By JOSÉ PINTO DE SÁ
Translated by JETHRO SOUTAR
Papá announced, “Maria, I’m going to war,” and stubbed his cigarette out in the ashtray. Mamã, clearing the table, gave her usual start. She stood stranded in the kitchen doorway, a dirty plate in each hand.
Going to war meant going out in the dead of night to David’s bar, playing hide-and-seek with military patrols. Our lot’s supporters gathered there after hours, drank a few beers, exchanged questionable information and reliable rumors. It had been the same every night for the last three weeks, since their lot retook the city.
After dinner, Papá would say, “Maria, I’m going to war,” and Mamã would give a start, try to talk him out of it, remind him of martial law and the curfew.
Then, out of desperation, she’d say, “At least wait for the shooting to die down.”
Sometimes, when the weather was bad, Papá would pay her heed. He’d announce, “I’m not going out tonight,” and he’d sit down on the sofa. He’d sit where he used to sit to watch TV or read the newspaper he brought home from work. But the TV and radio had gone silent and no newspapers had been printed since the last time their lot took the city and shot all the journalists.
Papá would pick up his phone, check it was on silent, put it back down. He’d light a cigarette and flick through an old magazine, but he’d soon abandon that too. It wasn’t even possible to read. There’d been no electricity since the central grid had been sabotaged, by our lot or theirs, I didn’t know which. In any case, with his eyes, Kota couldn’t read from the light of the oil lamp, so he’d sit there staring into space. But he’d flinch at the first sound of gunfire. Was that our lot on their way?
Mamã complied with blackout orders. She covered windows with thick sheets and filled gaps with old newspapers; not a draft got in. The air was thick with the smell of frying, tobacco, and people—six of us in two bedrooms, plus Winnie, who slept in the lounge.
They were firing away outside, but who was doing the shooting? Who was killing who? Our lot and theirs both used Kalashnikovs—every kid knew the sound. And there was me, shut away at home; I didn’t even go to school—Mamã wouldn’t allow it. There was me, stuck indoors, with the war going on outside. I was imprisoned, imagining myself out in the streets with an AKM in my hands, tucked inside a doorway, firing at an enemy stronghold.
Bullets whistling past my ears, I am not afraid; grazed by a bullet, I am not afraid; running out of ammo, I am not afraid. Three direct hits and they’re done for.
“It’s fierce tonight,” Mamã said, alarmed by distant gunfire in the city’s northern suburbs. Maybe they were fighting for control of the airport. And there was me, imprisoned.
But Papá said, “Maria, I’m going to war,” as he changed out of his slippers and into his shoes, and he added, “Come on, Nelson.”
I looked at Mamã.
“Good God, man, are you mad? This isn’t child’s play; it’s dangerous. You shouldn’t even be out in the streets….”
“And so, Maria? This isn’t the first time.”
“It’s worse tonight, though. Just shooting, shooting….”
But Papá adjusted his glasses, put his hand on my shoulder, and said solemnly, “The boy’ll be sixteen soon, Maria. He’s old enough to know the price of freedom.”
I feared Kota was about to launch into tales of his student days, the fight against colonialism, prison, torture…. About how at least they’d had a dream, a cause, independence, whereas we…. A speech I’d heard a hundred times. I was impatient to get outside.
Thankfully he said, “Don’t worry yourself, Maria. I’ll look after the boy.”
I turned toward my old man (who hadn’t the body to take a beating or the legs to run) and thought it pathetic that he was promising to look after me. Or anyone else for that matter.
“Come on, Nelson.”
We set off, Mamã standing there, hand on heart, saying rosaries and foreboding ills. She wouldn’t sleep until we got back.
It was late July, a cold night, the cacimbo so thick you could cut through it with a knife. The streetlamps were off, but there was moonlight. We kept close to the houses, ready to take cover if any danger emerged. There might be soldiers on any corner, ours or theirs, and they wouldn’t know whose side we were on anyway. They shot first, asked later.
