War & Military

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Children of the Moon
Excerpt

Standing in the shadow of my balcony, I look beyond the hotel grounds to where the brown mouth of the Buzi River meets the Beira harbour, then out, out towards the open sea.

“I was born near the mountain of two peaks. White men called it Kilimanjaro.”

Serafim sits in a chair in my room and listens to my words. He is a journalist from Brazil, sent here, to Beira, to record my story for National Geographic. I know very little about him, except that I am comforted by the scritch-scratch of his pencil on paper and the crinkles around his eyes.

“My people, the Maasai, have always called that place Oldoinyo Oibor—White Mountain. They say the snowy peak, Kibo, is the house where all gods live.”

“Do you believe in God?” Serafim asks.

“There are no gods left. They have been driven off the moun­tain. If they ever were there.”

I turn slightly because I am curious to see his reaction. His face is down, looking at his hand move his pencil over paper. He is fifty—a solid man, his body strong and straight, his once-compact frame still visible under a layer of fat. His hair, the colour of warm sand, is parted on the side. Grease tames it into waves. His brown eyes are set close together and float above his small nose, made smaller by his bushy moustache. He needs a shave.

Serafim adjusts himself on the chair, the same chair he has been sitting on during this past week, ever since he arrived. He sat patiently, interviewing those I had invited to speak to him. They were mostly women and children, the men unwilling to trust an outsider and reluctant to share their stories of fear with another man.

Serafim clears his throat. He pinches the cigarette that rests in the ashtray and draws in the smoke. It comes out his nose in two streams that slow, then curl together.

“Is that why you are here? Looking for gods?” It is too late to soften the edges of my words, but I know he does not care whether I believe in God. That’s not why he’s here.

In the past, journalists like Serafim had travelled great dis­tances to meet me. They talked of the bigger world and how it was hungry to hear of my work. They brought food and school sup­plies for the children, and so I welcomed them. They promised my story would help end the threat faced by people like me. Their letters were thin and tilted forward as if they were being pushed from behind. I call them scribblers, because I once allowed myself to love a man who scribbled down his thoughts.

“I’ve startled you,” Serafim says, packing his things. “I guess today’s interview didn’t get off to a very good start.” I hear his satchel snap shut.

I adjust my eyeglasses. When I turn around, to lean against the balcony railing, Serafim is already standing near the door, his bag slung across one shoulder and pressed flat against his thigh. He moves to drop his cigarette in the hallway, but catches him­self, and instead bends down to douse it in a small puddle by the wall. His hands are always clean. His nails trimmed. He tucks the cigarette butt into his pocket. This man cares about the world.

“I can come back tomorrow. Or Sunday, if you like. When you have more time. If you’ll allow me, that is.”

I catch his scent—warm clove and curing tobacco. I close my eyes and my toes clench. I loosen my shawl. “Let me speak.”

“Please,” Serafim says, and there is such urgency in his voice that I want to weep.

“There is nothing worse in this world than to be silenced,” I say, and Serafim’s body relaxes against the door jamb. “Except, perhaps, being forgotten.”

Other journalists have come before him looking for facts. I have given them what they have asked, only to never hear from them again. I was left feeling used and empty. No more. I am grateful I have hunted down words over the years so that I can begin to construct a story—a story that is my own.

“People tell me I was born in 1956, or close to it. I do not disagree, but it means nothing to me. This is what I know. I grew up on the grasslands of Tanganyika, before the land became Tanzania. My people did not care about Europeans or the names they gave things. They drew lines wherever they wanted and claimed what wasn’t theirs. The Maasai are a proud people. We kept ourselves alive. The foreigners had all heard our story.”

“Story?”

“How the God, Enkai, sent the cattle to our people down a long rope between heaven and earth.”

The ocean breeze blows through my window, a distant smell of the salty monsoon sea and charcoal fires.

“We had been given everything. Until one of us tried to demand more from Enkai. He got angry and cut that rope. But you don’t need to know all this.”

“Please, continue. I want to hear it.”

