This is the place where dragons once lived and will one day be born again. Here mythical beasts lie waiting, growing, plotting, and scheming. Chinko is an easy place to introduce, but a difficult place to get to. At Chinko, you begin on an airstrip, a small dirt line in a lawless place. If you wanted, you could put your pack on your shoulders and walk all the way to Darfur and not encounter a single road.
Tens of thousands of elephants used to call this wide corner of the Central African Republic home. Now, fewer than a hundred of them hide in the protected wildlife refuge that spans more than 17,000 square kilometers. Even with luck, you will never see them. All that is left are monkeys that pick at burned, dry grass, and wild pigs with fantastic noses that skitter-scatter at the sound of your approach. The branches of charred trees help hide the black mamba, one of the most poisonous snakes in the world, while the great eland antelope, a magnificent creature native to this part of the world, walks through the dying bush, looking for what is left of his home.
The word “Chinko” means nothing. It is the name given to a river in a place where the river gets lost in thick brush and fields of termite mounds. Chinko Park, established to protect what little is left, is called a national park, but there is nothing national in a place without the rule of law. Chinko’s only defense is a handful of well-trained rangers who spend weeks at a time in the wild, waiting for poachers or armed groups to emerge from the thick bush and attack. This is a dangerous part of the world—everyone knows at least that much.
In war-torn Africa, outsiders often feel an obligation to dissect old clichés and invent new ones. But I show up empty-handed. After ten years working in human rights and humanitarian aid around the world, I can no longer be deluded as to my own relevance. I come for a reason startlingly few want to admit: I need to work and there is often work to be had in places where nobody wants to be.
I find myself working on a large usaid radio project in the Central African Republic when I am sent to Chinko. They want me to assess whether or not the network can be extended to include the anti-poaching efforts in the area. Be careful, my more experienced colleagues tell me. Fear is not romantic. I already know that heavily armed poachers, rebels, and mercenaries regularly move in and out of the massive area that the park is mandated to protect. But I do not understand how to be afraid there, and this, as many veterans of the humanitarian trade will tell you, is an unspoken part of any security plan. In a conflict zone, fear will be your barometer for stress when the potential for danger is constant. I ask around town. Fear in eastern CAR is no adventure, I am told by a Green Beret who’d been assigned to the US mission to capture and kill the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army. He looks at me through hooded and tired eyes and says, You don’t know what lives out there.
But people do not come to this part of the world to listen to sound advice.
After three tiny plane rides to the eastern reaches of the country, I see fire in the distance. We land, and as soon as I set foot on the ashen ground, one man runs out from the main compound to greet the pilot and me. The Lord’s Resistance Army has entered the park and surrounded a patrol, he says. What should they do? Engage or retreat? As he begins to argue with the pilot, I walk around the base and try to look as if I am supposed to be there. I am the only woman among four hundred men. When an hour passes and there is still nothing for me to do, I sit and look at the smoking land. Who set the fires? How close are they? If they come, there will be nowhere to run. I watch the fire grow.
I spent my childhood running. Like many who are bullied from a young age, I believed there was a reason I was hated and that that reason was justified.
The form the bullying took was varied but relentless. Sometimes it was simple and predictable. I was not to be sat next to, invited to birthday parties, or included in activities. Other times, it was violent. I was chased, pinned down, and abused. Sometimes, it defied logic. I was pushed into a self-described jury of ten-year-old children where I was judged to be ugly, stupid, and weird. When I asked why, I was beaten with sticks and driven away. These memories are scattered and difficult. Writing them makes my hands shake and my chest tight. I have to take frequent breaks to gather my courage.
There are other events that I will never attempt to recall unless forced. I fear them more than I fear those armed with machetes and guns in the places I choose to live. Still, I hold on to these scattered vignettes of my childhood. I bury them, but I do not discard them. Over the years, they have coalesced and grown into a single living beast. I cannot see it, but it can speak to me and it calls me horrible names. I have acquired some strength with time. I locked the thing up in chains and threw it into my deepest dungeon. I go about my life, but as time goes on, I can feel it stretching against its bonds. I know that one day I will not be able to hold it back. What will happen when we finally meet? I am curious about this in the same way I am curious about the viciousness of war. Over the years, both have become constants to me. My Invisible Beast is deadly, but in its own way it is also precious to me.
