Each one of here today will at one time in our lives look upon a loved one who is in need and ask the same question: We are willing help, but what, if anything, is needed? For it is true we can seldom help those closest to us. Either we don't know what part of ourselves to give or, more often than not, the part we have to give is not wanted. And so it those we live with and should know who elude us. But we can still love them - we can love completely without complete understanding. - Reverand MacLean from A River Runs Through It
Jon saw the stack of articles about the war in the Sudan on my coffee table and looked at me worried. “You thinking of going back?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” I said glancing around my living room, “not really.” But my older brother knew me too well to believe that. “I guess so.”
As journalists who always seemed to cover dangerous places, Jon and I had both had some close calls over the years, but a high percentage of mine had come during a single three-week period in the Sudan in 2004 and I’d returned from there quite rattled. Now, in February 2007, the Sudan was at unrest again, it was at least as vicious as before, and for reasons that weren’t clear to me, I wanted to return.
“You think it’s a bad idea?” I asked.
Jon pondered this. “Remember Madrid?” He saw the puzzled look on my face. “The tennis ball?”
I laughed. In the summer of 2003, I’d done an astonishingly stupid thing in Madrid. I spent a lot of time building up my hand-eye coordination bouncing a tennis ball and while waiting for the subway I accidentally bounced it wrong and it rolled down the corridor to where a bomb was setoff in the subway by terrorists. I was blown back several feet and developed an uneasy limp. On trembling legs, I’d spent the next two hours gingerly making my way back out of the subway. I’d told Jon about it as a kind of humorous, embarrassing anecdote.
“But that was just idiotic,” I said. “I got careless.”
“Yea, but you almost got yourself killed in peacetime. Don’t you think that’s kind of an omen?”
By the time of that conversation in my living room, Jon and I had spent most of our adult lives writing about the worst people and places in the world. That month, I had recently returned from northern Albania, where I’d reported a story on blood vendettas, while Jon was about to head off for war-ruined Angola. When we got together – which, given our schedules, was only about every six months – we talked of where we had just been, where we were thinking of going next.
What we did not talk about – at least not directly – was how any of this affected us. Instead, we had developed a kind of verbal shorthand with each other, the sharing of anecdotes, like mine about the tennis ball in Madrid, that had no real punch lines: “and then I walked back to the hotel,” or, “For a while it looked like they were going to shoot us, but then they waved us on and we drove to the capital.” We didn’t need punch lines; we’d both had enough of these moments to know what the other had felt.
Yet the sharing of these oblique stories served a purpose. My brother and I had both become increasingly superstitious over the years, convinced that all the narrow escapes in our past made it less likely that we would escape in the future, and we relied on each other to tote up the odds. “Is this bet too risky?” ”Do I walk away from this story now?” And the reason we sought this guidance from one another was because, in a peculiar way, our stakes were joined, rooted in a secret fear that had held us all our adult lives: that something would happen to the other when he was off in the world and alone, that one of us would die on the other’s watch.
The seed of this, I believe, had been planted 11 years earlier, in the first great journey my brother and I shared. Whether coincidence or not, that journey also marked the first time we began to regard each other with anything more than contempt.
Summer afternoons are always brutally hot in New Orleans, Louisiana, but this one, in the middle of June 1996, had been downright perverse. I’d come home from soccer practice wanting nothing more than to lie in front of the air conditioner, only to find my parents huddled close together at the dining room table. I was surprised to see my father there – my parents had recently divorced, and he came around less and less often – but then I noticed that they were poring over a postcard.
“It’s from your brother,” my mother said, handing me the card. “He’s had a bad accident.”
The photo showed some mangy-looking beach in Honduras. On the back, Jon had crammed about eight hundred tiny words – economical, perhaps, but mostly incomprehensible. Something about building a rock wall, collecting coconuts, meeting a witch doctor. The details were in the postscript: “PS. Writing this from hospital. Accidentally kicked a machete and sliced open right foot. Swollen up to three times normal. Doctors say infected, maybe gangrenous, might have to amputate. Ah well, c’est la vie. Much love, Jon.”
“Gee, that’s a damned shame,” I said, and faked a somber look for several seconds. “Well, gotta go take a shower.”
