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Vol. 3, No. 3

The Leopard Gang
by George Makana Clark

I was kissing Madota behind a pile of sandbags when the war of liberation came to Manicaland, working my hand beneath the blouse of her school uniform, touching the cotton of her brassiere for the first time. The war didn't arrive in jeeps, their fenders, bonnets, and running boards covered with rebels come to drag us out of our beds and shoot us on the lawns of our homes in the harsh light of our own security lamps. That story happens later. War came to us instead with the growl of a dog, and a cry of pain and fear that made Madota sit up and button her blouse.
      I clambered over the sandbags to witness a grim tug-of-war. A guerrilla soldier clung stubbornly to our clothesline pole, his foot trapped in the maw of my father's security dog, a Ridgeback. The dog dragged the rebel earthward by degrees. Because the Rhodesian Security Forces tracked the terrs by the figure-of-eight patterns on their soles, the intruder was barefoot, his combat boots strung over his shoulder. The links of the dog's choke collar rattled with each shake of its head as it separated flesh from anklebone. A poet might have seen in the man a sort of backward Christ, his face pressed against the pole, arms wrapped around the crossbar, but there's no poetry in a fifteen-year-old boy determined to lose his virginity, and I saw only an old man screaming.
      Behind me, Madota tucked her blouse into her waistband. I'd spent the better part of an hour opening the garment one-handed, my thumb and forefinger working the mother-of-pearl through starched buttonholes as my other hand stroked the pleats of her plaid skirt. In opening her shirt, I had exposed a swell of brown flesh against the bleached whiteness of her secret undergarment. Two silver rings hung from a thin metal chain around her neck. We both understood that a new line had been drawn between us, that the next time I coaxed her to the sandbags, this open blouse would be my entrenched position. My assault on Madota's maidenhead was glacierlike, unrelenting and slow and inevitable. I meant to become a man, there with Madota in the dirt behind the sandbags, before my sixteenth birthday.
      "Leave off," I said, pulling at the choke collar, but the dog refused to release the rebel soldier. My father had bought the Ridgeback from a trainer in Umtali, a red-faced Afrikaner who beat his animals with his fists, then turned them loose on a dummy whose head and hands were painted dark. No one felt comfortable petting the nameless dog, and Madota would only come onto our property if I escorted her.
      It was the dog that had prevented the Shona lorry driver and his turnboy from delivering the sandbags to our door a week earlier. Instead they stood in the bed of their lorry and tossed sandbags and nervous glances at the Ridgeback as it paced the edge of our property line with a show of hackles and teeth and black gums. Afterward, I wheedled and coaxed Madota behind the bags heaped on the shoulder of the road, and there, for the first time, I kissed the face and neck of my childhood friend and worried at her school uniform, a haze of dust floating in the late afternoon sun, her brown fingers against my freckled wrist, caressing, restraining.
      "Give it up!" I commanded, but the trainer had never bothered to teach his animals to release the painted dummy, and the Ridgeback held fast to the guerrilla's foot. I stepped back and pointed to my feet. "Sit!" I said, and the Ridgeback let go of the terr and obediently sat before me, fixing its flat stare on my throat.
      The terr climbed from the pole, his weight on his undamaged foot, and regarded us impassively. In me, he saw a pale Murunge boy who seduced Shona girls for sport, and in Madota, he saw the sort of girl who made poor choices. The rebel was stooped and white-bearded, like Madota's father when he was alive, and she cast her eyes at the ground as she brushed the dirt from the seat of her skirt. The Shona are a proper people, as were the ancient sisters who ruled the native school and orphanage, members of the withered and forgotten missionary order of Saint Agnes, from whose care Madota sometimes managed to escape in order to join me behind the sandbags against all rules of accepted behavior.
      The terr turned his back on us and began to hobble toward my house to wait for the police to take him away to prison, there to await his execution. To give him over to our security forces would be to accept his assessment of us. Madota's hand rested on my sleeve, and in this gesture I felt a silent plea. There had always been an unspoken language of touch between us, though in the matter of sexual intercourse I refused to listen.
      "No, this way," I called to his back. I motioned to the tangle of wild vegetation behind our house the way a toddler might wave a loaded pistol, or an informant point to a neighbor with whom he'd just quarreled, a spurious gesture with no regard for consequences. I would help the terr because I felt sorry for him, tattered and bleeding, old and disoriented, and this was the Christian thing to do. Or because I'd become fed up with oppression, and I loved Madota, and so on, the sort of rot that comes early in the story when everybody's still looking for reasons. I draped the rebel's arm around my neck so that I could take his weight. "There's a place you can hide," I said, and with this, I stepped into the story that had carelessly rambled into my yard.
      The old terr looked at me suspiciously, almost annoyed that he would now be forced to reappraise me. I held my breath, and Madota squeezed my hand; here was a breach in the solidarity between the white people of our country, the cement that held Rhodesia together, and there followed a break in the story to accommodate the enormity of the moment.

