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She had heard the sound made by engines for at least five minutes now. By her reckoning, they should already have arrived in the village.
On most evenings, especially on Fridays, someone would arrive from Bulawayo or Plumtree, and you could hear their approach from the time they came round the low hill on the far side of the open stretch of savannah where the cattle grazed. The sound would start as a soft humming, then gradually grow louder. It would be perhaps two or three minutes before the vehicle arrived in the village.
Tonight was different. The sound was clearly that of more than one vehicle, and she had been hearing it for longer than she would have expected on other nights. It also had a deeper note. She knew the sound made by diesel engines and thought that must be the reason for the sound's rumbling nature. It was much louder than that made by just a single car or even a truck.
Janice had been asleep, but now that she had children, she found that she was woken by anything unusual. A new sound or a change in a familiar one, an unexpected smell of smoke, a movement in the house—anything that should not be there, no matter how minor, was enough to rouse her from her sleep.
Someone was shouting, the voice deadened by distance and the clay walls of the houses in between. The house was one of only two in the village with both wooden floors and ceilings, but the walls were of the same clay as the others. Both had been built in colonial days, one for the district administrator and the other for the village police officer. The voice was male, but young and not fully formed: possibly Benjamin, the teenage boy from the next house up the track. She could not yet make out the words, but his agitation was unmistakable.
For the first time she saw that Wally was not in bed. His place was vacant and the sheet had been pulled back into position. The only blanket had been pushed off much earlier, doubtless as unnecessary in the warm summer night. Wally did not seem to have left in a hurry. The jacket of his uniform was still carefully hung over the chair where he had left it when he got undressed, but his trousers were gone.
None of this was surprising to Janice. He spent hours on most nights wandering the house or sitting outside on the veranda. She had long since given up trying to lure him back to bed at such times.
She got slowly out of bed, turning carefully and allowing her feet to slide gently to the floor. No matter who was coming, she could not afford to hurry and risk falling. The precious cargo, already eight months old, the child she was carrying inside her, could not be put at risk.
Once on her feet, wearing the knee-length nightdress in which she usually slept, she crossed the room, reaching for the door frame to steady herself, and entered the hall. Through the glass panel in the front door she could see Wally in the faintest of moonlight. He was wearing only the trousers of his uniform. His head was raised, like an animal sensing the wind, and he was staring in the direction of the main road from which the sound was coming. He was holding on tightly to the wooden rail that ran along the edge of the veranda, and seemed to have risen to the balls of his feet. To Janice, it was the posture of a man ready to take flight.
As she opened the door, the sound increased in volume. In the distance and below them on the flat ground, she could see the first of the headlights, sending twin beams back and forth through the darkness as the track twisted. Acacia bushes and clusters of hard veld grass stood out in momentary, sharp silhouette as the lights flashed over them. "Is it…" she tried to ask. "Is it them?" Wally's attention was held so closely by the approaching column that he could not respond immediately. "Is it them?" she asked again, this time touching his naked back.
"Yes, I think so. It must be." She could hear the breathless sound of fear in his voice. "Get the children. I'll get the truck."
There was only one track into the village. It passed alongside the house and would now be blocked by the column. She thought she could make out at least five, perhaps six sets of headlights, the ones at the back obscured by the dust stirred up by those in front. "Where will we go?"
"Into the bushes; just into the bushes. Get the children."
"They'll see our lights."
For the first time he turned to her. "We'll go without lights. Please, get the children."
All over the village, people were appearing from their houses. Most were women. Some had children in their arms. The boy whose voice Janice had first heard was crying now, loud enough to be heard above the voices of others.
Both children were asleep when Janice reached them. The girl was four and the boy not yet three. They were sharing a bed, their heads at opposite ends. She bent to pick up the boy, but she felt the child inside her move, and shook them both instead. "Wake up—wake up quickly. We have to run away."
She pulled the girl by one arm until the child, not yet fully awake, slipped from the bed, landing gently on her knees. "Mama?" The word came out as a question.
"We have to go. We have to run away."
"Why?" She was slowly wakening. "Where's Papa?"
Outside and below them, Janice thought she heard the sound of their pickup starting. The boy was sitting up now and seemed to be blinking in the darkness. "Come." She dragged them toward the door, the girl in a white ankle-length nightdress and the boy in underpants. "Come, we have to go."
"But my clothes," the girl said.
"You don't need clothes. Come."
She got back to the veranda with the children stumbling sleepily next to her, the boy hanging on to her nightdress for support. The column was much closer; more than halfway across the flat ground, the headlights of the back trucks turning the dust of those in front into clouds of light. They were coming fast. They knew that their approach would be heard in the village and that they had to come fast to prevent the villagers escaping.
The veranda was only a few shallow steps above the ground. The boy was holding tightly on to one of his mother's legs, but his sister was moving on her own now. People were running past the front of the house. Janice thought she heard Wally's voice, but she was not sure. It was only as she reached the ground that she realized he was trying to get into the driver's seat, but that the truck was swarming with people. They had filled the back and another three or four had somehow crowded into the front, leaving no room for him to drive. And no room for Janice and the children either. "You can't all…" Wally was shouting. "No."
The instinct to protect the children and the child inside her drew her away from the truck and down the side of house. Staying in the cover that the house provided, she moved deeper into the village. She knew that Wally was wrong to be fighting over the truck, but that he had been right about the direction in which to flee. Disappearing into the bushes was the only way to keep them all safe. If she could get only a few hundred meters away from the village and lie down with her children in the long grass, they would not see her. They would have to stumble over her to find her. She would far rather take her chances with the snakes than with the men of the approaching column.
