Fire And Grief Consume Characters In Boulder Author’s ‘Night in Erg Chebbi’

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Photo: Author Edward Hamlin
Boulder author Edward Hamlin

This story first aired on 12/07/2015

Edward Hamlin puts his characters under fire and sees if they have the grace to handle it: A woman loses her brother to war after rejecting him on Christmas Day. A man must deal with the knowledge that he accidentally started a deadly wildfire. Hamlin's new collection of short stories, "Night in Erg Chebbi," won the prestigious Iowa Short Fiction Award for 2015. The Boulder author speaks with Ryan Warner.

Read the first story in the collection:

Republished with the permission of Edward Hamlin from "Night In Erg Chebbi And Other Stories" copyright 2015.


            It wasn’t the guns that bothered her but rather the heat, which was the true killing machine. Guns had always been with her; they figured in her earliest memories. Her father dismantling a revolver on the kitchen table as she picked at her greasy Ulster fry. The RUC boys armed to the teeth outside the greengrocer’s smashed door, outfitted for war in a dank city street. High-powered rifles with sniper scopes laid out in the boot like firewood, or cradled like infants as her uncles stalked through the muddy darkness along the right-of-way. Guns were cityscape. By the age of twelve she could identify make and model from a ten-yard remove and judge ammunition by the results it fetched: peering down from the second floor of the grammar school as boys shot pigeons off ledges, she could guess the calibre by the damage done. When she turned fourteen, her brother Roddy made sure she had her own pistol, a battered Webley, and knew when to use it.

            Despite himself, Moore had been impressed with her expertise when they met. It was in the first days after the flood, when men were still sandbagging the riverbank and women tracked red mud from house to house, the rain forest floor roiling with steam. The humidity was absolute.

            “Classic Widowmaker there,” she’d said from the adjacent table, a grilled tamuatá untouched before her. An AR-18 was slung over the guest chair opposite him. It was not uncommon for local men to carry hunting rifles, whether to shoot marauding strays or take boar, but an automatic weapon in the possession of a gringo was another matter. “Japanese or American?”

Moore regarded her without emotion, as was his way even with close associates and lovers, his pitted face a perfect mask. He waited for her as if he’d been the one to pose the question. But men no longer intimidated her, and she stared at him with clean concentration, refusing to back down. After a methodical sip of beer he said: “American. ’72.”

            “Brilliant. Gas ring holding up?”

            She saw a calculation ripple across Moore’s forehead, where you could sometimes read his thoughts. She’d got his attention. Possibly he’d never met a woman who could talk weaponry with such composure and mastery. “Thing is,” she said, “over time that ring’ll fail you and you’ll short-stroke. You won’t get one bloody round off.” She saw him straighten in his cane chair, shift his stocky shoulders awkwardly. He would prefer it if she left, perhaps—or failing that, stepped over to dine with him. “I’m Maeve, by the way. And your own good self?”

By way of reply he turned his chair half away from her, which at the same time left it half facing her.

            She knew the evening mosquitoes would soon roam in from the river, moving across the open-air patio in ragged death squads. Tontons Macoutes, she called them, but the joke was lost on everyone. The locals knew almost nothing of Manaus, much less of Haiti. What still shocked her was that the American eco-tourists didn’t follow her, either—her guests might have the wherewithal to travel from Chicago or Kansas City to the Brazilian interior, but they had no more knowledge of history than a back-country indígeno. They knew nothing of the Troubles, nothing of the Duvalier bloodbath—nothing of her world. Disgraceful, but their ignorance protected her.

            She could see the lolling river from where she sat, the water brown as shoe leather, foul-smelling and noxious since the rains had washed the shantytown away. The makeshift hovels had been well upstream, far out of town, but day by day one saw more evidence of them as the river continued to lick at the remains. Corpses had been spotted drifting past, the odd sling chair or Styrofoam cooler, bloated dogs and feral pigs, a buoyant crucifix swirling in an eddy as if possessed by the soul of a dervish. Mangrove roots trapped petrol cans, hats, bottles. The carnage had quickly driven the late-season tourists away, starting with the Kapsteins, young New Yorkers who’d been staying in Treetop Lodge 1 with its perfect view of the fetid watercourse. Maeve refunded their money without argument. Two Canadian couples were expected at the weekend; she wondered if they’d heard.

