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Vol. 3, No. 3

The Leopard Gang
by George Makana Clark

~

Place, rather than time, is the stitch that weaves African stories together, and when Granma told us he knew where a cache of weapons could be found, it seemed foreordained that they'd be buried near the sacred mahogany that towered over Saint Agnes's, on a patch of desolate ground scattered with dead and fresh flowers. The previous owners of the weapons, the story goes, were a cadre of rebels who, in the early days of the war, infiltrated into Rhodesia with neither reconnaissance, nor planning, nor any local support from the villagers, whom the police alternately bribed and bullied for information. They suffered three weeks of starvation and exposure before they finally buried their weapons and money and uniforms and made their way south across the Botswanan border. Only one member of the cadre, Granma, would return to Africa to resume the hondo.
      Granma's foot had prevented him from joining us, so there was a childish excitement among the Leopard Gang when we broke ground beneath the waxing crescent moon, playing pirates after treasure. At times Madota's shoulder touched mine as we put our weight to the spades, and an acute awareness of her flooded me, and I felt myself swell against the fabric of my trousers. Although the beleaguered guerrillas had buried the weapons shallowly in their haste to be rid of them, the dry season had turned the mound of earth into the crown of a great skull, and the romance quickly evaporated as the tips of our shovels scratched and scraped against the hardpan.
      As we dug, I told October Twenty-Five and Zhanta about the twelve lay Catholics, all young Shona men under the direction of a Swiss Bethlehem priest, who had built the chapel, convent, native school, and orphanage during such a dry season. A mother superior and twenty-four young novices came with the rains, and the chapel sunk and canted beneath their feet. After the Swiss Bethlehem father returned to Umtali, the Shona men erected a temporary barracks at a discreet distance from the convent and, according to the story, continued to serve the sisters, first installing blair toilets and a donkey boiler, then a runoff channel to direct the rainwater down the kopje. The laymen stayed on after there was nothing left to build, repairing all imperfections, save the breach in the wall forced by the mahogany's roots, which provided secret access to the compound.
      There was a mandatory hanging clause in the Law and Order Act for anyone found guilty of terrorist activity. Possession of a firearm constituted such an offense, and in our fatigue it was easy to imagine that the hole we dug was, in a way of speaking, our own grave. October Twenty-Five shuddered and climbed out of the shallow pit to smoke a cigarette beneath the mahogany, and Zhanta threw a shovelful of dirt at him. "Why do you stand there breathing through your nose while we work so hard? Granma says, 'Where one rests, another works double.'"
      "Granma's always talking. Zzzz, zzz, zzz. Where's he now? Who's working double for him?" October Twenty-Five spat. He had little use for ideology. "Granma also says he'll take on all the sins of our country." Granma was a sinnerist who believed he could save people from evil by committing their transgressions for them. October Twenty-Five thought Granma was vuta, full of airs.
      Zhanta's colorless eye glared. He believed Granma was a holy man. Madota and I continued to dig, uneasy in our growing fear that we would exhume the fine bones of smothered infants. It was widely known that the nuns had buried their unwanted babies here, marking the anniversary of each interment with a spray of hothouse flowers. At a depth of four feet, we uncovered a bed of sticks that the rebels had spread over the weapons. I trained my penlight into the shallow pit while October Twenty-Five inventoried the cache: five Chinese AK automatics, seven grenades, one land mine, several thousand rounds of ammunition, stacks of ZANU pamphlets, straps of South African and Rhodesian money, camouflaged uniforms, two TNT demolition slabs, a military radio, a PPSH Russian submachine gun, piles of Mao's Little Red Book, and discarded uniforms.
      We reburied the pamphlets and books, as well as the radio—the Rhodesian Security Forces occupied so many frequencies that it wasn't safe to use it. Madota and I shook out two sets of camouflaged uniforms to take home and wash for ourselves. My fatigue shirt had a bullet hole in the shoulder, and when we returned to the shed Madota sat close and taught me how to sew it shut, my hands in hers, looping the needle in small, even stitches, the cooking fire hot on our faces, the smoky chicory from Granma's coffee in our nostrils.
      That same night, a leopard visited Granma in a dream, and she told him we would be invisible at night if we kept off the crest of hills where the stars and moon would silhouette us, and she warned us that we must put aside our selfish interests or fail in our rebellion. The leopard was the spiritual animal of Granma's family, and she advised and warned him in his dreams.
      We called ourselves the Leopard Gang in honor of Granma's dream, and we broke off the front and back sights on our weapons to prove we would kill close in the night, and we called each other "comrade" and fired our empty rifles point-blank at life-size soldiers cut from butcher paper and taped to the rocks. The night wind made our enemies writhe under our imaginary fusillade. On Granma's strict orders, we aimed dead-center mass, like they teach in Cuba: "Humans are too hardheaded, and sometimes the bullet will turn against the skull. Better to hit the belly or chest. That way, you remove three soldiers from the fight—the soldier you shoot, and the two who carry him away." The mountain wind swallowed the hollow tick of our dry fire, and our silent target practice went unheard by the sticks of police and soldiers who patrolled the highlands, nor did it reach my father as he paced the bungalow's perimeter with the Ridgeback, checking locks, testing mesh window coverings, nor did it penetrate my mother's bedroom, where she kept my father's loaded service revolver within arm's reach at all times. Whether she planned to use this weapon as a last-ditch defense against the terrs who would one night burst into her room, or whether she intended at that final moment to turn it on herself, is beyond my ken.

