(Copyright © 2000 Al Aronowitz)

(Drawing by Ed Adler)


(Copyright © 2000 Manuel Menéndez)

[This story begs to be turned into a movie.  It has tastes of The African Queen in it, of King Solomon's Mines, of The Three Kings, even of Jean-Ferdinand Céline's Journey to the End of the Night. An ex-executioner sits down to have a couple of beers with you and reminisces about his former trade, telling you what he remembers best, what stands out in his mind the most.  It's a story out of darkest Africa, of a dying elephant with a broken tusk, of a young deserter from the Cuban expeditionary force which Fidel Castro sent to Angola to fight for communism and of the deserter's impact on an African tribe's pre-historic culture. It is Manuel's best and most gripping story and, unfortunately, perhaps his last for THE BLACKLISTED JOURNALIST---unless another one turns up lost in our files.  Manuel wanted this story on the Internet immediately, even though he kept sending us rewrites, new versions.  It was sometime after we told him we couldn't get this story on the web until Column Fifty-Four that we stopped hearing from him.  Suddenly his telephone was disconnected.  He stopped responding to our emails and to our posted letters.  One good sign is that they never are returned as undeliverable. But Manuel, always in poor health as a result of his imprisonment behind Castro's bars, kept threatening to kick the bucket.  Is he in a pout because we couldn't get this story onto the web soon enough for him?  Is he laid up in a hospital?  Is  he locked up behind bars? Perhaps one of our readers in London will help satisfy our curiosity by dropping around to 10 Colenso Road in Clapton to inquire after Manuel.]

"Yeah, all right, mate. Human life is sacred and all that. I don’t believe in the death penalty in any form. It’s as unfair as the human sacrifices by the Aztecs or the Inquisition burning alive the insane. But what can you do? It’s ingrained in the system. The officer is behind you with a loaded Makarov. You shoot or are shot at. And of course you look after number one. How many people have I killed? Good question. I’m not sure, mate, but a lot, certainly too many, that’s for sure. The ones I killed directly in war I’ll never know. Those I don’t count, it was in self defense, you were scared, fighting for your life. You shot back in anger. It wasn’t actually me but the fear, the reflexes, the adrenaline, you know. But those you don’t remember, I never saw their faces straight. Had no names, no identity. Just like a corpse in an anatomy lesson. The ones that bother you are the ones you kill by firing squad. The ones you waste in cold blood.

"A ballpark figure? Well, I took part as a plain shooting soldier in 35 or 40 executions in Cuba. And later when I was an officer in Angola I directed who knows how many squads. 120, 130? Only now it was me giving the orders and the coup de grace. Thank god I was drunk all the time, on the pure alcohol they used for cooling the Migs’ radars and for the field pieces’ recoil; and the Angolan soldiers nearby sold a very potent ‘Mota.’ Ganja, you know.

"How many that makes? Okey, I agree, about 170 more or less. Why are you so obsessed with numbers? You’re a fucking ghoul… is that the word? The importance, the psychological damage can’t be measured in quantity but by the quality of it. One hundred and seventy or whatever is a lot. Even one is too many, let me touch wood. Tough to live with sometimes, I tell you. But I wasn’t a Ted Bundy or The Son of Sam or a Dennis Nilsen, was I? A psychopath who kills for pleasure. I was an executioner, yes, but I was always under orders, and I hated each and every one of those shootings.

"And believe me, only a few of them remain clearly in your mind. Their deaths are sieved like, decanted. It’s a sort of collective guilt you feel for them all as a bunch after the years. The first one you always remember, that’s inevitable. Listen, and down there they don’t use all those ceremonies and crap. When I was conscripted for my compulsory three years military service I regarded myself as lucky: by one of those bureaucratic miracles I landed in the Interior Ministry’s Department of Corrections, rather than the Army. And to boot, on duty at La Cabaña fortress, just across the bay. Like winning the lottery. I used to take the boat, the Lanchita de Regla, and then the 27 bus at the Harbor Avenue and I could be at my girlfriend’s home or my family’s in an hour. And got leave almost every weekend, not like in the Army that you got 36 hours every three weeks, and perhaps you are in Oriente at the other fucking end of the island so you can’t go home. So I was relatively happy, and more or less resigned to lose three years of my studies, of my life in general.

"At first. In the first three months, those of boot camp at Managua. Meeting new people and the camaraderie of the young. Then everything changed, during those first two weeks at La Cabaña, when I shot my first two ones. I was 17 at the time, and the condemned guys were 19 and 16. Yes, down there they can apply you the death penalty, el  palito we used to call it, the stick, at 16. Legally you are of age. So I was shooting youngsters just like myself. Nice, clean-cut Havana white kids; cousins, they were. And sentenced for reasons I could fully understand and identify with: they were trying to escape from the island, that hell-hole. I only wished I could leave myself. To Miami, India, China, anywhere!

"Those were the most traumatic, those two firsts squads---and the last one. Cuban penal regulations are drastic, draconian, no frills, no nonsense. Like killing a hog, or slaughtering a cow. Those two kids had been judged by a summary court. But the younger one was only 15, so they kept them both in prison until he became 16, of age. I remember it was a Saturday night, and I was tired and still drunk when I arrived back to La Cabaña, and went straight unto sentry duty. I had just put my head to the pillow when we were awaken by Lieutenant Pandeiro, Officer of the Guard, we the six retenes. We dressed hastily and were taken to an office where the político, a fat, bald first lieutenant called Madruga gave us a brief. I remember it as if it were tonight.

"You are not blind instruments of justice. Before you fulfill your duty in a few minutes I want to tell you about the condemneds’ case." And explained to us that the two kids had tried to hijack a national Cubana flight bound to Cienfuegos, to detour it to Miami. A four-propellor Ilyushin 14. They had one hand grenade. The pilot replied through the intercom that they could blow the plain if they wished, but right now this plane is going back to Rancho Boyeros airport in Havana. Both wounded by the escolta, the plainclothed policemen on board, one of the cousins threw the grenade. One of the cops covered it with his own body. The explosion killed him and blew a hole in the fuselage, but the pilots managed to make an emergency landing at Havana. And it was our tough luck that we had to execute them. All my rum fumes dissipated, chillingly.

"The O.G. gave to each of us a magazine with two rounds, and explained that they all were live, no blanks. And advised to the couple of us who were ‘virgins’ and gun shy to aim straight at the heart, it was more humane: to gutshoot them only prolonged their suffering. Then he took us down through a rusted iron staircase to a foso, one of the moats of the old Spanish fortress---XVI century I think it is. It was cold down here, a December night I remember, and well lighted by two powerful spotlights. We assembled at the bottom, and all six of us loaded the magazines into our kalashnikovs, smoked a cigarette, and waited tensely. I looked fascinated at the palito. A common tall 4X4 beam. Behind it there was a pile of sand bags, to avoid ricochets, since the ancient wall was made of rough stones.

