The mud made their clothes flop heavily against them and their shoes squelched and slid in the darkness. The high night air was cold so that only the effort of moving kept them warm. They took nothing off and nothing helped them dry. The Milky Way shone like a vivid silk scarf and a zillion pinheads glittering in the sky cast grey shadows on the ground. Tom and Jo at least, had never seen such light cast by stars alone, for only the slither of a crescent moon was out that night. The Southern sky was alive with shimmer and dancing shooting stars. They stopped to catch their breath and looked for the first time since their kidnap at a foreign sight with the wonder of tourists. Tired and speechless Tom and Jo stared at the sky and listened to the night scrub, for the first time becoming aware of the life around them; of the distant barks and cries and the sense of being watched. The way in which everything, although subject to the same gravity, the same sun and moon and the same physical laws, was totally different.
Joseph stood and watched them, letting them rest and absorb their surroundings, the difference and the awe of the sky, and then beckoned them. They had not far to go before they could stop and within moments they stood before a hole in the mountain, the blackness of which would not have shamed the black holes which circled somewhere in the space over head.
The hole was no larger than a metre in diameter and it was only visible once pointed out, for slung across it was the ubiquitous and predictable camouflage. A kind of dead bush seemed to grow in front of it, and behind that, a large boulder that it took Hammid and Joseph some time to shift. Once they had succeeded, Leo handed Joseph a small pocket torch, with the words ‘your turn’ and a grin. Joseph ruefully switched on the tiny torch and took out the knife that he kept in his belt. He bent with a slight grunt and stepped through the hole. The group waited outside mildly puzzled, tired and longing to get into the apparent safety and shelter of the cave. A silence fell upon the visitors, the scrub shivered in the starlight, somewhere in the distance, hyena whooped. From inside the caver there was the sound of a small scuffle, followed by a period of silence. Then the small block of light moved towards the entrance of the hole and Joseph’s silhouette approached it and doubled to step through. He clutched something in his hand that swung ominously like rope. He switched off the torch as he approached the starlight and climbed through the hole, once through he stood up straight, and held before him the long rope-like object. In the eery darkness the teeth revealed by his grin seemed to twinkle at the sky while the decapitated snake swung dead from his hand.
A scream worthy of the pen of the worst B movie victim, split the night, which until then had been peaceful even pleasant, and everyone acted. Carl flung himself between his wife and Leo who had still not quite realised what was happening and Betty began to thrash in what appeared to be a fit, still screaming. ‘Shut her up!’ yelled Leo.
‘She has a phobia, I can’t! She’s almost catatonic!’ Betty flung about her small and dumpy limbs with a vicious accuracy, her screaming changed in character to a rhythmic ‘humph’ almost sexual in the way its sounds rose and fell. Even so it was a sound that carried. Carl tried to immobilise her, in order to quieten her. But no sooner had he grabbed one arm than another rose to strike him, one blow catching him on the side of his head bringing him almost to his knees before he recovered his strength. The noise seemed to be doubly amplified by the now total silence in the bush and Hammid’s nerve broke. He ran forward dragged Betty away from Carl’s unsuccessful clutches and swung her against the rock wall at the side of the entrance, the force of that movement winded her and gave Hammid the chance he needed to release his pistol and hold it at her nose, where she could see it. In Swahili he said to Leo ‘It’s all right I’m not going to hurt your precious American, she just needs something else to be afraid of.’ Uncomprehending Carl began to beg.
‘No please, let her be, she’ll be quiet, I swear..’
‘Mummy?’ Marci’s voice shook with childish terror and Jo looked down to the ghostly children who had witnessed, in silence, the past thirty seconds. A small puddle was gathering at the feet of Craig, while tears of shame and fear flowed down his silently working face. Jo bent immediately and hugged the two of them to her. ‘It’s all right’ she said ‘No one’s going to hurt her, but they have got to stop her being frightened of snakes.’
