Night of the fireflies

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THE RED WINDOW
Breathless from six flights of stairs I stood in front of the flat where Kudzi was staying and ran through my reconciliation speech. Several times I raised my hand to knock, but I was trembling so much I had to walk up and down for a while. A pungent smell of rotten seaweed, which had been packed into the porous concrete by ceaseless thermal pressure, came off the walls. The entrance hall downstairs had been an unpleasant reminder of the run-down Mozambican embassy in Zimbabwe, with its gaping lift shaft, baying letter boxes and cracked floors. It had taken days to get a visa because they had claimed the photo I gave them did not look like me. For someone with his own inner identity on trial, it had been unsettling to have to defend the outer one as well.

When I finally knocked, a young woman opened the door and announced that she was the maid and that no one would be back until after dark. The anticlimax was such that I had to ask her if I could come in for a drink. Despite my being a stranger, my colour ensured her reluctant consent.

She led me into a spartan sitting room where I immediately sank into a foam rubber sofa that eagerly set about absorbing the sweat from my drenched back. I sat there without moving, as engulfed in the sofa as I was in my own private turmoil.

The arrival of the drink brought me sufficiently out of myself to register a serious flaw in Third World groupie ethics: Kudzi’s Danish friend Ulla had the services of a maid. The orange-coloured drink must have been the Russian liquid soap that Rainer had mentioned, but at least it was abundant and cool. Meanwhile I scoured the room for signs of Kudzi.

The furnishings were few: a table, some wooden dining chairs, a bookcase of planks supported by bricks and scattered with books – Ngugi, Davidson, Dumont, the familiar cover of Soul On Ice, Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. Not Kudzi’s flat, I thought, but without doubt Kudzi’s world. These were the Bibles of the Left. Tokens of my influence.

Had I not been the one in London in the mid-seventies who had introduced Kudzi to most of the books on those shelves? During our exile from the anti-colonial war in our home country, Rhodesia, was I not the one who had underpinned her visceral beliefs with intellectual foundations?

How sad it was that the idealism behind our political thinking became a key source of the problems that developed between us. Kudzi was a natural socialist. “Socialism begins in the bedroom,” she liked to say. Extrapolating from the give-and-take of lovemaking she believed that having a partner or forging a new nation meant to share materially as well as emotionally, and above all to care for one another’s well-being and development. This she was able to do with spontaneous generosity, although not without discretion.

For me it was not so simple. I had supported the African nationalist war for independence, but I did not fight in it. Kudzi joined the liberation movement, trained as a guerrilla in Tanzania, then spent two years fighting in the bush.

When the battle was over, in 1980, and Rhodesia became the independent state of Zimbabwe, we had returned together to champion a golden socialist future. Back home, while Kudzi’s visceral beliefs remained intact, mine became destabilised by the way power-hungry leaders in countries like the USSR, China, Korea, Ghana, the Congo were ruining or had ruined the socialist ideal. My sad political impotence exasperated Kudzi. Only a few weeks ago she had told me: “In the old Rhodesia I lived and breathed racial humiliation … you analysed it. I felt the whites’ insatiable hunger for power over us … you worked it out as a sociological error.” I was a “retired armchair Marxist” in her opinion, a theorist who was always letting his head get in the way of his intuition and, worse still, one who was always frightened of getting his hands dirty.

Yet it was I who felt betrayed by her! Because I believed I loved her through thick and thin. It was she who had wrecked the team, banished her cohort and destroyed our future.

My descent into self-pity was interrupted by Ulla’s maid sweeping through the room with a basket of washing. As she passed the bookshelves, Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth entered my line of vision. The familiar cover sparked off a surge of envy for Kudzi and her friends. How fortifying to have a cosy belief system! How disorientating to have lost mine! Not only had I become a man without a woman or, rather, a man without the woman, but a man who had lost all his certitudes. My world had become empty of a viable political future – and I was alone in it. This had become my primary condition. It invaded everything.

I sniffed the sofa for Kudzi’s unique smell, receiving only the odour of the ubiquitous damp and stale wide-ranging sweat.