 

~

In September, when the Leopard Gang was still new, we cleared Granma's maps from the steamer trunk and laid on a feast: Granma peppered rusks of stale bread with cinnamon, and we immersed them in his ceramic mug until they were soft with instant coffee and chicory; October Twenty-Five fried beetles that Zhanta rooted from the bark of dead flame trees that had once grown in the garden; I bought scuds of beer and takeaways of fried meat; and Madota stewed a pot of fresh vegetables that had been delivered to us anonymously. Though the Leopard Gang stayed clear of the Shona in a nearby trust land, we had awoken that morning to find gem squash, tomatoes, cucumbers, maize, pumpkins, papaya, mangos, and courgettes piled outside the shed door. "There are brothers and sisters everywhere," Granma told us.
      Madota said a simple grace, "Keep us well, Father," and I wondered which "father" she meant: the Christian God of the Sisters of Saint Agnes, as illustrated in her book of Bible stories; Mhondoro, the great tribal spirit of the Shona people; or the spirit of her own dead father. Granma told me to hang some meat outside the shed, and I reckoned this to be some sort of spiritual offering to facilitate the healing of his foot, which I suppose, in a sense, it was.
      "Have more, brother," Zhanta pressed Granma.
      Granma refused. "If I take too much, someone else goes without."
      October Twenty-Five had no such qualms and accepted another scud of beer, then sang the song of the absent lover for his wife who waited in the trust lands for his return. Faraway mountains hide you from me, the shed's solitary window above him framed the emptiness of the night sky, while closer mountains throw their shadows at me, and here he made a fist, for dramatic tension maybe, or some feeling for his woman that had welled up inside him, Would that I had my war club, or perhaps this was how the song was sung, with balled fists, I would smash the near mountains, and he brought the fist down on the table softly so that it would not disturb his beer, Would that I had bird wings, and he made as if he were going to rise, but instead settled back on his haunches, I would fly over the far mountains.
      His song conjured a buried memory of my parents singing behind the closed door of my mother's room, their harmonies perfectly blended, proof that this was something they'd done often in the long ago, before my father brought his bride to Africa. It was an ancient air, mournful and Scottish. They never sang again in my hearing, and so I'm unable to weave the lyrics of their song into this narrative, nor provide details from behind that closed door to establish a scene, leaving this bit a curious digression to be edited out, perhaps, in the next telling.
      No one spoke at the close of October Twenty-Five's song, and he laughed at my surprise. "I know how you like to tell stories, nephew," he said to me, "and that you say I joined the revolution to get away from my wife and all those children." Outside the shed, the flies hummed around the meat I'd hung out for Granma. "Now I'll tell you the truth. My wife's a small woman. When she birthed our twelfth child, the nganga told us she wouldn't live through another; if I went with her again, the result might kill her. I had to go somewhere, so I joined the liberation movement."
      "Ehe! Why not use a condom, man?" Zhanta asked.
      "A condom can fall off, or sometimes they break holes. No, I'm a patient man. There's no quick end to our revolution, and she hasn't so many childbearing years left."
