Author’s Note:† This is Part 2 of the “Biseria Quartet”, of which the first part is The Most Frightening Thing of All
FUN AND GAMES
The day the Karibu came to Jandu’s village, the crops had finally been harvested from the fields and the preparations were being made for the annual harvest feast.† With the war and the drought, the crops had been poor and the feast meagre, and nobody had the glow in their faces of former years.† But they decided to hold the feast anyway.
Komalo was the greatest storyteller of the tribe, so great indeed that his name was known to all the clans this side of the Black River, and even the Giro people of the Six Villages had occasionally invited him to go and tell his stories in their gatherings, in their strange uncouth tongue. Komalo had always come back from these occasions full of laughter and hilarious anecdotes of the Giro and how he had intentionally mispronounced the Giro language. Everyone thought Komalo was very funny, with his bald shiny head and huge belly, and when he told his stories everyone knew when a laugh was coming from the way his eyes would crinkle up and his double chin wobble.
When Komalo walked the streets, the youngest children would run after him, pleading for a story, and Komalo would turn round, if he weren’t too busy, and tell them one of the old favourites, the tale of the hippo and the elephant, or the hawk and the monkey, or the story of the tailor who had not been paid. They would all laugh in the right places and everyone, Komalo included, would go away satisfied afterwards.
Jandu was getting too old to run with the young kids after Komalo, but not so old that he could ignore the fat man altogether like the teenagers with their football crazes and their radio sets and girlfriends. He would, like the other eight-to-ten-year-olds, come “by accident” upon one of Komalo’s impromptu storytelling sessions and find something to do within earshot. Komalo would look at these children, busily rearranging pebbles and scratching at tree bark, and grin broadly, and raise his voice just enough so they could hear him clearly. It worked out fine for everyone.
Today, however, Komalo was uneasy and worried about something. It was so clear to see that it was itself a worrying thing, so clear indeed that even Jandu, never the most observant of the boys, could see it. The fat man walked with his usual heavy tread and smiled at the kids who followed him, but he said nothing to them, and only frowned and shook his head when they demanded a story. This had never happened before. The children fell back and stood in the street, silent and dejected. Jandu watched the children and felt more disturbed than he cared to admit. He was glad his sister Rakti wasn’t there today. She was one year younger than he and still ran after the storyteller, clutching her old doll. Today she was at home, because their mother had told her to help with the preparations for the feast.
Everyone was used to the other adults, the parents and teachers and the others, being worried. Everyone was worried about something or other, and the refugees who had passed through the village a few weeks earlier had not helped things any, with their tales of mayhem that nobody wanted to believe. One of the refugees was an albino woman who had stayed overnight in Jandu’s parents’ house and had asked them to leave with her before it was too late. Jandu’s mother had smiled and made promises to think about it, and the woman had shrugged and shaken her head and gone on her way. Little else had happened since then and the flow of refugees had thinned to a trickle and then stopped altogether, so the children had almost forgotten them. Only the parents looked strained and unhappy, and husbands quarreled with wives more and more often. Jandu stayed away from home more and more these days because of the quarrels.
Only yesterday – last night – his father and mother had fought, rising voices that had turned to a couple of hard blows while Jandu and his sister had crouched under the thin bedsheet and tried to sleep. After that their father had stormed out of the house and their mother had spent the hours crying softly, which they had never seen her do before. For once she had seemed less like a domineering bully and more like someone who might actually be a human being. In the end Rakti had crept out and tried to calm her down. She had snapped at her daughter at first but in the end had allowed the girl to sit with her and at last she had stopped crying.
But that was last night. Today, she was in a worse temper than ever, and even though it was a holiday she had pulled Rakti by the arm and put her to mopping floors and tending the fires. Jandu had sneaked out while he could.
Rakti was tall for her age, taller than Jandu, and soft-eyed and pretty in a way that promised heartbreaking beauty when she grew up, and Jandu had sometimes hated her for that beauty, because he felt it gave her an advantage over him; but at other times he had loved her too, and felt proud when the other boys talked of his beautiful sister. He had made Rakti’s doll with his own hands, with coconut shells, rope and pieces of wood. It was old now but she never went out without it.
The sun rose higher, and the children dispersed. Jandu was debating whether to go home for lunch, because he wasn’t sure he wouldn’t be beaten for asking for lunch if there was nothing in the house with the feast coming, when there was a banging sound and shouting and suddenly everyone was running everywhere, in all directions, aimlessly. Some of the people lay down on the ground and blood began to come out of them. Jandu began to run, too. First he ran towards home but most of the banging and screaming was coming from that direction and the people were mostly running from that direction, and before he quite knew what was happening he had been forced off the path and was running into the forest.
