by Forrest Aguirre
I write because you compel me. You force me to remember the things I do not wish to remember, the things I cannot forget, because you are before me, because you accuse me. I am evil, and the cause for which I fought so hard was, is, misguided, ignorant, savage, wrong. You have helped me by beating the badness out of my body, by starving the evil spirits that lived in me, by re-educating my feeble brain. For this favor I give you this account.
Mountains are hungry places. Hungry and cold. Only the desperate, the criminal and the insane live there and the animals. Animals in abundance, safe from cities and motorcars and white hunters. There are leopards in the mountains. Fierce spotted giants whose very presence cause fear and trembling in the bravest of men, even in our courageous freedom fighters.
It was in the mountains that my squad moved unfettered, free to choose our targets, strike, then return to the forest-covered slopes. It was in these mountains that I saw my first leopard.
Ungwone was injured a colonial soldiers bullet had caught him in the thigh. Kiiringu and I helped him up the path that led to our camp. He was bleeding badly, but his injury was not fatal. He would be fine if we could get him to one of our hidden medical depots deep within the forest. Our doctors would use womens urine to remove the bullet a proven traditional cure and sew the wound in the modern manner. Old and new became one in the healing of our dedicated guerilla brothers.
But the nearest depot was far away, and with the crackle of gunfire growing closer our goal seemed even more distant. Finally Kiiringu and I decided to leave our mate to the government soldiers. We had heard that prison camps were not so bad for the wounded, who were treated for their pains and fed well, according to the international rules of war. Besides, Ungwone had passed out if we carried his dead weight, we were sure to be captured or killed ourselves. Then who would carry on our war against colonial oppression? The monkeys?
We stripped our compatriot of the things he would not need in prison camp, the things that the white soldiers or their black lackeys would confiscate anyway. Bullets, dried corn, knives, a revolver, bread all passed between Kiiringu and I. I ended up with the weapons, he with the food.
"Why do you get the gun?" he asked.
"Because I am the officer."
"Only because your cousin is the colonel!"
We both laughed, sloughing of nervousness as the gunshots grew louder. We headed up the slope, leaving Ungwone behind. A hundred yards up Kiiringu stopped and ran back down the path toward our abandoned companion.
"Where are you going?" I called out.
"Ungwones charm Maji Maji from long ago. It protects you from bullets. . ."
Kiiringu stopped cold, realizing how stupid his comment was, given Ungwones injury. Just then the air filled with a buzzing like that of a locust swarm. Fear bloomed in his eyes, his smile sagging, then lost in a white explosion. I was knocked to the ground, but found my feet and ran off the path, away from the airplanes sight. Such an effort for such little prey, I thought. Would the colonies stop at nothing to kill one lone black man? I was flattered and frightened all at once. The rush of excitement and dread drove my legs even harder as I dove into the trees, leaving the thump, whump, whump of the bombshells beneath me.
Cold came in waves as I ascended the mountainside. I set up camp, bones aching from exertion, heart weak with grief over the loss of my friends. We had been initiated together, brought into the family of freedom fighters as brothers of the same age set more than brothers. I hoped, prayed, that their spirits would guide me to safety.
Fire would attract attention, I decided, so I slept cold and uneasy that night. Not that I had food to cook even if I had built a fire my dried corn had fallen out of my coat pockets and the last of our bread had been blown to bits with Kiiringu. My grumbling stomach woke me on and off through the night.
The sun pried my frozen eyelids next morning as I breathed frigid dust into my nostrils. It was a wonder I had lived through the night. My muscles were stiff, my energy exhausted, the cold had bored into my marrow. Discomfort danced over my body.
The yell of voices quickly drowned out all aches and complaints my body was making.
"Up here, bring up the rear!"
"Shuddup. Lets give the bloody rebel a surprise."
I slid into a ditch underneath a large log, but had no time to fully conceal myself. I realized, to my dismay, that the disturbed frost where I had crawled back on my belly would plainly give my position away to even the most ignorant government troop. My breathing came in short, sharp exhalations, like an athlete trying to calm nervousness before an important race.
