She stood across the compound. I brought cups of the calorific tea they served to the children and placed them next to her at her feet. On the surface, a scatter graph of buttermilk formed star-shaped arabesques. “Are you okay, Miremba?” I heard myself ask. And “Could we talk?” She might have blinked a little.
I wore the blue beret of an international peacekeeper uneasily. I had no front line experience. At home I studied mathematics and grew fat in the bounteous Punjab. Hubris had brought me to Chad, to this refugee camp, where a vigorous PhD thesis on supply chain economics had curled up its toes and died within a month, killed by bankers hurling sub-prime spears from the hearts of their dark towers. I’d stayed on to help.
I moved quietly, but she was lost anyway. She stood just like a little girl, newly orphaned, in broken red sandals, her head slightly cocked. Her left arm, stick-like, baked in a clay of sweaty dust, hung at her side caught at the elbow by her tiny right hand behind the sunken cage of her abdomen. She had walked for seventeen nights, calculating from the setting sun a bearing that brought her directly here through the eye of a needle. She had slipped the nets of the Lords Resistance Army, drifted past within a militant degree of the terrible Janjaweed. She was part of a trickle of refugees who made the journey across three war zones, three countries. And while inefficient zigzagging cost many their lives, she had walked a dead straight line through slaughter and mutilation and carried her four year-old brother upon her back. In the few weeks I’d known her, Miremba had become my god.
She understood hypercubes, mapping their twisted geometry through ten dimensions. She had been here, like this, since sunrise, pondering the dekeract: a 10-cube. A mathematical kōan. A shape so abrupt, so surprisingly precise, that it contained more than eleven thousand faces – a thousand times more than the goddess Kali herself – all of them perfectly square. She regarded them now in turn. Smoothed them across the swift undulations of her nine-year old neocortex. Plotting vectors. Assigning possibilities, names, numbers. She dared look them in the eye. She tamed them.
Some days this was all she did. On others she would feed her brother the extra rations I brought, making him strong. Today, while she thought, she watched over him scratching shapes in a patch of dirt. My rude untutored eye could discern nothing to commend this patch from any other, but to Miremba it was expressive. From it she mined raw clots of data. I stood discreetly at her side. Awestruck.
“Miremba,” I said. “There are reports I must discuss with you. I can make arrangements for you both to ride with us. We can go to safety.”
Her glasses were a marvel: gaudy aviator frames that threatened to slip from the tiny nub that was her nose. She didn’t need them; she rarely focussed on anything real and in any case the lenses were missing. In their place she’d stuck a colourful collage of plastic biscuit wrappers. She existed in the space between thought and movement. As though her arms were always just about to rise, or her head about to turn. I imagined an expression of shock registering on her face that she was not alone. When she was like this I longed to hear her speak. I willed her to twitch a wrist; a simple outward roll of involuntary recognition would send ripples through the cosmos. To watch her was exhausting.
Today the camp was chaotic. The refugees had heard the news. The violence in Darfur had spilled across the border. Everywhere, people ran to strike camp and flee the fighting. But Miremba stood and thought.
When finally she looked at me she saw everything. I felt – not exactly naked – but reduced to my component parts. Like she could reach out and stop the particle tornado, the twists of nothing, that made me me.
“Let’s play dice,” she said. “I have found a new one I would like to try.”
That night, before we were airlifted to safety I watched Miremba take a different road to the fleeing crowds. I read all of the newspapers in London a week later, but there were no mentions of a gentle genius child or her little brother, or even of the massacre.