‘The snake’s dead,’ said Marci with a hint of near annoyance in her voice. ‘Why is she so frightened?’ No one took their eyes from the checkmated situation in which Betty and Hammid stood. Leo did not interfere, but waited for Hammid who spoke, at last in English ‘Are you going to keep quiet now Betty? You know what will happen if you don’t.’ Carl moaned and moved closer to her,
‘It’s okay Betty you just have to fight it Bets, you’ve got to for the kids Bets, you can’t give in to it here.’ His voice whined like a child trying to persuade his mother to buy him a toy, but slowly, without taking her eyes off Hammid, Betty nodded. Hammid lowered the gun, and stepped back, still ominous. Betty and Carl fell together and Betty although silent still breathed with a heavy, noisy sound.
Jo turned to the two warm children who leant against her now both crying in their silent repressed way and answered Marci’s question. ‘Some people are frightened of things they don’t need to be frightened of she tried to explain. ‘It didn’t matter that that snake couldn’t hurt her, it just had to be there, your mum was uncontrollably frightened of it. That’s why she screamed. But we have to be quiet here, otherwise they’ll find us.’
‘Don’t we want to be found?’ the girl suggested. Jo was silent for a moment, it was a hard question and she wasn’t sure of the answer herself. ‘Not yet, Marci we might be found by the wrong people, people who aren’t very nice.’ Craig snuffled miserably and leant his head against her
‘I’m wet’ he announced with all the pain of failure.
‘I know,’ said Jo. ‘Don’t worry, tomorrow you’ll be dry.’ Tom reached over and guided the little girl through the entrance. while Jo picked up Craig who had very nearly fallen asleep at the sound of her reassurance, and they stepped into the small cave, the floor of which sloped down. Ahead, Joseph’s light led the way, and they stumbled through the darkness in pursuit of it crouching against the low ceiling, until the passage widened and they entered a large chamber, in the centre of which, Joseph had set the torch.
They settled down in the damp alabaster room in the two groups that had become the custom, captors and captives apart, and from that stance they could fire questions at each other without threatening the barrier. Jo observed their strange etiquette and it occurred to her that according all the books on hostage psychology that she had not read, they were wrong to separate. They needed to establish and maintain some form of relationship. They needed to offer and reciprocate empathy and hence compassion. The physical act of division was rebuilding the barrier between herself and Joseph, which had begun to weaken and fall on the first day when they had run all that way together. Added to that, the children too were afraid of Hammid, his act against their mother had torn down the trust they had developed in him when he and his fellow kidnapper had carried them on their backs, like friendly clowns. But now, it was not just the kidnappers the children feared, in fact, they now feared their parents, at least for that night, for there were two warm bundles curled up beside Jo, while Craig comforted and calmed Marci. Craig, in particular, although seeming to be asleep, crept closer and closer to her with each long breath that sighed out of him. Jo smiled, flattered by his need and she picked him up, wet and smelly, and let him rest his head in her lap. Marci taking her cue from that also moved closer and Jo lay back letting her curl up to the less painful side. Thus arranged the children slept, while the parents clung together in the darkness, and Joseph, seeing that everyone was settled in their hotel for the night, extinguished the light.
But darkness did not bring sleep for Jo did not sleep well. The darkness of the cave was complete, its blackness seemed to cover her like a skin. When she opened her eyes, she could see nothing, not even her hand in front of her face. She felt trapped, claustrophobic as if the darkness had weight and pinned her down. The cold dust of the cave was seeping into her bones, and as she dozed she dreamed of a fire in the cave. A fire that warmed her, its orange glow lifting the skin of darkness, but revealing in the corners of the cave the source of the sounds that she heard in her sleep. A mouse seemed to dash from one crevice to the next, a snake swayed in the gloom, shadows flickered on the wall. A huge spider ran towards her and Jo gasped, sitting up, disturbing the children. She could see nothing she only knew that what she had seen was a dream. Outside something grunted and she lay back, waiting for whatever it was to enter the cave and reek havoc, but it didn’t, and in a moment the cloying pitch began to lighten and the fast African dawn glowed at the entrance to the cave. Jo realised then that one of the men, the one called John, had been awake throughout the night, watching and listening to the space outside. He sat still, silent like the dragon guarding his treasure.