Then I saw her slippers. They were parked next to an armchair: inverted sheepskin, tatty with age, a hole where her big toe had pushed through. There is something so intrinsically benign about slippers that it’s impossible to imagine anyone doing anything bad in them; only fond images of Kudzi sailed forth from the furry leather. How many times, in how many places had I seen her in them ...

“You have English feet,” she had told me one night at our flat in London. “No good for running, too bony for jumping. Now look at these,” she continued, pulling hers out of those very slippers. “Square feet – good for gripping; the arch is high, giving spring. These are well-designed feet made for walking across the African bush. See how the toes haven’t been twisted by fascist shoes, like yours!” She had started to wriggle her feet gymnastically. “If ever I lost my arms I could make those charity Christmas cards – ‘From an original work painted with the foot’.”

The slippers softened my pain to a calmer yearning. They spoke volumes: about long evenings together, about passionate nights. The Portuguese have a word for such yearning – saudades. It runs through their poetry and their fados and it involves the sad but gentle remembrance of a distant person, often dead, or a lost golden time. I finished my drink slowly, stared at the slippers a little longer, and indulged in saudades.

The return of the maid, once more in transit, brought me to my feet. I was surprised to discover a window behind her with a wonderful view of the sea, which I had been too disturbed to notice when I entered the room. In the distance across Catembe Bay I could see palms on the far shore and, above the palms, a thick orange band traversing the horizon where the sky heat-fogged into the land. Suddenly, the flare of a rocket came and went above the height of the trees. Black smoke billowed up. I waited for the sound of the explosion, but it was too far away.

My skin turned to gooseflesh – not from this evidence of battle, but from Rainer’s inane poetry echoing back at me. Men crouching under lamps of war. There in front of me stood the janela vermelha (“red window”) and, beyond it, the sea with the lamps of war on the distant shore. He had spoken of a sad woman looking through just such a window, presumably at night (if the sea were black as he had said) and weeping at the signs of war. Was it possible that Rainer knew Ulla? Had he been in this very flat? Had he met Kudzi?

Abruptly I put an end to the musing. The references were too vague … they could mean anything and nothing.

The maid was back again, this time facing me and shifting uneasily from foot to foot, intimating that she had to leave and lock up. I glanced at my watch. There were about four hours to nightfall, by which time I needed to have sorted out a bed. I settled on making for the Polana with the help of Rainer’s map, and to start phoning again from there.

I scribbled a note for Kudzi saying I was very upset by all the acrimony and wanted so much to clear it up. “I’ve come here to do this,” I wrote, underlining the words. “I’ll phone this evening. This time, I beg you, please take the call.”


COSTA DO SOL
I couldn’t believe it: as I came out on to the street, the brightly glinting Peugeot was pulling up next to me, with Rainer at the wheel grinning right at me through a full set of devastated teeth, and Rosa leaping and yelping in the back seat as if she were as glad as her master to see me.

“May I suggest a change of air?” Rainer said. “I am taking Rosa for a sunset walk on the beach.”

Down the road, the crowd of kids, still playing football with a can, stopped to stare at me.

“You can’t go anywhere on foot,” Rainer continued. “First we shall have a drink in the bar of a friend at Costa do Sol. Get in!”

Several of the kids had started towards the car, walking tough. Despite my extreme reluctance, I found myself obeying Rainer and got into the car, shoving at Rosa to keep her in the back. Meanwhile, the front-line kids were drawing level. Their needy eyes scoured the interior of the car. I hunted their hands for objects they might use to smash a window and grab my bag, Rainer’s absurd sunglasses, anything.

“Let’s get out of here,” I urged.

“My pleasure!” Rainer replied, driving forward with a jerk. “I told you the streets are not made for walking.”

As we gained ground on our potential attackers, I tried to relax into the seat. Instead the source of my anxiety shifted to Rainer who seemed so delighted to have me back with him that I felt almost as if I had been kidnapped. Driving with his usual panache, he turned the car away from the Catembe towers, and soon we were heading past a vacant sandy park on avenida Mao Tsé Tung that contained a languishing athletics track. With sardonic relish Rainer told me it was called the Parque dos Continuadores and dedicated to those who would ensure the eternal continuation of the revolution. “But as you can see by its state of dereliction, no one is prepared to run, jump or throw a javelin for the revolution.”