 

~

That evening, Madota climbed from the window of the crowded barracks she shared with sixty-four other Shona girls, all wards of the church, and she gapped it from the sisters of Saint Agnes. She slowed to a walk when she reached an ancient mahogany whose roots had thrown up a section of the brick wall surrounding the convent—a place, the story goes, where the nuns in their distant youth had met with their Shona lovers. Madota stepped respectfully over the rubble of gnarled roots and broken masonry. It was a sacred tree.
      She skirted a desolate plot of ground that on certain days of the year was anonymously decorated with lilies and orchids from the sisters' hothouse, and sped down the kopje, her bare feet holding the path in the darkness, silver wedding rings jangling on the chain around her neck, until she reached the garden shed. In this way, bringing only her spare school uniform, a picture Bible, and a leather case containing her toiletries, Madota left the care of the sisters of Saint Agnes and joined the rebellion.
      Her first duty was to tend to the guerrilla's foot, washing the punctures and tears and applying ointments and fresh bandages that I pilfered from my father's large stockpile of first aid supplies. The terr called himself Granma, after the yacht that smuggled Castro, Che, and a small cadre of revolutionaries into Cuba. Granma had trained for thirteen weeks on the Caribbean island, most of it in the mountains of the Oriente. He'd returned to Rhodesia with bulging calf muscles, a working knowledge of map reading and Soviet-manufactured light weaponry, and a ceramic coffee mug. Granma fell into a dream in which an enormous dog held his foot fast in its muscled jaws, and we left him, motionless and sweating, on the dirt floor of the garden shed, which was hidden by a dense tangle of undergrowth, outside the territory the Ridgeback had marked with its urine.
      I led Madota behind the sandbags and removed her shirt. This had become a struggle between us, and we took no enjoyment in it. I succeeded in unhooking her brassiere before the dawn brought its truce, and we lay on our sides, not looking into each other's faces, each frustrated with the other, the sandbags hard against our hips and shoulders.
      That weekend, while my father and I shifted the sandbags into our house to shore the perimeter walls against gunfire and shrapnel, Madota nested in the old gardener's shed, clearing a small patch of the weedy tangle that had once been a brilliant garden in the days before my father grew too frightened to hire Shona servants. Her breathy voice sounded like pan pipes as she sang and planted, sometimes a strange and unknown hymn, for the sisters of Saint Agnes were secret psalmists, but more often a bit of nonsense her father had sung to her in her childhood: There was once a girl, there was once a girl, there was once a girl, let's go to Zinjanja! Madota planted matinal and nocturnal flowers, and in the late afternoon hours we witnessed showers of purple morning glories wilt on the vine while moonflowers spread their white petals beneath the darkening sky, and her song floated on their scent, Who went to fetch firewood, who went to fetch firewood, and hundreds of species of butterflies sent representatives to the congress that convened in the constant bloom of her garden, who went to fetch firewood, and the wind jostled chimes suspended from threads—shards of dutchware blue from Indonesia, stemless champagne flutes, chipped glass napkin rings, and silver spoons pounded flat, an orchestra that swelled and fell away behind Madota's voice as if her breath animated them, let's go to Zinjanja! This was not a rebel hideout she was preparing—this point has been clarified in the retellings—but rather a home for the two of us. She planted mint in paraffin tins and set them on the sill of our only window so the mountain wind would rustle it on its way into the shed, and it would always smell cool and fresh inside, until the hot month of November, when the wind chimes fell quiet and Granma's foot began to go septic.
      Granma was nearing sixty, stooped but muscular, and he clung to the old Shona belief that all things were woven together into the fabric of the universe. For this reason he never took more than one cup of instant coffee and chicory, though he clearly enjoyed it over any other beverage. "If I take too much, someone will have to stoop longer in the sun to pick more beans in exchange for the right to remain on their ancestors' land," he explained. Granma polished his ceramic drinking cup after his daily coffee, wrapped it in an undershirt, and placed it carefully in his ruck, out of respect, he told me, for the Cuban who'd been in charge of his weapons training. The revolutionary had been a potter in the days of Batista, and the factory owner would not allow time for the cups to cool before the workers removed them from the kiln. The man's fingertips, Granma told us, were like mushrooms.
