The Fieldstone Review

Hidden Message

by Peter Freeman

As I walked along the warm sand towards the pair, I saw Halim sitting on the small sandy beach that lay to the north of the barnacle-encrusted piles supporting the old, timbered wharf. His arms were wrapped around his knees and his head rested on his knees. Jasmine knelt beside him with one of her arms around his shoulders. Halim wore a bright blue, long-sleeved dress shirt, khaki chinos, and dress shoes, an outfit at odds with the vacationing family picnicking nearby. Halim was a creature of habit, and neither the weather nor the landscape were enough to cause him to cease the habits he said soothed him.

“Halim!” I called, when I was still some distance away.

Jasmine turned to me and waved, her inky black hair gleaming almost blue in the sunlight. I closed the remaining distance and stopped beside them. Halim did not look up at my approach.

“Hi, Daniel. Nice to see you again. Glad you could make it,” she said.

“I’m happy I was able to get away. How was your trip, Halim? I haven’t seen you since you left for Africa.”

Halim had just arrived back in Canada and had arranged to meet us at the ferry terminal before he crossed the channel to his home on the other side. Jasmine and I had become close friends with Halim as we helped him navigate his way around adjusting to life in Canada and gaining citizenship. Apparently, Jasmine had reached him first.

“I could not find her,” he said, looking up for the first time, his cheeks slack and his eyes red.

“That’s unfortunate. Is there some other way? Perhaps the Canadian consulate?” I suggested as I walked around to Halim’s other side, shoving my hands in my pockets.

He shook his head slowly. “No, my friend. I spent many days at the consulate, and they worked very hard to help me, but they did not have any information about her.”

“Were you able to go through any records?” I asked.

“Yes, what little were left. So many records were destroyed during the war. I found nothing,” he said sadly.

“What was it like…when you were there this time?” Jasmine asked as she sat back. “It must have changed a lot.”

“It was different, very different…and much safer than before. There were soldiers with guns, but this time I walked among them as a Canadian, and I did not feel afraid,” Halim said.

“Where did you go? Did you visit the camps?” I asked.

“Yes, but there were so many refugees this time, and they were from all around,” Halim explained, holding his palms out in a gesture of futility. “Most did not want to speak of people they knew before…before the war. It was too painful,” he said, clasping his knees again and rocking slightly.

I chose a dry patch of sand close to Halim, brushed away a piece of wind-blown seaweed, and sat down beside him.

“Was it dangerous to travel in Sudan?” Jasmine asked as I sat down.

Halim turned to look at her.

“Yes, but I travelled with the peacekeepers, and I was dressed in western clothes, so people showed respect. They believed I was a government official,” Halim explained.

“Were you able to find your old friends?” Jasmin asked.

Halim sighed, slowly shook his head, and then dropped it and stared at his feet. He absently scuffed the soft white sand before he spoke.

“No. I fear they are dead.”

“You’ve not spoken much about those times. Was it painful to go back?” Jasmine said.

Halim nodded, looking at me for support before turning his sad gaze back to Jasmine.

“I was frightened at first as I left the airport, but I shared a taxi with some officials from the United States, and they reassured me I would be safe at the hotel.”

“What will you do now, Halim?” I interjected.

“I do not know. I do not know if Eufrasia is alive or dead. It was many years ago. A long time ago.”

“You were lucky,” I commented.

“Yes. But by the time I was able to flee my old country and get to a refugee camp, many months had passed since Eufrasia and I had been separated. Then I spent a year in the refugee camps before I was accepted by Canada. I was lucky there was an organization willing to sponsor me.”

“You haven’t mentioned that before,” I said. “When you first came to Canada and Jasmine and I met you at the airport, you said you had been living in a hostel.”

“Yes,” Halim answered, nodding his head slowly. “I was ashamed...perhaps a little proud. I did not want you to see me as a burden. You were so good to sponsor me, my friend.”

Halim turned his brightening gaze to Jasmine. “Jasmine, my soul is forever bonded to you. You gave me hope when you got me my first job.”

Jasmine gently took hold of Halim’s shoulder. “I could see in your eyes you would become a wonderful Canadian,” Jasmine told him. “And you have. But Halim, I had no idea you had endured such hardships.”

“I wanted to forget, to move on, as you say in Canada. It was good that I was an oil and gas engineer in my country. I think that helped.”

“We’re all glad you’re here now, though, Halim,” I put my hand on his arm, “…and safe,” I added.

