Only The Dead - Extract

A rustle in the forest, a noise in the shadowed silence.  Something on the pathway ahead made one of the boys stop and listen.  He raised his AK-47 cautiously; the barrel and triangular sight just catching the rich morning light filtered through the leafy canopy.  The other boys listened too, holding their own rifles at the ready.

            There were so many unexpected things hiding among the trees.  All too often they had been ambushed by other bands or government soldiers, which army depending on what border they were ranging beyond.  They had even been attacked occasionally by UN troops.  They had all seen other boys shot dead, falling as the bullets hit them, curling up tight into their pain like infants, the blood pouring out of their ragged T-shirts or filthy, oversized camouflage tunics, the last of their breath croaking in their throats as they died.

            The boys waited, listening, their fingers taut on the triggers.  There was the noise again - something moving in the forest ahead of them.  They shifted soundlessly around one another, spreading out into a defensive circle.  It was almost like a dance without music.  Fighting was something they had learned the hard way, from seeing other boys killed because they didn’t move quickly enough when the shooting started.

            There were a few men among them.  They, too, were holding their AK-47s at the ready.   Their commander, General Faustin, pointed at one of the boys holding an RPG.  The boy was wearing nothing but a pair of shorts and a stained tank-top.  He curled his small pink tongue out slightly against the corner of his mouth while he steadied the tube of the rocket grenade on his skinny shoulder to fire into the undergrowth.  The General looked carefully into the forest around them and held his hand up in the air.   Only when he dropped it would they shoot.  When that happened, they would open fire all at once, sending a wave of fire into the undergrowth.  They had learned that only by killing everything around them will they be sure to live themselves.

The moments before the shooting began were poised silently in the dappled forest light.  The boys were excited now, their hearts pounding as they waited to be unleashed.  Fingers tightened on the steel of the triggers, young eyes flashed and then hardened.

            An old man stepped quietly out of the shadows onto the hard, beaten earth of the forest pathway.  He looked at the boys with so many guns pointing at him and raised his hands slowly into the air.  His eyes were yellowed and bright.

The old man looked like he was an nganga or maybe an mchawi, some kind of a healer or witchdoctor.  He had hard bare feet that protruded from a dirty pair of shorts.  He wore a grimy, torn shirt and a machete dangled from an old canvas army belt around his waist.

He stared at the boys and men dressed in their ragged clothes – torn scraps of green and brown cloth that had once been army uniforms.  He held their frightened, hostile gaze with his bright eyes.  They, in turn, pointed their rifles uncertainly at him. 

The youngest one, Okuto, shouted something in his home language of Acholi, which General Faustin did not understand well.  He shouted again, like an angry child rebelling against his father, while the old man just stared back at the little boy hidden in the forest shadows pointing a gun at him. 

Faustin was watching carefully.  He had seen it happen often before; when the boy-soldiers got frightened or angry they often just shot the person dead right then and there.  The gun was the only power they had, and they used it more readily than the older men.  Faustin seldom reprimanded them for it; the boys’ unpredictability was something that terrified people, and that terror was the secret of his control.

So he watched, as the old man with his hands in the air stared at the little boy with the deadly gun in his hands.  Faustin was intrigued by this old man and his silence.  He wondered if the boy would simply blast him away, like he had done to so many other men, women and children.  Watching this old man opposite the boy was the first time that Faustin truly didn’t know what the boy would do.  It gave him a thrill simply to wait and see what would happen.

The old man held the boy’s gaze.  The child stood pointing the rifle, his finger on the trigger.

‘What’s your name?’ he said finally in Swahili, but his voice had lost its usual harshness, there was something weak in his throat.

‘Your name?’ the boy repeated, jabbing the muzzle of his AK-47 into a bar of sunlight that filtered down through the leaves.

‘Mephisto,’ the old man said quietly.

The boy looked at the old man.  ‘Mephisto,’ he repeated.  Then, he started giggling nervously.  A few of other children joined in as they lowered their rifles.

