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In the Field

There were flickers of red in the water, a tint the colour of blood. He stood in the river, naked as a stone, and opened his hands and drew the water to his lips and tasted it. He knew the tastes of the river well, its differences like moods, as after a storm when the earth washed down from the fields and the clay sediment left his mouth bone dry. He gazed upstream at the horizon, at the evening sun and the evening sky, at the river. He was cold and began to shake, and though it was the beginning of summer and the air was warm his lips turned a bright blue.

 

A package wrapped in cloth came to a still against his stomach and he scooped it from the water and unwrapped a small baby, so dead that it seemed a doll, and strange though it was, he reparcelled the dead thing in the cloth and returned it to the river where he watched it go, turning his toes in the silt and stones, his feet hardened against the medley of sharp rocks that formed the riverbed. He remembered the still hot corpses of the burnt out men in what was left of the church, expiring smoke from their chimney mouths and whistling like so many kettles. His father smouldering among them.

 

A larger body appeared in chase of the child. Signs of torture riddled the chest and face of the man, who was dead and naked. He took hold of the body and waded through the river with it wrapped intimate in his thick arms and lifted it onto the rocks and laid it down. He sat facing the water and waved the flies from the dead man’s pulpy face. There followed another man, spilling over himself in the shallow breaks, reaching out a hand – it looked like. He caught the second man, but he was also dead and he dragged him clear of the current and left him in the company of his fellow corpse. Their black and bloody faces twinned by bruising. He wondered if the dead were brothers, and turned away to face the river. He went again into the water where two, three, and a fourth body came, but he did not stop them, and soon he counted ten, one for each of his fingers, and that was his limit and so he lost the count.

 

A noise came out the river. With the noise came a woman. She sprung at him from beneath the surface, glittering as the fish. Sucked breath and flailed arms and fell onto his chest where he caught her. She clawed at him, at his face, and her nails drew the promise of blood in long pink streaks until the blood itself sprung through in tiny specks at first. He held her naked body close to his and his blood stained her skin. He struggled with her from the river. On the rocks she bit his shoulder and he threw her to the ground. She looked at him with the same glassy eyes as the fish, eyes knowing death and fearing it. She threw herself at him a second time, and beat his chest and bit him. He drew back his arm wide and struck her on the jaw. Square and clean. The punch knocked her limp and he caught her as she fell for the rocks. He sat down and rested her head in his naked lap.

 

He wiped the woman’s hair from her face and turned her head to one side, and saw that she was not unpretty with her cheek resting there inside his naked thigh. His eyes passed over her, all lines towards the black triangle of her waxy pubic hair. He felt the blood drain into his own as he fixed his gaze on her sex and then he looked away towards the river and swallowed.

 

Both the woman’s nipples had been torn away and the wounds bled and bled.

 

On a television set in the village school he had once seen a volcano erupting. The blood burst from the woman’s breasts like the flow of lava, hot and red, but black also. He looked around for his clothes, rested the woman’s head on the warm rock and gathered them. Pulled on his shorts, tore his t-shirt down the middle and with one arm lifted the woman from the nape of her neck, passed the ripped shirt around her chest and tied it in the back to staunch the bleeding. He rested the other half of his shirt over the tight curls of her pubic hair, which he knew to do, and returned the woman’s head to his lap and sat and watched the river. There were fewer bodies, and eventually there were none and again the river flowed clear and green. Night came on and he stayed with the river and with the woman asleep in his lap, breathing long deep breaths and he knew that his mother would be calling for him from her bed.

