a short story by Mike O'Driscoll
Fate is another word for magic. It has the capacity to frighten people, making them unwilling to participate. Sometimes, they wish for things they don't really want and all that enchantment is wasted. Others, like Joe, even when they run they have no choice, no matter what they wish. I seek them out and return them to the fold. Call me Ruskin.
I had been on Joe's trail for over seven years, trailing him back and forth across the continent, witnessing the chaos his desertion had loosed upon the world. I found him in a bar in Harare, sitting at a table surrounded by a crowd of avid listeners who kept a steady stream of booze flowing in his direction. His white shirt was stained with sweat and beer, dagger and serpent tattoos slid over his lower arms, and his grey chinos seemed to have accumulated a decade's worth of dirt. His artificial leg stuck out rigidly beneath the table, and an orange glow from a lamp fell across his lined and leathered face. His audience were mostly white tourists, come to hear the storytelling bum whose tall tales of war were guaranteed to send you away smiling at the gullibility of other, less cynical men.
I circled the fringe of the crowd, watching as he came to the end of another tale and then hungrily drank the dregs of another glass. He lit a cigarette and let his gaze wander over the faces of those who had come to feed on his pain. His slitted eyes met mine and just for an instant, I saw a hint of fear behind the wrinkles, lurking there in the livid blue. Then the crowd were screaming for another tale and Joe was laughing, milking the applause, waiting for another drink to be placed within his reach. I found a chair and placed it among the people to his left. I put my case on the ground and signalled for the young barman to bring me a scotch. Joe wiped sweat from his forehead with his sleeve, sipped a beer and cleared his throat. He glanced once more in my direction, and then began.
1. The Scent of Solitary Dreams
Many years ago, three soldiers got left on the wrong side of the Coco river with no easy way to get back home. They were part of a unit designated as military advisers to the Contras. The mission was to cross into Nicaragua and wipe out an arms dump in a Sandanista controlled village. Someone in Intelligence had messed up though, and the unit was ambushed about fifty clicks into the jungle. Prewitt, Nately and Spigweed were the only survivors, and Nately was carrying a bullet in his right shoulder. They escaped the fire-fight and staggered on through the tangled jungle till night fell. Spigweed sat the first watch while his two comrades slept.
Insects chittered and large centipedes scuttled across his legs. He stank of fear and defeat, and the bitterness on his tongue was no more than the aftertaste of a glory that never was. Broiling in his own sweat, he mumbled a prayer to a God he'd long ago abandoned. When the little old man hopped out from behind a tree and said, "Who's there?" Spigweed's terror flared up for an instant, before he brought it under control.
He levelled his rifle at the old man. "Three marines, my friend," he said. "Tired and broken and much too far from home."
"Well, my worthy," the old man said. "I see your friends dreaming over there, and I see that they do not ask so much. Take these gifts and use them as you will." He placed a small beatbox, a blue cowl and a kilo bag of pure cocaine on the ground. "The first has the power to enchant, the second to grant wishes, and the third is endless."
Spigweed looked at the old man, realising that he spoke in some ancient language he had never heard before. As he tried to figure out how he had understood the words, the old man stepped back into the dripping undergrowth and vanished from his sight. Spigweed stared at the gifts for a long time, convinced that, like his friends, he was dreaming. Perhaps for a while, he slept.
But in the morning the gifts were still there. He woke the others and together they examined them. Spigweed sliced open the top of the bag and sniffed the white powder, feeling the rush hit him like an express train. He invited his comrades to join him, and when Prewitt felt the blood boiling in his veins, he switched on the beatbox. A driving rhythm pounded out of the speakers, and it was soon overlaid with what seemed an ancient yet familiar voice that carried a haunting melody. They understood no words and yet were entranced. A profound stillness settled on the jungle as birds and insects fell silent, enchanted by the music. Hours, maybe even days, passed as if in a few, fleeting moments, during which time all memories of war were erased. As the sun climbed or fell - they knew not which - Nately pressed the cowl against his wound. In his heart he wished that he was healed, and that he could be with his comrades in a new home, here amidst the quiet and peace.