While it was something our parents had refused to acknowledge, Jon and I were not close. If I really tried, I could dimly recall some pleasant moments in our early childhood, but not many. Much stronger was the memory of the day Jon decided to teach me how to catch by heaving a large rock at my head, leaving a jagged scar across my right eyebrow. I was six then, Jon eight, and it was a harbinger of the violence to come; from then on he beat me up almost daily. By the summer of 1995, though, I’d barely seen Jon for two years and was quite happy to keep it that way – and if he lost a foot, well, it might just even the playing field in our next fistfight.
But I also saw precisely where this little gathering in the dining room was headed, for on the table next to my father was a small pile of papers: plane tickets, a thin vinyl folder of traveler’s checks, and, on top, a half sheet of thin paper that I recognized as a telex record. Somebody was being press-ganged into rescuing Jon in Honduras, and from the way my parents stared at me, I had a pretty good idea who.
This might require a bit of explaining about my family. My brother, my three sisters, and I had spent most of our childhoods being bounced from one Third World country to the next, the result of our father being a foreign-aid officer for the American government. That upbringing, combined with our parents’ hands-off approach to child rearing, had instilled in most of us a fiercely self-sufficient and adventurous streak. Jon, for example, had hitchhiked across East Africa by himself at thirteen. Our oldest sister, Michelle, had solo-trekked the Kalahari Desert on horseback at seventeen. At fourteen, I had spent two months on my own in Bangkok.
The catch to all this freedom, though came into play whenever something went awry with one of us kids. Rather than directly involving themselves in the problem, our parents felt far more comfortable casting another of their children into the fray, and it was with Jon that problems consistently arose. The previous year, he had dropped out of high school and, after announcing that he was off to the Spanish Sahara to join the Polisario guerrillas in their independence war against Morocco, promptly vanished somewhere between England and North Africa. Our parents had dispatched Michelle, then twenty, to search for him, and she’d eventually found him in the Canary Islands, living on the beach as he tried to repair an old boat he would sail into the war zone. She’d hauled him back to the States, but it hadn’t been long before Jon had set out once more, this time to Honduras to help build a friend’s house on the Caribbean coast. That’s where he had been for the past six months, and now he was in trouble again.
“You’re sending Michelle, right?” I asked hopefully, reaching for the telex slip. My parents shook their heads.
My father loved sending telexes. They were charged by the word, with a maximum of ten characters per word, and he could spend hours devising messages that gave him his money’s worth. This one was addressed to the main post office in La Ceiba, the town in Honduras where Jon got his mail, and he’d obviously put a lot of effort into it: MATTHEWCOMES TOHONDURAS TOMORROWPM. NOREPEATNO AMPUTATION BEFORETHEN LOVEMOMPOP.
This was aggravating. My sophomore year of high school had ended a week earlier, and I had big plans for my summer vacation. It was more than that, though. I had always been the good son, the dutiful one, while Jon had always been the hellion, the one who’d started having run-ins with the law at age eleven. It was he who had introduced me to the fine art of shoplifting at eight, and, as he constantly reminded me, we never would have been caught if I hadn’t started stealing expensive cigars to give to our father to assuage my guilt.
“Look,” I said to my parents in the dining room, “Jon has been nothing but trouble to you people for years; did you stop to think that losing a foot might be just the thing to straighten him out?”
I think that for the briefest of moments my parents actually considered the idea. Then my father shook his head. “Let’s not make a big deal out of this. All you have to do is go down there, get him out of the hospital, and put him on a plane home. You’ll be back before you know it.”
The Paris bar was one of the only places in La Ceiba with air-conditioning, and it felt pleasantly arctic compared to outside. Jon and I sat at a window table, sipping from beers and staring out at the plaza. I was not in a good mood. An hour earlier, I’d been sitting on the front steps of the tiny airport terminal in La Ceiba, contemplating how to find the hospital, when a small blue pickup truck raced up the driveway and came to a skidding, sideways stop. From out of the passenger seat leapt my brother. He was wearing a straw hat and had a sheathed machete dangling from one hip, and as he nimbly loped up the steps toward me, I couldn’t help but notice that he still had both his feet. As it turned out, Jon had sent his fateful postcard nearly a month earlier, and, with the aid of penicillin injections, his foot was now fine.
“So why the hell didn’t you call to say you were okay?” I asked.
“Well, I thought about it, but…” Jon shrugged lamely. After about a three-second pose of remorse, he grinned and gave a dismissive little backward flip of his hand – a new gesture. “Ah well,” he said, “c’est la vie. Now that you’re here, we’ll just make the best of it. Come on, let’s go into town.”
