Carl swung out of bed and flicked his long, tawny hair behind his ears. He stood up to stretch his tanned, bony body, almost touching the ceiling. Then he threw a towel around his waist, picked up a shoe and slammed it against the wall, crushing a thumb-sized cockroach, and stepped out to the communal shower.
He poked out a white-laced tongue at the mirror and examined his lean features: the customary stubble on his pointed jaw; the perpetually sunburnt, protruding nose; and the dark green eyes, mysterious even to Carl himself, peering back at him from their sunken crevices. He splashed his face, scrubbed his teeth, and brushed out the knots from his fine, tangled hair.
Five minutes later he emerged into a clear tropical morning dressed in a khaki shirt, black cords, and battered black shoes, which must have walked halfway across Africa. Since jumping ship in Cape Town some five years before, Carl had followed a string of jobs—washing dishes, driving trucks, serving drinks—along an unplanned route which gradually drew him north through the continent. He had spent two years in Kenya, where he learned to buy jewellery from the natives and sell it to tourists, then drifted on north to Ethiopia when he heard of cheap silver and big profits.
The streets of Addis Ababa bristled with a palpable tension. Soldiers of the unpopular Derg, a military junta that had seized power from Emperor Haile Selassie, stood at crossroads wielding machine guns, while Soviet-supplied tanks loomed in the shadows. Carl knew they were waging war with liberation fronts in many provinces, especially Eritrea in the north, but he had no interest in such political wrangles.
He strode towards the post office, walking past vendors calling out their wares, kids playing in the mud and mothers gossiping over baskets of washing. Suddenly a dark youth slammed into him from one side while another caught his fall from the other. Then they were gone as quickly as they came.
“Bastards!” hissed Carl, patting his money belt that was snuggled behind the zip of his jeans. He had learned that trick the hard way, and had lived a tramp’s life for a week in Nairobi before the British Embassy had bailed him out. Winded, he bent over a moment to regain his breath, then went on, careful to avoid the groups of youths who seemed to be plotting his downfall on every corner.
Carl walked on, watching the hawkers with their trays selling socks, shoelaces and cigarettes. Tribesmen bedecked with colourful beads mingled with youths in western dress, and bargirls in short skirts flitted through the crowd. Already Carl was fascinated with the Ethiopians—not for nothing had he heard that they were the most beautiful people in the world. Their Roman features and chestnut skin set them apart from other Africans, while a glint of pride in their eyes showed a disdain for black and white alike.
Suddenly Carl found himself in the new commercial district, where concrete curved in futuristic forms. He entered the post office and felt his heart constrict as he approached the poste restante; then a thrill as the assistant handed him the registered envelope he’d been waiting for. He stepped aside and tore it open:
How you doin’ man? Here’s the $500 we agreed on for the ivory bangles from Kenya—they’re really hot stuff here these days. Now get this—my friend Hal just came back from that way and tells me that in Axum, on the Eritrean border, the rebels are selling silver real cheap to buy arms. So why don’t you take a little trip up north, and turn this $500 into $5000, maybe more, for a shipment of those crosses and beads?
Keep on truckin’
Carl had met Greg in Kenya and when Greg headed back to the States, they planned a loose business deal, by which they would go 50-50 on Greg’s takings for the jewellery which Carl shipped out every few months. In this way, Carl could keep on the road and Greg made an easy living too. And now he was talking about $5000! With a cheque like that, Carl could forget about hustling and maybe rest up for six months on a beach in the Seychelles. His lip curled into a satisfied grin. He cashed the cheque in the bank for US dollars, and then decided to pass through the market on his way back to the hotel.
Said to be the biggest market in Africa, its stalls stretched across the hillside as far as the eye could see, with their trinkets, cloth and vegetables rotting in the sun. Carl walked between the shacks of tin and sacking. The overpowering stench of garbage filled the air and beggars appeared before him at every corner, their leprous hands begging for small change.
Many were blind—a pale film glazing their eyes and a lost expression on their lips. Carl pushed past them. Fabrics of vivid colours caught his eye but he marched on until at last he stopped at a stall loaded with silver crosses and necklaces. Flies droned in the rank air and a wizened old man moved in the shadows. Carl poked through the heaps of crosses and strings of blackened beads, then pulled out an almost perfect string. “How much?” he asked.
The vendor hesitated. “$25” he responded in a hoarse voice.
“Huh!” Carl grunted, throwing the string down and sifting through the chaotic pile again.