The voices came closer. I pushed my chin as far as I could into the ground, seeing the glint off the soldiers buttons and bayonets, then prepared to throw my arms up in surrender. But a shadow moved between my exposed face and the troops, a lithe, muscular shape, filling my horizon, shielding me from view.
I heard the soldiers voices though my view was entirely blocked by whatever had placed itself between us.
"Beautiful, isnt she?"
"And deadly. Look at those jaws, son, theyll snap you in half before you know what hit you."
"The pelt. . ."
"No! Were hunting for traitors, not cats."
"But. . ."
"No! Anyone who shoots at that cat will be up for court marshal, is that understood? Now lets head back west and find our man. He couldnt have gotten far if he even made it past that beast."
The voices tapered off and sunlight again spilled into my hiding place. I clambered out to see a noble sight a leopard, symbol of royalty, lazily walking away from me, its immense paw prints evidence that it had saved me from captivity or death. I thought that perhaps it was one of my spirit brothers come back to assist me in the form of the great cat, so I called out "Kiiringu? Ungwone?" The animal stopped, turned to me sniffing the air and switching its tail, then walked off into the dense foliage.
I wandered for hours, unable to find my bearings. The forest waved off in all directions like some leafy ocean, without landmark or lighthouse. Up to this point I had spent my time near the forests edge where sympathetic villagers hid bread and provisions for the freedom fighters, where one could strike quickly and quietly at a fortified police post then retreat back into the bush, one step out of harms reach. I had never been so far into the trees, in the place that Mama and Nyanya had warned me about in my youth. "Only the spirits of the dead and demons frequent those parts of the forest," they had said. "It is bad luck to be found there, surely you will be eaten by the creatures that live there. Stay out!"
And here I was, surrounded by the dead and unsure where to go and the fire of hunger burned in my belly the only warm spot on my body. The voices of the ancestors whispered through the rustling leaves when night fell, I knew, the demons would emerge from knots in the gnarled trees, stalking me, sniffing out my soul as sorcerers do when looking for a victim, hungry for my flesh. I had to get out, but knew not where to turn.
I startled at a movement in the brush a real, physical movement contrasting sharply with my ectoplasmic imaginings. A huge square head, spotted black on yellow, jutted out from a wall of leaves. My shivering stopped as fear shot fire through my veins. I stood, awed by the size of the beast, unable to run as it turned to look at me, through me, yellow eyes blazing above its strong snout.
"Kiiringu? Ungwone? Is it you, my friend?"
The cat fixed its gaze upon me for a brief moment, then turned away, apparently disinterested. I gasped as it leapt out of its leafy cover then, craning its head back to look at me, it began heading off down a path, as if beckoning me to follow. I had little choice but to fall in step a careful distance behind the yellow killer. Fear mixed with familiarity as I walked in its paw tracks the animal could gut me with one swipe, it is true, but it made no threatening move, hardly acknowledged my presence as I trudged behind, down the mountainside.
We, my animal guide and I, descended rapidly, the air warming as we dropped down towards packets of civilization so critical to my survival. The ache in the bones of my feet lessened as I heard singing and smelled wood smoke the sounds and scents of a friendly village in the distance. The leopard stalked right up to the tree line, then jumped aside from the path, so as to let me pass out of the forest and into the village clearing. . .
. . . straight into the arms of two Askari, black soldiers in the employ of the government. I struggled to get back into the bush, but was only rewarded with the view of a retreating flash of yellow, a spotted hide receding up the mountain, as I was pushed face first into the dirt and felt the bite of handcuffs on my wrists. I saw the leopard look at me once, then turn as if it had accomplished its mission, before a rifle butt knocked me unconscious.
I woke to a vision of the dead Ungwone looked down on me but surely he died as a result of his wounds?
"No, the colonial soldiers captured me not long after you and Kiiringu left."
I groaned, cleaning out my eyes to be sure it was really Ungwone. It was.
