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The Swap

by Matthew Salesses

The first short story selection by our new guest editor, Andrew Pyper

Papa came home from our aunt's and went straight into the bedroom, and before Mama locked the door we heard the words rape and death and soldiers. Habi and me listened through the door to Papa's unintelligible noises. We'd seen the soldiers pass through — even on our street — with their machetes and their radios, and when they went by we could hear ourselves compared to bugs. We didn't know anything yet about the pits full of bodies.

Papa had blood on his face. That we understood.

It was our aunt's blood. That we understood, too, but only later admitted.

In the morning Papa said one of us had to go and stay at the neighbors' house and to decide right now who. I looked at Habi but he didn't look back at me. He asked Papa to tell us why he was crying so we didn't have to be scared. Papa said Habi should be the big brother and not make me be the one to sleep there. The neighbors' kids were two boys and two girls, one my brother's age and one older, and I knew Habi liked the younger one and should have wanted to go.

Habi, Papa said, his voice getting dangerously calm.

My brother bit his lip and touched his face and got dirt on his cheek below his eye. He squinted and ducked his head like Papa was going to hit him.

I'll go, I said, afraid for Habi because Papa was already upset. I want to go, I said. Mama started to cry.

Please don't let him, she said.

Someone has to go there, Papa said. I already told the neighbors what they are doing. Maybe it's better this way. The older girl is coming here.

He's too young, Mama said.

I know he's too young, Papa said. But it doesn't matter. Now at least the older ones will be together and the younger ones will be together.

Mama cried harder and Papa pushed me toward the door. I saw that he'd made up his mind. He peeked out, first, and I watched his shirt move when he breathed. Then he let me out behind him and we saw our neighbors cracking open their door. The father held the daughter by her shoulders and Papa did the same with me. Then he let me go and I ran, and the girl ran, too. I looked back but Papa had already closed the door.

Inside, the girl Habi liked asked where my brother was, why he wasn't the one to come over. Her brothers clenched their jaws and shook my hand and peered at me and at the floor and back again. I didn't know what to make of them. I said it had something to do with age. She said she'd been prepared for Habi. Her brothers swallowed audibly and didn't seem to want to be there and left.

She was obviously out of her mind with fear. What are you scared of, I asked.

She searched my eyes for something. I could tell that whatever she wanted to find, she wanted it badly enough that if she couldn't find it she would just pretend. They won't come tonight, she said, will they?

No, I said, not tonight.

She said, I prayed the soldiers wouldn't come.

That was what Habi and I had done the night before while Papa was crying. So I'm your brother now, I said. I'm supposed to be your brother.

They're killing off every one of us, she said. They just make their promise to show us we're nothing. They won't really let us live if we do it, will they?

She went silent when her parents entered. They offered us food and drinks and spoke about nothing and went away again forgetting what they had offered.

Have you ever had sex before? she asked when they were gone.

All the time, I lied.

Oh, she said. I realized she was a virgin, too.

That's right, I said. I'm your brother.

They want to show us we're nothing, she said. That's why they promise it.

I thought I probably didn't know what she was talking about. I think Habi likes you, I said. I wondered if he was as scared as I was with her, with the older sister. The night before he said he'd found a severed penis in the woods.

How could they do that, the girl asked. Make you have sex with your brother if you want to live? Then she said, You think the Tutsis really keep their word?

As she waited for me to answer my stomach felt like a lot of dough, heavy but not substantial. I wondered how Papa had escaped, and whose blood he'd had on his face, and if Habi knew the whole truth or just what he'd told me. She cried and I hated her for crying.

They won't kill us, she said, will they?

I made up my mind. No, I said, not tonight.

Original art courtesy Rob Grom.

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Articles in this Issue

What the Nose Knows, by Avery Gilbert
The Swap, by Matthew Salesses
Honeymoons, by Mary P. Curtis
Unseen Mae La, by Justin Marcello & Zoeann Murphy
Bike, by Scott Saalman
Transportation, by Anne Germanacos
Fine Art, by Lou Brooks
Athletics, by Rebekah Doyle Guss
August 2008


Matthew Salesses is currently in his birth land, Korea, with his fiancée. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Hobart, Mid-American Review, Glimmer Train, Pleiades, Quick Fiction, among others, and has received awards from MAR, Glimmer Train, and IMPAC. He will return to Boston in 2009 to get married, edit Redivider, and finish work on a novel.

Where loss is found.

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