One of the only friends I have that ever went to war went crazy, went AWOL, and went to Morocco. My father, like many pacifists of his generation, tried to avoid Vietnam at all costs. He faked a hearing exam. He complained of flat feet. He deferred three times for school and work. When they wouldn’t issue him any more deferments, he and a friend almost started a Yeshiva because students of the clergy were exempt from service. It was either that or fleeing to Canada or Israel. Luckily, he never had to make that decision. The draft ended a few weeks before the date on his induction notice.
Many of us in the United States are able to physically avoid the throes of war. We hear about it only on the television—wars in countries with dust and elusive enemies and temperatures that could slow-roast a turkey. We rarely see attacks on our home turf. Since Vietnam, it has been possible to live in this country and avoid war entirely. And while many men and women serve in the armed forces, there are many more, like myself, who follow the news, but who have little, if any, ties to military combat. There are many who do not have a loved one in the service, who do not fear that every time the phone rings, a parent or sibling or child has died.
The characters in this week’s “Best of the Web” selection, “The Harbinger,” by Toni Kan and published by AGNI, don’t have the luxury of avoiding war. The story centers around Imoh, a teenager transitioning into adulthood as his elder father departs for a war that has ravaged many men in his small Nigerian village. There are no bombs exploding on the page, but the fear and loneliness the men leave in their wake is palpable. Immediately after Imoh’s father’s departure, Imoh’s mother begins to mourn the death of her husband, and how can one blame her? A shadowy man, known only as the Harbinger, wanders the village daily delivering news of war casualties. He’s the one trained to provide comfort and support for grieving families. He’s the one that women and children pray will not stop in front of their house. He’s the one who, with a few surprising turns, becomes the catalyst that catapults this story in a new and haunting direction.
Kan’s story is a devastating exploration of honor, love, and the desperation of a family during a time of war. It’s told lyrically, in dreamlike sentences that pull you in from the first line. There are stories we like, stories we love, and stories that change us. Go read “The Harbinger.” You’ll feel different after doing so. Something in your heart or consciousness or stomach will, like it or not, change.