Okuto slipped his rifle over his shoulder.  The scarred wooden butt hung down to the back of his knees.

 ‘Salimu, Mephisto,’ he said.  ‘Welcome.’

The old man brought his hands down slowly.  Then he unbuttoned his ragged shirt.  Hanging on a leather thong was a large curved lion’s tooth.  He bowed his head and took off the necklace.

Okuto and the other boys watched in awe as the old man dangled the tooth by the thong from his fingers.  It was yellow and cracked and the top had a silver band around it.  It was obviously very old, a talisman that had held its power for generations.  Faustin watched it too.  He could see that the boys were frightened by this lion’s tooth and by the old man who held it.  Even he felt a tiny irrational squeeze of fear in his own chest that he tried to push away.  He had worked all his life to master science and mathematics.  His degrees in physics from first the Sorbonne and then MIT were no small achievements for an African village boy, but that same village boy knew deep down inside that there were things in this world that no one could properly understand, terrible things and powers that you could not fight with science and maths, things that you could not even fight with an AK-47.  He had used them where he could to his own advantage, but he knew that he had no control over them.

The boys watched carefully as Mephisto stepped over to the General.  He stretched out his arm and held the tooth out in front of him.  Faustin felt somehow as if he was in a dream, as if some strange force that he could not name was pushing him forward.  He opened the palm of his hand.  Mephisto smiled at him and dropped the tooth into Faustin’s hand, the leather thong slipping through his fingers and curling like a tiny black snake on the pale calluses on his palm.

Faustin stared at the tooth lying in his hand for a few moments.  He wasn’t sure what he thought about this unexpected gesture, but he did know that he must appear in control of the situation.  He could not appear weak or uncertain in front of these boys.  The constancy of his power was essential to his survival.

He did not return Mephisto’s smile.  He nodded at the old man and then he bent his head slightly and hung the thong with its tooth around his own neck.  He tucked it in underneath his camouflage tunic, and the lion ivory lay cool and smooth against his chest.

Then Faustin smiled. 

‘Mephisto.’ Then he spoke again, loudly to his soldiers, boys and men around him.  ‘Papa Mephisto.’

                                                                    2

Sebastian woke to the cold dawn air stinging his face and the roar of lions nearby.  The first light of dawn was glowing through the thin walls of his tent.  His heart started beating wildly as he sat up in his sleeping bag, listening.  They were close.  There it was again: the low menace of the beasts’ roar.  Supposedly, lions never attacked people inside their tents, but he couldn’t help feeling the adrenaline course through him.  The roaring stopped for a moment and Sebastian could hear the dry grass crackling under their paws as they walked slowly across the pan.  He dared not unzip the door of his tent to look, so he tried to track their movements by listening.  They were moving in a semi-circle heading for the thick bush west of him.  Would they still be hunting?  He wasn’t sure.  Often in the sparse Kalahari bush lions did miss their prey and they would go hungry for days until another chance presented itself.   He knew, too, that an adult male lion weighed over 400 pounds – a lion, or even a lioness at nearly 300 pounds – would hardly even notice the thin nylon wall as it came foraging for meat, for him.

            To his relief, he heard the pride moving off.  The thick bush rustled as they slunk into it; their roaring growing fainter as they disappeared.   As he sat alone in his cold tent, he knew that, ironically, the sudden elemental terror that these carnivores had awakened in him was a revelation that he would treasure.  To feel it was why he had left Paris and come to the Kalahari. 

            When he finally worked up the courage to unzip the tent and step out into the red brightness of the dawn exploding over the thorn trees, he felt a fierce joy surge through him.  He was glad he had come home to Africa.  He was glad that he had been alone and woken by a pride of lions.  He had come here to look for them and he was happy that he had found them and that he had felt his chest pounding with fear.  It meant he was alive, that, unlike what Claire had told him, his heart had not died, it could still beat and feel the truth of the world around him.

