Born in South Africa, Luke Beling left home at 19 on a tennis scholarship. In 2007, Luke graduated from Campbellsville University with a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature. He lived in China, Minnesota, and Saipan before settling with his wife and four daughters in Hawaii. Through athletic competition and world travel Luke gained insight into the human experience without ever losing heart for the human spirit.
Luke has had several short stories published in journals and magazines, including: Quiet Shorts (2012), Eyelands Flash Fiction (2019), Academy of the Heart and Mind (2021), and New Reader Magazine (2021).
Luke works as a director of tennis for a private club on the Big Island of Hawaii and as a content writer for an emerging surf brand. Luke is also an indie-folk songwriter with over five-thousands listeners per month across all streaming platforms.
Carried in the Arms of Darkness
Five black jeeps, filled with men dressed in camouflage, stormed into my village while I was kicking a ball with my brother and father. My father put his hand over his mouth and looked at my brother and me with eyes so big I thought we could jump into them. We heard the shrill of my mother’s voice. My father gasped. Arthritis squeezing his every joint, he sprinted towards our house with my mother’s name on his lips. I froze with fear tying my feet in a cattle’s hitch knot. A man with a peaked cap looked into my eyes. It felt like he could see into my soul. He smiled at me with bright red lips curling up to the bottom of his nose, and then he threw a rag of fire onto my neighbor’s home. The flames shot up into the sky like a coral in full bloom. Bullets sprayed across our dirt street like chicken feed. My legs stayed locked with a panic that felt like heat—a feeling I’d only experienced trying to corral a young bull. The panic settled in my throat, turning into a lump big enough to keep any air from entering in and out. I took a few steps with feet heavy as buckets of water.
Holding my lifeless mother in his hands, my father screamed: “Boys! Run!”
The terror in his voice undid my catatonic state. I peered into his eyes. They looked like pools of terrifying darkness. My brother fell into the sand, his legs too slow to keep up with mine. I stopped, turned my face to him, then just watched him, didn’t even offer a word. The chaos continued gripping me, squeezing me until my only thought was making it out alive. I covered my vision with the heels of my hands.
“Jumi!” my brother cried.
I dragged my palms slowly down my face, then opened my fingers so that I had tiny peepholes to look through.
Bullets shoveled into my brother’s flesh until his screams vanished with his breath. My father snatched my arm and dragged me into the forest. We hid behind a giant baobab tree and watched the orange fire on our grass roof touch the sky, a chaotic glow tailed by black, suffocating smoke. When we got to our feet, my father didn’t speak. Instead, he walked faster than I’d ever seen him move. I tried to keep near his side so I could look up into his face. His leathered skin, a warm invitation of love I’d known for ten years, stretched in cold, lifeless lines, tightening his cheeks, appearing as though his bones were knives trying to cut their way out. I wondered if he’d come back, if the man I didn’t recognize would slip out of my father’s body and return the only person who might’ve known how to carry the darkness. Eventually, when the sun had nearly vanished, in a soft, hollow voice, my father said we’d need to walk for at least a week. “We can never go back there, Jumi.” His eyes looked like glass bottles collecting rainwater.
I wrapped my hands around his fingers and squeezed. The sky’s black blanket of haze hid every memory of our lives as we turned our heads towards the direction of our village. My father’s face strained, looking as though he’d found or heard something. Then he spun around, pulled his fingers from my hand, and said: “Let’s move.”
The dry, crusted earth broke under our bare feet. Baobabs appeared like clouds every so often, providing respite and a hiding place to catch our breaths.
In the shade, I nudged closer to my father, but he distanced me with his arm, handing me roots of shrubs, saying: “Drink!”
I sucked the roots until dirt spread across my tongue then gave them back to him. He threw them to the ground with a look that made me think he blamed me, saw me as a coward, a bystander without a conscience, to the death of his baby boy. When I closed my eyes, I wished it was me I saw shot to pieces.
At night we strained to make out the red eyes of rabbits. When my father beat their heads with a stick, he moaned, so sick a sound, I felt afraid of him. He didn’t eat a single piece of meat. My stomach burned with hunger, but I took only nibbles, hoping my words would do more for me than food. “I’m sorry, Father. I’m so sorry.”
Then, neck knotted, he lifted only his gaze and said: “Eat Jumi.”
Eventually, we arrived at a field dressed in brown tents and helicopters. Someone sprinted towards us, across the sun-burnt grass, as we appeared over the ridge. My father jumped in front of me, grabbed a sharp stick from the ground, and stood with trembling legs. The man paused, put his hands up, hands as big as I’ve ever seen, and with a kind smile, he said: “Welcome! You’re safe now.”
