“How will they know it was you?” When the woman spoke, it was the first time in years Naomi had heard the language spoken. She sat down as the train left Union Station for New York Ave. “Every Friday this man has the bag. You must do this thing. You have a responsibility to your family. This man is nothing to you. He has no family. He has only this money. You must do this thing.”
They sat beside each other in the narrow seat of the train. Naomi sat in the seat perpendicular to them, the seat set aside for the aged or the handicapped—the gimp section, she called it. She could hear them clearly and could see their faces without even turning her head. They were Bamileke, speaking their native language; they obviously assumed no one else on that train would understand them.
The woman was large, probably close to 300 pounds. She wore a long black wool coat and men's high-top basketball shoes. There was a collapsible umbrella that hadn’t fully collapsed sticking out of a re-used Hecht's bag at her feet. A few strands of her graying, straightened hair stuck out from a barrette on the back of her head.
“God has given you this chance to help your family. How can you refuse it? You are a man, you must do this,” she said.
The young man stared at the floor, or maybe his shoes. He said nothing. He was slight, with soft russet eyes. He wore an oversized, puffy blue nylon coat with what was surely a knock-off North Face label stitched into the chest. It was zipped up to his throat. He had a red knit cap pulled low on his head, covering his ears and as much of the back of his neck as he could. His hands were stuffed into his coat pockets. He looked cold.
Naomi had learned to speak Bamileke while on mission in Cameroon. She was called Sister Naomi then. She rode her bicycle on the red clay highland roads, going from house to house speaking to anyone who would listen. She had not spoken or even heard the language since she left Cameroon. Since the accident.
The man spoke softly, choosing his words carefully. “Mother, you are asking me to steal this man's money. I cannot do this thing. He has been good to me, to us. I will find another way. This cannot be.”
She put her hand on his sleeve and said, “You are no longer in the village. These village ways must be left behind. Things are different here. You must do this thing.”
The man continued to stare at his shoes.
Naomi held the bulletin with the order form for her graduation cap and gown in her hands. A backpack filled with law books and notebooks sat at her feet. Her cane rested against her good leg. Torts and Contracts had replaced Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians and the Books of Elphi. These were her touchstones now. As the train shifted gears pulling out from the Rhode Island Ave stop, the bag shifted heavily against her shoe.
The man spoke again, still very softly and still not looking at the woman. He said, “Mother, in the village, when my father died you told me the time had come for me to become a man. My uncles were my guides. After you left to come here, even when I lived with the White Fathers, my uncles prepared me for the rituals. When I underwent the rituals, I became a man. Now I am supposed to know what is right for my family and to do that which is good. I will not do this thing for you. This is not the way of our people; it is not the way of God.”
Naomi had learned the Bamileke traditions. The paramount chief was the Fon. The social hierarchy went family, village, tribe, nation. Many of the villagers were Christians. But they also held closely to their traditional beliefs. There were spirits all around that they feared and worshipped. There were secret societies. Naomi had looked for ways to insert her God and her Church into their pantheon. She found ways to make her faith seem real to them. She and Christopher.
They had learned the language together. He learned quickly. She learned better. He learned the basic grammar and vocabulary. She learned the soul of the language. Every time she saw Christopher she fell a little more in love with him: with the way his hair curled at the edge of his collar, with the way he talked about his dreams of a big family in the mountains of Utah, with the way he put his arm across the back of her chair and leaned back in his, with his smile.
Then the accident. Two people lay dead before the wheels of the van had stopped turning. Three more died slowly in the next hour. Naomi was flown out of the country on an emergency medical evacuation paid for by the Church.
Then the operations. The doctors in Geneva had fixed her, some. The doctors in Salt Lake had done a little more. She lost most of a leg, parts of her intestine, her ovaries.
Then the therapy. Months of painful work of learning to walk again; walking with the cane, with the limp, with the pain that never left her.
The woman hissed at her son, “You listen to me now. This is a question of honor. You will do this thing. I am your mother. I gave you life. You will listen to me and you will do this thing. My sister has no one else to help her. This is our duty. You must get this money for her, for us, for me."
In Salt Lake, from her window she could see the Wasatch Mountains. She watched the way the sun played on the mountains in the summer. She had more surgery. She watched the Aspens turn golden in the fall. She learned to walk with her prosthesis. She hurt. She asked herself why a loving God would do this to her.
Her body was broken and incomplete. She was covered with scars. She couldn’t bear children. She spent her days surrounded by believers, but she felt empty. Even when she went to the great Tabernacle, even seeing the golden statue of the Angel Moroni with his trumpet, she still felt hollow inside. She felt as if, when the doctors had her lying on the table and were putting her back together, they had left something out. As if her faith were too horribly damaged or disfigured to be put back in. There was just this hole.
The man shrugged and shook his head gently saying, "No. This thing is evil and I will not do it. What if he is hurt, or if I am caught? What will happen then?"
The woman continued, becoming shriller, "You must do this thing. If you do not you will shame me in the village; you will shame our family. You are not a man if you do not do this thing. You are not a man if you shame me like this.”
The man had taken his hands out of his coat pockets. They lay in his lap, palms upwards and open as if waiting to be filled. The train stopped at Catholic University. A few people got off. The cold blew in through the open doors. The man shivered slightly and pulled his elbows in close to his sides. The bell rang. The doors whooshed closed. The train started moving northwards again.
Christopher wrote her from Cameroon every week of the remainder of his mission. He spoke of his strengthening love for her and his faith. She wrote about her rehab and her love for him. She didn’t mention the pain. She didn’t mention her emptiness.