We went down Rua do Algodão without seeing a soul, Rua da Indústria was deserted too. The cross on the Todos os Santos de Sião church loomed over Avenida Mandela, cutting a silhouette in the milky, gloomy sky. Garbage that hadn’t been collected for weeks piled up, fought over by dogs, rats, and crows. The stench was intense, much stronger than the usual night cocktail of frangipani and open drains.
We reached Praça de África, the most dangerous point on our journey. Papá peeked out, made a signal to say the coast was clear. I thought, “Kota can’t see an inch beyond his own nose.” But he turned the corner, and I followed. And it was me who stumbled and fell.
I picked myself up, hurt and humiliated. I’d tripped over a dead body laid out on the pavement, a young man in black trousers and a white shirt. A waiter, perhaps, on his way home from work.
He hadn’t made it. If he’d turned the corner a minute earlier or a minute later, he’d have missed being caught in the crossfire. But he hadn’t, for whatever reason, if there even was a reason. So now he lay there, missing half a head. “João just never came home” (or “Abubakar just never came home”), his mum would be saying, or his girlfriend, whoever….
There were other dead bodies in the square, a soldier and five or six civilians, bloated, grotesque, covered in flies, each one lying in a pool of blood that had been half licked up by dogs. The smell of death hovered over them, sweet and nauseating.
The bazaar had been burned down and the shops looted. The supermarket lay ransacked, its doors wide open, windows shattered, the carcass of a truck outside the entrance. Its side panels had been pulled down, its cargo plundered, a trail of broken glass and torn packaging left behind.
We skirted around the square, on the darkest side. Papá peeked out, gave me the signal, and we ran across the Estrada Nacional, where a blockade of tires burned. No one fired at us.
Smoke rose in a thick column, blending into the cacimbo and blotting out the stars in the sky.
The same scene always plays out when we arrive: The blinds are down, a mere glimmer of light betrays life inside. Papá looks around and taps on the door, in conspiratorial fashion. Three knocks in quick succession, then three more, spaced out. The peephole opens. David’s grizzled face appears, a scar running from forehead to chin, checking who’s there. He unfailingly says, “Hurry up—it’s ugly out tonight,” before rushing to bolt the door behind us. We enter a world of smoke, silence, and half-light. A single oil lamp burns on the counter. Conversations will have stalled with the fright of our arrival. A clandestine mood reigns over what few customers there are, old boys all, Papá’s comrades, survivors of two wars and several peace processes besides. Papá orders a beer and a Fanta. I hate Fanta, but I never say anything. David brings us the drinks. Papá adjusts his glasses and says, “Any news?” with the air of a unit subcommander. Those who have news repeat it. Those who haven’t listen again, adding comments.
“They’re hanging on by a thread,” an optimist says.
“Come off it, man, come off it…” says a pessimist.
Another, an old fella who prides himself on being well-informed, reiterates the causes for optimism. “In the last two weeks we’ve retaken three places in the surrounding area,” and he lists the squares that our lot have captured.
“We’re close to being liberated,” the optimist adds.
“Our lot’ll start bombing properly in the next day or two. Then the infantry will come in and clean up.”
A drunk sitting at the back gives me a wink. “Hear that, kid? Liberation through bombing.”
“Shut up! You’re just drunk,” David says to him.
The drunk shuts up, lest David won’t sell him any more beer.
“Be careful with your euphoria,” warns a former combatant, who lost a leg in the last war.
“Some say they’ve withdrawn to concentrate their strength here and secure the city.”
“Maybe,” says a skeptic, who lost two sons, a daughter-in-law, a grandson, and forty-seven heads of cattle in the last two wars.
“People say China are supplying them with arms, dropped from parachutes.”
“No, no! I heard on the BBC only yesterday that the Chinese back us,” says the one who prides himself on being informed.
“They back both sides, and they do right to—that way no one can complain,” jokes the drunk.
“With our lot advancing, their guys are at sixes and sevens,” says the optimist.
“They’re already fighting amongst themselves, over the looting.”
“And they say their major disappeared two days ago, with the general staff.”
“When the rats abandon ship…” says the professor, a regular customer.