In the dry season, Chinko is constantly burning. Sometimes the fires are deliberate. Dropped from ultralight planes, fire helps clear the brush and herd protected animals into a more confined, manageable place. Fire creates paths, sears dead earth, and allows it to grow again.
Fire is also the work of poachers looking to flush out their prey. The result is an ashen, burnt moonscape that is constantly smoking or smoldering. It is so hot here that standing still feels like a slow suffocation. You must constantly be in motion, both to prevent being caught in an ambush and to escape the oppressive sun and heat smog.
I wonder what creatures can survive the heat and flames. I feel my Invisible Beast delight at these new surroundings. It purrs in the hundred-degree heat and stretches its wings. It pushes up for air, like the flames gasping for oxygen. Maybe after all this time I have grown too frail to fight it. My first night at Chinko, alone with myself in my 4 × 6–foot tent, I feel something pressing against my heart, and after so many years of concessions in a fruitless war, I give up. The ugly truth escapes.
Maybe I came to Chinko to give up.
The Beast screams with the urgency and delight of a newborn. I am free. I am free. I scurry to the back of my tent. I wait. I prepare myself for the slaughter. But it does not look at me. It appears entirely uninterested in me. It knows me already. It gives my things a disdainful sniff, licks up my melting candy bars, and breathes in the night air. Lawlessness is a freedom for some. It slithers into the shadows and disappears into the bush. It takes me a full ten minutes to realize that for the first time in decades, I am truly empty.
I am certain that I will never sleep soundly again, but I fall asleep right away and have no dreams.
The next morning, the men complain of ghosts rattling around in the bush. I eat my entire breakfast in two gulps, careful to avoid their searching looks. To them, this is no idle superstition. Chinko has claimed the lives of many men with such casual certainty that when I first learned of Chinko’s brutality I was stunned. Ambush, torture, helicopter crashes, black mambas, road accidents, strange and familiar diseases, overdoses, and friendly fire. All these things can happen here, and they do. But these are all known things, so despite the constant stress, I find comfort in the certitude of disaster.
When I was nine years old, I went on a forced backpacking trip in the mountain chain that bends across eastern California and into Nevada. By this age, I was prepared for what the other children would think of me. I remember the sense of power I felt in knowing this in advance of any actual bullying. When it was time to board the bus, I walked, determined, to the back, opened a book, and erected a wall around myself. Nobody, not even the counselors, attempted to scale it. I was quite smug about this. The memory of contentedly sitting back, relaxing into the safe company of the great horned minotaurs and soft-spoken centaurs that populated my book, is as strong as what would come later.
After about three days, we were near the top of the mountain and out of water. Refilling the massive pile of campers’ water bottles was a job nobody wanted, but I volunteered because it offered isolation and peace. I didn’t want to be stuck cooking or putting up tents with my peers, who openly complained about being near me. It was as if I had some incurable social disease, and proximity to me would be fatal to one’s status. On the banks of an alpine lake, I got to work alone, with the song of myself.
The work was hard. I had to use both hands to pump the water and it required a great deal more force than I had expected. I tired quickly and it was hot. I sat back to rest. I don’t know how long I sat like that. Three girls who lay out tanning on a nearby rock yelled at me, bringing me out of my reverie.
Get back to work, slave.
