Transition 095 - Featured Fiction
George Makana Clark
The Outreach Mission for Troubled Boys had been built by prison labor on unsettled ground with predictable results. Doors fell from their hinges. Windows rattled softly in their frames. Jephthah, the ancient houseboy and bell ringer, roamed the compound each dawn with a hammer to pound wayward nails back into rough-hewn fruitwood that was soft with age and scored by beetles. The wood had been harvested from a nearby orchard--plum, cherry, peach, pear, and apple trees grown from seeds sewn outside of memory.
“Listen, novice! Eight years ago there was nothing where we now stand,” Ibzan, the cook and assistant sacristan, liked to tell stories to the new arrivals as he guided them through their first day at the mission. “It took just six days to put all this up,” he’d say with a sweeping gesture that encompassed the rectory, dormitory, dining hall, stables, chapel, outbuildings, the eastern horizon of Rhodesia, “and everything has been falling to the Devil ever since.”
The convicts who built the mission, all Shona born in the trust land, had been brought in chains from the remand prison. For six days their work began and ended in complete darkness. On the final morning, one of the laborers buried his hammer in the guard’s skull and the prisoners ran together, down the embankment and into the river, where they perished in its currents. “God is just,” Ibzan concluded. The trees in the orchard formed a brittle canopy over a kraal where horses snorted and stamped and tossed their heads. A tribe of boys gathered for the Blessing of the Horses at an altar on the rectory lawn. The granite altar had been quarried from the mountain that held the mission in shadow. I’d arrived late the previous night and slept beneath a horse blanket, locked in the tack room, my head in a saddle.
The Outreach Mission for Troubled Boys was a last resort for the wayward white youth of our nation. Petty thieves, vandals, and bullies, most of them--wide boys who grew up in the reformatories and industrial schools.
Butterflies dotted a bed of licorice, which abutted the eastern face of the rectory. A figure walked over to us across the lawn. The sun was brilliant on his white robe, obliterating both fold and shadow, leaving the garment two dimensional in its radiance. He called out: “Cook!”
Ibzan stiffened. “Yes, Adam.”
As sacristan and stable boy, Adam carried the authority of their employer and spiritual director, the Very Reverend. A crude image of St. Anthony, struck from pig iron, hung on a chain around his neck. “Go fetch the other servants,” he commanded.
Ibzan spat when the sacristan turned his back. “See how he walks, sha sha sha, with his holy costume and religious medal. I tell you this: Adam was here when they built this mission. But he did not run into the river with the others. He was a young boy, skinny enough to pull his wrist out of the manacle.”
He looked at me. “You like stories, novice?”
“Good! You will leave here with many stories.” Ibzan left me outside the dormitory and went away chuckling.
I stared across the lawn as the Very Reverend, founder and self-ordained minister of the Independent Anglican Church of Manicaland, took his place behind the altar. He stared into the sun as he prepared to address the assemblage, heels lifted, hack ramrod, pompadour constructed of hair and tonic, stretching his five feet as far as they could go. Adam stood two paces behind in his sacristan’s robe.
“Quit goggling and come along,” Mrs. Tippett said, pushing past me. She wore a sweater over her sack dress and hugged a clipboard to shield her breasts from my indecent gaze. Apart from a woven bracelet of windflowers, her wrists and neck were bereft of jewelry. I followed her into the dormitory where I would live out my thirteen-month sentence, punishment for a convicted peeper.
The dormitory smelled of sweat, carbolic oil, and dead snake, forcing the woman to breathe shallowly through her mouth while she turned out my rucksack and rummaged through my belongings. Mrs. Tippett confiscated my father’s field glasses, wristwatch, and military service pin. “These will be sold to offset the cost of your food and housing,” she said over my protests.
Outside, the Very Reverend’s convocation was underway. “We are gathered here before God Almighty,” he said, “to bless these beasts in the name of Saint Anthony. God, smile upon this fellowship of man and beast.” He drew back his lips to reveal teeth that were perfectly, astonishingly black. The objects of the blessing circled the kraal. A mare pranced at the head of the herd, her forelegs fully encased in steel from hoof to mid-pastern. She was an ill-proportioned creature, short-necked with outsized hindquarters. A confirmed kicker, according to Ibzan. I counted thirty-eight horses in the kraal, not including the mare. One for each boy.
“Take these.” Mrs. Tippett piled two thin woolen blankets, a foam rubber pillow, a bible, and a paper schedule onto my outstretched arms. “You’ll sleep there.” Mrs. Tippett indicated a gap in the line of bunks. A folding cot lay on the floor. “There’s no more proper beds,” she stated without apology. “The Very Reverend will join you presently.” I stood with the issued items still in my outstretched arms and watched her hurry out of the dormitory.
Outside, each boy led his mount from the kraal to receive its beatitude. I stared at them through the dormitory window. The boys were a closed-face lot, lean from months in the saddle, freckled and burnt, hair bleached by the sun. One struggled to bring his mount through the kraal gate.
“Hold fast,” the Very Reverend told him. “Horses want a master.” He squinted up at each animal as it was brought before him. “We place this beast in Your keeping. Make it a perfect instrument of Your will.”