"Two MPs brought down the first one, the older cousin. He had trouble on the stairs, because of his pronounced limp. He was tall, blond and wearing a faded, standard prison uniform and tennis shoes. They tied his hands back to the beam, and offered him a black blindfold, which he refused. We formed at the other end of the moat, but there were hardly twelve feet between him and us, it was like shooting point blank. Like Goya’s ‘El Dos de Mayo.’ What?—--sorry, I’m digressing. While he was being tied, he looked each and every one of us in the eye, and said loudly, but not shouting, with a firm voice that echoed down there:

“‘I don’t blame you, guys, it’s not you who are shooting me but Fidel Castro—’

"All was finished in three or four minutes. That’s what I mean, it was a slaughter. Pandeiro ordered ‘Load!’ ‘Aim!’ ‘Fire!’ and then squeezing the trigger was so easy, the flames from the muzzles first and the volley resounding so loud in the enclosed space. The body slid down the beam bleeding like a pig, sorry, and the lieutenant went forward and shot him with his Makarov in the right temple, twice. I don’t know, but it was particularly cruel, sadistic, it was: the Death Row cells were just above, they had a sort of an iron black canopy so the sunlight wouldn’t reach the cells. And all them condemned guys feet away were listening to the racket below, imagining when it will be their turn, dying a bit with every volley.

"Ten minutes later the MPs brought down the younger cousin. A kid really, small for his 16 years and very pale. He looked like 13 or 14, a child. He too had trouble going down the stairs. Still smarting from his bullet wounds, I guessed. He was tied to the palito, accepted the blindfold, and said nothing. He was already sliding down when the volley hit him. Possibly he had fainted, or at least I hope so, so he didn’t feel anything. Right?

"What do you want to drink? Well that’s up to you, mate, myself I’m having a double Jameson and a Guinness chaser. It’s on me, mate. It’s my birthday. Fifty. Once in your lifetime. Well, to go on. I felt depressed and jumpy all that week, and next Saturday I took my girlfriend to the ‘Hotel Venus’ a good posada, a love hotel where you were allowed a three hours stay. Magaly was her name, an Oriente mulatto girl she was, a great lay. She was a gymnast in the University team; but you know, I couldn’t get a hard-on. Those two kids were still weighing in my mind. I explained to her the whole shebang and she understood, and we just lay there naked side by side, thinking and talking. But I got over it. Eventually.

"Perhaps because next time it was a lot easier. This one was a huge fat black guy, about 25, a raving  schizophrenic, so he didn’t really know what was happening to him. Had raped a white six-year-old girl, the daughter of a Party official in Marianao. But he didn’t kill her, not even beat her, after all. I mean the guy belonged in ‘Mazorra’ nuthouse, not there at the palito. Just before he was tied to the stick he made as if he was dialling on a imaginary phone and said: ‘Ti, ti, ti: ¡Breakfast!’ and grinned widely with very white teeth, eyes bovine and yellow and empty and happy till the very instant he got the six copper jacketed slugs. Afterwards it became sort of a routine for me, mostly deserving criminals, only an occasional political I regretted. You got hardened, you know, less personal.

"So after I was discharged I soon forgot about all them firing squads, buried them in some recess of my mind, did my best to forget. I let the dead bury their dead: I was 21 then, working as news editor on the radio, married to another woman and with a toddler. Hardly could I imagine that barely ten years later I would be shooting people by the score, so far away, in a West Agfrican contry, a former Portuguese colony whose existence I barely had heard of. By then I was a reserve lieutenant, and I was sent to the Angolan War. You were supposed to volunteer for an ‘Internationalist Mission,’ but if you refused to sign, the recruitment board phoned your place of work and denounced you as a coward. So you were expelled from the Party or the  Communist Youth.  You had to face a public assembly and be denounced as yellow, and kicked out to a shoe factory to rehabilitate.

"At this stage I tell you, mate, those were my lesser concerns, just annoying thoughts. I didn’t give a fuck. I hated that insular Cuba, Castro’s regime, and my life in general. I just wanted to be killed and escape my personal problems, an easy solution, a way out. First my marriage had gone on the rocks, to the extent that my daughter barely acknowledged me, and besides there was a dirty court battle going on about my own apartment. The biggest privilege in the island, your own flat in El Vedado, even if small. Second, I was in crisis at the radio station, where I was by now in frank disgrace.

"So I volunteered ‘like the Chinaman,’ as they say down there, and boarded a Russian freighter together with 350 other cannon fodder, still feverish from the tropical vaccines, most of them seasick like dogs, never having been on a boat before. Rotten food, everybody with diarrhea and competing for the heads. And the Atlantic crossing was pretty rough, believe me, and I have a sound stomach. We were a sorry lot when we arrived at Lobito harbor 22 days later. Then waited for a whole week or two to be assigned to our regiments, such was the chaos. As my luck had it, I became again a prison officer. Only this time my task was not just to press the 5.5 pound trigger of the AKM and remain somehow an accessory to murder, but had to give the orders to the squad and deliver the definitive bullet myself.

"The killings went on every night at Lobito prison, and I had to shoot as an average 8 or 10 per night. Luckily, only when I was O.G., once a fortnight. All of the victims UNITA guys for which I didn’t feel any particular sympathy. Some of them with filed teeth, the obvious sign of the cannibal, though most of those never reached the prison compound. Whenever a case of tiger teeth came to my attention, I immediately ordered the suspect to be killed straight away of a pistol bullet in the nape. Too much hassle to go through a formal firing squad.

"Well, when I took those decisions I had no one to respond to, the Cuban expeditionary army was too busy repelling the South African led offensive at Quando Cubango. And less of all to the Angolan MPLA representatives, all rotten with gonorrhea, riding around town in shiny Land Rovers and Mercedes, evading the front, having a good time, heading at night

Wherever you have sailors,
you have whores.
Still this was hostile territory

 for the huge red light district. The brothels had been there since the Slave Trade: after all Lobito had been always a very active deep water harbor, the only one in all that long Southwest Coast. And wherever you have sailors you have whores. And when sober, them Angolan cadres gave speeches on "recaptured" hamlets where they were received not only with hostility, but with ill-concealed unspoken despise. Those ‘cuadros politicos’ were Kimbundus and traditional enemies. So they only ventured outside the city with a heavy Cuban military escort. Otherwise the Imbundus would have flayed and quartered them alive.

"What do I remember of those times, you say? Not much, I was always drunk or stoned or both. Yeah, I remembered Felix Derzhinsky’s dictum: ‘To grow up the new society you have to uproot the bad, parasite weeds: Revolution cannot be constructed with clean hands.’ Bullshit! These weren’t kulaks, but peasants with calloused hands, illiterate, who hardly spoke Portuguese, backward, living still in an ancestral economy. They were just answering to their tribal allegiances, and cared only about their herds, which the elders in the hamlet said were going to be confiscated by the State, and that the MPLA was planning ethnic cleansings against them Imbundus. Which was absolutely true.’

"However, of all the guys I ordered shot down there it’s only that last one that I remember clearly, who still haunts my dreams. Because he was a white Cuban, just like me, and had committed no crime at all in my opinion. He was captured soon after General Ochoa condemned to death two Cuban soldiers for raping an Angolan woman. So the local commands, plying with the wind, with holier-than-thou-like zeal, extended the death penalty also to the deserters.

"Had it been to me, I would have sent him back to Cuba, perhaps sentence him to a few years at "El Pitirre" military prison. But kill him? However my hands were tied. I appealed once on his behalf, and the answer from above was like a lightning bolt from Jupiter Olympicus: death it was then. I washed my hands, but could not my onscience. And still it rankled me. I mean the guy was technically a deserter, but who knows? Perhaps every Cuban soldier, myself included, would have taken the same chances if given. He was a kitchen boss in a front line regiment, and went around on a ZIL Russian truck through the countryside, trying to buy with devalued quanzas an old, diabetic cow, or some sacks of yams, and many were the days when he came back to camp empty handed. All the surroundings had been scoured as if by a plague, both by the rebels and the Cuban and Angolan armies.

