by Adele A. Wilby
Shade from the mango tree blocked out the light to my room. I felt into the darkness of my wardrobe, and as I did so I hoped a confused cobra had not gotten lost and slithered in and curled itself up and taken temporary residence in a corner amongst my clothes. I walked my fingers down my pile of shirts until I recognised the texture of the one I wanted to wear, and dragged it out. Nervous excitement whirled around in my stomach. Today could be the day, I thought, as my fingers fumbled to button up my shirt. Perhaps I was being foolish: perhaps I shouldn’t go.
‘Let’s go. Let’s go. It’s getting late,’ shouted the driver, as he gestured to the group of guerrillas languishing on the veranda waiting to get into the vehicle for their ride home. The murky green of the pick-up made it look more like a battle tank than a transport vehicle.
The four young men threw their carry bags into the back and clambered onto the vehicle and perched themselves on the seat. The cool breeze would fan their hair and their faces as they made their way along to their homes, and from where they could be on guard also. They held their Kalashnikovs tight and upright between their legs. They knew their lives depended on keeping a firm grip of that rifle as they passed through the jungle road where the known that lurked amongst the tangled foliage posed as great a threat as the unknown.
Two more cadres climbed into the back seat of the vehicle, placed their rifles down next to them, adjusted the magazine holders strapped to their chests, leaned back, and quietly sighed. The cushioned seat did not go unnoticed on guerrillas more familiar with hard floors and the ground to sleep on. The youngest of the group opted for the front seat. The vehicle travelled high, and he claimed what he thought would be the best seat next to the driver. He was unaware that it was also one of the most dangerous places to sit: driver and front seat passengers were prime targets in ambushes.
An impatient blast from the horn reached my ears. ‘Come on, come on’, the driver shouted.
‘I’m on my way’, I replied, grabbed my rifle, slung it over my shoulder, and flew out of my room, pausing only to slip my feet into my flip-flops as I headed to the vehicle.
‘Okay. I’m ready. I’m ready. Let’s go,’ I said, smiling at the impatience of the driver, as I stepped up into the pick-up, shoved a rifle out of the way, and took up the place that had been left vacant for me next to the door. Here I could wind the window up and down according to my whim. I had travelled this road before, and I knew there were easy driving stretches, rough areas, the ‘be alert’ places, and the stretches where a little repair to the road would make driving easier. But most of all, it was a dangerous road, and I could keep watch as we made our way through the jungle area.
‘Why are you coming?’ said the driver glaring at me. ‘Keep alert,’ he shouted at the cadres in the back, as he paused at the door, did a final inspection of his passengers making sure they were all on board, and ready for the journey. ‘You don’t want to get killed now before you get home, do you?’ he said with a sardonic smile on his face. The cadres looked at him, not sure whether to laugh at his truthful exclamation. And then, ‘you, get down from there, and get in the front,’ he said, pointing to a more experienced cadre in the back of the pick-up. ‘You,’ he said, indicating to the young cadre in the front, ‘change places, and get in the back’. The young man looked at the driver and conceded to his experience. He lumbered out of the seat and onto the back of the vehicle, unaware that the driver might have just saved his life.
A last glance all round and the driver took his position behind the steering wheel and rested his rifle across his lap. ‘Let’s get going then,’ he said, and turned the key to the motor.
The pick-up crawled out through the compound gate, and skulked along the stretch of dirt jungle road throwing up a tail of dust as it picked up speed, until a turn in the road, where it slowed, and slowed. The stretch of jungle looked more like a battlefield than the richness of a jungle full of life.
‘A lot of shells hit here’, said the driver. ‘Look at what they’ve done. The jungle’s dead.’
‘Yeah. Look at it. Dreadful destruction,’ I said, casting my eyes across a landscape of burnt out dismembered trees, and charred twisted branches. Could any living creature survive the force of such fire-power? Surely nobody could be lurking amongst these ruins.
The driver eased the vehicle along, its cumbersome body rocking and swaying as it swerved around and in and out of craters and over pot holes, meandering from one side of the road to the other. The driver nudged the man next to him, ‘be alert’, he murmured, ‘it looks deserted, but that doesn’t mean it is. They hide anywhere. We could get caught here.’ The cadre shook himself back to attention, sat bolt upright, took a firm grip of his rifle, and peered into the carnage that bordered the road.
The driver pressed his weight on the accelerator, and speed seeped into the motor as we passed onto a smoother stretch of road. The motor gurgled on its way over gentle inclines, round soft turns, passed open expanses of grass green rice fields. A few scrawny cows grazed in the fading light. They would live to see tomorrow: the heat no longer posed a threat to them as the sun had lost its fire for the day and had started its slide down the horizon to the other side of the planet, draping the landscape in a haze of fading blue and yellow light as it went. Stars peaked out from the distant darkness. Silence hung like a mist over the land. I turned the handle of the window round and round and round, and the glass sheet slid down and disappeared into the door. I breathed the coolness of the day into my lungs in anticipation of those last minutes, the transition, when all is still; when all is calm; and then day is gone, and it is night.
I shuffled in my seat, and looked over my shoulder through the window to the passengers in the back. Broad smiles, the nudging and playful slaps between them, the rocking forward and back with laughter told me that the guerrillas had relaxed their alertness, and were now enjoying the ride. Don’t relax too much fellas, I thought, this is a road of uncertainty, but their joy at the prospect of home after long months in the battle field had overtaken any safety concerns that were there.
A steady slow pace took over the vehicle and expanses of open space and rice fields passed by, until the last incline in the road lay just ahead. A dip down and around the corner and it would be in front of me. A slight shuffle of my position and I pushed the cadre next to me to move over, and I leaned forward, and rested my chin on the back of the front seat, gazing out through the windscreen. Not long now I thought, and then I would see it.