A vast pothole threw Rosa into my lap. Slobber flew everywhere and she bashed me with her plaster cast. I shoved her away and wound down my window, gasping for air. Rainer treated us to one of his belly laughs. Then, after several curious glances at my unhappy face, he said, “You must wonder what I was doing in the garden last night, falling about and moaning?”

I shrugged. “I have no desire at all to delve into your personal problems.”

Ignoring my dismissal, he said “Do not worry, I am not an epileptic.” Then arching his index finger backwards to a squeamish angle, he pointed towards the heavens: “Interference is my problem. My growling father upsets me and down go my filters and everything comes pouring in.” He thumped his knuckles on his over-sized head: “Bang, bang! fists – that is how it feels. Banging fists!”

He pulled his reflecting sunglasses down over his convex nose and our eyes locked. Not for long, but long enough for his gaze to exert a pull on my optical rods and cones such that my body tightened and a new fear swept through it that I can only describe as fear of the unknown … a powerful unknown. With an upward sweep of his opaque glasses Rainer snapped the invisible cord, and suddenly I could breathe more easily.

He turned his attention back to the road, and said, “All the stuff that flies through the earth every second, it is like a thunderstorm. I feel it passing through me. Normally we feel and see nothing – why is that? Because we have filters. Now you hear the sound of my voice, the wind, the engine of my little car, right? Shift concentration and you will hear other sounds that you were not aware of: Rosa’s breath, the car springs, your nails tapping the dashboard because you are fed up with me. Now do you see what I am getting at, about filters?”

We took a sharp right and waves from marimbas and drums came booming into the car out of the broken windows of a school. Where were the filters against a force of sound such as this? Rainer’s face lit up like a child’s. “The geometry of music. How I love it!” – taking off on a flamboyant tack – “That is why I play the piano … to bring back order. I strike the keys” – dropping his fingers like a set of claws on to his knee – “the music blossoms from the back of my piano” – extending his fingers like the quivering tips of a bird’s wing – “it flies across the room, bouncing off the walls in crystal waves” – grabbing the steering wheel at last, then turning to me condescendingly – “You must understand, I build myself strong by watching the waves dance, by following the cascading units. Imagine how consoling it is when I am lost in innumerable worlds and along comes music funnelling units into organised patterns.”

He could not resist describing even a simple pleasure in the most convoluted way. He loved his own rhetoric. Rainha, “the Queen”, they called him – a drama queen indeed, with a thoroughly dislikeable sense of superiority and a need to appear impregnable in his own conviction.

The music faded as we joined the Marginal where the buildings started to thin out. It was too late now to jump out of the car as I had contemplated doing earlier. Why had I given in so easily? Was it the menace of the street kids? Or had that strange blazing stare of his somehow weakened my resolve?

To steady my thoughts I concentrated on the view. Palm trees ran attractively along the seafront, strobing the well-sanded beach with their shadows. Beyond this, powder-puff sunlight dabbed the cheeks of a pink-powdered sea, fusing the slash of the horizon into a harmonious heat haze. The few aimless pedestrians we passed stopped either to look at us with indifference or else to wave us down for a lift, already resigned to failure.

It was a long drive out to the section of coast called Costa do Sol, especially at the crawling speed of the old 504. By now I was resigned to spending another night at the Krugers’.

After a long silence during which his disposition had for no apparent reason turned sullen, Rainer announced out of the blue: “I made medical history when I was six. Like you I had a duodenal ulcer. My mother took me to hospital where I was filled with barium, and they took an X-ray picture of it. I was only six, but I knew everything there was to know about this world and it had made me sick in the stomach. I wanted to leave it as soon as possible. Depart! Be gone! … And I still do.”

At first I was relieved when he buttoned up his lips after this doomsday announcement. Then during mile upon mile of wordlessness along the Marginal, I discovered that his capacity for sudden flux from obsessive verbosity to comatose silence still produced oppressive tension.