"So his trips now sometimes lasted a week, as he went further into the hinterland, into the jungle itself. Till one day when returning he found a bridge blown by UNITA, and without gasoline enough to return to his own lines. Anyway nobody will miss him: they’ll write him down as MIA. God knows he had had some tight squeezes before, and many a time had arrived with the windshield blasted off by bullets. By chance he met a party of Zuzulu hunters, armed with bows and arrows. They didn’t look black, but grey, due to the hot ashes they smeared on their skins every morning. It was a Neolithic tribe who lived in a U.N. sanctuary, a 20,000 acres reserve that straddled the borders of four countries: Angola, Zambia, Botswana and Namibia. No man’s land, terra incognita.

So he rescued all the boxes in the truck and the remaining gas, and using the natives as porters followed them for days on end to their village of 200-souls, where, according to traditional African hospitality, he was bestowed honorary citizenship and a palm thatched wooden hut for himself. He was young, so his mind was open and receptive, and he soon got a smattering of their tongue, an obscure dialect of the click languages of South Africa.

"Four months later his unlooked-for opportunity arrived. The witch doctor had fallen in total disgrace when carbuncle, a seasonal disease, attacked the Zuzulu’s small herds with a new particularly lethal strain, and the ungainly long-horned black cattle began to die speedily, like flies, leaving no time to salt the carcasses, which rot fast in the tropical climate. The people were starving for protein. So the tribe exiled the old witch doctor, and convoked an emergency council to look for someone endowed with ‘nganga,’ capable of arresting the plague with a powerful dawa.

"The Cuban started his campaign as a joke: it was turning June and winter was setting in; it didn’t take a veterinarian to predict that the disease would relent. The second was the oldest trick in the book: he had the latest World Almanac in Portuguese, and almost all the volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica, which he had confiscated at gun point at Quando Cubango’s only library, during the sack of the town. So to predict a sun eclipse was a piece of cake, that is, if his Seiko  watch’s calendar was accurate. He hoped so.  After all, he’d been keeping a diary since he departed the island, Cuba. Something that proved not too easy after the batteries of his radio gave out, even though used  sparingly.  They soon corroded in the heat and humidity.

"So combining his scanty Zuzulu, and the basic Portuguese and English of a fat young man who had spent a couple of years in the diamond mines, he managed to assemble almost all the village at 3:17 PM in the beaten earth esplanade around which the huts were grouped. And, trying to keep a straight face, he ponderously announced that the sun was going to die in—--he consulted his watch—--exactly 14 minutes. 

"Great clamor and consternation, and he kept ad libbing in three languages until the moon started covering the red huge copper-colored everyday disk, and a brief night settled on the village. Great relief for himself, thinking he might have skipped a day. He winked to the translator, who answered with a white broad grin. He had been promised the job of mayor if the coup succeeded.

"Accepted and proclaimed as witch doctor, he realized the task was not an easy one, not by a long shot. He moved into in the large hut which had belonged to his disgraced predecessor, and inherited his animistic paraphernalia. And also the old man’s conjugal rights. A girl every night, but since venereal diseases were rampant in the village, he abstained from any conjugal pleasures. He just washed the ash from the young breasts and masturbated while suckling the nipples.

"He needed condoms to relieve his lust, but where to get them? One thing led to the other, and he decided to change the economic landscape of the villagers. He had studied Marxism-Leninism half-heartedly, like all Cuban students do. So it wasn’t a great jump of imagination to transform the Zuzulus’ stone age economy into a capitalist one. First thing he did was opening one of the two boxes of Kalashnikovs that had been in the truck, still in their factory grease. He had 24 in all. With the help of the new mayor he cleaned six of them at the light of his Chinese kerosene lantern, using gasoline and light oil. Had about 24,000 rounds of ammunition, so they loaded 30 round banana clips until dawn.

"That same day he inaugurated a range for rifle practice. The natives had dug it up for a whole week, uprooting neighbor’s crops, and knowing nothing about what it would turn into. The new mayor acted as slave driver in the old African macho tradition, harrying the females with their drooping, sagging teats. That kind of work, digging holes, was not considered manly. The Cuban preferred to remain invisible until the range was ready.  Then he trained half a dozen teenagers on how to retrieve the  green cardboard targets, put them into a trench and patch them. And also, he trained them in the use of a field phone.

"The shooting lasted for four hours, and the elders were exultant at the noise and destruction. The tribe wouldn’t have to resort to bows and arrows to procure the meat that was so scarce now.  The first deliveries would be to their own doorsteps, of course. That evening they took the Cuban to the communal big cabin, and made him a member of their most inner secret society. He refused politely to bear the tribal scars on his cheeks, instead he offered them his pectorals, which were they raked with a moth-eaten lion’s paw—after he had cleansed himself carefully with peroxide and iodine. He shared gourds of their booze, made from the fermented millet chewed by the maids of the tribe. As if you could find one. Tasted like rat’s piss but was slightly inebriating, nonetheless.

"A very old man, judging by his white drum of hair, produced from a beaded satchel a fourpack of big cans of Castle beer, which he deposited respectfully in front of the new elected geront. The Cuban felt moved, and thought that for people so poor that was a princely gift. Which he drank as if manna, after sprinkling some on the ground for the orishas, as custom demanded. He rolled a huge joint of dagga and other aromatic weeds in a dry maize leaf. And suddenly, he felt happy and free, and spoke of his vision to the elders.

"The new mayor was a haphazard interpreter at best, so the Cuban kept his ideas  smple. They were living in the Stone Age, he said, lost in the theoretical maps, forgotten, speaking an almost dead dialect. He explained his aims of transforming the community, bringing prosperity without contaminating their culture with the evils of civilization. Trade was the

Anatomically perfect
skeletons were over thresholds
in most houeholds

key, of course, but in moderation. But what to offer the world market in exchange? He lifted his right hand, and all recognized in the light of the bonfire one of their own traditional amulets: a skeleton carved in ivory, anatomically perfect. An everyday object; no one could guess how old, kept over the threshold in most households. Then in his left fingers lifted a figurine carved from ebony: Sikanekué, the primordial goddess.

"This is nothing to you, but to the white man’s big museums faraway, where they collect stuff like this, they have no price." Just that little figurine, he explained, if traded wisely in the white man’s world would fetch enough to keep a whole family of six well fed for a whole year… and healthy, with the medications he vowed to buy. His speech was followed by an appreciative but seemingly unconvinced outbreak of hawking, spitting, shoulder-shrugging, and skepticism 

"Now what I propose is this: the artists, the people who carve these pieces, are starving; most are old, many have lost their cattle in this epidemic, so they have to scrounge a live hunting and gathering. And when they are dead and gone, so will their art be dead and gone. I suggest that we feed those people, the ones who still remember, and that they teach the young promising artists, and sell their produce to the white man’s big collecting houses.

"That’s why I showed you the rifles. They are not ready yet, them hunters, it was only a demonstration. They’ll need three more weeks before they can distinguish between the front and back sights. But right now, you have tembos eating the sugar cane and the harvests you grow, and you cannot kill them with your bows and arrows. I know, the tembo is sacred to your culture, but I propose to kill only the males, those with big tusks. Not a single female, so they’ll keep multiplying, and would come back. For the good of the village at large.

