Crossing the Camp
By Michael J. Jasper
22 January 2001
At the west entrance to the detainment camp, government workers string another strand of wire along the top of the wall. It uncoils through human hands like a metal snake without a head. I tell Jaime Mundo, my new trainee, that the fence will be electrified by the time we leave tonight. He nods, fingers twitching for rosary beads that aren't there, and I force a smile his way. We pass the guard house and enter the camp. He's going to have to learn quickly.
The people have been in camps for almost two years now. After the brewery accident in Milwaukee, followed almost immediately by the explosion in North Dakota, they have been under constant supervision in camps like this one. The people had just begun to adjust to North America when the accidents happened. The Department of Defense insists the accidents were sabotage. I try not to let what happened in the past affect my work, yet the facts are always there, like a dull ache.
I have to force myself, on this gray March morning, not to dwell on the squalor around me. It reminds me of the worst sections of Chicago's South Side: the discarded ration boxes in mud puddles, the broken bottles on dead grass, the clothing limp on the line. All that's missing are high-rise tenements. Instead, here we have government-issued Quonset huts and a landscape scraped clean of all trees.
The cold air has numbed my ears already, and our breathing forms clouds in front of our faces. I catch myself starting to believe my fellow priests at the Minneapolis rectory, who claim that the camps were built to remove the burden of guilt from the people. Many of them are convinced that the people, working as unskilled labor as part of the government's hastily-constructed integration plan, somehow caused the explosions at the brewery and the grain elevator. They tell me again and again that the camps are a way of ensuring safety for us and atonement for the people. Penance through imprisonment.
The sun pushes out from behind some clouds, warming me slightly through my black coat. Jaime slows down next to me, his dark eyes scanning the road and the shadowy entrances to the huts on either side of us. He has barely spoken all morning.
In front of us, young alien voices approach, growing louder. Jaime pauses in mid-step, then sets his foot down.
"When a child comes close to you, don't jerk away," I whisper in his ear. "Just relax."
A band of five children slide out from behind a hut and gallop toward us, using their long, thick arms like front legs. Fat hair-tentacles bounce on the children's narrow heads. They'd look almost human if it weren't for the tentacles and the third eye, sitting sideways in the middle of their foreheads. The clump of their hands and feet on the dirt road is loud in the morning stillness.
"Favvyer Yotchooa, Favvyer Yotchooa!" they call to me in bird-like voices as they stand, wobbling. Next to me, Jaime inhales suddenly.
"Good morning, children," I say slowly. The alien smell of rich dirt and salty sweat is strong, but with the children it is easy to overlook. Our greatest hopes lie with the young. We need to reach them before they see the labor farms, the Blur dealers, the violence and hatred outside. "This is my new friend, Father Jaime. He'll be working here, too."
They step back to examine him. Most of them are already taller than me, almost as tall as Jaime. The adults, when they walk upright like humans, are nearly seven feet high. "Favvyer Aimye," a boy in the back whispers, and the rest of the children giggle with chittering voices. Their gray skin, flushed bright pink in spots from running, is covered in a light sheen of sweat despite the cool air. Ezra's fore-eye opens and closes, giving Jaime a crooked wink.
Jaime rubs his hands together, touches the square of white on his collar, but to his credit, he meets their gazes and smiles. Bless you, Jaime.
When I look back at the children, Lucas, one of the bigger boys, has dropped into a crouch and started hitting the child next to him. Lucas's open hands pummel the smaller child mercilessly until the other runs off on all fours, howling. When I touch him, Lucas screams and sprints after the first child. The people, especially the young, are prone to outbursts like this, senseless and violent. Nobody knew about the outbursts until the people began working in the factories and grain elevators and breweries. By then it was already too late. Annina, the camp doctor -- and the only other human in the camp -- claims it is a combination of a chemical imbalance and a hypersensitivity to the emotions of others. Next to me, I hear Jaime's sharp intake of breath once again.
The rest of the children scuttle away as well, hands and feet barely making a sound on the dusty road. They leave an almost-sweet scent of mud and salt behind them. We walk past the Quonsets and the grassless front lawns. Everything is quiet, since most of the healthy men and women have already left for the labor farms. They can do the work of three humans, and the farm owners no longer have to worry about migrant workers and green cards.
I don't say anything about Lucas. Some things Jaime will simply have to learn on his own, without me.