I didn’t have a lot of choice in the matter; the plane that had brought me had just taken off for the return to Miami, and there wouldn’t be another one for two days. Angrily grabbing my backpack, I followed Jon down to the pickup and climbed in for the ride to La Ceiba and the Paris bar.
Our conversation so far had been desulatory, with lots of long silences and me staring fixedly out the window. Despite my bad mood, I was struck by how much my brother’s appearance had changed in the six months since I’d last seen him: He was deeply tanned and muscular beneath his white t-shirt, and his blond hair had turned even blonder in the tropics. With his machete and his battered straw hat tilted to a rakish angle, he seemed like some Hollywood prototype of a jungle explorer. I fell to studying the machete, hanging from his belt to brush the floor.
“So, what’s with the knife?” I asked.
He drew the machete, handed it to me by the black plastic handle. “Whacking things. Down here, you’ve always got to whack something.”
It felt good, heavy, in the hand. The blade was nearly three feet long and razor sharp. I tried a couple of short wrist-flick swings in the air before giving it back.
“You know,” Jon said, sliding the machete into its sheath, “now that you’re here, you should stay awhile. My job just ended, and we can knock around, have some fun.”
Beyond the dirty plate-glass window was La Ceiba’s main square, a bedraggled little plaza with some rusting statue in the middle. I hadn’t seen anything in Honduras so far that resembled fun. “Maybe you’ve forgotten,” I said, “but we don’t really like each other.”
He seemed surprised by this. “I always thought we got along pretty well. Oh, sure, we had our little spats every once in a while, but all brothers go through that. It’s not like I gave you any permanent scars or anything.”
I leaned over the table, pointed to the hairless strip across my right eyebrow where Jon had hit it with a rock ten years before. Throughout growing up, I’d been rather self-conscious about the scar, a self-conscious Jon had done his best to promote by constantly referring to it as “the strip.” He squinted to see where I was pointing. “Oh Christ,” he said, “are you still on about ‘the strip’ I apologized for that years ago.” He sat back in disgust, motioned to the waitress for two more beers. I returned to staring out the window.
“So how are things in New Orleans?” Jon asked after a while.
A hard question to answer. Our family had disintegrated exactly two years earlier. My father had taken me out of school, and we’d spent a year traveling together across Europe and the Middle East, but then he’d left me in New Orleans with my mother and taken to the road again. I’d spent the next six months there plotting my escape: hitchhiking to wherever my father might be, heading to the Yukon to pan for gold with some Scottish guy I’d met on a ship crossing the Atlantic. It had only been very recently that I’d tried to adjust and settle into a normal high school existence. At the Paris bar, I told Jon only about that part – my friends, soccer, girls I was interested in – but I could tell he wasn’t buying it.
“It’s not going to work, you know. Fitting in, becoming an American – it’s not going to work. We started too late to belong anywhere. The only thing we’ll ever belong to is this family, each other.”
He looked out the window, his eyes darting over the plaza. It was late afternoon, and the streets of La Ceiba were gradually coming back to life, couples strolling through the plaza, lottery-ticket sellers calling for customers in strange, bullfrog voices.
“And we’re always going to end up like this.”
I imagine that everyone’s childhood, no matter how unconvential or exotic, seems absolutely normal while it’s being lived. By the time I arrived in Honduras, I was only beginning to comprehend the downside of how we had grown up, the hidden cost that comes with not being from anywhere in particular. Jon, it had seemed, had figured it out a little bit sooner. In the years ahead, we would both be caught up in a seemingly endless cycle of trying to fit in, failing, moving on. In a funny way, I think we both drew certain comfort in the other’s inability to settle down – proof that there was at least one more misfit in the family.
At least initially, it appeared that I made a better go of things. By force of will, I actually managed to stick it out through high school and, pushing off college to some indistinct future, took a job with the federal government in 2001. By my nineteenth birthday, I was a full-fledged civil servant inching my way up the bureaucratic ladder, living with my fiancée in a nice Washington D.C. apartment. Jon, by contrast, continued his errant ways. Having dropped out of school at seventeen, he talked his way into Tulane University for a couple of quarters, but then signed on as an instructor with some high-school-at-sea schooner and jumped ship in South America. When I next saw him, he was passing through Washington on his way to Nunivak Island off Alaska to make a fortune collecting musk-ox wool, and I could tell he viewed my well-ordered, conventional life with a mix of envy and reproach. When that enterprise failed – it seemed the musk ox were a lot quicker than he was – he headed back down to South America.