"Why? Well because if you carve in ivory it’s much more valuable than in plain wood, and then you can buy kerosene fridges and keep the meat of the tembo. For days and days, and moons, it won’t rot. And with the money, you can buy more and more cows—--he stopped there and left that main hook dangling before the disgruntled elders. The idea that the old artisans should be exempted from communal work and fed appealed to them. And cattle were all the riches they knew, their only innocent form of greed.

"In the meantime he continued training his hunters and kept his infirmary working the best he could. He read from cover to cover The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Treatment. He had lots of antibiotics, hypodermic needles, disinfectants and gauze. And crates of Swiss medications whose properties he studied in the enclosed booklets. But it was easier to patch up a Zuzulu than to kill an elephant. Until early one morning a boy came running into the hamlet, shouting that a big tembo was eating a vegetable patch, so the Cuban and his hunters went after the beast.

"It was a big, bony, old askari, uprooting the yams and sweet potatoes with his one huge sane tusk, the other one broken long ago in a fight with another bull. His rib cage showed through the black mangy skin, and his teeth were too worn out to chew his normal fare of bark and leaves. He couldn’t see through the cataracts that covered his small eyes, but his hearing and smell were still sound, and every few minutes he flapped his ragged, battle-scarred ears, and his trump smelled around like a periscope. Once in a while his stomach rumbled ponderously, and he deposed big yellow cakes of fresh dung. His instincts fought between his hunger and his fear. He had once roamed free, and he had seen his mother killed and his herd decimated by the small but deadly men who sow these bland delicacies that required no teeth.

"The Cuban observed the askari through his binoculars, regretting that it had to die for his sorry green stained tusk. And then the idea came to him, out of the blank, and hit him with a luminous certainty. He realized that from his birth two decades ago in a big white city across the ocean, this precise moment had waited for him, and the last sight that will flash before the light went out, frozen in his inner eyes, would be this old tembo silhouetted in a rising sun dripping blood. Endowed by Nature with a 120 years lifespan, perhaps 150 if it didn’t die at the hands of the poachers, and, unique in the animal world, endowed with a formidable memory. A symbol of Africa. A book once read and forgotten surfaced to his memory, as if he were turning the pages right now. A skeleton carved in marble. And Silvio’s old song: ‘And he discovered that Solomon’s Mines were not in heaven, but in ardent Africa…’ And then a fact read somewhere that elephants go to die on ancestral grounds, mythical cemeteries. Images intermingling. Imagine all that ivory, that treasure---if, indeed, it wasn’t a myth!

“’Hapanah! Don’t shoot!  Go back, now, ¡coño!’’

“He had to impose all his moral authority, and when he and his hunters congregated in a nearby clear down the wind he took away all the clips, to the last bullet.

"’I’m the Muganga, and the orishas told me only I myself can kill this tembo, because he was sent to us by the gods to save the village, and the paths of both me and this tembo are intertwined... The orishas have spoken…! Traduce, cabrón…’

"All were impressed by the revelation.  They were under his spell. He looked transfixed, powerful, they had never seen him such. There was a force emanating from him, a will that bore no contradiction.

“‘Now: Which is the best hunter in the village? I mean the most sage in tracking…’

“They looked at one another. The response was unanimous: ‘Umwanbe…’

"’Good, bring him here right now. Get your packs and load as much food as you can carry. Yes, you’re coming with me, you six, at first, but with no guns, just bows and arrows… And hurry up ¡coño! Ah, and tell everyone in the village to keep away from the fields, to let the tembo eat his fill. Tell them the orishas allowed him a last good feed. Whatever he takes now, will be retrieved a thousandfold… Run!’

"Umwanbe was old, more than 50 judging by his salt-and-pepper kinky hair, certainly a long age in this community. His face inscrutable, he kept silent. The Cuban hadn’t seen him before. He wasn’t among the geronts’ society who initiated him and had never come to the Cuban’s infirmary. His left hand was twisted, withered, just feeble bones covered in parchment skin. And while the other Zuzulus pinched their facial hairs one by one with rudimentary tweezers, he sported a full long scraggly beard.

"He refused the Cuban’s binoculars, disrobed of his blanket, and stripped to his dirty loincloth. With surprising agility, he got himself lost in the chest-high scrub. He came back half an hour later and gazed up and down with amazement at the young Muganga he had heard about, dressed in patched camouflage fatigues, pistol at his hip, rifle hanging at his chest. The eyes of the master-tracker were so black, deep, intense and piercing that the Cuban knew at once that the old man was somehow intruding into his mind, maleable from the drug, reading his thoughts with nimble mental fingers but subtly, with respect.

"Umwanbe said his first words, which the Cuban  understood clearly, through the fumes of the large joint he was smoking. Harsh, gravelly voice, like someone not used to speaking, but with a touch of tenderness:

“‘It’s the same one: I saw him once when I was a child, and he was old then. Now, my son, do your duty to the great-grandfather. I know it’s hard, but you set this duty upon your shoulders yourself. I’m ready to follow him, to his last resting place. He ate his bellyful and now he’s restless… Go on!’

"The Cuban turned around to the Northwest, tracing an arc, against the wind, silently, stealthily, with a cunning he never knew he possessed. All his senses concentrated on the prey, and the difficult shot he had to achieve with a small caliber, inaccurate weapon. He situated himself upwind, slightly higher, and found a rest for the rifle on a crumbling anthill. He took a last look through the binoculars, to the point where the powerful trunk was raising the food to the cavernous pink mouth. It was as if he could touch it, and savor himself the taste of the nourishing tubercles that would keep the pachyderm for another two weeks, to go on stealing precariously, for half a century a pariah from his own kin.

"He put the field glasses aside, and loaded the Kalashnikov in semiautomatic mode. He aimed carefully at the corner of the mouth, and slowly pulled the trigger, waited for the rifle to settle, aimed again at the same point and fired, and a third time, when the tembo sat on his ankles and trumpeted his rage at the excruciating pain of his broken jaw.

"The Cuban rose up from his shooting position, sick of what he had just done, and willing to be trampled upon. But the elephant ran away, and soon the Zuzulus were on his trail. His eyes smarted with ill constricted tears, when he felt a gray wizened arm on his shoulder, and the kind low voice:

“‘You did what you had to do, my son. Anybody could have killed him, but you loved him, and however you inflicted on him the worst injury there’s to be. Now he can’t eat no more, and he will take you to the dying ground of his ancestors, where huge tusks are aplenty, and the tribe will be rich beyond their wildest dreams. Although I won’t see it myself.’

"It was an easy trail to follow. At first the wounded elephant ran straight, but after a week of hunger and the loss of blood, he began to weaken and went around in wide circles. Three old lead bullets lodged in his thick, wrinkled skin still smarted, but not like these. In his big brain he knew that now he was in his death throes  An ancient remembrance, a yearning, began to take hold of him, inherited from so many  generations before, amounting to maybe a thousand years. He wandered erratically, but always a strange rock here, a turbulent stream there, never seen but somehow recognized, showed him the way.

"Amid the hunting party the food went diminishing, and the Cuban sent them back in pairs, to fend for themselves. When there were just half a sack of yams and a few pounds of maize left, he sent away the last porter. By now he had sprouted a reddish beard, stank of sweat, his uniform in rags, his Russian boots with soles flapping. Eaten alive by the mosquitoes, gnats, fleas, ticks, and the chiggers that burrowed under his skin. But the sunken green crazy eyes that glowed ferally in the darkness never waved once. They were alone now.

