Ministry of Presence

In the mornings the wind would blow the ash in from the east. It would settle in soft drifts and mounds almost up to the windowsills of the old folk’s home.

Malika began each day by lining up the residents in their wheelchairs at the windows facing west. They would never know of the way that the grayness could settle into your hair, the folds of your clothes, into your very lungs. They never went outside. To them this country could remain as it was, decades in the past. The lush, beautiful island to which the wealthy came to retire.

In the evenings, the winds came in from the west. Malika lined the chairs up at the eastern windows. “Look at the sky,” she would tell them. “Is that not a milk-glass sky?”

Though she had never seen milk glass.

She had cared for these same residents since she was ten years old. They all had been in their eighties. Thirty years had passed; they were all now well into their hundred-and-teens. It was said (by certain of them) that it was because Malika had a gift.

“A gift?” she had asked back when she was sixteen. “A gift for what?” The residents had taught her English over the years, given her many books, and the girl had developed a surprising fluency. She spoke in a high, clear voice with a lilting accent.

“A gift for describing things,” the old woman had said, “to one who is losing her memories. Which is the truest death, my dear.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Here,” she handed Malika a framed photograph. “Describe this.”

“Well … it’s you when you were young. Walking down the gangplank of a ship. You’re wearing a long pleated skirt and a silk scarf tied at the throat. The scarf is lifting in the air.”

“And?” The old woman asked, her blind eyes eager. Hopeful.

“And … there are gulls in the sky. The sky is full of iridescent light. You are giving out light. You are looking around you like you have landed at a distant, wondrous place. You see beauty. Your face reflects it back. I can hear those gulls, their cries ring like crystal. The wind is cool and gentle. It carries away your laughter like delicate glass bubbles, rising—”

The old woman nods with her eyes closed, smiling mistily. “It is almost better to experience it in my mind’s eye. To experience it through your eyes, my dear. When you make me a gift of my own memories, you give me more life.”

The old woman, whose name was Rosemary, did not regain her eyesight, but her skin took on a rosy glow. Her appetite improved. She gave Malika, for a gift, a trunk full of embroidered linens and a china service for six. She said now that she was living the life of the mind, she had no need for these possessions anymore.

* * *

The others, too, would ask for her to describe their pasts. Some were easy.

Describe my childhood winters in New Haven.

They were gentle and hushed, with snowy trees like friendly dragons, and frozen lakes like pools of quicksilver.

Sometimes the requests were more difficult. Describe Baked Alaska. Describe sailing on a topsail schooner, full rigged, right into the bay. Describe highballs on the south lawn at dusk.

If she didn’t know what a thing was then she would simply make things up. It sets your jaw tingling with its crackling contrasts. It is like soaring through a tunnel. It is so gentle and honey-sweet it makes you weep. But even then, they didn’t mind. Even then, it gave them pleasure. And it gave Malika pleasure, too. It was like weaving a beautiful dream together, and it felt, to everyone, true.

Tell it to me so that this time I can truly appreciate it.

* * *

It was late in the evening. Malika sat in her own home, at the wood-plank table with her cousin Mira. The laundry was folded. The plates and cups were clean and put away. Malika and Mira and their extended family lived all together in the same blocky, concrete complex.

The children and the elderly parents were all asleep. Malika sipped from a cup of bitter, grassy tea and sighed. At forty she still looked much younger. A short, broad woman with golden-brown skin and strong, able arms. She unbound her plaited hair, let it spread along her shoulders, rubbed at her temples to dispel a headache.

“The fires have been coming closer today,” said Mira. “There’s been talk of another coup. But I’ve lost track of all the coups. Sometimes I can’t feel bothered try to make sense of it anymore.” She refilled Malika’s cup. “I worry about you, cousin. You work too hard.”

“I need the money.”

“They’re not paying you well enough — for what you do.”

“It’s my duty.”

“Bah! Old rich, spoiled people. They don’t appreciate you.”

Malika put her head in her hands, took a breath. “They aren’t so well off. They don’t have much anymore.”