There were other people running into the forest too, some of them boys and girls his age, and he ran with them. It was not so easy going in the forest, and in between the trees the group broke up rapidly and Jandu and another boy were alone. They had just stopped to catch their breath when two men stepped out from behind a tree and stood looking at them.
They weren’t quite men. They were boys of perhaps fifteen, dressed in baggy shorts and green T-shirts with bandannas around their heads, one black, the other red. They held angular guns and looked at Jandu and his companion and frowned. They pointed the guns and forced the two boys back through the forest to the village, where by now the banging and screaming seemed to have died down. On the way, Jandu stumbled over a body. It was very fat and its belly jutted up as it lay on its back and it had no head. Only later did he think about it and realise that the storyteller had told his last tale this side of the Great Beyond.
Many of the village people had been gathered in the central square, where the feast was to be held that evening, and more teenagers with guns and knives were standing guard all around them. They spoke a language Jandu had never heard before, with complex rhythms and slurred sibilants. Nothing happened for some time except more people were brought into the square, and then the children were pushed into the centre and one of the teenagers stepped forward. He beckoned to Jandu.
“Where are your parents?” he asked in Jandu’s language, Sambar, with an accent so strong it was like a parody. Jandu looked around. He could not see his parents and sister anywhere. Some of the adults were crying and praying and the teenagers were laughing at them. Then one of the crying adults began to abuse the teenagers, and the boy stepped up to the man and calmly took a pistol and shot him dead. All the crying and praying stopped in a shocked silence. The rays of the sun streamed down on the people in their once bright clothes and the red of the dead man shone dark and rich on the black earth, and suddenly Jandu knew what the banging sounds had been.
“Where are your parents?” the boy asked again. Jandu wanted to cry but was sure that it would be the worst thing he could do. He still could not see his parents anywhere, and couldn’t decide if this was good or bad. “They aren’t here,” he said. The boy looked at him steadily for a moment and then nodded. “Stand over there.”
One by one the children were all asked where their parents were. Some of them could point out their parents among the gathered adults, and these parents were all pulled out and made to stand to one side. Finally when all the parents had been gathered to one side the teenagers turned and called the children one by one and asked them if they wanted to be free and happy like the teenagers themselves. They said the children could have a life full of fun and games. They then gave the children guns and made them shoot their own parents. It took a long time. One or two of the children refused and the teenagers shot both them and the parents. After that nobody refused. The parents at first called out to their children not to do it but afterward, just stood there and accepted their fate.
At the end of it all, Jandu and the other children were led away through the forest and he never knew what happened to the other adults, the ones who weren’t parents. There was a lot of screaming though, and the screaming continued for a long time. Jandu kept looking for his parents, but he didn’t see them, even among the corpses they passed in the forest. He never did find out what had happened to them.
The General was big and black and wore big black sunglasses and shiny brass insignia on his green uniform. He smiled a lot with white teeth and told the boys (and girls, a few of them) that since they had no parents left now, he would be their mother and father together, and they should all obey him. And, in time, they did. In time they grew to love him more than they had ever loved their parents before. In time, they called him “father”. He kept them happy and content.
A year later, Jandu spoke Karibu like a Karibu born, and had begun to forget his native Sambar. He now knew how to use the guns he had seen back in the village, and he had used them, too. He now had his own baggy shorts and oversized sneakers and T shirt that hung loose on his stick-thin body. When he walked, he swaggered. When he spoke, he commanded. When he asked something, he expected to be obeyed. He never bothered to remember the past and his parents and sister. He didn’t need to. They were the past. All he cared about was the present. He was a Karibu warrior of the National Front. He belonged.
It was the greatest time of his life.
One time they captured a Giro village that was defended by an army platoon that had dug in. The Giro were on the side of the government in Keke, and they had food and water which the Karibu boys needed, so they had finally, goaded beyond endurance by thirst and hunger, simply charged the army positions, guns firing, and the surviving soldiers had run in panic. Afterwards the boys had sat down on the corpses the army had left behind and eaten and drunk their fill, and passed around the marijuana cigarettes they had. It was a pleasant time, the relaxation after victory, and they all enjoyed it very much. Jandu took the shoulder straps of the corpse he was sitting on as souvenirs. He took the belt too, for his own use. It was fine.
