The General

By Bill the Butcher

This is the concluding part of the Bisaria Quartet, of which the other parts are, respectively, The Most Frightening Thing of All, Fun and Games, and Malaka.

THE GENERAL


The General came out of the witch doctor’s house and stretched. The sun felt good on his skin, after the damp darkness of the hut. He touched the blood the witch doctor had daubed on his face and arms, painting symbols of power. The blood belonged to the goat the General had brought as a present for the witch doctor. It was already drying, and sticky, and he breathed deep when he thought of the power that was in him now.

The Toyota pick-up truck was waiting, under the shade of the trees across the road. His men were sprawled on the grass around it, playing cards and passing a bottle of beer back and forth. When they saw him they got up, slapped the dust from their clothes, and climbed into the bed of the truck. With their automatic rifles, bandoliers and rocket launchers they looked like brigands more than soldiers. That was quite all right with everyone.

The General’s driver, Shona, grinned and flicked a cigarette butt out of the window. “All fine, I hope?”

“All fine.” The General looked back at the witch doctor’s house as Shona put the truck in gear. He decided that one day soon he would have to kill the witch doctor, because he had far too much knowledge of the General’s personal power, and could destroy his aura just as easily as he had just enhanced it. He would have done it already, but he feared the old man’s juju. “We will come back next month,” he said, “at the full moon.”

Shona nodded. “Where we go now?” An ethnic Kudu, his Karibu was far from perfect. His round face shone with perspiration. He was always sweating, and the smell of stale sweat hung over him at all times. The General had almost stopped noticing it. Shona was an excellent driver and mechanic. “Mine?”

The General nodded. “Mine. And after that, back to the town.”

As the truck drove over the potholed road, the General took off his cap and leaned his head against the window, which he had rolled up because of the dust. If he pressed his head against the window, the jolting didn’t disturb him too badly. He closed his eyes and tried to relax, but the nervous tension inside him was rising steadily, like a rubber band being stretched towards breaking point. It was a familiar sensation, and he knew he would soon have to find a way to release it.

He felt Shona change gears and slow down for the turn off. The road up to the mine was narrow and winding, rutted heavily with the wheels of the trucks that carried loads of ore down to the railhead for sending on to N’Tiloap. The pick-up rattled and bounced, and he pressed his hand down on the seat to keep himself braced against the window. “Careful,” he muttered. “Don’t let anybody fall off.”

Then, suddenly, the Toyota slowed and stopped. The General opened his eyes, but couldn’t see anything outside because of the drifting dust cloud. “What happened? Why did you stop?”

“Accident,” said Shona, pointing forward through the windscreen. The dust had begun to settle, and the General saw the big lorry that had toppled over, mostly blocking the road. A heap of ore had spilled from the vehicle and closed off what the truck’s body didn’t. “Can’t get through.”

“Damn.” The General got out and stomped angrily over to the wreck. The cause of the accident was clear; the lorry had been loaded far beyond safe limits and had toppled when the cargo shifted. There was nobody around – the crew had vanished, probably fearing retribution. The accident was very recent; he could feel the heat coming off the engine. He felt the rubber band stretch tighter and tighter, and thought that this time it must surely break.

He came back to his truck. “We can’t get past,” he snapped. “You and you,” he said, pointing at two of the six men in the back of the pick-up, “get round this and walk up to the mine and tell them. Get somebody to come down and help shift this and clear the road.” He waited until the two men had climbed over the pile of ore and disappeared up the road. “Let’s get back to town,” he said.

The road was so narrow that Shona had to reverse a good part of the way before turning. Sensing the General’s mood, he drove in silence, occasionally glancing at him out of the corner of his eye. When they had reached the main road he turned towards the town.

“Stop,” the General snapped. “I changed my mind. Let’s go up towards the river and see what fish we find.”

Back they went, driving up the highway, past the witch doctor’s house and the small village. A couple of very young naked children watched them go. Older children were all in one or other of the armies, or their parents had hidden them or sent them away somewhere. The General sat erect in his seat, looking around. His heart was beating very fast, and he suddenly felt sure something was going to happen.

