At the turn of the twentieth century, there were the Congo horrors.
Aziraphale waits for word.
Characters: Aziraphale, Crowley, War, Famine, Pestilence, Death.
Warnings: R for reality.
Author's Note: King Leopold II of Belgium was responsible for the deaths of three million Congolese men, women, and children from 1896 to 1906. Since then, there have been revolutions, counterrevolutions, dictatorships, and democracies. The Western world is remarkably ignorant. I can only assume that Heaven and Hell would do the typical bureaucratic thing in this sort of situation and claim hands-off. Even monsters have their limits. This was a cheerful break from goexchange, by the by.
Disclaimer: Aziraphale and Crowley belong to Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, as do War, Famine, Pestilence, and Death in the incarnations presented here. I leaned heavily on Royal Babylon by Karl Shaw (1999) and The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (1996) for my knowledge of the Congo's history. Any historical mistakes made herein are my own stupid fault, and I'd be pleased as punch if you'd let me know of any you spot. The title is taken from Mark Twain's description of King Leopold II as a "moldy and piety-mouthed hypocrite, a bloody monster whose mate is not findable in human history anywhere, and whose personality will surely shame hell itself when he arrives there—which will be soon, let us hope and trust." Enjoy. Or curse humanity. That's what I do.
Let Us Hope and Trust
There are so many hands. They lie in ditches, tucked into bags or straw baskets, tenderly rough. Strewn across dirt tracks, across the vast not-country; the hands of corpses and of the living. Grandfathers, fathers, sons, and lovers, bleeding or crying or staring.
Have you killed enough? the King asked, and was given hands.
Why do you waste your bullets? the King asked, and was given hands.
Three million pounds from three million bodies. Six million hands.
Down this path, it's humid and hot, hair sticking to the back of the angel's neck as he thinks longingly of home and the cool crispness of autumn. He is a temperate creature, and Britain is comfortable. His conscience, brassy as ever, reprimands him for everything he thinks here and every time he flinches.
No one called him here, to this ridiculous jungle, this lonely mausoleum, this bank.
With every step he takes, his mind aches with the shouts of the dead, the improperly buried, the partially converted and the lost. He knows without looking where the mines are, the rubber plantations, the mass graves. He knows where there is a leg bone, flesh gone, gnawed but still whole, sticking out from under the bushes.
He trips over something. For a fleeting moment he stares, horrified, at his feet, seeing a severed hand between them, veins trailing in a growing puddle of blood and mud; sees the fingers twitch as nerve endings die; sees the protruding bone, cut roughly, sharp and open; he hears the rawness in screaming throats.
His stomach lurches. He looks away. When he looks back, there is only a root, gnarled and misshapen, but still a root.
Watch where you're going!
It could have been his hand; they're not so different. Four fingers and a thumb, the palm a bit more calloused perhaps, the skin slightly rougher. The same basic mould. There are differences. Aren't there always?
He looks back down, and the hand is there. This time it's still hanging on to its arm, its owner, its parent, dangling by a strip of flesh and muscle (no fat). There is wetness on the arm. Not blood.
It starts to rain. Aziraphale goes behind a tree to vomit, out of modesty or shame.
The rumours came first. Deaths, many deaths, they whispered. Abuse of land and people. There is no more rubber, no more, none. Where do they get more? From the backs of the dead, of course. Elastic of souls.
Then the missionaries told stories. Many people wished they hadn't. Trading in baskets for money, money for whips. Does it get easier? The dead don't complain. The living, only once.
Then came international fury. A phrase: "Congo horrors". Vitriolic target of the masses: how could he do such things? For money! He was the Unloved before and the Hated after. Indignant shouting, stagnation, and fading . . .
And still there was no word.
He had come across each of them. It wasn't surprising; it wasn't anything.
The first had smiled a secret smile at him. I'm planning something good, she told him. Long-term. Have you ever played games with the lives of men? She laughed into the wind, perfectly pitched, nearly a song. They play with themselves, she said.
The second, hollow-faced and handsome, had nodded politely. There is always work for us here, you know, he said. I have been here before. I won't be leaving soon.
The third had bags under his eyes. He looked sad, which was impossible and frightening. We'll be here for so long, he whispered. I can see it. A century of blood! He watched a little girl watching her mother's body, not crying, waiting to see if she would wake up. This is one thing, he said, they won't be able to cure.
The fourth was unchanged. It said nothing, just watched him. Aziraphale looked across the tent at it briefly, across the bodies and gangrene and emptiness, miles of inches, before getting back to work.
There is still hope, he whispered to them. There's always hope.
He almost believed it.
Father? she murmured.
How often he was mistaken for a missionary! The white people who were not actively trying to suck them dry, although by no means harmless. Some of them trusted the missionaries, though. Some of them had no choice.
No, he said softly, stroking her damp, sweat-tangled hair. Just a man.
Father, she whispered. Father, my home . . .
You're home, he told her firmly. You will be home soon.
It burned down, she said. It's all ash. She held out a gaunt hand. Please, she said, I'm so tired.
He took her hand, put his other on top of it. You rest, he said. You're safe here. Sleep.
He hated being too late.
They came as we slept, she whispered hoarsely. We hadn't been working hard enough. They came and set everything . . . and they came to me . . .
He clutched her to him, reminding himself not to squeeze and cause even more pain. I know, he said, and he did.
Her eyes went wide. My daughter, she rasped, grabbing his shirt, his hair. Where is she? Have you seen my daughter?
She let out a choked sob. Aziraphale wished he could lie.
Every day he waited for word.
He stood in Leopoldville and watched humanity. He walked in the jungle and screamed. He waited for something, anything.
What he got was Crowley.
Ashen and quietly furious, bearing no gifts, he found Aziraphale in one of the tents. There were more now, but not enough.
They walked, not speaking, not looking at each other, each of them unwillingly replaying every microcosmic horror they had ever seen, comparing, contrasting, considering technique.
Any word? said Aziraphale eventually.
Nothing. Crowley spat it out.
The angel sighed and watched tiny, bright birds flit through the canopy. All of this for rubber and money, he said.
You know what? he said. Twain says Leopold will "shame hell itself when he arrives there".
They don't want him, said Crowley. No one wants to be responsible for this.
They were needed back in England soon. Occupied as the world became with the wars, it was easy to forget.
When the hero's murder was acknowledged, weeks after the act itself, Aziraphale went back to Leopoldville. It was Kinshasa now.
There was a street with the man's name, a tiny-large street from differing perspectives, full of dust and children with swollen stomachs, women with hollow eyes. Aziraphale felt the anger that followed him by these tin huts.
He preferred this infinitely to the feelings he got at the president's house. His lawn was beautifully kept, a patch of surreal green in a parched country.
Back in the real town, he heard thoughts as if they were being spoken aloud. Where were you? they asked. He couldn't think of a satisfactory answer.
Tidy and neat, folded into the newspaper, are statistics. On the left side is a tiny, spreading patch of hot tea. Aziraphale mops it up automatically, and stares.
Abruptly standing up, he goes over to the phone. Crowley comes along sometimes; sometimes he doesn't. Aziraphale always calls, anyway.
They no longer expect word.