Later on they went around looking at the Giro prisoners. By that time the older boys, the teenagers and the few men in their early twenties, had already raped and killed the women, so it was only the men prisoners who were left. This was disappointing and made the boys angry, so they took their knives and did things to the prisoners. Jandu had consumed enough marijuana and crack by then that he didn’t clearly recall what he had done, but he faintly recalled something about a schoolteacher who reminded him of the martinet who had cuffed him for not doing his homework, aeons ago, and so he did things to the schoolteacher, things that left a hazy image of smears of blood on a blackboard and a man screaming. It wasn’t significant. He had done things like that many times. He had buried men alive.
Then there was the day they had advanced along a route that had taken them through Jandu’s old village. He was the only one of the original boys from the village in the unit, and stared around curiously at the crumbling houses and overgrown, weed-choked fields as though he hadn’t seen any of it ever before. When the unit had stopped, he had stepped over what was left of a skeleton and walked over to a particular heap of ruin. He had stood looking at it for a long time, and when he had turned away his foot had struck something in the weeds. It was a coconut shell, one of several, lying beside curiously shaped pieces of wood. There were even shreds of rotting rope. Jandu had collected the pieces and put them in his backpack, not really knowing what he wanted to do with them, but never got around to doing anything. Piece by piece, over the next months, he had lost all of it.
Later on in the same offensive they were trying to take Keke and had advanced almost to the airport before the government had counterattacked. Jandu and about ten of the other boys had become separated from their unit and cut off. They had fought back until they had driven the soldiers before them into a building that had once been a hotel, and Jandu, dragging away on his last marijuana cigarette, had danced beside the corpse of a soldier and fired on the building, bullets whining around his ears, until the soldiers had run out of ammunition and stopped shooting. Then Jandu and the others had taken a truck and driven right through the army lines back to the National Front, Jandu driving, standing because he was still too short to reach the pedals otherwise. Only three of them had made it back alive, all three too stoned out of their minds to remember anything much about it.
The war was like that.
Then there was the night after they had beaten back the government attack on N’Tiloap, the capital of the Karibu Nation. It was a great victory, and the battlefield was strewn with army corpses. Jandu, Dingana and some of the others had finally got back to the town, exhausted but exhilarated, laden with loot, sweat (their own) drying along with blood (not their own) on their clothes.
The General had driven past them in a large black car and stopped to talk to them. He had asked about them and about the battle and whether they were hurt. He had handed around packets of crack and a marijuana cigarette each. It was a great honour to receive these from the General himself, equivalent to a medal, an honour second only to getting them from the King of the Karibu himself. Then the General had asked about other bodily needs.
“You can go to the building there,” he had said, pointing. “”We’ve got some women there for you. Our own women, mind, so make sure not to do any damage…”
There were several rooms and many Karibu warriors waiting in front of each room. Some of them wore bloodstained bandages. Many of them were smoking to keep themselves awake. The air was heavy with marijuana smoke and dried sweat. The walls were lined with gear – rifles, magazines, grenades and rocket-launchers, knapsacks, bits and pieces of uniforms, a general purpose machine gun spilling loops of ammunition belt over the floor. Jandu and Dingana had chosen one of the rooms at random and sat down to wait. And because of his exhaustion, Jandu had fallen asleep where he sat.
Finally, Dingana had shaken him awake. “Your turn.”
“My turn?” Jandu rubbed his eyes. “You’ve been in there?”
“Yeah.” Dingana rubbed his crotch. “She’s good, pretty and all, and young. Better than the bags we’ve fucked all these days.”
“Speak for yourself. I only had models and actresses.” Jandu wandered off into the hooker’s room and closed the door. The room was so dark it wasn’t easy to tell if the girl was as young and pretty as advertised. She was lying naked on her back, watching him impatiently.
“Get on me and do it,” she said, when he began fumbling at his clothes. “There are people waiting for their turn.”
“They’ll have to wait,” said Jandu. He began to hyperventilate slightly on arousal and the smell of the woman’s sweat and sex and perfume. He lay on top of her, between her legs, and thrust violently into her until it was over. Then he got up and began putting on his clothes again.
She was watching him curiously, propped up on one elbow. “Have you fucked me before?” she asked. “You seem familiar somehow.”
Jandu shrugged. As always after sex, he felt incomplete and depressed. He looked at her, wanted to say something, forgot what, and wandered out. Dingana was waiting for him and they picked up their gear and went off to look for something to eat.
And in the darkness of her room, Rakti opened her thighs to another heroic warrior, and lay back and told herself it was all happening to someone else, and she was far, far away, and the sun was shining and the birds were singing and there was nothing called the war, nothing called the war at all.