Of course, they were joking, but I understood then what they wanted me to understand. This is my first memory of feeling truly hated. Up until then, I knew other kids didn’t like to be around me, but this was different. Something was wrong with me, something contemptible that they could see and I could not. I stood, suddenly overwhelmed with the truth of where I was, the years of loneliness catching up to me in a giant tidal wave. The happiness of the bus, a life behind walls, I saw for what it was: the bold-faced lie of a child. I looked around for an escape. In defiance, I kicked over the few bottles I had managed to fill and dived into the water with all my clothes on. I couldn’t hear if the girls laughed or shouted. I remember the wonderful quiet of the green underbelly of the lake. I swam, not coming up for breath. A silver-haired mermaid slowly came up to my side and together we navigated the deep. But even she could not shield me from the crushing sorrow that comes after intense anger. I remember wondering if I could stay down there forever, and how easy it would be.
Once I overcome the shock of where I am, I find that my days at Chinko are filled with a kind of lightness previously unknown to me. Without the weight of the Invisible Beast, I go about my work with a new kind of levity that surprises my colleagues. I consider the thing lost in the wild. Dead, maybe. Though I fear a more likely truth, which is that something about Chinko is just holding it at bay, and when I leave it will creep back up to me and snuggle inside my heart where it has lived for so long. I find excuses to stay longer at Chinko even though my work does not require it. I am afraid but grow accustomed to the strange and wonderful sensation of living without the Beast. As time passes and it does not return, I relax and let myself hope it may be lost forever.
One evening, I am busy helping connect a radio relay to a new battery. Swarms of tiny gnats surround my head, as what feels like hundreds of tsetse flies bite my arms and legs. It is impossible to see or work, and my nerves stretch dangerously after just several minutes. Even if I tried, I could not show you on a map where we are. Where is a four-hour drive from the middle of nowhere?
I know better than to ask the rangers who are there to protect us, but the question eats at me: if the rebels come for us now, who will save us? I also do not ask because the answer is obvious. The park helicopter crashed a month earlier, killing everyone on board. Out here, an ultralight plane has no runway, not even a patch of empty dirt, to land on. Just as we are about to abandon the evening’s project, I hear something coming.
I can immediately tell that it is massive. I assess my own protection. Two rangers guard this post, night and day, beneath a sign painted in crude white letters in memory of a fellow soldier who had overdosed the week before. Freddy from Rafai. Their faces are blank. I wonder if they hear it too and are just not afraid. Whatever it is, it is getting closer. It sounds like something the size of a suspension truck is moving through the brittle grass and burnt trees, crushing everything in its path. I can hear it breathing, snorting clouds of steam into the air. For a wild moment, I think it’s going to charge after us, and the flimsy Soviet-era AKs will be of little use. I am about to abandon my assumed nonchalance and call on the rangers for help, when in the same moment, it turns away.
I listen to it retreat, its tail swishing through the dead grass and thick ash. The men seem bored, unperturbed. Did they even hear it? I say nothing all the way home. I have so much adrenaline coursing through me, I can barely contain myself. Intense fear makes you react in unexpected ways. This fear is not romantic, but nobody warns you that it can be wonderfully fun. I resist crying out with glee. That night, I curl up alone in a familiar place inside my mind, a place only I know of, running for miles and miles where nobody can ever catch me. Then I sit beneath my favorite thinking tree, the one where no one can ever find me, and begin to sharpen my knife.
There’s something of a relief in remembering ordinary sorrows. You know that they are shared with many others. You cannot be alone with such pain.
Consider the high school dance. The boys slink out onto the neon lit dance floor and twine themselves around their prey, dragging them out in the open to feast. They wrap their thin arms around the thinner girls and pull them so close that, on the sidelines, you put your hands on your chests and imagine what it would feel like to be in such contact with another. Did you spend too much time in far-off lands, places that only exist in ink and drawings, that in the real-life land of teenage touch and temptation you are lost, helpless, and afraid? Is there a purer moment of desire for relief than standing with your back against the gym wall, listening to your favorite songs play, as everyone but you swings in time with each other? The strength of the need outweighs most embarrassment, and it is common to try to outlast the pain. Somewhere in the darkness are great heroes who will come for you and pull you into the neon pinks and yellows. In that kaleidoscope you will be certain you won the war on your own, and you didn’t need allies at all because now you have something even better—a partner. But when this rescue does not come, and the song ends, and you are still against the wall, you will abandon the attempt forever.
