A child soldier leads Father Angelo to speak with the devil in the African bushby Damon Galgut / September 18, 2006 / Leave a comment
The knock came in the small hours, as Father Angelo knew it would. But it wasn’t the sort of knock he had expected. He had been waiting for a blow, a prelude to the breaking of wood, the violent inrushing of feet. This was a soft sound, interrogative, gentle. The knock of a timid neighbour. The face outside was a boy’s face. Fifteen or sixteen, eyes downcast. He looked like one of the congregation, arriving for confession. But he was one of them. “Somebody wants to speak to you,” he said, whispering. Father Angelo hesitated. The boy was alone. This was more like an invitation than a demand; he could refuse. “Just let me get dressed,” he said. He followed the boy through the dark streets. Nobody else was around, but soldiers were always a possibility. The boy kept to the shadows, away from the light, and Father Angelo stayed close behind. It occurred to him that he was behaving like one of them. The priest lived near the edge of town; not far ahead the bush began. The others—because there would be others—would be waiting out there. The boy had no gun; there was still time to turn around. He said, “What is your name?” The boy seemed startled to be spoken to. In the dark his eyes flashed white as he looked back at the priest. “Sam,” he said. Both of them were whispering. “How old are you, Sam?” The boy shrugged. There was anger in the gesture. They went on. The African night was warm, heavy with the smell of dust and vegetation. There was a shrilling of crickets from all around, but a tiny moat of silence enclosed them, moving along as they did. They came to the edge of town. The lights and houses fell away; they were among fields. Then the bush rose up in a dark wave. The boy walked carefully now, picking his way, listening. There was a soft sound—a whistle, a hiss—from somewhere close by. They went towards it. The others were waiting. Three of them. It was too dark to see properly, but Father Angelo could make out the blunt shape of a gun in the hands of a taller figure. The others had machetes. His guide, Sam, also had a machete; he saw him pick it up, the weight and heft of it somehow altering him so that he was not quite a boy any more. Now everything was different. There was no talk, no aimlessness. They set off into the dark with a sense of mission, moving fast. There was no path, but they seemed to know their way. The priest was in the middle, with two ahead of him, two behind. They kept him trotting at their pace. He wasn’t young and fit and slim, like they were, and in just a few minutes he was breathing hard and pouring sweat. He had lived here for sixteen years—almost as long as the war had lasted. When he had moved here, he was still a young man, burning with religious conviction and moral certainty. This country had seemed exotic and foreign, full of pagan passions he had been sent to tame. All of it felt different now. He wasn’t young any more: his hair was greying and thinning, he had put on a lot of weight. And this place had become his home, familiar in wearisome ways. The far-off country where he’d been born was what seemed strange and foreign these days; he hadn’t been back there in ten years. But the biggest change was invisible. It had to do with his faith. Over the years, as he’d become drawn into the pain and conflict around him, his certainties had been worn down. There didn’t seem to be a luminous design to things any more; there was only the blank mindless violence of nature and the cruel, deliberate violence of human beings. It was hard to believe in absolution. There hadn’t been any clear, decisive moment when he had stopped believing, but these days the causes and solutions of things did not seem mysterious to him any more. Everything was explicable, within the grasp of human hands. He had never acknowledged this to anybody else. He continued to wear the vestments of his office and to carry out its forms and duties. But his language, and the way he thought about things, was different. He had become much more involved in practical, daily affairs, though with a sense of futility and resignation. Recently he had allowed himself to be drawn into government negotiations with the rebels, as a mediator. He spoke the local language; he was, in theory, an impartial outsider. But the negotiations, like all the other negotiations before them, hadn’t led to a solution: there was the usual deadlock, the return to the bush. Yet he knew that it was because of those proceedings, because he’d made himself visible, that he’d been called tonight. He’d been waiting for the call. There was no sign that it would come, and no reason to expect it; yet he’d been waiting. It was a premonition, a prickle, an intuitive dread—the first trace of mystery in his life for a very long time. The first time they let him rest was near dawn, when the sky was starting to lighten. Then—as if by some sign—they suddenly stopped. One of them went a little way off to stand guard and the others sat down to smoke. He sat with them. Now he could see them properly for the first time. They were a weird-looking, dangerous crew. They wore a ragged assembly of clothing: bits and pieces of government army uniforms mixed with cast-off shoes and gloves and hats. One of them was in his twenties, and he was clearly in charge. The others were boys, really, still teenagers. But there was something in their faces that had left childhood behind. There was no surprise in this. He had seen it over and over: this hunted, haunted expression, the dark rage in the eyes. He knew