It took two servants to lead the mare from the kraal for her blessing. A third, Ibzan, enticed the horse forward with bits of licorice root. The servants kept their eyes on the ground, taking care that the mare didn’t crush their feet with her outsized steel shoes. She balked as she approached the altar, refusing the blessing, head down, weight forward, ready to kick out at the servants with her hind legs.
“Chenjerai!” Ibzan called out in Shona. Watch out. The servants dropped the bridle and backed away.
“Speak English!” Adam said sharply. “God’s language.” The other servants flailed their hands and yelled after the mare, chasing her back into the kraal, the final blessing unbestowed.
The ground shuddered as the boys queued up to receive the Eucharist, and Adam held the paten beneath the Very Reverend’s hand in case he should fumble the host. Wood buildings heaved and muttered on their foundations. Behind the kraal gate the mare stood still, ears forward, intent on Adam’s every movement.
The Very Reverend stretched out his hand, palm down, and the congregation knelt as one before him. “May this mission,” he said, “serve as a beacon on this continent of dark negation. Amen.”
“Amen,” the congregation echoed.
After the blessing, the Very Reverend greeted me from the threshold of the dormitory. “You’re the peeper,” he said. He held a pewter chafing dish of licorice root. “Don’t hang your head. No temptation takes us but what’s common to man. The wife settle you in?”
“She stole from my kit.”
“You’ll be giving your everlasting soul to God,” he said. “Don’t begrudge Him the rest.” His attention shifted to the dish of licorice. “It’s from the rectory garden. There’s nothing that won’t grow here.”
“When do I learn to ride?” I asked.
His small fingers grasped a piece of licorice. “After your baptism.”
“I’m already baptized.”
“Not by me.” The Very Reverend placed the root on his tongue and sank inward, his lips and lids closing out the world. “Licorice has been with us since King Solomon’s day,” he said finally. A black tongue ran across his purple lips. “The pharaohs were buried with it. Licorice sustained Napoleon on the battlefield. It promotes industry, provides spiritual balance, diminishes the libido, alleviates constipation.” The Very Reverend held out some of the root bark. “Have it.”
The licorice felt electric on my tongue; my mouth became a fount of hot saliva. Twin black worms of drool wriggled out from the corners of my lips and dangled from my chin. In desperation, I swallowed a bit and my throat and sinuses burned.
The Very Reverend regarded me for a moment. “How do you hope to profit from your time with us?” he asked.
“I want to find God,” I said.
He sprang forward and pinned me against the wall, his forearm across my throat.
“Now listen, you little jumped-up pervert. Don’t think you can play me for a fool.”
I nodded, unable to speak.
He released me and turned toward the door. “You’ll do fine here, novice. Just keep your head in the scriptures and out of the windows. The other boys will come round to introduce themselves.”
I unfolded the cot and stretched out. Before long, a flood of boys pushed into the dormitory. They wore belts, bracelets, bolo ties, and bootlaces all made from snake hide. A rotten smell emanated from these poorly cured accessories, the flesh not fully scraped away. The boys formed a line before my cot, youngest to oldest. Each one struck me five times while they sang a queer little song, the first blow falling with thumb knuckle foremost, Tom Thumper, the next blow with the index knuckle extended, Ben Bumper, then the middle knuckle, Long Larum, the ring knuckle, Billy Barum and a sideways blow from the pinky knuckle, Little Oker Bell!
* * *
Mrs. Tippett’s paper schedule shaped my days: rise before dawn, muck the stables by lamplight; a boiled egg for breakfast; clear debris from the mission grounds; weed and water the Very Reverend’s licorice bed; another egg at lunch; two hours of bible study followed by an hour of forced prayer led by Adam; and in bed before curfew, an orange sliver of sun framed in the dormitory window as it disappeared behind the mountain.
By the time I finished mucking, the other boys had already saddled their mounts and ridden out from the mission, whooping like American cowboys as they beat the bush for snakes. I would not see them again until they returned for my nightly beating. They refused to speak to me, yet there was no rancor or unnecessary force behind the blows. I learned the best way to take them, curled up in a ball, my pillow wrapped round my face. Afterward, I lay motionless in my bed while the other boys rubbed carbolic oil into their saddle-chafed thighs, whispered among themselves, became drunk with wine fermented with snake meat, and fell asleep in twos and threes.
* * *
The rains moved into the glen, obscuring holes and roots and stones, a time for horses to step carefully. I watched the mare paw the ground with her massive shoes, roll in the mud, buck, and fling her heels in a capriole. No one passed through the kraal gate unless Adam was present to pacify the creature. Foundations sank into the ground. Fruitwood doors swelled in their jambs and had to be shouldered open. When the earth was too wet for riding, the boys sulked about the stables and flung manure at one another.
Things went missing: the Sanctus bell, a letter opener, the pewter chafing dish that held the Very Reverend’s licorice. On the occasion of these thefts, Adam would turn out all the boys in the middle of the night and select one at random to be lashed with a leather belt. The number of strokes varied according to the Very Reverend’s humor, as well as the offender’s hair color and handedness. Ginger-headed, left-handed boys such as myself were considered resistant to discipline and in need of enhanced correction. “Father,” the Very Reverend would say, raising the belt above his head, “teach this young man to profit from the suffering put in his path!” The Independent Anglican Church of Manicaland was not in communion with the See of Canterbury, and the Very Reverend answered only to God and the Prisons Department.