At last we pulled up at an immense roundabout before a long, crusty 1940s building that looked like a colonial airport – the famous Costa do Sol Restaurant, famous from os velhos boms tempos. There were no cars, no customers going in or out, not a soul on the beach. There were palms, some gum trees, pines and scrub, but no habitation. Beyond the roundabout a substantial road block made of tyres and tree trunks was visible. Beyond that … the unknown.

Benvindo à Rainha! Benvindo às duas Rainhas – com a pequena Rosa!

Manoli, the softly rounded and smooth-cheeked son of the Greek founder of the restaurant, had emerged from the shadows to warmly greet Rainer and his dog. “The man from Zimbabwe” was welcomed with hearty backslaps. Manoli poured straight shots of ouzo while we shook hands with half a dozen members of his extended family who were playing cards. One of them – an old woman whose olive face was a network of trenches – squawked like a crow, not from excitement at meeting me, but in the agitated anticipation of resuming her game. Since the petrol crisis, the vast dining room had become a cemetery where tables stacked with chairs fanned out majestically around the players like tombstones.

Despite the friendly atmosphere, Rainer remained aloof. It was mainly the restlessness of his eyes that gave this impression, incapable of lingering on an object, animate or inanimate – a detachment that was compounded by those deep shadows I had seen within his pupils during my first morning at the house, like traces of some land of far greater concern to him than the mundanity of his immediate environment.

After exchanging pleasantries, Manoli excused himself as he simply had to return to the game. Left together, Rainer and I watched the players in silence, sipping ouzo. Time slipped by and I grew restless, as did Rosa who began tugging at her leash in an attempt to get to the beach. On an impulse, Rainer grabbed a knife from the bar, scooped her up and cut through the plaster cast. Carefully feeling for the knitted leg bone, he threw aside the cast, then replaced Rosa on the floor. With new mobility the animal wriggled her head free of the leash, and bolted lamely but happily out the door while Rainer and I laughed and Manoli cheered.
THE BRIDGE-OF-NO-RETURN
Rosa was racing around the beach while Rainer and I made our way across the roundabout. Pointing at the makeshift roadblock, Rainer said, “A hundred metres further on lies a dead stream and ‘The Bridge-of-No-Return’, as we have named it. A baker’s truck looking for firewood went ‘Boom!’ next to those palms over there by the Aldeia dos Pescadores, an abandoned village.” His laconic delivery made me wonder if he had feelings for anything not immediately associated with himself. He added with unfitting jollity, “Because of this, our yeast factory will soon close down.”

Drawing away from him I ploughed ahead through the fine sand towards the ocean where the bleary sun was descending towards the horizon’s thick orange lips. Close to the water line I nestled my body into the hot cushioning of the beach and watched the scuds vanish.

Rainer meanwhile had become engaged in such shriekingly jolly games with Rosa that I was compelled to watch. He fell over, rolled about, lost his sunglasses, found them, put them on again, ran after the dog with such ungainly co-ordination that he fell over and lost his glasses again, fumbled about, found them, tottered to his feet and ran after Rosa, stumbling like a foal.

Shockingly, Rainer’s playtime and my relaxation were terminated by the close heavy rattle of gunfire. I jumped up. The thundering lasted a full ten seconds and came from the no-man’s-land beyond the invisible bridge.

“Hadn’t we better clear off?” I shouted sharply.

Rainer scanned the distant palms as if he were looking out for the next bus. “Fireworks have been going off outside town for years,” he called back. “So far the bandidos have not entered Maputo.”

He came shuffling through the sand towards me while I kept watching the rooftop of palms with a wary eye. “See!” he continued. “Over at the restaurant no one has bothered to come outside and look. We are all so used to it.”

He sat down at my feet and began prodding the sand gently with a finger. Then he said, “I like this beach for walking Rosa. It is perfectly situated between the soldiers fighting a war over there and the desperados back in the city.”

Calmed by his reassurances, I crouched down beside him. Gulls arrived, the gift of flight enabling them to escape the violence. They started a little war of their own, dive-bombing the beach and snatching up little crabs that skittered over the sand every time a wave retreated.

As though to himself, Rainer muttered, “Even the seagulls are trapped in a prison ... between sky and sea.”