They saw the jeep from a long way off, from the dust cloud it was trailing. The sight of another vehicle was so rare on this stretch that the General leaned forward. “Drive faster,” he said. “Let’s have a look at who’s in that thing.”

As the Toyota got closer, the jeep saw them and began to speed up. Soon it was driving recklessly fast, bouncing into the air. “Keep going,” the General muttered. “Faster.” Shona hunched over the wheel, staring at the road and trying to keep from the larger potholes. Slowly, the pick-up began to gain. “Faster,” urged the general.

The end of the chase came suddenly and anticlimactically, just where the road took a sharp turn before heading down towards the river. The jeep swerved, going too fast, and went off the road, somersaulting in a cloud of dust. By the time Shona braked to a stop, the four militiamen in the back had already begun jumping off, weapons at the ready.

“Wait,” the General called. Slowly, he opened the door and got out. “Don’t shoot yet.” He walked down to the jeep where it lay, wheels still spinning. A man lay partly under the capsized vehicle, only his head, upper torso, and one arm showing. He was moving weakly and moaning. He looked to be a Sambar, very dark and heavily boned. When he saw the General he held up his one free hand in front of his face and cried out something in his language.

“Why were you fleeing from us?” the General asked, not caring that he was speaking in Karibu. He kicked the man in the neck. “Tell me!” The man only moaned and spoke some more gibberish in his barbarous language.

The General grinned. He felt good now, anticipating the release to come. Moving with excruciating slowness, he opened the flap of the holster at his hip and drew out the revolver. The sun gleamed on the nickel plating, and he watched the man’s bloodshot eyes follow the Smith & Wesson fearfully. He scrabbled frantically with his free hand, trying to scoot under the jeep. The General laughed and stamped on the hand. The man screamed.

“What were you fleeing for?” the General asked, and shot the man in the face. He waited until the man stopped thrashing and bent for a moment to inspect his handiwork. There was a large circle of blood spreading round the ruined head, and he felt great, like a god dispensing justice. He turned to the men who stood behind him, watching. “Get this turned the right way up,” he said. “I want to see what he was carrying.”

While his soldiers were at work, the General walked a little way towards the river. It was nearing the end of the dry season, so the water level was low and sandbanks stretched out from both banks. By this time next month, the General thought, if the rains did not fail, the river would have swollen and the roads would be impassable quagmires. That would be good, he thought, because there was no fear of attack from the government in Keke as long as the rainy season lasted.

He had turned to go back to the jeep when he saw a movement out of the corner of his eye. It was only a tiny movement, a trembling of the long dry grass, but in an instant he took two long strides towards it, the revolver in his hand. He glimpsed a slim black arm in the grass, reached down, and pulled savagely. “Out!”

The woman was young, surely not yet in her twenties. She allowed herself to be yanked out into the light, and stood before him, trembling. Her skin and her crumpled dark green dress were covered with dirt, and blood was trickling from a gash in one cheek. Her eyes were blank with shock, and when the General shook her by the arm he held, she swayed back and forth, as if she would collapse.

“Move,” the General ground out, pulling at her arm, and she followed him like a sleepwalker, her bare feet dragging in the dust.

The soldiers had managed to turn the jeep on one side. The body of the driver was lying where the General had shot him. One of his legs had been broken in the crash, and a jagged edge of white bone poked through skin and cloth. The soldiers were dragging bundles out from the back of the jeep and ripping them open.

“Only household items, sir.” The sergeant, Friday, had just broken open a cheap suitcase. He looked up at the General, the slanted tribal scars on his cheeks like lightning flashes, and held up a yellow shirt. “Clothes, pots, a sack of cassava. Nothing else.”

“Any papers?”

“Nothing,” Friday said, shaking his head. “Not even a driving licence.” He pointed to the corpse, whose pockets had, the General saw, been turned inside out. “We looked.”

“Huh.” The General shook the young woman, who had been looking dully down at the body. “Come on,” he snarled, and tugged at her arm. “Come up to the truck.”