“Halim?” Jasmine asked. “Is it hard to talk about it...about Eufrasia?”

“I do not know...sometimes it is…it is easier to talk about it than to think about it. When I am alone...” Halim said, lowering his eyes.

“I understand,” Jasmine murmured.

He lifted his head and I saw his jaw set firmly as he looked far away across the water, sparkling in the sun, towards the distant firs standing as sentinels on the opposite shore.

“As much as I want to forget the pain, I will not forget Eufrasia because she cannot be gone. I feel!” Halim said, pounding his clenched fist against his heart.

“Nor should you,” was all I could think to say, weak though it was.

“How did you first meet Eufrasia? I mean, did you meet her through your work?” Jasmine asked, wanting to soothe Halim’s anguish.

“Oh, no. We grew up in the same village. She and I played as children. There was an old acacia tree in the centre of our village, and we would chase each other around it. She squealed so much when I caught her, I had to let her go for fear her mother would be angry and not let me see her again. We just stayed together as we got older.”

“That’s so sweet!” Jasmine said.

“When did you get married?” I prompted.

“It was just before the war started. Those were good days. We were very happy, but we were both troubled by the rumours that we heard every day in our village. We hoped there would be no conflict, and for a while the rumours stopped. We thought there was peace. That was just before the soldiers came.”

“You don’t have to tell us,” Jasmine said softly.

“No. It is all right. I have told this story many times, and it is easier now.”

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“Yes, my friend.”

Halim paused, looked out over the water towards the ferry, which had recently left the opposite side of the passage. It was slowly inching its way closer, its small profile getting larger by the minute.

“The soldiers separated the men from the women and children, and I was both angry and terrified. One soldier started dragging Eufrasia away. She was screaming as I ran towards her. I was hit very hard with something, maybe the butt of a rifle, for I fell into a bush. Before I lost consciousness, I saw many men break free and heard gunfire.”

“Oh…that’s terrible…” Jasmine murmured.

“When I awoke, there was a lot of blood on my head, and on my face, from where I had been hit.”

“So that’s how you got that scar,” I noted, as Halim slowly lifted his arm and absently touched his temple.

“Yes. It reminds me of that time. I was lucky to be alive. When I fell into the bush, my body was concealed, and they did not shoot me afterwards like they did the others. There were many bodies on the ground. They were my friends, yet I could not mourn them. I had to find Eufrasia, but I never saw her again.”

Jasmine wrapped her arm around Halim’s strong shoulders and pulled him close to her. I watched a tear run down his cheek, across his glistening dark skin, and onto the bright blue cloth of his shirt.

“Don’t speak of that anymore. Tell me more of what it was like when you and Eufrasia were young and played together. Those are the important memories,” Jasmine said.

Halim nodded.

“Yes, those were good times, and even though we had little, we were very close. One day, a group of young people from Canada’s foreign service arrived in our village. Besides the doctors and nurses, there were university students and other workers who were there to help our country. I remember one of the doctors poked me with a needle that stung like a wasp. I was very angry until a nurse put a ball of candy on a white stick into my mouth. I had never tasted such a thing, and I forgot about the sting in my arm.”

“They do that here too,” I said with a chuckle.

“One of the nurses gave Eufrasia a doll. It was not like the dolls we had that were made of sticks, mud, and cloth. It was made of plastic, and the doll’s hair glistened like gold. Eufrasia had never seen such a thing and felt very honoured to have been given that doll. She cared for it as if it were a living, breathing thing while she had it. Its eyes closed when she laid it down.”

“I had a doll like that when I was a child, except it also said ‘Mama’ when I rocked it,” Jasmine said.

“Unfortunately, she lost it soon afterwards,” Halim said.

“Oh! That’s awful!” Jasmine said.

“That same day, the foreign workers had just finished building a circular rock wall around a well they had dug beside our village. I watched them mix concrete in a wheelbarrow and cement the rocks together. They had just finished the wall and had left for the day when a group of older boys came up to us. One of them grabbed the doll and tore off its head. He said it was infected with an evil spirit, and he had to banish it. He pulled a small rock out of the wall and replaced it with the head of the doll, pushing it deep into the still-pliant concrete. They ran off with the body of the doll.”

“What horrible boys!” Jasmine said.

“When we came back the next morning, the concrete had hardened, and we could not get the head out of the wall. We never found the body of the doll.”