At night, the men of Chinko gather around a table.
Love is complicated, they say. And then they say, Love is simple.
I have never been to a place where it is acceptable to say these things without a hint of sarcasm to soften the blow.
There is a ritual at dinnertime that I have come to enjoy. While sitting in a land that is almost empty, we remember what we once had. The dreams that stayed dreams, the loneliness of the temporary NGO-employed lovers, the small towns that we all came from and can’t quite return to, what our parents think and don’t think of us, why we are even here, and when we might leave. We delude ourselves of our own importance.
I can’t claim to be one of them, but I enjoy being near those who have dedicated themselves to living and surviving here. They call themselves soldiers, but really they are lovers. They talk of love at every chance. To them, love seems possible everywhere. The Chinko river is an imagined meeting place with magical goddesses. The rainy season will bring storms that shower this cursed land with a wealth that humans never manage to pull from the gold and diamond mines that dot the outskirts of the park. They have names for all their future children and they are named things like Storm or Horizon. Love stories and passion—not lust, but ideas of growing old in a place—are wild ideas in this place. Their evenings are twisted with dreams of women who are gentle in a way that is foreign to this land. This is not the kind of talk I have heard before, from men on remote bases in Afghanistan or Iraq, engaged in wars their leaders have determined for them. The wishes and hopes of the men of Chinko are not wrapped around the axle of desire but around a need for the kind of company that will alleviate the constant injury of life in this place. The names of the dead are never spoken. At Chinko, there is no need to acknowledge the daily constant of pain. It is one of the reasons I feel at home here.
I am also not sure how to be a woman here. I cannot nod in agreement with their desire for beautiful creatures that lie waiting for me in the bush instead of poachers armed with helicopters, large automatic weapons, and huge amounts of money.
So when they ask me to reveal my passionate wish, a story for my romantic future, I realize that I have nothing to say because I never believed such a thing would be possible for me. I tell them I hope I will survive and I can tell they are very disappointed with my answer.
The men’s guns lean on the table.
I do not have a gun. This would be a great impropriety as a humanitarian. Still, I silently long for a weapon. A thin zipper and four walls of plastic are all that separate me from danger each night. I do not know how to load, aim, or shoot a Soviet-era AK type weapon, but I find myself imagining the comfort of having one near me as I fall asleep.
The discussion of love resumes because believing in the impossible is a necessary character trait for long term residence out here. I find I cannot bear it and do what comforts me. I sit alone.
One of the Central African rangers passes by. He sees me alone. My aloneness distresses him—he tells me this—and he sits down next to me. I ask how he is. He does not answer and says he is sharpening his knife. He says this like it’s very important and I giggle, mostly because I am uncomfortable. This discomfort is easier than the men’s discussion not far away. He withdraws a long knife—something akin to a machete—and hands it to me. He says, This is a dangerous place. You must protect yourself. At first, I am afraid to take it. A month ago in the capital, Bangui, when asked how I would protect myself at Chinko, I showed my friend, the Green Beret, my version of the tiny knives many women aid-workers carry. As a veteran of three wars, he had laughed bitterly at me. There’s one rule about knives: Never get in a knife fight, he said. Still, I take the ranger’s gift. With the handle, it is longer than my forearm. He nods as I turn it over in my hands as if this will somehow teach me how to use it.
Parfait, he says. Perfect.
I nod in response. He shakes his head. No, he explains, in French. That is my name. You (he uses this pronoun) colonialists cannot pronounce my real name in Sango—the local dialect.
You picked your name? I ask him.
Yes. I wanted them to know who I am. He points to himself. Perfect. He points to me.
What would you call yourself, if you had a choice?
Just then something howls in the bush and brings us back to Chinko, to the lonely company of the others. It is the hour of the hyenas. I can hear them laughing as the sun goes down. They are running on the airstrip. At night, they will no doubt try to kill some of the chickens. I am not sure who I am rooting for. I stand and join the conversation about love, eager to avoid answering Perfect’s question.
