A Time to Play God


While looking back through these events, it occurred to me that someone might take offense – at the events that are purported to have happened, at the people involved, at some of the beliefs expressed. Please understand that no one is criticizing anyone’s culture or religion. That said, there are certain beliefs, rationalizations and justifications that lead to terrible events when fundamentalist extremism and desperation of any kind are allowed to exist. This is one of those stories.

*                *                *

We called him Jim. That wasn’t his name, but it was short and easy to remember. Of course, we all asked him what his real name was. He’d mumble something unpronounceable that even those of us who spoke the dialect couldn’t reproduce. In the end, it was easier to just call him Jim.

He was our go-to guy, for everything from the best local food to the Western creature comforts that were impossible to find in this god-forsaken corner of the world. Our NGO was one of the few left in this part of the country, and the only one still crazy enough to staff this township. We couldn’t have survived without him.

Jim was tall and surprisingly urbane and well educated. His English was impeccable, with a trace of a formal British accent. Unlike the other local men, he was clean-shaven and outgoing. It had taken us months to be allowed into the lives of this town’s residents. Jim burst into our lives with a huge grin and bone-crushing bear hugs for anyone in his path.

One day, Jim burst into my office with his usual infectious swagger.

“Ah, my friend, today you learn to play backgammon!”

Actually, I already knew how to play. I may have been a rusty when I arrived in town, but I quickly learned that a casual game back in the States was a completely different endeavor over here. Surprisingly large sums of money would pass back and forth on every match. Grudges, jealousies and bodily harm erupted on a regular basis. I lost often and badly. I paid my often-substantial debts quickly, which was one of the things that had endeared me to these otherwise very cautious people.

“Jim, you know I’m no match for you guys. I’ve got a math degree from Princeton and a PhD from Michigan, and you guys destroy me pretty much every day.”

“That’s because you Westerners only think you know how to play. You have to grow up with it, to feel it. For us, it’s part of who we are. We created this beautiful game, and now you’ve been here long enough to understand. Today, you learn to play.”

Jim unwrapped a package he’d been carrying. It was, not surprisingly, a backgammon board. It was beautiful, tastefully elegant, with wood inlays and patterns of gemstones around the borders. The pips were black and white onyx. One die was black with white dots. The other was white with black dots. The doubling die – the one used to double the stakes whenever the dice rolled doubles – was a red stone that I didn’t recognize. It must have cost a fortune.

“Jim, that’s amazing. Where did you get it?”

“It does not matter. It’s part of my gift to you. You will learn to play backgammon. And you will learn who you really are.”

I wanted – needed – to protest. But I’d learned enough about the rules of hospitality out here to know better than to refuse. It would have been an unforgiveable insult. If Jim couldn’t afford the board, then he wouldn’t have offered it to me.

And so my education began. Every time Jim passed through our village, he would slam open the door to my office, pull up a chair, demand a fresh pot of tea and take down the backgammon set.

At first, I lost just as often and badly as I had with the locals. He was a brilliant tactician, with a phenomenally subtle feel for the mathematics underpinning the game. I began to realize that Jim was easily my intellectual equal, and our conversations began to drift from local issues to the broader challenges roiling our corner of the world.

It seemed that Jim knew everyone, from the villagers around us to the politicians in the capital. He even had sources within the various insurgent groups whom the army had pushed into the mountains. It was often due to his influence that these warlords were willing to let us do our work and keep us out of harm’s way when trouble flared.

And so we played. I slowly got better. One day, I beat Jim, and it was due to strategy, not luck. He beamed.

“Finally! My friend, you are ready. I congratulate you!”

“Ready for what?”

“You will see. Thank you for the match and the tea. It is time, and I must be going.”

With that, he stood, wrapped his coat around his shoulders and swept from the room, as charming and as enigmatic as ever.

Months went by, but there was no sign of Jim. The security situation around us was deteriorating, and I had been ordered by our European headquarters to start planning our evacuation. Several other villages had been overrun by a violent fundamentalist cult. Most of our staff had already left, and we were down to just a few remaining Westerners. The helicopter to take us back to the capital was scheduled to arrive next Tuesday.

Once we were gone, five years of hard work trying to help these people build better lives would probably be lost within days. It was heartbreaking. These people had become our friends. Not only would we miss them dearly, but there would be nothing we could do to help or protect them once we were gone.

I was packing up the last of our office equipment when the insurgents attacked. The only warning we got was some light gunfire on the outskirts of town. Then shouting, as maybe 300 soldiers swarmed in, easily outnumbering the 200 or so permanent residents who lived here.

The garrison that was supposed to protect us had either melted away, switched sides or been killed. Four or five soldiers in dusty black uniforms and wraps over their faces burst into my office. They shot at the ceiling, just to make sure they had my to get my attention. Two of them grabbed me, one by my hair and the other by one arm, and they threw me to the floor. Someone pulled a burlap sack over my head. My hands were bound behind my back. The plastic ties cut deeply into my wrists.