            Without tourists the town deflated, its tiny vein of commerce collapsing. She and Moore were the only guests Casa Ribeiro had served in days. She smelled pinga on the proprietor’s breath tonight, and who could blame him? The drenching heat, the fleeing foreigners, the loss of a cousin in the wash-out—it had hit him hard. Relieved of her normal chores, all five treehouse cabanas empty, she’d been eating lunch and dinner at Casa Ribeiro mostly to make sure Paulo Ribeiro didn’t do anything rash. Just now he was drifting toward her table with a worried look, frowning at her fish. “O peixe não tá bom, senhora Kelly?” No, she smiled, the fish is brilliant. Just in no rush here. He’d insisted it was caught and iced before the flood poisoned the river—an antediluvian fish. To reassure him she took up knife and fork and surgically removed the head, setting it aside for a stray. This seemed satisfactory, and he moved on to his other guest with a swaying step.

            When Paulo wandered back to the kitchen she expected the sporadic conversation with Moore to continue in some way, but it did not. He made no eye contact, only finishing his beer and quickly dispatching his grilled chicken. When he was done he laid a large bill on the table, took up the Widowmaker, donned his tarp hat and walked out, his white shirt soaked through in the shape of a giant hand. Only when she heard two car doors slam and saw a Land Rover with darkened windows pull away did Maeve realize that someone had been keeping watch over Moore the whole time, and not only over Moore.


            She knew who he was, of course; everyone did. He was the gringo who lived in the razor wire compound perched on a red dirt promontory three miles up the private road, the longest paved stretch in the area. The place had been built for a would-be cattle rancher who’d died before a single tree could be felled for pastureland. Three years ago, Moore had appeared out of nowhere, bought the land and house for back taxes and turned it into a fortress, importing workers from a distant charcoal camp disbanded not long before. It was assumed the old man didn’t want locals involved for security reasons—an absurd notion, paranoia imported from another world. Speculation was that he was a Colombian involved at the highest levels of the drug trade, perhaps a cartel banker, but she suspected he was just a rich American eccentric, some software millionaire or stock trader living out a colonial fantasy. In the few words they’d exchanged she hadn’t noticed a particular accent, but that didn’t mean anything in an expat; his name was English, but that meant even less, as one assumed it wasn’t his real one.

            The man called Moore was self-sufficient and generally invisible, which made her wonder what he was doing here at Paulo’s, tucking into a plate of chicken like anyone else. The compound had its own weedy airstrip, a holdover from earlier days; Moore received weekly cargo flights said to deliver not just staples but also French wines and city whores, though this last smelled of hopeful fantasy. Nor did the gringo rely on anyone else for electricity, fresh water, medical treatment, security. He had generators, purifiers, a staff doctor, a private militia with evident firepower. And he had uplinks: a bristling array of dishes and antennas connected the place with the greater world, including, some thought, a private satellite stationed overhead. Because he revealed nothing of himself, all wonders seemed possible.


            Maeve’s second encounter with Moore—if indirect—came the very morning after meeting him at Casa Ribeiro. As she was fretting over accounts, the Land Rover of the night before deposited two of Moore’s palace guards at the gate. Her stomach turned at the sight of them: as a girl of twelve she’d seen just such a Land Rover disgorge two RUC men who’d then put a rifle butt through her cousin’s skull alongside the Falls Road. She didn’t want this lot on her land. She strode quickly to the gate but didn’t unlock it, waiting for them to state their business.

            The driver was mulatto but the other was pure blue-black, a stunning man in a military-looking uniform. Looking past the pressed khaki she guessed he’d come up in some Rio or São Paulo slum, as much an outsider here as she was. “Miss Kelly,” he said.


            “I am Xoque,” he said, revealing crude teeth. He pronounced it as in English, Shock—just the sort of blustering gang name they gave themselves in the Rio favelas. “Security chief for Mr. Moore.” It appeared the brief exchange over Moore’s Widowmaker had raised questions.

            “What of it?”

           Xoque eyed the locked gate; considered his options. He had not expected this reception. At last he said, “Mr. Moore invites you to lunch at your earliest convenience.”

            “I’m quite busy.”