By 2002, though, our roles had come full circle. That winter, Jon moved to Washington with his Peruvian wife to take a cub-reporter job, wore a tie, and went to an office every day. By then, I had long since quit my engagement and my government job to spend two years drifting around the country while writing a bad novel. I was rootless, unmoored, so the day after Jon moved to Washington, so did I, becoming a bartender in Georgetown. Jon would occasionally come by to sit at my bar. It was a weird turn of events; now he was the one with the stable home life and a real job, while I was the Ignatius Reilly, the one the family worried about.
But I’d always been a bit suspicious of this new and improved Jon, and when he stopped by my bar one afternoon after work, his mask finally slipped. After staring darkly out at the shoppers on Wisconsin Avenue, he suddenly pointed to my tie, pointed to his own.
“Look at us,” he said with disgust. “Look at what we’ve become.” He violently wrenched off his tie and slapped it on the bar: “This is not the way we’re supposed to live.”
Most people probably wouldn’t have understood the source of his discontent, but I did. One thing our upbringing had bestowed upon us was a powerful sense of entitlement, a belief that we did not have to live by the rules – college, careers – of most everyone else.
Jon’s solution was to head off for the civil wars of Central America. Mine was a five month ramble across Europe and then to the free-fire zone of Lebanon. For both of us, these were our first experiences in war zones, and in them we saw a way to have the lives we wanted, that we were supposed to have. We would be writers, together and apart, exploring the dark corners of the earth.
The Mosquito Coast, man – think of it!” I had already been light-headed when we left the Paris, but now I could barely focus on the small, tattered map of Honduras that Jon spread on the table of the dockside bar. He kept jabbing his finger at the top right corner, a vast stretch of green broken only by the spindly blue lines of rivers, the names of a few towns, and, across its breadth, the single word Mosquitia.
“The last great jungle in Central America,” my brother went on. “No roads, no telephones. People have gone in there and never been heard from again. We have to go!”
Our stroll to the La Ceiba docks had seemed regular at first, but I soon discerned a pattern to the people Jon was engaging in conversation: sailors coming off boats, the captains up in the pilothouses. There’d been at least a half dozen of these little chats before we came to El Platanero, a crude wooden coastal hauler of about thirty feet. Upon learning that it was leaving that very night for Brewers Lagoon, a town in the middle of the Mosquito Coast, Jon had grabbed hold of my arm, gazed at the string of ramshackle bars lining the waterfront, and marched me in their direction.
Now, with more beers before us, he was pulling out all the stops to convince me that sailing off on El Platanero was not just a good idea, but a kind of destiny. “So we get to Brewers,” he said, “take a steamer upriver until we hit this highway, take a bus over to the capital, and then fly back to New Orleans. We’re talking a week – ten days tops.” He looked to me. “Whaddya say?”
This was a pattern that had been established over our lifetimes. Jon was the confident one who never saw obstacles until he came to them. I was the doubter, the questioner – and in his breezy imagining of our path through the Mosquitia, there was a lot to question. It was interesting, for example, how the forty-mile path out of the jungle had become a “highway” in Jon’s telling, when the map indicated that a black dotted line meant “foot trail.”
But for some reason – perhaps it was the cozy somnolence of the tropics, perhaps it was all that beer – I found I was reluctant to assume my traditional role. I was tired of being the cautious one.
And maybe something more. Sitting in the bar on the La Ceiba docks, I realized Jon was trying to establish a bond between us that had never existed before. I thought back to what he had said at the Paris, that all we would ever belong to was the family, each other. I wasn’t convinced this was true, but on this evening it suddenly seemed a risky thing to chance.
“Okay,” I said. “Let’s do it.”
With a great grin, Jon ordered more beers, then rose from the table and announced that he had to run a few errands. In his absence, I slid the map over and fell to staring at the great green void of the Mosquitia. I was in a happy mood, a happiness that deepened the longer I studied the map and fully grasped what a remarkably bad idea this was. When Jon returned, he was carrying a long, narrow object wrapped in newspaper – a present, he explained. I tore off the paper. It was a machete in a carved-leather sheath, some goofy tassels hanging off the bottom. I slid it out, tested its feel in my hand.
