Ilya’s grandmother raised him to revere the old gods.
“Dal is the High King, ruler of the heavens and earth and all the lesser gods. Hela rules the darkness, Sela the heavens and thunder.”
He grips his rifle and stares through the open door of the C-47.
The aircraft bucks and judders in the gusts.
Next to him, Parks is heaving as though he might be sick.
Ilya hits him hard on the arm.
“Ow!” says Parks, looking hurt.
Ilya proffers a Lucky Strike, lights it with his brass Zippo.
A sound like thunder over the drone of the engines.
Distant flashes in the clouds.
Not thunder, then.
Anti-aircraft guns beneath the fog below.
Parks retches again.
Ilya waves his fist.
Parks shrinks back, grinning. “Just fucking with you.”
The wind brings with it a new smell of green woods.
Ilya closes his eyes and tries to remember the prayer to Sela.
What Pegman Saw: Chechnya
On the night of June 5th, 1944, 13,100 American paratroopers of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions were dropped into France to secure inland positions for the enormous Allied invasion the next morning. High winds and foggy conditions scattered both the 101st and 82nd Airborne divisions all over the countryside, with hundreds of soldiers landing in trees, swamps, and even rooftops. Despite a disastrous beginning, the Airborne was able to effectively assemble and take most of their objectives.
America being what it is, many of the soldiers were the sons or grandsons of immigrants from France, Italy, Germany, and even Chechnya. Traditional Chechens believed that trees were the abodes of spirits and developed many rituals to serve a complex cosmology of gods and demons.
There’s one in every Jersey town. More than one, probably. Named the same. Fat Tony’s. Greasy Joe’s. Vince’s. They all look the same, with the grease-slick linoleum floor that was never new, faded posters of barely-remembered movies, maybe a Pong or Pac-Man machine, maybe out of order.
The smell of cheese, of vinegar, of frying onions and peppers. Stacks of sub rolls piled on a rack, a well-worn slicer on the back counter. The shop’s first dollar in a cheap frame on the wall above a Polaroid of the owner’s father behind the counter, face bleached snow-white by the flashbulb.
Bunua-Varilla toyed with his coffee, swirling the petite silver spoon against the delicate porcelain cup. The president glowered through his spectacles across his vast desk, practically bubbling with impatience.
“The cause of the delay,” said the former director-general of the now-bankrupt French company, “is the lawyer Cromwell. Were it not for him, Mr. President, we would move forward.”
“You must understand, Mr. Varilla,” said Secretary Hay, “we are only speaking of hypotheticals. The United States Government doesn’t negotiate business deals.”
“He knows that, John,” said Roosevelt, fidgeting. His usual restless energy was barely contained. “What will it take, Mr. Varilla? Hypothetically.”
At last, the question nobody has had the temerity to ask. “Independence for the new republic, of course,” Bunua-Varilla said in a matter-of-fact tone. “Immediate diplomatic recognition from the United States. An embassy in Panama City.” He allowed himself a smile. “And of course, a great deal of money.”
The American president Theodore Roosevelt liked to boast “I took Panama”. He was referring to his part in the international negotiations and double-dealing that brought about the construction of the now-famous canal across the Central American isthmus in the early years of the 20th century.
Roosevelt’s aim was to ensure that the powerful navy he was creating could deploy as speedily against an Asian power (Japan) as a European one (Germany). The colossal engineering task was the first stroke of the “big-stick” diplomacy he preached. It also generated enough deceit and comic bravado for the plot of an operetta.
The former director-general of the bankrupt company, Phillipe Bunua-Varilla, wanted the United States to buy the concession that Colombia had granted the French, together with the abandoned works and equipment, which had been valued at a cool $109 million.
After many backroom meetings and a strawman Panamanian revolution fabricated by agents of the United States against a reluctant Columbia, a French intermediary was authorized to seek diplomatic recognition of the Republic of Panama and arrange the signing of a canal treaty with the US. Bunua-Varilla sent off $100,000 to the revolutionaries and the US State Department granted recognition to the new country within hours.