And so it was: before their eyes a beautiful bungalow of white timber, with a wide verandah sprang up out of the jungle. The trees fell back from its walls, yielding to their dreams.
Spigweed, his head reeling but filled now with true belief, lifted Nately in his arms and carried him inside. "Jesus," he said. "He wasn't lying." And there in the air-conditioned house he told Nately and Prewitt about the old man and what he had said about the three gifts.
And perhaps things would have remained happy in the bungalow, had not the music drawn the natives of Azul to their home. They woke one morning to find the bungalow surrounded by one hundred or more, mahogany skinned, near-naked tribesmen. Spigweed and the others stepped out onto the verandah.
A tall indian at the head of the tribe bowed low and said, "You called to us with the old songs. We have come to acknowledge you as our brothers."
Spigweed guessed this was their chief. He surveyed the faces arrayed behind him, and noticed the beautiful young woman standing at his shoulder, her head raised in proud defiance. "I appreciate that," Spigweed said. "Why don't you sit and eat with us."
At this, the chief raised his arms and his people sat on the ground, all except the woman. "My daughter," the chief said. "She was our guide to your kingdom; it was she who first heard and recognised the old songs."
The woman's gaze pierced Spigweed's flesh and found his soul. He felt suddenly powerless, in thrall to her will. In the meantime, Nately wished up a banquet fit for kings and everyone ate their fill. Afterwards, the chief's daughter performed a dance not seen for a thousand years. The truth was, she communed with jungle spirits, and had gained powers and knowledge long lost to her people.
Later, when Spigweed's brain burned with the power of the dream, she drew him away from the bungalow and asked him what he most desired. "I think you know that," he told her.
"Yes, but what do I get in return?" she asked him, her eyes searing his mind.
Spigweed kissed her fiercely on the lips and said, "Whatever you want." So, she fucked him there beside a stream, and afterwards he told her of the gifts. At the time, he thought it a fair exchange.
The bungalow was a weathered shack, crumbling in the fetid heat, when Spigweed returned. The gangrene stench from Nately's wound was sweet and sickening, and he mumbled incoherently to himself. Prewitt climbed the trees and like a madman, he beseeched the cacophonous birds to make the song return. Their gifts were stolen and the world they had dreamed was fading like the jungle mist.
Slowly, not even realising the truth, each of them began to die in many little secret ways.
Till, one evening, just as the heavy stormclouds finished pissing on their forlorn heads, the tiny old man walked into the clearing. "I see things haven't gone as well as you expected," he said to Spigweed.
"We didn't ask for much," Spigweed said, exhausted.
"But you laid with the woman," the old man said.
"Was that wrong?"
"Oldest trick in the book. Still, all is not lost. Go to Azul and there you will find her powdering her nose, a habit to which she has become too accustomed."
Despite his disgust, Spigweed asked how to get there.
"Follow the song."
When the old man had gone, Spigweed consulted with Prewitt. Together, they carried Nately into the jungle and then strangled him to death. It was, they told themselves, the only humane thing to do. They left his body to be eaten by the wild and nameless beasts that lurked in the shadows beyond the edge of their perception. Then, together, they set off to find the land of Azul. They wandered through treacherous swamps and climbed ogrish mountains, catching on the air the distant notes of an ancient song. After many days, they came down out of the mountains into a clear, green valley where no wild beasts thrived. This was Azul. Wary at first, but growing bolder, they walked into the village and saw the magic spell that had been woven over the land. The once proud warriors crawled on their bellies in the dusty grass, mouthing silent songs to accompany the music that filled the air. Others sat blank-eyed, staring at the space where life used to be. And in a wooden temple, they found the chief and his wives, sprawled at the feet of his daughter. Oblivious to the intruders, she sucked on the end of a crystal pipe and tried to find the right words to go with the tune that ate her brain.