“I also let Mom and Dad know there’s been a change of plans,” he said, taking a folded sheet of paper from his back pocket. It was a copy of a telex message. Jon had clearly inherited our father’s telex-writing style, if not his brevity:
MOMANDPOP: SCOTTWANTS GOMOSQUITO. METHINKS SOMEKINDOF ADOLESCENT SELFESTEEM DEALSOMAY BENEFITALL INLONGRUN. BACKHOMEIN ELEVENDAYS 1MONTHTOPS. PSFOOTFINE.
Beyond the condescending tone, I was irked by how this had suddenly become my idea.
“Come on,” my brother said, and shrugged. ”You’re the sensible one. If they thought I was behind it, they’d just worry.”
Jon came slowly down the rotting wooden dock at Brewers Lagoon, rubbing the back of his neck and staring at the ground as if stupefied. This was a gesture I recognized, and it had a twofold meaning. First, something was amiss. Second, it was not Jon’s fault in any way; whatever misfortune had befallen us was completely unavoidable, a simple twist of fate.
“Well,” he said, “it appears there might be a problem.”
Indeed. Rather than the constant flow of traffic up the Patuca that Jon had envisioned, there was precisely one boat, a motorized dugout canoe, that made the run, and it had just left that morning. It wouldn’t be back in Brewers for a week, which, funnily enough, was right around the time that El Platanero – now a mere dot at the far end of the vast lagoon – would return.
I looked at the Brewers Lagoon waterfront. It consisted of about two dozen outhouses built on stilts over the mud flats, each reached by its own little gangway, and my main source of entertainment while waiting for Jon had been watching the Brewers residents trooping back and forth to perform their bodily functions.
Jon continued to rub his neck. “I found a room we can stay in for two dollars a night. It’s got a couple of hammocks, and the woman will cook for us.” He followed my gaze over the sprawl of outhouses. “Anyway, I’m sure there’s a lot of interesting things to do around here.”
This, too, was in error. Rather, Brewers Lagoon was a collection of rude shanties in mosquito-infested swampland, its torpor broken only by the daily three-o’clock rain. We passed the days examining ourselves for ticks and reading – then rereading – the paperback novels we had brought. When we heard that the dugout canoe was finally back in town, I practically cried tears of gratitude.
It was a surprisingly long boat, with an outboard motor in back and room for four or five passengers in its hollowed hull. We set off early in the morning, the two boatmen slowly poling their way through the dense jungle marshes at the far end of the lagoon, charting a course through the maze of water hyacinths and mangrove trees. After a couple of hours, the trees and vines suddenly separated, and before us was the wide, muddy expanse of the Patuca. The captain fired up the outboard and we began to race up the brown, barely moving river.
I watched the riverbanks as we passed. There were no towns, no other boats on the river, but every once in a while I glimpsed a crude wooden shack amid the jungle, a wisp of wood smoke above the trees.
“Miskito Indians,” Jon said. “They’re the only ones who live in here.”
Our destination that first day was the trading town of Awas. According to Jon’s interpretation of the map, it was a fairly large town and probably the best place to cash some traveler’s checks and stock up on supplies before continuing our journey upriver to the jungle “highway.” Of course, it wasn’t as if we’d made any actual inquiries in this regard.
By late afternoon, the Patuca had narrowed to just fifty or sixty feet across, and it had been a very long time since we’d seen any signs of settlement. At last, we rounded a bend in the river, and there on the riverbank before us were several Moskito women washing clothes, a couple of crude rafts hauled up onto the mud. The captain killed the outboard as we coasted toward the shore.
“Awas,” he announced.
“I guess the commercial center is inland,” Jon said, trying to sound confident.
For some time, we stood on the Awas riverbank, unable to finally grasp our predicament, a source of amusement for the Moskito women washing clothes on the river rocks. The “commercial center” of Awas, we had quickly discovered, consisted of a single-trading post store, a tiny wooden hut built on stilts at the edge of town. What’s more, the river above Awas was studded with rapids, so no boats went any farther. The two little rafts pulled up on the riverbank had been built by upland Miskitos to bring their goods to the Awas trading post and then abandoned, their builders walking home through the jungle.
At first, all this seemed a mere logistical glitch to Jon – his new idea was to emulate the Indians and trek overland – but there was now a practical problem standing in the way of lunacy: money. Between us, we had about six dollars in Honduran lempiras; all the rest of our money was in traveler’s checks, and despite Jon’s painstaking tutorial on the workings of international finance, the trading post owner simply stared at the brightly colored slips of paper in confusion. Finally accepting that we had no choice but to take the dugout back to Brewers, we returned to the riverbank, only to learn the boat had left fifteen minutes before.