Meanwhile two young boys had spotted him and approached, waving strings of silver beads from their arms. “Hey, mister, you want silver? Look here.”
Carl studied the quality, then pointed out two strings which caught his eye. “How much?” he demanded. “Forty” came the response, then “Thirty-five!” as Carl turned away.
The old stall keeper jumped up and tried to scare off the competition—abuse rasping from his throat—but the boys took no notice. Carl decided to make his move. He picked out three strings of new-looking beads from the second boy’s arm and showed him three $10 bills. The boy shook his head, but as Carl tramped off, pocketing his money, the boy rushed up from behind, clutched at his arm and held out the silver strings.
“Yes, yes, yes!” the boy panted, a frightened look in his eyes. Carl smirked and made the exchange. As he picked his way through the garbage, he heard the old man croaking curses at the boys who were ruining his trade.
Back in his hotel room, Carl wrapped a cloth dipped in metal polish around his upper leg, then rubbed the strings vigorously across it. The cloth collected heavy black smears and the beads began to sparkle like raindrops. When they were all gleaming, he restrung them according to their size and smiled at the transformation. Now all he lacked was a clasp and a centrepiece for each string, a silver crucifix or ivory pendant, and he would have a necklace worth at least $100 to any pretty girl who wanted to impress her friends at Saturday night parties.
He packed the beads away into a hidden compartment of his backpack, where they joined a small collection of pipes and bangles gathered on the route north from Nairobi. He wouldn’t send them off yet. He’d wait until he had a good stockpile from the north, then settle back on some beach and wait for the fat cheque to arrive. He pulled out his map and examined the route to Axum. The red line squiggled through the Blue Nile Gorge, around Lake Tana, over the Simien Mountains, and at last wound into Axum, the ancient capital in the north.
Excited as ever by the prospect of travelling over new ground, Carl sat up reading until late in the night, long after the curfew had been called and the streets cleared of any side of life. The only sound was of government tanks rumbling along the streets in search of stray shadows which scuttled homeward in the dark.
* * * Carl shuffled down the aisle of the cramped bus. He was surprised to see a white man sitting behind beside the only spare seat, but he squeezed his pack onto the rack and squirmed into the small space, his knees jutting upward. His new companion gave a chubby grin. “Looks like they don’t ‘ave people your size around ‘ere, eh? Ha ha—the name’s Fred.” He reached out a pudgy hand and pumped Carl’s bony fingers up and down. His metallic eyes sparkled from the folds of his pink face and his wispy blond hair stuck to his temples.
Carl introduced himself and took another look at Fred. He didn’t have to ask to know that he was not a seasoned African travel. His pale skin, nylon shirt, tweed trousers, and profuse sweating all seemed out of place, but Fred soon offered an explanation. “You must think I look bloody stupid like this,” he said, chuckling to himself, “but I didn’t ‘ave no time to buy any other clothes—I come out ‘ere in such a ‘urry.”
“So what’s the hurry?” Carl asked, attracted by Fred’s friendliness.
“Oh, I work for the paper Freedom and I’m trying to get an interview with the rebels before this bleedin’ government starts its next offensive.”
Carl warmed instantly to the Cockney accent, which he hadn’t heard so pure for years. It stirred up memories of his own days living in the squalid backstreets of Stepney, sleeping four to a bed, before he had fled to a life in the merchant navy.
”What you up to ‘ere then, eh?” Fred asked. “They told me down the embassy there ain’t no tourists ‘ere these days.”
Carl’s eyes shifted around in their sockets. As a rule he kept his business quiet from other travellers, for fear of competition, but Fred seemed the last person to threaten his trade.
“Oh, I’m into jewellery,” Carl offered, “I hear there’s a lot of silver going at good prices in the north—from the rebels, in fact. Maybe you can get me an introduction.” A smile formed on his lips and Fred’s fist pumped into his shoulder.
“Christ! You got a nerve, ain’t ya? There’s a bleedin’ war goin’ on and you’re fart-arsin’ around buyin' jewellery! Now I’ve seen it all.” He wiped his forehead and went on. “Didn’t you ‘ear what ‘appened yesterday? Bleedin’ government troops mowed down a bunch of students on a peaceful demonstration. Ain’t that just the limit? Huh, I suppose you don’t give a monkey’s dick what’s goin’ on, do ya? Huh—jewellery!”
Fred slumped back into seat. The sun glared through the window and his shirt stuck to his chest. Carl struggled for something to say to defend himself but could think of nothing. Uneasiness seethed in his gut, and he pressed his knee deeper into the back of the seat in front, an aimless anger flowing through his bones.
