I'm the angel of death, babe, the end is near
Keep your hand on your chest
Don't let me whisper in your ear
It's best to keep on walking
Lock the door when I come knocking
Mine's the voice you never want to hear
“Angel of Death,” by HoneyHoney
Béatrice Duchamp no longer believes in the power of prayer.
Not after seeing the bloated bellies of starving children in a land fertile enough to feed all of Africa; not after treating wounds infested with flies; not after watching women go out for firewood, and return with their souls destroyed by men without mercy.
Two or three years ago, when her medical degree had come with a calling to wade into grinding poverty and conflict, she would have said yes to that power. Back then she may even have (naïvely) considered her service as part of the answer, to the prayers of the most vulnerable.
But now, with shots stuttering across the camp in broad daylight and guttural voices shouting orders? With armed invaders descending like a swarm of locusts, screams filling the air and nowhere to run? With the men supposedly guarding the camp the first to fall (or run) and her colleague gone for supplies, with the camp’s only sat phone?
No, Béatrice no longer believes in the power of prayer.
And so it is perhaps ironic that the words still rattle in her skull, a rhythmic incantation accompanied by the thrumming beat of her heart and her stuttering breath: Notre Père, qui es aux cieux, Que ton nom soit sanctifié, Que ton règne vienne, Que ta volonté soit faite sur la terre comme au ciel…
From the edge of the camp, smoke sullies the sapphire sky; cooking fires, kicked into canvas. The tat-tat-tat of Kalashnikovs is approaching, and quickly -- the large tent with the red-and-white MSF logo in the center promises drugs and supplies, likely the real target of the invaders. She suspects they’re part of President Mbuto’s militias, soldiers who haven’t seen a paycheck in months intent on carving their survival out of the backs of the people they’re supposed to protect.
One by one though the guns fall silent, sooner than expected. Have they decided to save ammunition? No one here is a threat, and firing at the sky in triumph just means bullets that come down in a rain of lead.
Behind her, a baby starts crying, a thin and anxious wail drawn as much from the fear permeating the camp as it is from the pain of his open sores. Almost by reflex, Béatrice picks up the squalling little boy, to hold him and shush him into silence (for what good that will do).
A man heaves into view at the tent’s opening, his dark, sweat-damp face splitting into a leering grin as he moves the entrance flap aside with his gun. His eyes rake her body and he bares his crooked teeth, snarling something she is glad she can’t understand.
Béatrice straightens as he steps into the tent, and clutches the baby tightly to her chest. What else is there to do, but to face what comes next without letting him have the satisfaction of her fear?
Thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven …
There is a strange sound, almost like a whistle, followed by a sickening thud. The bandit’s snarl turns into an inchoate gargle, as the front of his throat erupts with a sharp shard of metal, and a spurt of blood.
A spear? A harpoon? An ... arrow.
The man’s body takes a useless half step into the tent before it collapses, gracelessly, like a puppet whose string has been cut. The blood is quickly absorbed by the dry, dusty ground.
A dark shadow passes outside, and Béatrice does what every instructor in hostile environment training had drilled into her as an absolute no-no: she goes to look. Still holding the baby, now limp and silent, she walks past the dead thug and pokes her head out of the tent’s opening.
What she sees makes no sense. A man, Caucasian, dressed in black tactical gear, is moving through the camp with a purposeful stride, an alien-looking bow in his hand and a pair of quivers on his back. He looks back at the sound of her footfall, and for a moment Béatrice stares at the metallic glint of her death. But only for a moment – she makes the briefest contact with a pair of piercing eyes, and he turns.
The fact that he leaves his back wide open to her is not lost on Béatrice.
Using the flapping fabric of the tents as imperfect shelter, the stranger weaves from sightline to sightline with the sinuous grace of a large cat. Shot after silent shot he fires from his bow, reaching for new arrows from the quivers on his back with military precision.
And every time he draws, one of the assailants falls, felled by an arrow that sprouts from an eye, or a throat. There will be no need for her to prove her adherence to the Hippocratic Oath by helping enemy survivors.
In a matter of minutes, it is done.
The chaos stills, and children who had been running for their lives just moments ago stop to stare at their saviour in silence, relief and awe warring on their faces with horror at the carnage.
A line from the Book of Daniel flashes unbidden into her mind, not inappropriate when you find yourself in the midst of what looks like the end of days: At that time there shall arise Michael, the great prince, guardian of your people…
Archangel Michael, known by some as the Angel of Death.
But the man dispensing death among the camp’s assailants is no saint, and he is certainly no angel -- he’s a practiced, professional killer himself, that much is clear. Béatrice’s heart pounds as he heads back towards her, his steps clipped and precise, his head turning this way and that, a bit like a bird’s -- an apex predator, sizing up his domain.
His face is taut and unsmiling as he shoulders his bow. He keeps his distance from her though, almost as if he can read her fear, and wants to reassure her.
“You okay?” he asks in English. There is no overt sentiment in his voice; he simply wants to ascertain a fact.
Béatrice can only nod. The man’s eyes -- grey? green? blue? it’s hard to tell, but they’re sharp, like a hawk’s -- soften a little at the sight of the baby in her arms, and his voice loses some of its flatness.
“You should be fine now. They’re all gone.”
Béatrice turns around, looks at the feet sticking out of her tent. Gone, she thinks. Not quite. It’s almost as if he reads her mind.
“I’m sorry I’ll have to leave you with the bodies. But I can’t stay.”
She nods again, this time to signal her understanding. But he’s not done.