His mission ended, and Christopher came home. If he was shocked at the scars, at the prosthesis, his eyes didn’t betray it when he walked into her apartment. He smiled. She cried. He brought her a basket woven by a girl in their village. He showed her a picture of himself atop Mt. Cameroon.
He touched her leg, just above where the prosthesis ended. His sunburned hand was so dark against her skin. He asked if it still hurt a lot. She lied and said no, not so bad. She showed him the scars on her abdomen. He traced them lightly with his finger. She told him she couldn’t have children. He said that was OK, there were lots of kids who needed loving parents. He put his fingertips on her cheek and said he loved her and nothing could change that. She told him she had lost her faith.
He listened quietly and stared out the window. He took her hand in his and said they would pray together and she would regain it. He closed his eyes and started to pray, asking God to guide her and to help her come back to Him. Naomi didn’t pray. She watched Christopher praying and felt empty.
The man spoke, “Then I am not a man and I will shame you. But this thing is evil and I will not do it. I will not steal from this man. I will not strike him. This is against the Bible; this is against my God.”
Naomi became a continuation of Christopher’s mission. He came to see her every day. He talked of miracles and the appearances of the angels. He prayed for her faith to return. Naomi’s father said they should just accept that her faith was not strong and pray that it would strengthen over time. Christopher’s mother said lots of people had lapses in their faith but remained part of the Church.
Elders came to talk to Naomi. She hurt. The pain never left her. She felt incomplete. She felt betrayed by the God she had wanted to serve. She told them she no longer believed. She told them God had deserted her. They called her apostate. She had her name removed from the rolls.
After a bitter while, when it became clear that the pain in her leg would outlast the pain of leaving the Church, she came to terms with the title: apostate, deserter. Fine. But it was God who had deserted her. This was His apostasy not hers.
Just before Fort Totten, the woman said, "You shame me."
The man raised a hand slightly off of his leg and made a noise through his teeth, then shook his head once and said, "We will speak no more of this thing."
"Ashaa," the woman said, "you are not of my blood." She shook her head wearily.
One day, late in the winter, Christopher said he wouldn't, couldn’t marry outside of the Church. He held her hand at the small table in her kitchen and said he wanted to marry someone of faith. Naomi had been waiting for this. She had tried to prepare herself for it and had told herself she wouldn’t cry. She wanted to be strong and gracious and to let him go on with his life as she would go on with hers. She swallowed her bitterness and her anger and she tried to smile when she said she wished him well. Her hands were shaking, so she put them in her lap, under the edge of the table.
He kissed her on the cheek at the door and said goodbye. From the window she saw him walking out to his car, out to his life without her. She watched the snow fall silently on the Wasatch Range. She limped back to the couch and sat down. She ran her finger along the seam of her jeans. She said the word: apostasy. She let herself cry for a few minutes, and then she began packing her things.
She imposed upon herself a deliberate indifference. She ignored the emptiness. She ignored the anger. She stopped asking God why He had deserted her. She didn't need the Church. She didn't need its sanction. She stopped crying. She stopped praying. She went to class. She went to the library. She went home.
Past Takoma, the man stared at his shoes. At Silver Spring he and the woman stood up silently. Naomi remembered that lots of Cameroonians lived in Silver Spring. Naomi looked up at him as he grasped the handrail and the train lurched to a halt.
She said in Bamileke, “Wait, friend.”
He looked at her, bewildered. He put his left hand up to his mouth. His mother was already a step ahead of him. She stopped in the door of the car and turned to look at him over her shoulder.
Naomi said, “You must not do this thing. It is wrong. Your faith in our God is strong. You must also be strong. Remember: Thou Shalt Not Steal; Thou Shalt Not Kill. Go, brother, in peace. Go and be strong.”
The man stepped out of the car, the bell rang and the doors whooshed closed. He stood on the platform, staring through the window at Naomi, his eyes wide and unblinking as the train pulled away. His mother stood a half step behind him; she pulled at his jacket sleeve questioningly.
Naomi reached down and touched her leg just above the prosthesis. It still hurts, she thought. She laughed a little, gently, silently. What had she expected, grace, redemption, a miracle? Well, it hadn’t happened. There was no miracle. She still felt broken. She still felt hollow. She still felt faithless.
She looked out the window as the buildings rushed by. She folded the graduation bulletin and stuck it in her pocket. She held her cane in both hands and just before the train stopped, she asked quietly, “Why? Why did you desert me?”
The train stopped, she picked up her bag and limped through the door and onto the platform. The bell rang. The doors whooshed closed behind her.
Ron Capps is the founder and director of the Veterans Writing Project (veteranswriting.org). He served for 25 years as a soldier and a Foreign Service officer. Ron lives in Washington, DC.
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: I used to ride the Metro (DC’s subway) back and forth to work and was always astonished by the conversations I overheard.
Q: What writers do you consider to be your primary influences?
A: I’m never sure about influences, but the people I’m reading right now include David Jones (In Parenthesis), John Cheever (Collected Short Stories), Charles Simic (Sixty Poems), E. E. Cummings (The Enormous Room), and Gay Talese (The Silent Season of a Hero). If you’re looking for a common thread it’s that they are all military veterans and I use writing by veterans in my seminars.
Q: What’s your ideal place to write?
A: Someplace quiet, with my dog, Harry, beside me.
Q: What’s the wildest bit of research you’ve done for a story?
A: I didn’t think of it as research at the time, but much of my work is informed by my service as a soldier and a Foreign Service officer. So I suppose my work in places like Rwanda, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Darfur was pretty wild research.
Q: What are you working on now? I have a novel started; it takes place in Sudan in 1916. I’m also working on a set of connected stories about Afghanistan that will take place from about 1955 and run up through the current war. Finally, I’m really struggling to become a competent poet.