The bus rattled across an arid plain where bushes wilted beneath the harsh sunlight. Fred was asleep, his rosy cheeks trembling from the vibration of the bus. Carl tried to focus on his book, but the constant jerking was giving him a headache. He closed his eyes and let his mind roll with the drone of the bus. His thoughts moved onto Axum, and he conjured up images of crumbling temples and tribesmen loaded with ornate silver, chanting and swaying in a ritual dance in the shadow of monstrous monoliths.
He was still dreaming of ritual dances when Fred shook him awake. “Hey, c’mon then, we’re stoppin’ ‘ere now,” Carl stood up slowly, stretching his stiff joints which had gone to sleep. The sun was sinking fast and they were to stay overnight in Bahar Dar, on the shores of Lake Tana. The military allowed no transport at night, so they had another day’s drive before them. The waves on the lake lapped gently at the shore and an orange haze hung in the air.
Carl and Fred hauled their bags towards a rundown hotel on the empty square. A few scruffy kids ran up to them, wanting to carry their bags for a tip. With a sudden leap and scream, Carl shook them off. Fred burst out, “What the ‘ell? You didn’t have to do that, didya? Poor kids…”
“Poor kids.” sneered Carl. “Turn your back a moment and they’ll have everything you’ve got. That’s how poor they are.”
”But it ain’t their fault,” countered Fred. “They probably ain’t eaten in a week. What would you do in their place?”
The question echoed in Carl’s ears as he scrubbed himself down in the shower. What would he do? He had no idea. Run away? That’s what he’s done all his life, but where had that taken him? Just hustling a living, the same way he was hustled by everyone else. An endless spiral, and where would it lead? The Seychelles? Goa? Sri Lanka? Bali? To find what? More hustling, every step of the way. He rubbed himself down and settled onto the bed beneath the creaking fan, which wafted warm air around the dingy room.
Some minutes later, Fred knocked and walked in, freshly showered and somehow seeming the better for the gruelling ride. “Hey, ‘ow about a night on the town?” he suggested. “I thought you was the great African adventurer, and ‘ere you are staring at the cockroaches on the wall.” Carl snapped out of his trance. He slipped on a fresh shirt, stepped into his shapeless shoes and slammed the door behind him.
After checking out a gaudy disco, where James Brown screamed his heart out to an empty room, they settled into a candlelit mud hut which served a honeyed beer called tej. They squatted down on tiny wooden stalls while a girl appeared with two bulbous bottles filled with yellow alcohol.
“Shit, this makes a change from the Rose and Crown,” Fred said as his eyes probed the room’s shadows. In the far corner, the bus driver sat talking with a group of Ethiopians, their dark features almost melting into the wall.
Carl sniggered. “Yeah, I’m sure it does,” he said. His memories of smoky pubs, full of lights and noise, were fading after so many nights in dark bars such as this. “This your first time away from home?” he asked.
“Sure is,” Fred answered, and the last too, if the wife ‘as anything to do with it.” He grinned mischievously. “She ‘ates bein’ left ‘ome with the kids, ‘specially more ’n a few days.”
They gulped down the sweet alcohol and ordered more. Fred talked of his young children, Sam and Sarah, his eyes focused beyond the floor. Then he spoke excitedly of a secret meeting in Addis where his contact had given him horrific statistics about casualties received on both sides of the war. He pointed to a worn briefcase at his side.
“I got enough evidence in ‘ere, what with photos and copies of documents, to bring down the UN on this government. D’you know the schools ‘ave been closed for two years? The government sends the kids out to the provinces to teach the farmers about socialism. So the kids stay there explainin’ to the farmers ‘ow this ain’t real socialism, and now there’s liberation fronts all over the country. I tell ya, even Marx would’ve had a fine time workin’ it out.” His face glowed. Carl fidgeted in his seat. He was warming to Fred, but felt intimidated by his enthusiasm.
Carl beckoned the girl over to refill their glasses. As she handed them the beers, a smile spread along her teeth and her breasts heaved beneath her grimy dress. Carl winked at Fred. “She’s pretty, hey? Well, go ahead, man, make an offer. Don’t you fancy a little adventure?” He patted the stall between them. The girl tucked her dress behind her knees and sat down, gazing across an abyss of communication with the warmth of her smile. Fred’s eyes shifted uneasily over her face and he wriggled on the stool.
