WHAT LIES BEHIND FACES
A Christmas Tale
“Move!” came the single shout of the Captain, Chris. It lacked the bark of an order, though the loudness indicated it was directed at the men. It registered to a few as a word of encouragement. Minions repeated it automatically through cracked lips that had long defeated every form of moistening. Chris sighed. Her once bright coloured hazel eyes were now reddish, packed with dust and sleeplessness. Her thin shapely frame belied the matron who two years previously had been fully stocked. She had her weather coloured brown hair closely cropped to her skull. Her once glistening fair skin was now a shade of chocolate patched with dust and a few scars. It was the same with a lot of the other soldiers whose clothes hung on them like rags on hangars.
Days without activity, food or water had long left the soldiers wondering what battle they faced. Lately, the battle front was shifting and it appeared that hunger would easily conquer any of these sooner than any enemy’s bullet. Differing their varying skin shades or clothing, the men were uniformly brown. This was the harmattan’s cloak on them all. Many times in those cold moments, it was the various stories that warmed Chris and kept her fit.
She spotted Kabuza and shook her head. It seemed he had been changing units with her. It was hard to say how old he was from his looks. He was about five feet seven, heavily bearded, heavily built with a round stomach that the war had not affected. He was fast and had a reputation for a quick temper, though Chris had never seen him angry before. He spoke few words. The man did not have the interest of the war at heart. The story of his recruitment was interesting. No one knew how the story of his recruitment originated but it had passed around long and steady that it had grown to wear the toga of fact. It was two years ago. He had been hiding with his son in the bush. After days of hunger, they both chanced on a chameleon, as the story went. Who killed it was not clear. The chameleon was small and might have been overlooked by a father for a hungry son. They both grabbed the dead reptile as father glared at son asking total submission. Submission and obedience were for the life before. The thirteen-year-old was no longer a boy. He threw the first punch as Kabuza dodged. It turned into a hot fight that nearly left the boy dead. It was meant to teach the child a lesson. In his triumph, the father seized the chameleon and started eating it. He was halfway through when he realized what had just happened. Ashamed, he offered the boy what remained of the prize. The boy later disappeared, joining the army, it seemed, to find a way to deal with his father. It was more than Kabuza could take so he found his way to the recruitment office and offered his services, searching for his son while exchanging units.
Chris watched him pull something out of his pocket and clean it. She guessed it was a picture and it was. She wanted to ask whose it was but she remembered Kabuza was said to have a violent temper. He was also said to be mentally unstable so everyone tried to steer clear of him.
It was the seventh day of their journey when the soldiers came across a village. It was deserted. With the times, such places had become a normal sight. Chances of finding anything were usually slim.
“We are camping the night here, Sir!” The soldiers declared as if they had had a meeting. Chris told them to hold still as she would look to make sure the place was safe. She eventually okayed their stay. Everyone deserved a break sometimes, even in the worst of seasons. She chanced upon a digital watch and idly looked it. The watch declared 25:12 20:01:45. One minute past Eight, Twenty-Fifth December. Then, it hit her. Chris smiled. The times had become so abnormal that people forgot dates, even Christmas.
Her mind went to Jude, a teenager in her former platoon. The lanky boy was brought to her by her soldiers, when they had overtaken a town. He had stuck to them and refused to leave. She spoke to him and discovered that his father was a university don. The boy had no interest in books. His was a life of adventure, even at that tender age.
She had been harsh and tried all means to send the boy away from the camp but boy had his mind made. He stuck on like an incessant fly, like the camp was his raw side of beef. Somehow, in a way neither of them saw coming, boy and Captain got attached like mother and child. Her mission for Jude changed with this affection.
Chris had tried to teach him to see the beauty of books. To teach him the basic three L’s as she called it; literature, love and life. There wasn’t so much for him to do back then, and there was some time on their side. There were some occasional encounters and killings. The idealistic boy was soon brainwashed and was more soldier than the soldiers themselves. Jude became full of zest and longing for blood, that of his own people. But this was all before his turning point, as Chris always thought of it.
On that rare occasion, their spies had spotted enemies a little distance ahead. Exhausted, they decided to camp the night before advancing on the enemies the next day. Not the boy. He had wandered out to seek the enemies alone. At roll call, he was found absent. There was no hard guessing where he would be. A search party went after him, Chris in its lead. It took a while but eventually, he was found, wounded and terrified. The boy was crying, a silenced gun in his hand. Not far off, a dead man lay face down in his own blood. Realities sometimes turn out drastically different from ideals, as Jude found out. He was taken to the medics. He lost his appetite for war. A willing student now, Chris taught him whenever she found the time.
She eventually sneaked him out and with luck, he found his way out of the country with some missionaries. Health workers or like organization. He had not been very clear on this aspect. Still, he continued, if all went as he hoped he would become a medical Doctor. He would also become a writer. That part always made her smile.
She folded his letter which she hadn’t realised she had brought out, and put it in her trouser pocket. She pulled out her wallet and took out a picture. It was worn and creased. She held it tenderly, afraid it might break in the harmattan air. It was that of her daughter as a baby, five years old now. She ran her hand over the image and smiled. Chris wondered if she would see her daughter again. She breathed deep and stepped out of her temporary quarters. There was great gaiety in the air. The good humour of the camp had come back. They had somehow found wine. The announcement that it was Christmas had long made the rounds and as it seemed, a party was in progress. She noted Kabuza was not with them and searched around, till she found him. He was still fingering the photograph she had seen earlier on.