“They came to our island back in the colonial days when everything was beautiful. Sopped up all that was good. But when things got bad their people abandoned us — abandoned them. Called our island dangerous, politically unstable. I can’t believe anyone would leave their elders behind, if that’s the way they see us.”

“They can’t help what happened to them! And they rely on me!”

Mira disregarded her with a flip of her hand. “I can’t help my feelings. Those people make me mad! They say anyone ignorant enough to burn down their own country deserves the misfortune they get!”

“Oh, who says that?” asked Malika quietly, shaking her head, but thinking of the shouting, the looting, the winds of ash. Thinking of the glow of fire in the horizon.

Mira reached across the table, cupped Malika’s chin. “Cousin. It is a fact that those people you care for should have passed on a long time ago. You keep them tied to this earth and it isn’t right. The natives won’t go near that building. They think you’re a witch. That’s the only reason the place hasn’t burned.”

* * *

All the next day Malika felt preoccupied. Indignant. Replaying Mira’s words in her mind and feeling anger like a hot coal in her gut.

As the residents were eating lunch, Malika heard someone enter through the main door.

The front foyer was still impressive despite its shabbiness. The windows were tall and stately, though they rattled. The marble tiles of the floor needed polishing. Backlit by the sun, she saw the silhouettes of two men. Family members visiting loved ones? That was something she hadn’t seen in years.

These two men were dressed in slacks and button-down shirts, but no ties. One carried a slightly frayed nylon briefcase. Both had their hair buzzed close to the scalp. When they greeted her and shook her hand, they spoke English.

“What can I do for you?”

“You are the caretaker here?”

“Yes.”

“May we observe?” One, the smaller one, gestured to the dining room.

Malika felt the stirrings of dread. She wasn’t used to outsiders. “Feel free, but may I ask why?”

“We’ve heard wonderful things about you, and just want to observe your good work.”

She felt puzzled, and unnerved. But the two men merely stood in the doorway of the dining room, watching. The taller one was unsmiling and sharp eyed. The smaller one, however, watched the elderly people dining together with a soft, open expression on his face, fondly smiling.

After some minutes, they turned away and came back to Malika.

“Are you the only one that works here?”

“We have a cook and the boy who stays overnight.”

“We count six residents.”

“There used to be … oh I would say twenty, when I was a girl. But when the troubles came, and things started to change, people thought it was dangerous. Many took their loved ones out.”

The men nodded. The tall one said, “Much has changed, with the new order.”

Malika felt beads of sweat dripping down her back. “Are you inspectors of some sort?”

The smaller one shook his head, took a business card from his pocket and handed it to Malika. Jeff Mallard. Fenway Logistics Agency.

“We have heard about you, Miss Malika. We know you have special talents, and you are reliable.”

“We are a recruitment agency,” said the tall one brusquely, looking her in the eye boldly. “We could offer you an opportunity to make far more money than you do now. Three times the money — if you’re willing to travel overseas.”

“Wait a minute,” Malika frowned at the card and shook her head. “I know what kind of operation you are. You work for your government, don’t you? And you come to all of the poor countries to recruit cheap labor! I’ve known people that got involved.”

“It’s not the same,” said the smaller man. “This is something different. We’re interested especially in you. ”

“Well, I’m not interested in flipping burgers on your military bases!”

“That’s not what we want you for,” said the tall one, firmly.

“We want …” the small one sighed. “We want you to do the same kind of work that you do now. The same thing you do here.” He took out a sheet of paper from his briefcase and wrote down a figure. “This is what we would pay you. There are no tricks. You will have a real work permit. If you change your mind, airfare will be provided home.”

“You want me to work at an old age home?”

The tall one glowered. “We must keep the details confidential. I will just tell you, that someone has requested you. Specifically.”

“So you won’t even tell me what exactly you want me for? I’m sorry. Goodbye. I’ve heard enough.”

