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.


33 Responses to “Hypercube”

  • marc nash Says:

    Wonderful stuff Simon. Raw clots of data. Existed in the space between thought and movement.

    There is a delicious stream of anger intertwined with wonder like ivy throughout and this represents a superb artistry and mastery of craft.

    Top stuff

  • Cathy Olliffe Says:

    Oh, Simon. So beautiful.
    Miremba is such a strong, quirky, interesting character you can’t help but feel how the narrator feels about her… the bit about her glasses being biscuit wrappers is just genius… it’s a word you used to describe Miremba but it also suits you.

  • Lou Says:

    Italo. No matter how big of a fan one becomes of a writer, at some point that writer will create something that you cannot connect with, that doesn’t give you the experience you’ve grown accustomed to. Well, I’m afraid this is not one of those times for me.

    (Yes, I’ve been watching too much American Idol)

    In fact, this is once again in contention for my favorite thing, as I’m sure next weeks will be.

    The way you express the inability of even the most well-intentioned theory to stand up to real world brutality. The way this girl, oh this girl(!) represents so much.

    “Like she could reach out and stop the particle tornado, the twists of nothing, that made me me.”

    Yes, she did that to me, too.

    As usual, I’ll be back to read again. It is always necessary with you.

  • Jim Dempsey Says:

    Great writing. I really enjoy who you manage to weave so many different images into your stories, but keep them connected to the theme – like here with the hybercube, the star navigating, zigzagging, the dice, etc. And I agree with Cathy, the glasses with biscuit wrappers is a great detail.

  • Jen B Says:

    This is gorgeous, and heartbreaking of course. You’ve exposed a terrible situation with beauty and also shown the beauty in mathematics (which I adore anyway) as a conduit to understanding. Sorry, I won’t go on about it because I’ll sound like a freaky fan, but thanks for sharing this. It’s wonderful.

  • Laurita Says:

    Beautiful, as always. Your word choice is impeccable, so poetic. Such a rich piece, and the last line brings it all home – how this girl and her situation, so important to the narrator, is invisable to the rest of the world.

  • Marisa Birns Says:

    It is, as your work always is, absolutely tug-on-the-heart wonderful.

    There you are describing Miremba, and there she is in my mind. So real I could almost touch her.

    Excellent read.

  • trev Says:

    Fantastic job of making a global issue a personal story. The image of aviator frames with biscuit wrapper lenses made my morning – thank you.

  • mazzz_in_Leeds Says:

    Awesome. Love, love, love the particle tornado.
    The girl is so vivid she will stay with me a long time

  • Stephen Kay Says:

    As always, your work reminds me how I only really see the surface of the world and how I’m not really paying attention; It’s as though the biscuit wrappers on your glasses are x-ray. (yeah, that didn’t really work did it?)

    Your version of the world is more alive, more colourful, more sad, more happy.

    oh, your work also reminds me that my vocabulary is very not good.

  • Tony Noland Says:

    This was outstanding, Simon. I feel bad for having tossed out such a nothing little piece while you were working on something so wonderful.

  • Maria Kelly Says:

    Wow. Great story! Nice weaving of words to create this wonderful imagery. Love this story. Nice mix of science meets war drama.

  • Jane & Nathan Says:

    Another great story, Simon. How do you keep coming up with such different and fantastic ideas?
    The bit at the end about it not even being in the news, really got to me.

  • Linda Says:

    You reveal so much with so few words. Character defined by ” a vigorous PHD thesis on supply chain economic curled up its toes and died” to “she rarely focused on anything real”.

    Captures perfectly how we retreat in the face of trauma, and how fixations keep us alive.

    This story gets printed out, gets carried in my Moleskine. A perfect gem. Thank you.

  • GP Ching Says:

    There are so many things about this piece that I love. I think the way you take a starving child and build her character so that you see in a moment everything that she can and will be. This story paints the cost of war in such human colors. Beautiful.

  • Donald Conrad Says:

    So very real, that the bit about not showing up in the newspapers a world away was a gut punch. Great read and thanks.

  • peggy Says:

    Amazing read. I think this is one of the best I’ve read.

  • Melissa Says:

    Simon, this is amazing in so many ways. You manage to weave a story with beautiful, poetic language that doesn’t flinch from the harsh political realities of our world–that tells a larger story within the story of one little girl, whose talent is lost forever. Your writing inspires me to write with a higher purpose…

  • Laura Eno Says:

    There is so much here…I’m at a loss for words, except to say bravo. This is fantastic!

  • Jessica Rosen Says:

    Painfully breathtaking. It moved me to tears. I expect this one will stay with me for some time. Truly excellent, Simon, thank you for sharing it.

    Take care,

  • 2mara Says:

    What I love about this piece… you take something current and almost make it otherworldly. I am absolutely in love with Miremba… in her strength and innocense, and how she is viewed through the eyes of your MC.

    I am sorry I haven’t been here to read sooner. I will try to do better in the future 😉

  • Anne Tyler Lord Says:

    Simon, once again you amaze me with your craft of writing. The details weave together so seamlessly and create a world full of interest and emotion.

    I feel like all I can say each time is, wow!

  • DJ Kirkby Says:

    But…were they ok? What happened? Don’t make me guess, write her novel.

  • ~Tim Says:

    What an intriguing character in this little girl. Maybe you’ll tell more of her story?

  • Cascade Lily Says:

    Simon, you’re a superstar of Fridayflash 🙂 We love your writing – are you feeling the lurve?

    Fantastic story, fantastic writing, although one little, tiny part didn’t quite flow as beautifully as the rest. I found this part of a sentence a bit sticky: “…drifted past within a militant degree of…” I think it’s the ‘past and ‘within’ abutting each other that’s the problem – it just didn’t scan well for me. But that’s just my reading of it. I appear to be the only one!

    Sumptuous stuff, as always. When are you going to write a novel?

  • Mark Kerstetter Says:

    I’m usually speechless after I read your work. It deserves to be read and reread, for its language, its content, its feeling.

  • Virginia.Moffatt Says:

    Beautiful story as always.Great the way you wove the westerner’s powerlessness in with the challenge of the child who couldn’t get away. The only thing I wasn’t quite sure about was in the last line. “gentle child genius” felt a little overstated,though I did like “or of the massacre” so very minor point.

  • Christian Bell Says:

    This story is quite rich. You work with the ideas and details you present here in a masterful way and produce a compelling story.

  • ganymeder Says:

    Making a terrible overwhelming tragedy personal by identifying with a little girl. Genius.

  • danpowell Says:

    So much about this is beautiful. The biscuit wrapper glasses. Raw clots of data. Her ability to see the world in such a way reminded me of something I read yesterday about the universe as a quantum computer. I get a real sense of Miremba staring into the stuff of the universe and seeing the ‘bits,’ the ‘raw data’ as you put it. So apt and so sad that her name means peace.

  • PJ Kaiser Says:

    Others have said “speechless” … and really struggling to put into words how beautiful this piece is. Your descriptions bring a level of understanding that is so deep. As readers we have a sense of how the unmistakable impression that Miremba made on the narrator and how tragic the situation is. Superb writing.

  • Cecilia Dominic Says:

    Makes one wonder how much has been lost in the violence. Your descriptions are utterly entrancing.


  • David Masters Says:

    Beautiful, poignant and deeply sad. This was one of my favourites that you’ve written, Simon.

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