            He opened the back door of the Land Rover and took out the small gas stove he had brought with him.  He poured some water into the aluminum kettle and put it on top of the stove.  He struck a match and lit the gas.  As the flames hissed, he sat on the cold ground, his arms wrapped around his knees, staring at the incandescent play of the morning light on the trees and long grass.

It was a time of healing, alone in the wilderness, following the solitary, uncertain paths of his pain.  He found himself thinking of how many men had done the same throughout time: John the Baptist; Aboriginals following the songlines across the vastness of their land; his own father, lost for years in his dream of being a professional hunter across the wildernesses of the continent, before he had finally settled down to try his luck on the farm in Rhodesia.

The water began to boil and Sebastian took out an enamel mug.  He put a single tea bag in the bottom and poured the steaming water over it.  He took the first sip of the hot, black brew.  It seemed to him now, as he sipped his tea and the dawn faded and the brightness of morning grew, that he had learned something new today: fear was what lay at the heart of the wandering.  The lions had taught him to see it.  And then, with a shock of pain running through him, he saw, too, that Claire had understood him after all.  They had both shared a deep need to confront fear in all its forms.  Perhaps - if only – he had understood this earlier, then – well, it was too late now.  It was somewhere on the road between Gaberone and Khutse, just before his Blackberry signal died, that the email had come through.  The flat on the Rue Censier was sold.  He would get his share of the money, he trusted her with that.  She had moved in with that Lars fellow yesterday, she had written, so he couldn’t expect her to forward his mail any longer.

With a jolt of pain Sebastian remembered that it was less than two years ago that she had moved in with him.  It had started well.  Within days of moving to Paris, they had begun editing the film on Ay Khanoum, the lost city of Alexander the Great they had travelled together through Afghanistan to find.  The journey had been a great, if sometimes terrifying, adventure, and it had brought them together in a heady mix of archaeological discovery, danger and sex.  On the road to uncovering the secret of the lost diaries of Alexander the Great, they had discovered each other.  She was what he had been looking for all his life.

They worked well on the film together, editing from morning to early evening at the production company offices on the Boulevard St. Michel and then walking down the side streets past the Pantheon, holding hands, or him with his arm around her, reveling in Paris itself and the fact that they were so lucky to have found one another.  They would often stop at the café on the Place Contrescarpe and drink a glass of Sancerre, or two, while they ate dinner in the fading light.  This was their Paris and it was Hemingway’s Paris too, and, for Claire, that made it a place of almost spiritual importance.  On the way back to their new flat, they would walk down the cobbles of the Rue Mouffetard, past the tiny building where Verlaine had died and Hemingway had rented a room to write in.

The film had done well, winning awards and selling to TV stations all over the world.  For a while, they had been happy, living in Paris and celebrating their success and the money it had brought.  Now that his work with Alexander was done, Sebastian had started a new project, researching the history of lion mythology in cultures around the world, while Claire started travelling again to make documentaries: Burundi, Iraq, Pakistan, the US-Mexico border.  It seemed to Sebastian as he worked slowly on the mystery of lions and their meaning to the human soul down the centuries, that she was seldom around, and then he realized, that, in fact, she hardly ever was there. 

He confronted her about it one night after they had finished one of their increasingly rare dinners on the Place Contrescarpe, and had walked home through the darkening autumn light.

‘It’s not like it used to be,’ he said, staring out over the yellow and orange glow of the cars passing on the street below.  ‘You’re never here anymore.’

She stood up and walked to the window.  ‘I shouldn’t have to explain that to you.’

‘No, perhaps not, but, then, I shouldn’t need to ask.’

She turned, and looked at him.  The sound of traffic faded in the window as he waited for her reply.  ‘There was a time when you didn’t.’