“Please,” said the small one. “Keep my card. Think it over.” He zipped up the briefcase. “We’ll come back in a couple of days to see what you decide.” Each man shook her hand. She walked them to the door, shutting it firmly behind them.

Of all things, she muttered. She and the residents were happy in this world they had created.

“Please, Miss Malika?” asked the old man who she had just helped settle into an armchair.

“What is it, George?”

Though wizened, his body was delicate and beautiful, nearly weightless in Malika’s strong arms. “I’m having trouble. I can’t remember my wedding night. It’s slipping away from me.” He gripped her arm.

Malika smiled. It was a delicate balance. The secret was not to try to hard. The secret was not to be too direct. If she would look askance, the feelings and the images would rise up on their own. It felt to her like coming home.

“Ah, George. Your wedding night. You are young, your collar is loose about your neck. The ring cold and new on your finger. You and your bride walk down a long hallway, wallpapered with watermarked rose silk. She has rice in her hair. At last you open the door to your room, where you turn to her and remove her tiny dove gray hat with its spotted veil. Her face is a brand new vista. And you are looking straight into it, standing in your new, stiff, shiny black shoes.”

She had done this so many times before. So why now was it bringing tears to her eyes? Why was her throat catching so she couldn’t continue?

* * *

The evening sun stained the sky tangerine. Ash blew in tufts, flickering at the edge of her eyesight like large flapping birds. When she arrived home she was surprised to find her younger brother Raj sitting on the crumbling steps. Between his knees was a green bottle of whiskey with a gold-ribboned neck. Expensive. He never told them how he got such things.

She sat beside him, and he smiled at her. His face was pointed and foxy, and the knife scar on his cheek made him look dashing. His eyes were feral, his fuzz of black hair like fur. She missed her little brother. He disappeared for weeks at a time. It was always a happy shock to find him arrived at home again.

He offered her the bottle. She rolled her eyes, but then took a quick sip. It tasted of oak and amber. A warm tawniness, like the sky. Like the moment.

They sat quietly, looking at the glowing sky, drinking from the bottle, and Malika felt loose and easy. She asked, “Guess what happened today?”

“What?”

“Two men came to see me at work. English speakers. They offered me a job overseas.” She giggled.

“Doing what?” Raj scowled, leaning back on his long skinny arms.

“Well, I suppose being some kind of caretaker like I am now. They were awfully vague.”

“They’re vague because they want to trick you. Trick you into slave labor, for third world wages! Tell me you kicked their asses.”

“This is different, I think,” Malika wasn’t sure how to explain. “They said they knew who I was, and that they wanted me for something special. They aren’t asking me to apply or pay a fee. This actually seemed for real.”

“Don’t believe it, sister. All tricks.”

It was a mistake to have told him. Raj was young and angry, passionate in his convictions. Though they never discussed it, she knew he was one of those who burned buildings, threw homemade bottle bombs into windows.

“Well, maybe they do know who I am! And I do have a gift. I keep my residents alive and vibrant and happy.”

“At what price, sister? You live your life for them. What do you have to show for all your devotion?” Raj chuckled. “China service for six? Pearl choker? Brandy snifter?”

She squared her shoulders, put her hands on her hips. “Shut your mouth! I don’t ask for those things. They give them to me as gifts. Because I’m good at my job!”

He called as she walked away: “It’s like you don’t even know who the enemy is!”

Malika sat on her bed, glowering. Her brother’s youthful idealism made her feel old and dull witted and foolish. Her anger — at nothing, at everything and everybody — had been growing all day long.

Her room was spare and simple, a single bed pushed up against a bare wall. But it did also contain the box full of china. The steamer trunk that held the embroidered linens and the silken wedding trousseau. Another flat box, under her bed, held the odds and ends. The riding gloves, the opera glasses. The rings and necklaces. All of it looked like something raided from a tomb. Such dead, inert objects from a time long gone. But somehow full of the possibilities of life. Someone else’s life.

She was wrong, keeping them alive all this time. Prisoners of time. They didn’t even know what lay outside their window. Tears sprung to her eyes for the second time that day. She unwound a string of pearls and coiled it into her hand, burying her hot face in their soothing coolness.