Over and over I have rehearsed how I would tell this story. But this is the first time I have heard my words. I have to push past my uncertainty. “We were sent out of the garden, climbed up from a crater bounded on all sides by a steep cliff. The red dust clung to our skin. We survived the sun and dry lands for countless moons, herding our beasts along the great river they call Nile, walking by the rim of Enkai’s angry gash in the earth they also named, Great Rift Valley. You see, the white man has always wanted to tell our story—to name things. The Maasai had nothing they could take. They feared us as warriors—they could not possess us and sell us to foreign lands. And for these reasons they left us alone.”

I look over my balcony once again, out across the hotel grounds. Small fires are everywhere. A man has caught some pigeons and is plucking them. Some children are bathing in the stagnant water that has collected in the deep end of the pool. They do so under the bright red light that pulsates from the Coca-Cola machine. It was delivered to that spot, set up against what once was the cabana wall, shortly after the Africa Cup of Nations in 2013. They ran wires to connect that one machine. I have never seen anyone buy anything from it. It accepts nothing but South African rand. This building I live in was once called the Grande Hotel, but its rich guests haven’t walked these ruined halls for years. In 1974 the Portuguese soldiers who fought the last days of the War of Independence returned to Portugal and the hotel was left in ruins. As soon as we had taken back our land we entered a war amongst our­selves. Another twenty years of bloodshed, but those soldiers had no need for the hotel. It is now home to over two thousand people. There is no running water and no electricity. The city’s politicians leave us alone. They know if you poke a stick into an anthill, the ants scurry about, clean up the mess and strengthen things, as if erasing the action. With its many ghosts we share the hotel and drink leaking rainwater. Elevator shafts have become dark throats that swallow our waste, and at least once a year a child falls in and is lost to us. The war has scarred this place. Serafim can see that for himself.

“Here we are all broken—the lame, the poor, refugees, and albinos like me. We each have found a place. People with albi­nism have taken over Block B of the hotel. Here in Mozambique we are misunderstood. We are attacked, killed. Our body parts are sold to men who call themselves healers for use in charms and magical potions. But you have heard this.”

“Do you ever think of going back to the place you were born? Would you be safe there?” From the strength of his voice I know he has returned to the chair I set out for him.

“We are called zeru zerus there. It means we are nothing. Here, the people call me a branca. Albinos who do not belong to others have come here because they have heard of this place, and of me. I have no special magic, but I cannot convince them.”

Lulled by the sound of Serafim scratching his notes, I con­tinue. What comes through the gate of my mouth is carefully selected.

“If there is a god, the one my ancestors called Enkai, I have seen its face in three women. These were the strong ones who never feared my touch. Namunyak, my birth mother, gave me life and a name. She would not live long enough to see me laugh or play or take my first steps. Simu, my mother’s sister, took me in and nurtured a place of love in me so that I would not grow into a bitter root. Fatima, the last of the three women, she christened me Pó, the Portuguese word for pow­der. ‘A fitting name for a beautiful girl like you,’ she said.”

Serafim looks up from his notebook. His face glows.

“I have also seen the face of god in one man,” I say. “Ezequiel. He kept a harmonica in his pocket, an extra pair of boots over his shoulder, and a rifle across his back. He declared his love for me with a gift. And later he gave me another.” I catch my breath. “Because of Zeca, I can see things as Enkai had intended.” I remember thinking, This is the way the world is. This is the way the world was meant to be.

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Girl at the Edge of Sky
Excerpt

Prisoner

UKRAINE
August 1943

Her Fall
She bursts through the clouds and opens her eyes. The sound of engines is receding, the sky around her empty. There’s no one to see that her eyes are grey, that she wears a scarf made from parachute silk tucked inside her collar to keep it from chafing her neck, that her boots aren’t regulation, or that she is several kilometres above the earth on which human beings have evolved.

In this war, people are always falling from the sky. They’re flung bouquets picked up by the wind, which carries them over fields and forests and towns. The wind fans pretty flames, it blows ash and smudges the sky. It spits the smell of mud, moss, rot, and the forge. It skims creeks and rustles leaves, it gropes in the gaps between wood and skin and blackening metal. The skin of a plane, the skin of a man, anything loose, anything fluid—blood, water—are all of a piece to the wind, which is neither friend nor enemy, though if you’re the one in mid-air, you might feel otherwise.