In the darkness something moves.
Outside the increasingly manicured Silicon Valley, you can find mustard grass taller than an adult and full of life: quail, red-tailed hawks, deer of every shape, possums, and that majestic pest, the mountain lion. Snakeskin bakes in the desert sun and forms wonderful curling white patterns on the barren rocks. I went to several agonizing summer camps in fields that bordered these foothills, and the counselors warned us never to venture in.
Teenage years brought active pursuit. It used to be that recess, birthday parties, and transport were my primary fears. Now the danger was constant. The school dances taught me that I was undesirable, but more rigorous schooling showed me that the classroom was also unsafe. Teachers openly mocked my appearance. “All the girls in this room have nice muffin faces. Samantha’s is a horse.” It’s silly when you’re thirty, but a heartbreaking truth when you’re fifteen. Another male teacher complained that I wasn’t a “nice girl,” like his wife. I didn’t know what this meant but at the time, it made me question my own decency. Then there were my peers. Girls at this age preferred to form circles, tight-knit barriers that they needed no weapons to defend. A single stare was a sword through the ribs and lungs. I didn’t just descend into myself as a teenager, I sought the outer perimeters of where I could safely roam. I fantasized daily about running away, but I lacked the courage to carry out any of my well-designed plans. I assumed I would not be strong enough to survive. Still, each summer, I tested this hypothesis.
After I was dropped off each day for camp, I waved goodbye, then promptly made my way into the nose-high grass. The California summer brings wildfires that are as magnificent as they are deadly. Firefighters were often helpless to suppress the fire’s rage as it tore through the California bush, clogging the happy valleys with smoke. If you got caught in a firestorm, there was nothing anyone could do for you. Although the risk to me was probably minimal, when I went into the foothills I told myself I was fearless. My system of relief had turned into a game of hide-and-seek after a group of boys discovered my daily routine. On this day, I watched from the branches of a tree as they crashed about in the thick brush, yelling, leaving tracks, talking of their own strength.
That morning they’d snuck up behind me as I read underneath an oak tree and doused me in urine. Why? Every hunter needs a target. I ran and they followed. I was afraid of what would happen when they found me. My walls were already rotten, crumbling, weak from years of attack. I waited in the thicket, lost in the bottlebrush’s red conical flowers, then climbed into a tree.
They got very close. I could look down and see the top of a faded ball cap through the branches. I prayed with everything I had that this boy would not look up. I am safe. I am safe, I told myself.
He reached into his pocket and lit a cigarette. One of the other boys asked for one, but he refused.
Let’s go. It’s fucking hot.
He dropped the cigarette in the grass and left.
I waited twenty minutes, just to be sure, and dropped down from the tree. I saw I was alone. When the fear left me, I felt a tentative kind of happiness in the silence of the hot afternoon, knowing that not a single person was within earshot. I bent down in the grass. The cigarette still smoked. I watched the dry grass begin to catch flame. After a moment, I pressed it out with my heel.
I felt something far ahead move. Had they found me? I rose, prepared either to surrender or to bolt.
About five meters in front of me stood a massive buck, its antlers maybe two feet above my head. Its eyes were heavy and alert. I knew deer were not afraid of people this close to civilization. Something growled. My heart seized. They found me. I slowly turned. Can you believe my relief? Low in the grass, a mountain lion crouched, so perfectly still it didn’t even blink.
Silence comes quickly to the tiny base. It is so thick, I can’t even hear snoring from the tents of the Ugandan soldiers a few paces away. Deep in the bush, I know my Beast waits for me. I touch my knife and consider curling up with the safety of my new present in search of sleep. But the minute I lie down I sit right back up. I hear something cry out. Forgetting my boots, I unzip my tent and step out. I am instantly freezing.
It is darker than the darkness behind closed eyes.