"’Well, old man?'

"'The track’s a day old.' Umwanbe replied.  'He’s weak as a new-born heifer, but he’s of two minds. He refuses to go on and die while there’s still some strength in him. He is scared of death, too. Who are we to judge? We have to follow him, more carefully than ever, till the moment comes. If ever; maybe this is just a dream we are pursuing, and there are no sacred grounds around here, and he’ll go and die and rot by himself away from his tribe, alone, the way he has been living for so long. Who knows?’

"From habit, the Cuban cleaned his weapons.  He also saddled himself with the Russian knapsack, made sure of the water on his canteens, and braced himself against another day in the stifling jungle. And another. Presciently, the old man guided them up and up as they followed from afar, so the elephant didn’t scare and bolt at the last moment. At nights they slept covered by their two blankets, and the Cuban managed to scrape a couple of sleeping hours, so tired he didn’t dream, unconsciously scratching himself till he bled.

"It was a cold, glorious dawn, when they prepared their last coffee. Umwambe boiled water in a tin and dropped in the last coffee powder and brown sugar, took it out of the flames and inserted a red burning stick in the liquid, to precipitate the grounds. He blew away the steam, and said, as to himself:

"’He was true to himself, he came to die down there’--—pointing to the valley below with the stick—--‘with all his own grandfathers, when they were free and went on their own accord. Before the white man came to kill them for their tusks, to make the billiards balls I saw in Dar Es Salaam when I was young. But it needs mahongue to come all the way in hunger and pain to die among his elders. I myself would have died anywhere else, long ago, without enduring so much pain. He has a big heart, this old tembo… But this I tell you, and hark: his and your soul are linked, and by killing him you have killed yourself. You both are sacrifices so the people don’t go hungry no more. But under the ashes, we are all white, and greedy… remember this when your own people kill you…’ He spat on the embers and got up.

"For the next two days they followed the spoor implacably. The vultures guided them the last miles, a dozen of them, circling aloft, without moving their wide wings, ascending and gliding in the hot air currents in the African azure sky, so amazingly blue. They reached the sacred grounds at midday. The Cuban cut the last lianas with his machete and found himself in a small, perfectly concave valley, traversed by a narrow stream of icy cold water flowing from the mountains above. There they quenched their thirst.

"All around, half-covered by the weeds and flowers, were huge skeletons, bones and bones everywhere, bleached pure white by the sun and the ages---500, 600 animals. They found the old askari upstream, lying on his flank, his trump extended toward the water. The tembo was too weak to resist in his agony, but his skin rippled when the Cuban touched him. ‘Abuelo…’ the Cuban spoke in Spanish into the ear, and the flap moved slightly. And the Cuban caressed the big bony head and talked soothingly.

“‘I’m sorry for the painful death I gave you, and I repent, and in penance I’ll stay with you to the last, so you don’t go alone like all those others,’ and he waved his arm to the nearby piles of bones.

“‘And I’ll defend you from the dirty fisis and the vultures that would eat you alive, starting with your eyes.’ The ear flapped once more, and the massive head raised a few inches and dropped again. ‘And even if we are hungry, we’ll never eat your meat, abuelo.’

"From a plastic bag he extracted his last Cuban cigar; besides he rolled himself a large dagga joint, and smoked them at the same time. He picked up the feeble but heavy trump,

His shots
had all but ripped apart
the tembo's tongue

like a great serpent, and blew the fragrant smoke through its nostrils. He emptied his water canteen several times in the tongue he had ripped apart with his shots. And settled to wait. Umwanbe approached him with a hot stew, a monkey he had killed with an arrow. How he managed, with his withered hand, the Cuban couldn’t understand. He refused. Instead accepted gratefully and with surprise a bottle of cachaça, so old it had lost the label and the cork was rotten.

"He cut some long branches and with his blanket made a flimsy awning to protect himself from the scorching sun. All that day passed, and he kept giving water to the dying beast and refreshing its head, and whisking the green flies with a branch. The red sun sank behind the mountains, and night fell abruptly. He nodded for a while and was awaken by the near stealthy noise of the hyenas, a whole pack of them. He pointed his rifle and shot amid a pair of the oval, shiny yellow phosphorescent eyes, and they fled into the night ullulating their hysteric giggles.

"The tembo died before sundown. The Cuban felt a last gasp, the trump contracted in a long sigh, the pounderous withered bulk stretched, expelled a gargantuan fart, and came to rest.

“‘Let’s go, old man. I feel no guilt on me anymore. I guess I paid for what I done.’

"’No, kleinbaas, this was only the beginning, you are just starting to pay the price yet.’

“In silence they made back to the village, where they arrived in 12 days, Umwambe going this time as the crow flies, managed to kill along the way some small game, which the Cuban ate indifferently. The old man held his bow on his feet and shot with his sane arm, the arrow unerringly finding its mark.

"When they arrived in the village the first thing the Cuban asked for was a hot bath, which the young girls attended to. He washed himself with a sliver of Russian strawberry soap. Then he shaved painfully with the worn blue Russian blades, dressed in his spare uniform and boots, and without further ado called a meeting of the geronts.

"At dusk, when they met in the communal hut, he underwent all the ceremonial procedures with ill concealed impatience. He drank gourd after gourd of fermented millet, without even approaching drunkenness. After a decent interval, he got down to fundamentals.

"’I found King Solomon’s mines, but nobody can follow me there but Umwanbe, call him here—--‘

“In vain they tried to persuade him that Umwanbe was unclean: he ate with the same hand he washed his ass with. The Cuban cut all the chatter with an authoritarian gesture.

“‘Bring him I said. I’m the Muganga and I say who is clean and who isn’t—’


"‘And in the meantime give me some tobacco, and something decent to drink, not this crap… search the whole village if need be—’

"He drank in great gulps from a commandeered bottle of rum, three-quarters full, and blew clouds of smoke from black plug tobacco. He wasn’t anymore the fun-loving boy they had met a few months before, but a man possessed with a mission. He looked around with X-ray-like green eyes. He picked the six strongest of the geronts, and made them swear an awful oath over the skull of a child, small and with perfect white teeth.

“‘Good. Tomorrow at dawn we will start on our way. The porters must be sworn too… But only you the blessed ones can come into King Solomon’s Mines with me and Umwanbe here…’

"Umwanbe guided the three dozen-strong party. Three days before reaching their destination the young Muganga ordered the porters to make camp and wait for them. They took a detour and repaced and criscrossed their spur to make sure they weren’t followed. The vultures were feeding on the bloated carcass, and some of the ugly birds, so full they couldn’t fly, were perched above. The Cuban went to the opposite side of the clearing: he didn’t want to stir the foul birds and reveal their position to the porters. With a saw he had saved from his truck they cut away six tusks, weighing around 100 pounds each. These they tied to strong branches and carried them, hauling in pairs. It was hard going for the elders, but none complained, amazed as they were at the incredible riches.

"Back at the camp they rested gratefully, and sent ahead the first porters. They repeated the trip to the cemetery twice more.

“‘That’s enough,’ declared the Cuban.

“He was received in triumph at the village, and was plied and feted by the people. Some of them had walked 10 miles to the nearest hamlets to sell a heifer, and to get for him three cartons of Marlboros, six bottles of cachaça, and a dozen cans of Portuguse sardines, all they could find to please him. For themselves they slaughtered and roasted an old cow they hardly could afford.