I was too stunned to react, and too terrified to fight back. The soldiers yelled at me in a combination of local dialect and some other patois that I didn’t recognize. I think they wanted me to stand up. I tried, but my legs were shaking too much to support my weight. I felt hands on each arm, and I was hauled up off the ground. A voice sounded in my ear.

“Walk. Or die.”

I found a way to walk.

As we staggered outside, I realized the sack covering my face wasn’t much of a blindfold. I could see blurry snatches of what was happening. The townspeople were being pulled from their homes, the men and boys separated from the women and girls. A few families tried to protest. When two men tried to fight back, a few short bursts of bullets ended the argument.

Over the screaming and the crying, I recognized voices among the attackers. They were villagers, including one whom had hosted me for dinner just a week earlier.

My captors and I lurched from one end of the village to the other, my escorts grunting with effort when my legs were too panicked to function. There was a warehouse of sorts at the far end, more like a large shed than anything else, where we had been collecting our supplies and personal property for the evacuation. Someone opened the door to the shed and I was shoved inside.

I fell to my knees. Someone cut the wrist ties. I flinched, and felt the knife cut the skin on my left hand. Blood started to drip off my fingers. I did not look up. I heard footsteps walking away from me, and then the door closing and being barricaded from the outside.

I pulled the sack off my head and looked around. It was dark in the room. Once my eyes adjusted, I saw that our computers, office equipment and other pieces of technology were gone. The duffel bags and backpacks with our clothing were all that remained. I opened my bag and grabbed a t-shirt, wrapped it around my left hand, and waited for the bleeding to stop.

I heard a soldier barking orders using a megaphone somewhere on the other side of the village. It was a nightmare.

The villagers were condemned for being stooges of the infidel West, traitors to their heritage and their religion. Everyone must submit to this group’s interpretation of God’s word – a new, twisted form of “pure” religious law. Resistance meant death. All property now belonged to the soldiers, who would decide who could live where, what jobs they would perform, what food they would eat. Those who cooperated and did as they were told could stay. The rest would be shot.

All physically able men would become warriors or die. Betrayal to the cause meant that their families would be killed All women were to hide any appearance of skin, and could not leave a building without permission of the authorities. Unmarried girls and women were to be given to the soldiers as brides. School was banned, but boys were to be forced to learn a combination of this faux-religion and basic military training.

I had descended into madness and hell. It was impossible. It was unthinkable. And it was happening all around me.

It was hot in the warehouse. The door was solidly blocked. I thought about breaking through the walls, but couldn’t figure out how to do so without making noise. I was sweating, probably more from fear than anything else, and my lips were parched. I kept having visions of being paraded on my knees in front of a camera, my head about to be cut off for a propaganda video. I couldn’t see any other reason they had left me alive.

By evening, I could hear trucks and Humvees rolling through the streets. No one had come for me. I needed to go to the bathroom. After a while, I did the only thing I could. I went to the far end of the shed, relieved myself in a corner and used the shirt from my hand to clean myself off.

It was terrifying and degrading, which was probably exactly what my captors wanted me to feel. They were in charge, and my welfare mattered nothing to them.

As night started to settle in, I knew I needed warmer clothing. As hot as it gets during the day, it can be astonishingly cold out here once the sun goes down. I started fumbling through the baggage. It was too dark to do more than guess whether any of the bags were mine or not. I finally found an overcoat. It was much too big for me, so it must have been Sven’s. I put it on.

Sven. Mary. Tom. There had been five of us remaining in the area. I hadn’t seen or heard any of them since the invasion. There weren’t that many places in town to hide a bunch of Westerners, and I doubted many of our friends were willing to take the risk. I hoped they were OK, but feared for the worst.

I woke up the next morning when I heard the door opening. I was cold, stiff and sore. My tongue was so dry I couldn’t swallow. I stank.

Two soldiers came in. Light was just creeping over the horizon. They didn’t bother with covering their faces. I didn’t recognize either one. They had long beards and dead, angry eyes.

“Get up.”

I tried to talk, but couldn’t. One of the soldiers placed the barrel of his AK-47 against my neck.

“Get up.”

I rose to all fours and then started to vomit. Someone kicked me hard in the ribs, and I fell over on my side. Then two more soldiers came in. They lifted me by the arms and dragged me out into the dawn.

This time, I didn’t even try to make my legs work. My feet left tracks in the dust as they carried me to the biggest house in town, which up until yesterday had belonged to the mayor. They lifted me over the threshold and left me in the front entryway. Two other soldiers then picked me up and dropped me in front of the desk in the parlor. I lay on the floor and groaned.

“Ah, my friend. What is this? Is this how you greet me?”

I was lifted into a chair. Slowly, I raised my head and looked across the desk. Jim’s smiling face beamed back at me, except that this time there was a cruelty in his smile that I’d never seen before.

“You are surprised to see me? Tsk – you shouldn’t be. I thought I’d taught you better than that. Please. You must be hungry. And your appearance is disgusting.”