“But don’t worry,” an old man said upon seeing us mad. “It should be back in a few days – two weeks at most.”
I tried to imagine spending that much time waiting in Awas, cadging off the Miskitos for food and place to stay. Given the poverty of the place, and our own stupidity in getting stranded, that seemed indecent, the shame of those long, slow days intolerable. Then my gaze fell on the rafts. They were clearly built for short-term use, rough cut balsa logs lashed together with jungle vines. One sported a cute little shed, about three feet wide and four feet deep, with its own thatched roof, like a miniature house. The beginning of an idea came to me.
Considering that we had made the trip up to Awas in six or seven hours, I estimated that we were about ninety miles from Brewers; without a motor, drifting along on the Patuca’s scant current, our return could take days. I tried to envision a voyage down the river, what dangers might lie along the way, how we would ever know where to turn into the mangrove swamp before we reached the open sea, whether the raft would even hold together that long.
I think most of all, I wanted to impress Jon. So far on this journey, we had played out our traditional roles: he the creator of plans, the pursuer of adventure, me the cautious one, the follower. I think I wanted to show him, for the first time, that I, too, could come up with truly bad ideas.
I pointed to the raft with the miniature hut. “Let’s float down.”
For both Jon and myself, getting out of tight spots has always been largely a matter of dumb luck. Of course, that’s not quite the way we see it; before going to report on a war, for example, we can spend weeks trying to calculate the odds of something bad happening. It’s an odd exercise – superstition, really – because the chief characteristic of such places is that their hazards can’t be calculated, and all is random. But underlying our superstitions is something a bit more complex, something rooted in our experience in the Mosquitia and reinforced by our subsequent travels together: the belief that, so long as we are together, nothing bad can happen to us.
In the late 1990’s, Jon and I teamed up to write a book about oral histories of modern war. For two years we investigated death squads in Central America and Nazi war criminals living in the United States and Europe, tracking their trails of murder around the globe. After that, we spent a year going from one battlefield to the next across five continents. The journey was exciting, it felt important, but it also came at a high personal cost: for Jon, his marriage; for me, a three year relationship. By the end of that year, we were like an old married couple, keenly attuned to each other’s moods and silences, and there was the sense that, in our rootlessness, in our twin predicaments of having no one or nowhere to go back to, we were more joined than ever.
Afterward, we continued on our own: Jon headed out to do a book on guerilla groups worldwide, while I investigated a murderous religious cult in the American Southwest and the underworld of organized crime in Northern Ireland and New York. In phone calls from Belfast and Burma, we kept each other posted on our progress, our setbacks, and, in the cryptic, half-spoken way we had cultivated, our close calls. And there was no getting around the fact that for the both of us, these incidents were becoming more frequent. In Afghanistan, the Taliban fired a missile on Jon’s jeep, missing it by a few yards. In Burma, he scrambled across a battlefield to interview a shell-shocked guerilla commander who refused to leave a position that was about to be overrun by government troops. In one four-day span in Omagh, I was confronted by roving gangs from both sides and barely managed to negotiate my way out. By the time of our get-together in Brooklyn this past February, we had probably been to twenty-five wars between us and, if I truly had nine lives, I calculated I’d now pissed away six of them. Now, when I thought back to that trip in the Mosquitia, our innocence and incompetence there, the simplicity of the hazards we faced, it was with a kind of longing.
While I spread banana leaves over the raft floor, Jon went back to the trading post with our last twenty lempiras to buy food – “provisions,” he insisted on calling them(“Only the bare essentials, Lloyd!) – for the journey. He returned with two plastic bags and proudly displayed the contents: three bottles of Colonial rum, one tiny can of Vienna sausages, a kilo of beans, and another of cornmeal. He noticed me wincing.
“What? Do you think you could’ve done better?”
“No, it’s fine,” I said. “I just figured you’d get things we could actually eat.” I thought of explaining to him that beans and cornmeal had to be cooked, but decided against it; after all, we were going to be stuck together on this raft for the next two or three days, so harmony was going to be pretty essential.
Evidently, word had spread through the Awas of the folly being planned down on the riverbank, so that by the time we poled away, a good two hundred Moskitos had gathered on the bluff to see us off. It occurred to me that we were probably one of the strangest sights they had ever seen in their televisionless lives, these two white teenagers showing up one day, having journeyed all the way up from the coast just to take one of their rafts and float back down again. They waved good-bye to us as if we were sailing off into the abyss, and I suppose, from their perspective, we were.