 

 

The woman woke at first light. She lay with her eyes open watching the river as her head rose and fell with the rise and fall of his abdomen. The pain in her chest was pulsing, urgent, and she dared not touch the bandage he had fashioned. She touched her jaw, which was swollen and stiff where he had punched her, and lifted her head, which woke him. The woman looked about her and lifted a rock the size of a head and held it above him, fixed to bring it crashing down on his skull. He watched her and was still. Why didn’t they kill you? he asked. Damn you, she said, I’ll kill you. And he knew that she would. Did you rape me? she asked. No, he said, I saved you from the river. She raised the rock higher. Give me your shorts, she said, standing astride his chest as he leaned forward, a hair’s length from her nakedness and could smell her and the river on her, and pulled the shorts from around his ankles. Hand them to me, she said. The rock above him in solar eclipse. She backed away slowly and placed the rock by her feet. His eyes followed her. Look away, she said, and he did, and she slipped into his shorts, and drew them tight around her waist and tied a knot in the drawstring such that she resembled a child playing dress-up in her father’s clothes. What do I wear? he asked. I don’t care what you wear, she said. She looked at his naked body and judged his age. Did they rape you? he asked. Of course, they raped us all. I’m sorry, he said, but she ignored him. What village are you from? he asked. The village I’m from is gone, she said, everyone is dead, or taken, which is the same thing. Everyone except you, he said. Yes, except me. Soon they’ll come here and kill everyone in your village too, she said, as though the future were simply downstream and had always been there. The smart ones will leave for the city. He thought of his mother at home by herself. Who are the smart ones? he asked the woman. The ones who’ve already gone.

The woman went to the bodies of the naked men. He stood and followed her and it seemed strange to him that neither man had moved during the night. They looked in such discomfort. It seemed also that they were holding hands and this made sense to him and he stopped worrying for them. The woman knelt then and twisted the neck of the man closest. She sighed and took hold his feet and dragged him back to the river. His buttocks drew a line of gravel and dirt towards the river as he let go his friend’s hand and left him there. What are you doing? he asked. They belong with the others, she said, and that was all. He helped her move the second corpse into the water as the morning sun softened his shoulders, which had hardened during the night. The river took the men wherever they were going.

 

Are you still bleeding? he asked her. She turned and looked at him as though they’d never met, which in reality they hadn’t. They had met, but in a nightmare, naked in the river, awash with blood. Who are you? she asked. Who am I? Yes, what is your name? Mostly I’m Daniel, he answered. What are you else? Mother calls me Son, he said. She turned away from him and looked at the river. There was nothing left of the dead men for which she spat at the river. I’m sorry, he said. How far to your village? she asked. The man had never learned time. Not far, he said, as she stood up and walked beside the river. The man stood up, still naked, and followed her toward the village, which was toward the sun at that time of day.

 

He kept pace with the woman, a few steps behind, as she stopped and bent down and plunged her head into the river and drank like a wild beast. Watched her and thought what pain she must have been in as she held back her breasts from the water. His t-shirt had become an angry red, and after she’d done drinking from the river she turned and looked at him as if to ask whom he was and why he was following her, and her gaze settled finally on his nakedness until she had seen enough and she stood and continued on towards the village.

 

They left the river and passed into the village where the woman stopped and turned to him and asked where he lived. The man said that he lived with his mother, who was frail and soon to be blind. I don’t care about that, said the woman. The man passed ahead. The woman followed. Alone together. The village was late to rise. Eyes followed them from the passed by thresholds, and he thought he heard their murmurings, though it could have been the wind in the cornfields, or even nothing. Take me to your house, she said.

 

This is where I live, he told the woman. She gave the house a look of disdain and spat on the street. He entered the house. He turned back and looked at the woman in the street and frowned. Wait here, he said, we don’t have much visiting. The woman sat on the step and listened to the village, which was silent more or less, and looked down the street in both directions. She heard them speaking, mother and son, through the thin walls. Where are your clothes? asked the mother. I gave them to a woman, said the man. You walked here naked from the river I suppose? Yes, he answered. Well go get something on you, she said, a mother’s not supposed to look on her grown son naked as the day he was born. It’s back, said the man, like you said it would. There was a pause and then she heard the man’s mother sigh. The woman entered the small house and there the old woman peered out from the bed and lifted a hand and then let it rest again. She told her son to go and cover himself.

 

You’re the one took my boy’s clothes.

 

I’m the one, said the woman.

 

Come here. Are you hurt?

 

She stepped towards the bed and looked down at the blood soaked rag that held her breasts. The old woman was all cataracts and wrinkled and told her to sit and cautiously unwrapped the woman from her bandage. Her expression never changed as she reached beneath the bed and removed a sewing kit and, squinting all the while, began to stitch the woman’s ugly wounds. And when she could tell the pain was almost unbearable she sang to the younger woman a song in a language neither of them knew.