      It took more than a day for the flyblown meat to cultivate maggots, which Madota applied to Granma's gangrenous wound to eat away the poisoned flesh. While Granma screamed into a knotted rag stuffed into his mouth, Madota and I resumed our struggle, hidden in the thicket that surrounded the shed. I had progressed to the point where Madota was naked to the waist, but despite my coaxing and petting, she refused to yield to me. "Why do we do this?" she asked. The contest might have lasted all night had October Twenty-Five not discovered us when he left the shed to relieve himself. "This sort of thing endangers everyone," he muttered, and returned with a full bladder to watch over Granma.
      That morning, Madota burned out the maggots with a glowing stick, and Granma fell into a deep sleep that lasted two days. When he awoke, he refused to take any of the instant coffee we'd made for him, and he gave his ceramic mug to Madota, and he told us his dream. "In my sleep, the leopard told me our first target. We attack the sisters at Saint Agnes tonight."
      Zhanta's eye stared at Granma, and Madota seemed to sink into herself. I retreated further away from the circle of rebels. Up to this point, it had all been playing soldiers and talking.
      "They're only old women, comrade," October Twenty-Five said.
      "Those old women with their Jesus. He's more dangerous than soldiers." Granma's foot appeared smaller beneath the bandages. "A proper savior would commit our sins for us, so that we might be spared."
      Madota rose. "Is this what we trained and planned for? Soldiers are supposed to die in combat, but nuns!"
      "Just so!" Granma thumped the chest, and its contents shifted musically. "How many such acts can we stomach? It's time for a new war, one so ugly nobody can face it. The old one's gone on too long."
      "They aren't hurting anybody," I said. It had been my practice to remain silent at these meetings, and my voice sounded thin and childish in my ears.
      Granma settled back on his haunches and stared at me. "When I was a small boy, a messenger from the Ministry of Lands informed my family that our ancestral homestead had been designated as white and our cattle would be confiscated to make room for their convent and orphanage. No one's blameless, nephew." And here was the reason his story kept circling round to the ancient mahogany tree atop the kopje.
      Zhanta's bleached eye wept in its socket. Shortly after his release from the dip tanks, guerrillas had come to his village and promised his mother they'd send her son to England to study so he could become a leader when majority rule came. They took him across the border into Zambia, where they gave him a khaki shirt and trousers and a new name and sent him to Algeria for training. Each night, Zhanta pictured the faces of his family and fought to remember the exact position of each house in his village. "We'll never go home," he said miserably.
      "This is something you've just now realized?" Granma said sharply.
      "I didn't join the liberation movement to kill nuns," October Twenty-Five said.
      Granma placed his hand on October Twenty-Five's shoulder. "No worries, comrade. I'll take their deaths upon myself." In these last days, Granma spoke with gravity and portent, as if he were reading scripture.
      I collected water in buckets from the bungalow's faucet and we ritually cleansed ourselves in preparation for the attack, lathering and rinsing our genitals and armpits, and no one else stared when Madota joined us. But I couldn't look away from her nakedness, the water that ran down her belly and off the hair between her legs, and I quickly rinsed and covered my hardness. We dressed and drew leopard spots on each other's faces with burnt sticks, and we set off together to Granma's new war, because we were too frightened to face it alone.