Spigweed picked up the bag of cocaine. Prewitt took the cowl from the woman's head and the beatbox from her side. "I wish," he said, "that you live for a thousand years, and that all the time your need, your craving never goes away, is never ever satisfied."
Then the two soldiers, as was their due, killed the men and raped the women of Azul. The chief's daughter alone was left untouched. Hollow-eyed and full of need, they left her pleading for that which she would never have again. They fled Azul before the sun went down and wished themselves not back at their jungle home, but in Las Vegas, surrounded by showgirls and dressed in the finest designer clothes that drug money could buy.
A few coins were tossed into an ashtray on the table. One or two people drifted away, their appetite for wonder satisfied for another day or two.
"Have another beer," an American said, sticking a five dollar bill in Joe's shirt pocket. "And tell us about the fucking crows."
Joe nodded, but before he could begin, I leaned forward and placed a photograph in front of him. It was a black and white picture of an African woman in a sequined gown, dancing on a spotlit stage. He picked it up and stared at it for a second or two, before his eyes sought out mine from the press of bodies around him. "Hannie?" he said.
"That's not my name," I said.
"Where'd you get this?"
"She's just a dancing girl."
"No, she was more than that. She was all the world to me."
"Come on, man," the American said. "Let the fucker speak."
Joe smiled a sheepish smile, as if he'd just remembered what he was there for. Which was to perform. "Thirsty work," he said, holding the picture tight in his fist. "Now listen."
2. A Word on a Wing
Long ago in a foreign land there was a good soldier by the name of Sergeant Stryker who worked hard and saved all his money instead of spending it on drinking and whoring. At this particular time, he found himself with the task force sent to capture an evil General who would let no ships sail through the kingdom of Panama. Stryker had two friends, fellow sergeants, but unlike him, they gambled heavily in the city's casinos and were mighty envious of the good soldier's thrift. After brooding and plotting together, they determined to relieve their friend of his money.
Now these two villains knew that Stryker was a keen photographer, and that he liked to use his free time to go on jungle shoots, or up into the mountains to get a panoramic view of the Gatun basin.
One evening, these two treacherous rogues stalked Stryker as he followed a dusty path above Rio Abajo. At a bend in the path, they overtook him and beat him to a pulp. Blood ran from his ears and his eyes clouded with pain. They took his money and cameras, and left him to die beneath a blooming Jacaranda tree. But he didn't die; instead, he came to in the middle of the night, and being a God-fearing man, he began to pray.
As he prayed, a sound of beating wings impinged on his awareness. He looked up through bruised eyelids and saw three large crows fluttering round his head. After a while they settled on the ferny branches and began to speak to each other. Unable to move, he lay beneath the tree, listening.
"Sister, what is the best news with you today?" one crow said.
The second crow stretched its wings to darken the night. It said, "Oh, if men but knew what we know! The General is hiding from the yanquis and they will never find him."
"Not unless they search in the right place and play the right music to draw him out," the third crow said.
"If men but knew," said the second, and then revealed where the wicked General was, and the music that would lure him out of hiding.
Soon afterwards, the crows had done talking and flew away. When dawn came, Stryker crawled down into a ditch behind the tree and drank from the water that had collected there. Strengthened by this, he gathered himself up and staggered along the path till he came to the main road back to Panama city. He collapsed then, and woke to find that a slender woman had come to his aid. Her eyes were green pools of enchantment, and as if by magic, she raised him up and carried him to her silver Nissan. Then she drove him back to his unit where, in his delirium, he asked her to marry him.
Touched by his tender naiveté, she gently refused. After all, he was only a sergeant and she was looking for officer material. But Stryker was a determined man, and, remembering the words he had overheard, he resolved to make use of them.