 

How many was it?

 

Them or us?

 

Them.

 

Forty, forty-five.

 

They were coming, the old woman said.

 

They came.

 

What do you want with my son?

 

He pulled me from the river.

 

What of it?

 

Half of them had me.

 

There’s no cure for what they gave you.

 

I know.

 

My boy’s clean. I’d like to keep him that way.

 

I’ve had two of their children already and now they’ve sown their seed in me again. If I could choose this next one’s father that would be something worth something.

 

There’s no way of knowing.

 

I’d make do with there being a chance.

 

My boy’s slow. His mind’s no good.

 

I’m educated. It makes no difference. Simple’s a blessing.

 

God conspired against our people.

 

Just keep stitching me.

 

You’re asking my permission?

 

No.

 

Well you better. He’s never done a thing that wasn’t told him from these lips.

 

My own can be persuading.

 

There’s nothing right about this world, said the old woman.

 

I know.

 

Take what you need, but keep him clean. You understand?

 

I’ll try.

 

How do you plan to feed the child?

 

I’m going to the city.

 

You don’t look like you’ve much to sell. One look at those scars they’ll know you’re ridden.

 

I’m not going for whoring.

 

The old woman took the scarf from her head and passed it around the woman’s neck and rested it there to keep her shoulders warm. Leave those wounds to the air for now. My son will work if you find someone who’ll pay him. He’s strong as an elephant.

 

I saw them coming from a mile. I saw them riding in on their horses and white Toyotas and waving their guns at the sky. I was with my son.

 

How grown? asked the old woman.

 

Too big to carry and too small to run. We stood there and watched them come. I took his hand up and told him there was chicken in the pot. My oldest one was with them. The one they took, all grown, but thin as a dog. He didn’t recognize me, and never saw his little brother. I called him Marcus. He jumped down off the truck and came running towards us and I screamed out to him. No, this is your brother. And he laughed and chopped him down quick. His own brother. Then he set about tearing off my clothes and raping me. He put his mouth on my breasts and started sucking, and that’s when I told him I’m his mother and I said his name, and he looked up at me then, with eyes that were my own, and his mouth still sucking on my tit, and bit down and tore off my nipple, and bit down on the other and spat it at me. And I think it was out of kindness maybe, so that none of the others would want me.

 

The old woman yawned and turned her head and looked out the mesh-wire window and mumbled something inaudible. She closed her eyes and called out to her son. The man came to his mother in blue jeans and an old soccer jersey. He knelt by her bed and took her frail hand up in his. You always were a lousy fisherman, she said, go on, go lie down.

 

His bedroom was cool and dark and bare, but it was an ample space and clean and smelled of him. He went to her there and she was lying on his bed on her back and slipping his borrowed shorts off around her ankles. He stood at the edge of the bed and watched as she inspected the stitches on her chest. The molten leakage of her disfigured breasts brought tears. The sound of her agony settled inside him. She told him to sit and he did and his weight shifted the iron frame and the bed seemed to scream. I’m sorry, he whispered. He sat with his feet on the floor and faced out to the room. Her laying behind him and looking on the roof. Lie next to me, she said. He lifted his feet onto the bed and lay down beside her. They listened for a while to each other’s breathing and then she asked him to remove his clothes, and he took off his jeans and soccer jersey and left them in a pile on the floor and lay there in his underwear. She kissed him on the lips but his breath was sour so she kissed his eyes instead. He was careful not to touch her breasts as he ran his hands over her soft stomach and the small of her back.

 

He stopped and pushed her gently back and looked in her eyes and told her he would kill the men that had raped her. No, she said, they will kill you.

