In all my writing, both of history and fiction, I have been drawn to stories of people who cross physical and spiritual boundaries to live as aliens, transients, migrants, refugees, and outcasts. I began writing this story after reading an article about a young woman who was caught up in the civil war in Sierra Leone, but it quickly became a story about the inner conflict of the rebel soldier, Diffa. A rebel soldier who kills to improve the world or does not kill because he cannot harm a fellow creature, who wants to dehumanize his enemies in order to kill them, but yet cannot deny their humanity, became far more interesting to me than his victim. Nobody is absolutely good or evil. We cross moral boundaries within ourselves with considerable frequency in our desires and choices, and sometimes with great and lasting consequences. People who have read this story wonder how it actually ended: did Diffa cut off the woman’s arms or not? I find that their answer reflects their own attitudes toward life. Some believe that he left her arms where they belong, but others are sanguine enough about the nature of man to be certain that he cut them off. It's the perfect ending.
We came at the darkest hour of the night. Sixty-three of us, armed with Kalashnikovs, machetes and grenades. The villagers had heard we were in the area and tied their dogs at the edge of the village to raise an alarm if we came close. Their barking split the night when we stepped out of the forest, but we rushed in quickly and slit their throats to silence them.
A few sleepy men came out to see what the barking was about and we shot them. We went among the houses tossing grenades into open windows and doors. Ka-thump! Ka-thump! Ka-thump! People were screaming and shooting, but before long all the men had been killed or chased away.
We pushed the survivors together like cattle onto the bare earth of a goat pen in the marketplace at the center of the village. They were the usual kind of survivor of our kind of raid: the very young, the very old, the women, and they were to us nothing but dirt to be swept away before the revolution. Jibu, the leader of our detail, said we must teach the women a lesson, make them examples for village women everywhere in the countryside. We began the work of punishment, pulling them out one by one and taking off an arm or a leg for a remembrance of what it means to disobey the People, to be dogs.
Personally, I did not like this part of our struggle. I will not give any details of it. Though I agreed in my mind that it was necessary, the cutting off of the arms of a woman tied down like a pig was not the work of a man, a warrior, or a revolutionary who served the People. I preferred to stand guard while the others did this evil. But on the night I speak of, Jibu saw my weakness and ordered me to take up a machete and do the thing.
“You are not worthy of our revolution if you are not able to teach the people how to behave,” he said. Jibu’s machete snapped down on the arm of a girl of about twelve years and he smiled. He could have been cutting kindling for our cook fires. “Look how easy it is,” he said. The girl fainted, bled, was carried away to live, to die, I never found out.
Jibu handed me his machete. At the sight of its blade I became sick in a patch of grass and shamed myself. Jibu laughed and shoved me jokingly on the shoulder. The drops of blood on his shirt and face sparkled wet and dark in the torch light, burning into him like acid, but he did not notice. My discomfort amused him. Hanging my head, I got my gun and went to stand guard out of sight of his ring of fire and blood.
Jibu laughed as I went.
“Go stand guard, Diffa, while I instruct these people,” he said.
As I passed the women cringing in the goat pen, one of them looked up at me with an expression in her eyes that I can never forget. Her eyes stopped me, as if catching me in a trap I have never yet escaped. To this day I struggle to be free of that look in her eyes.
The eyes of the women are always full of begging and fear, full of tears, when we raid their villages. Very sad and disturbing, but they must be taught their lesson; they must be taught their place in the new nation we are building, as Jibu says. What I find revolting is that they beg for mercy, but do not really expect it. Their eyes beg without hope, for they know as they stand there, listening to the machetes and the cries of their sisters, that all is lost for them. Their eyes are empty because they know they will never receive what they most desire. They know that better than they know anything.
This woman in the goat pen who looked at me was somehow different. Her eyes revealed a certainty that I could save her from Jibu’s machete. She looked at me with hope. How strange for someone caught up in the fury of our Revolution and Jibu’s sadism to hope. Maybe what I caught in the glance of this one small woman among the many others was only a shadow, or not even so much. After all, exhausted from dysentery and malaria, from a long night march through the forest, from that blackness of heart that comes after an attack, I saw little else but shadows in those days. But I don’t think so. The eyes of this woman burned with real hope and expectation that I could save her.
