My first day in Kani on the southern Saharan fringe, I met Tariq. His skin was darker than the sand under my feet, but not quite the burnt brown of the dust that blew from the west every afternoon, darkening the sky and burnishing the mud- and stone-walls of the village’s granaries and compounds. It was a dust that filled my nose and plugged my ears and darkened my own skin, blending me with the cliffs and desert.

    A tall slim body, fine hands, and a head of curly black hair. Tariq’s eyes were wide and hazel with jets of amber. We spoke in common one word, bonjour, hello. He was eight years old, and orphaned, living invisibly with distantly related family. I felt his disconnection. I recognized hunger behind his shy manner. It kept him alone.

    Tariq attached himself to me. I’d put my arm around his shoulder and he’d move close to seam us together down the sides of our bodies. He shadowed my moves through the open market, held my hands to his cheeks, waited for an invitation and then ate when I ate. My attachment, though, by necessity was ephemeral. His came to feel a matter of life and death. I could glean only that he was of Tuareg origin and had been left in the village by his mother.

    We stayed close for the three days Moussa – my traveling companion – and I were delayed, and, as we left, I wondered: had I given Tariq reason to believe I could carry him off to an America of tap water and beefsteak? Brothers and sisters and a visit to the dentist? I hoped not.

 

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    Most human beings have had the experience of a connection simply revealing itself. Always without intention, always a surprise, but strong enough in its immediacy to seem to have existed prior to, and independent of our notice – which was all it needed, ultimately, to complete the circuit. That’s what I’d felt years earlier with my father and, now, for this child. Tariq’s need to be wanted and loved overtook me beyond reason – perhaps because I saw in his desire, my own, and could do little about either. His need was intense. And the sorrow I felt, feel still, at having left him behind, mirrored my own long-buried feelings of loss.

Tariq wasn’t so different from me. I’d learned young that if I smiled and made no problems, Mom would stay: such reasoning from a child who instinctively knew she wouldn’t survive without a parent. Maybe that’s how Tariq approached me. Smile, hold her hand, look into her eyes, make no trouble.

    Moussa had little comprehension of such emotions. I wanted him to know that friends leave, Daddies die. Mommies check out, they abandon you in Macy’s when you make a fuss. Daddy kissed us goodbye and I never saw him again. We can cry and claw in protest or embrace the reality; it doesn’t matter. Everything changes all the time. Control is an illusion and, as children, we have no words for the feelings and fears of such disillusionment. I wasn’t allowed at Daddy’s funeral: perhaps the convention of the time. My happy world exploded and I was left to wonder. In retrospect, I understand the magnet that drew Tariq to me. All I had to do was smile, show him some sweetness to dull the profound doubt – if only for the moment – that nothing in his life may ever again feel right.

    Moussa observed my drama unfold and was considerate, to a point. But sadness was not new to him. He lived in Bamako among dozens of boys like Tariq, and cautioned me.

At the time, I silently, angrily, labeled him as one of those people on last week’s flooded street who would have passed by without stopping to help the girl in the gutter.

    Maybe Tariq would have been more important in my life than what I already had, but I chose not to find out. Did our connection matter? Not, ultimately, I have to guess – even hope – in any lasting way to him, a child whose day-to-day determination to survive had to take precedence over any kind of sentiment. I left, and perhaps Tariq kept his eyes open for the next exit opportunity. I was able to leave, and I left him there, both of us in tears, he feeling orphaned again after a brief connection with a foreign woman, I not wanting to feel anything.

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