Where is the wind taking her?

She has no other thought; the roar of air fills her ear. It presses her skin, and in its touch there’s no protest from wounds, only the pleasure of wingless flight. She has as much substance as a god reclining on a bed of air. Above her, threads of cloud separate, and sun turns the heavens blue, more blue than colour can be. Everything she surveys is exquisite. The sky is her secret retreat, her private sin. She doesn’t need a plane or time. She has no past. She floats without fear.

Her hand pulls the rip cord, knowing what needs to be done now. She feels the yank of straps as her parachute opens, capturing air, halting flight and sound. Her weight dangles from the harness. She comes back to what passes for reality. 

Her name is Lily—Litvak or Litvyak. Something like that anyway.She’s blond by peroxide. She’s small by nature. Her age depends onthe papers you look at. Nineteen is a possibility. This day, August 1 and about midday, she blacked out as she slipped into the clouds, regaining consciousness when warmer air struck her face. The wind is pushing her westward.

Smoke hasn’t left her nostrils, nor the smell of tarry residue, though she sees no trace of the aircraft that were chasing her. Looking down, she finds her bearings by water: the meandering tendrils of green to the left are the Don River and its tributaries; the vast blue pool to the south is the Sea of Azov. She’s over the Donetsk region in the eastern Ukraine, close to the border with Russia but behind enemy lines. Like anyone who still survives, she’s had narrow escapes, and she plans on another as she descends, thinking the wind might drop her in the long grass of a field where she could hide until night.

The Don River leaves her field of vision. Mottled earth surges into shapes, the map below reconfiguring as she descends, more detailed than the one in her flight jacket and yet the same, made by an uneasy alliance of hands, nature’s and men’s: undulating rivers, lumpy hills, tracts of green and gold in squares and parallelograms. Men like geometry. Nature throws herself at her materials with abandon, which is how Lily flew her plane and drove her commanding officer crazy. She wears men’s underpants because the army can’t seem to get the hang of making any for the million women in it. As the harness pulls on her, the underpants get into the crack of her bottom, and the tugging bothers her more than her injured shoulder and the burn on her hand.

A squiggle in the landscape expands to a twisting line closer than the Don. This is the Krynka River, marked on her aviator’s map. It’s small, narrow, a peasant of a river invisible from any higher altitude. The golden fields could be wheat or rye, the green must be corn. It’s been ages since she’s smelled an unburnt field. Her world has been a desert of grey and black and red, its odour of crushed tanks and half-buried corpses reaching a kilometre high.

The river snakes through and around the fields, stopping short of the ruler-straight grey line that is a road. She closes her eyes for a moment, hoping to God, if there is one, that she won’t go to a POW camp. Any other fate she’ll accept. And though she doesn’t pray, she recites a rhyme her grandmother taught her: Don’t give a fuck what people say, make your luck and make them pay.

As the wind dies, she stops moving in a westerly direction anddrops straight down toward shades of green along the peasant river. Colour takes on dimension. Trees spring up: a stand of woods near a stream, and she’s rushing into their humble leafiness, these steppe trees that hug the water, a refuge of sorts. A branch catches her parachute, the harness yanks her shoulders. Still damp from the clouds, she pushes up her goggles and takes stock.

She’s wounded, but not mortally. She has a knife and her pistol. The war is two years old. She doesn’t think she’ll live long enough to have children.

Nesting birds call and bring food to their fledglings as if she’s just a fruit or an oversized flower or even a large fungus growing out of the tree trunk. From here she can see the other bank of the Krynka River, steeper, rockier. Pasture without sheep, a ramshackle cottage and beside it a small garden. Beyond her sight, farther west, her grandmother is living under German occupation.

