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.
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.
The branches of the sacred tree now support an epilogue to this story—chimes made from broken rifle sights, silver wedding rings, and broken bits of a ceramic coffee mug, a sign, perhaps, that Madota refused to drink from Granma's cup. The caretaker of the empty convent bought the chimes, she recalled, at a musika, before the police shut down the native market and scattered the vendors, from a woman who carried on her hip a colored child with ginger hair. I received my call-up notice on the second anniversary of the Leopard Gang's attack on the sisters, and was given two weeks to report for induction into the Rhodesian Security Forces.
My father, worried that the underbrush might provide the terrs with cover, hired a bulldozer to level the ground between the bungalow and the security fence. Some nights, I crossed the floodlit area between the sandbagged walls of our house and the mesh fence, past the Ridgeback that patrolled the broken ground, the stump of its docked tail stiff and unwagging, and through the surrounding tangle of new growth and deadfall to the place where the Leopard Gang had once sat and planned around my mother's hope chest, the shed now dark and the roof collapsed. The crepuscular moonflowers still opened their white petals, though, and the wind continued to gather hollow notes from the chimes, and these were reasons enough to draw me there.
The Portuguese had lost Mozambique, and the new government there welcomed the boys of the hondo to operate from behind the closed frontier that bordered the eastern highlands of Rhodesia. From their new base camps, the terrs could easily cross the free-fire zone into Manicaland on foot, or even come to us in the night, crowded onto the running boards and bonnets of jeeps.
The sound of their engines woke me, and I heard them shoot our security dog, and still I didn't leave my bed. The eleven doors in our bungalow offered only illusory escape routes—our only exit was through the heavy front door, spotlighted with security lamps.
Neither my father nor mother registered any shock at the sight of the hooded rebels who had crowded their dreams since they landed together in Africa. The terrs set fire to the bungalow and we all fell back before its heat. My father would go to his death ahead of us, neither courageous nor cringing, but resigned, as if he hadn't any place in this new world where it was no longer a good thing to be white. My mother followed him passively—perhaps her pistol had clattered to the floor when she reached for it, and they found her scrabbling on her knees in the darkness. Or she had placed the barrel in her mouth but could not make herself pull the trigger. Regardless, the pistol was useful only to ward away night fears, like the Ridgeback that lay motionless beside the burning house, its tongue lolling.
They shepherded us away from the house and made us lie down on broken soil where they would bring us to still waters. This was the path of righteousness, and though we lay in the shadow of the valley of the Vumba Mountains, I feared no evil, for Granma stood there before us, terrible and deathless, with his walking stick and his Chinese assault rifle, and I took such comfort as I could in his presence.
Granma stood above my father, the barrel of his rifle pointed dead-center mass, and he retreated a step to avoid the backsplash of gore. My mother took my father's hand and he squeezed back, the only sign of affection between them I would ever witness. At least they would have this, the dying together. My father bounced as the bullets thupped into his back, and my mother wailed as she fully realized for the first time since my birth that she was in Africa, a rending ululation that resonated even after Granma took her death upon himself.
I buried my face in my arms as Granma's uneven footsteps grew closer, and I shuddered at the touch of his rifle against the back of my head. A breath of wind filled the hollows of the valley like pan pipes, and from somewhere within the foliage outside the security fence, Madota's bric-a-brac chimed like bells for a wedding, There was once a girl, and I wanted to marry her and hold our daughter in our arms, there was once a girl, and my story no longer belonged to me, any more than the ancient sisters of Saint Agnes could lay claim to the tales I'd invented of their Shona lovers and smothered children.
Certainly there followed the staccato of automatic gunfire, but only muted sounds penetrate such moments and register on the memory. The soft tangle of music from Madota's wind chimes, let's go to Zinjanja! The crackle of flames that burned away the covers of the sandbags, melting their contents into walls of opaque glass. Granma broke training and pushed his rifle against my head, hard enough to make the barrel slide at an oblique angle, and the first bullet turned my skull without penetrating it, as he always warned us might happen if we didn't fire dead-center mass, and the rest streamed harmlessly into the ground. My shoulder settled against my father's, and my mother's dead fingers touched the wetness of my anointed head as I fell into darkness, and now that the rebels had finally come, we were a family, my father, my mother, and I.
At this point, a Shona storyteller might conclude simply with "Day breaks"; or a child with the rote "The end"; or, in the psalmody of the sisters of Saint Agnes, "Amen." But endings sometimes go and come without the story taking notice. Granma's story, I suppose, is still alive with atrocities committed so others will be spared, and Madota's story flows with her breast milk into our daughter, while the story of my father and mother continues along a path this earthbound narrative cannot follow. My own story invariably circles round to the night when Granma spared me to answer my call-up notice and become a soldier on the other side of the same fight, his disciple in the new war, a storybook of fresh offenses open before me.