 

~

I'd like to cut away this part of my narrative, but over years the bones of stories turn to stone, and it becomes difficult to break one away from the rest. The Leopard Gang moved through the breach in the brick wall, toward the unlit chapel where the old nuns, it is said, danced slowly in each other's arms, their eyes closed, remembering. Madota and I took our place with the submachine gun behind the rubble of bricks thrown up by the mahogany tree. From here we could watch the road that wound up the kopje and provide covering fire for our comrades. The white walls of the convent shone against the moon like the gates to heaven in Madota's picture Bible. This story was supposed to be about how I lost my virginity and became a man, but somehow Granma had turned it inside out until now it was all about killing nuns, and there was no longer any time for coming-of-age. My blood was up when I raised the submachine gun and trained it between Granma's shoulder blades. Perhaps Madota read my intent, for she unbuttoned her fatigue shirt and let it drift to the ground. The silver wedding bands that hung from her neck shone against her skin. The larger ring had belonged to her father, who raised her, the smaller ring to the mother who had died outside her memory. Granma limped into the darkness, and I sighed as I lowered the weapon, and the mountain wind swept away my breath.
      Madota raised her arms and I removed her undershirt, humming inside with satisfaction as I kissed her face and neck and breasts and nipples. Madota showed me how to arrange her body beneath me and, after a few misguided thrusts, guided me into her. Below us, an armored car wound its way up the kopje followed by a five-tonner filled with soldiers who sat on sandbags to protect their testicles from land mines, and I wondered who in the Leopard Gang had betrayed us. I tried to roll over to the submachine gun, but Madota pulled me back to her. I couldn't find my breath, her beauty and the moment stretched out before me. I heard the squeak of axles as the vehicles moved closer, and the rustle of dead petals from the nuns' hothouse flowers beneath us. Perhaps Madota relented not because she loved me, but rather so she could cease to love me, or maybe there, lying on her fatigue shirt beneath the immense moonshadow of the mahogany, she imagined herself in the marriage bed we would never share.
      The first report of Granma's rifle came to us from the convent. The nuns, some say, recited in unison as they were exterminated, The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want, and it has been reckoned that the interval between each shot was precisely the amount of time it took Granma to hobble over to the next kneeling sister, He maketh me to lie down in green pastures, and with each line another voice fell away, He leadeth me beside the still waters, until only one sister was left to deliver the final line of their dwindling psalm, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
      The rattle of the armored car and the five-tonner continued to grow closer, Granma fired his final shot from inside the convent, my flesh was overwhelmed, and here was the reason I joined the war of liberation, to bring Madota to this moment of selfishness, and I rutted and roared and shut out the rumble and clatter of vehicles and soldiers and gunshots, my eyes closed to her impassive stare so as not to spoil this beautiful moment when I became a man.
      Exhausted, I listened to the crack of the soldiers' FN rifles and the deeper pop of the Leopard Gang's Chinese assault rifles as they returned fire. I could barely lift my head to see October Twenty-Five catch it on the lawn of the chapel. A bullet in the chest turned him to face his executioners, a second in the neck, a third in the groin. He must have rejoiced at this last wound, for he was no longer a threat to his own wife, and he lay on his side and bled into the ground, and he sang the song of the absent lover until there was no more breath to carry the words to the trust lands where she waited for him. Zhanta's dying silhouette moved between the trees amid the wink of the soldiers' flash suppressors, the restless, bleached eye now sightless, his arms and legs dancing crazily as he fell, only to miraculously rise again in his village where, it was said, he was seen by his mother and her cousin. There was no sign of Granma during this brief skirmish outside the chapel, and the news service would report only two bodies recovered.
      I closed my eyes and dreamed of Madota in some future, faraway place where I could never find her. She cradled an infant in her arms, a girl child that looked like her mother, but with blue eyes and a ginger cast to her hair. I reached out to touch my lost family, but their skin was as rough as the wool of Madota's fatigue shirt, and my fingers came away sticky with blood in the place where she had lain, but now was gone. If the mahogany had not sunk its roots deep into the earth over the centuries, it would have turned away as I ran into the darkness of the forest, having seen enough.

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