For quite some time after I returned from that place I was seized by horrors, great, quaking nightmares that shook me awake every morning just before dawn. It was almost foolish the things I imagined and was afraid of. I would hear the rain falling beyond my drawn shades, and was certain in my sweat and insomnia and liquored fevers that the heavens were throwing down blood, that if I would dare to crawl to the window I would see blood almost black in the lamplight, cascading in the gutters. Mahler's Ninth Symphony traveled again and again, all night, through my little bed stand tape player.
They had killed each other in such great numbers and flung the bodies into the river. I saw them huddled together and wobbling, bloated, slowly turning in the seething red froth at the bottom of the falls. We all saw them, the bodies, most of them clothed, their various bright garments swollen with gas and air so that they looked from a distance almost like something festive, balloons perhaps, or colorful balls that had gotten trapped there over time.
We didn't know a damn thing about any of them except that they were dead, and the killing had been brutal, blunt, Stone Age business. They'd used clubs, axes, machetes.
In the dark, with no moon, we'd toss and turn in our sweltering tents and hear them down there, slapping against each other. There was a smell, of course, but that was the one part of it that was more or less expected. That, and the flies. Eventually, sooner rather than later, someone was going to have to go down there and fish them out. First, of course, there had to be documentation, an investigation, some attempt at identification. We were told they were bringing in some experts and equipment from the capitol. There was already a team of French doctors on hand, setting up their big white field tents. They weren't going to save any lives, but somebody had to provide the grim corroboration. I heard one man talking quietly about the "facts of the matter," and the use of the word "facts" in such a context seemed to fall somewhere between absurdity and obscenity.
I don't suppose I need to tell you that you never forget something like that. I'd walk up the path to the camp to listen to the radio and smoke a cigarette with the others, but the next thing I knew I'd be going back down the trail for another look. I had to see enough of it, I suppose.
That was such a beautiful country --that specific place, even, was absolutely stunning, if you could imagine it without the bodies. Not, of course, that such a thing would ever again be possible.
(Image: Abel Pann)