Uit: Bitter Eden
“I am lying on the only patch of improbable grass in a corner of the camp. Balding in parts, overgrown in others, generally neglected and forlorn, it is none the less grass, gentle to the touch, sweet on the tongue. The odd wild flower glows like a light left on under the alien sun.
I am not alone. Bodies, ranging from teak to white-worm, lie scattered at angles as though a bomb had flung them there. As at a signal, conversations swell to a low, communal hum hardly distinguishable from that of the darting bees, dwindle away into a silence in which I hear a plane droning somewhere high up, frustratingly free.
I am back in the narrow wadi sneaking down to the sea. I shelter under a rock’s overhang, clutching the recently shunted-off-on-to-me Hotchkiss machine gun that I still do not fully understand. Peculiarly, I am alone but I know that in the wadis paralleling mine there is a bristling like cockroaches packing a crack in a wall of thousands of others who wait for the jesus of the ships that will never come. I have stared at the grain of the rock for so long that it has become a grain on the inside of my skull.
A bomber, pregnantly not ours, lumbers over the wadi on its way to the sea, its shadow huge on the ground, its belly seeming to skim rock, scrub, sand. I dutifully pump the gun’s last exotic rounds at it, marvelling that, for once, the gun does not jam. But there is no flowering of the plane into flame, no gratifying hurtling of it into the glittering enamel of the sea, and I stare after it as it rises into higher flight and am drained as one who has milked his seed into his hand.
Later, a shell explodes near the sea, the sand and the windless air deadening it into the slow-motion of a dream, and the sun sets into the usual heedless blood-hush of the sky.
I squat down beside the now useless gun, resting my back against its stand, thinking I will not sleep, staring into the heart of darkness that is a night that may not attain to any dawn. But I am wrong. There are muted thunderings, stuttering rushes of nearer sound, an occasional screaming of men or some persisting gull, but I strangely sleep, as strangely do not dream, and am woken – not by any uproar but a silence – to a sun still far from where I have slumped down into the foetal coil. I do not need any loudhailer to tell me that the lines are breached, that the sand is as ash under my feet.
Dully, I struggle up, still tripping over trailing sleep, slop petrol over the gun and the truck of anti-gas equipment deeper in under the rock, curse all the courses at Helwan that readied frightened men for the nightmare that never was. The synthetics of the suits, gloves, boots, intolerably flare.”
Tatamkhulu Afrika (7 december 1920 – 23 december 2002)
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