Beyond the Help of Armies
It's been a while since I last posted a snapshot of my novel but it has progressed steadily, if not spectacularly. Nights of success in which I have written 3,000 words or more have been followed by days of inaction. But I have calculated it has now reached about 60,000 words and the expedition is embedded deep in the deadly heart of war torn Africa.
After another 10,000 words it will reach viable novel length and I'm guessing it will end up above that. Still there are plenty of reminders of the prosaic world around me that would divert me from my course. My novel, still nameless, is a means of escape to world of the explorers, that was long since vanquished. Even the conquest of the moon was eons ago and the first man to set foot on that lonely satellite is now dead. Without our dreams we are dead also.
They were only half a mile from the dockside but the city was deserting them and the jungle again slithered into the suburbs. There were abandoned houses which had been filled with thick creepers and burrowing ants and wicked looking razor wire fences that rusted into the jungle but could inject their corrosion into anyone unlucky enough to fall into them.
But although many years had passed since Salida had taken this path, he seemed to instinctively know each kink through the trees. He even found a small wooden bridge. After leaving the city with the small light afforded by flicking strip lights, they plunged into a teeming darkness where webs and creepers brushed their face. They put on the infra red goggles of the kind Moriarty had used years earlier in the Falklands War and the trees were transformed into quivering white mushrooms glowering out of a fuzzy green backdrop.
For two hours they negotiated the vines and thickness of the forest, feeling the sweat gathering on their bodies even in the early hours, brushing off hairy spiders and other nefarious creatures with their gloved hands. Then unexpectedly the trees petered out and they found themselves on a scrubby plain that crunched under foot.
The early momentum was fading. Fighting through the thickness of the jungle had sapped their energy but the trees had protected them from the realities of a war torn country. Here they were in open ground and exposed with just the darkness to protect them. And a small milky light over the distant eastern mountains shone like a warning of time running out.
After stumbling over roots the party made quick progress across the open ground but stopped abruptly when a huge metal object reared up from the grass.
“Down” hissed Moriarty.
In front of them the gun of a tank had risen up against the sky. They lay embedded in the grasslands but there was no movement. Salida inched around to the right and finally stood up and gave them the all clear to move. The back of the turret had been blasted off and the tank still gave off a sharp tang of seared metal.
“If there’s a tank here we need to be aware of other hazards,” said Moriarty.
“Check the ground carefully,” said Michael.
His advice was cut short by small scream to his left. Moriarty made out Rebecca in his night vision goggles, an arm raised desperately in the air.
“What is it?” he said, moving quickly toward her. He felt something desperate in her manner and thought of the night in the cabin before he reached her.
“Look. I don’t know I stepped on something. There was a click.”
Moriarty breathed deeply.
“OK. You think it’s a landmine.”
“I think it’s a land mine.”
“You’re probably OK. That’s what happens in the movies. They click and when the pressure is removed they explode but that makes no sense. Actually you just step on them and they explode.”
“Right. I’m sure you’re right, but I’m not 100 percent,” she said, Her words were coming at him fast.
“I don’t want you to take the chance. Just stay there.”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
Moriarty got on his hands and knees and crawled toward her.
“Moriarty get back. I’ll take my foot off it. If it’s a mine there’s no point in both of us dying.”
“Don’t do anything,” replied Moriarty, an edge coming into his tone. “I’m coming to you. Don’t argue.”
He could see something metal gleaming under Rebecca’s left foot. Smooth and round. It could be ordinance. Moriarty was almost certain it wasn’t but the small margin for error was making him sweat. He got down under her boot. He could see an edge and something else; possibly writing.
“OK take your foot off it, Rebecca.”
“I shouldn’t jump as far as I can.”
“No. Just take your foot off it.”
There was no explosion or crunch of bone leaving tendon. Rebecca raised her long leg and Moriarty pulled a piece of metal from the ground and waved it in the air.
“You were right to be concerned. It’s diet Coke. Aspartame is a very dangerous additive,” he said.
The party giggled at the landmine scare but it made them think very carefully about their next step.