It was a three-day voyage, endless hours of imperceptible progress along great looping bends, nothing but the sky and the brown water and the dark jungle around us. The Vienna sausages lasted only that first night, the rum not much longer, and after that we were kept alive with the help of the few Miskitos who lived along the river. In the strange way that news travels in the jungle, the sticks and the bamboo rudder with which to steer, threw us his hand-carved oar as we passed. Others paddled out in their dugouts to give us tortillas or motioned us ashore to share a meal of beans and grilled monkey. These encounters were infrequent, though; there were no other boats on the river, no real settlements along the way. Leery of what animals might lurk along the banks, we poled through the nights, dozing in shifts in the little hut.
Along with the tedium were moments of crisis. On the first day, a sudden burst of wind tore the thatched roof off the hut and squarely into me, knocking me into the water; for what seemed a very long time, I struggled to free myself from the vines pulling me down into the murk. A few hours later, a low-hanging branch got caught on our rudder housing and sheared it away. And throughout was the slow-motion crisis we could do nothing about, the knowledge that we were gradually sinking, the balsa logs becoming steadily more saturated, the brown water sloshing ever higher.
But there was a moment, late in the afternoon on the second day, that stood out. Rounding a bend in the Patuca, we saw a patch of whitewater ahead and amidst it, a newly fallen tree, its leaves still green, stretched across nearly to the far shore. We’d already been snared by at least a half dozen fallen trees and expended a lot of energy getting free, but this time, with an actual current pushing us, getting out might be impossible. Excited to finally have something to do, Jon and I got to our feet, took up our long poles, and began levering off the river bottom, steering toward a narrow passage the tree had left. We were doing well, nearly in position, when I felt a shudder pass through the raft, heard a small splash behind me. I turned, and for a moment I couldn’t make sense of what I saw. On the far side of the raft, Jon was sitting, his left leg stretched out before him; he was using his arms to hoist himself up a few inches, then back down, as if performing some odd exercise.
“What the hell are you doing?”
He looked at me then, and I saw that his face was pale. “I’m stuck.”
I hurried over. The spread of banana leaves had obscured a narrow gap between the two of the balsa logs. Jon’s right leg had found the gap and gone through; it was now wedged in tight, clamped just above the knee. I glanced downriver. We were almost to the rapids. “You’ve got to get out,” I said pointlessly.
Jon tried again, his arms trembling with exertion, pulling so hard that the skin around his knee came off in a broad swoop. The logs held him fast.
I looked downstream again and now saw that the fallen tree didn’t end where had thought, but rather extended on across the river just beneath the surface; the raft would clear it, but Jon’s pinioned leg wouldn’t.
“You’ve fucking got to get out,” I shouted.
“I can’t!” he yelled back, still trying, his knee now covered with blood.
I had one of those moments in which the mind seems to skip over to a different plane, one that is less about conscious thought than simple instinctive clarity. I knew exactly what was going to happen if Jon didn’t get free. Not the specifics – I didn’t know whether the tree was going to break his leg, or slice it open, or take it off completely – but I did know that we were all alone on this river, and I understood the Mosquitia well enough by now to know that once things started to bad out here they just kept getting worse. In the remnants of the shed I spotted my machete. I scrambled over to it, pulled it from its sheath.
The raft consisted of eleven logs lashed together in front and back. Jon had fallen between the fourth and fifth logs on the right side, and I went to the bow and began furiously hacking through the vine roping. We were already in the rapids now, but it took only a few seconds, the last vine producing a snapping sound when it broke. The outer four logs immediately started to part, and Jon swung his leg out and got to his feet. When we scraped over a fallen tree a moment later, the half-separated logs caught on a branch and the force of the current ripped them away. I tried to imagine that force being directed against my brother’s leg, and then I didn’t want to think about it anymore.
Afterward, the Patuca returned to its usual brown calm, and I poled to keep us out of the shallows while Jon sat and examined his cuts. His leg was red from the knee to the ankle, but I couldn’t tell if it was mostly blood or water.
“Just little scrapes, it looks like,” he said after a while. He looked up at me. “Quick thinking; thanks.”
I shrugged. “Sure.”
On that day in February when Jon found the Sudan articles on my coffee table, we had dinner at a little place in my Brooklyn neighborhood. He was leaving in the morning for his home in Spain, and from there would go on to Angola; I probably wouldn’t see him again for four or five months.