Off to the right, old Noah balances an armload of garbage, and a newsletter slips from his grasp when he waves. I can barely make out the slash marks and jagged scribbles on the paper. When the sun moves behind the clouds again, the camp gradually comes alive with the young and old. Blankets used as doors are folded open and fastened with wire, letting in the cool air that the people love so much. The cool air that reminds them of their home. It was only three short years ago, during one of the coldest winters ever, when the first reports of the ships began flooding the news channels and Netstreams. Across the empty fields of southern Canada and Minnesota and Wisconsin, over thirty of their dainty, tired-looking ships had crash-landed. Their arrival turned the world inside out, sparking protests and mass paranoia.
I turn to Jaime. "See how pale their skin is? Sunlight can burn their skin to a horrible orangish-red color. And overexposure can kill them."
Jaime shivers, as if suddenly aware of the chill in the air. The lack of warmth barely fazes me any more, even though I still feel the congestion in my head from the night I spent outside the church doors almost two weeks ago.
"The people place great importance in their sense of touch," I say, continuing my lesson. "It took me half a year before anyone would get close enough to touch me, much less give me a hug. Hopefully," I gesture at Jaime's white collar, black shirt, and black pants that mirror my own clothes, "they'll trust you sooner."
I swallow and stop in mid-lecture. They may have no choice if I agree to Father Miller's offer.
The tired-looking Quonset huts are arranged along the road in rows of five on either side, and many have been painted and reworked by their inhabitants. Some give hints of the world the people escaped: synthetic black vines cover curving roofs, white-gray patterns on the walls give the corrugated exteriors depth and the appearance of caves. Others have been left unchanged. We approach an olive-drab hut and step inside.
"Good morning, Eli," I say, shouting to get the attention of the old man dozing in his kitchen. A meal of wilted lettuce and an unrecognizable chunk of brown meat sits uneaten on his foldout table. His chair tips precariously as he jerks awake, but he doesn't fall. Eli has been almost deaf since a brutal fight with another one of his people during an anti-integration demonstration in Minneapolis. Many of the people's ships were destroyed by mobs during such demonstrations. That was a week before the second accident in '13, when the grain elevator in Fargo blew, and a month before the first camps. Even the Canadian government agreed to place the people in camps temporarily, "for their own good."
"Favvyer Yosh!" Eli exclaims. Still sitting, he takes my hand in his stubby, short-fingered grasp. His hands are cold and scratchy. "Was bad weeken' for her," he shouts, then sighs, his muddy odor tickling my nose like a mosquito. With a crackling sound, Eli stands, and his long torso ripples. He rubs his stubby fingers together and touches the thin scars on the back of each hand before bending to all fours. "She look worsh."
"Let's go," I say, needing to keep in motion. The hospital is always at the top of our list of stops, I want to tell Jaime, but I think he knows where we're going. Hopefully he's been studying the camp maps I made for him. Like the fifty others of its kind across the plains of northern America and southern Canada, the camp covers six square miles, row upon row of scraped earth and old Quonsets. A young priest fresh from seminary can get lost quickly here.
"Keep five feet away from the sick, Jaime. Some of the elders aren't used to being this close to humans." I squeeze his shoulder. "Or maybe it's my red face and big nose that scares them." Jaime smiles and picks up the pace.
The camp hospital is a two-story cinderblock fortress that I had to lobby for six months to get built. When I first arrived here from Chicago, the people were bringing their sick to a huge tent ringed by four Quonsets. Most of them died in that tent.
At the front desk, we pass Annina, the camp doctor. Her long black hair hangs down in her eyes as she signs a chart on her handheld computer. She nods at me as I lead Jaime toward our first patient. Eli is already in Sarah's room.
Sarah is a shriveled-up woman, but her nobility is obvious in her proud chin and clear black eyes. I can barely smell her. She smiles, unveiling a row of slightly-pointed teeth that are bright white and spotless. Her long body barely fits on the standard-size hospital bed. There are three long, narrow scars on each of her hands, symbolizing -- to the best of my knowledge -- her connection to Eli.
"Favvyer," she whispers. I feel a sharp stinging sensation deep inside my chest, but this is more than a physical pain. I see a hollowed-out teenager in her face, for an instant, then the human visage is gone, replaced by the familiar, the alien. Jaime stares at Sarah's wasted body. Outlined under her sheet are the elongated ribcage and the curved spine that distinguish her people.