“There’s just something I have to do first, though.”
And with that he steps up to the body on the ground, and with a twist and a squelching sound pulls out his arrow and shakes off the blood.
From one of the tents a woman emerges; Maryam, whose husband and son had been killed in front of her in the village they used to call home, and who has found what purpose she can in helping out around the medical station. Béatrice hands her the baby and follows the man with the bow as he retraces his steps through the camp.
He doesn’t introduce himself, doesn’t say how he came to be near the camp, and Béatrice doesn’t ask.
One by one, the stranger retrieves his arrows with clinical precision, the deadly bouquet in his hand growing as they walk. He is not objecting to her presence, probably because he knows that she will be the one to supervise the gathering of the bodies and this way she’ll know where to look.
“I guess we’ll have to burn them,” she says matter-of-factly; he gives her an odd look before agreeing.
“That’d be best,” he replies. “Those thugs were military, and the government won’t want evidence that their guys are attacking civilians. You’d be doing them a favour, and they’ll be more likely to leave you alone.”
In between removing his arrows (she tries hard not to wince, but then again, she’s seen much worse) he asks about her work. He doesn’t offer any comments when she tells him why she is here – to make a difference, to alleviate suffering, to make up for being raised in privilege -- but then again, he doesn’t seem to be a man of many words.
Of course, the thugs aren’t the only dead bodies in the camp, and he watches in silence as Béatrice checks each prone figure they come across. One of the old men is still alive, if gravely injured; she issues quick orders for a stretcher to be brought from the medical tent as she takes off her scarf and uses it a tourniquet. Already, the pool of blood surrounding the injured man is abuzz with the sound of flies.
“You’re a remarkable woman.”
He clears his throat, almost as if he were embarrassed by what he is about to add.
“My mother would have called you an angel of mercy.”
“I’m with Médecins sans Frontières,” she responds, perhaps a little too tartly, but her nerves are stretched to a thin reed and the last thing she needs right now is praise. “This is what we do, why we’re here.”
He nods wordlessly, one professional to another, and heads on without her to complete his task while she arranges to have her patient transported to the medical tent.
A few minutes or so later, a car engine roars to life at the edge of the camp; the sound comes closer, stopping in front of the medical tent.
The man in the black tac suit jumps out of a white jeep with local plates, opens the trunk and starts unloading supplies. Several cases of bottled water, power bars, medicines, a radio, a first aid kit. (New gauze! The ability for camp residents to listen to soccer games on Sundays!)
Béatrice is about to say thank you, when he shakes his head.
“Here,” he says, as he hands her a briefcase, looking a little embarrassed. “You can use this more than me. What you’re doing here …”
His voice falters a little.
“What you do is worth so much more than anything I could ever hope to accomplish in my line of work.”
She wants to argue, starts to say that without him her work here would have been done, but he waves her off.
“Don’t open that in front of people. Just use it wisely.”
“What is it?” she asks, although she already knows. Money.
He shrugs and gives her a half grin that transforms his face, makes him look much younger.
“Consider it a donation from the Mbuto government. Don’t bother with a tax receipt.”
She wonders where the money actually comes from, but looking around the camp and her depleted supplies, it will undoubtedly be a kind of blessing. She tries to thank him, but he demurs.
“No. Thank you.”
And with that, he jumps back into the jeep and drives off, a cloud of dust marking his passage towards the horizon.
Béatrice grits her jaw, stashes the small duffle in a corner, and tries her best to direct a cleanup of the camp and a return to some kind of functionality. Doing something, anything, will be necessary for those who have seen far more horrors than a single lifetime should contain. Sleeping arrangements are made for the survivors whose tents were burned; once more, Béatrice is amazed at the willingness of those who have nothing to accommodate those who have less.
When a little girl brings her another arrow, her eyes as big as saucers, Béatrice sets it aside.
Evening falls swiftly over the camp, with a few tentative fires being lit and the smell of cooking oil slowly replacing the smell of death. Exhausted, she sinks down in the chair by her makeshift desk. Her colleague still hasn’t returned from the capital -- what’s keeping him? Has he run into the same bandits that attacked the camp?
She turns on the little radio and fiddles with the dial until she finds the BBC.
The news comes on, with the usual little fanfare, on the hour. What she hears causes her to freeze: President Norbert Mbuto and members of his inner circle --assassinated during some triumphant event celebrating the wonders of his reign. The former foreign minister has taken over; the capital is in the throes of celebrations. That would certainly explain Jean-Paul’s delayed return (she hopes), but it’s not that information which stills her.
No, it is this: According to the BBC, the assassination of the President and his entourage had been carried out with five arrows -- each circumventing its target’s body armour by being precisely lodged in an eye socket.
The new government is making a good show of mourning the tyrant and has put a price on the head of the assassin. The top suspect is a U.S. national, hired to ensure the President’s security, who vanished immediately after the event. The White House has denied any American involvement, pointing to its long-standing support for President Mbuto; the BBC is speculating that the man in question simply bolted to escape the consequences of his evident failure.
Béatrice turns the radio off. She walks over to where she had stashed the errant arrow, picks it up and weighs it in her hand.
Just a few short hours ago, she had thought about – and denied -- the power of prayer. But then she had been saved. Perhaps it is only fitting though, in this saddest of countries, that the answer to any prayer would come with a price?
Carefully, her hands wrapped in a piece of cloth, Béatrice unscrews the razor-sharp tip and throws it into the bin with the medical detritus marked for burning.
The shaft should make a decent antenna for the camp’s new radio.