I pushed in front of my father and snatched a water bottle from the man’s pocket. I took it without a smile or greeting. As the cold liquid ran over my cracked lips, my vision landed on hundreds of people gathered in small circles, surrounded by men in uniform with guns strapped over their chests. The sight of them made me feel like running away. I offered the bottle to my father. His knees smeared into the dirt. His lips pressed against the man’s black shiny shoes. I held the canteen against my father’s face, and it slid, with his tears, off his cheeks. Then he looked at me. He smiled and reached out his hands. At that moment, it was as though we were kicking a ball again. I held his hands until I could feel his bones.
Until his broken, calloused skin gave me the courage to look at the crowd. His eyes closed. His head drooped, and his palms let go of mine. The man gripped him, tried to pull my father to his feet. Thin, twig-like legs buckled. The veins on the man’s forearms ran across his skin like narrow rivers searching for the sea. I clenched my fists and shut my eyes. I saw my brother and then my father’s smile. My eyes opened. I watched the man scoop bulky arms under my father’s back, slowly handing him to the earth to lay flat. “Nurse! We need a stretcher over here! Nurse!”
“Is he okay!? Is he going to be okay!?” I forced my quivering voice into the man’s eardrum. His other leaned into my father’s heart. Without pause, the man twisted his head to the tents. “Nurse!”
And then he began to breathe into my father’s dry mouth. Wilted skin spoke final words. Fear tightened around my stomach. It dropped to my limbs. I wanted to go back. Heels against my dead kin, I sprinted towards the Baobabs with no thought of breath for my lungs.
For twenty years, I’ve woken with the memory of my father’s smile. That single recollection has been an ember, a flickering guiding light in the shadows of my memories. I adjusted to my new home with little choice. As a refugee, one is lucky to see the new day. The men who rescued me placed me in a city, massive buildings everywhere, imposing lifeless reminders of human progress. We lived together, at least a hundred of us with similar stories, in an apartment complex. I shared a room with a boy named Rudi. He was my age. We were the youngest in our new family, just boys without hair under our armpits. The way Rudi walked made me think our trauma shared the corners of a puzzle piece, our backs hunched the way plants without water droop towards the earth. But nothing else about us looked the same. Rudi’s skin, bright white, glowed and shone. Mine, dark and dull. Rudi’s legs stretched like long, thin ladders from his feet, mine short, strong stumps, like tree trunks.
Rudi and I spoke to nobody in the classroom at our new school. We had each other, so the names the other kids made up for us hurt a little less. The Lost Dogs, The Damned Duo, Losers, these were the common slurs thrown our way. Lunch was the only time our faces lit up at school. Thick-cut french fries, rich mac salad, and portions of saucy meat big enough to feed a small family gave us a reason to be happy. After school, we’d cross a busy road, unaware, back then, of the purpose for the green and red lights. One of us would use his hands to stop the screaming engines while the other followed with his arms wrapped around a soccer ball. Then, after the near bursting of our eardrums from the car horns, our hearts the speed of the drivers’ rage, we kicked the ball between swings and monkey bars until shadows swept the streets. “First one to three,” I’d say before heading home. Initially, I believed my agility kept me afloat in our afternoon games. Otherwise, Rudi would’ve beat me every time, so I thought. Watching him put either of his feet on the soccer ball was like watching a bird take off in flight, then see it perch somewhere high above the city line. I quickly realized Rudy could do with the ball whatever he wanted. And more often than not, that meant making sure I didn’t leave the park with my tail between my legs.
Falling asleep at night took a while for both of us to figure out. I’d close my eyes and watch the darkness twist itself into my brother’s face. I often told Rudi about my memories. About the loss of my family and the haunting images of my village set on fire. I spoke of the guilt I still carried, the way it propped its head above any new discovery of happiness or satisfaction. I told him about my father’s smile, how I saw in his final moment, in his bright eyes and gentle crimp of lips, a reason to go back one day. Rudi never shared much about his story. He just listened, said he had similar things happen to him. But sleep gave his nightmares a voice. We traded fits of fear and cold sweats and fought against death’s invisible grip strangling our rest.
“Papa! Mama! No! Please!”
Only my hand to offer, I’d give Rudi my knuckles to squeeze and words: “It’s okay. You’re safe, Rudi. It’s just a bad dream.”
And he did the same for me. I tried to talk to him in the mornings after he had a hard night, thought I could help carry the darkness, but it never surfaced. He wouldn’t let it. Instead, he’d tighten his jaw, hold it shut until his face went red. Then he’d let out a deep breath and say: “Let’s go kick the ball before we have to leave for school, Jumi.”
The hellish night terrors didn’t ease. They worsened for both of us. But they moved us differently. With time, Rudi, in a confident, bold tone, told me he’d never go back to his home, that he’d continue to bury the recollections, people, and land stolen from him. But when the dark visions entered my mind, I met them with my father’s face and promised myself I’d return one day.
“Why, Jumi? Why would you ever want to go back there? We’re safe here. We have a new home.”
I’d stare up into his hollow eyes with thoughts that my words might offer the both of us courage. “We’re strangers here, Rudi. We will always be afraid of what we do not face.”