The rains moved off the mountain and the water vanished into the earth. Horse weather, Adam called it, a time when the herd leapt and capered and rutted, sure of their footing. On the morning of each Sabbath, the Very Reverend would coax me to submit to his baptism. If I gave up my mulish behavior and became a blood-bought Christian, he told me, I could learn to ride. The Very Reverend promised to grant me authority to walk on serpents and overcome all the power of the enemy, and I would take my place among the mob of boys that swarmed over high ground and low bush, ridding the glen of snakes.
Adam, like the other servants, was forbidden to ride for fear he would steal one of the mission horses and gallop north across the Zambezi to join the guerilla soldiers. I sometimes paused in my work and watched through the stable window as the sacristan stared across the pasture, past the chapel, to the river. The mare stood in the kraal, ears forward, immobilized in perfect concentration, her gaze fixed on the same point on the bank.
In accordance with the Very Reverend’s remedial diet for troubled boys, no supper was served; a full stomach encourages dreams. When I was too sore and hungry to sleep, I broke curfew to creep between rows of cots and footlockers and boys, their faces guiltless in sleep, and I would steal over to the dining facility window to listen to the servants deal cards and gossip across the kitchen table. Izban, the cook and assistant sacristan, recited stories, while Elon, the kitchen and altar boy, speculated aloud on the cards his opponents held against their chests. Jephthah, the aged houseboy and bell ringer, sat silently across from them, accepting the hand he was dealt. They were all former inmates of the prison, paroled, hired, and baptized on the same day. As a condition of their employment, the Very Reverend had re-christened them with Old Testament names and required them to take up positions in his ministry. Once, as I looked through the sacristy window, I’d seen the naming bible, opened midway through the Book of Judges. Whenever a servant ran away, his name was struck from the page.
When the Judges of Israel retired for the night, I roamed the mission compound, peeping in darkened windows, rummaging through the outbuildings where the tractor, tackle, and tools were kept. Although the rains had long departed, the flat, eaveless roofs still sagged beneath stagnant water swarming with mosquitoes. At this hour, mounted scouts from the Rhodesian Security Forces could be seen charging up and down the mountain steeps, a drove of centaurs in silhouette.
Winter came upon the mission. The ground dried and shrank back like the skin on a mummy’s face. I was kept segregated from the boys, even during Sunday service when I sat in the front pew next to Mrs. Tippett, our hands joined in prayer. She dressed simply in a grey wool suit and her flower bracelet, the only jewelry the Very Reverend permitted.
Her palm emanated heat and discomfort as we listened to rambling sermons in which eggs figured prominently. Following the service, Ibzan baked us a prison loaf.
Eleven months of my sentence passed in this way. There’s a restless comfort in isolation and routine. The mind, disengaged from the world, comes unsprung.
* * *
I was nowhere near the mare when she staved in the kraal gate and ran amok in the rectory grounds. Her teeth glistened in the waning moonlight as she walked backward, pulling the Judges of Israel across the lawn by the bit lead. It was too early for the sun.
I stood with Mrs. Tippett in the false dawn and watched the spectacle. Her husband, the Very Reverend, was away at the remand prison, witnessing for the Almighty.
The judges struggled to keep clear as the mare reared and pawed the air. Jephthah, the houseboy and bell ringer, lost his footing, and the others dropped the lead and scattered, freeing the mare to let fly her heels.
Freed from the kraal, the other horses pawed the earth, restless at the mare’s antics. This was the third time in as many days that the mare had gone round the twist, always a welcome bit of chaos in the monotony of court-imposed religious instruction. One of the mare’s outsized shoes caught Jephthah beneath the chin, splitting his jaw lengthwise.
“Please God,” Mrs. Tippett prayed. “Grant me strength to cope with murderous horses, Africans, and wide boys.” She crossed her arms over her breasts and looked pointedly at me.
Mrs. Tippett watched tight-lipped as the mare pushed over a low fence and began to caper and roll in the Very Reverend’s licorice bed. Horses and licorice were the Very Reverend’s only luxuries, and he was said to love them above all else in this world and the next. “Go to the chapel and fetch the stable boy,” Mrs. Tippett told me.
* * *
The chapel had been built on pillars near the river for convenient baptizing. Each year the pillars sank several inches into the vlei; the entire structure canted sadly. Bits of wood were wedged beneath the castors of the pump organ to keep it from rolling into the altar.
1 found Adam on the chapel steps rubbing lemon and salt into the silver plate. A butterfly lighted on the polish rag and Adam looked at me, delighted. “They taste with their feet,” he said. His cassock was riddled with tiny holes, the result of too many bleachings.
“The mare’s got her head up again,” I told him.
The stable boy looked up from the butterfly.
“Kicked Jephthah in the face,” I said. “She’s in the licorice now.”
Adam lifted the skirt of his cassock as he ran through the mud. I trotted after him, past the dormitory and the unmucked stables. We arrived at the rectory to find horse and servants in a wary truce. The mare stood motionless amid the upended licorice, ears back. Jephthah lay face down in the mud; the other Judges crouched near the open kitchen door, ready to bolt inside if the mare charged.