”Leave it out, will ya?” he said to Carl, a frown forming on his forehead. “This kid’s probably got enough problems without us makin’ ‘em any worse. But I s’pose that your idea of paradise, ain’t it? A country of beautiful girls where you can ‘ave any one you want.”
Carl grinned—he enjoyed taunting Fred, despite an admiration for him. The girl looked from one to the other with a puzzled expression. Carl leaned towards her, inspecting a large crucifix that hung on a chain above the dark curve of her breast. He reached out a hand and rubbed his thumb over the smooth metal. “Hey, this is beautiful!” he exclaimed.
He fumbled in his pocket, producing a $10 bill, which he offered to the girl for the crucifix. A shocked look flashed over her face, then she snatched his hand from the crucifix and placed it on her smooth thigh, glancing at the crumpled bill in Carl’s other hand. Carl smiled, understanding that she was suggesting a different kind of deal. He slipped the note down her cleavage, then swung his arm around her and pulled her head to his chest. Across the table Fred shuffled restlessly.
“Come on, Fred,” said Carl, patting him on the knee. “Don’t feel so bad. Can’t you see I’m helping her out? Now she can eat well for a week. So don’t go using your heavy moral standards here—you’re away from home and there are different rules to the game.”
Fred shrugged his shoulders as if to shake off the whole issue, and took a long drink from the honeyed potion that was beginning to lighten his mood. “Ah, you go ahead,” he said, “I don’t wanna put you down for it. It just pisses me off to see a place where the only way to make a livin’ is whorin’ or thievin’. There must be somethin’ better.”
Suddenly the door burst open, letting in a cold draft and two government soldiers with machine guns at their waists. Fred froze. Carl slipped into the shadows behind the girl. It seemed only a regulation check. Nevertheless, the atmosphere became icy as the soldiers checked Fred’s and Carl’s documents, darting suspicious looks at their faces.
An Ethiopian was quietly leaving the bar, but one of the soldiers saw him from the corner of his eye and called him back. The man broke into a run so the soldier rushed to the door and began firing into the night. A muffled scream and thud left no doubt about the outcome.
The soldiers went to retrieve the body, leaving the people in the hut momentarily paralysed in disbelief. Then the girl burst out with a scream and ran out of the hut. A minute later she was led back in by an elderly man, who settled her down, mopping away her tears and stroking her hair.
In halting English, he explained to Carl and Fred that the soldiers had shot her father, who was evading conscription orders. He had a weak heart and had said that he’d rather die on his own land then be shot while invading another’s territory. And now he’d been shot down on his own land. The girl wailed on, but when Carl put a reassuring arm around her shoulder, her cry subsided into an exhausted whimper.
Carl looked across at Fred, who still shook with disbelief. “I’m sorry, man,” Carl said. “I guess you’re right about the way things are here. I’ve never seen anything like this before. I suppose I was too hung up on my own thing to really see.”
Fred’s mouth opened but nothing came out. At last a hoarse whisper escaped his throat. “You comin’?” He gathered up his briefcase to leave. Carl moved to follow, but the girl clung to his shirt and he settled back into his place. The old Ethiopian smiled, patted their shoulders and, taking Fred’s arm, left Carl and the girl alone in the hut.
Carl got up, latched the door and put out all the candles but one, which he carried through to a small room in the back and placed by a narrow bed. Returning to the bar, he bent down and picked up the girl, whose body sagged with sorrow. He laid her down on the thin mattress and, kicking off his shoes, settled his body beside her, his feet hanging off the end of the bed. She began sniffling again. Carl pulled her towards him, laid her head on his shoulder and stroked her scalp gently. He felt the girl’s fingers moving lightly over his chest, and within seconds he was snoring in a dreamless sleep, exhausted by the wildness of the world and all its wanting.
* * *
Carl woke to the clatter of pans on the fire. The grey light of dawn was creeping into the hut as he ate the porridge that the girl offered him. He could see her features more clearly in the daylight. From her delicate skin, he knew she could be no more than eighteen, but her red eyes and slow movements suggested a burden beyond her years. He fussed around her. She seemed to understand his feeling without the need for words. He pushed his feet into his deformed shoes, planted a kiss on her forehead, and stomped out into the early morning.
Carl was sitting at the window seat of the bus, drumming his fingers on his knees, when Fred appeared, bleary eyed, from the hotel. He was the last passenger to appear and before he could get to the seat he was thrown headlong by the bus lurching into action. He dragged himself into the space beside Carl.
