[This was adapted from a dream I had. Yes, I have strange dreams.]
Under the dark blanket of the warm summer night, the town stretched out like a great black crocodile sleeping along the bank of the river. The crocodile’s tail was in the low hills where the mine workings were, and its jaws spread open to encompass the bend where the river turned on itself and spread into a waterlogged, malarial marsh.
Like a sleeping crocodile, the town was silent. But it was not sleeping.
In the mansions of the mine officials and the hovels of the poor, people waited, trembling with fear of what was to come.
The boy crouched in a corner of the marketplace, where the fishmongers’ stalls met the tall concrete side of the grain warehouse. He cocked his head, listening, and the absence of sound seemed to reassure him. Quickly, flitting from shadow to shadow, he made his way across the marketplace to where a line of wooden booths marked the greengrocers’.
Even the dim light of the stars, he wasn’t a prepossessing young man. His head was too large for his body, his teeth too big for his mouth, and his limbs too long for his torso. When he moved it was with the jerkiness of a stork, and that in fact was what everyone called him.
He was the chief of the street kids’ gang whose territory included the market. As such it was one of the strongest gangs, and Stork was a leader of consequence.
But that was in ordinary times. The times were no longer ordinary.
Reaching the stalls, Stork looked around quickly and tapped on a door, paused, and tapped again.
“Who’s there?” a voice whispered.
“It’s me, you idiot. Open up quickly.”
There was a doubtful pause. “Are you alone?”
“Who’s that?” Stork snapped. “Is that you, Tembo? Open up or I’ll burst your fat belly open. I can’t stand here any longer.”
Hesitantly, a bolt was drawn, and the door slid open. Tembo’s plump face peeped out. “What’s going on?”
“They’re coming,” Stork said. “I’ve heard them, over by the school. They’re breaking into houses. People are screaming.”
“Who?” Tembo’s face was a mask of fear. “Army, or rebels?”
“D’you suppose I waited to find out?” Stork asked sarcastically. “And does it matter who they are? You’re equally dead when they kill you, right?”
“Yes, but...” Before Tembo could say anything more, something exploded in the distance with a thunderous rumble.
“Hear that?” Stork said. “They’re getting closer.”
“What should we do?” Tembo’s eyes rolled white in his dark face. “Hide in the stall?”
“Don’t be a complete idiot.” Stork glanced over his shoulder and back. “We’ve got to get out of here.”
“Out of here?” Tembo sounded confused. “Out of the town, you mean?”
“Where else, you fool? Where’s everybody? The Jackal? Marcus?”
“I don’t know,” Tembo said. “They didn’t wait.”
“What? I told you to tell them to wait till I came back.”
“Yes,” Tembo said miserably. “I told them. But they laughed at me and went off. Marcus told me that I could be your lapdog if I wanted, but he wasn’t. That was just after you left.”
Stork stood thinking, his fingers twisting the long ponytail of hair which hung from the back of his head. Another explosion in the distance seemed to make up his mind. “Screw them,” he said. “If they don’t want to stick together, they deserve whatever happens to them. I can’t be responsible for their stupidity.” He looked at Tembo. “Are you coming or aren’t you?”
Tembo’s face twisted in an agony of indecision. He’d never, ever, been outside the town before in all his life, and the idea was shocking to him. He looked desperately at the night sky, as though it would give him answers.
Stork stood watching him only for a moment. “All right,” he said. “If you want to stay back, that’s your affair. I’m going.” Without looking back, he turned round and loped off.
“Wait!” Tembo called, but Stork was already either out of earshot or pretended to be. He crouched in the stall a moment longer, biting his nails, and then clambered slowly out and began trotting after the taller boy. “Wait!” he called again. “Stork!”
He bumped into Stork so suddenly that both of them nearly fell over. The tall boy was waiting just inside the mouth of an alley, where it was so dark that he was literally invisible. “Shut up,” he hissed. “You want to give us away?”
“But there’s nobody –“ Tembo started to protest, but Stork clapped a hand over his mouth. And Tembo could hear it now, the sound of running feet, coming closer. Someone shrieked.
“Get down!” Stork pulled Tembo down on to the ground, so hard that the plump boy would’ve cried out in pain except for the hand over his mouth. The feet rushed past the alley. There was a loud crackling noise, which Tembo suddenly realised was automatic gun fire. It didn’t sound anything like the movies he’d sneaked into at the decrepit old theatre on the other side of town.
