Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 118 in June, 2009.
INSIDE THE RONDAVEL flashlights illuminate the face of a gaunt, knot-limbed man spread-eagled on a blood-soaked dirt floor. A machete is pressed hard to his throat. The man's eyes bulge, sweat beads on his purple-black face; blood seeps from a corner of his bruised and swollen mouth. His skeletal body is naked except for a pair of filthy, ragged shorts clinging to his loins. He shakes uncontrollably. Sporadic yelling and an occasional burst of gunfire from automatic weapons are heard coming from somewhere in the night outside the meager thatch and mud-brick hut.
The man is pinned to the ground by three soldiers wearing camouflage fatigues, unmarked and unidentified except for thick stains of sweat in the armpits and around the collars of their shirts. Assault weapons are slung across their backs. Their mud-encrusted boots had been recently shined to a high gloss; the brass buckles of their webbed belts gleam. A fourth soldier, the smallest of them, holds the machete in his right hand and chokes the terrified man with his other: his gnarled fingers squeezing the man's throat. The man gasps and sucks for air.
Other soldiers stand a few meters back. Each holds a flashlight beaming on the captured man's face; these men are also large in size. Matumbe, a holstered sidearm strapped to his hip around his immaculate, unstained uniform, stands in the rear in shadows. He is a huge, well-muscled hulking mass. His head is large and square; his eyes intense and purposeful. His demeanor as well as his size make it clear he is in command.
It was his size and strength and his ability to demand instantaneous obedience from others, particularly from some of the less-disciplined mercenaries, that caused him to be singled-out. It was not the sort of work he had expected after graduating college, but it paid well in a country where there were few opportunities, and almost none that paid as generously as this job. With the money he could marry and raise a family without the poverty he had once known and still witnessed daily about him. Certainly there were risks; but the advantages, particularly an abundance of modern weapons and modern communications, were all on his side. He never did tell the Nuns that snatched him from his village as an orphan and carried him away and raised him and educated him in the missionary school exactly what his job was these past six years. As Matumbe watches, the man hopelessly struggles. In even tones Matumbe drones in Swahili, "Where are they, what belongs to me? Please, my black brother, where? I beg you."
The soldier with the machete relaxes his choke-grip. The pinioned man sighs and breathes deep; his grief-palled face tacitly signals no special preference or understanding between life or death. He closes his eyes and vigorously shakes his head in dogged defiance, then tries to spit at the soldier who had been choking him. The spittle clings to his lips and goes nowhere.
Matumbe glowers, "Be done." The soldier draws the machete firmly across the man's throat. The man tries to scream but only issues a faint, gurgling noise. Blood oozes from the half-circle drawn neatly across his throat. Matumbe, without inflection in his voice, orders the soldier with the machete, "Off." With a whisper, he repeats himself, "Off."
The soldier gives the machete a powerful pull down and away. Then grasps the man's hair and jerks the head free from its body. He holds the severed head high for everyone to see: the dead man's lips are curled into a frightful, accusing smile; blood drips from the severed neck. With eyes clamped shut, Matumbe nods his head.
The soldier with the mache te carries the decapitated head by its hair as the soldiers exit the rondavel in precise, orderly steps.
Outside, in the thick, heavy black night, a cleared space, no more than a spit of rocky dirt, is illuminated by the glaring beams of headlamps of new, white four-by-four double-cab pick-up trucks standing ready with motors running. The cleared space is surrounded by a dozen or so more rondavels. The soldiers, trailed by Matumbe, parade through the center of the clearing toward the waiting trucks. The air is acrid with the metallic and sulphurous smell of spent gunfire, and with the thick, sweet scent of blood.
More soldiers, tense and with automatic weapons at the ready, wait near the vehicles. Their tired, bloodshot eyes scan the area. Mutilated bodies of dead men, women and children lay everywhere spread across the open patch of ground. Baboons scamper through the clearing. They pick at the dead bodies looking for food, their shrieks and laughter slicing through the incessant, disinterested humming of the truck motors.
A soldier fires a rapid burst at the baboons with his assault weapon. The baboons cry-out and scatter into the dense undergrowth of the jungle. He fires again. Corpses dance. More soldiers fire their weapons. More corpses dance. A few frightened soldiers dive for cover. Matumbe laughs. Other soldiers join Matumbe in his laughter. Matumbe's nose screws as he sniffs the air; he spits toward the prostrate soldiers and the village dead and the now vanished baboons.
The soldiers board the vehicles and one by one the unmarked trucks grind into the otherwise silent night. The truck lights cut bright swaths through the dense equatorial African jungle.
A SHIMMERING WHITE HOT SUN rises slowly above the horizon. A generator hums in the fractured, precise shards of the early morning light; a satellite antenna obediently scans the sky. The generator and the antenna sit near a large tent housing an unmarked command center in a partially cleared hectare of the jungle. Guarded by two soldiers, a helicopter stands at the ready less than twenty meters away.
Inside the air-conditioned tent, communications equipment and computers are scattered about. Bukhara rugs are carefully placed across the tent's compacted dirt floor. A man, dressed in bush gear --khaki shirt, shorts and knee socks-- sits behind a large camp desk studying a computer monitor. He's a handsome man of good physique and physical condition. His clean-shaven white face betrays little emotion and his well-fed and unwrinkled appearance of relative youth seems somehow surprising: he cannot be more than forty years old.
The canvas door to the tent flaps open. Matumbe walks up to the desk and stands rigid and erect in front of the white man, his closed-mouth black face without expression. He holds up the head of the decapitated man. The white man looks up, a thin smile forms at the edges of his lips.
Matumbe removes a bulging leather pouch from his pants pocket. He hands it to the white man who stares at it for an instant; and then, without further regard, tosses the unopened drawstring sack into a desk drawer. He locks the drawer and puts the key into his shirt pocket.
"Good, very good. Thank you, Matumbe, that will be all," the white man muses dismissively.
Impassive, Matumbe turns and walks towards the tent door. The white man returns to reading messages on his computer monitor. He calls out without looking up, "Oh, Charles, you did bury all of them, didn't you?"
Matumbe hesitates and starts to turn back. He walks on. As he goes he silently laughs to himself as he crosses himself in the Catholic way.