With an impulse of unexpected effusion, I took up his theme: “This situation we’re in ... it’s so symbolic of Africa. As a child I remember lying on one of those sculpted boulders in the highveld. I felt safe, but at the same time I knew that danger was close by, ready to strike at any time in the shape of a leopard, a snake, a scorpion, even a horsefly ... Just as we sit now by this gentle sea with the ‘lamps of war’, as you call them, only yards away.”

All this must have slipped out through some need for human contact after the gunfire. When I looked at Rainer, I found that the folds of his face had arranged themselves into a mask of sadness, which I mistook for empathy. It seemed he had masks for all occasions. In keeping with this one, his long fingers dangled off his knees like snapped fishing lines.

“This sea gives me no good feelings,” he moaned, “as long as the roar of guns remains in the air.” He seemed not to have heard me at all. Feeling foolish, I fiddled with the sand, hoping that we would leave soon.

“The battle I speak of,” he went on, “the one that exhausts me, is the one that boils the oceans, turns the palms to cinders and melts the sand to hot lava. Whenever I look at those waves I ask myself: how many times have they shrivelled to hydrogen and helium?” He was off on some new hobby-horse. I regretted having opened the conversation.

Jabbing at the horizon he continued, “The sun inherited its gold from the generations of suns that lived and died before it. We are built on a mountain of destruction ... yet on the back of conflict, life thrives and grows. Grows to what, I ask? For what insane purpose does it grow since in the end all must be destroyed?” Shooting a fiery glance at me, he almost shouted, “What kind of system is it that uses war as its sperm? Answer me that!”

Confounded by the twists and turns in his conversation, I rose to my feet. He exhaled a loud moan of disappointment at my lack of concern for the imminent collapse of the universe, then fought with the loose sand in order to get up. When he started yelling for his dog, which had become a distant dot, I turned my back on him and struggled off in the direction of the car.

It was as I neared the roundabout that I heard the sound of a vehicle driving fast. A camouflaged military jeep soon came into sight from the no-go area. The driver – a soldier – bounced alone in the front seat. He swerved perilously to bypass the road block, raising clouds of dust, a sheet of canvas making windy thuds in the back as it flapped over whatever it was covering. The jeep raced off perilously towards the city.

Once again no one had bothered to interrupt an important card game to come out and look. Nor had Rainer paused in his effort to recapture his dog.

I climbed into the car. At least ten minutes passed before my host returned, and it was now dusk, or what we film people poetically call “magic hour”, which lasts for about twenty minutes in these parts of Africa. I continued to stare straight ahead as he shoved his struggling pet into the back seat, but could not avoid noticing his latest mask – a churlish sulk.

“I have my own brand of pain,” he mumbled. “Just as you have yours!”

I burst out laughing, but soon stopped in face of his wounded expression. “I’m sorry, Rainer. I shouldn’t laugh, but you really are such a drama queen.”

After clambering into the car he surprised me completely by wagging that piebald parrot’s tongue of his like a little boy in trouble while throwing his palm up African style to “slap five”. I responded appropriately, then took advantage of the moment to say, “Now let’s get back as fast as this jalopy will take us. I need to phone Kudzi.”

Rainer chuckled as he started the engine. “You are most refreshing, Miguel. The Mozambican male would never hurry to phone his lover – he has the heart of a macho.”
THE WOUNDED SOLDIER
We had not been driving along the Marginal for more than ten minutes when we came upon the first signs of a frightening spectacle: flames up ahead on the side of the road.

Soon we could make out tall plumes of fire leaping from the army jeep and from the grass around it. The vehicle had run off the road, across a ditch, and overturned. The petrol tank must have burst and caught fire.

As we drew level Rainer steered the car to the far side of the road. Feeling the heat of the inferno I wound my window up, but not before smoke entered, reeking of burnt flesh. In the gloom, grotesque details emerged: soldiers’ bodies strewn everywhere, lying so stiffly that they must have already been corpses before the accident. Many of the bodies were alight. Through the veil of smoke, I saw the driver on the ground, crushed by the frame of the windshield, his spine folded back on itself, his flesh bubbling in flames.

Then something moved. A body was crawling through the grass – a live soldier inching forward on his belly to escape the red tongues licking at him.

Rainer changed gear and accelerated.