The beam of a torch shone suddenly into the alley, swivelling back and forth along the walls. Stork and Tembo flattened themselves against the corner of wall and street. The torch beam passed centimetres above their prone forms, and then turned away. Silence fell.
But it wasn’t true silence, not any longer. Tembo could hear noises in the distance, revving engines, screams, and more and more often, gunfire. And above all of it was the thumping of his own heart, which felt like the loudest noise in the world.
Slowly, cautiously, Stork released his grip. “You all right?” he murmured.
“Yes...” Tembo raised his head slightly. “Should we stay here? We might be safe for a while.”
“Of course we can’t stay here,” Stork whispered fiercely. “See that?”
Tembo blinked. The alley didn’t look as dark as it had before. There seemed to be a faint reddish glow, as of the sunrise. But surely it was still the middle of the night?
Then he realised what it was. Not the sunrise, of course, but the town. The town was on fire.
“Get up,” Stork whispered. “Follow me. We’ve got to find a way out.”
Stumbling, Tembo followed the taller boy. The growing, flickering light actually made it more difficult to judge his footing than complete darkness. Besides, the lack of shadows meant that they were constantly ducking from one patch of cover to another. The alley gave way to another, and that to yet a third.
Suddenly Stork put out a hand and grabbed Tembo’s arm. “Stop!”
They were outside a house. It was just another of the shanties in the slum, and Tembo was about to ask why. Then he caught sight of a hint of movement outside the door, and heard a noise.
“What’s that?” he whispered.
“I don’t know. Let’s see.”
Quietly, with all the skill he’d developed in his years of living on the street, he sneaked up to the house. Tembo followed behind him.
“Oh,” Stork said suddenly, and stopped.
“Huh?” Standing on tiptoe, Tembo peered over Stork’s shoulder. A little girl was sitting outside the house, her head and shoulders hunched over her knees. She was rocking back and forth and sobbing quietly over something she was cradling in her lap.
“What’s she got there?” Tembo began asking, and then he saw. It was a small puppy, yellow, with floppy ears and a long tail. Blood matted its fur and its eyes were wide and staring.
“Bastards,” Stork said, with great feeling. “What harm did either of them do?” He looked around. “Doesn’t look like anyone’s at home.” He pointed at the door, which hung open on one hinge. “Someone’s been here. The parents must’ve run...or...”
Tembo didn’t say anything. He knew what the “or” meant.
“Should we take her with us?” Stork asked, obviously thinking aloud. “She’ll slow us down. But if we leave her here...” He stepped forward and touched the girl on the shoulder. “Hey.”
The girl looked up and screamed.
“We aren’t going to hurt you!” Stork held up his hands. “We’ll take you somewhere safe...to your mother.”
The girl shrank back, clutching the dead puppy. Her eyes were glaring with terror, and she began screaming continuously, pausing only to draw breath.
“Let’s go,” Tembo said. “We can’t do anything here.”
Stork seemed to be about to argue, but his shoulders slumped in defeat and he stepped back. “You’re right. She’ll attract attention at this rate.” With a last glance at the girl, he turned and strode away. Tembo struggled after him.
They went through several more alleys. A few people were here, rushing past, clutching belongings. They ignored Stork and Tembo, as well as each other.
“Look,” Stork said suddenly.
Tembo had been so intent on following on his heels that he hadn’t even noticed when they’d emerged from the alleys. He looked up and gasped.
Before them stretched the river, but it seemed to be running red with blood. Then he realised that it was the light of the fire, reflected off the smoke which lay low over the water. And then he looked to his left, and gasped again.
It was as bright as day. Everything along the river seemed to be a line of flame. Buildings, trees, vehicles, all were burning. Flashes and sparks jumped into the air, somersaulting, and fell again. He could feel the heat in the air, searing the inside of his chest.
“Move,” Stork snapped. “Fast as you can. Come on.”
They ran. Tembo’s feet felt the asphalt of the pavement soften and press down, right through the soles of his old sneakers. Coughing with the smoke, he slipped, stumbled, but kept going, now more afraid than ever of losing contact with Stork.
Suddenly they were in the jungle.
It happened so abruptly that Tembo was convinced he’d gone blind. The smell of burning was still in his nostrils, but darkness had fallen, so complete that he ran into a tree. Stork caught him before he fell.
“Watch it,” he said. “Careful.”