* * *

The next afternoon Malika was straightening up the games room when she felt a presence. She turned and saw one of the men from the day before. The smaller one, the one she liked.

She gave him a cold little smile, not stopping what she was doing. “Back again, I see. Can’t take no for an answer? They sent you to break me?”

He shrugged, leaning in the doorway. “I just wanted to see if you had thought it over.” His hands were in his pockets, his briefcase at his feet. “You know, I also wanted to assure you that this is a legitimate offer we are making. We do know you. A member of our staff has a family member living here.”

“Who? Whose family member?”

He did not answer. After a time he said, “I can pull out the contracts. We can go over them. Just you and me. What do you say?”

She looked at him, pursed her lips. Was about to cut him down with sharp words. But then she surprised herself when instead she said, “I could sit down with you. For a short time. If you come back in the evening.”

* * *

There were sure to be reasons, many reasons, that Malika found herself, gate pass in hand, sitting in a hard plastic chair at the tiny airport. The words were there, but she could not articulate them. She sat resolute and straight in her chair. Her face looked set and defiant. The hand that held the piece of paper gripped it tightly and damply. Every once in a while her lips quivered like a jolt of current shot through them.

Don’t bother to explain, she’d said to the man the evening that he came back with the paperwork. You don’t have to tell me where I’m going. I don’t want to know where I’m going. I’ve decided to leave. To know any more might cause me to change my mind.

At long last it was time to board. She had no family to tell her goodbye, they were all too upset by her decision. She followed the other passengers into the cabin of the plane. She carried nothing but a small canvas bag. She had checked her one small suitcase — vintage, embossed calfskin that a 115-year-old woman had given to her, in exchange for Malika lovingly describing the trips that the suitcase had been on.

She had never been on a plane in her life. It felt cramped and somehow alien. She closed her eyes and pretended she was on the dusty city bus.

The plane pulled away, slowly, and it was okay. But when it started to gain speed down the runway, Malika became afraid. It gave her a queer sensation of instability, as though her atoms were coming apart. She wrapped her arms around herself and closed her eyes.

The take off into the air made her feel sick in her stomach. I could die, she thought. I could die today. Surely it could not be natural to be so high up. There, down below, was the chain of islands that had been her home. First it tilted up alarmingly, and she could see the lush trees, the ruined, burned out condos and hotels along the beach.

On the other side, the slums where her family lived, tiny and distinct. Then it began to grow smaller and smaller, and then it was gone.

She had thought that this was what she’d wanted, but she instead felt paralyzed. The old folks would surely not understand or forgive.

In times of greatest fear and confusion, images of her mother would often come unbidden into her head. She had drowned herself when Malika was ten; her father said it was because she was a whore, and ashamed of herself.

Her mother had been a maid at one of the beautiful hotels on the white-sanded beach. For her job she always wore the regulation dress made of stiff black fabric, its skirt standing out like a lampshade. Stockings and square toed shoes. A beautiful woman. Men loved to look, to touch her on the arm. The timid smile never left her anxious face. No one could believe she had it in her. When she washed up on the beach her expression looked so different. It was one of stunned surprise and wonder.

These were things Malika tried never to think about. It was so pleasurable to live through other people’s memories that she didn’t ever have to contemplate what it had been like — to see her own mother wrapped in blankets on the kitchen table, the family weeping, her father looking away to spit on the floor. Malika herself sitting in a corner, numbly focusing on a stray orange seed that was pulsating with ants.

She opened her bag and took out at her travel documents. The employment papers. The letter of authorization. Her passport. She held these things, stroked them with her finger. These things were all that would give her an identity from now on.

She lay her head back and closed her eyes. Dreaming of gunfire and shouting in the streets. Breaking glass and ash drifting in the wind.