Knife in hand, I feel my way forward with the bottoms of my feet. I instantly regret this. The ground is littered with sharp thistles and broken glass. Making an approach in these conditions will be difficult, if not impossible. Still, I listen for the sound of scraping in the grass. It takes me a moment, but then I hear it, there, in the empty dark. I estimate it is a few hundred meters ahead. I stop and steady my breath. I wait for the sound to move away before I begin again. After a couple of steps, I have left the safety of the base. I am alone with Chinko.
Love is simple, he said. I had just turned twenty-one and sat across from this statement in a crowded bar. In the tequila blur, he insisted on this point, the proof: lips in my hair and two fingers along the top of my jeans. I decided I did not want to be evidence for his thesis.
No, I said.
After he punched me in the face I remember not screaming. I don’t remember his face, but I remember everyone else around me and I remember that everyone else saw. The bartender continued to make some kind of pink and orange cocktail. Two men looked at us, then got lost in the laughter/argument that is typical of certain types of bars. I felt the blood run down my eye, then nose, and start to drip. I looked around and waited for someone to do something, but nothing happened. I got up and went to the one place I figured was a refuge, the women’s restroom.
Because it was a Friday night, there was a long line and a crowd in front of the mirror. I looked above the girls pulling their faces into the right position for a photo and saw my eye starting to swell. There was blood across my mouth and cheeks and hands.
A stall opened up. I went in and sat there and tried to think. I was in a city where I knew nobody. I tried to imagine something wonderful, something magical at my side, but my mind was blank. I thought of my car, parked miles away. I knew I could not possibly drive. I would find a taxi. Someone would come for me, they had to. Deep down, the Beast laughed.
Back at the bar, I saw the man was waiting for me. I pushed past him and went outside. He followed. I started to walk up the dark block, but he still followed. He ran up and caught my arm. He looked genuinely concerned.
You can’t just wander off, it’s dangerous in this neighborhood at night.
When did I learn how to see in the dark? Maybe it’s just the moonlight. I look up, but the forest cover is even, unbroken. If there were still tens of thousands of elephants, they would have cleared the area in a matter of months. The fact that the trees are all the same height is a testament to the mass slaughter, and how recently it must have happened.
I come across a clearing filled with fallen logs. This isn’t right. There isn’t any animal out here big enough to topple this many trees. I kneel down and feel the softness between my fingers. Ash. I stand and continue along the path of fallen trees. I see blood smears across some of the tall grass. The creature has been wounded, probably in a fight that didn’t quite kill it. I quicken my pace. I know that an injured beast is a deadly thing. A creature can appear weak and vulnerable, but that is when it can rise up and strike with a terrible and wonderful lifesaving force. I know what a cornered animal is capable of.
I press onward.
Hours must have passed, because now I can definitely see the moon above. The blood on the ground is unmistakable. Large ink-black pools of it dot the path forward.
I follow a bend in the path and am greeted by an unmistakable growl. I hold my breath and turn my knife over in my hand. I am ready.
From the darkness it rises, ten feet, then fifteen, then fifty. Its great tail swishes out of the brush, and as it moves, its scales sparkle, black obsidian, sourced by a light I cannot see. Its huge yellow eyes blink slowly, taking in my form below. I step forward. I can see the wound, eight bullet holes in its left flank. Someone got here before me. I reach for my knife and it snorts and rears, but I hold up my other hand in surrender and it calms. I am able to draw closer. I place my palm on the wound and feel my hand grow wet. The knife is still at my side. A horrible helplessness fills me. What did I think I was doing, coming here? This is too easy.
It blinks again. I want to climb up and dive into those magnificent fiery eyes. It lowers its head and faces me and I consider.
I walked, broken and bruised, but I walked all the way home and nobody followed me.
Don’t think about it.
Don’t give them power to hurt you more.
They are sadder than you.
Bad things happen to everybody. You are not special.
Pain is not unique, nor is suffering.
This is the chorus of advice, both inside and outside myself.
Someone I used to call a friend told me I was a “victim,” the word heavier with disdain than all the other words ever assigned to me. It used to bother me a lot until I heaped it onto the very top of the pile of names I’d been called before, and set it all on fire.
