A Dangerous Trespass

Excerpted from The Ambassador’s Wife by Jennifer Steil MFA ’96, Illustration by Sari Cohen

Critical Writing

It’s another hour and a half before they stop for tea and snacks on a rocky outcrop. Miranda’s feet ache as she stretches them out in front of her, nibbling at her almonds and raisins. She isn’t terribly hungry. Near the top of the hill behind them, where he can maintain a good view of their surroundings, Mukhtar has stopped to eat his lunch. Miranda gazes before her at the sea of gentle hills and cultivated valleys. A cool breeze brushes the sweat from her brow. Kaia unscrews a thermos of espresso and pours tiny cups, passing them around the circle. She can always be counted on for the extravagant gesture—the flask of gin and tonics, the box of Swedish black licorice, the tiny, handmade chocolate truffles. Doortje passes around a plastic container of pomegranate seeds.

“That’s a lot of time in Hades,” Miranda says, watching Doortje pour a few hundred into her hand.

“If they’ve got good pomegranates there, then I don’t mind,” says Doortje, her eyes crinkling with her smile.

As she lifts the second forkful of pomegranate seeds to her lips, Miranda notices the shouting. Part of her mind had registered it moments earlier but dismissed it as insignificant. Men here were always yelling. They yelled their greetings, they yelled comments on the weather, they yelled in arguments. Miranda sometimes wondered if the entire country was hard of hearing. She had noticed several men approaching Mukhtar, who had wandered up the hill to inspect their surroundings, but again, this was not unusual. Mukhtar and the other guards often befriended the locals where they walked, talking and sharing their food.

But suddenly something sounds wrong. They all notice it at once, a sharpness of tone. As they turn their faces toward the top of the hill, Miranda hears another familiar sound: the slide and click of a rifle being cocked. A small, elderly man dressed in the standard white robe and twisted turban stands training an AK–47 on them. He waves it back and forth, screaming Arabic words that are lost to the wind, and then holds it steady. Behind him, several disciples fan out, raising their own weapons.

Instantaneously the women scramble to their feet, stuffing everything haphazardly back into their packs without speaking. They have all made the same assumption: they are trespassing and the man and his posse want them off of his land. Miranda looks up for Mukhtar. He will know what to do. The others are starting down an incline to the dusty trail, moving as fast as they can. But Mukhtar is frantically waving her back.

“We can’t go,” Miranda calls, interpreting her bodyguard’s gestures. “They want us to go up there.” More men have appeared now, spreading across the ridge.

The other women stare at her but quickly realize they have no choice. While it is counterintuitive to walk toward a group of men pointing guns to their heads, they cannot outrun bullets. Slowly, her heart shuddering through her rib cage with each beat, Miranda climbs toward the men. Perhaps Mukhtar has sorted something out. Some kind of agreement. They could just apologize and promise never to walk here again.

But when they reach the group of men, it doesn’t look that way. Mukhtar is arguing with the turbaned man, who is the obvious leader of the group, and the others join in, everyone talking at once. The old man has seated himself on a rock, clutching his rifle with two hands like a walking stick. He is small, with a faceful of concentric wrinkles.

“They think you are all spies,” Mukhtar tells Miranda. “And that you are here to look for treasure on their land. To look for gold.”

“Gold?” echoes Miranda. “There is gold here?” Surely a country this poor didn’t have secret reserves of gold.

“I told them you were all doctors,” Mukhtar continues. “French doctors. But they want to know why you have a guard. Doctors don’t usually have guards.”

“What did you say?” Mukhtar would not have told them he was a guard. But it is fairly obvious. His fatigues, the heavy pack, the suspicious bulges under his shirt. The fact that he is the only Mazrooqi man with a group of foreign women.

“That your company requires you to have a guard.”

Miranda hardly has time to assess the situation before Mukhtar takes her arm and leads her directly toward the old man on the rock. “Mira, let me introduce you,” he says. Mukhtar is the only one of the guards who calls her Mira, mimicking Finn. He knows she speaks some Arabic. This is his attempt to humanize me, she thinks. She has no time to become nervous.

Salaam aleikum,” she says, looking the old man in the eyes. He won’t look back at her. His greenish eyes are hard and remote, trained on the air above her right shoulder. He does not return her greeting. The silence closes cold fingers around her heart. Never, since she arrived in this country, has anyone ever failed to respond to this greeting with “aleikum salaam.” Every Arab knows that a person who refuses to return this greeting intends harm.

“She said ‘salaam aleikum’ to you,” Mukhtar prompts the silent old man in Arabic. “Respond to her. Show some respect.”

Avoiding the sheikh’s eyes, Miranda stares at the gold paisleys on his turban. Paisleys. Which she associates with hippies, with peace. The old man mumbles something under his breath, clinging tightly to his gun. The countryside around her falls away. The rocky hills, the puffs of dust rising from the trails, the spiky shoots of aloe plants fade from her periphery. There is only this man before her.

Kayf halak?” Miranda continues. How are you? No response. “I am a friend,” she tells him in Arabic. “I want no problems.”

“She’s a woman,” says Mukhtar, just in case the man has missed this fact. She is, after all, dressed in men’s clothing, with the baseball cap covering her hair.

Their entreaties are ignored. When Miranda looks again in the man’s eyes, her fear grows. His eyes absorb nothing; he cannot see her. They are the blind, decided eyes of a lunatic set on an irrevocable path. Miranda is not a woman to him. She is not even human.