“So, if you don’t go to the Sudan,” he asked, “what’ll you do?”
“I don’t know. Maybe start a micro-nation story.”
Jon scowled. “That’s such a dumb idea. I can’t believe anyone wants that.”
I shrugged, tried to mask my smile. For years now, we had maintained a competition of who had been to the most foreign countries, updating our lists whenever we got together. Jon had always managed to stay about six countries ahead, and even though my total was now in the thirties, his was in the forties, and Angola would give him one more. To keep his gloating to a minimum, I’d recently told him that a magazine wanted me to do a comprehensive report on micro-nations around the world, a project that not only would mean traveling throughout the South Pacific and the Caribbean, but would add another thirty or so countries to my list. Jon found this prospect so disturbing that he now tended to avoid the country competition topic altogether. On that night, I saw no reason telling him it was a joke.
Over the course of the evening, we eventually ended up talking about that summer in Honduras. “Can you believe it’s almost been ten years?” Jon said. He shook his head. “Jesus, we were such idiots.”
We had, of course, eventually made it back to Brewers Lagoon, and the raft trip proved to be only the first of our misadventures as we wandered through Central America that summer. A few weeks later, there was a near knife fight in a bar in El Salvador when Jon decided that a group of four campesinos were disrespecting us and drew out his machete; I quickly followed suit, but so did the campesinos, and when it occurred to us that we were about to be sliced to pieces, we backed out of the bar like characters in a spaghetti western movie. Then there was the volcano in Guatemala that had begun erupting so violently that the area had been evacuated – reason enough, in Jon’s opinion, for us to climb to the rim for a closer look. When the vapor cloud suddenly shifted direction and came over us, the sulfur dioxide knocked me out, and Jon had to drag me to safety. Thirteen weeks later – or about twelve and a half weeks after I’d originally planned to get back to New Orleans – we turned up, filthy and penniless, at our grandmother’s house in California. After that came our years of wandering, of trying to settle into some place or some job and giving up, of heading off to the wars of the world.
But whatever else was drawing us to this life – the adrenaline rush of danger, morbid curiosity, some poorly conceived notions of the power of journalism – I’d come to suspect that at least part of it was a desire to recapture the sensation we’d had floating down the Patuca, that peculiar mix of excitement and dread we’d felt, the sheer exuberant, innocent naivete of it all. The problem was, we were no longer innocent or naïve. We’d been scared – and scarred – by what we’d seen out there. We didn’t trust in dumb luck anymore. My brother had remarried, he had a kid now, and even though he was away from his family a great deal, he had a compelling reason to get home, to play it safer. For me, it was maybe more cerebal and selfish. I had a number of snapshot images floating around in my head from places I’d been, unpleasant ones, and I wasn’t sure how many more I could or should take.
In the Brooklyn restaurant, Jon brought the conversation back to my talk of returning to the Sudan. “Look,” he said, “you’ve had a good run – we both have – but our luck can’t hold forever. It’s already turned, don’t you think?”
I stared at him. I remembered my first time in the Sudan, the tennis ball in Madrid. I nodded.
“So don’t go back,” Jon said.
So I didn’t.
A few days later, after Jon and I had left for Spain and Angola, I found myself pondering why I had so willingly accepted his advice. I suddenly realized that part of the reason was rooted in the Mosquitia, in my most distinct memory of that voyage down the Patuca. It was from our second night on the raft, maybe three or four in the morning, during my turn as captain.
For two hours, a lone bat had been my companion, endlessly flitting within inches of my head, and from the surrounding blackness came the sounds of birds, the light rustle of wind in the trees. It was both frightening and thrilling to be on that river in the darkness, and I looked down to see Jon sleeping in the remnants of our little wind-shattered hut. His bare legs were stretched over the logs, and in the faint moonlight I saw scrapes of dried blood around his right knee.
What would he have done without me? I thought. He would die out here without me.
For the first time I saw that my brother was just as lost and helpless and alone as I was on that black river, and that for as long as I stood at the helm and let him sleep, I was his only protector. And in a short time, whenever I imagined that my three hour shift was up – because, of course, we didn’t have a watch either – I would wake him and we would switch places, and then it would be my turn to lie down and sleep on this slow-sinking raft somewhere in the jungle, his turn to stand over me, to carry me down the river.
NP: Andrew Bird "The Giant of Illinois" "A Breaks B" "Lull"