Craig had been unable to recover from the trauma of what they had seen in the village. His small mind had managed to allay the terrors he had witnessed thus far, but the visions in the village had broken down the last barrier he had to the horrors of the real world. He could not adjust to the rhythm of their journey. He could not process these new events, he could not find a way to block the memories or the images. He wanted to stop and cry. He wanted to stop and sleep. He wanted to stop and be sick, most of all he just wanted to stop. He did not want to take another step forward, for what would be there behind that bush, ahead in the clearing or on the road, that they all were now grimly travelling towards? He did not moan or whine, he said nothing neither did he cry, but he made his mother drag him almost every step of the way. He wet himself knowing that that normally provoked a response. Normally, his mother would stop, rebuke him mildly, cuddle him, clean him up and change his pants, perhaps even give him a bath and by the end of the bath she would cuddle him again. But this time, she did not stop. She did not appear to notice the new staining on his shorts. She did not rebuke him and she offered him no bath. She just walked on heading towards that terror ahead, that monster that would surely get them, as it had got the villagers, why did they just kept walking towards it. Didn’t any of he grown ups know this?
That was why when he felt his mother’s hand slip against his because of teffortsat and effort of clinging to him and so he broke away, but for a while he walked alongside her, saying nothing, checking her expression. Up ahead Carl and Marci walked steadily on. He stopped, he wanted his Mum to stop too, but she didn’t seem to notice. He turned round and started to go back they way they had come. Already at the end of the group, his route was clear and whatever dangers lay behind him, he knew they were not as bad as those that lay ahead and he could not face the monster there but neither could he call to his mother because he knew that she would force him to go on, to go forward at least back was known, back was understood.
Betty realised. She was horrified that she had let her grip on Craig slip and that she had not noticed him go. She had known by his pulling that he had not wanted to go on and it had been all she could to drag him on, wearily and relentlessly without explanation. She cried out to the others to stop and as she did so she started to run back after Craig. He had moved so fast that she could only just see his little brown body merging into the bush. The others turned wearily to her, wondering what knew hysteria she had for them, but they understood by her urgent running and the fact they could not see the child that this was no hysteria, but terror.
Craig ran five glorious yards, convinced that he had outwitted the monster and secure in the knowledge that his mother would follow him. What he had not anticipated in the innocence of his five years was that the monster stalked its prey and did not lie ahead waiting for it. He ran until he saw what seemed to be an entire army of five men gathered in front of him each with a real gun. He halted, paralysed, this picture of men was his nightmare but they did not move, equally uncertain. His mother burst after him. She had only a second to assess the situation, not even time to grasp her son in her arms before the soldiers opened fire. First Craig and then Betty were lifted blindly into the air and left shattered on the ground. Betty’s skull was pumped full, the small pert features of her face were unrecognisable. But the boy, who had been beneath most of the bullets, was still alive and as the first shower of shots lurched from Leo’s weapon the child wrestled with the monster which somehow was drowning him.The the shots had scored the air around them and they dropped to the ground,searching the inadequate bush for cover. Carl leapt and ran forward behind Leo who was first to see the destruction. The others, not wanting to lose sight of their guards and despite the dangers they faced, followed suit. Leo fired at the soldiers who, once discovered by the searing lead, either fell or found cover. For a moment there was silence and Carl seeing his wife and child suddenly screamed ‘No!’ and ran forward eliciting another volley of shots. Joseph caught him by his feet and brought him down. Before Carl had time to protest Joseph struck him across the head so hard that no one was sure he would survive. Joseph took out the pistol that Carl had been given and flung it to Jo, who lay nearest to him with her body half over Marci. She stared at it and then realised its significance and grabbed it, she lay it carefully away from Marci, distracted enough not to want to know how to use it. Leo’s gun rattled again and Tom who had crawled up beside Jo saw that Craig still moved. ‘He’s still alive!’