"You are looking especially beautiful today, Sarah," I say, trying to focus. She should never have left her home planet, to die here. Even if their planet had, according to the stories, grown too hot for them to continue living there. Father, watch over her, my mind manages to whisper. The rest is silence.
We leave Eli standing awkwardly at her side, his thick hands cradling her slender, scarred hands.
"This is what the camps are all about," I begin, but the words fade like my prayer. I want to tell Jaime about the anger that courses through me at night, when my head is filled with images of Sarah and Eli and the rest of the misunderstood people. I want to tell him about the unholy hatred I feel at the blank-faced Blur dealers lurking outside the camp walls, waiting for the labor trucks to pass by. I want to tell him that the administrative job Father Miller told me about would be an answer to my sleepless nights. I want to tell him to leave this place now with his soul intact. But again, I say nothing.
An hour and a half later we leave the hospital. I usually stay longer, but I can tell that Jaime is close to sensory overload. I don't think he sees the people as living, sentient beings. He couldn't even stay at my side for the last three rooms.
Outside, the clouds are burnt away and the sun beats down on empty brown streets. The wind skips around the huts and throws dirt on us, streaking Jaime's black pants. On our way past another row of houses, I wonder about Ruth. She passed away late Saturday night, succumbing finally to her respiratory infection. I'd hoped to anoint her body and ease her transition to heaven. Ruth and I talked about it last week, and she agreed, but her body has already been removed from the hospital. The people do not bury their dead, and I try to grant them some amount of privacy and dignity by not asking about her.
"The people have a very loosely-organized culture," I say. The people take care of their own, I continue silently, wondering what exactly happened to Ruth's body. Who am I to try to change their beliefs and customs?
"But everything here is so. . . ." Jaime's voice cracks. He coughs.
"So structured? Yes, but it's not their choosing." The schoolhouse looms over the huts next to us, built by volunteers from the people during my first week in the camp. At the time, I couldn't believe how quickly it had been built. I've learned in my time here about the strength they possess and their drive to complete a task once it's started. I wonder, also late at night when sleep won't come, why they don't use that strength to pull down the walls like my namesake from the Bible. Again, I know it is not my place to ask.
As we enter the drafty schoolhouse, I feel another pang of guilt. If I leave, I will miss the children the most. They have restored my faith on an almost daily basis.
Half of the children show up for their language lessons on time. The rest straggle in without apologizing, and Thomas and Elizabeth come in half an hour tardy. "Loosely organized," I say under my breath to Jaime. He taps his pen on the Bible in front of him.
We use scripture passages to teach English to the people. They learn quickly, despite the problems they have with pronunciation. Today's verse is from Saint Matthew. Jaime speaks a line from the Bible, then the children try to repeat his words. Most of the children have difficulty with their t's and j's and other hard consonants. I am content with being known as "Yosh."
Jaime fiddles with his collar as he repeats the lesson at the front of the classroom. His Mexican accent thickens, and the children giggle at his rolled r's and clipped endings. I watch for any sudden movements by the children in their seats, any bursts of energy or violence. Jaime starts to sweat.
"Shovinosh," I say, with an edge to my voice. Elizabeth claps a hand over her mouth, and David's fore-eye snaps shut. The room is quiet. I turn to Jaime. "It's a good idea to learn their language as well, Father Jaime. Continue."
As they recite, I am reminded once more of the sound of birds who cannot sing. They try so hard to learn our language, yet what have we done for them? Locked them in a walled fortress, surrounded them with miles of electric fence. Father, give me strength. I don't know how much longer I can do this.
Elizabeth peeks over her Bible as if reading my thoughts. She blinks all three eyes at me in succession until I smile. I point at her Bible with what I hope is a stern expression, then walk over to Ezra, who has started beating both hands slowly against his desktop. I put my hand on his shoulder and keep it there until he stops.
Ten minutes later, Jaime dismisses the children with a weak wave and a hesitant "Wanniya," which roughly translates to "goodbye." David's quick, hiccuping laugh echoes through the room as he and the other children push each other on their way out the door. They leave papers scattered on the floor and across their desks.
"They like you," I say to Jaime, who is still gripping the lectern. "But they feel your nervousness. Just relax. They're used to disorganization, and they'll take you for a ride if you let them."
Jaime drops into a chair and crosses his legs in front of him. His brow furrows, and he gives me the look. Eyebrows slightly raised, mouth half open. I've seen it on four previous trainees. "How can you maintain your spirit here?" he asks.
"Don't you enjoy doing the Lord's work?"