”That damned driver is trying to kill me,” Fred grumbled, clutching his forehead. “God, I feel awful.” One look at his face was enough to see the hangover which wracked his skull—the bloodshot eyes, the pale cheeks, the drooping jowls. ”What the ‘ell do they put in that drink, anyway?” His eyes rolled upwards and Carl let out a restrained laugh.
”Huh, you just can’t take it,” he teased. “Maybe you should have stuck to the Rose and Crown after all. At least you don’t see people shot there every day of the week.” Carl’s tone was friendly but a serious edge had crept into his words.
”Well,” Fred said, ”now you see what I’m up against. Give me a right good shake up, that did. Thought I was going to start laying into them geezers as soon as I saw them. Bleedin’ lucky I didn’t—I wouldn’t be ‘ere now.”
“I’m not so sure you are anyway,” Carl jibed, digging him in the ribs. Then his face dropped. “That poor girl. I just hated to leave her this morning, but there’s nothing more I could do. Ah, shit—I just feel like kicking every soldier I see in the balls.”
“Well, you better not do that without a gun in your hands, or you’ve ‘ad it, guv’nor.” Fred sniggered. They went on talking about the incident until Fred, who had been slumped in his seat from the start, dozed off into a fitful sleep. Occasionally his cheek would twitch or a small bark come from his throat, and Carl knew his mind was still haunted by the night before.
The bus droned on into the Simien Mountains, straining round switchbacks and groaning over ragged peaks. Carl stared over a terrain that struck him more like a moonscape than a landscape. Across a desolate plain, gnarled columns prodded skyward like the fingers of a giant sinking into a cosmic quagmire. There was no sign of any living thing—tree, bush, or animal—as far as he could see. He was filled with a similar emptiness and for a short time forgot who he was, where he was going, or why. Gradually, he drifted off to sleep.
When he awoke, the sun was already low in the sky. The bus was crawling along a rough road behind a convoy of trucks which kicked up a fine grey dust. Fred snored on, his lips pursed like a child’s in the depths of sleep. Finally the convoy pulled over and the bus dragged past. Carl sat up straight and his eyes opened wide at the sight. Hordes of old men, many disabled, were clambering out of the trucks, their faces wracked with desolation and despair. They milled around, a disorganised band of broken spirits. He shook Fred, but by the time he responded they had passed the convoy. Carl told Fred what he had seen. Fred groaned.
”Bleedin’ ‘ell! They must be movin’ in for the next offensive already. I just ‘ope I get up to Kadofa before anything ‘appens. I’d ‘ate to get caught on this side of the line.”
“So what’s in Kadofa?” Carl asked.
“That’s the rebel outpost where I’m going to see Asgar, their commander. He should give me all the details I need to finish my report. Looks like I’ll ‘ave some news for ‘im too, huh?”
Some miles outside Axum the bus creaked to a halt beside a small concrete building, a military outpost. The driver got out and talked with the soldiers. They boarded the bus to check ID cards, swinging their guns in the tight space. A young soldier with a new uniform stopped in front of Fred and Carl, a hard smile on his face. With a flick of the gun barrel, he ordered them off the bus. Fred tried to kick his briefcase under the seat in front but the soldier dragged it out with a grin.
Round the side of the outpost, out of sight of the bus, the soldiers rummaged through Carl’s pack. They crinkled their noses up at his socks and mocked his strings of beads, holding them up against their dark green uniforms like vain women in a jewellery store. Luckily for Carl, they didn’t spot his secret compartment containing most of his stash of silver, ivory and coral.
Then they tipped out Fred’s briefcase. Papers scattered about among an assortment of gum wrappers, elastic bands, pencils and clips. Fred reached down to retrieve the papers, but one of the soldiers pushed him away and collected them himself. He flicked through Fred’s notes, shaking his head at the strange squiggles across the page. Then his eyes latched onto photos of the rebels with their flag. He called over the captain, a squat man with an ugly, creased-up face.
The captain grabbed the sheets of paper and, as he read, his eyebrows pressed into an intense frown. He shot a vicious glance at Fred and ripped the papers in two. The gesture was too much for Fred. The captain smirked, folded the papers, and began to tear them again. Fred lunged. He snatched the torn pages from the captain’s hands and looked down at them, startled by his success. He looked at the dense undergrowth, a chance of freedom so near.
The captain barked an order. Fred turned to run. The young soldier swung up his gun. A deafening rattle split the air. A line of deep craters erupted across Fred’s back, and he fell heavily to the ground. He convulsed twice, then his body relaxed, lifeless. The blood began to spread over his white shirt.