The siege on the General's palace had proved fruitless. The soldiers had no sure way of knowing if he was inside, or if and when he would give himself up. Stryker went to see his captain and suggested they direct their efforts to another building not too far from the palace. The captain was inclined to dismiss the bruised and scruffy sergeant, thinking it impossible that he could know what army intelligence had failed to discover. But Stryker was made of sterner stuff and he persisted. He went to a record store and purchased a certain CD. He explained to the captain that if a sound system was rigged up and this particular piece of music was broadcast continuously throughout the night and day to the building he had indicated, then the General would soon despair and give himself up.
Despite the implausibility of Stryker's suggestion, the captain decided to give it a try. In truth, he was at his wits end. Back home the President had appeared on television telling his people that the General would be in custody by the end of the week. Then the President had talked on the telephone with the army chiefs, and the army chiefs had in turn told the captain that if he failed to deliver the goods, it would be a black mark on his career.
And so he instructed Stryker to make the necessary arrangements, and thus it was, that after two days and nights of having his tranquillity disturbed by music he had not called for, the evil General surrendered himself to his enemies.
The President made political gain out of this magnificent victory; the captain's unblemished career was back on the fast track, and Stryker was rewarded with a commission. And as was only fitting, he won the heart of the beautiful enchantress who had come to his aid. Some time afterwards, he walked in the hills above Panama City and came across the same two comrades who had beaten and robbed him. Afraid now of his new rank, they begged forgiveness.
"Look fellas," he told them, "don't embarrass me. Forget it, you guys needed the money more than I did."
"Jesus, Stryker," one man said. "That's Goddamn decent of you."
"I'll tell you what," Stryker said. "That place you left me? I heard something there that changed my whole life. It's a place of luck, gentlemen. I don't see why you two shouldn't have a piece of it. Go and listen to what the birds have to say."
When Stryker had departed, the two thieves hurried to that spot above Rio Abajo. They found the old Jacaranda tree in purple bloom, and settled themselves comfortably beneath its cooling limbs. Shortly after the sun went down, they heard a fluttering from overhead. Looking up they saw three crows circle the tree, then settle on its uppermost branches.
"Sisters," one crow said, "I fear some bastard eavesdropped on us not so long ago, for the music has been played and the General has surrendered himself to his enemies."
"Yes," said another. "Perhaps if we call our brethren, they will help us search out these sneaks."
Soon the air was filled with a mighty thrum of wings and the cawing of thousands of birds. The two men were filled with terror and tried to run but, too late! The birds swooped down on them with sharpened beaks and raking talons and left behind only rags and whitened bones.
A Cuban-Chinese in a pinstripe suit staggered up to Joe. "'S'all lies and bullshit," he said, slurring his words. "How you know any a this stuff?"
Joe looked up at him. "You don't like the story, pal, you don't have to listen."
"Same old shit, ev'ry night," the drunk said, as he reached into his jacket pocket for the switchblade he kept there. But I had already relieved him of the weapon and now he just looked stupid as he thrust nothing towards Joe's face. He stared at his empty hand, confused, then looked at the faces of the gathered crowd. "Fuck it," he muttered, then stumbled away to hide his shame in the night.
A few others drifted from the table, unsettled by the incident. Joe said, "I got plenty more where they come from."
I pulled my chair closer to the table and spoke just to him. "What do you do when the fabric of the tale becomes unwoven?"
He frowned, letting his gaze wander from the photograph to my face. He said, "Haven't seen you before; just got in to town?"
"I've been travelling, Joe," I said. "This guided me here." I pulled a St. Christopher medal on a silver chain from my pocket and placed it in the palm of his hand.
"Useta have one just like it," he said. "About that girl, Hannie ... you seen her down in Jo'burg?"
I shrugged my shoulders, not wanting to get his hopes up.
"You came just to hear my stories?"
"That's part of it," I said. "But there's one in particular that you never finished, Joe."
He shook his head, sadly. "What you said about the fabric, I think I understand. A guy once said, 'It's not just children who can be fobbed off with fairy tales.' He meant words can fool people."