“That’s terrible! Every time she went to the well, she would see the head and be reminded of what had happened…poor girl,” Jasmine commiserated.

“It was not that bad. They had shoved it head first into the space vacated by the rock, so the neck opening faced outwards. When we became teenagers, we used the doll’s head to pass love notes to each other that we did not want others to see. It was a mailbox of sorts. I was always excited to find a note that my Eufrasia had left me.”

“Oh…that’s interesting…I wonder…” Jasmine said softly, her hand on her chin and her head cocked as she became lost in thought.

“Wonder what?” I asked.

The ferry had reached the dock, the crew had opened the gate, and a group of foot passengers were walking away from the ferry. Soon the cars would drive up the ramp and rumble along the old, wooden deck boards. Before waiting for her answer, I prompted Halim.

“Come on, Halim, I don’t want you to miss your ferry. They’ll be loading the passengers soon. Let’s walk back,” I said.

Halim and I walked along the beach towards the overgrown trail that led to the dock abutment. For a while, Jasmine held back, deep in thought. Suddenly, she broke into a run and caught up to us.

“Halim! You must go back!” Jasmine announced, grabbing his arm.

“What do you mean?” Halim said, turning to face her.

“I mean, you have to go back to Africa,” she said breathlessly.

“I don’t understand,” Halim said.

“The doll’s head. It’s in the doll’s head. Eufrasia has left you a message in the doll’s head. She would have…she must have. I know it!”

Jasmine grabbed Halim’s shoulders, watching the understanding dawn on his once puzzled face.

“Of course!” Halim shouted, leaning back and running his hands through his wiry black hair. “I am a fool, such a fool! Oh, Eufrasia, will you ever forgive me? I will go home for now, but I will go back to Africa as soon as I can.”

Jasmine stepped back from Halim, and I saw the intensity in his eyes, wet with the excitement of hope. He reached out and grabbed me in a hug that expelled the breath from my lungs. He released me and then took Jasmine’s face gently in his large, strong hands, and kissed her forehead as a tear ran down his face. He said something to her that was drowned out by the rumble of the vehicles along the old wharf.

* * *

Months later, I received an email that puzzled me at first—until I read all the way to the end. It was from Halim, and the subject line was missing.

I am sorry, my friend, for not keeping in touch with you. I have been travelling in areas that have little electricity, let alone a connection to the internet. I will have to return to Canada as I need to be back at work, so I will see you again soon.

I have had a very difficult time, and I have been sick for a while. Some of the water was not good to drink, but that was all there was. I am well now, thanks to Allah.

Peacekeepers recently repaired the well wall, so it was very different than it was when I was young. I searched for our secret mailbox and did not find it until I recognized one of the stones. I had to chip away some of the new concrete before I could expose the doll’s head.

I was very hesitant to feel inside the plastic head for fear there would be nothing. My friend—Jasmine was right! There was a note, and it was from Eufrasia. She was working as a nurse with Médecins Sans Frontières. One day, she travelled with a team of doctors who visited her old village. It was very hard for her as she has such painful memories.

She told me the well was still damaged when she found it, and she had to pull away the rubble to find where the doll’s head was cemented. That’s when she left the note in the hope that I was still alive and would find it.

When I finally found Eufrasia, she was working at a camp on the east side of the country. It was very remote, and it took me some weeks to reach it. Daniel, my friend, my heart could not contain all the joy I felt that day. When I first saw her, I ran so fast that I could not stop, and I crashed into her. She had a bruise on her face for days afterwards. Many times, I was laughed at by the doctors and the nurses.

Eufrasia travelled with me to the capital where we have applied for her to join me in Canada. I told her she will become a citizen. I said to her, “she will live with me, and we will have many children, and they will have many grandchildren.” She was very happy to hear me say that. You will have to buy many hot dogs and burgers when we are old and join you for your summer barbecues.

I was sad when Eufrasia had to return to the camp. She is a good nurse, and the doctors want her to be a doctor too. I think that is good because she will need to look after our children when they are not well.

I have been filling out many forms, and it has taken a lot of time. The Canadian government has needed much proof and a lot of information that I did not have. Fortunately, I met a man from a village near mine who works at the embassy, and we have become strong friends.

When Eufrasia can come to Canada, I will go back to Africa to help her. She has not travelled on an airplane and told me she would be very frightened. I promised that I would hold her hand the whole way. And then all will be as it should be, thanks to you and Jasmine, my wonderful friends.

Your happy friend, Halim!