“Stop!” I shouted. “There’s a man alive!”

“None of our business!”

He accelerated faster.

“There’s no one else about,” I shouted. “We’ve got to take that man to a hospital. Stop the car!”

After a big sigh, he said, “Very well.”

Rainer left the car lights on to help us find our way over the rough ground. The first bodies we came across had been thrown clear of the fire, some displaying the war wounds that had killed them. Further on, a body lay sprawled, its battle dress in flames. The nauseating vapour of roasting flesh made me want to throw up. I have little experience of gruesome death and a fear of blood – not my own, but other people’s.

Then I caught sight of the injured soldier feebly raising an arm towards us. We stumbled through several patches of burning grass. Rainer got to the man first, grunting as he turned him over: his face was covered in blood, his torn uniform seeping blood that came from an open wound below his heart. He was whimpering, only half-conscious, his breathing a series of feeble pants.

Now a dangerous smell of petrol was riding on the fumes. The heat of the fire on top of the heat of the country was unbearable. I thought I was going to pass out, but the drama of the situation kept me conscious, the need to function overcoming my phobias. What had Kudzi once said, mocking me? – “The blood of war is the blood of life.”

Rainer then did the strangest thing: he wrapped his arms round the man, lifted him up, and pressed him – bleeding wound and all – flat against his body, rocking him like a baby. I watched, mystified, wondering where his scraggy arms had found the strength for this enterprise. The soldier clawed at the air weakly once or twice before his arms fell loosely to his sides. Lowering him to the ground Rainer said in a strong voice, “Come! Help me carry him to the car!”

“Is he still alive?”

“Take his ankles!”

I did as I was told while Rainer grabbed his wrists. We shuffled forward. I was sweating so much even my hands were wet, making it difficult to keep my grip. Following orders, I helped Rainer lay the soldier out, slack as a sack, on the tar in front of the car lights. If the man was breathing it was too slight for me to see.

“Go fetch a water bottle off one of the bodies!” Rainer commanded. In his steely eyes I could see the reflection of the flames behind me, a display of scarlets, blues, greens, mauves. Rosa was barking frantically in the car, which did not help the nerves.

I found myself rushing around among the assorted bodies. Some were burning and therefore inaccessible. Most of them did not have flasks. At last I stumbled on a sheathed flask that had fallen clear of the mess, and was almost full.

When I got back, Rainer was tearing the soldier’s shirt into strips. Raising his palms he asked me to pour water over them. He rinsed his hands well. Then he took the flask from me, poured water on one of his newly-made swabs and began wiping the blood and dirt off the soldier’s wound. As soon as the exposed flesh was clean, he promptly stuck his index finger into the wound … then a second finger … then a third. What he did next made me gag: he pushed his whole hand in and went on shoving it deep under the man’s ribcage until his wrist disappeared. It crossed my mind that the whole exercise might be some perversity performed by Rainer for his own amusement, or else to torment me by fuelling my disquiet, or at best to put the soldier out of his misery.

I was about to intervene when he started to extract his wrist carefully, blood spilling out over the man’s chest. I had to struggle not to avert my gaze. At last his hand came out … completely. For a second he held it suspended before the headlights, dripping in blood and gore … in his fingers something glistened briefly, then fell tinkling on to the tar – it was a sizeable bullet. With a gasp I leaned back against the bonnet of the car.

“You’re blocking the light,” I heard him say. “Pour more water over my hands. Come on!”

Fighting to compose my senses I picked up the flask, then stood staring at the soldier whose chest was now pumping air.

“Come on! Pour the water!” Rainer shouted.

I tried to concentrate on doing what he wanted.

“That’s enough! Save the rest!” he ordered.

Having dabbed the wound with a fresh cloth he began to re-introduce his hand. I stood by, watching with growing humility. After he had plunged it in as deeply as before, he turned it first one way then the other, again and again. The soldier’s chest kept on heaving and he appeared to be immune to pain. This time I noticed a burgeoning glow within the flesh that surrounded Rainer’s wrist. At first it was yellow like a light bulb buried inside the man, but it quickly intensified, turning to a soft gold that radiated steadily across his chest and stomach. Rainer’s hand appeared to be the source of this spreading pool of energy that soon became so powerful it exposed the soldier’s chest plate, his ribs, even the shadow of his beating heart and his pumping lungs: it was like seeing the body in photographic X-ray.