‘How do I use this?’ cried Jo looking at the heavy dark object in her hand. Joseph backed towards her, took it, did something to it and gave it back. ‘Just pull the trigger, both hands!!’ And he crawled back to his position on the now silent front line. They waited, listened and trembled in the brief pause that followed. Craig’s agonised breathing filled the scrub and Jo began to think that they had gone. Perhaps at least to run to base and seek back up – would that be rescue or destruction? She could not tell. Another burst of firing from a new position sent bullets flying past them from the side – and in unison, Joseph and Leo yelled ‘Stay down!’ thus, with their backs to one another, they fired into the bush both right and left. A scream followed by consistent crying indicated their success and then another silence. Tom’s eyes were on the moving rolling child. Craig was gasping, begging, dying for breath. His sighs came like the endless childhood attacks of asthma that Tom himself had suffered, but this was a final attack. Craig had no comforter and no confidence of survival. His mother lay shattered before him. The blood seeped and poured from the fast weakening child and although Tom knew it would only be a matter of minutes before oblivion claimed him, he could not bear to let that moment come for Craig without the love of another human being. His eyes were locked upon the child’s agony, so intent was his look that Jo knew what he was going to do. She spread herself on her stomach shifting Marci roughly out of the way. The little girl could not take her eyes from her brother and she lay beside Jo who set the gun ahead of her gripping it with both hands, prepared to fire at where she had last heard shots. Leo and Joseph were moving carefully back towards the remaining tourists, each scanning the bush with their weapons, neither very confident.
Tom spun forward, scrambling to his feet and diving at the child, who, once grasped in his arms screamed and then coughed in an agony of jarring. He turned with the lifted child clutched to him and saw to his horror that while Leo and Joseph searched to one side and Jo trained her gun beyond him, behind Jo one soldier was setting up to fire on them all. Tom dropped to the ground thudding the child with him into the painful dust and Jo, who caught something in his expression, swung herself round, firing one bullet almost at Leo as she did so. It was however, their salvation for had her finger not already been pulling on the automatic weapon’s trigger, then the bullets would not have reached the man before he had time to fire at her. The jerking pistol in her found its target and her bullets caught his leg and chest. Leo and Joseph simultaneously turned and fired, having realised their oversight and the boy was torn apart by their fire.In the silence that followed Jo realised what she had done. She had never thought that killing someone who threatened her life would feel as devastating as this, as terrible nor had she thought it would bring with it the same guilt as if she had shot an innocent man in temper or stupidity. She had always thought that the desire for self preservation would not only protect her physically, but justify her mentally. All she knew now was that she had killed a man. That day she had killed a man. She had held a gun and pulled the trigger. It was the first time she had ever held a gun, let alone kill. She did it to protect a child, a wounded child. No, that was not true, she had done it to protect herself. He would have killed her – so she killed him. She had used her anger and it had given her the skill, nothing could have stopped it. He could have surrendered or offered her a cigarette and she still would have killed him. She had found the knowledge and nothing would have stopped her. She began to shake unaware that Joseph had taken the gun from her hand and was trying to bring her round from her catatonic state. When at last she saw his face, she knew that in him too the same guilt lay and she let him hold her while somehow she pulled herself back to reality.
Tom sat with Craig in his arms, Leo had taken off his jacket and they had wrapped the child in it so that Marci could not see the damage to his legs and stomach. The child groaned and gasped for air his eyes rolling in his head. Watched by Marci his small arms waved so that, although frightened and deeply shocked, she held her little brother’s bloody hand. Tom touched the boy s fair hair, unlike his mother, his face at least, was still pure; only the dribbling blood and uncontrolled eyes gave any indication of his pain. In the silence, Leo cut down some bushes to cover the body of Betty and checked that the men were dead. He counted four and felt certain there had been five. They must move on, no time for burial or respect. He knelt beside Carl and started to try to get him to regain consciousness, Carl shivered and groaned but he did respond. In Tom’s arms Craig’s body shuddered, stiffened and with a strange noise that made Marci pull away from him he twitched and finally was still. Tom held the child tighter for a moment, now that there was no need to fear the pain it would cause. Then he raised his head, he met Carl’s eyes. The man began to moan. He snatched Craig from Tom and began to stagger off in some vague direction. Tom made a move to stop him, but Leo shook his head. He’ll follow us I think, we still have Marci. The mention of the little girl brought Jo back from her horror and she pulled away from Joseph to face the betrayed orphan. She gripped her by the shoulders and looked into her stunned eyes. ‘We’re too tired to really help you Marci. We’re too frightened but you have to know, that it s over for Craig and your Mum and you mustn’t think about what happened. Your mother never even knew, no matter awful it looks she didn’t feel it, she can’t feel it now it doesn’t hurt.’ The child was pallid and cold, even in the heat, but she was mechanical in her function and she stood up, ready to go. Leo said ‘There was one other, maybe more, we’ll make for the river and hope that your people keep tabs on Umtata’s men. We have nothing else now.’ Joseph picked up Marci and handed Jo the pistol, the four of them moved off, followed by the strange chatterings of an almost wild animal that clutched the body of its dead offspring. None of them had the strength to pull Craig away from the now demented Carl.
© All rights reserved by Judith Gunn 2012