Adam draped his cassock over the gate and looked off into the mountains, rubbing grass between his palms to make a soft, swishing sound. Ignored, the mare came over to investigate the noise, bumping him gently and touching her nose to his face. If butterflies taste with their feet, who can say through what medium Adam and the mare communicated?
“Mwari!” Izban exclaimed in wonder as he opened the kraal gate for Adam and the mare.
Adam struck the cook open-handed across the face. “Mwari is the god of beasts. Only Jesus can save you.”
The mare stole Adam’s cassock from the gate and galloped into the kraal, waving the garment from her mouth like a carnival flag, head up, tail curled in high spirits.
Ibzan rubbed his cheek as he watched Adam chase after the mare. “Adam opens his mouth and the Very Reverend’s words come out.” The cook gave me a sideways look. “Do you know it was Adam who killed the prison guard all those years ago? He still speaks of it in his sleep. But he was clever enough not to run. Of course, the Very Reverend refuses to believe that such a sweet-faced boy could do such a thing.” He spat in Adam’s direction, then went over to help the kitchen boy carry Jephtah into the kitchen.
I went back to the stables to finish the mucking, show over. Manure stuck to the straw inside the stalls and I shoveled it without enthusiasm. I’d grown sluggish and cross from the Very Reverend’s prescriptive diet. I leaned on the handle and looked out over the Vumba Mountains. A thin trail of smoke rose from the clearing where the scouts were laagered.
The rains were coming, a time to fallow the pastures and sow pigeon grass. After I finished my mucking, I watched Adam as he tried to start the tractor without success. From the kraal, the mare also watched him, stamping to get his attention. The steel shoes sent sparks off of the rocks.
“Cook says you killed a prison guard,” I said through the window.
Adam stiffened. “Ibzan is foolish.” He stepped down from the tractor and stared out across the kraal to where the mare stood, one ear pointing forward, toward the river and the mountains beyond, one ear hack toward the mission. “A horse can look two ways at once. When her ears go in different directions, so go her eyes.” Adam turned to me. “Why do you resist baptism? Do you enjoy your beatings?”
I had no answer to this.
Adam opened the tractor bonnet and leaned over the engine. He stared at the empty bracket beside the tractor engine, wiped his hands on his trousers, then looked at me. “Somebody has stolen the battery.”
* * *
Free time is the enemy of troubled minds. So said the sign Mrs. Tippett had posted above the dormitory exit. After mucking the stalls, I reported immediately to the dining hail to set places for the other boys.
I paused at the kitchen window to look in on the servants. A pot of water and eggs roiled over a lit stove. Ibzan was carving chops for the Very Reverend. We were not allowed to eat meat as the Very Reverend considered flesh too stimulating for troubled boys. Jephthah sat at the kitchen table holding his ruined jaw with both hands. Elon sharpened a paring knife with a whetstone. He spat in the direction of the kraal. “When Baba Zai comes back he will break that horse or shoot it, please God.” I had discovered that the servants called their employer Baba Zai when they thought no one was listening. Father Egg. The insult was doubled in that it was delivered in the Shona language.
Ibzan covered the chops with a sheet of newspaper to keep the flies away. “He will never shoot that creature. Come skin these carrots.” These were for me. The Very Reverend prescribed a corrective diet for each of us according to our flaws. As a peeper, my lunch consisted of steamed carrots for healthier vision and a boiled egg. Everyone got the egg.
Elon used the sharpened knife to pare the carrots while lbzan wrapped a rag, chin to crown, around Jephthah’s face. The split jaw was already turning purple where the outsized shoe had made contact.
Ibzan spoke soothingly to the old houseboy. “It’s all right now, Jephthah,” then to Elon, “We need the Very Reverend’s hair tonic.”
Elon nodded. “Why does Baba Zai put such shoes on that horse?”
Ibzan knotted the rag beneath Jephtah’s chin. “To hide its toes.”
“You mean hoofs.” I said through the window. “A horse has hoofs.”
The cook squinted out at me. “I know what I say. That horse is unnatural. This is why the Very Reverend covers its feet with steel shoes.”
“Pay him no nevermind.” Elon beckoned to me with his knife. “Come inside.”
I remained at the window. The slats had been left unplastered and stripes of morning sun fell across the west wall. Generations of servants had sanded and polished the concrete floor to a marble smoothness.
“Before that horse was properly birthed, her mother was killed by a leopard,” Ibzan said. “The mare spilled out from the torn womb, unfinished. God is just.” The cook studied me for a moment. “You want a cuppa?” He removed the eggs from the pot without waiting for my answer and poured the boiling water over some instant coffee. “How much sugar can a boy like you take?”
Jcphthah laid his damaged head in his arms and moaned piteously. I shrugged. At fifteen, other people’s troubles were nothing to me. I watched the cook spoon sugar into my cup until the coffee was thick with it.
* * *
The Very Reverend returned with the rising moon and commanded Adam to turn us out of our beds to stand before the stone altar in our underpants. The stolen tractor battery lay in the mud before us. The Very Reverend’s hair was wild, the coil of his pompadour hung over one eye.
