Friday, April 18, 2008

April FFC: Mr Alex Watson: God Has Given Me This Beautiful Thing

Mr Watson included an author's note which I feel should be read prior to reading his flash: This piece takes place during the Rhodesian Bush War (1964-1979), also known as the Second Chimurenga, in which various guerilla organizations sought to overthrow the white minority government of Rhodesia in southern Africa and replace it with a majority government. ZANLA was one such guerilla group, and the Rhodesian African Rifles they faced in battle were mostly comprised of black soldiers loyal to the government. The fighting ended with the negotiated Lancaster House Agreement in 1979, which led to the creation of the state now known as Zimbabwe.

Edward Matesi was changing into his uniform when the knock came. His wife had answered it, their one-year-old in tow; a quick whispered conversation later, Edward found himself face to face with Joseph Nkama.

"Have you heard, Comrade Matesi, about our great victory?" Nkama said, flashing his winning smile. "The department store in Salisbury smoldering from our firebombs, many too afraid to leave their houses!"

"I have heard," Matesi said, "of the women and children who were there, wounded and killed. Many were burned alive."

"ZANLA regrets that such is necessary," said Nkama, "but that does not change the fact that it is necessary. The Rhodesians will not submit unless such things become a fixture of their daily lives."

Matesi donned his cap, emblazoned with the emblem of the Rhodesia African Rifles. "If you say so, Comrade Nkama."

"Do you know who carried out that attack?" Nkama continued. "It was Ndabaningi. He was also placed in the RAR to aid the Second Chimurenga. And aid us he has."

"This is all very well and good," said Matesi. "I too aid you. I pass information along to the ZANLA. I sell weapons to the ZANLA. In this Ndabaningi and I are brothers. So I do not understand why you have come here speaking of things I already know and things I already do."

"The time has come to move beyond such things, Comrade Matesi," Nkama said. "All are to aid the struggle now, not only through information or weapons, but through direct action. The time has come for you to renounce your membership in the RAR, and to do so with a forceful attack, a trial by fire."

"I have to man a checkpoint in the bush," Matesi said. "Nothing but two privates with me who would run like sheep at the first sign of any gunfire. What do you expect me to do?"

Nkama opened the parcel that he was carrying, and removed a Soviet-made hand grenade. "One car," he said. "Incinerate one Rhodesian car, and you will have done ZANLA an inestimable service. Cleanse the enemy with righteous fire."

Matesi hesitated for a moment, then accepted the weapon and thrust it into his pack.

"Good," Nkama said. "I look forward to reading of your victory in tomorrow's papers."

Once he arrived at his post, Matesi had made up his mind: he would do as he was asked, if only to stop Nkama's badgering. He knew that, for all the man's smiles, he was dangerous.

For some time, it seemed as if there would be no opportunities at all that day. Matesi and his men were relegated to guarding a wooden pole set across a dusty and deserted dirt road. The only cars that passed were local busses, laden with villagers who were already sympathetic to ZANLA.

Turning the grenade over in his hands—it was small enough to be concealed in one palm—Matesi ruminated on his attack. A wealthy farmer's car, perhaps, or a Rhodesian Army officer on an inspection tour. The privates were like dry sticks; they'd burn with whatever blaze was put to them. Matesi fully expected them to open fire when and if he did, and to follow him into ZANLA service.

When a personal car finally did appear, Matesi was relieved to see that it did in fact carry Rhodesians. He motioned for it to halt and walked up, grenade in hand.

"Where are you going today, sir?" he asked.

The driver stuck his head out; the man was freckled and flaxen-blond. "Bulawayo, eventually," he said. "Taking the family in to pick up some things at the druggist."

The word "family" gave Matesi momentary pause. But no, the beaming wife in the passenger seat made no difference. She too was Rhodesian, and as Ndabaningi had drawn no distinctions, neither should he.

"We're getting some asthma medicine!" a voice said from the back seat. Matesi looked over and saw a young girl there, hair in pigtails. She was clutching a black knit doll with spindly strings for arms and legs, and Matesi had a brief, stabbing thought of his young ones at home.

"That's a fine doll you have there," Matesi said. One quick pull, a toss, and then three seconds.

"Thank you," the girl said. "Her name is Fabunni Zene. Mummy says that means ' God has given me this beautiful thing' in Swahili."

"But we do not speak Swahili in Rhodesia," Matesi said. His hand trembled as he regarded Fabunni. So much like his daughter's…

"Mummy says that more people in Africa speak it than anything else!" the girl said. "That's why Fabunni chose it, to be a part of Africa."

Matesi pulled the pin; there was nothing save the dead-man's switch between that moment and an inferno. The car, and all its occupants, would be purged from Zimbabwean soil with primal fire.

The girl leaned closer to Matesi, as if to deliver a secret. "She has a pet llama," she said. "And one day she's going to grow up and make everybody get along."

"Don't bother the guard with your doll," the woman said. "He's busy."

"No, madam, it's fine." It was now or never; the man was becoming impatient. Matesi looked into the doll's wide, dark button eyes.

"Ncube!" he cried. "Raise the gate and let this man through." One of the privates moved toward the mechanism.

"But don't you need to see my identification?" the man asked.

"No. Go now," Matesi grunted. The car was lost is a cloud of dust a few moments later.

Returning to the guard shack, Matesi re-inserted the grenade's pin and dropped in the weapons locker. It would not burn today.

"Everything all right, boss?" Ncube asked. "You spent more time talking to that girl than the driver!"

Matesi sighed. "God has given me this beautiful thing," he said. "I don't know what is right any more."


bunnygirl said...

This is a beautiful story. It's a little predictable at the end, but the strength of the writing and what came before carries it through.

I remember the news stories about Rhodesia as a child and I remember when the school maps changed to read Zimbabwe instead. I've been following Zimbabwe's economic troubles for the last few years, so a story set in that country was a very pleasant surprise.

Eaton Bennett said...

That speared my heart! How many people in how many ages have faced the same choice - life or death in their hands. My heart goes out to every person who has ever had to make that decision in war.

Evey Brown said...

I felt for this poor man, being forced into something he didn't want to do. What an awful time when violence is an expected thing for a man to do without thought.
By the time I finished with this story I found myself engrossed, wondering how he was going to accomplish his task and then was relieved when he didn't.