The convoy was moving toward the main track where it went through the center of the village. Janice had taken the rougher path on the other side of the huts. If she moved farther to her right she would be out of the village and the huts would shield her for the moment. The headlights were her enemies. If they fell on her once, she would become a target. The soldiers would see her and probably pursue her. But how far away were they now? How long before they reached the first row of houses where, when she had last seen him, Wally was struggling to get people off the truck?
The girl was running next to her mother now, her eyes open so wide that the whites were visible right round the irises. The boy was stumbling and had to be helped.
"Papa?" Janice heard the girl ask. "Where's Papa? Why isn't he coming?" Her voice sounded even more fearful than Wally's had.
"He's coming in the truck."
"I want to go in the truck too."
"Papa will fetch us."
"When will he fetch us?"
"Run, Katy, just run."
In a moment, as if with the throwing of a switch, the bouncing beams of headlights were lighting up the track in the center of the village. Janice glanced at the girl. In her white nightdress she looked almost luminous in the darkness. She knew that she must also be as conspicuous.
"Give me your dress." She was already pulling it off the child.
"But Mama, I haven't even got pants on!"
"Give it to me."
Janice tore the nightdress away from her daughter and slipped off her own. She rolled the clothes into a tight ball and pressed them into the child's arms. Now they would be much harder to see. "You carry our nightdresses. I need my hands to help you two."
"But everyone can look at us," the girl wailed.
"It doesn't matter. Be quiet now. Don't look back."
As they passed an opening between two houses, Janice saw people in the headlights running up the track. An old man, Mr. Makaleka, wearing a pair of shorts that reached almost to his knees, stumbled and went down in the dirt. Janice suppressed a momentary impulse to go to his aid. The children were more important.
"What about Papa?"
"Be still, child. You must be still."
At that moment Janice heard what she thought was the engine of their truck. It was racing unmercifully. Then she saw it flash between the houses, traveling parallel to them, but much faster. The angle was wrong for her to see who was driving. Perhaps it was Wally. Too many people were pressed into the cab. The frightened faces of those on the back were lit by the headlights of the first vehicle in the approaching column.
Janice stopped, out of breath, in the shadow of a shack made largely of corrugated iron. She was not conscious of the boy wrapping both arms around one of her legs. From her position she could see the first of the personnel carriers as it entered the village. It continued up the main track, engine roaring. Almost immediately, the second vehicle in the convoy came to a halt. Soldiers leaped from the back, their rifles held in both hands, the fixed bayonets flashing in the lights of the next vehicle.
She knew who they were. This was Five Brigade. Everyone knew about them and what they were doing in her part of the country. She had been told that their orders were to crush all dissidents. They were doing it in the most fundamental way. She had heard about their bayonets and the way they used them. The orders by which they functioned demanded that, if the rebel women were pregnant, they were to be killed and their dissident sons with them before they were born.
Could such a thing be true? she had wondered.
The main track through the village was brilliantly lit by now. The driver of each invading vehicle had left his headlights burning after he brought it to a halt. She could see the soldiers, but they were not yet coming in her direction. The first wave, perhaps twenty of them, was moving straight down the track. The rest would probably spread the net wider.
The dense bush was too far away for her to reach it unnoticed. There was only the shed that the young Anglican priest had built. It was twenty or thirty paces away across open ground. But it was an obvious place for someone to hide. On the far side of the shed, the remains of a pigsty, rimmed by light scrub on the near side, were barely visible. It had not been in use since the pigs had sickened and died.
Night sounds that had consisted only of internal combustion engines, the grunting of people running and the occasional crying of a child, changed into something entirely different. The first scream was followed almost immediately by another, and then a third. But there had been no gunshots. They're using the bayonets, Janice thought. They're using them not to waste bullets or to make a noise.
The crash came from beyond the edge of the village. It was in the direction taken by Wally's truck. There were too many crowded into it, she thought, just too many. Why could they not have found their own way? Why did they have to crowd into our truck?
But where was Wally now? Had he been driving?
There was more screaming from the center of the village. The people were not dying quietly.
The pigsty was the only possibility. It meant they would have to cross open ground. They would be in clear sight for a minute, maybe less. If the soldiers' attention was on what they were doing, the chance of them reaching the sty safely was good.
Outrunning anyone was impossible. The very act of running was impossible. The only chance was to walk quickly and carefully to the shelter of the pigsty and then sit down on the nightdresses in the densest possible cover.
Janice carefully unfolded her son's arms where they held her leg. Taking her children by the hand, she stepped into the open. Katy was still holding the nightdresses against her chest. She was running a step ahead, pulling Janice. The screaming from the village had intensified, but Janice tried not to hear it. Let me concentrate only on picking my steps carefully, very carefully, she thought.
The possibility of snakes flitted through her mind, but only for an instant. She looked back for the first time when she reached the light scrub at the edge of the sty. There was no sign of pursuit. She could also see nothing of Wally's truck, but her view was obscured by the nearer huts. She wondered about the time. Dawn would bring light, and perhaps light would not be in her interest. She sank carefully into a crouching position, one arm holding the boy close against her and the other around her distended stomach. She could feel the girl pressing against her on the other side. Perhaps tonight darkness would be her good friend.
Copyright © 2011 by Wessel Ebersohn