A murmur rose from the formation of boys.
“Put your tongues back in your heads!” Adam barked.
On the verandah, Mrs. Tippctt embroidered a frontal for the stone altar. The judges emptied the dormitory, bringing everything out onto the lawn, upending mattresses and footlockers, rummaging through our kits. The wind sent one of the blankets sailing across the lawn and Adam brought it back to lbzan.
“Mazviita,” the cook said, thanking him.
“English!” Adam hissed.
The Very Reverend stood before the altar, watching the judges complete the search. He grubbed in his pocket for his comb but came up empty. Ibzan dumped out the contents of the last footlocker and looked up at his employer, shaking his head.
The Very Reverend spat in his hands and smoothed back his hair before addressing us. “I found this battery in the kraal. An interesting thing. Someone had smeared licorice root on the terminals. When the mare licked the terminals, she received a nasty shock. Now does anyone want to take credit for this clever piece of work?”
No one stepped forward.
He strode over to where I stood and put his face inches from mine, sniffing my breath for his missing hair tonic. “You’re smart enough, I’ll grant it,” he said, “in small, nasty ways.” He whirled and stormed to the rectory verandah, then led Mrs. Tippett back by the arm. “I’ve given you boys the opportunity to confess and atone,” he yelled out to us, “but you have spurned it. So now this innocent and good woman will suffer for your trespass. Tonight, while you sleep, Mrs. Tippett will work to restore my licorice bed to its original condition. She will resume this labor each dawn until the responsible party comes forward to take her place. Think on that as you lay in your beds in sin and guilt.”
That night, after the mission returned to sleep, I left the dormitory. In the sidereal light, I could see scars in the lawn from where the mare had battled the Judges of Israel. A shadow moved sluggishly against the rectory: Mrs. Tippett, squatting in the licorice bed, troweling mud over the exposed roots. I listened to the leopards and hyenas and scouts as they hunted the animals that went down to the river to drink under the cover of darkness. The scouts had come to the granite uplands a year earlier to beat the bush for a cadre of guerilla soldiers. They had found them, killing most and chasing the rest across the border into Botswana. But the scouts were still here, still camped above the mission. It was after midnight when the Very Reverend finally allowed his wife to brush the dirt from her arms and feet and reenter the rectory.
But he did not follow her back inside. Unseen, I shadowed him across the mission grounds and took my place beneath the stable window. The mare stood inside, ears back, tied to a post. Adam was there, too.
“She’s a hot-blooded horse, a good keeper,” the Very Reverend was saying. “See that kink?” The mare’s tail flashed in an S. “We’ll take that out of her.”
Adam stared at the ground. “You once said it would be a sin to break her.”
The Very Reverend looked carefully at Adam. “She’s almost nine years old. I swear on my faith I won’t let her remain an unblessed barn rat.” The Very Reverend approached the mare with a sugar cube in his outstretched hand, let the horse smell it, take it. The mare nickered softly while he stroked her rump, back, and muzzle. Without warning, the Very Reverend drew back his fist and punched the horse behind the ear. The mare’s forelegs folded. She fought to keep from rolling onto her side, then struggled back to her feet. “See that? Most horses would’ve gone down.”
Adam looked away and swore softly in Shona.
“Speak English,” the Very Reverend said sharply. “The devil’d have us all speak in a mob of tongues, give him his way.” Standing well out of kicking range, the Very Reverend worked a thick cotton rope between the mare’s back legs, then encircled the rope around her ankle and passed the loose end through the neck piece. “Take hold,” the Very Reverend told Adam, and together they pulled smartly on the rope, bringing the hind foot forward until the mare stood on three feet, unable to straighten the bound knee. They released the hobbled horse into the kraal and she hopped away, fighting furiously against the rope. At last fatigue set in, and the mare began to shake and sweat and whinny. The Very Reverend offered her a sugar cube and spoke gently, clucking, whistling, caressing her neck as Adam fetched the hose and watered the dirt at the horse’s feet. When the ground was saturated, the Very Reverend threw the mare to the ground where she rolled helpless in the mud. The Very Reverend leapt on the underbelly of the toppled horse and began to sack her out, slapping her on the neck, forelegs, and withers with a burlap bag, working around to the belly and genitals until she was desperate to breathe. The mare laid her ears flat against her skull, mane standing on end like the hackles of a dog. She curled her upper lip, barring her teeth at the Very Reverend. For two hours this continued until the mare remained perfectly still in the mud. “That’s enough for today,” the Very Reverend said, rising. “She’s halfway gentled.” He walked toward the rectory, leaving Adam to rub butter into the mare’s rope burns.
* * *
The patrol of scouts continued to squat on the mountain, racing their horses through the trust land, overturning cooking fires, trampling mealie patches, exacting hut taxes, market taxes, dog taxes, beating young Shona men caught outside after dark. The lieutenant ruled the glen like a warlord.
Each night we listened to the mare’s piteous cries as the Very Reverend sacked her out. Some oaths are harder to break than to keep, and though, perhaps, the Very Reverend would unwish his vow, he could not now leave the horse unbroken.