 

Between each other’s arms and twice he tried to enter her but both times she held him back and kept her word to his mother, who listened through the wall to the screeching iron and their grunts. When he came she cupped her hand and caught his sperm, a white and translucent puddle in her palm. He watched as she dipped her fingers in the sticky fluid and plunged them deep inside her. He had never seen it done that way, and told her so, but she ignored him and continued about her work. After she had finished she thanked him for saving her from the river and fell into a deep sleep with her face pressed in his moist and pungent armpit. She slept through the whole day there, barely moving, and for fear of waking her he stayed absolutely still and lay awake and listened to the sounds of the village, which were frantic as word of the massacre came, and once come spread, and families gathered what few belongings they had and abandoned their homes. He spoke to his mother through the wall, their heads but a few inches apart, and he asked if they should leave with the others. She told her son that she had better stay where she was. She was too frail to walk and he would certainly be forced to leave her to die by the side of the road, in the unkind sun, and she preferred dying in the shade, which she said as though she’d done it many times before. When you go, you go by the river, she told him through the wall. Stay away from the road. Follow the river eastward and keep at it, cross the border, keep on until you see the city. What about the church? he asked. Forget the church, she said. Yes, he said. Night came, and though he was hungry he stayed with the woman and eventually he fell asleep watching the fall of her hip and length of her wandering thigh as the moonlight through the window cast scales up and down her naked legs, and he wondered if she was born of the river.

 

He woke at dawn, alone in the bed with the sheet tangled about his ankles. He kicked his feet free and rolled over and swung his feet off the bed onto the floor and looked at the ground beneath his feet. And looked at his penis which still throbbed for her. His bones were stiff and he turned his neck at the jaw with his hands and noticed the woman stood by the window in one of his mother’s dresses and bathed in a pale, colourless light – staring out at the world. She craned her neck in both directions as if awaiting the arrival of some expected person and spoke to him unturned from the window. The crimes we endure have been forbidden, she said. In the fields beyond the village the crops shivered, a standing march beneath the lone scarecrow.

 

The man rose from the bed and went to her and placed his hand on the small of her back, and she removed it, and held his hand in hers, which was like holding the hand of a giant. I’m going to the city, she told him. I’m coming with you, he said, and she turned her head and looked at him, at the grooves in his forehead, and at his thick chest with its fleeting hairs, and she knew that he was. Standing behind her, lifting the cotton dress, He plunged his hand between her legs and spread them softly and she felt him pressing against her back and she whispered stop. I have the sickness, she said, and closed again her legs.

 

 

He carried his mother headlong into the church, treading here and there the scatterings of floor between the sleepers taken refuge there. A bird nested high in the rafters and shat a circle of white and gray. Everywhere was people bedded on the wooden pews, paved side by side. The priest moved among them offering food. The hands reached and took his offerings and thanked their father and cursed the shitting bird. The bird cooed and took flight and perched another beam and lifted a foot and set it again, and the other foot, up and down, and spread its wings, and tucked its beak into its feathers and shat on the head and shoulder of an old man, sleeping. Goddamn that bird. Goddamn it to hell and back. Stop that blaspheming, his mother cried. Go on to hell with it, sack of bones, shouted the old man.

He found a spot for his mother at the back of the church, and propped her up against her sacked up things. He pleaded with her let me take you with us. And she only rattled her hands about her face and that was her answer. The priest found them and welcomed them to the church. His mother thanked the priest and touched his head in gratitude. Her hand returned of his hair soiled with bird shit and he said blushing that it was good luck, and she wiped her hand across her thigh and raised back her nose and smelled the air out. Stale and faintly of urine. You’ll take some food? he asked. I wont, she said. Give it to my son. He has a journey ahead of him. The priest handed the man a bread made from cassava and reached in his quilling garbs, folding away to the floor, and took out an ear of corn, ready shucked, and handed that as well. The man thanked the priest and put the loaf and the corn in his bag. Where are you headed? the priest asked him. I’m going to the city for help. There’s help in the Lord, said the priest, and his darting eyes settled on nothing in particular for a moment. He thanked the priest and bent and kissed his mother on the forehead and told her he would be back. But his words were lost in the moans and curses of the congregation which filled and choked the air. What? she said. He told her again that he was coming back. And she said that he was a good boy for it and told him open his mouth and her fingers formed a beak, the wrinkly gullet of some baby bird, and she pushed them inside his mouth and took hold his tongue, warm and wet, and drew it out his mouth and spoke to him. Tell them about this place, who’ll ever listen. She fastened her grip on his tongue. He tasted his mother’s loose skin. Tell them what happened here. Can you do that? He nodded. She let go his tongue and it hung there canine and collected the tears that fell off his cheeks, unabated and crystalline.