* * *

When her plane landed, she felt disoriented. Everything was seen through a haze of unreality. A young girl in full army fatigues was gesturing to her. Whose daughter was this? She was red haired, snub nosed. The military garb and the gun on her slim hip seemed a joke. She was fresh faced, smiling, motioning for Malika to come.

She helped retrieve her bag, then led her to a waiting minibus. It was full of civilians, but no one spoke. Malika looked out the windows. They were moving through an urban landscape, it was dark, the streets were empty.

Their destination was a large metal building behind an electric gate. Inside there were partitions and paper-covered beds. Women in medical scrubs circulated with clipboards. Malika had her blood drawn. Her lungs were listened to. She received a series of shots.

“What are these for?”

“You need these immunizations for when you fly out tomorrow,” the nurse told her. “Meanwhile, you’ll rest here until we get everything in order.

And she did sleep, on a cot in a row of other cots with other people, men and women, all speaking different languages. She pulled the rough blanket over her face and willed it all to go away.

It was hard to tell when morning came, as there were no windows. Everyone was told to prepare themselves, it would be time to board soon.

Malika felt a leaden heaviness in her chest. Homesickness. Before she made another step, before time and events hurtled forward again, she just had to do one more thing.

She saw the girl who had picked her up from the airport and raised her hand. “Excuse me? Would it be possible for me to make a phone call before we leave?”

Three rings. Four. Maybe no one would answer. The phone, which was on top of an empty desk in a tiny office, felt strange and oversized in her hand.

“Hello?”

“Mira! It’s me. I just wanted to check in because I don’t know where I’ll be tomorrow. I am safe, everything is okay!”

Silence.

“Please, say something Mira. Does anyone miss me? Though it’s only been two days?”

“Of course we miss you, cousin.”

“And … I was anxious to know, they had a new woman. To, you know, take over my job? Have you heard anything? I hope she is trustworthy. And things are going well?”

This time the silence was longer. Then Mira let out a long sigh. “I hate to tell you this. The old folk’s home is no more.”

“What?” Her heart pounded.

“Because the residents are no more. The new caregiver arrived in the morning. She claimed that they had all turned to dust in their beds.” Mira whispered her words, they sounded dry and brittle in Malika’s ear. “She screamed so loud they heard her in the streets. She opened the windows, she said, to let their spirits escape. The dust, according to her, lifted and blew into the wind, mixing into the clouds of ash. No one was there to witness. But the islanders are satisfied. It’s best for all concerned.”

Malika’s mind went bright and blank, her eyes lingered upward on a spiderweb hanging from the fluorescent light tubing. The phone’s mouthpiece slipped from her fingers with a thud. Still she could hear a voice calling, “Malika! Can you hear me?”

* * *

The final flight was on a small rickety military plane. But Malika saw nothing, heard nothing. Instead, she was trying to remember the chill of a long-ago Connecticut winter. The smell of oil on a horse’s saddle and its smoothness under the hand. The pastel paper petals that fell from the ceiling at a debutant ball.

All of these things and others she tried to breath life into, so that they would balloon out, larger than life. She tried and she failed. The magic was not there anymore. These memories were turning to dust, as had their source. She couldn’t believe it. Nothing else in her life had been permanent: These things had always seemed to be.

The rest of the trip went by in a blur of jumbled images. Trucks, barren highways, barbed wire fences. She was like a blind and deaf woman, lead forward by those around her.

All that she knew was that she was on a military base. She sat with others on plastic chairs in a large tent. At one point an ID tag with her own face on it was hung around her neck by yet another young girl in uniform. “It’s your time now. You will be working with the chaplain,” she said quietly as she led her out.

She was taken to another large tent. It was odd looking, with wooden doors on the front painted to look like stained glass.

Inside was a man in camouflage, standing facing away with his arms behind his back. Then he turned. He had large black eyebrows, a large curving nose like a scythe. Eyes that were liquid and dark, startling in their look of wounded vulnerability. On one side of his chest was stitched a name, Edwards. On the other side was an embroidered cross.

An expression of earnest hope spread over his face. His brow quivered and puckered upward. “Miss Malika?”