I continued to haunt the kitchen after curfew, drawn by the lighted window. Flies and funk floated lazily above a pile of snake skins heaped beneath the sill, forcing me to breathe through my shirt sleeve as I looked in the window.
Ibzan sat across from Elon at the kitchen table, smoking a hand-rolled cigarette. “Is he drunk yet?”
Elon was using a serrated knife to scrape away bits of flesh that clung to a hide. The snake’s eyes still glittered fiercely. He looked beneath the table. “No.”
“You need to go ahead anyway. There’s no more hair tonic.” Ibzan looked down at the unseen party. “It’s time, Jephthah.” I heard a muffled assent from beneath the table, and I stood on the pile of snake skins to see better.
Ibzan looked up at the movement. “Oho. The skulking boy.” He banded the cigarette to Elon and rose from the table.
I lost my footing and fell face down on the heap, the skins smooth and dry against my cheeks. A thumb and forefinger closed around my wrist and pulled me to my feet. “Still awake, hey? Come inside,” Ibzan said. “I’ll give you something to make you sleep.”
Inside, Elon regarded me through the smoke and the network of red veins that covered his eyes. “Why you always lurk at our window?” he asked.
Not knowing, I shook my head.
He offered me the cigarette. “Take some.” His hand was slick with snake flesh. The lighted end glowed weakly and the tip was wet with spittle.
“I don’t want any,” I said.
Elon leaned forward and gripped my arm. “You won’t nick on us, will you?” He looked at me hard. “When Baba Zai returns, maybe we tell him we caught you looking at his wife through a window, eh?”
Ibzan’s face broke into a broad smile and Elon released my arm. “It’s only a little dagga,” the cook said. “Come smoke with us. We’re all wide boys here.” Outside, the hyenas called out to one another. Ibzan smiled at me. “Even Baba Zai was a wide boy once. He was a jockey long before he promoted himself to Very Reverend status. Jephthah saw him race at Borrowdale Park. Hey Jephthah?”
Jephthah lay back on his doss and nodded blearily. Two empty bottles of hair tonic and an open tackle box filled with hand tools lay beside him.
“Riding horses was the Reverend’s birthgift,” Ibzan continued. He took the cigarette from Elon, drew on it, then handed it to me. “When the Very Reverend grew too stout to ride, he became a bookmaker, well known in all the knocking shops. We all have two lives. Hold the smoke in your chest.” I filled my lungs and held my breath. “Yes, just so. Now tell me--isn’t this better than boiled eggs?”
The dagga tasted like fetid mud. I leaned hack in my chair, muzzyheaded as Elon stuffed a cotton washcloth in Jephthah’s mouth to absorb the blood and screams while Ibzan pushed the awl through the ancient houseboy’s cheeks and tried to string the broken jaw together with the picture wire.
* * *
Each morning we rose to find the mare prancing in the kraal, the other horses turning on her every move, a kink still in her tail. On our way to the dining facility, we averted our eyes as we passed Mrs. Tippett, stooped on her knees in the raw light, tending her husband’s licorice until the sun reached its apex, bleaching the sky white.
More things had gone missing in the night. A tin of meat paste. A five-pound bag of salt. The Very Reverend and lbzan began to conduct daily inventories of the pantry.
Jephthah’s jaw continued to worsen until he could no longer speak, eat solid food, or hammer wayward nails. Clapboards began to fall from the buildings like dead leaves. At eighteen months, Jephthah had been in service the longest, not counting Adam who’d been there since the beginning, and so the Very Reverend decided to make him a Companion of Saint Anthony before sending him away to die in the trust land.
There was a brief investiture ceremony. Adam, who’d received the medal three years earlier for painting the stables, served as Jephthah’s sponsor. The Very Reverend draped a black cloak around Jephthah’s shoulders. “For your many months of service to this mission, you are now a Companion of Saint Anthony, the highest honor the Independent Anglican Church of Manicaland can give a layman. May your example inspire the boys.” Adam helped Jephthah to his feet and the Very Reverend draped the medal around the drunken houseboy’s neck. Jephthah, Companion of Saint Anthony, was to be escorted to the trust land the following day.
A dry harmattan blew over the mountains during the night, and my mouth was sticky when I rose and went to petition the Very Reverend.
Apart from the verandah, the rectory was devoid of architectural detail. The Very Reverend had ordered the ceilings built low to save on construction materials and winter heating oil, and to give himself the illusion of height. While I waited for courage to knock, I studied a reproduction of a gothic painting through the parlor window: Saint Anthony of Abbot, complete with gilt halo, a black cape fastened around his shoulders. He stood on a pedestal, melancholic before farm animals, the poor, and the afflicted. The picture leaned against the parlor wall where it had hung before the wire was stolen.
The Very Reverend stepped out of the rectory, surprised by my presence. Beside us, Mrs. Tippett turned the soil in the licorice bed, folding in the morning’s coffee grounds.
I swallowed. “Permission to speak, Your Reverence.”
He looked out over the kraal at the horses bathed in the new light. “Speak, novice.”
“Please, sir. Bring out a doctor to look at Jephthah. Let him stay here.” Mrs. Tippett looked up from the licorice. Despite her careful ministrations, the leaves had shriveled and were turning to mush.