“What do we do with all this, sir?” Friday asked.

“Take what you want,” the General said over his shoulder, “and burn the rest.”

On the way back to the town, the General held the woman between him and Shona, the revolver pressed against her side. The back of the truck was crammed with what the men had taken from the jeep. Sergeant Friday wore the yellow shirt he had taken from the suitcase, and one of the other men had on a bonnet he had found in one of the bundles. It was squashed and misshapen and had a design of pink flowers on a blue background, but he did not look ridiculous wearing it. He just looked insane and very frightening.

“Drop us at my house,” the General said to Shona, “and you can have the rest of the day off.”

The driver grinned, showing his strong yellow teeth.

*********************

The woman’s name was Wamka. She sat on the floor, looking her feet, as the General snapped questions at her in Kudu, which was close enough to her Sambar that she could half understand what he was saying. The driver, she said, had been her husband. They were very recently married, and had been trying to go away.

“Go away?” Putting the barrel of his revolver beneath her chin, the General tipped back Wamka’s head, until she was forced to look up into his eyes. “Go away where?”

“To safety. Where it is safe.”

“It is safe with us, with the army of the Karibu Empire,” the General said. “You were trying to escape to the enemy in Keke, isn’t that so?” He watched to see if she understood, but her eyes remained blank. “You know what we do to enemies?” he said, putting down the revolver, and her head fell forward again, on to her chest. “Answer me!” he said, dragging her head back by the hair. “You know what we do to enemies?”

“I…do not understand.”

“Never mind.” The General let go of her hair. “Just understand this – as long as you do what I tell you to, you’ll be all right. Do you understand that?”

Slowly, doubtfully, she nodded.

“Good,” he said. “Now come here.”

That was the first time he raped her, taking her with a force that almost terrified him, exulting in her little cries as he thrust into her. Later, he lay beside her, the gun in his hand, and finally felt the last of the tension drain away. He felt wonderful, he felt like god. He could do anything in the world at all.

Later still, as the evening darkened the windows, he raped her again.

************

The General woke to thunder. Rain crashed down outside, so hard that the walls vibrated. A flash of lightning briefly illuminated the inside of the room. He turned his head, seeking, but he couldn’t find Wamka. Still naked, he rolled quickly out of bed, turning on the little battery powered emergency lamp. Holding his revolver in the other hand, he turned its cold white glow around the room, seeking. He bent and peered under the bed, but she wasn’t there, either.

He found her, at last, cowering just inside the front door in her old green dress. The door was locked, of course, and the key was on a chain round his neck, which was why she hadn’t been able to get out. When she saw him she raised her hands in front of her face, as her husband had done, just before the General shot him. The General was strongly tempted to shoot her, too, and felt his finger tightening on the trigger. With a physical effort, he desisted, putting down the emergency lamp on the floor so that the beams shone upon her. “Up,” he said, pointing the gun at her midsection. “Or I’ll shoot you in the belly.” Slowly, she stood, looking down at the floor.

“You little bitch,” the General said, in Karibu. “You need a lesson, don’t you?” Without warning, he slapped her with his free hand. It was a roundhouse blow, and sent her staggering into the wall. Before she could recover, he slapped her again, knocking her down. “Up,” he shouted, and raised the revolver barrel to pistol-whip her, but she scuttled into a corner on hands and knees, shielding her head with her arms. The General began to kick her, systematically smashing his foot into the soft parts of her body, until she was curled into a foetal ball on the floor, whimpering. Then he stood, looking down at her, and breathing heavily.

“All right,” he said. “Up, and back into the bedroom. Now.” Painfully, holding on to the wall, she rose, and staggered past him, bent over and with her arms wrapped round her midsection. The green dress had torn, and a flap hung loose, exposing one of her breasts. Once in the bedroom she moaned and vomited on the floor.

“You clean that up,” the General said, “now.” He pointed to the torn dress. “Take that off and wipe the mess up with it. You can wash it tomorrow.” He watched as she wiped up the vomit. “Now go to the bed, and stay there.” He snorted. “You little animal,” he said. “If I’d known you’d be that much trouble, I’d have killed you right there by the river. But then,” he added, and laughed aloud, “why should I make things easy for you, huh?”

