by Kayleigh M. Merritt
“We died because you would not let us live.”
November 18, 1978
When you wake up, Jim’s voice is crackling through the speaker in the corner of your dorm. You are used to this. You work to, eat to, fall asleep to, and wake to this same crackling voice every day. You hear it even when you are sleeping. It has become background noise, though you are not supposed to treat it like background noise. This morning you listen.
The rest of the beds in your cottage are empty. You feel guilty for having overslept, but you think that somehow today it doesn’t matter. You dress in khaki capris and a loose, peach-colored t-shirt, and pull your hair back into a messy ponytail. After making your bed, you step outside. The sun is shining, but the air is thick and oppressive. You shade your eyes and look up. You know something is moving in.
You take your time walking to the pavilion. You pass rows of coffee plants and trees heavy with bananas and mangoes. The basketball court is empty. When you first arrived here, you found the isolation relieving. Everything was clean. The Guyanese jungle was beautiful and full of mysterious new life. You forgot quickly the sounds and smells of the city. You savoured the taste of the pineapples, plantains, and avocadoes that you had helped grow, of eggs collected from the coop that morning, of milk fresh from the cow. You came because you wanted Utopia. We’ll make heaven down here.
But today you look at the lush green forest that encircles the compound, the sharpness with which it cuts into the blue sky, and you wonder what it would be like to turn off your path and walk through that jungle. You wonder if there is still life waiting for you on the other side. Could you leave? Could you return to a world full of people who don’t understand who you are and what you stand for? To a world of prejudice and war? No. As if by command, another part of your mind wakens to shut this thought down. There is no other side. That world is not our home. This is your home.
The pavilion is crowded. So are the kitchen and the dining tent. Children play on the playground. But everywhere the mood is subdued. You recognize that the heaviness in the air is weighing on more shoulders than your own. Before long you spot Congressman Ryan and his aide. They are already making their rounds through the compound, and the reporters have returned from Port Kaituma. You drink your coffee and try to avoid their questions. They are here for only a few more hours.
Last night the pavilion was lively. Before the congressman arrived, rehearsals had been held for his reception. You dressed up. You knew to smile, and what to say. When the sun set and Ryan, his team, and the journalists were allowed in, they were taken to the pavilion where they were welcome to sit with Jim and everyone around a large table. You sat, too, but at a distance.
A black woman—what was her name?—took to the main stage and sang Guyana’s national anthem, and followed it with “God Bless America.” The Soul Steppers, a singing group, replaced her. Congregational members sang and clapped. You danced and let yourself forget about those who were retained and beaten publicly because they wanted to leave. You sang along and let yourself forget that children are encouraged to turn in their family members who in private reveal anything but praise for Jim. You danced harder. Everyone danced. We are happy.
At the end of the evening, Jim’s wife brought Ryan to the stage where he gave a short speech. He had been well received, and he would return to the United States to give a positive report to your concerned families. Cheers shook the pavilion. This is who we are.
But who you were last night is forgotten. By noon the blue sky has moved on and clouds the colour of smoke and charcoal crack open above you and free torrential rains. They do not last long, but the darkness lingers, and it is obvious something has broken. You hear that several people have asked to leave with the congressman. The gay cop and a young black woman, his friend. An elderly woman. They say they are unhappy here, that they are being kept here against their will. Journalists circle Jim like vultures, their questions fast, accusatory. We have our story. Everything is unraveling.
Arguments break out among families, friends. Jim mumbles to reporters about lies and conspiracies, denies their questions about drugs, abuse, and barbarianism. From one of the wooden walkways you watch him. He is dressed in tan trousers, a short-sleeved red shirt, and black sneakers. Dark sunglasses take up much of his face and hide his eyes, but you think he looks tired. His body is crumbling from drugs and alcohol. His words are no longer strong and clear, but come out soft and with a lisp. He is not the man you followed across the country after hearing him speak at your small church about equality and freedom.
But the memory of that man still sparks something in you, the blind faith with which you left your home and your family to chase a dream of a better world. You look around at the men, women, and children, black and white, young and old, and remember that you have all become each other’s kin. And peace—have we had it? You think that maybe you have.
By mid-afternoon, when Ryan’s party is set to leave, fifteen members have chosen to leave with them. Ryan has decided to stay, to smooth over any controversies about the defections. You are friends with several of the people who load themselves into a truck, but you do not say goodbye for fear you will be punished for doing so. You are surprised to see one of Jim’s right-hand men join them at the last minute. You are vaguely aware of a man beside you crying. You don’t take your eyes off of the truck.
Suddenly, the man beside you lunges forward and you step back. He grabs Ryan from behind and holds a knife to him. You are pushed farther back as others around you grab the man with the knife, pull him away from the congressman. People around you scream, and, startled, you join them. You look at Jim. Is he displeased that the man tried to kill Ryan, or that he failed? His face is red and sunken looking. He sucks his cheeks in and pushes them out.
Ryan is talking and you wiggle through a mass of people to hear him. He is assuring Jim that he will not blame the people for this one man’s actions and will still issue a positive report to the United States government as long as the man is arrested and the proper authorities called. Given the circumstances, though, he is leaving with the rest of his party and the defectors for the Port Kaituma airstrip.