      Granma nursed his daily coffee and watched his foot gray like aged steak, and Madota planted her garden and fetched water and changed the bandages that wrapped his rancid foot, and my father and I stacked the sandbags against the papered walls of the bungalow until the heather print was completely obscured. My father had shipped the wallpaper, along with my mother, from Scotland twenty years earlier, and the African climate had been cruel to both. We piled the sandbags in rows of twenty, floor to ceiling, each tier staggered for cohesion in case any stray rockets managed to clear the towering mesh fence my father planned to erect around the house.
      My father and I ate from tins in the dark kitchen, my mother in her room. The kitchen window was left unblocked to help me better see the sink where I scrubbed our dishes, but the mesh cover allowed little light, and we grew used to finding particles of dried food on our china and flatware. There were eleven interior doors in our bungalow, most of the rooms with two and three entrances, giving occupants the impression of many choices. But my father had sealed the kitchen door and covered the windows with mesh, and when our rebel executioners finally came to wake us from our dream of security, they would lead us out the front door.
      Granma's foot prevented him from leaving the shed, so he sent Madota in his stead to rendezvous with the surviving rebels who had crossed with him into Rhodesia. Granma had designated the ancient mahogany at Saint Agnes's as the rendezvous point in the event the cadre became separated, because the tree was prominent on the crest of the kopje, and it was sacred, and for other reasons we would later discover. One of their cadre had been lost during the river crossing, drowned or taken by a crocodile, Granma couldn't say. He had turned to pull his comrade onto the bank, but there was only the black, swirling water of the Zambezi. A mounted patrol of Grey's Scouts fell upon the exhausted and wet guerrilla band, and many surrendered without a fight. Granma threw down his rifle and hid in a tree while the scouts executed their captives, and yet there was no bitterness in his voice as he reached this place in his story. "What would you have them do, nephew? Arrest my comrades, feed them, give them dry clothes?" he asked. "That way we could all fight this war forever, and with clear consciences."
      Madota returned with a stooped man and an emaciated boy, not much older than myself, both weaponless, the only members of the decimated cadre to make the rendezvous. October Twenty-Five had been trained in the Soviet Union and took his name from the date of their Great Revolution. He had worked in the refinery in Umtali until the birth of his twelfth child. The other guerrilla had adopted the name Zhanta, after the legendary Shona warrior of the Rebellion of 1897. Like Granma, the two guerrillas had taken revolutionary names to bolster their morale and, in the advent of capture, to shield their villages and families from reprisals.
      Zhanta followed Madota into the shed, his left eye welling, its cornea bleached white. The eye blinked and teared constantly, as if trying to rid itself of the naked pupil that floated on its surface like a bit of blown ash. As a child, he'd been taken away from his village to work in the dip tanks because his parents couldn't afford to pay a tax. "Mhoro, comrade," he said to Granma, looking at me with his leaking eye, and I caught the faint scent of harsh toxins. I imagined that the dead parasites he rinsed from the cattle at the dip tank had become, for him, a metaphor for the Europeans who infested his homeland.
      "Ahoi," Granma replied, then lowered himself onto the dirt floor of the shed, his damaged leg stretched before him. October Twenty-Five squatted silently. Of the thirty-seven members of their cadre who crossed the Zambezi into Rhodesia, only the three remained alive, each uncomfortable with his survival. No one introduced me, and I stood outside their circle, unsure if I was a comrade or an enemy. Granma spread his outdated survey map over a battered trunk, the only piece of furniture in the shed. When I dragged this trunk from the crawl space in the bungalow to our shed, chips and fragments of glass and delft and porcelain and china glaze and longing and heart's desire had shifted like musical sand in the ullage of its depths.
      Madota made her chimes from the detritus she found inside the trunk, a coffin- sized steamer lined with rotted toile depicting Napoleon's Egyptian campaigns. Its contents smelled of Scottish mildew and stone, and spindrift, and stevedore's spilt beer, and untreated crate wood, and alien scents of faraway cargo, the wafture of seas and continents. The trousseau had accompanied my mother on her sea journey from Scotland, a hopeless chest filled with the sort of frippery that quickly disintegrates in Africa. Because Granma was the only rebel who had previous experience as a guerrilla soldier, we elected him our leader, and we circled around the trunk that would become our dining and campaign table, and so convened the first meeting of the Leopard Gang.

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