repair will have to hold until I return to the capital. I will march into that tailor’s shop and give him a piece of my mind about his shoddy work.”
Noru stifled a giggle.
“Order a new one instead,” Noru said. “It’s a long, dusty road to that shop? I don’t think that stress is good for you.”
“I’m not that old.”
The girl smiled dreamily. “I wish our king did not have to leave so soon. Aisha, I have some bad news.”
Aisha looked up from her sewing.
“He says you can’t come to India with me.”
“He was impatient. He said I needed to grow up and some independence would be good for me.”
Aisha returned to stitching.
“What do you know about the American woman doctor?” Noru asked. “I meet her tomorrow.”
“What do you think?”
“I hear she has a sad life,” Noru said, “far away from her family, no husband, just the fat old man from Chicago.
“But there are those women in the huts on the outskirts of our village, also castoffs. Dr. Sheraton’s better off than them because she has valuable skills. I suggested to my husband that we could train more women like that here for useful work.”
“Like me,” Aisha said softly, “it was your idea that I learn to do your injections.”
“I never looked at it that way,” Noru said.
Thoughtfully, she added, “I wish I understood more about what will happen in India. The king said he doesn’t want me to suffer like his other wives who lost their babies. I am to have a healthy son, a younger brother to the crown prince.”
“Queen Salma’s son,” Aisha whispered.
“You know something?” Noru asked sharply. “You hear things. On my blood, I’ll keep your secrets.”
“I have none left.”
“I don’t believe you.”
After everyone was asleep, Noru quietly got out of the bed, threw on the cloak Aisha had repaired, laced up sneakers and went outside with another young woman — a childhood friend who now worked for her. Encased in their voluminous garments, the two circled the compound.
Heat coursed through her. Her blood beat vigorously in her temples. The Indian doctor in Ramses had told her that the injections of fertility medicines might make her feel strange. Speaking through a translator, a little dark creature in a white coat over a gray sari, kohl-rimmed eyes had inspected Noru as if she were another species.
Noru’s father had gifted her with a Turkish Anatolian mastiff. Usually walking ahead, it sometimes wandered away for short distances to search for threats before it returned. Sometimes they heard the crunch of a distant military boot. Mostly, it was silent blackness, a welcome breeze, the occasional sound of wild animals and the answering bark of the base dogs.
They chanted softly to the old gods of their tribe, trembling the silence, an old plea for new wives.
“My God, great Defender, Your shadow tonight is my cloak. Your mighty wings cut the air so I pray to birth Your child. Egg white rich, I wait for You, powerful with life force even many moons ago. I wait. I pray nightly — bless this drop of answering life and do not forsake me for the next month.”
“You’re fortunate in your husband-to-be,” Noru said to the other girl. “When I come back from India, you’ll be a wife.”
They held hands as they had done as children back in their village and then Noru said, “I’m going to India so I can get treatment and not lose my baby. Do you know anything?”
The other girl looked around. “They listen to what we say.” She pulled Noru’s hand and they walked to the high wall at the edge of the compound.
Huddling together, Noru’s companion whispered. “Please don’t tell anyone I told you. I don’t want to be beaten or my family to be punished. They say that because the kings only marry within their family, a disease has taken root. The royal babies are either never born or are deformed like the king’s older brother, the cripple Bassam. Our crown prince, we’re lucky he’s healthy but they say he may pass the curse on to his children.”
“My king’s other baby with Salma,” Noru whispered back thoughtfully. “Remember, she used to live near our village with her caretaker.”
The other girl whispered back. “Yes, far away deep in the brush when we explored as children, how she used to cry. She was so cute with her pretty dresses, not even crippled — just mentally weak they say.” Her voice broke with tears. “I wonder what happened to her?”
“Salma is a cold woman. She abandoned her daughter,” Noru said harshly. “She’s cold to me too. Aisha says that Salma prayed that the king’s second wife would not have children and her wish has come true.”
“Heartless,” said the other girl.
“No…,” Noru slowly said, “because when Queen Salma is with the crown prince, then oh then — you see stars in her eyes.”
They continued whispering. The subject changed to wedding outfits for her friend and Western fashions Noru wanted to buy on a trip to London “before I get big with pregnancy.
“The injections hurt, but Aisha says that ‘I’m doing my duty for the country.’ But now she can’t go abroad with me. I’ll be traveling with these foreign Indian doctors. They don’t speak my language, and I don’t trust my translator.
“Then tonight, Aisha gave me a purple box to give to the doctors in India. She says that I can’t open it.”
Noru wrapped her arm around her friend and kissed her cheek. “We better go back. I wish I could go to your wedding. Come to my room tomorrow for your gift.”
“Kalrissian,” Noru then called to the absent dog
“Your dog is stupid,” said the other girl. “to not listen to your commands.”
Noru pulled a packet from her pocket and noisily unwrapped the paper. The animal promptly materialized and took his dried meat reward.
She now haughtily corrected her companion, “He’s a guard dog, never far, the smartest beast in the world.” They might have grown up together but now Noru was a queen, no longer an equal.
Inside the hospital, Mary awoke, retching. Elise hurried into her room, shut the window to stop the draft and ordered an IV medication.
Feeling better, Mary said, “It must be lonesome here for you, Dr. Sheraton.”