"Sí," he answers with a quick smile, then his face tightens. "But there were all those deaths from the attacks. You cannot deny the fact that they had something to do with it. They were the only ones working at the grain elevator the night before it blew up. That was not an accident." He shakes his head slowly, looking at the papers littering the floor. "And the way these children act sometimes, all this hitting and fighting. Maybe the government tried to integrate them too fast. We're supposed to forgive the grayskins, I know, but they are aliens. . . ."
I stand up and move the desks back into straight rows. The metal feet of the chairs scrape against the floor. "You'll see, Jaime. The people live and breathe and feel just like you and me. They're misunderstood. We're all trying to learn." I slide the last desk into place. Safety for us and atonement for the people, I think, forcing another smile onto my face. "Let's go see our next parishioners."
Jaime follows me outside. I can hear my voice, speaking, informing my potential replacement about more belief systems of the people. But my mind is elsewhere, thinking of the day the first ship crashed thirty miles south of Winnipeg. A few hours before the news broke I had been mugged in Grant Park. The thieves had taken everything and broken two of my ribs. In the emergency room, when the newscaster repeated that the downed ship was indeed an alien ship, and more were on their way, something shifted inside of me. I didn't care if it was an invasion or not, though I somehow knew in my heart it was not. I felt the second calling of my life that day three winters ago, a stirring that began as the deepest emotion I'd ever known. I've been here now for over a year and a half, though lately I've felt the strength of my calling eroding day by day. The boy I met outside the camp wall twelve days ago only confirmed my need to leave this place.
He walked up to me outside the camp, his eyes bloodshot, his hands constantly moving. I didn't think he was using anything -- I wouldn't have been able to see his hands moving at all if he were on Blur. He told me he was starting over, getting off using and selling. He walked with me all the way back to the church, telling me how he sold only to the people, bartering with them over the walls and on the labor trucks, because Blur was more addictive to the people than humans. How Blur hit the user like a mix of cocaine and speed, with a little morphine thrown in to ease the harsh edges. By the time we got to the church doors, I'd made up my mind. I couldn't let him in. Not after all he'd said and done. I spent hours talking on the front steps with him as if to compensate for not doing my chosen duty and offering him sanctuary. Then his so-called friends came looking for him just before dawn. I let them take him.
"Father?" Jaime turns to me. We stand in front of a heavily-vined hut. The sky has become dark again, promising snow. "Should we knock?"
I nod, trying to clear my mind of everything but the Lord's word, but all I can remember is the look of betrayal on the Blur dealer's face. Jaime's knock is drowned out by the wail of a siren cutting the air. I feel my chest tighten. The sound rises and builds until I glimpse the red lights of a police car.
"It must be in the square," I tell Jaime. We leave the hut and run five blocks, following the siren. I gasp for breath at the center of the camp. The huts flash red in the spinning lights of the Minnesota state police cruiser. Two officers in black helmets and thick body armor ease their way out of the car. One swings a shotgun back and forth in an arc while his partner pulls two bodies from the back seat. They leave the bodies in the middle of the road and drive off, engine fading as they rush back to the camp gates.
I forget about Jaime and the police and run up to the bodies in the road. They are barely more than boys, just old enough to work in the fields, and they are covered in their own purplish-red blood. Deep bruises and jagged cuts crisscross their gray skin. Just boys. They are alive.
"Get Annina from the hospital," I yell at Jaime, "and come right back here." The smell of coppery blood -- so much like our own -- makes me want to gag, but instead I pull out my handkerchief and wipe the thickening blood from the closest boy's face. Under the swelling, I recognize Matthew, who should have been off at the labor farms. At my touch he moans deep within his long chest.
"Shh," I say. He has too many wounds for me to stop the bleeding. I loosen his clothing and straighten his long body in the dirt. I move to the second boy, but I don't recognize him. "Hold your hand there," I command him, but instead of obeying he opens his hand and swings at me. His strength is gone, though, and his arm falls back to the ground.
I sit between the two boys and take their hands in mine. I try to clear my mind to pray, but no words form. Help me, Lord. Nothing comes to me but the words of the young Blur dealer, shivering from the cold and detoxification: "We all act like we're going to live forever, so we take the drugs and we sell the drugs, but all it boils down to is not hurting any more, and not dying."
I look down at Matthew. "Where were you? Who did this to you?"