Carl gaped as if he were watching a horror movie. But now the film was stuck. He could see nothing more than the line of craters, a frozen image on the screen of his vision. A buzz of activity went on around Carl, who stood rigid. The captain snapped orders. Two soldiers dragged Fred’s bulky body behind the small building, while another jerked Carl towards the bus with the butt of his gun. The captain spoke quickly to the bus driver, patting him on the shoulder. Before Carl realised what was happening, he was back in his seat on the bus which rolled on towards Axum.
He sat completely numb. His brain was flung into a trance-like state. Once or twice he looked quizzically at the empty seat beside him, but couldn’t make any connection. The bus pulled into the valley which harboured the ancient city of Axum, now nothing more than a village. Military tents were scattered across the fields, where uniformed officers led a group of bedraggled farmers in target practice.
Carl stepped down from the bus and walked mindlessly towards a cheap hotel. Paper wrappers skipped down the empty street and slapped against his ankles. Inside the grimy hotel room, Carl threw down his pack and stalked around the small space. He went to the bathroom to wash his face, then stopped dead, his hands resting on the wall. His eyes seemed distant, an opaque film closing them off in their deep hollows. He squeezed them shut. The image of Fred’s back, punctured by the row of holes, sprung out at him, the frayed flesh blending with the bloodied shirt, a dark gleam glaring from each wound. Carl slumped his face against the mirror, reopened his eyes. They stared back at him from an inch away, the film gone, the pupils huge and intense. He slammed his fists against the mirror. His image trembled.
He stood back and saw the string of dull beads around his neck. His hand reached up and tore them away. The string broke, the beads scattered to the floor. Carl stomped back to his pack and pulled out his small stash of jewellery, shaking his head. He flung the package across the room, spun around, and drove his fist clean through the asbestos wall beside him. Some seconds later, he pulled out his hand covered with a fine dust, and stared at it as if seeing it for the first time.
* * * The following day Carl asked around the marketplace for a ride to Kadofa, and soon found a truck driver willing to take him. When they began to climb the stony road which offered the only route north, Carl began to realise what a perfect place Kadofa must be for the rebels. The cliffs above Axum provided impenetrable cover with a fine view of any troop buildup in the valley. They had hardly reached the top of the pass before the first rebel post stopped them. But the driver, an inhabitant of Kadofa, was soon waved on amid curious glances at Carl.
At the entrance to the rebel camp Carl was searched for arms before being allowed to go in. The guerrillas led him to Asgar’s tent. Inside, Carl found the commander surrounded by maps and a haze of cigarette smoke. Asgar squinted at Carl, his brow bunched up in deep furrows. He smoked constantly while Carl blurted out the tale of Fred’s mission and murder. Asgar shook his head slowly. His brow furrowed still deeper and his fingers pumped nervously into his palm.
“I was expecting your friend,” Asgar growled. “My contact in Addis told me he was coming here to interview us. Ah, those bastards!” His right fist slammed into his left palm. “They have some of our best men locked up in that outpost—I’ve been thinking about it for some time. It’s a strategic point, and not heavily guarded. Maybe with a lightning raid we could break them out…”
“Well, you’d better move fast.” Carl said, “There are convoys of conscripts moving up that road right now. Soon Axum will be swarming with government troops.”
Asgar’s face shifted, lost in thought. Then he began nodding to himself. “I’ll send out a raiding party in the early dawn tomorrow.”
Carl stiffened. “Let me go with them.” The words fell from his mouth, clear, decisive. ”I can’t write, but I’m ready to fight.”
Asgar frowned and lit another cigarette. “Listen,” he said, “this is our fight for our land. I know you mean well, but if anything happens to you it could mean more trouble for us.”
“Let me go,” Carl insisted, “I can take care of myself.”
Asgar relented, but he insisted that Carl leave all identification at the camp in case of capture. They shook hands firmly. Carl left Asgar to his cluster of maps and walked out into the clean air. He strode to the edge of the cliffs above Axum and settled down among the rocks. He wiped his sweaty palms on his knees and closed his eyes for a moment.
Again his vision was filled with Fred's falling body, riddled with holes, the emblem of a violence he was only beginning to understand. He opened his eyes. A still haze hung over the valley. In the distance, conscripts scuttled around the fields. The feeble crack of their rifles floated through the thick air. In the village of Axum, tiny shapes shuffled around the streets, going about their business like ants on the rim of a volcano about to blow apart.