The Very Reverend stepped off the verandah, took the soggy licorice root his wife offered, and popped it into his mouth. “Good to see you thinking of someone else. I’ve prayed for this.” He made a face and spat the half-chewed licorice in the dirt where his wife was working. “I’ll hold Jephthah’s job for him while he recovers. Mrs. Tippett will call for a doctor as soon as she’s through here. I imagine you’ll want to be baptized in the morning.”
That night, after curfew, I lay on a pile of horse blankets and listened to the wind whistle through holes bored in the fruitwood by beetles, the only source of ventilation in the tack room. On the Very Reverend’s orders, I was locked up to keep me from running out on my baptism. I tried to read scripture by torchlight, but the batteries and my concentration were weak.
Before dawn, I heard the bolt slide. Ibzan pushed his head through the tack room door and looked down on me. “I saw the light, novice, and decided to look in on you. I am going away to join the war of liberation. Take care of old Jephthah. I have given you all my stories. Remember them.”
There was no breakfast that morning. In the camp above the mission, we could hear the rattle of equipment as the scouts mounted up to give chase to Ibzan. I was doubleminded about his departure; in the uproar that followed, my baptism was postponed.
Mrs. Tippett’s brother, an undersecretary in the Prisons Department, came out to the mission, and I watched through the rectory window as he dressed down the Very Reverend. “This really gives me the hump, Russell,” the brother-in-law said. They stood together in the parlor, looking down on Saint Anthony in silence. “We’re not running a halfway house for terrorists. You lose any more of my boys, I’m going to have to cut you loose.”
I stayed too long at the rectory window and was forced to work through lunch to finish the mucking. Adam brought an opened tin of meat paste to the stable and we squatted over it, sticking our fingers into the paste and licking them. “I hear you will be baptized,” he said.
“Yet again,” I said sourly.
“Sometimes it does not take the first time.”
Our conversation was disrupted as the scouts rode through the mission compound in loose formation. It was the first time I’d seen them close up. Apart from the white officer, they were an integrated lot, Shona, Ndebele, Rhodies, Boers, Indians, and a few of mixed race. The uniforms were as irregular as the soldiers--slouch hats, berets, bush caps, wool caps, camouflaged T-shirts, field jackets, shirtless, most in shorts, combat boots, ankle-high hikers, even a pair of black canvas gym shoes, rifles of all description slung, holstered, or carried loosely in hand, their jacket webbing festooned with cartridge and grenade pouches, canteens and knives.
Adam watched them through slit eyes. “They will hunt the cook and drag his body through the mission as an example for everyone.” He buried the empty tin in the horse manure and wiped his knife on his trousers.
“Cook says the mare has toes,” I said, changing the subject.
Adam stood up to leave. “It is good Izban ran away before he filled your head completely with his foolishness.” From the kraal, the mare followed the stable boy’s every movement with her eyes.
“She hardly looks like a proper horse,” I said, remarking on her odd proportions.
“This is the way horses are supposed to look. She is an African horse. In Bible times, King Solomon used to send his agents across the Zambezi to purchase our warhorses. Don’t shake your head at me. The Sun Warriors of Great Zimbabwe rode into battle.” Normally I would laugh at this sort of twaddle, but I was silenced by the way Adam and the mare fixed their gazes at the same place on the riverbank that formed the westernmost border of the mission. “I’ll tell you her secret name,” Adam said softly, nodding toward the mare. “She is Nigeste Negest, named after the Queen of Kings, empress of the Solomonic Dynasty. Do not repeat it to anyone. Not even the Very Reverend.”
Each dawn Mrs. Tippett tended the licorice. At high noon, she would lay down her trowel, straighten painfully, and retire to the rectory. Once, when she had quit for the day, I went over to inspect the bed. The water had already dried on the leaves, leaving a white film. I picked one and touched it to my tongue. Mrs. Tippett was salting her husband’s licorice.
* * *
I was wakened roughly and taken from the dormitory. Starlight still illuminated hollow fruit trees that had long ceased to blossom or bear fruit. Their branches were bare, save for some empty beehives and a smattering of leaves that grew in tufts, like hair from an old man’s ears. A horse stamped and snorted from the kraal and I knew it was the mare.
Wide boys and judges lined the banks, stamping their feet and yelling as the Very Reverend and I went down into the river. I struggled to stand against the rushing current that threatened to sweep me away, my toes curling against the muddy riverbed.
“On this day, you leave the egg,” the Very Reverend said, and he thrust my head underwater where I joined the sprites and nixies and other darker creatures that lurked beneath that impenetrable surface. I struggled and emptied my lungs of air, but still the Very Reverend pushed down on the back of my head, holding me under to make sure the baptism took this time. The rushing current muted the sound of the boys’ laughter as I choked on river water that tasted of fertilizer and insecticide, of petrol and salt, and again I was baptized, a twice-bought Christian.
They left me heaving on the banks of the river. The sun dried my face and clothes, and I fell into a dreamless sleep.
* * *
The cook once told me that there is more than one ending for every story.