A little whimper of pain was the only answer.

*************

The General sat in his chair, and watched the girl. He had switched off the emergency lamp to save the batteries, but the lightning was flashing almost continuously, so he could see her clearly. She was lying on her back, her body outlined by the sheet he had thrown over her, and had finally fallen into a troubled sleep.

The General sat and watched her. He felt alive and intensely awake now, full of energy. He listened to the rain on the roof and felt intensely happy. Militarily, at least, he had nothing to worry about for the next few months.

“Wamka,” he said, turning the syllables of her name over in his mouth. “Wamka.” The lightning flashed, closer than ever before, and illuminated her face. In her sleep, she looked even younger, the planes of her face smoothed away. The General once had had a sister who had looked something like her. His sister…

He shook his head. His sister had run away long ago, before the war, to become a whore in Keke. It was better not to think of his sister. She was probably not even alive any longer. If they ever took Keke, the General thought, he would go looking for his sister, and if he found her…

He clenched his fist. If he found her, someone would pay for what she had done, and for whatever had been done to her. He didn’t know who would pay, but someone definitely would.

In the next lightning flash, he saw that Wamka’s eyes were open. She looked frightened, and the General got up and slipped into bed with her.

“Hold me close,” he said, and wrapped her in his arms. “It’s only lightning, nothing to be afraid of.” He held her naked body in his arms until her breathing settled down and became deep and regular, but he kept holding her even after she was asleep.

************************

Why haven’t you killed me?”

In the light of morning, Wamka looked tired and drawn. The wound on her cheek was crusted with clotted blood, and her face was swollen from the General’s slaps. She was dressed in a man’s T shirt and shorts, which the General had given her after ordering her to throw away the vomit-stained green dress, and her arms and legs looked like sticks.

It was still raining torrentially, so that it was difficult to see far outside. The General’s servant, a ten-year-old boy they had taken from a village two months ago, had come, but he had sent him away again. “I’ll tell you if I need you,” the General had said.

Now, the General looked up from his paperwork. “Maybe it suits me to keep you alive,” he said. “For now, at least.” He put down his pen and leaned back in his chair. “Do you want me to kill you?”

Wamka shrugged. “What I want does not matter.” Now that yesterday’s shock had worn off, her Kudu was surprisingly fluent, better than the General’s own.

“That’s right,” said the General. “What you want does not matter, and you’d better remember it.” He picked up the pen again. “I’ll kill you if you try to get away again,” he said, “and if you don’t do as you’re told.” He paused, thinking. “One more thing – if you’ve given me something, you little bitch, syphilis or AIDS, I’ll kill you in a way that will make you wish you hadn’t been born.”

“No,” she said, the whites of her eyes showing. “I promise you – I’m clean. I promise.”

“Very well.” The General looked at her for some time, and then bent again to his paperwork. “Now go to the kitchen and make us something to eat.”

When she came back with the food, he made her eat it first, and watched. Only afterwards, when she showed no ill effects, did he eat.

“That’s the way we’ll do it,” he said.

**********

He took her everywhere with him in those first days. The rain continued to fall, and the river spread over the plain, and the roads became stretches of red mud. Even operations at the mine closed down, because there was no way of getting the ore down to the railway over the potholed road. There was no fighting in the rainy season so there was almost nothing to do.

He would sit in the cabin of the truck, keeping her between himself and Shona, the gearshift between her legs, his hand clamped on her near thigh. At first he kept the nickel-plated revolver in his free hand, but later he left it in the holster at his hip. Later still, he sometimes drove the truck himself, with Shona in the passenger’s seat. Once or twice he even left Shona behind completely. There was little enough to do and not far to go, mostly foraging expeditions to the neighbouring farms, unearthing the food supplies the peasants tried to hide away.

Once they found a pig. It was Wamka who found it. The pig had been cleverly hidden, behind a false wall in a storage barn, but the girl heard it snuffling, and called out to the General. The army had a good feast that day.