"No," I said. "He meant the words show us what to do."
3. Dancing in the Dark
There was a war in the desert between a bullying khalif and his neighbour, the sharif. This sharif was a decent guy blessed with riches and a fine daughter whose name was Sufiya. When the war came, the people grew unruly and the sharif fled with his daughter to the kingdom of his friend the sultan. Armies were raised against the evil khalif, but in the meantime, Sufiya fell under the spell of western ways, which were at that time considered inappropriate. The sharif found it hard to keep track of her movements, and so was forced to offer a large reward to any man who could let him know what she got up to each night. He made one proviso: it was that any man who volunteered for the task and failed, would have his head cut off.
Throughout the first few weeks of the war, many heroes attempted to discover the mysterious, nocturnal habits of Sufiya. All failed and so lost their heads.
And then the Americans too, came to the sharif's aid. It happened that one among them suffered terrible wounds in a Scud attack, losing an arm, a leg and an eye. Yet, he refused to dwell on his misfortune and soon discharged himself from the military hospital. Cutter - for that was his name - spent his days wandering the fearful city, through the casbah, past white mosques with slender minarets that shimmered in the desert heat. At a stall where he drank coffee and smoked hashish, he overheard two men talking about the sharif's offer, and imagined that he might be the one to discover Sufiya's secret.
An old woman hovered nearby, watching him closely. "You look troubled, soldier," she said.
"I'm thinking about Sufiya," Cutter said, the dope loosening his tongue. "Thinking that a guy in my situation could use that dough."
The crone disappeared into the depths of the stall and returned with a turban and a plain white djellaba. "As soon as you put these on you will become invisible. You will be able to follow Sufiya without her knowledge."
Cutter listened to her counsel and decided to chance his one remaining arm. So he went to the sharif and volunteered for the job. The sharif was unimpressed with Cutter's lack of limbs but he was running out of options and so agreed to let the American try to uncover Sufiya's secret.
That evening in the sultan's household there was much celebration over the destruction of an enemy fortress. People ate and drank till they were sated, not knowing that servants loyal to Sufiya had drugged the feast. All fell unconscious except Cutter who had neither drank nor eaten. He pulled on his cloak and turban and unseen, he saw Sufiya emerge from her rooms. She wore black stockings and a red micro skirt, with a sheer blouse that failed to hide her ample bosom. Cutter whistled to himself, startling Sufiya. Her eyes searched the shadows, but seeing nothing, she left the palace and was met outside by a handsome young man on a motorbike.
Cutter failed to stop the first three cabs that rolled by, forgetting for a moment his invisibility. Remembering, he removed the cloak and managed to hail a cab. He followed Sufiya and her lover to a nightclub at a western hotel. There he watched as she and Pierre, the son of a French diplomat, danced the night away. And more.
In the morning, the Sharif demanded to be told where Sufiya had been. But Cutter had no proof as yet and so held his tongue. Tomorrow, he said, he would reveal all. "You better," the sharif's right-hand man translated, "Or your head will go the same way as your limbs."
Cutter bought a camera and that night, he used up a full roll of film on Sufiya's dancefloor performance. The grace and fluidity with which her body moved to the sound of Prince was almost enough to make Cutter forget the deal. Almost, but not quite. The next morning, he gave twenty-four photographs to the sharif. They showed Sufiya dancing with Pierre, and touching, and worst of all, kissing. The sharif was aghast. Five hundred thousand dollars was quickly brought to Cutter. The sharif said, "Were you a Moslem, I would offer you her hand. But as you are an infidel, I am sure the money will suffice."