And her hope was more than I could bear. Why should a dog hope while men died to clean their country of filth like her? It insulted our revolution. In anger, I slammed my fist into her face and felt her flesh split and her teeth crack beneath my hand, but striking her gave me no satisfaction. I turned with my machete in hand to put out the light of her hope.
Watching this, Jibu laughed even harder. Killing put Jibu into a good mood. He liked to do it and he liked to watch it done. Cutting off the limbs of the survivors of a raid made him cheerful. That is why he always did it. He raised both fists above his head and cheered the sight of my machete raised over the woman’s head.
“Do it, Diffa! Long live the revolution!”
A burst of gunfire cut his cheer in half. Bullets caught him in the chest and throat and he crumpled backward onto the pile of arms, his harvest that night. The women in the goat pen began to scream and fell down to escape the bullets. The comrades guarding them with machine guns looked around like stupid, overfed goats, not realizing that the Army had caught up with us.
“Soldiers!” I shouted, and pointed down the lane. Our men came to life all at once and ran, hoping the soldiers had not surrounded the village and cut off our chance of escape.
I had only run a few steps when I remembered the woman and her impudence. With the Army come to save her, her hope of being saved had come true, which thought made me bitter. I decided to finish what I had started and ran back toward the soldiers’ guns. They were coming quickly, running and firing at the comrades who disappeared in great disorder among the houses. They fired at me but missed because I tripped over Jibu’s body.
The women broke down the pen that held them and, ignoring the bullets, rushed forward in a rage to grab and kill me. I kept my head and sliced at them with my machete, keeping them back. It was then I saw the one with the broken mouth. I darted among the scattering women, now falling with the soldiers’ bullets in their backs, and grabbed her by the hair and dragged her out of the marketplace with the hot spatter of bullets nearly drowning out her hysterics.
It was still very dark and the soldiers were young and without experience in night fighting. I pushed the woman to the ground between two crooked lean-to’s full of chickens that squawked loudly at the gunfire and flew off in a fury of beating wings and feathers. With a piece of rope lying there on the ground I tied her hands and told her to shut her mouth or I would break it again. I listened to the boy soldiers approaching my position along the muddy central lane of the village, bunched together and creeping forward through the deep shadows. They held their fire now and peeked carefully around every corner in case any comrades waited in ambush.
By this time I was the only rebel left in the village. I pulled the pin on my last grenade and waited, waited, then rolled it gently among the feet of the soldiers.
Ka-thump! The grenade exploded with a blinding flash. Thinking to cut off the woman’s arms while the soldiers were in confusion and then run to safety through the fields into the forest before they could recover, I whirled around, machete high, but there she stood, very calmly, and did not even flinch at my blade. Her face was raised to me as if she wanted a kiss and her eyes said to me, ‘you will not kill me because I know you will do what is right.’ Hope!
I could not do what my anger demanded.
In the lane the wounded were crying out for help, for their mothers and sisters, and I heard a voice say, “It came from over there!”
In seconds they would find us but all I could think was that Jibu would not have given this woman a second thought. He would have killed her instantly and not played such games in his mind.
I am not Jibu. I led her away by the hair into the fields. We moved quickly since it was dark and the confusion and noise behind us kept the soldiers from seeing or hearing our escape. She made no sound or struggle and we went along at a jog until the light of morning made its feeble way down to the forest floor. Then I hid in the undergrowth. I needed sleep. I tied her to a tree.
“Make no sound.” I held the machete against her throat, cutting her a little in warning, but I could not look into her eyes as I did it. I had no more strength for violence and crawled beneath some bushes to sleep.
When I awoke it was night again. I felt for the machete in the leaves beside me. Like a fool I had dropped my rifle back in the village, but I knew the forest and I had darkness to protect me.
I crept from my nest and undid my trousers to relieve myself. It was then I heard the sound of her voice, very small and soft beneath the noises of the night forest. She sang to herself, a song I did not recognize, but I knew it was a Jesus song. With the machete blade I silently parted the branches and stared into the darkness at the foot of the tree where I had left her. The singing stopped and I could not see her, though I stared and stared. Had she gone? Was I hearing her spirit sing? The thought of spirits loose among the trees sent a prickling chill down my back and I cursed myself not for the last time for being a child.
“You can’t tie knots very well, Mr. Rebel Soldier,” whispered the woman into my ear. She appeared beside me out of the shadows, as if from the world of the dead, holding the rope. I had neither seen nor heard her approach me. I jumped away like a springbok and struck out at her with my machete.