He yelled something in dialect. I hurt too much to bother trying to translate. I found myself hauled away again, thrown into a bathtub, washed and handed a towel. When I stood up, a soldier handed me a toothbrush and toothpaste, then pointed a pistol at my head. When I was done, he handed me floss. I flossed.

Someone tossed a set of loose pants and tunic at me, along with a pair of boots. I pulled them on. Somewhat to my surprise, they fit.

The soldier with the dental fetish pointed his pistol at the door, then at me. We walked back into the den, where a small table had been set on the floor, with a cushion on either side of it. Jim was nowhere to be found, but water, yogurt, fruit and the local flatbread were on a tray on the table.

I was beginning to understand the drill. Although it was the last thing I wanted to do, I ate.

About an hour later, Jim came back into the room. He was carrying the backgammon set he’d given me under his arm. We were alone, but I had no doubt there were armed guards all around. I had no doubt he could kill me easily, should the impulse strike him.

He moved the tray to the desk, opened the backgammon set on the table, and sat down on the cushion opposite to me.

“So. Now we play .”

I didn’t say anything.

“Why so glum, my friend? Aren’t you glad to see me? Do you want to insult my hospitality?”

“You’re one of them.”

“One of who? There is no ‘them’ over here. It’s just ‘us.’ And I am one of us. It’s you Westerners who are the ‘them.’ Now, we play.”

I wanted to scream at him. I wanted to strangle him. I wanted to run back into the street and get shot by one of the soldiers. I wanted to be dead.

Instead, I didn’t do anything.

“It seems you need a little encouragement. That’s OK – we can do that.”

Jim reached into a pocket and pulled out a small military radio. He barked a quick series of commands that I didn’t catch, except for the name Sven. Then he sat back and smiled.

I heard scuffing from outside, then a solitary gunshot. A woman screamed. It was Mary.

“OK – so now you have a little incentive. I think you know who that was.”

I stared, too stunned to do anything else.

He looked directly at me. His voice was cold.

“Pick up the dice.”

I did as I was told.

We played.

I lost.

Badly.

“I am so disappointed. In the last few months, you have forgotten so much. I think you need a reminder. Let’s see – the doubling die is on 8. Yes, that’s a good number.”

Once again, Jim spoke into his radio. After two of the longest minutes of my life, I heard eight single gunshots. Then I heard women screaming and crying.

“You. You come over here and tell us how to do things. You send your troops to make us live your way. You act like you are gods. But do you really bother to learn who we are? How we live? Of course not. But we learn about you. I’ve lived in your world. I’ve studied in your schools. I know how you think. But you? I thought you might be different. You are a disappointment.”

Jim left the room. I was taken upstairs and placed in a bedroom. The door locked behind me, and I was left alone to consider the horror of the day.

Someone brought me dinner. I ate because I was too terrified not to. After dark, a voice outside the door ordered me to sleep. Somehow, I managed to. I think I was too crushed to do anything else. When I woke up in the morning, it was a hollow version of myself that stared back from the bathroom mirror.

Like the day before, I was taken to the den at the front of the house. As before, there was food waiting for me on the table. I ate mechanically. After a while, Jim came in with my backgammon set.

“So. We are ready to play today?”

I felt a slow, cold anger starting to build in my gut. In spite of myself, in spite of everything, I realized what I had to do.

“Give me the dice.”

And so we played, him with gusto and a sick, peculiar delight, and me with a desperate passion I never knew I could possess. There was a cold calculation behind every move I made. The triangle pattern on the board looked like sharp teeth, ready to close on the hand of the unwary. Backgammon may be partly a game of chance, but I was leaving nothing to luck. Lives were at stake, even though I knew people were going to die because of me, no matter what I did.

An hour or so later, the stakes had mostly balanced out. I had a small overall advantage – two points after everything contested had been added up. Jim smiled, clearly pleased with himself.

“So. You win by two. I salute your play. Two of your friends will go free.”

I made eye contact and raised an eyebrow.

“Why are you so surprised? You have known me to be a man of honor. That does not change, just because you are my… guest.” He spoke into his radio. “So it is done. Two of your Western friends will be taken to the capital and released.”

With that, Jim left the room, taking the backgammon set with him. The other door to the room opened, and a guard motioned for me to leave. No one pointed a gun at me, and I went back to my room. Lunch was waiting. No one was watching me or outside my door.

Later that night, I was summoned back downstairs for another round. Jim was waiting for me on his cushion. When he saw me, he smiled as he recognized what he had been looking for.

At that moment, I understood. It was everything – the competitiveness behind the backgammon, the petty feuds, the wariness around outsiders, the willingness to take what we Westerners gave without volunteering much of anything in return. I finally knew the hatred, the fascination, the jealousy of who we were and the dismissal of everything we stood for. Suddenly, I needed blood to settle the score, real or imaginary.

It was now obvious how this was going to play out. Either I would win until every villager was free, or I would lose until we all were dead. I was now God, and I was going to deliver life or death for everyone in my care.

I reached for the pips and set up the board. Einstein be damned – this god was going to play dice.

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~ by jld0077 on January 30, 2015.

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