His bright blue pupils would seem to fade, turn ghost-like, and then his vision would fall into the floor. When we became seniors, close to our 18th birthdays, the government agency taking care of us initiated a program called Reentry. It provided an opportunity for refugees to visit their homes. Presented as a choice and only applicable to those whose countries had since experienced a level of peace. I listened intently. Both of our nations appeared on the list.
“We’ll meet every afternoon for three months. We’ll provide language teachers and cultural specialists and counselors for any fears and anxieties that may arise.”
I turned to Rudi with eager eyes while the spokesperson explained the program. Rudi stared holes into his shoes, a practice he’d often get into trouble for at school. I pretended to tie my laces, craned my neck underneath the desk to meet his face. “Are you going to do it, or what?”
He looked at me for a second, then mumbled something. That night I asked him again.
“It’ll only be a couple of months, Rudi. We’re not going back to live there.”
In the darkness, above the highway noise, Rudi’s voice rumbled. “This is my home. There is nothing there for me.”
I never mentioned it to him again. The program started the following week after school. No longer able to spend our afternoons together, kicking a ball or finishing our homework, Rudi and I drifted apart. We’d catch up in the evenings, but our conversations turned into leftovers, nothing more than small talk. I hesitated to tell him about the pleasure and pain I was finding in re-connecting with my heritage. When I asked him what he was doing with his time, he’d say: “Not much,” then lock his lips.
A month before my departure date, Rudi came home with his ear pierced, a giant diamond stud covering the entirety of his lobe. Red sauced spaghetti flung from my mouth as I erupted into laughter. Rudi’s face crinkled with serious hard lines, and then he shouted: “What you laughing at, Fool?”
My gaze, firmly established on the jewel blinking on his ear, settled back on his eyes, and in them, I felt a coldness that quelled my amusement. “That ridiculous diamond taking up the side of your head,” I said.
Rudi began skipping dinners and coming home well past midnight. I’d shake him in the mornings when the alarm couldn’t, but he’d routinely swat my arm and curse me with alcohol-laced breath. I lied to our teachers, said Rudi was sick, and then I’d hand in the homework I’d finished for him. On finals’ morning, I filled a bucket of water and poured it over his head. Rudi sprung to his feet and pulled a knife from his pants. Before I knew what was happening, I had a rusty blade at my neck. “I’ll cut you, Jumi. You ever do that again, and I’ll cut you.”
From then on, I avoided Rudi because I felt he wanted nothing to do with me. Our principal kicked him out of school. Rudi didn’t come to graduation. The week before my flight home, I began taking long walks to process the upcoming uncertainty wreaking havoc on my insides. Images of the baobab trees, my dead parents, and my bullet-holed brother piled sinking weights into the river of my mind. Did anyone bury them? Was there even a village left for me to see? My counselor said moving the body helped with moving the soul. She encouraged me to concentrate on my breathing, my steps, or an object. To simply let the thoughts trickle by without delivering them too much attention. I got lost in the one-way city streets, my eyes on the pipes, window ladders, and graffiti sprayed walls.
Five hours before my ride to the airport, I sat at our kitchen table with a swamp for a stomach. I tied the laces of my neon-red tennis shoes and hoped the pockets of air slipping in between concrete would settle the suspense slithering through my veins. A walk would do me well, I thought. The door opened onto the street, and a black jeep without a roof whizzed by. My mind immediately flashed to that fateful day. The flashing signs of hotels exploded like flames on grass roofs. My feet carried forward in streams of blood. And then, from a dark alley, the men in camouflage suddenly appeared. I rubbed my eyes, crossed the street, hoping to avoid a terrifying encounter. There were five of them at least, much taller than me, faces hidden by balaclavas, skin wrapped in black jeans and sweatshirts. Limbs marching in unison, they followed me, their course a head-on-collision with mine. My fists tightened with heat, then shook on my pulsing thighs. I forced my heavy steps through invisible walls of fear. The tall, black-dressed men flanked the sidewalk, removing any space for me to squeeze past them. I flinched, spun around then sprinted for my apartment building. A hand gripped my shoulder. I fell to the ground, and the group of men began throwing punches into my body. “Please,” I shouted. “Please stop!” They searched across my legs then up into my chest. “Where’s your money, boy!”
I pulled my palms from my face. I don’t have any money! I don’t have anything!”
Their sweeping fingers curled into balls of rage, dropping onto my cheeks and nose like bombs. Blood and tears streamed across my face, two rivers running into each other on a crooked course. “That’s enough. He doesn’t have anything.”
The pounding ceased. I opened my eyes and found a small crease of light.
“Let’s go before the cops come.”
I peered through slitted eyes in the hope they were gone. I shuddered, wishing it was a trick or a fault of my bruised skull. He just stood there without a word, watching me bleed. A big, bright diamond shone incandescently, like the sun.
“Rudi,” I whispered. He turned his head then reentered the dark alley with the rest of them.