The Heartless Stone – Excerpt
They had come across the river that morning, he said, as he took the stones from his pocket.
The octahedrons looked melted and yellowish, as if a drunken craftsman had glued two small pyramids together and then put it to a blowtorch. This is the way they look when you first find them in a mine: milky and warped, but retaining a crystalline shape, as if some living thing at the center had carelessly reproduced itself by the trillions.
He set them in a line on the patio table. His three friends studied me as I held one of the stones up to the sunlight and tried to peer into it.
We’re going to have to make this quick, said the man who owned the house. The police could come in, and then we’d all be in jail. He smiled vaguely at this thought. Across the alley, birds roosted in the broken-out window frames of a government building.
The smuggler watched me peer into the rock. He said something in French to his friends. One of them tapped out a quick rhythm in his hand with the butt of his cell phone. Another glanced at the door to the alley and fingered the edge of the jacket he wore, even though it was a warm day.
You brought these from the Congo? I asked.
Today, he said. In a wooden canoe rowed over to Bangui. The mine itself was several hundred kilometers away, down a road into the jungle. I looked again at the dull yellow shape, wondering about its history, pretending I knew what I was looking at.
He is wondering who you really are, said the man who owned the house.
The smuggler placed the stones in the middle of a bank note, carefully folded it into a square and made it disappear into his pants pocket. All four of them stared at me with flat eyes.
There are more where these came from? I asked.
Oh yes, I was told. Hundreds more. Thousands more.
Now: did I want to buy?
No. I have bought only one in my life. It was three years ago in California, over an ammonia-washed glass countertop. I was planning to ask my girlfriend, Anne, to marry me and was full of new love. Jacqueline, the Asian woman behind the counter, showed me a series of stones, which she poured out of individual manila envelopes and set in a line. I peered at them all under a jeweler’s loupe, as if I knew what I was looking at, and listened as Jacqueline explained the relative merits of each. She showed me the tiny angular hearts that clustered around the bases, like the petals of a flower. You couldn’t see them without the loupe.
There was one a bit clearer than the rest, slightly over a carat, and we haggled over the price a bit before I decided to buy it. Jacqueline fitted it into a Tiffany setting and I picked it up a week later. The stone was held aloft over the band in gold supports, like a preacher in his pulpit. I admired its sparkle. Jacqueline called it “the firing.” I was then two weeks away from giving the ring to Anne on a precipice of land that overlooked the Golden Gate Bridge through a tunnel of cypress. This was to be a moment I had dreamed of since I was old enough to understand there was something special about girls.
“Where did it come from?” I asked her, just to say something. I was privately marveling at writing the biggest check of my life.
“I don’t know,” she said.
“Is there any way to tell?” I asked.
“Not really,” she said. “Probably Africa. That’s where they all come from.”
The place to go if you want to see how diamonds really make their way to America is a place called the Central African Republic. It is a landlocked crescent of ochre-colored earth about the size of Texas at the geographic heart of Africa. To fly over it at night is to fly over a carpet of complete darkness except for the occasional small cooking fire flickering up through the trees. There are no traffic signals, not a single mile of railroad track, and almost no electric lights outside of the capital city of Bangui. The nation is so poor that the government cannot pay its own employees any wages, and uniformed soldiers routinely beg money from passersby, rubbing their camouflage-covered stomachs to convey hunger. Butterflies alight on the dirt roads and broad jungle leaves, and some locals try to make money by ripping the colorful wings off the butterflies and gluing them to paper to make artwork.
Children drunk on glue wander the filthy core of Bangui in broken flip-flops, begging for francs. Their T-shirts from Western aid agencies are often dotted with gummy clots; this is where they have smeared the glue to huff through the cloth. Shoe polish is another favorite intoxicant – it is spread on bread like jelly and eaten for a high. Still others take a stolen audiotape and soak it in a jar of water for a week. The resulting home-brew brings strange hallucinations. Some of the street children will grab their crotches when they approach new faces for coins. Trading sex for money is common here, despite a national rate of AIDS infection estimated at one in every seven persons. “It’s not always for money,” a French schoolteacher told me. “Children need affection, to be touched is instinctual, and this is the only way a lot of them can get it.”
The borders have been sealed to foreigners ever since the latest in a long series of coups toppled the government in March 2003, so there is really only one legitimate way in or out. That’s the once-weekly Air France flight from Paris, which is inevitably crowded with a slice of the nation’s tiny ruling class — the only ones who can afford the fare. The Sunday morning arrival of Air France is a free-for-all holiday for the northern part of the city of Bangui. Hundreds of taxi hustlers and freelance luggage porters cram close to the perimeter fence as they watch the passengers step from one world into another, out of the air-conditioned cabin with its fois gras and Bordeaux and copies of Paris Match and into the fecund obscurity.
In a waiting room nearby, with thick wire mesh and tattered curtains covering the windows, are the departing passengers. They were protected like dignitaries from the grabbing masses outside. I learned later that some of them were almost certainly carrying a highly portable fortune in the folds of their business suits and warm-up jackets. They were able to carry wealth that equaled the year’s wages of more than 2,000 men. And without showing a bulge.
This is because the Central African Republic — corrupt, destitute and nearly forgotten by the rest of the world — is one of the best places on the continent to make a dirty diamond look clean.
I came because I wanted to see how it was done.