 

These people, began the priest. They were just beginning to trust the horizon, now they go about like frightened deer, stopping and turning their ears to the wind at every other sound. I’ve made calls you know, draining my credit on useless calls. His voice hushed. I tell them we’re out here naked, and they must think I’m mad, because they tell me we’re safe. In the arms of the Lord they tell me we’re safe and no wonder I start laughing and then they hang up or the line goes dead and it’s just night and stars and. Do you smell that? That smell of piss. It’s me. I can no longer even control my own bladder and I’m supposed to offer guidance to these wretched–

 

But the man was gone.

 

The priest continued on his rounds, and stopped and looked on their faces, plump with life and asking his protection, asking the protection of their god in his house. And he knew that those walls were not anything against what was coming, and there threatened in him a frightful coward, running from the church, running from God and from the pathetic certainty of that impending godlessness. His doubts that would be written there and in their blood on those white walls, and he only prayed that he would not evacuate himself when the time came for fear of shitting on his priestly garments like that damned bird in the rafters.

 

He repeated his rounds, beating as he went a hope into his words so that they believed him when he said that they would not be killed, and in creative ways.

 

The priest passed the entrance of the church and stopped to watch the man as he left the village he had never left before so that he might save it. And for a moment the priest forgot that he had abandoned God, or that God had abandoned him. He watched the man about his uneven gait, heavy on his left, and the woman walking ahead a distance, deep in stride. In pair, interrupting the familiar terrain. He leaned against the doorway as the dribbling started once more into his piss soaked robes, the smell he carried with him, manifestation of his incontinent faith. And watched them go. He tried to call out to them a message of goodwill but there was none inside him, only the constant leaking urine. And he watched their figures diminish in the high, midmorning sun until they were mere specks, until they were nothing at all.

 

In the afternoon of lofty sun and streaks of cirrus cloud they walked along the riverbank in silence till the man had them hold at an oxbow lake and stopped to test the weight and length of sticks collected there in the stagnant water. He searched for one to clear the undergrowth as they went, and found the one and moved in front of the woman to beat a path through the tall grass, and rap on the flat stones to hustle the bathing snakes.

You don’t have anything to say, or you don’t like talking. Which is it? she asked the man.

 

I like talking.

 

What about?

 

The river, he said, pointing to it.

 

She chased him up, grabbed his arm. Where’s your father? she demanded.

 

What?

 

Your father, where is he?

 

Dead.

 

I’m sorry, she said, falling back in single file.

 

Dusk and crickets closed the day. As they stopped alongside the river and built a fire in the last of the dying sun animals began their bustling to and fro in the dimming surrounds. They roasted the corn the priest had given them and tore the bread in equal pieces and then extinguished the fire as the sky blued and blacked and the star-filled night enveloped them. The mosquitoes came and took their fill and lying there beside each other in silence they waited for sleep. Neither did they talk nor touch, and felt in company as strangers, enduring the pangs of a true and abject loneliness. The man slept first and dreamt of discovering a corpse in a clearing in the field beyond his house, and in his dream he bent and turned the body and saw the face of his father, coal black and breathing smoke, and he woke in sweat and was lost and scared. He stood and followed the sound of the river and when he reached the water he gaped at the sky and growled out his melancholy. She found his noise in the darkness and touched his back and he snapped about and grabbed and shook her violently, unaware of himself, until she cried out for him to stop, afraid that he would shake her to death.

 

Morning came. His hands stroked the belly scales of the yellow perch as they surfaced in whips of lurid gold, gulping breadcrumbs and disappearing back. He snatched one out and flung it on the bank where it death danced, slapping mud until he cracked its neck. A trail of blood seeped from out its flapping gills and it was wide-eyed and lifeless. He took a knife from his pack and cut away the fins and brushed away the scales and sent the knife down the length of the fish and fingered out its sloppy entrails and fed them back to the river where the fish made cannibal. He took the gutted perch up for their breakfast.