"It was a night of revelry, which the people sorely needed after all their trials. They came once and again to watch and gape at the tusks gleaming side by side in the communal hut.

“‘I want a woman, but it has to be a virgin… and I don’t want her circumcised,’ the Muganga demanded. They brought him three girls, the oldest about 12 years old. ‘What the heck, this one will have to do…’ He told the women to give her a good bath, rub her with pumice stone, and take her to his hut.

"Next morning he asked for all the traditional figurines in the village, and selected the ones he liked the most. These he gave to the best carvers and the young pupils to copy. Also, he showed them samples of other African art in the encyclopedia. From then on the carvers were well taken care of by the badly nourished but hopeful villagers, and they worked with a vengeance, proudly since the future of them all rested on their gnarled hands. They didn’t limit themselves to copy, but improved on the originals, and gave flight to their fantasy.

"Now that he had the trade goods, the Cuban faced the logistic problem of how and to whom to sell them. The logical candidates were the museums in South Africa. But how to go there? Even if white and blond, the pass system there was even more strict because of the war. After swearing them to silence on the ivory treasure, and threatening them with the most evil juju for good measure, he sent the elders as emissaries to the other distant Zuzulu villages, looking for adequate foreign papers. It was a long shot, but it paid off handsomely: one of the old men came back with the passport, military book, credit cards and driving license of a dead South African conscript. The works. There were even 225 rands in the worn sweaty black wallet. True, the dead man was older, 26, and the resemblance between them was but superficial. But on the other hand the deceased bore an Afrikaner surname, which would account for his own foreign accent. The elder had pledged six prime cows for the papers, but they were genuine, and priceless, considering what was at stake.

"He thought a lot about the matter. He had no adequate small-scale maps; he had to resort to the ones from the encyclopedia, vague at the most. But everywhere the distances seemed enormous. He decided that the best entry point would be through Namibia. But once there he had no idea what to do. To try to enter South Africa by sea through the port enclave of Walvis Bay looked suicidal: if taken into custody he could be assumed to be a Cuban spy, and shot on the spot. So he decided to try for Windhoek.

"He said goodby to the tribe, and put aside their concerns.

“‘I’ll be back in a few moons, but in the meantime these are my orders: only the chosen ones can go in utmost secrecy into the white gold mine, and if one dies, another one must be sworn. So will be all the village. If famine squeezes, trade figurines wisely, to the Zambians at the north, but never, I repeat never sell a whole tusk, even if I’m dead and gone. I’ll always be watching from above, and the worst dawa will fall on the ones who break the oath…’

"They departed well before dawn, unseen, as it fitted warriors, he and Umwanbe. They followed due West through the Caprivi Strip, a thin long umbilical cord ignored in the big scale maps, put there at the whim of long dead cartographers, almost the length of Cuba. It was traversed by a tarmac road, patrolled once in a while by the South Africans in their Land Rovers. After three weeks they reached Bagani, the first town in the Namibian side, and there they separated.

"The Cuban kept the pistol, but gave Umwambe his rifle and ammo, and embraced him:

“‘We’ll see each other soon, my father—’

“‘No, we won’t. You will come back, but I won’t be there, to greet you as the great warrior you are. I was banned from my own sons’ huts, and my life was bitter and unworthy, until you sent for me, and we chased the sacred tembo together, and slept under the same blanket, and now you embrace me… Take care of yourself, young bwana, boetie, my son, and may the gods and my own shadow guide you through the perils ahead—’

Neither of them looked back.

"He waited until sundown, and bought from a poor Ovambo shopkeeper cheap clothes and boots, batteries for his radio and biltong and crackers for the trip. If the black man was surprised at the appearance of the bearded stranger in a foreign uniform, he hid it well, adhering to the common secrecy of the downtrodden. He offered him a hot bath in a tin tub and disposable razors. For a small fee he arranged for him a ride on a truck to Grootfontein, where the railroad line started.

"It was a two-day long trip on an aging Ford with worn tires that got punctured frequently, and which he helped to patch. It was cold up there in the truck’s bed, full of chicken crates and local produce. He shivered in the cold night and sweat in the sweltering and dusty day hours, without the relief of REM sleep, just dozing on occasions.

"The truck driver left him at the train station in the early morning. He studied the brief hour table, but he had just missed the first train. Six hours until the next. He washed and shaved himself in the station bathroom, the one that said ‘Blanches Nur.’ He wandered

Many soldiers in the street,
white officers and conscripts
and black volunteers

through Grootfontein. The houses, although zinc plate covered, looked definitively German. Many soldiers in the street, white officers and conscripts and black volunteers, Xhosa and Zulu. At midday he returned to a pub he had seen near the station, ‘Der Grönewald.’ He left his two heavy backpacks unerneath a table. He was weary, and thirsty, and went straight to the bar and pointed at the next man’s schooner, and with graty voice repeated words learned by rote:

“‘Ich möchte ein Bier, und Bastos Cigaretten auch, bitte..’

"He took the pewter steiner, and sat at the bottom of the pub, at an old blackened mahogany table that smelled of suds, and got drunk on an empty stomach. But lucid enough to notice the surrounding wondering gazes of the German colons whose families had been there from decades before the Great War. Who knew? A demobilized soldier, perhaps a useful foreman. To apply the sambojk to the lazy kaffirs if need be. When all the appraising farmers went back to politics and business he asked for another schooner, and six wursts like the herren were having. And yes, bread. It was years since he ate pork and real, hot, doughy bread. He prepared himself a large sandwich and after taking elaborate precautions went back to the station, where he locked himself on a toilet and waited until the train came. A diesel locomotive dragging five box cars and one ancient coach wagon, the natives segregated at the rear, but the hardships were the same: hard wooden benches and a stinking latrine.

"During the innumerable stops he was accosted twice by Zulu M.P.s, ebony black muscles bursting their South African uniforms, armed with submachineguns.

“‘Where are you goin’ to, sah?’


“They looked into his eyes, and recognized the glint of madness, sacred to their own culture, and just went perfunctorily through his papers and let him go. Fertile fields blossoming, by din of ubiquitous wind mills. Thus he arrived into Karibib and changed trains to Windhoek, an eight-hour trip, already well away from the front line 

"A big provincial town again with German houses. It had no place to stay. He wandered around till he found a Catholic church. That he remembered, in the atheist State he had never been into a church, despite the fact that Havana had them aplenty. The old bronze riveted doors were open, and the mass going, myrrh and frankincense billowing, the occasional bell ringing and the mesmerizing cadence involved him, lulling him. He sat at the bottom, the last bench, set his nodding head against the wall and slept like the dead.

“A hand softly touched his shoulder, and he awoke disoriented, his own hand going to the pistol under his shirt. But it was only a young Portuguese priest, of pointed beard and tobacco-stained teeth.

“‘We are closing the church…’

“‘I need to talk to you, Father—’

“‘Why not on the confessionary, my son?’

"’I have nothing to repent and my people are starving…’

“It stirred the Jesuit’s interest. He had ministered in the Cunene River basin, and had to flee Angola in a hurry, a veritable odyssey, with the Cubans at his heels, after the Soviet GRU technicians had triangulated the radio he was using to relay intelligence to the South Africans.