Night here is at once endless and momentary. There is nothing but blackness, but the sun is also rising, heavy, along the equatorial horizon. My knife is already discarded on the ground. I know I don’t have much time and she knows that too. I place my foot onto her good shoulder and hoist myself onto her back. She doesn’t wait for me to find something to grab onto. She is rising, her heavy wings more than three times her height, taking us higher and higher. I throw myself against her neck and hold on with all my strength. Moments later, we are one with the night, rising until my sweaty nightshirt freezes against my skin, and snow forms on my eyelashes.
Then we are swooping low. Our enemies lie hiding in the bush. I can see them, filled with fear at the sight of us. They raise their guns, but we are ready for them. At once, everything in sight is on fire. A spark in the dry grass catches so quickly and rises so fast that if they screamed, we couldn’t hear them. We ride like this for miles and miles until the forest is alive with flames and she is empty of fire and satisfied that there is nothing left standing.
The sun begins to rival the burning land. We need to return. Someone will wake and see the smoke and sound the alarm. They will run for the airplanes and use their computers and GPS to root out the culprit. The smoke is very thick now, but I am not afraid. All they will be able to make out is a massive beast, free at last, roaming the skies, and a girl who from this angle looks just like a little kid, along for the ride.
I was bullied well into adulthood. Every night I would fall asleep and ask what I had done wrong. Each morning I would begin again, no wiser than the day before. It was as if something elusive, something true, lay out there, and all I needed to do was be strong or brave enough to find it. I assumed it had to be something that could not be altered, no matter how dutifully I dressed it up, or beat it into submission. This is how I first became acquainted with the Invisible Beast. It was an answer and I loved it because it was a relief. In this way I both hated and nurtured the Beast inside me. I told myself that it was what the others despised about me, why they shrank from me. But it was also a truth I desperately wanted to know better and understand.
Now that I have met her, I know two things. The Invisible Beast inside all of us is real, but it is not the answer. It is the question.
What are you afraid of?
One day, your Beast will rise up and when it breaks free, nothing will survive its path. It will destroy every wall you’ve dutifully built, and tear down any and all defenses. It will seek revenge for being imprisoned and will stop at nothing to get what it wants. If you are lucky, you will survive its rampage, but you will never get it back. If you have spent no time in its company, you will never know what it can teach you. The Invisible Beast sees parts of yourself you cannot see on your own.
It is time to leave Chinko. I am up in the plane. I am filled with a desire to be dropped, to be lost in the trees and open plains with my eternal companion. I am certain we could survive together. I know that well-armed men and women lie waiting for me, waiting to destroy me for their own gain. With my Beast at my side, they will not find me and they will not hurt me. But I stay where I am and do not run.
I watch my Beast grow smaller beneath me. It stretches its obsidian wings with ease and then takes off in the opposite direction of our plane. It flies towards no roads or villages, only to the burned wasteland. I tell myself we are both plotting our own ending on our own terms. I do not know when I will see it again, but I know that when I am ready, I will not have to search far. It will always be out there, somewhere, full of fire, daring me to fly with her.
Once the plane lands and we disembark, I know what waits for me: my desk and my reports and my teetering understanding of how to do good in this world. Before I get home, I learn that something has happened in my absence.
Due to a huge electrical fire in my home in the capital of CAR, everything I own has been destroyed.
I return to what is left of my home, insisting on seeing what is left. Even the roof is gone. The sad cement structure is all that remains. I set my bag down in a pile of ash. I touch the ground. It is still hot. I run my hands through the ash, what is left of everything I own and the life I diligently packed up and brought here, and allow myself to be crushed under the weight of how utterly human I must now be as I figure out how to go on living, working, and surviving with nothing.
Suddenly, I feel so tired. I sit. I allow myself a moment to delight in the warmth of the smoldering ruins around me. I close my eyes and pull this blanket of the earth up over my head and fall asleep listening to the gathering whispers, the potential for growth there, somewhere within.