The light was bright now, filling the bush with the first heat of the day.  He finished his tea and rinsed out the mug with a little water.  He washed his face and brushed his teeth.  Keeping each movement simple was a discipline that somehow gave him a way to soften the pain of his memories.   

‘I saw you nearly kill him,’ she had said, later that night.  ‘That night when the terrorists attacked us in Afghanistan.  I saw that you were capable of killing someone as you held him down with the gun in front of his face.’

They were still sitting in the living room.  The traffic had slowed to a trickle in the darkness below. 

‘It haunted me, always, I tried not to let it, but - ’

The pain of it shot through him.  He couldn’t believe what she was saying.

‘But he wanted to kill us.’ He tried to keep his voice calm, but the mingled anger and hurt fizzled in his blood.

‘You weren’t sure of that.  And yet you still might have killed him.’

Sebastian closed his eyes.  There was no way to explain to her.  But she was right.  There had been a moment when he was ready to shoot the man.

‘It was you who brought me to my senses,’ he said carefully.

She looked at him and tears came.  ‘I know.’ Her words were barely a whisper.  She turned her head away and then looked back at him. ‘Knowing that frightens me too much.  I don’t want to have the responsibility of keeping you sane.  I can’t bear it any longer.’

Sebastian picked up the gas stove off the ground.  It was still warm while he wrapped it in a cloth to keep the dust out.  He opened the back door of the Land Rover and put the stove away in its box.  As he closed the door, he realized yet again that there was nothing he could have said to her in reply.  She might have deceived him, and deceived herself, but the stark, unspoken truth had been there always between them - he had killed before, he knew he could kill again, and she had seen him come too close to that abyss of murder.  Knowing that about him had been too much for her to bear.  He wanted to hate her for it, but he couldn’t bring himself to do that.  Still, the betrayal was hard.

He turned the key in the ignition; the old engine hesitated, and then roared into life.  The joy that he had felt earlier had been erased by the memories that flooded in when he least wanted them to.  He put the Land Rover into gear and began to drive towards the single pair of sand tracks that led through the wilderness.  He didn’t know where they led.  He wanted just to follow them as deep as he could into the heart of this continent that he had come home to at last.  The Land Rover lurched as he moved onto the tracks.  A pair of gemsbok watched him from the edge of the pan.  A hornbill fluttered across the road.  He had been a fool to believe that love held the possibility of redemption.

The sand tracks curved around a clump of acacia trees.  He looked to see if the lions might be sleeping in their shade, but there was nothing there.  As he passed the trees, he took his Blackberry out of his shirt pocket and pressed the voice recorder button.

                                                    ʘ

Lions enter our inner world in mysterious ways.  Ways that merge our human nature with that of the beast.  Carved on the stone wall of the ruins of Angkor Wat in Cambodia are creatures called narasimha – half man, half-lion.  In the myths of ancient Greece, Hercules performed his greatest feats while wearing the flayed skin of the Nemean lion.  The Egyptian goddess, Sekhmet, has the erotic curves of a nubile young woman but the head of a lion.  She tore men apart in battle with her teeth in defence of Ra, the creator.

Sebastian paused, looking one last time at the empty shadows under the thorn trees.   He put the Blackberry back in his pocket, then he shifted gears and drove on.

       CREECH AIR FORCE BASE

        NEVADA

The sun is up and his workday, or rather, work night is over.  He is driving down Route 95.  Heading south, going to the home he’s renting in North Las Vegas, where most of the military families live.  It’s good for Carrie and the kids.  They’ve moved around so much that he’s happy they’ve got some kind of community here, some place they can put down roots, at least for a while.

            His shift is over. He’ll sleep most of the day now, but Carrie said she wanted him to barbecue tonight, so he’s going to see what they’ve got at the 7/11 on North Durango.  He thinks maybe he’ll get some hickory-smoked ribs.  The kids always love them.  The ribs and some A&W root beer.  They’ll enjoy that.

            The only problem is: he can’t stop his hands shaking on the steering wheel.