            Xoque looked past her, saw the empty treehouses thrown open for airing. “As you like. Perhaps you’ll call when you have an opening, Miss Kelly.” With exaggerated courtesy he handed a business card through the gate and they were gone, the driver putting boot to the board up the mud-stained road.

            Maeve had lived in her skin long enough to recognize an interesting disturbance in the membrane that linked her to the world, a flex of the integument, and she felt it now. Throughout the long day she considered Moore’s invitation, and that evening she rang the number on Xoque’s card.


            The rest of the rainy season passed without the second flood that everyone had so feared. Television warned that such events would be commonplace now, but the swollen months crawled by without incident, with ordinary rain, and slowly the foreigners returned. Maeve was fully booked. She trained a manager to cover for her on the nights she was away at Moore’s; the place quickly found its rhythm, her coffers filling steadily. Seven months of clement weather set the stunned village back on its feet. But then the rains arrived a month too soon, not cooling the forest as usual but bringing an onslaught of crippling heat. The turn of events was strange enough to be carried on the national news—a death blow. Her late-season bookings were mostly middle-class Brazilian families on holiday, well able to sacrifice the small deposit, and the final month was gutted. In scarcely a week the cabanas were empty.

            Maeve was not at peace with the unseasonable heat. It fulminated, like a kind of racehorse lather you couldn’t shake off, the sworn enemy of sleep. Even Haiti had rarely been as bad. By municipal edict the electricity was killed an hour after nightfall, whereupon the electric fans spun down and the ponderous cowl descended. This against a childhood in grey Belfast with its damp and penetrating winter chill.

            She slept fitfully, dreaming of broken glass and sirens and whip-like gunshots, fever dreams imposed by the heat and her condition. On such nights her sleep was rife with murderers, IRA men mingling with Tontons Macoutes, the lot of them cursing and scheming in a stew of English, Irish and rapid Creole that only she could decipher. Sometimes her Da was there, sometimes Baby Doc himself; or Jean-Michel with his brimming sexual eyes and dark slender trunk and honed machete, his scent of smoky cooking oil. Certain souls had never abandoned her.

            As usual she was awakened by bedlam in the green canopy above. For a long while she lay on her sweaty sheets listening to the cacophony of toucans and araras and howler monkeys, rude and relentless as dengue. The night had drained off some of the heat; this was the hour before the sun would become difficult, as if hurrying to scorch the land before the afternoon rains exploded. The cistern was full and she took a long, tepid shower out back, not caring if the local boys were spying on her again. For all she cared they could watch every day, revel in her shifting contours, track the daily changes in belly and breast. It was all new to her, too. They would learn together.

            Back inside the cottage, her clothes were damp and smelled faintly of mildew. Nothing ever truly dried. She threw on a gauzy shift and sandals and dissected a papaya at the tiled table out back, not unhappy to be without guests, willing herself not to think about the money. Two of the treehouses needed thatching and she could not pay to do it. Meanwhile the sun dappled through the canopy deceptively. After breakfast she made a cup of coffee and took to one of the hammocks with a travel magazine someone had left behind, immersing herself in photos of Calcutta while the howlers slalomed down to steal the papaya leavings. They had a vocation. Today she did not.

           At eleven she set out for the village, wanting company, intending to lunch early and get back before the rains. Paulo and Ana would be ready with soup and sausages, grilled chicken and black beans and salty farofa, slices of orange and pineapple and farmer’s cheese. With the guests gone this early, lunch had become Maeve’s ritual of coalescence, the arranging of sleep’s debris into the semblance of a personality.

            But as she rounded the corner she saw a familiar Land Rover parked outside, one of Moore’s new men leaning against the fender smoking a brown cigarette. A snatch of radio traffic tattered from the open window; he leaned in to take up a walkie-talkie, said a few words in patois, dropped it back in the seat. Only then did he notice the pregnant gringa making slow progress toward him in her airy shift, hazel eyes locked on his. At the sight of her he retrieved the walkie-talkie and relayed a quick report, then stepped back to clear the way.

She strode past him into the cool shadow under the thatch, a macaw flitting away, the scent of grilled meat riding the air.

            “Maeve,” a basso voice said from within.