“Are we safe?” Tembo asked.
Stork laughed bitterly. “Safe? As soon as it’s light enough they’ll start combing the jungle. It must be full of people like us, haven’t you noticed?”
Tembo looked around. As his eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness, he began to be able to see signs of people – abandoned bundles, discarded footwear, even a portable television set left on top of a fallen tree. He could hear voices in the distance, too, though it was impossible to tell from which direction.
“Keep going,” Stork ordered. “Stay by my side.”
Tembo needed no second urging. He stuck so close to Stork’s side that the older boy kept bumping into him every few seconds. But, apart from an occasional hiss of annoyance, he didn’t say anything.
Soon they were far enough from the burning town that the light of the fire had vanished, so that it was far too dark to see where they were going. Besides, Tembo began to feel suddenly and immensely weary. “Stork?” he asked. “Stork, can we rest for a while? I’m about to drop.”
Stork hesitated. “I suppose so,” he said at last. “We’ll need our energies tomorrow, that’s for sure.” He fumbled around in the dark. “Sit down here, by my side, and put your back against this tree.”
Tembo sat. The trunk of the tree was rough against his back, its bark scratching his head and neck. He felt terrified. The jungle was strange, the darkness stifling, and the moisture in the soil was seeping through his clothes. Something scuttled over his skin, and he yelped.
“What is it?” Stork snapped. He sounded cross.
“I felt something crawl on my hand.”
“It’s the forest, what d’you expect? Go to sleep.”
But Tembo couldn’t go to sleep. The images of the burning town, the gunshots and the crying girl, all merged in his mind with the forest. He began to feel acutely thirsty and hungry as well. He hadn’t eaten since the morning, and though as a street child he was used to going for long periods without, these were hardly normal circumstances.
Miserably, he wondered what the morning might bring. How far could they run? What lay on the other side of the forest? If they could get far enough, would they find safety, or just more of the same?
Then he thought about his parents, for the first time in longer than he cared to remember. If they’d lived, if they’d still been alive, would they have protected him, taken him away in time? Or maybe they’d have hesitated, like the people in the town, and he’d have died with them in their home. Maybe he’d be sitting on his doorstep like the little girl, crying his heart out. Maybe Stork was the only person who could have saved him anyway.
With this, he felt a sudden outpouring of love towards Stork. The older boy was rough and dirty and crude; he stank and stole when he could, but that was life on the streets; and Stork stood by those who stood by him. Marcus and the Jackal had abandoned him, but he’d protected Tembo, even though he was fat and slow and stupid and a liability. Stork had stood by him.
Gently, he stretched out his hand and touched Stork’s arm. “Stork?”
“Nothing. I just wanted to say, thanks.”
Stork laughed with genuine amusement. “For what?”
“For bringing me along.” Tembo’s throat clenched with emotion. “For not leaving me behind.”
“You’re daft if you thought I would.” Tembo couldn’t see him, but could feel Stork turning to look at him. “You’re family. How could I leave you?”
“Yeah. More than any blood relation could ever be. Now go to sleep.”
Tembo sighed and leaned back, closing his eyes.
He woke to Stork shaking him hard by the shoulder. “Tembo, get up!”
“Huh?” Tembo blinked his eyes open. He could see Stork bending over him, dawn shimmering through the canopy of branches overhead. “What?”
“Get up, quick. They’re coming.”
Tembo scrambled to his feet, his limbs screaming with stiffness. “Where?”
“Listen and you can hear them.” Stork pointed, and now Tembo could hear too, the noise of a group of people approaching. “I went to have a look. They’ve got guns and uniforms.”
As if in confirmation, there was a sudden burst of gunfire. Shredded leaves fell from the tree, fluttering past Stork’s face.
“Run!” Stork suited himself to his word, clutching Tembo’s sleeve. They took off at a sprint, dodging round the trees. There were shouts from behind, and more gunfire. Somebody began screaming and wouldn’t stop.
“They must’ve found someone else hiding,” Stork gasped, his face running with sweat. “Otherwise they’d have had us for sure.”
Tembo didn’t even have the breath to nod. He’d no idea which way they were running, just that they had to keep going. And then suddenly the ground gave way beneath his feet and he found himself standing up to his thighs in water.
He looked up. The trees had disappeared. Tall reeds rose on either side.
“The swamp,” Stork said. He crouched down, his head below the level of the reeds. “Get down or they’ll see you.”