"And now you are here, my friend," he said. "Tell me, is Kiiringu well?"
"Our brother was killed by the government eroplani."
"I am sorry to hear it," he sighed. "He might have lived had he remained with me."
"Lived here? And this is a good thing?"
"It is not so bad here. You will see. We are well fed you will eat better here than you did even before the war. We only work half a day and are paid a little for our work. If you save enough money you can even bribe Chilumba, the gate guard, to go and buy you cigarettes. Its not so bad the prison master speaks to us and tells us how our revolution has failed, we work, we earn, we eat."
But I was not content to live this way. I stood for my beliefs. The whites had unlawfully stolen our land when we would have sold it for a fair price, had they asked. Besides, educational opportunities abounded for the colonys white children, but ours were excluded from anything beyond the first four years of schooling. And the right to vote? That right only existed for white landowners. So I stood for my opinion and let it be known.
The price was a few teeth, a broken wrist and solitary confinement. For two weeks I was penned up like a cow in a Kraal. My only human contact was the hand that shoved a piece of bread and a cup of water into my feces-stained body box. After the fourth day or so I lost track of time, unsure if I could hold on to my sanity. I panicked, beating the sides of the box, only to have it hit with a baton, the crack echoing off the tight walls and into my head. The pain was excruciating my sensitivity to sound was keen by this point.
While one loses track of time, ones attention to detail while in solitary confinement is magnified greatly. I noticed how the grain of the boxes wood was up and down one wall, side to side on another. My sense of smell became more acute I knew when the prisoners had successfully bribed the guard Chilumba by the faint odor of cigarette smoke coming from the prisoner barracks at night, though the orderly missed the scent on his rounds. I felt how the door to my container was stronger in some places, weaker in others it was this knowledge that led me to thoughts of escape.
One night a spirit visited me in my dreams the spirit of the leopard. In my vision it flowed through the concertina wire fences that surrounded the camp, dodging through the shadows as it stepped carefully through the mine-filled ditch, slipping past weary guards half asleep at their posts. It reached my box and entered in unopposed, filling me with its energy, its vitality pulsating in my limbs. I pushed against the weak points of the door, bursting it into splinters across the camps central courtyard. Guards ran toward me with bayonets, but I slashed through them with my sharp claws, crushed their bones underneath my huge paws then tore through the fence to lead my fellow prisoners to freedom once more.
I awoke in the dark, moonlight knifing though the gaps in my boxs door. I decided to try the strength of the door before my resolve left me, before the power of the leopards spirit faded away.
As I reached for the weak point at the top of the door, the pop of gunfire erupted from the gate a prison break! My dream was prophetic! Our comrades in the forests had come down to free us so that we could renew the struggle for our land. My determination to get out was now stronger than ever.
With great effort I pushed on the weak corner of the door, finally breaking through with a crack. Luck was with me I had also torn off a hinge. I used my feet to push against the other hinge, which flew off the door with a metallic ping. My vision was blurred as I stumbled out of the box, eyes dazzled by floodlights, so I slowly walked toward the camps front entrance. A large group of prisoners had gathered near the gate trying to scale the fences, I thought.
But as I drew closer I noticed that the prisoners were not clambering over the fences, not shouting in triumph, but staring in somber silence at the ground. There lay Chilumba the gate guard, a neat red hole in the center of his forehead. Blood stained the ground beneath him.
Then, as I regained focus, I saw you standing outside the gate, your yellow eyes greedily drinking in the moonlight, you dressed head to toe in colonial khaki, from your pith helmets to your tan boots. Most of your spots were hidden under the stripes and brass buttons of your colonial army uniforms, but your intent was clear. You said, through your fanged mouths, claws fingering rifle triggers the whole time you spoke, "You have new guards. We do not accept bribes the colonial authorities pay us too well. We are in charge now."
And now we, the freedom fighters, the prisoners, do nothing but eat growing fatter and fatter every day.
First appeared in Indigenous Fiction #7
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