Meanwhile Rainer’s face had become swollen and knotted from maximum exertion, and the veins in the arm he was using were greatly engorged along with those in his neck and across his forehead. He was breathing fast and sweating profusely.

Eventually he began to pull his hand out again, but with greater difficulty than before for the flesh had grown tighter and sucked at his hand as if desirous to keep it in, so that he had to lean against the road with his free arm to give himself leverage. Very little blood ran out of the wound this time. Finally, only his glowing fingers were left inside, clearly visible right through to the bones. The soldier’s flesh closed up ever more tightly, like an oyster round Rainer’s long fingers as he eased them out.

When he succeeded in withdrawing his hand it was still radiant. The light, strongest at the finger tips, covered the entire palm and faded across the wrist … the shadow of his bones still visible through the incandescent flesh.

I looked down at the soldier – there was no hole in his chest, just a pink glow like a dying ember where the wound had been. For a while Rainer stroked this spot, smoothing the ripped flesh while the radiance in his hand faded. He asked me for the flask again and, taking it from me, sprinkled water over the soldier’s torso and rubbed some of it into the traces of the wound, its redness fading as he did so. When he had finished, I was looking down incredulously at a black chest imprinted with a raw rose tattoo.

Rainer stood up, his eyes heavy-lidded. Under the weight of his outsized head his neck appeared to shrink over the coat-hanger wires of his shoulders as exhaustion engulfed his body.

Baffled and curious, I crouched next to the soldier and cautiously placed my palm on the wound. A strong repulsive force pushed strangely against my hand, making me lift it off at once.

I glanced up at Rainer. His eyes were broken chips of mica scattering the fire’s rays. Taking a fresh piece of torn shirt, he wiped his face with it, then threw it away. “Help me lift him into the car,” he whispered hoarsely. “Look! He’s watching us.”

With a stare stripped of agony, the soldier was searching our faces with mild perplexity.

Rainer was far too tired to drive, so I did. As we pulled away from the scene of the accident, the last flicking flames threw evil shadows over the dashboard. Rainer held Rosa in his arms while the soldier lay stretched across the back seat sighing heavily.

We drove in silence, both of us recovering from the ordeal, although I also remained suspended in wonderment. We came across no traffic – not a single vehicle. After several kilometres Rainer said in a voice broken by fatigue, “I practise healing part-time. Plenty of others can do it. Nothing to be amazed by. No magic involved … case of moving molecules around.”

I could not disguise or withhold my admiration.

Rainer chuckled. “At home you will sometimes see government ministers parking in the back alley. I treat them in our domestic quarters … in António’s room, in fact. I put on a great big show for them.”

I neither believed in nor disbelieved psychic phenomena. I knew little about the subject and certainly had no aptitude for it. The paranormal was a million miles from where I came from. Yet I had made visits to astrologers and palmists; a Tarot reader had once made perceptive comments on my character, my past and my parents. But when it came to pre-cognition, the analysis of these soothsayers seemed hit and miss to me.

We were entering the dark empty streets of the city when he next spoke. “People love to make a fuss about what they do not understand. They need to be in awe of one form of mystery or another. It is an eternal childishness. Of course I could have made a career out of it. Why, I could have been a Uri Geller and acquired fame and fortune! But I have no desire to make a career of any sort.”

We dropped off the sleeping soldier at military barracks off the avenida Kenneth Kaunda. I wondered if he would ever realise what he had gone through. What could he possibly imagine, waking up and looking at his body and finding a red scar on his chest? He might assume that he had dreamed about getting shot. Or, if he had been brought up a Catholic under Portuguese rule, that his favourite saint had worked a miracle. Or that Jesus Christ himself had heard his cries.

As we drove to the house on avenida Francisco O. Magumbwe the old callous Rainer re-emerged: “He is a soldier. Death is his profession. One day soon he will die from another bullet.”

I, on the other hand, did not revert to my sceptical self. I came out of the experience with new eyes.




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