They leave, and people—saddened, angry, confused—return to their apartments and dorms. You do not talk to anyone, because talking is dangerous. Instead, you return to your cottage and lie down, very aware that the day is not over. Shortly after, the crackling voice comes through the speaker and asks everyone back to the pavilion for a meeting.
Jim is behind the microphone. He has just told everyone that, very soon, someone on the plane out of Port Kaituma will shoot the pilot, and the plane will crash into the jungle. The congressman, his aide, the journalists, and the fifteen members who left with them will all be dead. Jim warns that when it happens, the United States government will parachute in on you, on him, on everyone around you. You feel grief for your friends who are already dead and a fear for yourself and the others that are still here. This fear seems to cut you in half, and for a moment it hurts so bad that you think you are already dying. There’s no way we can survive.
Jim says he didn’t order it. Do you believe him? He didn’t order it, but it is going to happen. We can’t go back. He says that we will all take a drink and step over peacefully. He calls it a potion like they took in Ancient Greece. And we had better not have any of our children left when it’s over.
When a woman in front raises her hand and the speech is interrupted, something stirs in your chest. Panic? Hope? She asks about Russia. Is it too late for Russia? Couldn’t we all airlift to Russia, like you said we would?
You don’t know her well, but you recognize her. She is the only one allowed to keep and wear her jewelry here. You know that she has argued with Jim and that he listens to her. You wonder if Jim is scared of her. You have heard the whispers that he once held a gun to her head and shouted at her during a meeting, but she didn’t back down. You decide that the twinge in your chest is hope, and you nod along with her question. Is it too late for Russia?
It is too late for Russia.
Around the pavilion you see that there are tables lined with steel tubs, five-gallon buckets, syringes, plastic cups. People are opening and pouring Flavor-Aid into the buckets and following it with whatever is in the large white bottles. Suicide. You don’t know if you heard the word or if it came to you, but there it is. They brought this upon us.
You have practiced for this. We have practiced for this. But now that the stakes are real you are not so sure. Music has started playing. People around you are crying. Jim is still talking, still preaching to you. He tells you the adults need to be brave, to help the children. He says to be patient, to feel no sorrow. But there are mothers lining up with their children, giving them cups, using needleless syringes for the ones too young to take a sip. This is happening too fast and too slow. Bodies are falling around you, and Jim is still talking.
A white plastic cup is held out to you. The woman who poured it is saying something to you, but you don’t hear her. You are watching a young black girl writhe on the ground. Be kind to the children. Frothy bubbles build on her lips, tumble over. Her chucks dig into the mud. If we give them our children, then our children will suffer forever. When she stops moving—breathing?—her eyes are open and you are grateful that she is not looking at you, because how could you answer the question you know she is asking?
You realize that you are breathing fast. You push away the hand holding the cup out to you and plum-colored poison sloshes onto your shoes. Another cup is held out, more insistently this time, but you don’t see the hand holding it because you are now looking at another hand. This one is pointing a gun at you. Your heart yells run, run, run with every heavy, hammering beat. Someone tells you to take the drink—this is what you swore to do. This is what we swore to do.
You refuse again and the gun is gone and you are on your back on the ground. Two men and two women are holding you down. You do not give in. Something inside you that has been shut off for a long time is turned on again, and you want so desperately to reclaim your life. You want to think for yourself, but too late. You fight hard, pulling away from all of the hands, the tightness of their grips. You pull your legs and arms away from these people, these monsters you thought were your family, and you kick out again. Your shirt is riding up and you can feel dirt and rocks scrape against your back. You try to push yourself up, up, away, but they hold you tighter. They pull you in four different directions, like a starfish stretched on the beach. You hear something crack, and the burning pain that follows is so delayed that you almost don’t make the connection. Your left arm is now useless. You feel a tearing in your legs. You realize now that you are crying and gasping, but even though they are literally pulling you apart, you can’t stop, not yet. Another pop, and another. You lose the ability to use your legs, your hands, your arms.
All of the hands let you go and move on. You are tired. The woman who held out the cup to you now shadows your face. She dips one of the needleless syringes used for the babies into your mouth. You try to spit it out, a last resort, but she pinches your nose and holds your jaw shut until you swallow.
The cyanide punch has been sitting in large steel buckets in the sun. It is warm, and though the poison has been mixed with grape-flavored Flavor-Aid, it is also bitter. You can feel it wash down your throat and into your empty stomach. Around you, children are screaming and crying. A shot is fired, but you can’t pinpoint from which direction it came. You listen and wait, because there is nothing else you can do. Thankfully, your wait is not long. Within minutes, your head feels as though there is something inside of it, growing, and trying to push its way out. You think you may vomit, but nothing comes up. You are aware that your heart seems to be running a race in your chest and you are struggling to suck air into your lungs. You try to scream, but your throat is closing.
Even if you could, who would hear you?
Kayleigh Merritt received her MFA in Writing from the University of New Hampshire. She is a former editor of Soundings East and Barnstorm literary magazines who now teaches professional and advanced writing courses at Salem State University in Massachusetts. She supports herself as a freelance editor and marketing specialist.