“And they kill all women, Evan. Not just white women. Black women as well.”
“True. That’s Sheena’s idea. It’s a particular fixation she has. She wants to be the only woman in the world.”
“So Bowman says. There’s no one else I can ask.”
“That’s some ambition of hers.”
“It’s every woman’s ambition, deep down inside. It’s just that she’s doing more to achieve it than most.”
“If someone does not do something, Evan, she may manage it.”
“It doesn’t seem too likely.”
“But Evan,” she said, her hand on my arm. “Listen to me. You have said how Bowman likes to kill white men, and his reasons, and I think the reasons are crazy but I can understand why he might feel this way. But what about the harmless villagers? And all of the black women? Why should he be willing to kill them?”
I covered her hand with mine, then let go abruptly and glanced hurriedly around. No one seemed to have noticed, and Plum looked oddly at me. I told her that everybody thought she was a boy, and that if we held hands and necked the other clowns would either figure out that she was female, in which case she would get the ax, or assume that I was some kind of a faggot. I wasn’t quite sure how tribesmen in the Modonoland interior felt about homosexuality. While it seemed the sort of thing worth knowing, I felt it might be just as well to wait until I was back in New York and then look it up in an anthropological journal. Sometimes secondhand research has its points.
But I didn’t dwell on this, and Plum took her hand off my arm, and I reminded myself that, from here on in, she might as well be a boy for all I cared. We’d had our last fling. It was time to be faithful to Kitty.
“Getting back to Bowman,” I said, by way of getting back to Bowman. “He’s a fairly arresting type, don’t you think? An extremely charming type. He can chill your blood one minute and take it all back with a smile.”
“He talks weird.”
“I know. He shifts back and forth from Harlem hard-bop jive to plantation hand to college graduate. Sometimes he even sounds vaguely British. It goes along with being a good linguist, which he damned well must be to handle the dialect they speak here. It sounds like turkey. Not the country, the bird. You know – gobble gobble.”
“I don’t trust him, Evan.”
“Neither do I. But we can’t really get out of here without his help – we can’t even survive without it. And he can’t get away without us.”
“How do you know?”
“He’s been here a long while now and never got away so far.”
“Maybe he wants to stay.” Her lip curled and her eyes looked older by some years. “Maybe your friend Bowman likes it here.”
“He doesn’t want to stay. He can stand it here, all right, but it won’t keep him happy for very long. He’s too complex to settle for the Noble Savage routine.”
“I suppose you are right. I know that he has depth. When he spoke of the death of the Retriever, even while I knew the political crimes of Knanda Ndoro, yet I was moved, Evan.”
“Well, he’s charming. And he’s complex, and he has depth, and I know damned well he has a use for us or else he would have killed us back at the mission. Because it’s not hard to say why Bowman goes along with killing innocent blacks and their women. I think he just plain enjoys it.”
The Red Ball Irregulars were just another army, after all. And armies are armies as sure as war is hell, and this one, like the one I had served in (and like the one Napoleon served in, and like the one Julius Caesar served in) was an organization of hurry up and wait, a group which spent most of its collective time doing nothing at all.
We spent the rest of that day doing nothing at all. Sheena had pitched camp on the site of an abandoned village about a dozen miles from the ruined mission. The abandonment of the village had not been entirely voluntary; several months previously Sheena had raided it, and its huts were subsequently unoccupied because of the demise of the previous occupants. The jungle had made a good start at reclaiming the cleared land, and weather had done a job on the huts, but they were still standing and reasonably sound. Plum and I had one all to ourselves, and we spent most of the day sitting in it and grunting at each other.
The others, forty or fifty of them, spent most of their time sharpening knives and machetes, practicing hand-to-hand combat, combing their ancillary hair for lice, picking their noses, and scratching themselves. In the interests of verisimilitude I tried to be doing one or more of these things whenever anyone was looking my way. The only knife I had was distinctly out of place in that company, and if I got involved in their hand-to-hand contests the game would be up in no time at all, so that left lice hunting, nose picking, and general scratching. I didn’t mind hunting for lice, but I was more than a little disconcerted when I began finding them. I tried to console myself with the thought that this lent additional verisimilitude to the pose. This was relatively little consolation.
Shortly before sunset, they began preparing for the feast. Men piled mountains of brush and planks from a dilapidated hut in the center of the village and poured a can of some petroleum distillate on it. One of them struck a match – looting does provide one with the trappings of civilization – and the whole thing went up in a glorious whooshing blaze.