"Fence off this morn'," Matthew murmurs through broken teeth. He was one of my first students, and his English is strong. He loved his new name when I gave it to him. I couldn't pronounce their real names, but I realize now how arrogant it was for me to rename them from my Bible. "Went to city. Wanted to fight. Men chase us, catch us."
Footsteps echo through the square. I hope it's Jaime and Annina, not any of the people running up on all fours. Matthew's thin lips move, but no sound comes out. His fore-eye opens wide, stretches taut, then closes. His hand slips from mine.
Annina runs up and begins working on the two boys. She spits obscenities under her breath as she touches bruises and welts. I step back to give her room. I'm covered in purplish-red blood. Alien blood. There's nothing else I can do.
The wind blows on me again in a blinding burst of anger. There are no tears in my eyes, and the only thing I can feel is a deep ache on the left side of my chest. Jaime brushes past me, a dark figure that floats across my vision. I glance up and see aliens, standing upright and inching closer on every side. I can't see over them.
This will be my last day here in the camp.
"Joshua," Jaime whispers from the ground. "We can't just leave them."
Without realizing it, I have taken two steps away from the bodies.
Jaime kneels, taking Annina's place next to the boys. Annina turns and walks away. I look down at Jaime. There is a tiny drop of blood on his collar. Dark red soaks into pristine white.
"We couldn't save them," I say.
One and a half years. It took that long to open my eyes and see the truth.
Looking up at me, Jaime's eyes tighten at the corners. It's a tiny movement, but I see it. "If we can't save these boys, we can at least help them in our own way."
The crowd of people moves back when Jaime pulls a vial from his shirt pocket. Matthew's mother is there, and she nods stiffly at Jaime.
His brown finger anoints Matthew's forehead with oil, above the third eye, then the boy's lips and chest. Whispering the prayers, Jaime's voice hums with an ancient rhythm. He repeats the sacrament over the nameless boy. The humming is picked up by the people gathered around us. The air vibrates with alien mourning mixed with one human's words of prayer. Within minutes, the wordless throbbing is deafening.
Jaime crosses himself, his hand trembling the slightest bit. He leaves the two bodies at rest and touches the dampness at the corner of his eyes.
The alien voices continue rising to an impossible pitch, an inhuman sound of sorrow and pain. My eardrums feel like they are about to burst, and I want to scream. Before I can, my eyes squeezed shut tight, the song ends. I open my eyes again. We are surrounded by the people, a wall of gray, alien flesh. Annina has already slipped away from the crowd, abandoning us. For the first time ever in the camps, I feel a flickering of danger, of fear.
With my ears ringing, I pull Jaime out of the circle. Energy builds as we pass by old and young, male and female. The hair on my arms and the back of my neck stands up. An ageless female voice begins to sing. The words are lilting and almost indistinguishable from one another in the people's exotic language. I stop outside the circle of energy to listen. Jaime listens as well, a look of peace on his face.
The only words I can make out are life, death, sorrow, and a word that I've heard before but never quite comprehended. Now, in context -- in song -- I understand it.
They have been listening to what I'd been teaching them. The lone voice is joined by soft female voices and low male voices. I smell hints of incense and ozone. I try to turn away but I cannot. My fear is gone; I need to listen.
The two bodies in the middle of the circle glow with a wavering light. The light grows stronger as the song speeds up. The words blend together. I see young Lucas, the bully from this morning, and he is unmoving, free from his fits of aggression and mindless violence. I take Jaime's hand and pull him to the ground, onto his knees next to me.
"Pray," I say to him, my final lesson, but his head is already bowed. Pure white light fills the camp, pouring from the two bodies in the middle of the circle. The alien energy swirls around like the wind and lifts the bodies. Before I close my eyes, the bodies begin to dissolve into the air as if melting into the people encircling them. I whisper a fervent prayer that I hear only in my mind.
"Father, let me have the spirit to continue my work here." The wind blows hot onto my skin. "Father, let the walls crumble so one day the camps will be no more. Father," I whisper, "give me the strength and the grace to endure, here in the camp." I finish my prayer with dust in my throat as the wild energy of the people spills onto me, and I open my eyes.
Copyright © 2000 Michael J. Jasper
Michael is from the Midwest but left in 1994 and hasn't looked back since, though much of his writing is set there. He's written a mainstream novel set in Iowa (The Prodigal Sons), a horror novel in Nebraska (Autumn's Fall) and is working on a fantasy novel set in Chicago (Last of the Hand). For more about him and his work, see his Web page.