The pick-up turned into the corner, and there it was: alone in the field, its closest cousins cluttered in the jungle some distance away. Stripped of all life, the tree’s skeletal arms were still held high and elegant against the blue light of night. The peacock perched on top crowned its glory.
A surge of acceleration, and it was behind me. I looked back for a final glimpse of the lifeless frame shadowed against the evening light. Thick arms shrunk to thin sticks, the peacock a dot as the vehicle carried me away from one of my favourite places, at one of my favourite times of day. I shifted my gaze to the darkening jungle that rushed passed. Not far now, I thought, but there’s still time yet.
The vehicle remained true, obeying the commands of its driver as it carried us past open spaces and more ripening paddy fields. Skinny legs protruding from too big shorts hurried children home along the dusty road in the early night. Women, their bodies angled over as they balanced the last large water pots of water on their jutted out hips, still found the energy to wave as the vehicle passed by. Weary men dragged their gaunt bodies up through the narrow lanes to the families waiting for them, while others dropped in and gathered for a quick toddy at the dilapidated shed that served as the local wine bar. Wisps of smoke seeped out through the thatched roofs of the huts scattered across the countryside amongst the paddy fields.
Past a string of kerosene lamps, the providers of light to makeshift shops in the local village, and the vehicle soon drew to a halt at a bus stop that had lost its purpose many years ago: we had reached out destination.
Laughing and joking, the passengers jumped down off the vehicle gripping their rifles as if an extension of their bodies. They gathered around me and bade farewell as they each set off for the short distance that would take them to their homes. I smiled them good bye, and waved as they faded into the night. I climbed back into the vehicle, in the front seat next to the driver. A white moon hung in the sky. Stars dangled around, adding sparkle in the darkness. My eyes fixed on the road ahead, and into the blackness of the jungle, alert to its possibilities.
‘Do you think we’ll see any?’ I asked the intent driver.
‘We might. It’s dark now, so we have to be really prepared. I’ve had problems along here before. I hope we don’t, but we need to be alert. Anyway, I wanted to get the guys home,’ the driver replied as he manoeuvred the vehicle back along from where it came.
Quietness filled the vehicle, and I shuffled on my seat, as we traced the road home.
Had I made a mistake by coming I wondered? Thoughts of what the night could deliver flashed around in my mind. I gripped my rifle resting on my lap, and kept watch. Darkness had chased the scenes away, and night obscured the nakedness of the lone tree. The cattle were nowhere to be seen. The driver cruised the vehicle avoiding the dangers that littered the road, and fewer miles were ahead of us. Will we see any?
‘We’re coming close to an area where we’ve had problems before, so keep a close eye out. You’re familiar with these problems. I don’t need to tell you’, the driver repeated. ‘You shouldn’t come unless it’s really necessary. You know people have died on this road at night.’
‘I know but I haven’t come across any problems before. I’ve been lucky I suppose, but it is the last time. I won’t be back,’ I said.
‘Keep that rifle on the ready. Let’s hope we don’t need it’, he advised again, feeling for the position of his own rifle.
The pick-up pushed on passing the danger area, and made progress towards home, till a sudden jolt sent me reeling.
‘What is it?’ I asked, unwinding myself from under the dashboard, and searching for my rifle.
‘Be ready’, said the driver as he extinguished the lights and turned off the motor. He quickly composed himself and felt for his rifle, and he kept his gaze on the road ahead. ‘There’s movement on the edge of the road there. I hope they didn’t see us.’
‘Where? I can’t see anything but darkness. What is it? How many?’ I asked.
‘There. Over there. Now. See? There,’ he said, pointing to the movement amongst the bushes at the edge of the road ahead. He quietly opened his door.
‘I can’t see anything’.
‘Be quiet. Wait.’
‘It’s the wind,’ I said.
‘Be quiet’, he said, watching the edge of the road. ‘There. Look’. He pointed again in the direction of the road ahead.
‘Where? Are you sure there is something there?’
‘Of course, I’m sure. I’ve seen it all before’, he said, with a hint of nervousness. ‘Can you see them? They are there’.
‘I can’t see anything’, I said.
‘Shh! Quiet. They’re moving. I don’t know which way they’ll move’ he said, as he gripped his rifle.
‘What to do? Do you want me to get out?’ I said.
‘Quietly unlock your door, and be ready to move, but stay there for now. Let’s see what happens. We have to wait. Just be ready,’ he said.
‘Okay. Okay,’ I said.
‘They’re moving. I don’t think they have seen us,’ he said. ‘See?’ He took his rifle in both hands.
‘No I can’t.’
‘There. Look,’ he said pointing further ahead than I had been looking.
‘Yes. Yes. I see now. I can see’, I said, my mouth swallowing my heart. ‘Shall I get out?’ I asked again.
‘No stay. Wait. Wait till we’re sure. Just be ready,’ he said, his eyes glued to the road ahead.
I wiped my hands on my trousers, and took a new grip of my rifle. My stomach heaved. I peered through the dark into the road ahead.
‘Here they come. Be ready,’ he warned. ‘I’m not sure how many.’
I stretched my neck further into the dark. The road-side jungle moved.
‘There’s only one,’ he said. ‘Can you see now?’
‘Yes. Yes. I can see.’
‘Remain still and quiet, but be alert’.
My body refused to move, and I waited.
‘There you have it. See now,’ he whispered.
My eyes fixed on the image in front, and I felt a thrill run through my body.
‘It’s huge,’ I said.
‘And it can be dangerous,’ he said. ‘Be still, and quiet, and let it pass’.
The jungle untangled as the great grey elephant slowly revealed itself as it lumbered onto the road. At last, I thought, my eyes savouring every moment as it sauntered across our path, on this my last chance on the road that led to home.