where it came from. None of them had joined the rebels by choice; all of them had been abducted from their homes. But once they were taken from their families they were forced to do terrible things—to kill other children, or people from their own villages. Sometimes they had to kill their parents or brothers and sisters. And once they’d done that, once they’d crossed over that line, it was very hard to turn back. It was easier to keep going, down the road of exile and blood, to whatever fate lay at the end. He felt compassion for them, but he was also afraid. Nothing was more terrifying than a child with a gun. He tried to see past his fear, past the weapons and the dead look in their eyes, to what was behind. But they didn’t engage with him. They looked away. Sam was sitting opposite him. In the growing light Father Angelo could see his face more and more clearly. It was in some ways a soft face still. Smooth, unmarked skin, the adolescent traces of a moustache. He looked ordinary and sad. Perhaps that was why they’d sent him: because he looked harmless. Father Angelo stared at him. He tried to send a signal, some kind of human spark, with his stare. He didn’t know why, but it felt important to make contact. The boy sensed his attention. Misunderstanding him, he held out a cigarette wordlessly. Father Angelo shook his head. “I don’t smoke,” he said. The boy looked at him, looked away. He offered nothing with his gaze, but Father Angelo thought it was a start. It was better than nothing. They set out again soon afterwards. The sun was up now, and the long grass was fired with its copper glow. They were far from the town and the only buildings they saw were the remains of abandoned villages. As they went past a derelict church, an empty shell topped by a broken cross, Father Angelo thought: that is me. Back at home they would have discovered that he’d gone. His housekeeper would be there by now. She would find the empty house, the unmade bed, the open door. She would raise the alarm and everybody would fear the worst. And perhaps they were right. He didn’t know what lay ahead of him. It was quite possible that he would never go back to that room. Well, he had prepared for that: first in a religious way and then, in more recent years, in his own private way. He was not afraid of dying; it was the possibility of pain that frightened him. But maybe it wouldn’t be like that. Maybe it would be a fading away: not unlike this endless walk through the bush. Something in him had begun to like the walking. He was tired and dirty and hot, but he could hardly feel himself any more. He had started to disappear. So that the arrival, when it came, was a shock. Among a clump of trees, next to a stony hill, a radio sat on a rock. Just that. There were the remains of a fire and some clothes drying on a bush. Nothing else. The figures of eight or nine more rebels were moving nearby, but they paid him no mind. He was an expected visitor; not welcome, but expected. He wondered who it was he was here to speak to. That was what the boy had said when he fetched him: somebody wants to speak to you. Father Angelo imagined it was a rebel commander, perhaps one of them he’d had to deal with at the peace talks. They had been, in their way, quite personable—even strangely likeable. But he knew it would be a different story out here; other rules applied. Sam pointed. And then he understood. This wasn’t going to be a face-to-face meeting. He was going to talk on the radio. Father Angelo wasn’t good with radios. He’d gone into the church partly because his skills lay in soft, human directions. Machines and technology unnerved him, so that now, while Sam fiddled with dials and buttons and aerials, he was flustered enough not to think of what this might mean. He couldn’t prepare himself. And when the voice came out of the little box—clear and distinct but bodiless—it was like a voice that spoke suddenly in his own head. Yet he knew who it was. Instantly, without introduction. And his skin went tight and cold all over. The rebel leader was a famous man in those parts. Famous but hated. The war seemed intimately attached to him, like an outgrowth of his personality. Most of the rebels’ tactics—the wanton, whimsical violence—happened on his orders. A lot of the local people might have taken up arms against the government, but they would not join with this man to do so. They would not steal children or murder their own families or burn their neighbour’s house. Why did he do these things? Perhaps the reason was the most obvious and least satisfying one of all: that the man was simply mad. Yet he didn’t sound mad. He sounded reasonable and courteous and content. Father Angelo had heard the voice before, when the man had called a local radio station to make a statement. And the voice had somehow stayed with him, its tone and timbre, so that he knew it instantly now when it spoke to him. The voice said, “Good morning, Father. I am so happy to have the chance to speak to you. Over.” The priest sat. He was stunned. The effort of the long walk seemed to catch up with him now, so that the face of the boy, the little clearing in the bush, swayed and swam around him. “Hello?” the voice said. “Are you there? Father? Over.” “Yes,” the priest said at last. “Yes, I’m here.” He didn’t say “over.” He couldn’t speak the language of the radio. At this moment he felt incapable of any language at all. “Oh, my friend,” the voice said. “It is so good to talk to another man of God. You know, Father, that I am also a man of God, like you. Not a priest, of course. But a minister in my own way.” Although he was making a statement, the man’s