Cutter nodded his agreement. Later that day he stood in line in the market square, the only American among hundreds of arabs who watched as Sufiya was bound and stuffed in a large cloth sack. Her screams were muffled as she wriggled furiously inside it. Then the first few small stones were thrown, with reluctance it seemed; but at the passionate urging of a mullah, larger stones began to rain down on the sack, pummelling her body with pious fury. The sack jerked and thrashed this way and that as dark stains spread over its surface. The stones grew larger and heavier and harder, till finally the sack was stilled, a scarlet pulp in the middle of the square. Cutter flew home that evening, a rich, contented man.
"Hey man," a young punk said. "You told that shit last night."
"He's repeating himself," a woman said. "Nothing new to say."
"That's the way it's supposed to be," I said in Joe's defence, knowing they wouldn't understand. You can change the minor details, but not the substance. "You told it right, Joe."
"All I wanted is my share of what's mine," Joe said, wearily.
I put a Purple Heart on the table. He picked it up, examined it closely, and then pinned it on his shirt. "Why are you giving me these things?" he said.
"To make you whole again."
"So tell why Cutter would do that," the woman demanded.
Joe looked at her. "There's no why or wherefore in these tales."
The punk said, "Bastard's starting to moralise; he sayin', if you get fucked over, make sure you go and fuck someone else up, right?"
"There is no moral," I said. "Only patterns."
Joe turned towards me and said, "What do you mean you wanna make me whole again?"
"This isn't what you were meant for," I explained. "This is not how it was meant to turn out."
"I'm not going back."
"There are certain things you must do. People have expectations."
"She's one, yes."
"And who're the others?" Joe said, unable to hide his bitterness.
"Those who listen, those who observe. You tell these tales but not your own."
"I'm not in any of them."
"In any you've told."
"Like the tale of North."
North was a man in whose heart there burned a fierce and raging love for his country. He had dedicated his life to serving his flag as best he could. On land and sea and in the air, North had waged battle against numerous enemies, but now, nearing the twilight of his soldiering years, he found himself stuck in the middle of a war which he could not comprehend. North came into this country with eighteen thousand men a few weeks before Christmas, and watched his comrades celebrate the season with confetti snow and talk about how they'd all be home by Easter. Their mission, they were told, was to protect food-aid convoys, but that didn't strike North as much of war objective. From the start, it wasn't his type of war. It was neither clean nor efficient, and was governed by no rules that he could understand. As time passed and paranoia took root in his mind, he began to pray more and more for an insight into what he was supposed to be fighting for.
One evening, out of uniform, he drifted through the shattered suburbs of Mogadishu, lost in welcome reverie of the glory that awaited him back home. Had he not done his duty? Had he not listened to God and acted according to the American way?
These questions pre-occupied him as he passed an old woman peering down into a well. She spied North and called him over. Curious, he walked across the empty street. The old woman stepped back from the well and said, "I dropped something dear to me down the well. I can't get it because I'm too old. Will you help me, soldier?"
North looked into the well, saw the metal rungs fixed into the wall. "What is it?" he said.
"Just an old memento," the old woman said. "If you go and fetch it for me, I'll make sure you get paid."
"How will you pay me?"
The old woman sighed and shrugged her shoulders. "I have a lovely daughter," she said.
North told himself that he wasn't interested in the woman's daughter, yet at the same time he had a burning compulsion to please. Without another word, he climbed over the wall and down the deep, dark well. At the bottom he found a small, metal box nestling in the dried mud. He put it inside his shirt and climbed back up.
"You get it?" the woman said.
He nodded, showing it to her. Her eyes lit up with desire and a broad grin cracked her face. "Good," she said. "Let me have it now."
"First, tell me what it is," North said.
"You done me the favour, now give it to me," the old woman said, a note of hysteria entering her voice.
North smiled, enjoying the power he had over the crone. For the first time in this country, he felt in control. "What about your daughter?"
"I lied. Now give me the box."
"Not until you tell me what it is."
Without warning, the old woman threw herself at him, snarling and trying to rake his face with her nails. He reacted instinctively, as he had been taught to do. He snapped her neck and threw her body down the well.