The light began to touch the children and the sleeping adults in the chamber. Gradually the people woke, and a certain amount of stretching and yawning occurred. Leo and Joseph rose and moved carefully out of the cave, through its hidden tunnel, in a moment they returned, relieved, and indicated that it was safe for all others to follow. Carl and Betty sat up in the dim and fearful glow of light. Betty’s eyes scanned the cave for the first time, searching its hidden dips and cracks. She could see no snakes or other terrors, her tourist’s eye caught sight of the painting on the walls of the cave, both recent and ancient; colourful shields and men with spears, faded in amongst those who fought guns and grenades, the silhouetted figures of the terrorist. Betty’s children watched her examine the cave from Jo’s side. Once satisfied that their mother seemed sane for the moment, Marci spoke. ‘I’m hungry mum..’ Betty jumped a little at the sound of her daughter s voice, reminded of something she would rather forget. Leo, who was gathering the contents of the rucksack together, heard the question and replied. ‘There’s nothing here, only water. We have another five kilometres to go before we eat.’ He had meant to stand firm against the children, why should they not suffer a little of what so many children endured? But a tearful child’s face with its claim that as a new page it could suffer no blame, was hard to deny. The sight of Marci’s tears and the movement of her brother to comfort her, the independence of the both children’s effort to take the disappointment bravely, made Leo drop his eyes in a kind of respect for the stoical comfort that the children offered each other and he produced a sweet for them both.
A shadow approached the entrance of the tunnel, a strange new sight that the tourists had not yet seen and yet one they had come to see. Jo stood up as Leo moved to greet the new figure ‘Jambo, bwana’ the stranger spoke and the inmates caught a glimpse of a tall thin figure, dressed in the garb of a tribesman. Curiously everyone in the cave made their way to the still damp and cool dawn to examine the stranger and the new hope or threats that he brought with him.
Ancient Africa met the modern age as Leo and the tribesman stood speaking together in the sunrise. Leo did not hide his rather naive respect for the man, who seemed to be rebuking him. Joseph chuckled and said in English for the benefit of those who were not obscured by the bush performing the functions of the early morning. ‘The old man is angry, we are two days late and we have a party of unreliable stragglers.’ Jo stepped forward to him and began to put into practice the thoughts she had had the previous night. ‘Build a relationship with your captors’ was the oft-quoted advice of radio magazine programmes. Limited advice from a limited perspective, but it was all she had. ‘Who is he?’
He’s our guide, he’s been watching the fighting and knows, we hope, where there isn’t any. They watched the two figures, the tribesman tall and thin, an old man with a lithe energy in the way he stood, leaning on a long staff. In the hand that gripped the staff he clutched a shorter stick with a club like end. Around his shoulders hung a roughly woven brown cloth, he wore no shoes and nothing else beneath the cape. The lobes of his ears hung in a hollow loop almost to his shoulders. Bright beads and wooden jewelry hung from them and in the lobes, a little triangular piece of metal danced from one ear, like a devil’s tail. Leo, although appearing stronger than the man, was not as tall. He had to look up into the creased face, which registered little indication of what he was feeling; as the conversation progressed the old man eased a little and laughed at something Leo said, revealing a set of marvelously uneven yellow teeth. Then, the joke was over and with a wave of his hand he turned up the hill, climbing to its nearby summit, followed by the tourists and the soldiers.
When he reached the top, he stopped and stood and waited for them, calling something down to Leo who relayed it to the followers. ‘He says we must hurry. He can’t be sure that the government troops won’t look for us here. They’ve been very agitated recently he had added with a smug grin.’
The hilltop revealed a panorama of apparently deserted scrub, which stretched towards another set of hills. There was no water and, it seemed, no people. The thought that they would not have to walk a hundred kilometres in order to find food in that wilderness seemed inconceivable, but the old man set his staff down the hill and began along the edge of the their ridge.