“Why are you alone by that fire?”
“Everyone seems to ignore me. The only ones who ever tried to come near me only taunted me…Sir.”
“Why are you not celebrating with the others?” Chris asked again, surprised at his good command of English. There was a pause, then he replied:
“You believe I am mad,” It was not a question or accusation. It was a simple calculated observation that left Chris at a loss of words. “Do you have any children, Ma’am?”
Something in the quietness of his voice touched her:
“Yes, a daughter. Five…I hope.” She said, passing her daughter’s picture to Kabuza, as she sat down beside him: “Kabuza?”
“She is pretty. Too bad she is going to be an orphan soon. I am not sure if any of us would survive this, you know.” He said matter-of-factly as he handed the picture back and looked directly into Chris’s eyes. Now the Captain felt uneasy. “You must have heard of my son and how I killed him… No, you don’t have to say a word, Ma’am. I have never tried to disprove anyone’s tale. I let them humour themselves. In reality, he –my son– left our house one stormy night. It was the first Christmas of the war. Things weren’t so bad then. We were also assured then, that things would come to an end soon. This is the second Christmas. It was before our town was crushed. He simply dropped a note saying that he was gone to join the army.”
“Just like that? What was his reason?” Chris asked.
“Who knows?” Kabuza replied and shook his head slowly, “He had such hot blood. My wife saw the note first. She collapsed and died in that instant, shock I think. She was hypertensive, you know. It was Christmas day. The magic of the moment was lost on me. They were my Christmas. I packed my things soon after and enrolled into the army. I sought information of my son, switching from camp to camp whenever I could. I soon got information that he had been killed. A part of me always expected it. I felt bitter and I died in that knowledge, becoming a thing without a focus, you know. I lost sight of the cause and eventually found out I did not know who I was fighting with or against. I have changed camps so much I do not seem to know the difference anymore, you know. I am now an instinct man, killing whoever the enemy of my camp is. I do prefer your command though and so I have stayed long, silently.” He paused for a long while before ending with: “I’ve managed to hold on to this one picture of him.”
He proffered the picture he had been fingering all through to Chris. Chris stretched her hand to collect the picture but he withdrew the picture, turning instead to tend to the dying fire. He tried to shift the embers with a long stick but discovered that the wood was not enough. He stood up to search for more dry wood. He came back shortly and stoked the fire.
“There you are. Sorry about that. I wanted you to see clearly.”
Chris collected the picture slowly this time. Her eyes narrowed as she adjusted the picture to the light.
“Sorry? Eh… Yes. Wait, what? You know him?!”
Chris smiled. It was the son of the university don.
“This is your son?” Kabuza simply nodded, wide-eyed, “You must be Professor Black.”
“Yes. Now, don’t call me Kabuza again!” The Professor said, a thrill in his voice to cushion the joke, as a smile long absent from his face shaped his mouth into a rare sight. He seemed to relax a bit but quite suddenly, his face assumed a look of grim urgency, “Tell me what you know. Quickly. Immediately…”
Chris looked at him, a bit angered at the tone he was using. His imploring eyes held hers fast and begged in messages words could not translate. She calmed down and told the Professor the story of his boy ending with where she thought the boy was and what he was up to. She gave the Professor the letter. The man devoured its contents as if he had been starved of words all his life. It was the hunger of a marooned man seeing food for the first time in two years. He roared, his laughter coming from the depth of his belly.
“Ho ho ho! Ha ha ha ha! I can never thank you enough, Chris, eh, Ma’am…Sir. You have made me a happy man, you know. If I die today, I die a most happy death in knowledge of the magic of Christmas. Hey! I don’t know what to say. Ha! Ho! Hee!”
Chris opened her mouth to say something as a soldier approached just then to tell the Captain that she was needed immediately. The radio had come alive; there was a message. The soldier wasn’t surprised at Kabuza’s random spurts of laughter but was shocked to see his Captain in the man’s company. Noting the seeming level of familiarity between them, he wondered if the Captain was not mad herself.
“Merry Christmas, Professor,” Chris said, as she stood up.
“Merry Christmas, Chris.”
She shook her head as she followed the soldier who had come to call. There was some serious action coming their way. They were soon going to be in action, again. She looked at her watch. It was 00:01.
 An early version of this tale was published as ‘If Everyday were Christmas’ in The Bottom of another Tale (Makurdi: SEVHAGE Publishers, 2014)
Su’ur Su’eddie Vershima AGEMA
Editor and Development Worker
Author Home Equals Holes: Tale of an Exile, The Bottom of Another Tale and Bring our Casket Home: Tales one shouldn’t tell.
(Joint Winner ANA Prize for Poetry 2014; Winner, Mandela Day Short Story Prize 2016; Shortlist PEN Nigeria/Saraba Magazine Poetry Prize 2012; Shortlist, ANA Prize for Prose 2014; Shortlist, Gimba Abubakar Prize for Short Stories 2015)
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