“Yes,” Elise agreed, nodding. “This culture is indeed different…”
“What do you notice most?” Mary asked curiously.
“The way they treat women.”
Elise continued, “Also the lack of privacy. They must even know the timing of my body functions. My co-worker here, a scientist named David Campbell whom you may meet, says Saburia has a different value system. They don’t believe in minding your own business; there’s no living and let live.”
Mary chuckled. “Growing up with help in New York City, I always prized privacy. Dr. B. also warned me that no one minds their own business here. He says he’s used to it from visiting family in India where ‘a person can’t even close a door without someone trying to peep in or listen, their ear against the wall, wondering what you’re hiding.’”
Elise laughed. “Tell me more about yourself. It’s so nice to talk to another American woman and without a translator.”
“You’re sweet. But really, I’m tired. It’ll be much easier for me to listen. How did you arrive here?”
Elise’s personal journey to Saburia poured out to a relative stranger: career detours, betrayals, divorce, financial strains, her children’s problems…
“Thanks for listening,” Elise finished. “hearing my long and boring story.”
“No, tell me more.”
“Tomorrow, I meet Queen Noru.” Elise sighed. . ” I hate it that women in this country still live this medieval existence. Maybe she enjoys it…being the youngest queen and the favorite.”
“Youth doesn’t last,” Mary scoffed.
“I know one isn’t supposed to be bitter,” Elise said. “My ex- married that young thing he cheated on me with and now my kids have to be nice to her.
“Would you like to watch a show?” Elise asked.
“No, the blue light affects my sleep.”
“Can I get you some books?”
Mary snorted. “Have you seen the list of English books in the base library? They gave me a printout when I first arrived.”
Elise shook her head. “No, by the time I’m done with my medical journals, I have no time to read anything else.”
“Well, if you want to listen to men pontificating about themselves, their troubles and their world, the English section of the base library is perfect,” Mary said. “Still to be fair, it’s a military base, mostly men. The reading needs to entertain them, especially if they’re trying to learn English.”
Hot and cold waves of nausea came over Mary. She could die here in Saburia in the past perfect. At the future memorial service, they would say she had died, the moment she had died, that she had read not a single English book on the Saburian base before she had died .
“Before you leave, Dr. Sheraton, please open the window again. Fresh air would feel good.”
After Elise left, Mary gazed out of the window. The moonlight blurred on the dust of the panes. She heard an owl hoot, the distant howl of a jackal, the answering bark of a dog and something else — close by. Someone eavesdropping?
Beds and windows were spaces in which she could spill open the boxes of her memories. There was the first time she had heard a similar rustling sound. There is nothing new under the sun, just the same patterns that repeat themselves.
She was ten-years-old in the woods behind the New England house. In the evening breeze, Gramma’s witch artwork of thread and feathers shivered on the twigs. After skipping stones across the pond — their pond, their property — she was returning on the darkening path home.
A rustling sound, she heard someone behind her and next, a leering man’s face appeared. Running into the trees, she found one of her dreaming spots, a large hole in a dead trunk. Inside, she waited, hoping that he could not hear her hammering heart or panting breath. Late at night, after the crackles of twigs and occasional gleams of flashlight faded away, she came home.
Gramma was up waiting for her.
“I got lost,” Mary lied.
“OK, shower and then go to bed.”
That weekend she saw him again in his Sunday suit. In the bright daylight, he was just a scrawny 20-somethingwith two young men his age. She crossed the street to say something to him.
“What was that about?” her grandmother asked.
Mary told her what had happened.
“What did you just say to them?”
“I told him,” said Mary, “that if he crosses our property line again, you’ll curse him. If that doesn’t work, you’ll shoot him.”
Her grandmother’s eyes widened. “Honey, I’ll ask Officer Chester to have a talk with him. Let me know if you see him on our property again. But you can’t go around talking like that. If you were older, it could get you arrested.”
Gramma’s smile grew wide. “I like your spirit, Mary. Sometimes, you have to break eggs to make an omelet.”
After that, Mary wore a loud whistle around her neck in the woods. That world had faded away. Her grandkids had cellphones with an emergency setting and GPS.
“If I die here, what would happen to my remains?” she had asked Dr. B. when first arriving.
“Don’t talk like that, Mary. Positive energy is required for healing,” he said, looking horrified. “Of course, we would fly the remains back home.”
That wouldn’t be too bad. Leslie wouldn’t have to come all the way here. It had been a good long life, even if she had not flown as high to glam and fame, like Gloria Vanderbilt or one of the famous Astor girls she used to adore as a child. She and her husband never got to retire to a houseboat on the Seine.
Unexpected, waves of joy, atavistic, primeval and solitary, displaced her nausea. Even if it was the medication, she had never seen anything like Africa before, the sounds of the wild in the dark, the Milky Way a starry carpet in the night sky on a pathway to more galaxies beyond, elephants and zebras, wildebeest and monkeys.
She pressed the button on her remote, and the multilingual Saburian nurse came in.
“Would you like something to help you sleep now?”
Soon I’ll sleep forever. She shook her head.
“Please help me back out to the patio,” Mary said.
Not wishing to go to bed as a child, too much new to see and do and even now in her last season — how glorious that could still be true.