He tracked them down to the bottom of the slope they had just climbed which was the outer limb of the range of hills that edged the plain. To the relief of the tourists the tribesman did not strike out across the dry, yellow expanse to the distant blue hills, but led the way along the bottom edge of the ridge towards the nearer range of which their ridge was a part.
The lower they progressed, the harsher the scrub became; whereas near the river and the cave and at the top of the ridge there had been rich foliage and the greenness of shade, now the struggling trees and bushes, sported dangerous thorns and brittle branches which afforded no shade. It grew hotter and hotter as they scrambled along in the increasing glare of the morning. The heat was strident and it sapped their strength, sunburn began to blister their white skins. Marci, by some luck or foresight had kept on her long sleeved jacket, and although now she sweated and swayed in the heat she did not burn. Craig, on the other hand, had embarked on the adventure with only his Tshirt and jeans, so now his youthful arms glowed red, and the young skin began to bubble and protest. Carl observed his son, trotting quietly ahead in the dangerous heat. He took off the jacket of his safari suit, exposing his own white and unused skin, to the equatorial sun. He caught hold of Craig. He arranged the jacket over Craig’s head, a little like a shawl and told him to keep it there. Craig shrugged his tired shoulders and ‘humphed’ but made no further protest than that and struggled on trying to keep his new garment steady. Carl strode on, Tom taking his cue from Carl, lifted up the collar of his shirt and rolled down his sleeves to his wrists. Then one of their silent captors, John who guarded and watched, saying little, perhaps through lack of English or perhaps through lack of inclination, moved over to Carl. On the first day he had carried Craig and seeing the father’s care, he took off his khaki coloured ragged shirt and handed it to Carl. The two men looked at each other and John offered it again, Carl smiled ‘Oh! Okay.’ He said, surprised but pleased. ‘Yes thank you – um asante sana’. John laughed at the attempt at Swahili, while the American took the shirt and put it on. John loped away and calling quietly to Craig who stopped and waited expectantly. John swung the boy up on to his back where he clung on, cloaked in the jacket. Watched by Marci, Craig was given the taxi treatment, but no one offered her the same luxury, and in the way that the children had learned in the three past days, she cried silently as she walked on.
At last when the heat was at its most ferocious and thirst had taken over from the pangs of hunger, the old man led them to a muddy pool in the centre of which some clear water lay. The tribesman waded through the mud to the clearer water. He took a gourd that hung round a belt at his waist, filled it and drank. ‘Oh God’ Tom murmured, half to Jo beside him ‘What will we get drinking this?’ She laughed and replied.
‘I expect we’ve already got malaria and bilhartsia and what’s dysentery among friends?’ Tom laughed unenthusiastically, and they both moved forward, taking with them a water canteen that Joseph handed to them and which they shared. Once they had drunk the muddy tasting water they cooled themselves by pouring the contents of the canteen over their heads and then waded back to the greener bank where stood a couple of trees offering shade. The tribesman had seated himself beneath the larger of the trees, Joseph was beside him, Leo crouched nearby. There was an ease of atmosphere between Joseph and the old man that Leo did not share, a subtle change in hierarchy had occurred, if only temporarily. Joseph and the man spoke together until presently Joseph turned to Carl who was seated under the other tree and said. ‘The old man wants your watch Carl.’ Carl laughed and looked at the old fellow, he was not really in a position either to bargain or refuse, but he would try bargaining. ‘What will he give me for it?’ Joseph translated. The old man grinned and with a sly look at Leo, he slipped out another attachment to his belt and revealed a sharp and dangerous knife. He held it out towards Carl, waiting for the general reaction, nobody moved to stop the trade, every one waited for Carl’s reaction. The temptation hovered like freedom before him, but he laughed and replied ‘What good is that to me without a guide? In this desert I couldn’t fight my way out of a paper bag.’
Joseph translated again and the old man grinned, and then laughed freely with his whole body involved in the action. He rolled back and slapped his thigh like a merry king and then replaced the knife still chuckling. Now he unwound the string of beading from his ear, that ended in the little metallic arrow that bounced like a devil’s tale. The decoration had been wrapped round the outer string of his hollow, hanging lobe and he passed it to Carl via Joseph who said. ‘That’s probably his best offer. I’d take it if I were you. He says if he has the watch, he’ll cut his charge to us for the guiding. Look on it as giving to charity.’