Each night, after dinner, the General would sit looking at her naked body by the light of oil lamps or the battery-powered emergency light, while the rain fell outside and big fluffy moths flapped through the air. Sometimes he would ravish her, pressing himself into her until she cried out, whether in pain or pleasure he could not tell. More often he would just sit there and look at her. Her body was smooth, the black skin flawless, and unmarked by tribal scars. She wore no ornaments, not even a ring in her ear, and she looked like a woman from the dawn of the world, when the Earth Mother had brought forth the human race out of common clay. As a boy, the General had wanted to be an artist. He sat and looked at her and wondered what it would have been like to paint a nude of her, and sometimes he wished he could paint again.

“Did you love your husband?” he asked her once, while she was preparing cassava for supper. “You don’t seem to miss him all that much.”

For some time she didn’t reply. He was about to ask her again when she shook her head. “I did not love him,” she said. “He did not love me. We married because our parents wished it.”

“And where are your parents now?”

She shrugged her bony shoulders. “Who knows. In a refugee camp, perhaps, or dead.”

“And do you miss them?”

“It does not matter. I was a burden to them. They had too many mouths to feed.” She looked down at her work, and the General asked her no more questions that night.

One day, he decided to test her. He had an old knife, heavy and with a blade with blood gutters on the sides. It was an unwieldy weapon, and he usually left it inside a drawer of his desk, along with his personal papers; the drawer was always locked and the key was on the chain round his neck along with the others. That day, he thought for some time, and decided on a strategy. First, he loaded his revolver with blanks; he already knew that she had too little knowledge of weaponry to tell the difference. He waited till she was in the bathroom, and then sat at his desk, a sheaf of papers spread out on it, and the gun in its holster draped over the bed, as though he had casually thrown it down. He kept the knife hidden under the papers, right next to his hand, and listened to the rain on the roof and to the splashing of water in the bathroom.

In a few minutes, he thought, she would walk in and see him bending over the papers, with not a thought in his mind except signatures and supply lists. She would see him, and the gun, unguarded on the bed. Then she would…what?

In his mind’s eye he saw her hand dart towards the gun, pull it out of the holster, point it at him, and pull the trigger. The hammer would fall and the blank go off with a harmless bang. She would expect him to tumble over backwards, dead; instead, yes, he would snatch the knife, jump up, and slam her back against the wall, and he would gut her with the knife, waiting just long enough for her to register the fact of her imminent death. He would make her scream as she died. He would –

“General?”

He found he had clenched his fists and was shaking, and had to force himself to relax. He looked up then, to find her standing on the other side of the desk, wrapped in a towel, and looking at him with consternation. “Are you all right?”

“Yes,” he answered, taking a long shuddering breath. “I’m fine.” He realised she must have been standing there a minute or two. He had not heard her over the rain and his own pounding heart. He took a quick look at the bed; the gun lay exactly where he had left it. “You’ve finished with your bath? Go and get us both some tea.”

After that he did not keep her on quite such a tight leash anymore.

**************************

The men are not happy, General.”

The General raised a quizzical eyebrow at Sergeant Friday. “Why are they not happy?”

The big warrior shuffled his tattered sneakers. “We have not enough alcohol, sir. And the men are saying the General…”

“Yes, the General…what?”

“That the General is too full of the Sambar woman.” Friday’s words were coming with a rush. “That the General forgets all the soldiers who fight for him all the year, and spends too much time with enemy woman. That’s what they say.”

The General stared at him. “I see,” he said. “And what are they going to do about it?”

“I don’t know,” Friday answered. “It’s just talk, so far.”

“The rains will soon be over,” the General said. “Tell them the government will be coming. They should save their energies for the fighting to come.”

“Yes sir.”

************

“I’ve missed a period,” Wamka said.

The General stopped on the way to his desk and looked at her. “Is that so?” he asked quietly. “Are you sure?”

Wamka turned up her palms. “I’ve never missed one before,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s nothing, or if it’s…that.”