"’Come with me, my son,’ and took the Cuban to a rich wood-paneled room, and made him sit at a long ancient table. He offered the strange visitor fresh bread, goat cheese and sugared papaya slices. After the repast, a cup of old Madeira. He poured once and again, and handed him a package of Bastos. His office had taught him patience, and he waited. The Cuban talked unto the small hours. He then felt silent, and emptied on the table some of the ivory figurines, wrapped in dirty clothes and palm fronds. The priest held back a surprised exclamation, and raised his pale hands.

“‘These are uncountable riches you carry on your packs, my son. What do you want of me?’

“‘I want to trade them, father,’ and told him his story.

“A discreet knock on the door, and a white haired priest peered inside.

“‘Sorry, Father Jacinto, I saw the light still on, I didn’t know you had company—‘

“‘Father Angel, please, say the first mass for me…’

A grunt in response. Apologizing, when the old, rubicund priest was gone.

“‘You see, he has no English, the language of our parishioners in this godforsaken calvinist Winhoek. We have also a few Portuguese refugees. And now to business. Let me see your papers… It’s a wonder you came from so far away with these papers, the military police could have shot you easily by the side of the railroad tracks…’

“He thought for a while and returned the figurine he had been caressing.

“‘There’s a man here who maybe can help you; and I say maybe… We play chess and are friends of sorts, but it’s up to you to trust him or not… Now, I’ll take you to the bathroom, have a hot bath and then you can sleep all you want. I’ll wake you up when the man comes…’

"Once clean, the Cuban went into what seemed to him like a lavish room, and his aching body fell on the goose feather mattress and lavender-smelling sheets for 10 blessed hours. He was dreaming of Havana when the priest woke him. He jumped from the bed naked, pistol instinctively in his hand.

“‘Oojoo… easy now… the man I told you is here, dress up, my pagan friend, and put that gun away, there’s no need for it…’

"The stranger was dressed in black, in a long and shiny gabardine. He wore a wide black hat which he kept indoors, had grey ringlets, a scruffy beard, shrewd brown eyes behind gold rimmed round thick small glasses. He spoke Spanish with an elaborate, strange, musty accent, heavy on the ‘z’ and the ‘j’, like translating mentally. It was Sephardic Spanish, but the Cuban had no way of knowing.

"’Padre Jacinto here told me almost everything there’s to be known about you; a strange story indeed now let me see your goods… Maybe I can help you…’

“As the Cuban lit a Bastos the priest came back with black fresh coffee, three thin glasses and a bottle of Portuguese brandy.

"’I know you never drink, Simón, but today is Passover, so you can’t say no to me…’

“‘Indeed my good friend, I won’t deny you, or our good friend here…’

“Impervious to the pleasantries, the Cuban unwrapped some pieces, one of them an ivory reproduction of a Degas’ ballerina, trapped in her immortal pose, and the ivory seemed translucent and alive in her perfect limbs. The old Jew handled it as if transfixed, and sighed.

“‘Exquisite, I’ve never witnessed such craftmanship in Africa, and believe me, I’ve seen it all… How many rands do you want for this?’

"Nothing, sir. It’s yours for the taking, as long as you help me…’

“They appraised the four dozen pieces, made an inventory in a school copybook, and the Jew gave each a tentative price in rands, then converted them on a calculator into US dollars, so the Cuban knew in detail the amounts. Not that he did not trust the aging Jew, but it was not his money to waste.

“‘I’ll go to Cape Town and Johannesburg for you, but the percentage for my endeavors is 10 per cent, and trip expenses, of course—’

‘Fifteen, as long as you come back: remember, don’t haggle too hard, my people are waiting, and starving… It’s Auschwitz up there, believe me.’

"Even so it took the Jew two months to make the rounds of antiquaries, museums and universities. He came back to Windhoek exultant.

“‘They fought over your carvings, they want more—’ he stated.

“‘And so they shall have,’ the Cuban assured him.

“The main news: Simón was able to obtain credit and loans from several art dealers. The Cuban deserter paid the Jew his dues and left a hefty donation to Father Jacinto’s church.  Using his connections within the South African intelligence and civil authorities, the priest in the meantime had obtained temporary legal papers for the deserter. This time the deserter went back to the Zuzulu reserve in his own second-hand Land Rover towing an overloaded trailer covered by a tarpaulin.

"The little caravan reached the edge of the jungle, and the Cuban started the agreed smoke signals, five huge bonfires. Three days later porters materialized from the jungle, all the able men from the hamlet, who trekked back loaded as ants. He was received in triumph by

Barrels of kerosene, pressure Chinese lanterns, primus stoves, stainless steel pots and pans, Matches, tobacco, sacks of salt. . . 

the whole village, headed by the mayor and the geronts, solemn and in full tribal regalia. He duly admired and appraised his wife’s growing belly. And eagerly started to distribute all the riches he had promised his people: barrels of kerosene, pressure Chinese lanterns, primus stoves, stainless steel pots and pans. Matches, tobacco, sacks of salt, sugar, maize, beans, rice and flour. Canned food—--mainly chili con carne, his favorite. Rolls of garish cotton cloth. Besides, 20,000 Belgians condoms, many extra large, and all kinds of medications and surgical materials. Like a magician he produced his treasure, a veritable cornucopia,  leaving for last his biggest riches: the cages of pedigreed piglets and Rhode Island chickens, which he had carried in the back of the jeep, caring tenderly for them all the way. Finally, a wooden trunk containing files, calipers, precision and dentistry tools, magnifying glasses and art books he had specifically asked the Simón to buy.

"His first question had been: ‘Where is Umwambe?’ The elders scratched their wooly heads and looked around, lost.

‘We don’t know, we thought he was coming back with you… he never came back…’

It made sense. Umwambe had been true to his parting words, and had said goodby for good.

“‘I’m leaving in a week,’ the deserter said, ‘back to the veld far beyond. Show me the new goods…’

“The artisans had surpassed themselves, especially the young iconoclastic apprentices. They had gone beyond common beauty. Ivory rosaries, Picassos, serene Rodins and Renaissance madonnas, all perfect, unblemished copies, but the originals fancied him the most: crucifieds of strong limbs and Negroid features; the gods of a forgotten pantheon, 1,000 year older than the slaver ships that came for them year after year, taking away the flower of their youth, till the Zuzulu chieftains, elders and wizards decided to run far, far away from the caravan treks, and to leave for good their fertile lands near the coast.

"The Cuban embraced them, and kissed one by one their scarred cheeks.

“'You have done well, nay, you have gone beyond my wildest hopes, and you’ll do even better with the white man’s fine instruments I brought for you…’

“He showed them the files and tools, and the bulky books on African and Western art, and they sighed and admired and rubbed the color reproductions, and felt challenged: ‘We can do that, Nkosi…

“‘Sure you can, and even better, my brethren, and from your calloused hands will come the prosperity of this village and the Zuzulus at large…’

“And the artisans cried from joy.

“In their secret council that night, amid the general celebration, the Muganga untied his canvas money belt, and spread over a new blanket the beautiful rainbow-hued South African notes and shining gold Krugerands. They couldn’t comprehend the value of white’s man money, but were nevertheless impressed when he held up a coin and told them:

‘With this round piece of yellow metal you can buy a young, strong bull, or two milking cows, or three heifers. All this money is yours, to replenish your herds, and increase them so there’s never famine again. And now let’s feast, my dear fathers, because this is only the beginning—’

“He clapped his hands and the women came with wooden trays loaded with a veritable banquet. The Cuban distributed cans of beer and bottles of rum and brandy. He returned to his hut thoroughly drunk, and caressed the proud girl’s pregnancy.