voice lifted interrogatively, as if posing a question. In answer, Father Angelo said, “No.” There was a pause. Then the voice said, “Excuse me?” The priest took a slow breath. He could have said, “You are not a man of God”; he could have argued it like that. But instead he said, “You are not my friend.” The voice said, “Just one minute.” There was a long wait. The hiss of static came over the radio, joining with the hiss of wind in the grass. Father Angelo noticed that the other rebels had drawn in and were standing around in a circle, listening to the radio. He looked at their faces, but he could see no sign of what they were feeling. When the voice came back, it had changed. The friendliness was gone; there was a rawness, an anger. It said, “I was wrong about you.” Father Angelo waited. “I thought you were my friend, but you are not. I have been speaking to my helpers. They tell me you wear a mask. You are an evil man, you are working against the Lord.” The man’s “helpers,” Father Angelo knew, were the voices that he consulted, which he claimed guided him in his holy war. And the priest could sense them now, suddenly, as a crowd of other presences behind the voice on the radio. Feeling afraid, he said, “I don’t wear a mask. That is why I must be honest with you.” “Yes, you wear a mask!” The voice gave a dry laugh. “Evil must be cleaned away, it must be washed out of God’s kingdom. I am going to tell my soldiers to kill you. You are going to die today, Father—how does it feel to know that?” He looked at the faces in front of him. He looked at the face of Sam, the young boy who had brought him here. Nothing had changed in their expressions—their masks—but he could see that they would do it. They would do whatever they were told. Feeling desperate, he said, “We are only talking, we should be able to speak our minds.” “Ah, Father, you are scared to die. My helpers tell me you do not believe in God. How strange—a priest who does not believe.” And it was true. Despite the situation, Father Angelo was amazed at how accurately the man had read him. Again he had the sense of the voice speaking in his own head, and of the other presences, other voices, behind it. He had the sudden, chilling awareness of power: a dark, enigmatic force, containing other forces. Although it was a hot day, and getting hotter, the priest felt cold. “What will happen to your soul, Father, if you do not believe? When you die today, you will go to hell.” To you: Father Angelo thought. The voice was claiming him, the deepest most essential part of him. He was still afraid, but a separate part of his mind considered the situation, and this part of him saw that if he believed in evil—the darkness speaking in many tongues—then he believed, after all, in its opposite. So the priest and the devil conversed, while the morning wore on. And as they spoke, the rebel leader relaxed again. He made a little joke; he laughed; his voice softened. Until he eventually said, “Well, perhaps you are not so bad. Perhaps I will let you live.” “Thank you,” Father Angelo said. The man cast off the last traces of suspicion; he laughed dryly again. “Yes, I was only teasing you, Father. I wouldn’t hurt you, of course. I would never hurt anybody.” “I know that.” “I only wanted to speak to you, to say thank you for talking to the government for us. It is good to have you as a friend. But I am a busy man and now I must go. God bless you, Father.” “God bless you too,” he said. The man spoke a little more, but in his own language, giving instructions to Sam. The boy’s face altered: it lightened a little. And then it was over—the diabolical conversation, the fear. The radio went silent. It was noon by then, the hottest part of the day. The bush was stark in the white light. Sam told him that he would take him home, but that they should wait a few hours. The boy lay down to sleep. The priest also lay down, but he couldn’t sleep: his mind was boiling over with images and impressions. His faith had rekindled again; he could feel it stirring in him, like something alive. But it was not the passionate, fiery faith of before. It was a faith with a question behind it. He could not be certain, he could not be sure. The boy walked him home through the dark. It was a repeat of the long hike from that morning. They were like pilgrims on a quest in a vast, dark landscape. The priest watched the boy’s back through the hours of walking, and his new, uncertain faith found its focus there. So that long before they finally stopped, he knew what he was going to say. They were within sight of the town. The lights, the little houses, were visible across the fields. The boy gestured to them, half in contempt, half in longing. There is your world, he seemed to say. Go back to it. He was already half-turned away when the priest spoke. “Come with me,” he said. The boy went still. He was staring at the priest. “Come with me,” Father Angelo said. “I will take care of you. Don’t go back to them. Come with me.” This was the invitation he had prepared, and all his faith and his doubt were in it. What was his belief worth if it could not save a single soul? “You are young,” Father Angelo said. “You are still a child. All your sins will be forgiven. You can begin your life again. Come with me.” A slice of light from a street lamp fell across the boy’s face and in the dim glow his expression changed. The hard, closed look cracked open; a wavering and a doubt entered in. The priest could see it. It was like his own doubt, and his own hope, flickering together in the air. “Come,” he said again. They looked at each other in the dark, each of them waiting for the answer.