When I saw the man beating the woman I did not look away. Two of my colleagues were also in the car but they were in the front. Michael was driving, focused on the dirt road. Jared was detailing the latest Chelsea versus Man U game. I was in the back looking out the right window. The road was dirt with heavy sagging potholes. Michael was doing his best to drive around them, dancing the lumbering vehicle from one side of the road to the other. We were driving in the capital of then Southern Sudan, a city that in the next few years would explode with paving and hotels, a city that in the next few years would become a capital of its own country. For now these things are whispers in the distance, for now we are in a rural city, heading out for an evening meal at one of the favourite ex-pat restaurants, for now the sand of the road billows around our slow moving vehicle. I was watching these languid waves; the way the setting sun made the red earth glow, how each swell of sand from the tires settled and rose again. I saw the dust dance before I saw the man. As we approached he did not stop what he was doing. He had a large stick and he hit the woman again and again. A few meters behind them were two small children, watching tensely, silent and still. The woman was topless and I couldn’t stop looking at her swinging breasts. Her breasts were a pendulum in the night, and at first all I could think was how embarrassed I was by their swinging.
My mind ran a loop, one thought over and over, coverupcoverupcoverup, as if these breasts were the problem, as if the beating were a response to their movement. The woman was crawling on her hands and knees and her breasts swung with every hit. They were the metronome of the beating. Swinging up and then suspended in the air, the pause between breaths, the moment the hummingbird is neither opening nor closing its wings. There was blood pouring from her mouth, her eyes, and I watched—saying nothing, holding my breath inside my deepest self—as the woman faltered, as she fell to her elbows and looked to the sky. She did not make eye contact, but the falling woke me, jarred my eyes to look across the dirt path road at the women in the doorway of a neighbouring bar. They were also watching. Do something, why aren’t they doing something? The woman fell under the man with the stick. The woman stopped moving and the man did not. I had to turn my head now, we were almost past, and I saw the children watching the woman (their mother?) unmoving, bleeding.
I was silent and we kept driving. We went for supper on the Nile. The ancient river was silent beside us, its journey north forever continuing without our intervention. It was burrito night and I was ravenous; I ate burrito after burrito. Unable to be satiated I ate until I was sick.
I spoke and we stopped driving. Jared shouted at the man through the window. The man hit the car with his stick, he moved away from the woman. As the man yelled at Michael and Jared, I slipped out the side door; I gathered the woman in my arms and lifted her—light as a single breath—into the car. The children, narrow and shivering, silently followed. We sat in the back together; the woman laying with her head in my lap, the children quietly singing, maybe praying, stroking her shoulders and head. The man was so drunk, so angry, he didn’t notice. He was moving in circles, waving his stick, threatening the car, the ground, the grass, the moon. We drove to the hospital and dropped the woman and children off. She was still alive when we left.
I was silent and we kept driving. We arrived at the gated restaurant and gave our IDs to the security guards. They were added to a pile of UN and NGO IDs along with a few driver’s licenses of wealthy Kenyan expats or Sudanese diplomats. We were walking down the mango path towards the tables when I turned around, saying I had to use the bathroom before going to the table. I returned to the gate and spoke to the security guard. I told him what I had seen, begged him to do something, anything. He said: this is life. This is our life. She will be taken care of or she will die. These are the lives we live. I met the others at the table. We overlooked the Nile, dark water against dark sky, I drank one beer quickly, and another slowly, the second one took all night.
I spoke and we stopped driving. The woman was lying on her side, legs curled in, head tucked towards her heart, her bleeding lips speaking unknown words as the man continued to hit her, kick her. We remained in the car. We yelled. The man looked up and the rage that fuelled him turned onto us. He brought the stick to the car and hit the side where I was sitting. I felt myself falling inwards. I was no longer present, but watching the scene as the man pulled Jared from the car and yelled in his face. Hit him in the leg, the torso, the neck. Jared fell and I couldn’t see him. The horn was blaring and the silence of the night screamed and pounded in my head. Michael got out of the car and the dusk turned to dark.
I was silent and God intervened. A mighty bolt of lightning illuminated the sky and struck the man. He was killed instantly, his stick raised high in the air. I saw his silhouette outlined by the lightning. I saw that he stood just as Charlton Heston’s Moses, staff in the air: Let my people go! He stood for a moment, then fell and was dead.
I spoke and we stopped driving. Michael got out and put his hand on the man’s shoulder. The man, enraged, turned around, but did not hit him. The shock of seeing a white man touching him caused him to drop his stick. He shouted unintelligible words into Michael’s face. He shouted, and the children ran past him, put their hands on their mother and cried. They cried and cried. She was dead.
I was silent and saw the final blow. Saw the woman fall and the man realize the gravity of his actions. Saw him fall beside her and wail. Saw him look to the heavens and pull her bloody head against his belly.
I spoke and we stopped driving. At the sound of the car stopping the man dropped his stick and ran; the children lingered. The woman was already dead. I took off my scarf and draped it over the woman’s back. Jared warned from the car not to touch the blood, and I swore at him. The children watched from behind an old tire, discarded on the side of the road. I touched the woman’s warm head with my palm, stroked and held the woman’s callused hands, then went back to the car.
I was silent and we kept driving. I remembered a friend’s recent email. I began, in my head, to compose a reply. I would describe the sunset. I would describe how the palm trees were backlit by a sinking orange sun, and framed by slowly swirling gold and red dust. I would talk about the Nile, dark and meandering. I had drafted almost the entire email by the time we arrived at the restaurant.