Tembo was still hesitating when a burst of fire whipped over the reed tops to their left. He threw himself down as hard as he could, mud and water spraying up. More gunfire ripped through the reeds, slashing by just overhead, and Tembo pressed himself down even further, completely by instinct. His head was under the water, his mouth filled with mud. Desperately he struggled to raise his head enough to breathe.
The gunfire stopped. Tembo shook his head and opened his eyes. “Stork?”
He could see nobody. He was on hands and knees, up to his neck in the water. The reeds stood tall on all sides, with only a small patch of morning sky directly overhead. “Stork? Stork!”
There was no answer.
Tembo had no idea in which direction the land lay. He began crawling blindly through the marsh, hoping to find dry ground. Something long twisted past him through the water, something he couldn’t quite see, and was grateful for that. The reeds scraped and shook around him, and he kept stopping, flooded with terror that they would give him away.
He was just about to call for Stork again when he found the first corpse.
It lay on its back, arms and legs outstretched, bobbing gently on the water. The head was a shattered ruin, and flies were buzzing around the crusted blood. Beyond it was another, and beyond, another still.
Suddenly he realised that he was surrounded by corpses. He must have been crawling among them for a good while, without noticing. Some of them were quite fresh, the blood still dribbling from bullet holes and gashes like machete blows. Others were already beginning to swell with decay.
For a long time, he froze, not believing what he was seeing. It was fear which finally got him moving again, the fear of being stuck where he was until he died. The fear was suddenly so overwhelming that he found himself able to push past the bodies as he kept crawling, though he still had absolutely no idea which way to go. Fear gave him energy, enough to beat the exhaustion of his overworked muscles and the cold of the swamp water eating into his body.
And then, abruptly, he came to the channel of open water.
It was only a narrow channel, and only thigh-deep, so that he might have been able to crawl across it to the reeds on the far side. But just as he was about to plunge across, a shadow fell on the water, thrown long by the rising sun. Once again, he froze.
People were wading down the channel towards him. In the lead were four or five young men, their hands held high. There was something familiar about one of them. As he came closer, Tembo recognised Marcus, his eyes wide with fear, his white T shirt splattered with blood and mud. Behind them came a couple of soldiers in green uniforms, rifles in their hands. They were prodding Marcus and the others forward with their rifle barrels.
Tembo slipped down into the water again, so that only his head was above the surface. He tried to still his breathing, certain they could hear it. They were so close now that he could feel the waves they made as they walked. Marcus was whimpering, a constant low keening.
“Stop that whining, animal!” one of the soldiers snapped. “Try to die with a little bit of dignity at least.”
“They’re just animals,” another of them laughed. He had a high, nasal voice. “They don’t know what dignity means.”
“Shall we finish them off here?” the first soldier asked. There was no answer, but a brief burst of firing, very loud and very close. There were heavy splashes as though of bodies falling into the water. The reeds waved back and forth.
“Let’s go back for the next lot,” the second soldier, the one who’d laughed, said. “I’m tired of this pestilential swamp.”
“Yeah, let’s...” the first soldier paused suddenly. “Wait.”
“I’ll bet you some of them are hiding in the marsh. We ought to have a look.”
“Here?” The second soldier’s nasal voice was filled with disgust. “You want to go prodding among this rubbish?”
“Why not? It might even give some sport.”
“Suit yourself. Where do we start? It’s a big swamp.”
“Might as well check to see it this lot is really dead,” the first soldier said. He seemed to be in charge. “You take this side, I’ll check the other.”
Tembo’s gut clenched with terror. He tried to flatten himself totally in the water, but had to keep his nose above the surface to breathe. Nor could he keep his eyes shut – they were open in terror, so that he saw clearly the second soldier wading in his direction. The man bent and dragged up a body by the hair.
“This one’s dead anyway,” he said, and held the corpse’s head up as though to confirm it for the other man. The body’s mouth fell open in a silent scream, the eyes open wide, the too-big teeth gleaming. From where he was lying, Tembo had a perfect view. It was Stork.
“Yeah, this one’s dead.” Laughing, the nasal soldier dropped Stork back in the water and came wading on. “Let’s have a look at a few more.”
Grovelling in the mud, Tembo waited. He no longer knew whether he wanted to escape or be found, so that it would be over.
Above the soldier’s helmeted head, the morning was bright in the sky.
Copyright Biswapriya Purkayastha 2013