“That’s true. He handed over command to a sergeant and took off,” confirms another old-timer. He has a solid source, a great-niece whose friend is having a secret affair with an enemy soldier, a neighbor from before the wars.
“They say their captain is the sort who might come over to our side.”
“I find that hard to believe,” says the skeptic, scrunching up his nose.
The professor agrees: “I don’t believe it either. Once a traitor….”
And the optimist declares, “Shoot ’em!”
Damn right! Everyone backs him up on this. They all went out, machetes in hand, to massacre supporters of the other lot the last time our lot took the city.
“It’s them or us,” says David, philosophically, having survived a machete attack himself the last time their lot took the city.
“What are you going to do?”
This was what I was looking forward to as I followed my father deeper into the night, past the bar, past workshops, warehouses, workshops, and warehouses, through a darkness that reeked of piss and gas leaks. Every now and again a whiff of dead bodies blew in on a dank breeze. The gunfire had been intense all day, but there were only sporadic gunshots now. Our lot’s mortars, having battered the city in recent days, had gone quiet, neutered by the enemy or saving ammunition for the final attack.
From this eerie silence came the sound of an engine approaching. Papá looked around and studied the terrain with the air of a veteran. Then he whispered (the car was still far away, but he whispered), “Down there!” and, with giant strides, made for the nearest corner. I followed him. We turned left onto a bumpy back alley, and then we started running. Twenty paces in—I was already ten ahead of him—I had to stop and wait; Kota was exhausted. The car was getting closer. A few yards ahead, the alley made a sharp turn.
“We’ve got to get around the corner, Papá. Can you make it?”
I took him by the arm, but he brushed me away and staggered along beside me, keeping up out of sheer pride. The alley descended between two crudely built walls, on a winding course down toward the port. Papá pulled up as we rounded the bend and leaned against a rusty gate, hand on chest, getting his breath back. The car passed. Papá breathed deeply, cleared his throat. “We’d better head back to the house.”
“The old man’s spooked,” I thought. Then we suddenly heard another engine, this one coming up the alley. No sooner had we seen the glare of the headlights than a truck came into view, half a dozen soldiers on board. They saw us. The driver sped up. Papá pulled me by the hand, and we stumbled back the way we’d come. A man standing in the back of the pickup—the commander, no doubt—banged on the roof and yelled, “Halt!”
The car stopped a foot away from us, trapping us in between the wall and the bumper, blinded by the headlights. All we could see were Kalash barrels. Was this going to be it, in a dusty back alley surrounded by old newspapers, discarded clothes, and empty beer cans?
The commander, thin and red-eyed, pulled out a Makarov. He pointed it at Papá (the blood drained out of me) and yelled something I didn’t understand. I don’t think Papá, deaf as he was, understood either. He coughed, to clear his throat, and yelled (Kota, who never yelled), “Patria and Progress!” (our lot’s motto),
“Viva!” yelled the soldiers.
The chief said to Papá (he didn’t yell this time, just said it, his voice hoarse from yelling), “They’ve surrendered. We’re out hunting.”
He raised his pistol and fired it into the air, the gunshot echoing against the bare walls.
It was a tropical night, a smell of piss, gas leaks, and dead bodies.
The commander banged on the roof again, and the truck set off, bumping up the slope. I found myself pressed against the wall, knees trembling. Cicadas filled my ears, and my heart pounded.
“Let’s go and tell them at David’s,” Kota said, adjusting his glasses. “Today I’ll buy you a beer.”
I remember how calmly he said it and how glad I was that I could still call my father brave.
José Pinto de Sá is a Mozambican writer, playwright, and journalist. His short stories have been published in Mozambique, Portugal, Brazil, France, Belgium, and now the United States.
Jethro Soutar is a translator of Spanish and Portuguese. He has a particular focus on works from Africa and has translated novels from Equatorial Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, and Cape Verde. He is also editor of Dedalus Africa and a co-founder of Ragpicker Press. Originally from Sheffield in the UK, he now lives in Lisbon, Portugal.