“And,” the General asked, “what do you intend to do if it’s ‘that’, as you put it?”

“I don’t know.” Wamka looked up at his face. “In any case, does what I want matter?”

“No.” The General looked out of the window. The sun had come out, and the land steamed as it dried. “I will be thinking,” he said. “I have work to do, and later, when I return, we shall talk about this.” Without looking at her, he went out. Shona had already brought the truck around, and Friday and three other men were in the back with a small basket full of chickens. The men were in good humour, because money had come from N’Tiloap and they had finally been paid. Something else had also come from N’Tiloap, but the General had kept that in reserve for when it should be necessary.

“To the witch doctor’s,” said the General, and settled back in the cab with a sigh. He rubbed his face. These days he no longer felt the drive he used to have, and the prospect of renewed fighting no longer excited him as it once had. He was becoming worried, and he needed a boost to his powers. He hadn’t visited the witch doctor in two months, he realised. And now – this.

He wondered if she were really pregnant, and if so what he should do about it. He had never known if he had fathered a child before this. It was a strange and startling sensation, to think that something might be growing inside her because of him. He was still mulling over it when the pick-up truck drew up outside the witch doctor’s house.

The witch doctor was not very old in years, but he looked much older, his skin covered with wedge-shaped ritual scars, his eyes bloodshot and rheumy. In peacetime he had made a good living by driving away the evil spirits of illness and by interceding with the gods for the welfare of people from villages around. Now, the villages were mostly deserted, and he had fallen upon harder times. He greeted the General with some cordiality.

“I need the power,” the General said without preamble, and handed him the basket of squawking chickens.

The witch doctor nodded. “Something is bothering you.”

“Yes…” The General had to stoop to enter the witch doctor’s house, because the door was very low. Inside it was, as always, so dark that he had to wait for his eyes to adjust. The witch doctor lived with several young wives, and they went away with the chickens, squawking with happiness as much as the chickens were with fear. “I am weakening,” the General said. “My resolve is weakening, and I am afraid that there is hard fighting to come.”

The witch doctor motioned for him to sit on a low stool and squatted down opposite him. “I will give you the power,” he said. “But you must answer my questions. In such cases, there is always a focus draining the energy. Usually it is drink, or a woman. You do not drink. Is there a woman?”

“Yes,” the General agreed. “A woman, and she may be pregnant.”

“What do you feel about that?” The witch doctor peered at the General. “Do you want a child?”

“I have been thinking about it,” the General said. “I have no answer. I am confused and lost.”

“There is the war,” the witch doctor suggested, “and yet you want to leave a descendant.”

“That’s it precisely,” the General said. “A man should have someone to carry on his line. And yet it is not the time for it, in the situation.”

“Do you love this woman?”

“She is a Sambar,” the General said. It was a kind of answer.

“I see.” The witch doctor began gathering his herbs and preparing for the ceremony. “I shall give you the power, of course, but if you want to keep it for long, you must resolve that situation. I can do no more.”

“Is she draining my energy?” the General asked, afterwards, when the rituals were over and the witch doctor paid.

“You’re draining it, yourself,” the witch doctor answered. “She’s merely a vehicle. It is up to you to stop draining it.”

*********************************

I am sending you to N’Tiloap,” the General said.

Wamka, who was washing dishes in a bucket of water she had brought up from the well, stiffened. “Why?”

“I cannot risk you staying here,” the General said. “Fighting is going to begin soon, after the rains.”

“I will be safe with you,” she said. “But I will not be safe in N’Tiloap. I am a Sambar.”

“And I am a General. Those who go under my protection are safe.”

“So long as you are alive, you mean.” Wamka flinched. “I’m sorry. I did not mean to say that.”

“The fighting is coming soon,” the General reminded her. “And then it will not be safe with me. There are those here who resent you. And also there is the baby.”

She stood looking at him searchingly. “You want me to keep the baby?”

“I want you to keep the baby,” he replied.

“Will you – are you happy?”

He nodded. “Yes, very happy.”

“That’s good,” she said, smiling for the first time that he had seen. “When must I leave?”

