CHAPTER 16 – AN AFRICAN NIGHT
SABURIA, MAY 2025
“The King is coming,” announced the banner on Kochanski’s office screen one morning.
For days, workers then swarmed the military base, weeding, pruning and raking, throwing up ladders for painting and repairs. The cats darted out from bushes being trimmed. Guard dogs barked madly in their crates. 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.
Indoor, squads of servants swept through with brooms and dusters. A bemused Kochanski passed by Eleanor and the Egyptian. They were directing the placement of floral arrangements.
“Big day tomorrow,” he said. “I’ve heard of such things: fear, awe, wonder, how that keeps people loyal to their rulers.”
“The way I see it,” Eleanor said stiffly, “when he or she makes the people feel proud, royalty is the apotheosis of a culture.”
The next morning, while the Eastern dawn broke over the Red Sea, the base hummed with final preparations. The Alsatians were returned to their crates and given extra food to keep them quiet.
On steps outside the kennels, the barefoot dog handler awaited the call of the horns announcing the royal arrival.
“No.” He scowled at an Indian passing by, “I haven’t seen it today.”
Those foreigners had made that cat tame, even named it Leo. 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 wild lyuma packs native to Saburia.
Some time ago, the Polish man’s daughter had approached him in her Western clothing and uncovered hair. She looked about sixteen, childbearing age in some parts. 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, sleeping instead of guarding 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 who was also unmarried. Like him, 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.
Foreigners brought impure thoughts. 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. With a second wife, 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, his first wife would always be cared for by him and their sons.
The dog-handler heard the distant hum but could not see it yet. From the highest points of the military buildings, the royal motorcade appeared as a black dot on the horizon. Kochanski watched the line of military vehicles burgeon on the dusty road. Excitement tightened his chest.
Next to him, Campbell was standing as straight as he had ever seen him. Dr. B and Sheraton were on his other side. Knots of enthralled Chinese and Indians watched nearby 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. “Let Ali garland him,” Dr. B had said. “He’ll have to give the kid a reward.”
They had requested that the Health Minister send the boy abroad for plastic surgery and an artificial eye and been turned down.
The motorcade rumbled to welcoming 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 at her husband’s right, her eyes straight ahead so as not to meet the gaze of other men.
Ali garlanded the king and the Saburians cheered proudly, a wave of sound that echoed around the base.
King Mohammed next made his tour and stopped in Kochanski’s office. Close up, his face had heavy make-up and faint tribal markings. Dark eyes analyzed him as Kochanski discussed the completed construction of the clinic and projected images on the wall screen.
“Your Highness, with your generous support, Soria has completed our military hospital. That includes two doctors, Dr. Bhattacharya — maybe you remember him — and Dr. Sheraton. We also set up the AI 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. “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 with the manager, “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 Campbell a picnic basket,” he said. After everything I do for you, what?”
Later that day at the clinic, Dr. B. was grinning. “We 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 at the clinic, resting. 728 goes to the royals.”
The king’s men fanned out over the campus, distributing gifts: 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 that 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 work 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.
“Aisha, just 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 saw it that way.”
Thoughtfully, Noru 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 will have a healthy son, a younger brother to the crown prince.”
“Yes, 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.”
The women’s eyes met.
Noru was the first to look away. “I don’t believe that you’re telling me everything.”
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 doctor in Ramses was an Indian woman, speaking through a translator, a little dark creature in a white coat over a gray sari. Her kohl-rimmed eyes had inspected Noru as if she were another species.
“These injections of fertility medicines may make you feel strange,” the doctor told her.
Noru’s father had gifted her with a Turkish Anatolian mastiff. Usually walking just ahead, it sometimes wandered away for short distances to search for threats before it returned. Here, they sometimes 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.
Noru and her friend 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 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 said thoughtfully. “Remember, she used to live near our village with her caretaker.”
“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 used to say.” Her friend’s voice broke with tears. “I wonder what happened to her?”
“Salma is a cold woman,” said Noru harshly. “She abandoned her daughter. She’s distant with me too. Aisha says that Salma prayed that the king’s second wife would not have children and her wish came true.”
“Heartless,” said the other girl.
“No…,” Noru slowly said, “because when Queen Salma is with the crown prince, then oh then — you see such happy 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 our 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, “not to listen to your commands.”
Noru pulled a packet from her pocket and noisily unwrapped the paper. The animal promptly materialized and took his meat.
She haughtily corrected her companion, “He’s a guard dog, never far, the smartest beast in the world.”
They might have grown up together but Noru was now 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 is a scientist named David Campbell. You may meet him. He says Saburia has a different value system, that they don’t believe in minding your own business, that there’s no living and let live.”
Mary chuckled. “Growing up with help in New York City, I always prized my privacy. Dr. B. also warned me about Saburia that no one minds their own business here. He says he’s used to it from visiting India, that there ‘a person can’t even close a door there 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…and their new baby.
“Sorry, I can go on and on. 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 all over this planet 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. Their 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-something with 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 now faded away. Her grandkids had cell phones 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 and primeval, displaced her nausea.
Africa, its elephants and zebras, wildebeest and monkeys, from the sounds of the wild in the dark to the starry carpet of the Milky Way above, she had never felt like this before.
Or was this a side-effect of the medications?
She pressed the button on her remote, and the multilingual Saburian nurse came in.
“Would you like something to help you sleep now?”
She shook her head.
“Please help me back out to the patio,” Mary said.
Soon I’ll sleep forever, she thought.
“The night heavens are glorious,” said the nurse.
Not wishing to go to bed as a child, too much new to see and do and now in her last season — how wondrous that could still be true.