            She hadn’t seen Xoque in months, not since she’d broken off with Moore. It appeared he’d been upgraded, his powerful body now outfitted in a white golf shirt, immaculate khaki shorts and expensive sandals. He might have been the doorman at a São Paulo country club, were it not for the SIG Sauer strapped to his thigh. “Not long now,” he said, showing his uneven teeth and pointing to her belly.

            “Counting on Lieve,” she replied. Though she was no longer seeing Moore, his private doctor had promised to attend the birth. Moore was not so cruel as to stand in the way. “Lieve’s still up there?”

            “You’re invited for lunch,” said Xoque, ignoring the question.

            She had no desire to see Moore again but needed to see the doctor with her own eyes. At her age she wasn’t about to give birth with a native midwife. A moment later she was sitting in the rear of the Land Rover with Xoque, as the driver sped them past the blockish fountain and out of town, half the village looking on.


            As they approached the compound Maeve could see that something was wrong. The covered veranda was populated with valises and trunks; staff were scuttling past with furniture; Dani, the elderly carpenter, was kneeling before Moore’s prized Matisse, measuring it for a crate he would build on the spot. In the gravel turnabout, the gardener was methodically smashing several computers to pieces. On the tennis court raged a bonfire heaped with documents. Moore’s life was being dismantled before her eyes.

“Xoque, what’s this?”

            “No longer safe for Mr. Moore.”

            Moore had warned her once that this might happen. Someone, whether the Americans or Interpol or some new Brazilian official he hadn’t yet bought off, would find him here and move in to arrest him, to break it up, whatever it was. Moore was fully prepared for that day, as was now evident. It was business.

            Once inside the house, Xoque showed her to the air-conditioned dining room with its vast panoramic window overlooking the forest canopy. The room had been cleared of all furniture but the baronial table, a single chair with a silver place setting laid before it, and on the opposite wall one of Moore’s most prized artworks, a Munch lithograph of a tubercular child whose wistful gaze Maeve had always found captivating. Beside her plate sat a large manila envelope fastened with string.

            As Xoque turned to go she said, “Is Moore coming?”

            “Moore is gone,” said Xoque. “Para sempre. Forever.”

            Alone in the room where she’d first dined with the old man, down the long hallway from where she’d slept with him for months, Maeve sat and waited, gazing out the irresistible window. The sun had already disappeared; above the western edge of the forest a slate-grey belly of cloud glowered, gravid with the rains to come. In the course of a few minutes she saw it advance a fair distance toward the already swollen river, dipping lower as it came on, darkening the room. An erotic moment, the pause before release.

            The first fit of lightning came as the cook, Neli, wheeled in a bountiful lunch of imported salmon, garden greens, white asparagus grown under lamps of Moore’s own design—a faithful copy of the first meal she’d shared with Moore nearly a year before, in the aftermath of the flood. A moment later Neli returned with a chilled Riesling, filling Maeve’s glass without a word.

            “Neli,” Maeve said.

            “Senhora Kelly?”

            “What’s going on here?”

            A look of fright crossed the youthful face. She spoke in a whisper. “Senhor Moore left in a hurry. Last night, by plane.”

            “Alone, Neli?”

            “With the pilot and Dr. Lieve. The pilot returned this morning.”

            So Lieve was gone. Maeve felt the baby shift inside her.

            “You’ll be all right, Neli? He’s provided for you somehow?”

            “By the grace of God, senhora.”

“Will you—” But at this moment the storm exploded over the forest with a stunning flash and a cannon shot of thunder. Both women shied from the window, joined in common reflex. Together they watched the sudden assault on the canopy, the highest tier of green buckling under the torrent. The storm rumbled through the thick window pane in a vast, slow-moving detonation, crowding the room, turning the light abruptly violet. Maeve felt the cook stop breathing. They both saw that it was no ordinary storm.

            “Neli, you must go to your family. One of the men can drive you down before the roads wash out. Should I tell Xoque?” Neli nodded quickly, plainly afraid, but whether of the storm or Xoque, Maeve couldn’t guess. “Fetch him, Neli. There’s a good girl.”

            When an irritable Xoque appeared, Neli cowering behind, Maeve ordered him to get Neli and the rest of the staff to safety.

            “I have a thousand details,” he protested. “Mr. Moore—”

            “Moore is gone forever. You said so yourself.”

            “I’ll send one of the men.” Over his shoulder he said something harsh to Neli, who hurried off. Then, more gently, to Maeve: “You can’t stay here. They’re coming.”