They let the fire burn down, then heaped more brush and boards on it and let them flame up and burn down until there was a deep bed of fiery coals. By this time the sun had dropped behind the trees and the glow of the campfire was the only available light. Three men carried a huge cast-iron kettle and set it atop the bed of coals. Various men began throwing things into the kettle. This went on for quite some time. Then Sheena came out of her quarters and said something which sounded like a remake of the Book of Judges, a section dealing with a triumph given for Samson, I think. It was hard to be sure. It was even harder to guess what she had in mind, but the general gist of it was that the warriors of the Lord could not rest on their laurels but must move from victory through the fruits of triumph to a fresh engagement with the enemy. There was an all-purpose feel to it, and it didn’t differ much in content from what Vince Lombardi used to tell the Packers the morning after they won a close one.
Bowman said a few words after that, but I could no more understand him than the others could tell what Sheena meant. I hate not being able to understand what someone else is saying. I really find it unendurable. It’s a situation I don’t face very often, and it was consequently particularly maddening.
After his speech, the Gray Panther followed Sheena into her shack and the chefs let the caldron bubble for a spell. I was squatting on my haunches in the doorway of our hut, and Plum came up and squatted beside me. Cooking smells wafted in our direction, and I said that it smelled very good indeed, which indeed it did.
“What do you suppose it is?”
“Oh, all different things,” I said. I had managed to identify some of the ingredients as they found their way into the pot. “They evidently massacred the mission livestock along with the human beings. A couple of hens went into the pot, and what must have been a goat or a sheep, and I think a hog. Plus a variety of fruits and vegetables. Some roots that looked like parsnips, although I suppose they could have been almost anything.”
“Almost anything,” she echoed.
“We’re both starving, all right. That food is going to taste damned good, Plum.”
“Nothing to eat since I can’t remember when. Except for the eggs, and you remember what a failure they were. Pretty horrible, huh?”
“But from the smell, this stew or whatever you want to call it, it should be great. You must be hungry as a bear, huh? You didn’t even keep the eggs down, so you must be just about ready to faint from hunger. I’ll tell you, when they bring that stew around, it’s going to taste like a banquet.”
“Like a banquet.”
I looked at her. “Why do you keep repeating everything I say?”
“Because I am trying to believe you, Evan, almost as hard as you are trying to convince me. But it is not working out properly.”
“Because we both know what is in that stew.”
“Pork and lamb and chicken, and what’s so bad about that? Nothing wrong with pork and lamb and chicken, is there? Oh, maybe it wasn’t lamb, maybe it was goat, and maybe you’ve never eaten goat, but it’s as good as lamb if not better. They call it chevon, which is a handy word if the thought of eating goat bothers you. What the hell, different people eat different things all over the world.” I was talking rapidly now, and my voice hadn’t been this high since it changed a couple of decades ago. “The Chinese eat dogs, did you know that? Young puppies are considered a great delicacy there. They also eat monkeys. Sounds terrible, but de gustibus and all that. Goat, now-”
“Evan, you know I am not talking about goat.”
“I am sure there are all the things you said in that stew, but I am sure there are also parts of human beings.”
“The parts that had been removed.”
“So do not talk of goats.”
“ Plum, we have to eat.” She made a face. “I know, I know, but we have to eat. We can’t let ourselves starve to death.” She went on making a face. “Well, look at it another way. I mean, how do you know you won’t like it? Remember the fuss you made about the dead antelope? Couldn’t stand the idea of eating it, you said. It was dead meat, meat just lying there on the ground, you said. Unrefrigerated, probably teeming with bacteria, you said. But once you tasted it-”
“Evan, please stop it.”
“You can’t starve yourself.”
“Human beings fast for a month or more without harming themselves. They gain religious insight and learn important truths.”
“The most important truth they learn is that eating is good for you.”
“That is not true, Evan.” She tossed her head. “I am not eating any of that.”
“You could just pick out bits of vegetable-”
“I am not eating. I am not hungry. I am tired, Evan, and I think I will lie down and go to sleep before it is discovered that I am neither black nor a man.” Her eyes welled with tears. “You were right.”
“When you told me I should stay in Griggstown.” All at once she threw her arms around my neck and sobbed.
“Oh, I’m afraid,” she said. “I am truly afraid.”
When she was asleep I slipped out of the hut and joined the crowd. The feast was getting into gear now, with the stew almost ready for serving. The young bloods were starting to tank up on a home-brewed malty liquor, and when someone passed me a gourd of it I didn’t pass it back. It smelled of moldy bread and spoiled fruit, but the taste wasn’t bad and the stuff had a reasonable kick to it. It couldn’t compare to the grain alcohol of the night before, which was probably just as well. I refilled my gourd a few times and mingled with my fellow soldiers, scratching and picking my nose and grunting amiably at them. I thought I looked like a short-haired white man who had stained his skin with roots and berries, but if they thought as much they were good enough to keep it to themselves. They didn’t even seem to notice my ignorance of their language. Every once in a while I would say “Banana Kropotkin Pulaski,” a phrase I kept hearing others use, and I guess it was always appropriate, because no one took a swing at me.