“Yes.” She felt stymied. What did this man expect?

“You can call me Chaplain Mathew. I’m so glad you decided to come. “

“Are you the one that requested me?”

“Yes.”

She laughed.

He looked gravely into her eyes. “I run what I call a ministry of presence. And I felt that you would be the best one to assist me. I do what I can, as much as I can, for the people who need me. But there are some, so far gone that I can’t reach them, and I thought —”

He clasped his large hands together, looked down at them. “Maybe you would help me. Help us.”

“Help who?”

“Help them. They’re so young!” He put an arm on her shoulder. “I’ll show you.”

He took her to another, larger, sprawling tent that seemed to go on for acres. This was the hospital. There were physicians and nurses rushing around between the nylon flaps that divided the rooms. There were computer screens of bone scans. There was the whirring and clicking of dozens of machines.

They walked through a maze that twisted and turned until Chaplain Matthew finally stopped. He sighed and opened a partition and motioned her in.

The room was very large. And in it were rows and rows of soldiers lying on cots. A few girls, but mostly boys. None looked older than twenty. Mere children. But there was an unsettling stillness about them. It didn’t seem natural for one so young to have such a heavy inertness. And the eyes. Those young, clear, bright eyes seemed to have been fogged over. As though the shock of seeing something unthinkable had seared away their vision. They looked ancient. Each lay in state like a sarcophagus.

“We have so many of them now. No one knows for sure what it is. They are testing for toxins, gas, but I feel it is a more spiritual malaise.”

“Are they suffering?”

“They are having neurological problems. They are losing their memory. Growing more far away every day. I can’t get through to them. I need you to help them remember.”

Malika approached one. A boy still young enough to have acne. Large ears, a stalk of a neck. And yet those eyes … they swiveled up to meet her own. There was something weathered and desperate in them. In this boy’s head were the eyes of a man who had lived centuries.

The Chaplain took her by the arm, looking rather desperate himself.

“I think, maybe, these children have seen too much. And I know that you, too, have seen too much. And I pray for you and your country and I wish I could —” he stopped, running out of breath. “What I want to ask is. Will you? Have mercy on us, in spite of it all? Help them to remember who they are?”

She gave the Chaplain a long look, pressing her lips together. She looked around at this room with white billowing walls, the young bodies lying prone and silent. She thought of home and her family. They things they would say to her, another dirt-poor islander used by the enemy. Her little brother would look away in disgust!

She thought of the old folk’s home, swallowed by flame, the wicker chaise settees and gracious wheeled tea caddies and the residents themselves — all ash now, everything that was gentle and gracious now blowing away in the hot wind.

She leaned again over the boy. In one pink, big knuckled hand he held a St Christopher’s medal. She put her hand over his, was overcome by the sensation of being knocked down by a wave. She felt the need of the young/old boy flare up her arm, through her veins. Her soul felt as though it were falling forward, and at the same time hurtling into the past.

“You are ten years old,” she whispered to him hoarsely. “It’s a summer evening. You are lying on the grass. Your parents are murmuring nearby over drinks. You are able to see the setting sun and a pale sliver of moon, both at once. You feel gravity pull you tight and safe to the earth. At the same time, you see distant stars emerging, and hear the singing of planets. The moment is perfect. The moment is your friend.”

There was a catch in her voice, her eyes shift and falter, but just for an instant.

She squeezed his hand, almost pleading.

 


Leah Erickson has had her work published in a wide array of literary magazines and journals, including The Saint Ann’s Review, The Summerset Review, Forge Journal, Eclectica, and The Coachella Review. She lives near Newport, Rhode Island with her husband and daughter, and is at work on a novel.

Leah Erickson

Leah Erickson

Leah Erickson ("Ministry of Presence") has had her work published in a wide array of literary magazines and journals, including The Saint Ann's Review, The Summerset Review, Forge Journal, Eclectica, and The Coachella Review. She lives near Newport, Rhode Island with her husband and daughter, and is at work on a novel.
Leah Erickson

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