“I am going out for a few days,” the General said. “You’ll go after I return.”

************

The night before he was to leave, the General was looking in the cupboard in his bedroom for a spare shirt when he came across the cardboard box where she had stored the few things she had accumulated in her months living with him. Casually, he looked through them: a couple of T shirts and dresses, three pairs of shorts, a pair of cheap plastic sandals. At the bottom of the box he found the old dark green dress, washed and carefully folded. When he shook it out he found that the rip, too, had been carefully mended.

He called her from the kitchen. “I thought I had asked you to throw this out.”

“It was my mother’s,” she said. “She gave it to me when I got married. It is all I have of hers.”

“I don’t care,” he said, and slapped her. It was the first time he had hit her after that first night, and it was not a hard slap, but her eyes widened with the shock of the blow. “You’ll do what I tell you. Destroy the damned thing, tomorrow morning. If I see it again, you’ll regret it.

“You don’t get it, do you?” He felt a sudden need to exculpate himself, to explain. “If you don’t obey me, how can I trust you to take proper care of my son?”

She said nothing. Her eyes brimming with tears, she snatched up the dress and hurried from the room.

*************

The General left that next morning, leading a convoy of five vehicles. He was on a tour of the entire territory under the control of his army. The rainy season was almost over, and the defences had to be checked, prepared, and strengthened. He sat beside Shona and breathed deep of the scent of the rain washed earth, and smiled. The golden sun on the vibrant green of this season always made him happy, so different from the constant rain or dusty dryness of the rest of the year.

They drove down towards the river and past the charred and rusted remains of the jeep. The bridge across the river had been blown up long ago, and Shona swung the Toyota onto a narrow secondary road that wound between clumps of trees and overgrown fields of cassava.

As they drove, the General leaned back in his seat and felt calm and happy, despite the prospect of the renewed fighting. Now he would have a child. It would be a boy – he had decided that it would be a boy. On leave, he would go to N’Tiloap and watch the boy grow. He would give the boy all he had never had, the education and the chance, perhaps, to be an artist. He thought of how it would be, when the war was over, and the boy had grown, and he closed his eyes and smiled.

In the late morning they came to a small village, mostly ruined and reverting rapidly to the forest. Some of the General’s troops were here. When they saw him, they came out and cheered.

They were boys, not one older than sixteen. Most of them were already hardened veterans of the advance on Keke earlier in the war, and the General for some reason felt uncomfortable looking into their expressionless eyes. Most of them had been taken from their parents years ago, and some of them had been forced to kill their parents to toughen them up. Others had been taught to kill by bayoneting prisoners. It was very good training, and the General had thought of it himself. He wondered suddenly why it made him uncomfortable to remember it now.

He gave them the necessary orders, and his men unloaded the supplies they had brought, food and ammunition and machetes. The boys loved machetes more than almost anything else. Then the General took out what everyone had been waiting for, the other thing that had been sent from N’Tiloap along with the money. He handed the packets of crack out to the boys, who received them with happy grins. They used the drugs like older men used food and drink, and would do almost anything for their supply.

“The Keke army will be here,” he told them at the end. “You must be ready to fight.” The boys responded with stoned grins and brandished their rocket launchers, AK-47s, and machetes.

They were getting ready to leave when a messenger arrived on a battered motorcycle. He jumped off, letting the bike drop into the mud, and ran over to the General. “Word has come through,” he said, puffing. “The government army is on the march.”

“Already?” The General thought for a moment. “How far?”

“A day’s advance from the river, perhaps less.” The messenger pointed back over his shoulder. “They are moving fast, the scouts say.”

The General turned and began firing off orders. “I’ll go back to town,” he finished. “I’ll be at my headquarters. You, Sergeant Friday, will continue with the trucks and return to town as soon as you’ve finished dropping the supplies off.” Waiting only for acknowledgement, he jumped into the Toyota and bounced away down the trail. The dead-eyed boys watched him go.

“I’m glad my son will never be like that,” the General thought.