Later, North sat in the dark of a derelict church, feeling alone and sorry for himself. He felt that his fellow soldiers no longer understood him. They seemed to lack his motivations - to them, soldiering was just a job, something you did to avoid welfare; the old values and certainties no longer had the same currency. If only there was someone he could talk to, someone who would listen and tell him he was doing the right thing. He closed his eyes and tried to picture God but God failed to put in an appearance. North reached in his shirt pocket for a cigarette and felt the little box there. He had quite forgotten it. The box opened when he pressed a small button. A blue flame flickered into life. Some sort of antiquated, African Zippo, he told himself, then lit his cigarette from the flame.
A thickset, powerful looking dog appeared in the pew next to him. It looked like a two hundred pound pit bull. It winked once, then yawned. "So, what do you want?" the dog said.
"Oh, Lord," North said, feeling reason slip from his mind. "What is this?"
"Look, you called and I came," the dog said. "Now just tell me what you want."
"I never called you."
"Listen to me, I don't want to explain it more than once. If you take a light from the flame, then that's the signal for me to come running. Now you get to wish for what you really want. So go ahead."
North wondered if he had truly lost his mind, or if this was some test devised by God. Either way, he felt he had to respond. He said, "I want someone who'll listen to me."
A young woman appeared before him, startled and afraid. She backed away from him, towards the broken altar. "It's okay," North said. "I don't mean any harm. I just want to talk."
The woman's eyes burned with feverish intensity. Her ebony skin melded with the shadows. Dry-throated, North moved towards her, holding out a hand. "Listen to me, I'm here to help you." The words seemed to clot in his mouth and he felt his heart began to dance crazily in his chest. "All I want is some respect." The air vibrated in the stifling gloom. The woman retreated, then stumbled and fell. She screamed, perhaps involuntarily. North lurched forward and caught her in his powerful arms. He forced his mouth against hers, drowning her next scream in his desire. She struggled furiously, not allowing him to explain. She wouldn't listen at all, so finally, he did the thing he really wanted.
Afterwards, he lit a cigarette and when the dog appeared, he told it to dump the body.
Thus did North assume a new kind of Power. Each night thereafter, he would wander alone to some forlorn spot and instruct the dog to bring him women from the enemy territory of Wardigley. This was a special power that had been granted him, one way to strike back in this hellish war. For two months, he indulged his desires, sating himself on the womenfolk of the Warlord.
But the Warlord was not without cunning. He paid an ancient Somali warrior who was skilled in the old ways of hunting and tracking, to trail the dog and see where it carried the maidens. Armed only with a spear, he found the dog's urine scent against a tree. Once detected, he could never lose it. The next night, the Warlord's men followed him right to the lonely spot outside Mogadishu where North was explaining his moral philosophy to yet another uncomprehending woman. They grabbed North and carried him back to the Warlord. After a quick trial during which he was found guilty of numerous counts of rape and murder, he was sentenced to death.
As he stood bravely in front of the firing squad, North made one last request. "A cigarette," he said. "Got a light here in my pocket."
Of course the dog appeared and on his master's command, he tore the firing squad to shreds, and then set upon the gathered spectators. North escaped, reaching his unit before dawn.
The next day, reflecting on his long career and feeling that he had had a lucky escape, North told the dog he wanted to go home. He also said that one day he would like to become a senator. The dog said he would make arrangements. A week later, eighteen of North's fellow soldiers were massacred by the Warlord's people, their bodies dragged naked through the streets and finally burned. Immediately, North's President changed policy and ordered a mass withdrawal of men and arms, saying what North had said all along: that this wasn't a proper war, that there was nothing to be gained, that God had no interest in Mogadishu.
North flew home to his wife and five children, and the possibility of a future in politics, believing as he had always believed, in the power of positive praying.
By the time Joe fell silent, I was all that remained of his audience. Maybe they'd heard the tales once too often, or maybe the seeds of fear I'd planted in their minds had come to bloom. He drained his glass and belched. "The end," he said.
