Thursday, November 20, 2008

In the Marshes

It's dark and there's singing through darkness, like the sound of joy cast through the night that speaks in the voices of men, women and children. The sounds of the forest are nothing, drowned out by the singing. In the distance atop the hill he can see the fires burning by the village, they're dancing up there while he moves through the marshlands, through the reeds with the leeches. Atop the hill, they sing of killing the cockroaches.

"Marie-eve..." He calls, his voice hushed. "Ignace?" He moves onto the shore, slowly and even so the sound of splashing water as he emerges is too loud for his comfort. There's no sound from his sister or brother. They had hidden nearby when school teacher, Mr. Kabiyara had come through by torchlight with some of the other boys calling their names.

The voices of death were always familiar - a friend, a classmate, a teacher - moving through the trees, through the swamps descending on anyone they found like flies to a carcass. Under the canopy of the forest, in broad daylight for the murder has no shame. Bodies lay face up in the moss, the water runs wet with blood, where limbs and flesh of the dead float idle in still water disturbed only by the wading hunting parties. They have their boisterous laughs, their callous heckles; it is a perfect picnic of butchery.

Every day it is the same, only the victims are different. At first there was fighting, it was the way of the Tutsi and the Hutu. Every few decades there would be a killing, the Hutu would come they would fight in fields for a time - everyone said it would be like that again and it was, at first. The Hutu had come and they traded insults and blows and many were injured, and then they came with officials and militia with guns and machetes and this time it didn't stop. Yes there was fighting at first, but that was passed. The heroes were all gone now, they fell first, and now there were just those left that hid in the swamps eating spiders and beetles just to stay alive. There was nowhere to run, and only the sound of the cicadas and the singing to keep them company.

Marie-eve and Ignace do not answer this time. It is the silence he's feared every day now for two months, the silence they've all feared - the very same to claim so many when night falls and the cockroaches crawl from their holes. That was how it was, when the fighting ended they had prayed, but the voice of God had walked through the swamps with a machete in his hand, the sins of race purged by his pennance. How holy and divine! But still Faith was Faith, and so they had all prayed for a deliverance that would not come.But all that was in the past - now the marshes were silent. You hear no children's cries, not even murmurs - when they uncover a woman, an infant or a nursling, you never hear a cry. It's miraculous, so to speak.

They no longer asked to be spared, that's the truth. Yes the world had gone mad, and they had stopped hoping, there's no mercy to be had anymore in the marshes and so they drifted anonymously into an empty silence each night, without a whimper or a prayer. Yes it's true. That was the cold reality of sharpened steel; the knowledge that no one was coming. Friends, neighbours, foreign governments, and God Himself; add what name you will; either they could not or they would not intervene. Even when the final blow was struck there was only the sound, the terrible sound of bone and sinew being hacked apart. And then there were cheers, and laughter, and gaiety.

Alphonse wanders through the marsh - finding moss and leeches to eat. Neither hungry, nor sated he sits on a rotting log looking into the sky. His thoughts are empty. Gradually the first rays of dawn etch their arc across the morning sky and voice calls out from the darkness. "Alphonse, is that you?" A whisper from somewhere. Alphonse bolts upright, though it is a moment before he puts a face to the voice... there's no trust any longer for the familiar.

"Ignace?" Alphonse looks around using his sleeve to quickly wipe his face of mud and tears, as though it mattered suddenly. Before he had time to ask again Ignace is already standing up. His younger brother by a year - his form is either some animal or monster. His clothes are torn and tattered, more mud than thread now. Alphonse wonders a moment if he looks the same. "You look like a cockroach."

Ignace pushes him right off the log with a kick in the shoulder just as a gunshot rings off in the morning sky, a stark cry to sound off the morning hunt. Alphonse stares up between his legs at Ignace who looks back at him with wide eyes. He realizes now that he hasn't asked about Marie-eve though now is no longer the time. They scramble back into the marsh splashing frantically into the reeds and the vines to find their separate places to wait out the day.

A morning mist settles on the swamps, mornings like this the killings are less. Though as it unfolds there comes the realization that today is different - trucks, the ones the militia and the interahamwe first came can be heard along the road. Voices can be heard from the village, completely indistinguishable through the mist. "Alphonse... what's going on?"

"I don't know."

"Maybe they think we're all dead... you know, they finally got us all."

"They have lists. They know we're still out here."

"Maybe they think we've all run off."

"Where's Marie-eve?" There's no answer. "They know there's still some of us out here, so be quiet; it might be a trick you know."

As the morning mist rises, another gunshot rings through the air, a silence, then another and another somewhere in the distance the sound muffled by the hills and the trees and the mist. And then, like the cackling of a flock of birds the whole sky errupts in a cacophony of howling rifles - not pistols or hunting rifles either but automatic military ones. And as quickly as it came, it goes... a few last shots here, a burst there and then a return to silence.

"It's the rebels - it's the RPF." Ignace says it out loud a few moments after Alphonse thinks it. The government's fighting the rebels, like a prayer being answered two months too late.

"Maybe. Stay where you are - if we get shot now everyone will say we're stupid."

They wait in the reeds, and until nightfall to come out. The end seems like a surreal experience. There's no solace to be had when the rebels drag the priest into the village square, tied up, line him up next to the village administrator and put bullets through their heads. Most of the rest of the village men have already fled, Alphonse, Ignace and the rebels watch the others leave. There's no point in killing everyone - better to let them flee, let the government try and feed them and let them starve awhile. And just as the murderer's file out, by ones and twos other survivors come in. At the end of the massacre there are no celebrations, only food, rest, and for Alphonse and Ignace, a long journey. Somewhere... away from here.

Once, someone quoted the words of a wise man to Alphonse and the words seemed to wander restlessly about his mind, like a canker sore in his mouth that his tongue simply couldn't let alone.

When I despair, I remember that all through history the ways of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants, and murderers, and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end they always fall. Think of it--always.

He silently ponders those words. Who spoke them, he thinks. What evils did they face? And what despair did they live and what solace did they gain from such words? And after their tyrants were dethroned and their invincibles put to flight did they walk - as Alphonse did now - down a crowded road with nothing but some food, a pair of shorts, an old t-shirt and a head full of memories? And did they walk, as Alphonse did now, down a road hemmed on two sides by corpses piled eight feet high while the crows feasted?


Richard the Caffeinated said...

Writing this was draining enough, I really didn't have the heart to go through again and edit this.

Apologies if there are even more incoherent and run-on sentences than I usually slip in.

Shauna said...

Wow. I had no trouble reading this. It was enthralling and kept me reading right to the end.