***************

It was night by the time the General reached town. Fireflies drifted through the bushes, in little clouds made of the yellow blinking dots of their phosphorescence. Lightning flashed silently on the horizon, far away, and the air was heavy and still. The General jumped out of the Toyota outside his house. “Wait here,” he said to Shona, and trotted up the steps to the door.

“Wamka,” he called, “you have to get ready to leave right now.” Instinctively, instead of reaching for the key hanging round his neck, he tried the handle. The door swung open.

In that instant he knew something was very wrong indeed. Inside the house everything was completely dark; there was not even an oil lamp or candle burning. “Wamka?” he called, entering cautiously, his hand on the revolver for the first time in weeks. “Are you there?”

First there was silence, and then, from the inner room, the bedroom, he heard a low sound. It was difficult to recognise, and he moved silently to the door and threw it open, stepping swiftly to one side. At first he thought the room was empty, but then, in the corner between the bed and the cupboard, he saw a crouching shadow.

“Wamka,” he said quietly, stepping further into the room, “come here.”

Once again the sound came, and this time he heard it more clearly, a mixture between a sob and a giggle. The General came closer to Wamka, and stretched out a hand. “What’s wrong?”

“Don’t touch me!” she lashed at him. With speed he would never have thought her capable of, she rushed past him into the centre of the room. “Why are you back?” she asked. “You said you’d stay away for days!”

“The army…” the General peered at her. “What’s wrong with you? Has someone been in here? The men I left – has someone been bothering you?”

She giggled, and the giggles broke into a sob. “No – nobody. I thought I’d do it tonight. But I just didn’t have the courage, you understand me? I just didn’t have the courage!”

“What are you talking about?” His eyes had adjusted enough to the light to see that she wore the dark green dress, and she had her arms wrapped round her middle, as on the night he had kicked her. “Tell me!”

“Tell you what?” she spat at him. “What do you want me to tell you? What have I got to say? Nothing I think matters anyway!” Moving with that same bewildering speed, she spun round, burst through the door, and disappeared.

“Hey!” The General made to follow her, and suddenly had a thought. He went to the desk, and turned on the little battery-powered light. The drawer hung open, its lock broken, and as he had expected, the knife was gone.

He came out of the house and met Shona running up the steps. “Where did she go?” he snapped.

The driver pointed to the side. “Woman run. Through trees, there.”

There were drops of blood on the steps, and more on the grass, black in the light of the lamp. The General ran as quickly as he could follow the blood trail, Shona and the other two men who had been in the pickup behind him. They followed it round the back of the house and to a stand of trees.

“She’s hiding in the wood,” one of the men said. It was the one who had the bonnet. He pointed at a small branch that dangled, broken. There was a smear of blood on the leaves.

“Wamka!” the General shouted. “Come out. We’re here! Don’t be crazy.”

“Should we shoot, General?”

“No!” The General held up a hand. “Wamka? Why are you doing this?”

“Why?” Wamka’s voice came from the trees. “Why, you ask? You took my life and you ask – that?”

“You’re having my baby,” the General said, desperately. “Come out, we’ll take care of you.”

“Baby,” Wamka said, and laughed. “You want the baby very much, don’t you?”

“Yes,” the General said. “You know I do. Please come out.”

“Having your baby,” Wamka giggled. “Not…anymore.”

“What?” The dread was settling into the General’s chest. “What have you done?”

“I’ve…come closer. I want to show you something.”

“No, sir.” But the General shook off the bonneted soldier’s hand and walked forward a few steps.

“All right,” he said. “Tell me what you’ve done.”

“Aaaaaaaaaaaahhhhh!!!”

She emerged from the trees at a dead run, feet slamming the earth, legs pistoning, the lips drawn back from her teeth. In the white glow of the lamp her eyes were black pits of fury. She hurled herself across the grass towards the General, the green dress flaring behind her, the knife thrust out in her hand.

“Don’t shoot!” the General screamed, but he was too late. Just before the staccato burst of rifle fire that knocked her backwards like a rag doll, he thought he heard one other sound.

Shrill and triumphant, it was the sound of her laughing.