This side of the riverbank is dense with low vegetation where she can hide if she detaches herself from the tree, but she can’t move. Her muscles are flaccid, her brain rambling; all this peaceful greenery is sapping her will. Where the sun falls on her between the leaves, she feels patches of warmth. Shell fragments are embedded in the flesh of her right shoulder. She can bend her arm a bit, but lifting it is agony. Blood seeps into the sleeve, a slow leak, and as long as she stays still, nothing will hurt more. The harness holds her likea child’s swing, like the ones in the Moscow park where she climbed her first tree. She tore her dress and knew she’d get spanked for it, but she pushed herself to the high branches, where she stood as still as if bark grew out of her bare soles, eye to eye with a yellow-chested bird. It was only later, after the spanking and after the rip was sewn up, that she felt remorse over the scarring of her favourite dress.

In the fields beyond the woods, distant figures like cloth dolls bend and stand. If they come any closer, they’ll show themselves as human, and of all the varieties she knows, there are few she wishes to encounter while strapped to a tree. Unthinkingly, Lily moves her left hand, brushing its blistered back against some leaves. She can’t stop the odd sound that issues from the base of her throat, half gulp, half moan, and she clamps the uninjured palm over her mouth. She isn’t entirely alone; she hears voices, they’ve followed her from the plane.

You silly girl, what did you do to yourself? Don’t tell me you can’t get down. Am I talking to a wall? You need a smack to clear your ears? Pull the left strap high up. Like that. See how easy the hand goes through? It’s fine. Don’t make a noise. You want the neighbours to hear? If you’re so feeble, you have no business shooting down planes. How many today—two? My God, what am I going to do with you?

The left strap is off. Panting, head hanging, sweat pooling under her leather cap, Lily holds on to the branch with her burned hand, all the weight of the harness on her shot shoulder as she tries to slide out of its strap. Her grandmother can scold, but Lily is done. She’s going to fall. 

What a face you’re making. It isn’t time for a vacation, lazy girl. Forget the shoulder. Just pull the strap down. Get the arm out. So the parachute is stuck on a little branch. Pull. Again. Don’t sit with it in your arms like a wedding dress. Roll it up. Hurry. Stuff it into the pack.

Her grandmother’s approval was never easy to come by. Lily has to stand, relying on her left arm to support her, clinging to the trunk as she seeks a foothold on a lower branch.

Good girl. My beautiful Lil’ka.

The next thing she knows, she’s on the ground.

When she opens her eyes, she’s on her back and dizzy, long grass striping her view. An accelerating aircraft exerts on its pilot a force several times that of gravity, but a good pilot won’t faint under the pressure. Yet she toppled like a toddler. It’s embarrassing. A fly walks on her cheek, an ant on her neck, everything that’s earthbound creeping and scratching like capitalists. She hopes there aren’t any snakes.

As she rolls over, the sheathed knife in her belt knocks against her hip. She wants to put her hands on the ground and hoist herself up, but her hands have no class loyalty, the left rising to escape the biting grass, the right hanging at the end of a wet string of an arm that refuses to take any weight. Fine, then. She’ll manage without them. Leaning on her left elbow, she humps herself to her knees like a cripple sent home from the war. She slides the elbow up her thigh, moving her centre of gravity as she sits on her knees. Her right arm still dangles uselessly, but her flight jacket and uniform have soaked up its blood. Nothing’s dripped on the grass to mark her presence. Not yet. Softly cupping the underside of her left knee, she inclines right and pushes up from her buttocks and out with her left foot. Uninjured, dependable foot, a shock worker that meets and exceeds quotas. It deserves a medal, the Red Star at least. Shifting her weight onto it, she stands, triumphant at the exertion of her will, recklessly exposed. 

From her magnificent ground-level vantage point, she sees tree trunks. Thin-leafed and thick-leafed bush. A small bird flying up. She turns her head. The steep and rocky left bank looms, a miniature version of great river embankments like the Don’s and the Volga’s. And, in her peripheral vision, a flash of brown that’s offhue, a tint that doesn’t match the woods, like a glint in the sky that is the enemy coming in from the sun. Overhead, crows are chasing a hawk, their loud caws covering the sound of her belated dive into the closest cover.

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