 

She peeled away a piece of the fish and turned it in her hand for cooling, and palmed the white and brown flesh into her mouth as she watched the orange embers dwindle beneath a smothering of gray ash. He watched her flick the bones into the remnants of the fire, and searched for something to say in the opaque eye of the fish, but found nothing. The eye popped easily from the flame-blackened skull and he crushed it between his fingers, content just to be watching her, and yet knowing that he should say something, else she grew bored of him, and said suddenly, between mouthfuls, that she should leave. If I don’t talk to you, you will leave, he said. She paused from her eating to consider it. Leave? she asked. Yes, go away. I leave from here as soon as this fish is done, she said. That’s not what I meant. What did you mean then? I meant you’ll get tired of me and look for a way to leave me behind. She ate more of the fish. I won’t do that. I won’t leave. Not until we reach the city at least. What changes in the city? We become who we are, she said. Who are we? Now, here, we are no one, nothing. We are a man and a woman eating a fish. I like that, he said. Yes, she agreed, I like that too. I will talk to you, he said, and fish for you. That’s good, she said, I have an appetite.

 

 

They kept as best as they could to the river, rising up over a rocky hump and falling again along a sloping rift. A sun beaten place. The river elongated below them through that fertile prison. That expanse.

 

How far does it go on? he asked.

 

Nothing is infinite, she replied.

 

He thought again of his father, dead and breathing smoke, a giant chargrilled foetus with an abdomen of boiled water, passing from always to nothing, as the sun shocked what colors were left and heat rose distorting from the bleached earth, and he squinted against the blindness. A herd of cattle wandering ownerless like brown paper bags flung on the wind with their brittle skins and huffing postures, leathery and with great drooping, empty breasts reaching almost to the ground, nourishing the ticks. The cattle turned to face them, two feet of proud white horns defying those sallow frames, a revving in their eyes, ready to bolt, but in their legs only bones. Pitiful specimens to have found themselves there in that valley. Nothing so kind as a shadow to be had.

 

The man pointed to something white and metal in the distance.

 

 

No road led to the upturned Land Rover with the shattered windscreen and one door hanging open like the broken wing of a bird shot down mid flight. A man sat leaning against the side of the wrecked vehicle with a line of dried blood drawing from his forehead down over his right eye and onto his sunburned cheek. He wore a blue vest with the letters U and N emblazoned in white on the chest, and seemed not to notice the woman, even as she shook him, even as she took the ID card from his pocket and read him his name. Alex.

 

There were three more dead inside the wrecked vehicle.

 

The woman took a seat on the earth beside the UN man and folded his hand in hers and worked her fingertips over his knuckles and kneaded his palm and gently pulled his wrist in a circular motion. She turned the gold band on his wedding finger and he turned his head and looked at her.

 

Alex, are you okay? she asked.

 

The man took back his hand and placed it upwards facing in his lap. Blood collecting there.

 

You are fine. Terrible things are happening to us, Alex. Is that why you came? What a mess. Oh it’s a sad accident. But you have survived. We will call to the others on your radio and they will come and bury your friends and stop this war. Yes. I can tell you things they have done to us. You will not believe the horrors we’ve endured. I carry it with me. Him too. We both. We will come with you to the city and talk into your recording devices. When the world hears what they are doing to us here there will be outrage. There will be justice.

 

The man leant forward and spat his blood on the red earth.

 

Leave me be.

 

You are injured, Alex.

 

Leave me be. I’m done with your war. He spat again.

 

Hush, she said, you are in shock. Rest. We will call for help. Where is your radio? Wait until you hear. Wait until we tell you. Oh how you will hang your head and cry. Daniel, she called, search in there for a radio. There must be one there, look under–

 

Five million.

 

What did you say?

 

Five million of you. We’ve heard every goddamned story you can think of.

 

Not mine. Not Daniel’s.

 

Stop it. Leave me alone.

 

You are maddened by the heat. I will get you some water from the river.