At 5 a.m. they found a dirt road. Salida paused. “It’s better to go across country but the light will catch us in open country. We should probably take the road but there may be government or rebel forces. If there are just one or two we take them out. If not we think of a Plan B fast,” he said.
By now a grey light was creeping over the land and it would be possible for a sentry to make out the party. Moriarty also knew war bred fatigue and complacency and it was common to see ragged bands of armed men roaming around.
The low road took a straight path across the plain and disappeared over the ridge of a hill. An indistinctness glazed the hill that worried him slightly. The men could make out the black line of more trees beyond it. Salida said they were heading for the trees and had just a couple of miles to cover down the road, but they could be two dangerous miles out here in the open.
Everywhere they saw tank tracks as well as other detritus of war such as abandoned carts and boots.
Salida stopped and looked at the tracks. “There was some heavy artillery here very recently,” he said. “And look at this.”
He picked up a dog tag and wiped off the mud. “This is from a soldier in the national army. If he lost his tag, he’s almost certainly dead.”
Half a mile down the road they stopped where a maelstrom of tracks and marks in the mud seemed to indicate a frenzied event that was out of the ordinary. Then they heard a distant muffled noise, a “bop, bop, bop” low against the hulls.
“Gunfire,” said Moriarty. “I would guess there’s a front line of sorts but it’s some distance from here.”
“Moriarty,” said Michael. He was pointing to a dark object by the road side.
They looked and saw what appeared to be a pile of old clothing. They looked more closely and saw teeth. His eyes were as vacant and as white as the sky above the mountains and his body was kinked and convulsed. He was not much older than 15 but a rifle lay useless next to him in the road. Someone emitted a sharp gasp when they saw the lower half of his legs were blown, mutilated and bled into a sump of blood that had filled a ditch by the side of the road.
Moriarty felt Rebecca’s hand touching his arm lightly. “Moriarty. He’s alive.”
The boy had moved his position. Moriarty remained silent, but Rebecca saw his expression and understood they could do nothing. The boy was far beyond the help of armies now. Moriarty put his water bottle on his mouth. He wasn’t sure but thought he made out a flicker of
recognition as much of the water flowed away down his chin to join the rivulets of blood.
They walked on in silence after seeing the boy. Half an hour later a pall of dark smoke coiled its way across the path. Moriarty remembered the haziness he had noticed earlier. They smelled a terrible rottenness like a stench from the core of the earth. On the plain to the north of them a large mound rose from the scorched grass and smoke drifted from its innards. The path wound ever closer to it and although they could see no soldiers around, they dreaded every step forward.
Finally the details became apparent. They made our forms, now grotesque and scarecrow-like, bloated and mutilated, abject hands and scraps of uniform. Moriarty felt a low clanging inside of him. He had guessed from half a mile away but he knew from the low sob that emanated from Rebecca she had only just realized.
The bodies of the defeated burned up there high above the path. They didn’t know if they were government troops or rebels or if they died on the field of battle or were rounded up and executed later. Moriarty ignored Rebecca’s instructions back on the boat. He threw his arm around her and turned her face away from the pyre. He felt the sobs wrack through her and she fell slightly and leaned on him. Only when they had rounded a corner and were back in the trees did she move from his grip but it was less defiant than hopeless. He felt they were circling the very heart of the darkness.
It was light by the time they found a concrete house hidden by trees on three sides with a long dirt track that connected it to the outside world on the other. This was the home of Mariba, Andy Salida’s cousin and they place where they would recuperate before setting out on the next leg of their journey.
Mariba was a sad eyed woman who confirmed the war had come very close. Two days ago there had been a battle down on plain. She had hid in the forest with her children while rebel forces ransacked her home. But while the rebels had been firing their guns into the trees and shouting victory songs, they had been ambushed by government soldiers on the plain. Many people had died on both sides but the rebels had been driven back and their bodies littered the battlefields.
“We saw many bodies burning down there,” said Salida. “Were they the rebels?”
“Who knows?” the woman replied with a long sigh. “Just the dead. So many dead. And Marcel went to fight the rebels but never came back.”