            “I know. But not during this.” As if in reply, the storm hurled a long, full-throated complaint against the town below. Her wineglass jittered on the table. To the east, near her own land, she saw lightning fell two palms at a blow. A cowl of mist rose from the forest floor to graze the understorey.

            “The pilot will take you to Moore the moment he can fly again,” said Xoque, and left her to her lonely meal.


As Maeve grazed at her salmon she thought back to her first lunch with Moore.

            “You intrigue me, Miss Kelly,” he’d said, “because you’ve mastered the art of staying under radar. You went dark years ago and you’ve stayed that way. Impressive.”

            “You don’t know anything about me.”

            Moore laughed broadly; she hadn’t suspected he was capable of it. To her right, the Dutch doctor studied her plate. “That’s not exactly true, Miss Kelly. My sources are better than most. Though you were a challenge for us, I’ll admit.” He sipped his wine, let this sink in. “By the way, may I call you Miss Flanagan, just for the sake of accuracy?”

            Maeve waited to see what else he had.

            “All right, then, what do we know? Mary Flanagan, born in Derry two years after her brother Rodney, parents good Catholics. Fled with the family to Belfast after the Bogside riot—perhaps a poor choice. Within a year her father’s in deep with the Provos, a first-class provocateur. An assassin, actually. How am I doing so far?”

            For once she was speechless. By whatever means, he’d traced a decades-long trail backward from a Brazilian rainforest to her murderous homeland. She thought of the satellite dishes clustered on the roof, imagined an invisible flow of damning intelligence coursing through them to a screen somewhere in the rambling house. She set her fork down and said nothing, a runnel of sweat wandering down her back despite the air conditioning. Moore went on.

            “Next comes a particularly heinous hit—a clergyman in mufti, a noncombatant. A serious error. Mary’s brother Roddy is arrested, but her father escapes to a safe house with two mates. They wait it out. The heat begins to subside—Roddy’s made an example of—and then something odd happens, something I’ll confess I don’t yet understand.”

            The Dutch doctor and Moore looked over at Maeve in perfect synchrony. A mute server slipped in to refill her glass, withdrew. The rains would soon trundle in. Even from Moore’s redoubt Maeve could sense the anxiety down in the town, the memory of the flood stirring. There was a world outside the room and she would have liked to escape into it, but Moore’s data held her rapt.

            “Perhaps,” said Moore, “you can help me understand how a fugitive IRA hit man turns up in Haiti as adviser to Baby Doc? His teenage daughter in tow?”


            It was not for him to know—not yet.

            She’d been a girl of sixteen, a virgin with a loaded Webley tucked under her mattress, when her father or brother, it didn’t matter which, shot a Reverend James. She was seventeen when, under cover of darkness, she and her Da shoved off from the Bannock cove, to be intercepted some hours later by a trawler with no running lights, while her Ma stayed behind to pine for Roddy’s acquittal. By unlucky timing she was in the grip of brutal menstrual cramps and then the flu and so would barely recall the rough passage on the cargo freighter, the hold killingly hot as the ship transected the Atlantic and plied southward. The day came when her Da called her onto the blazing deck and they watched the freighter make its ponderous landfall in Haiti, a country she couldn’t have found on a map.

            She’d never seen a black man in her life. Now her Da would be working for one—not just any black man, but one anointed President for Life, a blustering connoisseur of killers who’d admired the IRA’s handiwork from afar. None of which she’d fully understand until the evening when she lay half-hidden in the vetiver with Jean-Michel, her very own winsome killer, and teased his rose nipple with the tip of his machete until he told her the truth. By then Da was famous among the Tontons, Irishman nan fou, the crazy Irishman. Her lover was in awe of him. It made her proud. Only later, after a report of Tontons eating the raw heart of a girl exactly her age in Gonaïves, did the grit of it make her flee.

            This much she would eventually tell Moore, late one night in his lavish bedroom under the softly watchful eye of a Degas dancer. A bottle of Margaux sped her along, and her lover’s rapt attention as well: she felt his admiration, one canny fugitive’s for another. Day by day she was taming him, this rough, unhandsome American with expensive tastes, and it excited her. She could not deny it. That he would not say what his business was or where his money came from would have troubled a different sort of woman, but she, more than anyone, understood the value of secrets. She stood with him on the veranda and shot monkeys out of the jacarandas with his Widowmaker, all of it coming back to her in an electric surge.