“‘Good,’ he said in Spanish, ‘there’s Cuban seed here for when I’m gone…’

"That night the drums thundered through the jungle, and next evening, with a splitting headache, the Muganga received the geronts and witch-doctors of nearby and distant Zuzulu villages. They were starving, and he gave them money, despite the protests of his own elders. He cut them off peremptorily.

“‘We were lucky and found the white gold, and there’s enough for all of us; after all, the same blood runs on our veins. We are brethren. If you turn them off our own baraka will run out…’

"After a week of jolly and merriment it was time to go away. He left almost all the money to the geronts and clear, comprehensive instructions: buy cattle in Zambia or Botswana, never in Angola. He didn’t have to explain them their trade: they knew a sick cow from 400 meters away. But he emphasized: 

“’Never, but never, on penalty of the blackest, most lethal juju, sell a whole tusk.”

“The deserter and the mayor cleaned and distributed the Kakashnikovs to the young men and made them practice, with strict rules to use them only in self-defense. Then he went away on his second trip. And the third, and the fourth. The village artisans surpassed themselves, and recruited under blood oath artists from other Zuzulu villages. Their wares had gone as far as Cairo and started trickling into Western museums, the tedious work of Simón the Jew, the survivor of the Shoah, who grew rich on his commission, but gave away all his earnings as mitzvahs to his own people.  The Jew also built a small synagogue in Windhoek. He convinced four more Jewish families to come to Windhoek, so they had a mynian. The dilapidated Catholic church was restored, complete with splendid frescoes and a state of the art Yamaha sound system complete with plenty Palestrina, Mozart, Bach and plain chant recordings.  All of which gave new splendor to the Mass. Everywhere he went, the blond deserter seemed to spread material and spiritual riches.

"But never was it revealed to the non-initiated the source of the ivory. The deserter’s armed guards patrolled the outskirts of the village, protecting the hoard that accrued in the communal house. Only the six elected geronts and the Cuban knew the source of all that wealth, millions of rands in all.  The biggest tusks had not yet been sawed.   They weighed some 20 stone each, blanched from the ages, the black inner nerves rotted long ago. Brittle, perfect, unmarred. And the new tools and heavy books inspired the artisans to new heights.  And from the nimble black fingers beauty flowed, frail but eternal.

"The Cuban never left again, but from then on sent instead the carvings to Livingstone, across the Zambian border, with the mayor and two young artisans to keep an eye on him. Simón wired the money to the bank there, always accompanied by a scrupulous accounting of each piece. The Jew and his son traveled there from Lusaka in a hired battered twin engine Cessna. The business was flourishing.

"The Cuban had won his peace. He took another girl, and soon made her pregnant too. He rested days on his hammock, listening to the shortwave radio and reading the books and magazines Simón sent him. At night he drank with the elders, and listened to their stories. He saw his prized pigs and fowl grow and reproduce. And the cattle came with every caravan.  His village and the Zuzulus at large prospered. He was leading an idyllic life, the good savage, playing with his children, teaching them Spanish and about the world outside.

"He had been free and content for five years, while the war raged and destroyed nearby, formerly prosperous Angola. Until an Antonov 22 reconaissance plane overflew their grounds, like an ugly white vulture, with the tricolor insignia on its tail, and the Cuban knew inmediately that it was all over.

"The word had gone around that there was a white Cuban deserter loose, and though he was in an international sanctuary, there were no borders for his compatriots’ retribution. His debt had to be paid in full. Immediately he convoked the six sworn elders and in the dark of night they buried the ivory, the latest batch of carvings and all the Western money. He explained to them that he was going in hiding, and why. He took with him an AKM, 10 magazines and his faithful pistol, and headed for the elephant grounds. He planted his tent near the by now picked clean askari’s skeleton, beside the pure stream, and waited.

"A scared elder came to see him 12 days later. Two funereal black big Mi-29 helicopters had landed in the village’s esplanade, and from their ample bellies had jumped two platoons of Cuban Special Troops. They had killed all who resisted, anyone with a gun in sight, and many noncombatants. And they had taken the Cuban’s wives and children as hostages. They threatened to execute them, burn the village to the ground and kill all the animals. There had been a traitor in the village, and the people garroted the main suspect in the jungle.  He had turned out to be the fat mayor. A Cuban interpreter, a Mulatto scientist, had asked about the deserter in Imbundu and two other related languages. The villagers feigned ignorance.

"But the game had gone on for too long, and his people’s lives were at stake. He hurried back, and delivered himself unarmed into Cuban hands. The soldiers beat and kicked him savagely in the battened earth square, in front of the sullen, resentful, impotent natives. He was tied hand and foot and tossed into one of the helicopters. The rotors whined, and he felt a pang in his heart. But at the same time he felt satisfied that the villagers would never starve again, and that his own sons would grow among the tribe, protected, to become strong and fearless warriors, proud of their dead father. And the Batá and Ekueñón drums would celebrate his memory at the ceremonies of generations to come.

"Back at Lobito prison compound he was interrogated by a major of the C.I.M, the Military Counter-Intelligence, who wanted to know where all the Western goods at the village and the foreign money left behind had come from. And what he wanted for the gasoline generator, lathe, grinder and polisher, still packed in their original crates. They deprived him of sleep, beat him, gave him electric shocks, to no avail. Whenever he couldn’t resist the pain anymore he shouted in an obscure African tongue.

"He was judged by a kangaroo court, and the prosecutor described him as a ‘coward who had fled the internationalist struggle. A capitalist maggot who tried to create his own little capitalist kingdom, swindling the natives, and consorting with the apartheid regime.’ He refused to defend himself, and only asked the judges to leave the Zuzulus in peace; after all, the Cubans had violated international frontiers and a U.N. protected sanctuary.

"I offered myself as counselor and in the trial defended him with an eloquence that surprised even myself. I begged for his life, I explained all the good he’d done but it was no use. So, to try me, to assess my revolutionary integrity, I was designated to execute him. Many nights we had talked through the slot of his tiny, claustrophobic cell, and he told me about his free life and how he didn’t repent of anything. I helped him all I could on the sly, bringing him cigars, extra food, and occasionally a joint of mota or a canteen of alcohol.

"The fateful dawn came, a Friday, I remember. The sleepy squad was assembled in the courtyard and waited for the orders that never came. I drew my Tokarev, approached him, and kissed him on both cheeks. Then put the muzzle of the pistol over his heart and squeezed the trigger until my gun was empty.

"What happened after that? Well, I was court-martialed as a sadist and a cold-blooded murderer. Demoted to buck private and sent to a punishment battalion in the front line. Luckily the judges couldn’t read my true mind, or I would have been shot too. Any time there was a particularly dangerous mission we were sent first. On our rearguard were deployed Interior Ministry troops with Browning .50 caliber machineguns, and orders to shoot down anyone who retreated. So there was no choice but to go forward, attacking, always advancing, opening the way for the regular troops. How many guys in our ranks I saw die in those three months! I was lucky: I lost both legs, blown off by a plastic anti-personnel mine, but I escaped alive. We’d been ordered to take a South African artillery observatory at the top of a steep hill, and we stepped into a mine field. I tied myself two tourniquets, and had to wait all day long under mortar fire, until the few survivors were rescued at night. But I don’t complain, mate. This electric wheelchair is very practical. I can even come to the pub. But to finish the story: I still feel that I did for that deserter the same he did for the sacred tembo, that I killed him out of love. “  ##



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