He’s not changed in the slightest as he stands behind the bar in the selfsame dimness common to all my memories of this place, this very place, my home.
But a shaft of pale sunlight catches the side of his face and I can see that yes, he has changed, he who always seemed to me a man of stone, granite hair and obsidian eyes, marble fingers and few if any words.
Many an hour have I sat my New York desk with closed eyes trying to picture him as he stands now, striving to summon words that might capture the wool of his collar, the muscles of his jaw shifting beneath the skin like a foot beneath the bedclothes.
In this shaft I see him as he is, see him as though for the first time, an old man alone in an empty bar.
The longhouse was warm and smoky and the blizzard howled outside. A spitted loin of venison dripped grease into the hissing fire as Massasoit squatted and smoked his new pipe, a gift from the Williams who now sat across from him, draped in a bearskin and shivering uncontrollably.
The Williams was one of the few Europeans that Massasoit trusted. He liked his candor in council, especially how he stood up to the others about their rude behavior and greed.
“So tell me, friend,” said Massasoit, “what you did that enraged them enough to finally cast you out.”
“I called them priest bitches,” said the Williams. “They got up to be mad liars, trying to tie me down.”
The Williams was learning Wampanoag, though his word choices could be both shocking and hilarious. Massasoit suppressed a smile. “Yes, they are liars. We have seen this. But you are not a liar.”
What Pegman Saw: Rhode Island
Roger Williams was a puritan minister who sailed with his wife for the Massachusetts colony in 1631. Upon arrival, he immediately clashed with the colony’s religious leaders, decrying the hypocrisy in the way they dealt with the native peoples. Williams himself treated the Wampanoag fairly, trading English goods for furs and meat. He learned their language and respected them as fellow human beings, equal in stature to Europeans as God’s creatures. He became special friends with Wampanoag Sachem Massasoit. Williams wrote:
Boast not proud English of thy birth & blood Thy brother Indian is by birth as Good. Of one blood God made Him, and Thee & All, As wise, as faire, as strong, as personall. By natures wrath’s his portion, thine no more Till grace his soule and thine in Christ restore Make sure thy second birth, else thou shalt see, Heaven ope to Indian, but shut to thee.
In 1635, the Salem Colonial council grew tired of his arguing and convicted Williams of sedition. They passed a sentence of deportation to be executed as soon as a ship was available.
Williams fled. In the depths of one of the coldest winters in recent memory, this city boy from London, made his escape on foot from Salem. The English settlements at Plymouth and Boston were closed to him, but a Wampanoag hunting party found him and gave him shelter before bringing him safely to Massasoit’s home near present-day Bristol.
Williams founded his own colony soon after, embodying many of the principles that became the guiding forces of the US Constitution.
Xiang kept his eyes on the armored carrier, not wanting to crash into it. It did not have taillights and the oversized tires threw immense amounts of dust into the air. A collision would be more than disastrous.
He risked a glance in the rear-view to check on the minister and the general. Both were dressed in what seemed like ballroom finery, the minister wearing a black silk suit with starched white shirt, the general in a high collar encrusted in golden oak leaves.
The carrier stopped. Xiang put the limousine in park.
The soldiers tumbled out of the carrier and formed an honor guard, weapons held tight to their shoulders.
Xiang got out, went to the minister’s door and opened it.
The general climbed out too, placing his oversized peaked cap squarely on his head.
He walked out into the marigolds, looked around. “Yes,” he said. “This will do.”
In 1958, Deng Xiaoping selected Haibei to be the epicenter of China’s nuclear weapons development efforts, building the Northwest Nuclear Weapons Research and Design Academy based on Soviet designs. The academy was the site of much of China’s early weapons design work, including the development of China’s first atom bomb and first hydrogen bomb. It was also the earliest site for the centralized storage of nuclear weapons.
The fact that it is also the Tibet Autonomous Region was not considered.