            Yet she would not stay with him for more than a night at a time. It was a matter of principle, and she had a business to run, guests to tend to. Rubem, the manager he’d hired for her, panicked easily when problems arose, when an American collapsed with heat stroke or the water supply was obstructed by a dead macaque. And so Xoque and a driver—eventually just Xoque—would spirit her back into town, into her own world, leaving Moore on his red hill to observe her withdrawal through the U-boat gunner’s scope mounted to the balcony railing.


            In the empty dining room of Moore’s empty house she abandons her salmon and Riesling, tasting nothing, unable to take her gaze off the worsening storm. The rain is torrential now. The river will soon make a lunge for the town, rushing in through gullies carved by last year’s flood in disastrous and raging flumes. Against this rain the new levee, really just a low wall of leaking sandbags, will be worthless. She imagines Paulo and Ana standing in the swamped ruins of Casa Ribeiro; then the elderly Nogueiras, lame and demented, consumed by the swirling brown waters. Infants will be carried off, swallowed. Maeve pictures her own home lifted off its foundations and sent barging down the riotous estuary. Yet in Moore’s aerie all is calm and abstract. She gazes into the storm like a diver inspecting a vast wall of coral, in no hurry to surface, Munch’s dying girl looking on with her.

            Neli doesn’t come to remove her dishes—a sign that, with luck, she’s been driven home by one of the men. Whatever is happening down in the town, she should be with her kin. Maeve pushes her plate away and takes up the manila envelope beside it, unwinding the string from the clasp, wondering who’s still at large in the echoing house.

            Moore has left her the briefest of farewell notes, clipped to a printout filled with rows of numbers.

            Maeve, I’ve had to leave.

            Join me—it may not be safe for you there, given our association. João will fly you out discreetly. I make this offer in earnest.

            But knowing you, you’ll refuse. If so, please accept the attached as a parting gift—something to help you get by, and the town too, if you like. The Munch you love is yours for the taking. But I do hope you’ll come. – Moore.

           On the printout he’s scrawled, Each of these should be good for 30 days after first use. Clean and untraceable. The accounts clear offshore, then route to yours; they can't find you.

She puzzles over the thicket of digits for a moment before realizing that they are credit card numbers, dozens of them. It sorts quickly in her mind: the uplink, the computers, the priceless artwork and wines. She stares at the pages, then at the green cataclysm on the other side of the window, then at the pages once again, and slips them back in their envelope.

            “Xoque!” she calls down the echoing hallway, and while she’s waiting for him she lifts the Munch from its hook, the envelope tucked under her arm.


         From her vantage point in Treetop Lodge 2 she can see it all. The brown, muscular arm of the river sweeping across the waterlogged land, goats and dogs and smashed furniture riding it like flies on a horse’s flank. To the east, her inundated town, a yard of putrid water standing in the Internet café, in the old hotel, in Ribeiro’s restaurant, the ruination general now. The memorial fountain in the square half-submerged but still, with pointless bravery, shooting a streamer of water up through the deluge. Silver piranhas cascading into the small colonial cathedral, the newer graves threatening to leach open in the churchyard. Shirtless men in rowboats navigating new waterways. Produce streaming from the greengrocer’s: passionfruit and collards and bruised papaya carried off by the current. An uprooted palm fanning its panicked fingers as it passes. Even from her perch she can hear the roar of the water.

         On the roof of the workers’ quarters behind the hotel, families have rigged tarps and lean-tos, settling in, the women cooking drowned chickens and a monkey on a makeshift brazier.

         She’s seen enough. Cradling her belly from below, she crosses to where Xoque sits on the treehouse floor smoking, his yellow eyes half-lidded, his smooth chest shining with perspiration. Maeve lowers herself carefully to the cool bamboo planks and leans back between his raised knees, settling against his body, his cigarette smoke suspended above. Without a word Xoque shapes a broad palm to her huge belly as if to comfort the child within. Eventually Maeve falls into a dreamless sleep, the emptiness blessed and oceanic, while above them the rain sways in curtains tall as the coastal mountains, shimmering in the contrary sunlight, heavy with life.