The man begins shouting at Mukhtar again, and Miranda cannot understand what he is saying. As Mukhtar murmurs placatingly, she looks around for the other women. They are huddled a bit farther down the hill, inching away from the confrontation. A willowy young man, not more than 18, stands next to the sheikh, his AK–47 pointed at their heads. Slowly, Miranda steps away from Mukhtar and the men, toward the women.

“We’re all French,” Doortje whispers to her. The two women had tried to pick a benign nationality, a country less hated than America. A language they all spoke.

“That’s what Mukhtar told them,” said Miranda. “Thank god.”

She keeps her eyes on the men and their guns. There are a dozen of them now, all in white thobes, like angels in a school Christmas pageant. Bloodthirsty angels. She counts them again. There is one on the ridge above, one standing protectively at the sheikh’s shoulder, five in a knot at the top of the hill engaged in fierce debate, and five arranged around the periphery like the points of a star.

She cannot make sense of the situation. What do the men want? Surely they don’t want to kill them for trespassing? Do they really think they are spies? Will they search them? And when they find nothing, will they let them go? Or are they among the fanatics who loathe all Westerners and want them dead? Is this what happened to the group kidnapped up north? The whole thing is surreal. Is it possible that all these men want are government concessions of some kind? A few tribesmen sprung from jail? Or are these men—at least their leader—simply crazy? Crazy men with guns. The thought is not comforting.

We still have phones, she realizes. She can call Finn, if she can get a signal out here. She has no idea what he can do to help, but she has to let him know what is happening. She puts her hand into her front pocket, searching for her phone. But it is gone.

“My phone,” she says aloud. “My phone is gone.” She must have dropped it near the old man, but she is not eager to return to him to search for it.

She stands there thinking what a ridiculous way this would be to die. To be shot—on purpose or even accidentally, given the very casual way the men are handling their weapons—by crazy men who think they are spies. The thought that her selfish desire for exercise and fresh air could deprive Cressida of a mother and Finn of a wife nauseates her. How could she have been so careless with her life, with theirs? It was all well and good to be bold and free when she was single, but now there are people who need her, people for whom she is responsible.

These thoughts take less than a millisecond to fly through her mind while she searches all her pockets again for her phone. The other two women stand close, cracking nervous jokes. Neither is panicking, no one is in tears.

Mukhtar is suddenly at her side. “They want you to walk toward that house,” he says, pointing to a stone structure across the valley.

“No,” Miranda says reflexively. “Not into a house.” For some reason she feels that would be the end of them, to enter an enclosed structure. As long as they stay outside, there are escape routes. Still, inspired by the approach of several rifle barrels, the three women begin to slowly shuffle in the direction indicated.

Miranda’s hands continue to fruitlessly search her pockets.

“Here,” whispers Doortje. “Use mine.” She slips Miranda her phone. Turning away from their captors, Miranda flips it open. Thank god she has memorized Finn’s number. With shaking fingers, she dials. Please pick up, she silently pleads. Please pick up. It isn’t easy to reach him during the workday. He is often in meetings, and his cell phone doesn’t work in the embassy.

But Finn answers immediately. “Sweetheart?” she says, weak with relief. “We’re in trouble.”

“What’s happened?” His voice is steady and alert.

“There are men with guns who have us, they are trying to corral us somewhere—” She struggles to string words together in a way that makes sense.

“Where are you?”

She turns to Kaia. “Do you know where we are?”

Kaia takes the phone and gives Finn directions to the beginning of their hike. But they have been walking into the mountains for more than two hours, and they don’t know exactly where they are. Finn asks to speak with Mukhtar. Miranda looks up. Mukhtar is still arguing with the men. She isn’t sure she should interrupt. “We’ll call you back,” she tells Finn.

“I’m ringing the Minister of the Interior,” he says, “We’ll find you. Tucker knows your route.” How could Miranda allow herself to become hysterical when he is so calm? It’s as if she has called to give him the weather report or ask what he would like for dinner. Just hearing his voice steadies her.

The tallest man in white moves slowly down the ridge toward them, never lowering his weapon. Mukhtar leaves the group of men and joins them.

“Do not worry, Miranda,” he says cheerfully. “You will be okay. You will be okay even if I have to give my life.”

“Thank you, Mukhtar, but I hope that is not necessary.” Miranda smiles at him. “Would you talk with Finn?” She hits redial and hands him the phone.

A shot suddenly explodes the air by her head. Miranda didn’t see who fired it or from what direction it came. But she is facing Mukhtar, and she sees the expression of surprise on his face as a red bloom spreads across his cheek. His ear is gone, the phone gone. Slowly, with a helpless look at Miranda, he crumples to the ground. She stares at him in horror.

Yalla!” a man yells at them. The man in white is behind them now, indicating with his rifle the direction they are to walk. “Yalla, ilal bait,” he says. Miranda cannot move her legs. Her knees fold beneath her and she reaches for Mukhtar, touching his face. His cheek is damp and warm.

Sadeeqee,” she says. My friend.

Jennifer Steil is an award-winning American writer and journalist living in La Paz, Bolivia. Her debut novel, The Ambassador’s Wife, was published by Doubleday in July 2015 to critical acclaim. Oscar winner Anne Hathaway has signed on to star in a television miniseries based on the novel, which the Mark Gordon Company will finance and produce with Hathaway. Steil’s first book, The Woman Who Fell from the Sky (Broadway Books 2010), chronicles her adventures as editor of the Yemen Observer newspaper. ©2015 by Jennifer F. Steil. Published by arrangement with Doubleday, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Purchase a copy of The Ambassador's Wife on Amazon