 

Your river is cholera.

 

The man heard talk of the river and stopped his search through the pockets of the dead. He came around the car to where they sat.

 

Ignore him, said the woman, he is deranged. The crash has knocked out his sense. Tears welled in hers eyes as she spoke.

 

The UN man pulled a pack of cigarettes from a pocket in his blue vest and lit one and coughed. What is your name? he asked the woman.

 

My name is Lokeka Christine Mary. I am thirty-one years old. I come from a large family, of seven sisters and two brothers. My father was a shopkeeper and my mother was–

 

Ah, shut it. Go away.

 

No.

 

Yes.

 

I don’t understand.

 

No one is coming. You understand that? Cross the border if you can. You have a man with you at least, and no children to slow you down. You might find someone there in the camps that will listen. Now leave me in peace. I’m supposed to be in Cologne on Wednesday for a wedding. My–

 

Be quiet. Daniel, come. Let’s go. The man is a crazy. He’s lost his mind. No one is coming, but you are here, this is insanity. She straddled his blood-soaked legs and began to tear violently at the blue vest, and found the clasps and unstrapped him, holding her breath as he spluttered blood and smoke in her face, and she opened the vest with all the energy of a rapturous lover and there a hot soup of entrails slopped onto the man’s lap and he looked down on the contents of his belly and with one hand took and lifted the mass, his own river of shit, and smiled at her, holding his slippery bowels out like an offering, blue and red and stinking of fish, and from his mouth trickled the smoke of his cigarette which fell into his piled intestines and expired with a hiss so that the woman screamed out and staggered back and fell over herself in the dust and wept.

 

The man lifted the woman from the dirt. She threw an arm around his neck and let him. He walked with her to the river where he sat her down and waited patiently while she cried. The woman stopped crying and washed her hands and face in the river. Later they returned to the Land Rover to collect what they could carry. Alex was dead and flies had come and settled on his corpse and were rubbing their legs together and feeding.

 

 

The Land Rover was discovered a week later in eastern Congo by a UN plane departed from Bukavu and heading north. The pilot radioed in coordinates to the district office in Arua and an armed convoy was dispatched across the border to collect the bodies of Alex, his two colleagues and their driver. The dead were identified and their families informed that the team had died in the field, though it remained unclear why their vehicle was found so far from the road. Alex and his colleagues had been travelling to meet with three former child soldiers taken refuge in a village church. The children had recently fled their rebel captors and were seeking amnesty. They wished to be returned to their families. The youngest of the three children was a thirteen year-old girl. Alex was thirty-two, and married. What was left of his remains after a week in the bush was cremated and returned to his wife, Marie, in Berlin. Besides family and friends, Alex’s funeral was attended by two Congolese students and an Acholi woman from Gulu named Florence, whom Marie had befriended at the university where she worked as a professor of Development Studies, and whose help she often solicited to write her husband short notes in Luo (at the end of longer ones in German), which he would have translated by his driver, Dennis. Dennis, unlike Alex, had been killed instantly. Alex’s father collapsed at his son’s funeral. His mother wore dark glasses and did not cry. His brother, Mathis, remarked quietly to Marie that die Schwarzen should not have come to the funeral because they’d done enough already, and Marie chose to ignore the comment because she knew that he was grieving. Three months after the funeral, Marie kissed Mathis in the kitchen of his parent’s home and Mathis chose to ignore the kiss because he knew that she was grieving. One year after their illicit kiss, Marie and Mathis were married in Düsseldorf, Marie’s hometown. In his speech at the reception, Mathis spoke mainly of Alex. This is what my brother would have wanted, he assured the guests.



ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


studied English Literature at Bristol, and later, Violence, Conflict and Development at SOAS (The School of Oriental and African Studies), with an emphasis on the Khmer Rouge trials in Cambodia, and the prosecution of atrocity crimes. Since then he has worked on documentaries, written and taught about the International Criminal Court, been a landscape gardener in New York, and worked in a bowling alley bar. Throughout these jobs he has been writing fiction. Jesse has three short stories published in The White Review, and is currently writing his first novel.