"That's not the end," I told him.
"Fuck you," Joe snapped. "You don't know what you're talking about. I let no one down. I did my fucking duty, man, I did more than I should have done."
"She still dances for you, Joe."
"Liar. She dances for anyone but me. To me, she was unattainable, always out of reach. I never even got the chance to speak one fucking word to her."
"So you quit? Deserted your post?"
"Tell me your own story, Joe."
A great sigh shook his body as he tried to gather his thoughts. The photograph in his hand seemed to give him strength. "I signed up with a bunch of mercenaries and went north to Rwanda to help out the RPF. I thought I'd seen it all, every kind of sick degradation and madness, but I hadn't, not until then. In Kigali a Hutu shell landed almost on top of me. I ended up in a Red Cross camp where they hacked off my fucking leg. For weeks I lay there listening to Hutu radio broadcasts calling on the militia to wipe out the inyenzi, which means cockroaches, which is their word for Tutsis. And Christ, did the people respond?
"I heard the screams of tiny children as they were dragged from their homes and hacked to pieces in the street. I saw their parents beaten to death and their bodies piled by the side of the road, and like the peacekeepers and aid workers, I lay there and did nothing to make it stop.
"Don't speak to me of duty. The only duty I had left was to myself. The doctors fitted me with an artificial limb and as soon as I could get around, I stole a jeep and fled. I followed the Kagero river for fifty miles, till I ran out of gas. The sun was sinking slowly into the river, staining it red. I crawled to the water's edge and drank, then saw what was carried along in the middle of the strong current. The dead, thousands of them flowing down to some liquid purgatory. It was the final insanity. I slipped into the water and let my bloated friends bear me along for three days and nights, till the river spewed us out into Lake Victoria. A Ugandan fisherman helped me from the water. Eventually, I made my way back to Johannesburg. I watched Hannie dance and I longed for her to notice me but she never did. I realised then that fate had screwed me. Why should I be the one who always followed orders, the loyal, dutiful GI fucking Joe? They took my leg, my heart and my girl."
"And what have you got now?" I asked him. "Only disappointment and failure. We want you back among us, Joe. You belong to us, to me, to Ashputtel, to Faithful John, Rumplestiltskin and all the others. Only we know what's right for you"
"What should I do?" he said, his voice brittle in the gloom.
"Play your part," I said, pulling a uniform from my case. I held it up for him, letting him get used to the idea. "Put it on."
"I'm scared," he said, as he took it from me and disappeared into a back room
He limped out ten minutes later, dressed in the shining new uniform with the purple heart pinned to his chest. He seemed to glow with pride as he saluted me. It wasn't much of a salute, but then again, with that leg, Joe was no longer much of a soldier. "Awaiting orders, Sir," he said.
I spread a deck of cards with naked girls on the back across the table. "Choose one," I said.
He sifted through the deck, taking his time, till finally, he picked up the queen of hearts. He held it up to show me the girl on the back. It was Hannie. "Loyal and true to the bitter end," he said.
"That's it." I passed him a rifle. "I have to go now, but you stay alert. Nobody will ever say that you failed in your duty." I stood up and saluted him, then marched slowly from the bar, leaving the suitcase behind.
I stopped a hundred metres up the street, and turned to wait for the end. I saw him through the window as he stood steadfast with shouldered arms. A second later the bomb exploded and a yellow fireball appeared above the place where the bar used to be. I waited for the flames to die down, then I walked back to the ruin and picked a careful path through the charred and smoking timbers, sifting through the debris. Scattered over the floor was the blackened deck of cards. Crouching down I found the smouldering queen of hearts and next to it on the floor, a melted purple heart.
All's well in the Kingdom, I thought, permitting myself a smile. Then I wished I was back in my own world, and, a moment later, I was.
© Mike O'Driscoll 1995, 2001
'A Soldier's Things' was originally published in Interzone #97, July 1995.
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