“Get back! Get away from me!” I cried. I was afraid that I faced her ghost, and hated my womanish fear even as I swung at her. I lunged forward and grabbed her solid arm before she could run, but I need not have bothered. She remained absolutely still and did not even duck away from the machete. I shoved her to the ground and felt around until I found the rope and retied her, cinching the knots tightly around her arms.
“You are a witch,” I said. “Do not look at me!”
“Chop off my arms, if you think I am a witch.” Even with her face pushed into the wet mossy ground she taunted me. “Like you did to my sister. Just let me die.”
“I didn’t hurt your sister,” I hissed. The bitterness of Jibu’s scorn came back to me. I was not warrior enough for him. “Jibu cut off her arms, not me.”
“That laughing one?” she managed to ask. My knee pressed hard into her back. “The one the soldiers shot?”
“What is that to you, dog?” I pulled her by her arms to her feet, wrenching her shoulders and causing her to cry out. “We are going to my village where I will cut off your arms and maybe your legs and your ears and nose. And if you are still alive I will take off your head and give it to Jibu’s woman for a drinking cup.”
We walked on in almost total darkness and she said nothing more until we came to the edge of a clearing. A full moon broke through the clouds and turned everything in the clearing into bright metal. A thin stream ran nearby and an okapi came to drink with stripes luminous, nearly glowing. I sat down against a tree and felt my anger flow out of me. I wanted to sleep some more, but I was afraid the woman might try something. She sat beside me, her rope wound around my hand, and looked at me in the way she did during the raid, with expectation. She was certain of receiving something from me. Mercy, her freedom. I tried to avoid her eyes, but when I looked at her I felt my knees turn to water, I felt drawn into her.
“Don’t look at me,” I complained.
“You are not evil like Jibu who was shot,” she said. Her voice was almost indistinguishable from the whispering leaves around us, from the trickling water among the rocks of the stream.
“What do you know about it, witch?”
“I’m not blind. I can see things.”
“Shut your mouth.”
“I can see how you hate what you are doing.”
“Shut up,” I hissed.
“You are good. Goodness is at the root of everything you do, even your revolution. You want the world to be a better place, but it takes blood to clean the world they tell you, so you go and spill blood for them.”
“Stop.” I felt nauseous. Her voice was small but sharp like the buzzing of a mosquito in my head.
“You shot my mother and father in the back as they ran down a path from our house in Panguma.”
I said nothing to this. We raided Panguma a few months ago.
“You stole the medicine and food they sent for my grandmother and she died when starvation weakened her heart so much it stopped.”
Into my mind came the image of a white UN flatbed truck, tipped by a landmine into the roadside brush, burning as my rebel comrades scrambled to carry off the bags of rice and milk powder, the clinking boxes of drugs. I had been on that road to Patayala, too.
“My sister and I left to find our uncle after our grandmother died. We were alone and he was our only relation. We stopped for the night at Magobwema where my father had friends. My sister did not want to stop there. She was frightened. She said it was a bad place, the rebels would come. But I said we would be safe. The rebels were far away and we had friends who could feed us. I told her God would protect us in Magobwema, but—.” Her voice broke and for a time she could not speak.
“But she did not believe it. In my heart I believed no harm would come to me, that God would put an angel between me and the rebels if they came. Now you have brought me away from there, saved me, and my sister’s arms were taken and I don’t know if she lives. Are you an angel, Mr. Rebel Soldier, or the devil? I cannot tell.”
When she said these things I found strength to look into her eyes. The moon shone into her face and I could see the swollen jaw, the cracked, bleeding lips, the fever in her eyes, maybe of fear, maybe madness. Tears ran down her muddy cheeks, shed for the ones she lost, or maybe because she knew the truth even as she spoke of promises and hope and angels capable of great evil.
Gently, I untied her arms and rubbed the soreness in her shoulders where I had strained them. I stood between her and the moon and my shadow came over her, and she refused to look at me any more, no matter how my eyes sought hers. In the end it made my task easier. I laid her back against a fallen log and with pieces of the rope tied her arms loosely to the crumbling, mossy wood. They were a woman’s arms, well-formed, spreading from her shoulders like roots, like wings, and for all I know they are still there.