The earth shook me awake and I found myself alone on the riverbank beneath a low sun. It was not the unsettled ground that caused this disturbance. Four hooves struck against the hardpan almost as one, crump, then again as the horse and rider launched themselves into the air, crump, and louder, crump, the hoofbeats reverberating through the riverbank where I lay.
It was Adam, riding to the river with the equipoise of a Spanish don, posting forward, his weight over the mare ’s withers, never mind that he ’d never been astride a horse. The mare’s steel-encased hooves forced her to high-step as she galloped. She pulled back her ears, hating the weight on her back. No rider had ever mounted the mare, nor would any do so again. They raced headlong down the riverbank and burst through the bulrushes before splashing into the water, bodies stretching and reaching forward, each urging the other on. Perhaps this was what Adam and the mare had been imagining as they stared together into the river. When the horse reached its depth and the current began to carry her downstream, she struck out for the far bank, her wake an arrow pointing to dry ground.
Her forelegs encased in heavy steel, Adam on her back, submersed to her ears, the mare was forced to follow her head. To drown her, a rider would need only to pull hard on the reins, to the right or left, forcing the mare in circles until she tired. Adam pulled to the left.
Despite the nightly sackings, the mare was unnaturally strong and her nose was still above water when the sun had finished its descent. Adam’s swollen forearms were bathed in lunar light as he struggled to keep the mare from reaching the banks. Among humans, the horse had allowed itself to trust Adam. Only at the end, when her heart gave out from the strain of this final baptism, did the mare’s eyes dilate and roll in fear, and her lips shrank from the bit.
The death cry of a drowning horse is both terrifying and heartrending, and it came as a relief when the river filled the mare’s lungs and she sunk beneath her rider.
Adam rose on the far bank and began walking toward the mountains, carrying a saddlebag filled with stolen silver.
* * *
Again we were roughly wakened and ordered from the dormitory to stand in our shadows beneath the stars, this time by the lieutenant who commanded the mounted patrol of scouts. From beyond the woodline I heard snorting and whickering and the shaking of bridles. The lieutenant dropped his hand to his side, and his scouts thundered from the trees with a show of rifles and pounding hooves.
Something trailed from behind one of the horses, a heavy carpet dragging from a rope. When the rider crossed before the assemblage of boys, I saw the carpet was in fact a man being pulled by his ankles face down across the lawn. The body rose and fell fluidly as it passed over stone and root.
“Adam!” the Very Reverend called out as he ran out of the rectory and knelt over the figure. But when he turned the body over to administer the final rites, he drew back. It was Ibzan who looked up at him, chuckling painfully. The cook still clung to life, struggling to speak.
I stepped forward to listen, but Ibzan’s voice did not carry, and the Very Reverend had to lean over him until his ear covered the cook’s mouth. Perhaps Ibzan had been saving his breath inside his dead body in order to deliver those final words unto his spiritual director and employer. The blood drained from the Very Reverend’s face when he heard them, and he took a very long time to rise from his knees.
* * *
There was no blessing that year on the feast day of St. Anthony, patron of horses and breeders. Rather, Elon and I waded into the current until the water reached our chests. I dove beneath the surface and swam to the dark silhouette that stood mid-river. The steel shoes kept her mired in the riverbed, and the current streamed through her mane as if she was running against the wind. The mare’s eyes gazed up to where the sun played on the water’s surface. I braced my feet on the river bottom and tried to pull one of the hoofs from its shoe. I wanted to see if the mare had toes as Ibzan had claimed, but the foot had swollen in the river and I could not get it out.
Elon and I paddled against the river’s current, taking turns underwater with the hacksaw, our eyes closed to the roil of silt and blood, until we had sawed through all four of the mare’s legs, allowing her to float to the surface. The corpse got away from us in the current, and it would be two more days before she was found down river in the rushes.
The Very Reverend diminished with each day, until he was fully contained in his small frame. His black teeth faded to gray, and his unpomaded hair floated like a halo about his head.
There were no more assemblies on the rectory lawn, and it took only a few weeks for the stone altar to disappear in the tall grass. The wide boys continued to ride across the glen, poking their long, hooked sticks into the tall grass, rodent burrows, and trash heaps. They slept in the stables with their mounts and no longer appeared in the dining facility for the cold meals Elon served. From the dormitory window, I watched them return from the hunt, shirtless, their faces painted with blood, saddles heaped with gleaming skins, the snakes’ eyes still fierce in the skulls.
Without the rigors of Mrs. Tippett’s schedule to keep my mind occupied, I found myself standing beneath her bedroom window one night, watching as she opened the top drawer of her dresser. She removed its contents, each item wrapped in an undergarment, and arranged the strange trove before her on the vanity. The Very Reverend’s pocket comb. The pewter chafing dish that had held her husband’s licorice. The Sanctus bell. The letter opener. Adam’s Companion of Saint Anthony medal. My father’s military service pin. The socket wrench used to remove the battery from the tractor. Mrs. Tippett caressed each item, traced its contours with her fingers. She pushed the service pin through her earlobe and stared at herself in the mirror. In the flame of her conversion, Mrs. Tippett had given everything to the Very Reverend, but now the fire had gone out, and she wanted it all back. After a time, she rewrapped the shabby treasures and ratted them back into the drawer.
I stopped looking into windows, having seen enough.
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