‘Some charity’ remarked Carl, but he began to unstrap his watch. ‘It’s a good watch, a strong one’ The old man asked something.
‘He wants to know, is it Rolex?’ Carl’s eyebrows lifted at the question as he answered ‘Nope. but it’s waterproof’
‘Really?’ asked Joseph distrustfully.
‘Really, no trick, I’m an honest businessman and I do an honest trade.’ Joseph nodded and smiled he relayed the information to the tribesman who was examining the watch with a professional eye. When he learned of its added strength he chuckled and spoke again, Joseph translated ‘He says what use is water proof in a drought ridden country.’ But he nodded at Carl, and then with a pleased grin he strapped the watch to his wrist and lay back in the shade raising up his knees and balancing one foot across the other knee. His blanket robe fell open revealing his relaxed penis. This exposure did not go unnoticed by Marci who framed her lips and started an awkward question ‘Mum…?’
‘Hush dear, I’m tired,’ and Marci relapsed to a silent staring at the strange man’s anatomy while her brother Craig unabashed by this lack of discretion on the part of the tribesman, announced again ‘I’m hungry,’ and gained the same response from his mother but he was not so easily silenced. ‘I’m hungry, I want something to eat now!’ He said in a temper from beneath his headdress.
‘Quiet son’ said Carl. ‘We’re all hungry too.’ But Craig wanted a confrontation and tore off his headdress in the knowledge that it would enrage his father and force him to some kind of action. He was right, Carl lunged forward and swiped at the boy who evaded the blow. ‘Quiet Craig!’
‘No! I’m hungry!’ Craig’s insistence disturbed the group and Joseph who was also beginning to feel fatigued and who feared that should their rest be disturbed now they would simply be forced to start again earlier than need be, went over to the little boy. He picked up Carl’s safari jacket and set it back on Craig’s head. Craig removed it instantly. Everyone who was awake watched. ‘Now listen,’ said Joseph smiling. ‘If you behave well and don’t bother mama and papa, I’ll take you to see old man lion when we get to base eh?’ Craig stared at him sulkily, he was well acquainted with adult bribery and some of it was false. ‘Do you want to see the lion eh?’ Craig nodded. ‘He’s a big lion with a great big mane and he lives near where we’re going, I can find him.’
‘You haven’t got a car’ Craig did not trust this offer. Joseph laughed ‘There are cars where we’re going, may be even our van eh?’ The boy was succumbing to Joseph’s persuasion and so Joseph capitalised. ‘But he’s a hungry lion. He has a big appetite and he likes little boys.’ Craig’s uncertainty began to show. ‘He only likes fat boys though, if he sees you all straggle and skinny,’ he pinched at Craig’s stomach and sides eliciting an unwilling giggle. ‘He’ll say’ and he imitated a deep lion’s voice. ‘Eeyuk! I don’t want that scraggly thing, I want a nice fat boy, I’m not going to bother with him or her!’ He tickled Marci who had managed to drag her eyes away from the fascinating sight of the tribesman’s private parts to listen to Joseph’s story. ‘So we don’t want you eating too much eh? Otherwise he might want to eat you.’ Craig flopped back, the temper had gone but neither the hunger nor the tiredness had left him. He was now resigned to not eating and, although not sure of the bribe, the attention was sufficient and soon he was asleep. But Marci, with her adult perception asked ‘Is there really a lion Joseph?’ Joseph chuckled and nodded. ‘Yes, there really is a lion and yes, I promise I will take you to see him when we get there. Okay papa?’ He addressed Leo who had watched the proceedings from his patch of shade. He shrugged and smiled ‘Okay’ he replied and then, it seemed that at the next second, the old tribesman awoke and stood in one movement. ‘Okay’ he also said, but added in thick broken English ‘Now we go!
© All rights reserved by Judith Gunn 2010