Varsha 2019 Issue, Stories - David Clémenceau




By David Clémenceau


“I saw on that ivory face the expression of sombre pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror—of an intense and hopeless despair. Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision—he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath—

’The horror! The horror!’


It’s dark, night. There are trees and bushes all around me. Beyond, the moon is shining through the canopy. It is high and full and pale red. I run. I know I must run. Someone or something is after me, coming for me. Badly. I am alone – hunted. I run as fast as I can while twigs and branches slash through my shirt and trousers. I don’t feel the cuts on my arms and legs, or my face. I can feel my heart pounding in my chest, pumping blood through my veins, as if it wanted to provide more liquid than they can convey. My lungs are burning. Keep running. Rather drop dead than stop. No time to catch my breath. Can’t pass out; must not fall – if I do, I will get caught. I don’t want to get caught. The fear is eating away at me. I can feel it eagerly sinking its pointed teeth into my spine; how it is reaching with long, cold, bony fingers for my heart and for my lungs, to quell them, until both organs fail; and I fall.


I look over my shoulder to see if anyone is within sight. Maybe they have given up. Maybe I am safe, now. Maybe I can take a rest and lie down, catch my breath and sleep. But someone is approaching, fast, faster than me. I keep looking back while I try not to trip over the roots and bushes on the ground. The hunter is coming closer. It is one dark, bare-breasted woman with nothing but a cloth around her waist. Her hair is short, her face unearthly pale. Her whole naked tortured body is pale. I can’t run anymore. My heart hurts too much and my lungs feel as if they are going to explode. I try to catch my breath, only for a few seconds. After all, it is only a woman. I can barely see the tree I am leaning on.


Silence – all I can hear is my breath.


I feel the darkness mingling with the fear to form a cold, deadly couple trying to suffocate me from all around. I am trembling, drenched in sweat, when a sudden icy gust of wind chills me to my bones and I turn around only to be petrified with shock. Her hollow lifeless stare in her pale, frozen face overwhelms me; it nails my soul to the tree. She is now at arm’s length from me. Her mouth moves, but I don’t understand what she is saying. She extends her arms towards me and I see now, that she does not have any hands – they have been severed at the wrists. I would push her away, so she won’t come any closer. But my hands, too, are gone. I don’t understand. My limbs are utterly paralyzed with terror, while the deadly couple devours me from within. And all I can do is to scream – from the darkness of the forest, of my wretched soul.

Our camp was just a few miles up the river, between the delta and where the forest became thicker. We were twenty soldiers, commissioned to ensure the safety of Mr Henri and his two associates. The first, Mr Duval, was a representative of a European Bank with Société or Crédit in it, probably a French one. The other was introduced to us as Mr Brenques and was Duval’s attorney and interpreter. Mr Duval was to make sure that his employer’s financial interests in the rubber company, which was represented by Mr Henri, were taken care of. Mr Henri was an adventurer and geographer and certainly no man of desk jobs or office work. He was in it for the action; and the money. A mercenary, but not out of necessity – he relished his work.


Our mission was easy. Theirs was even easier: to make sure that we keep the porters in line. They had been bought from a trader, further east, to carry enough elephant tusks from a village, half a day upstream, through the forest to our camp. I did not know the precise location. From there, Mr Henri would send two soldiers to get a horse cart to carry the heavy ivory to the station, about two miles down the river, towards the delta. From there, a steamer would ship the cargo to Europe.


I had wondered why the steamer was shipping ivory instead of rubber, but when I asked one of the other soldiers, he just told me that it was none of our business and to shut up. We were here for protection and maintaining order. I thought that it was not the tusks that needed order being maintained; the native porters would not receive any protection.


I had arrived on a Sunday from a garrison near Cape Town with nine others. Before our arrival, there had been only Mr Henri, his associates and nine soldiers with one officer. But it was Mr Henri who was giving the orders to all of us. On the ship from Cape Town I had heard stories about Mr Henri. He had been around for some time already, representing the commercial interests of the highest bidder. In the American West, he would have been called a drifter or a hired hand for a job that needed someone with experience – his kind of experience. When slave workers had rebelled, further north, he had ordered his men to cut off as many womens’ right hands as the number of men involved in the rebellion. A few men had been hanged, to make certain the others would go back to work and not try to rebel again. Sometimes, they would cut off the feet of the leaders, before hanging them with the others, too. First one, then the other; same as the Spanish did with their natives, when they came to Florida searching for the other El Dorado, after having slaughtered, raped and plundered everything south of la Florida. The Indians who witnessed Hernando de Soto’s cruelty would tell his translators anything he wanted to hear.


Over here, there was nothing the natives could tell any of us. No one would ask them anything. Not that we understood their language or they ours. There was no need for a common language for communication between natives and Europeans; they wore chains and we carried clubs and rifles. The men were there to carry the tusks out of the forest to the camp. The women were there to make food, mostly for the troops and, at times, to be raped. All the communication had already happened. Now there was only abuse.


The porters had shown some uneasiness, probably caused by our arrival. Apparently, a handful of them had begun to initiate some sort of rebellion against Mr Henri and the soldiers that had been in place before we joined them. Some of the women already had their right hand missing.


One week had gone by, almost without incident. Our squad was meant to stay at the camp while the other squad escorted the porters to and from the forest. Abuse was commonplace. The soldiers shouted almost without interruption and hit the porters with clubs, the women too, at the slightest sign of tiredness or unwillingness to conform to orders, or for sport. All of them showed bruises that were visible from a distance, despite the darkness of their skin.


On the night from Saturday to Sunday, twenty men and women had fled the camp. Mr Henri assumed that they had tried to find refuge hide in a village we had no contact with, since there had not been any need for it, so far. During the night, the slaves had got hold of the keys for the chains they had to wear around their ankles and necks, and had taken with them five rifles, about a hundred rounds of ammunition and six machetes. Mr Henri was furious. He struck the guard across the face until he fainted and Duval shouted to stop. The man had fallen asleep on his watch. The conversation that followed between Duval, his interpreter and Henri mentioned that soldiers were expensive, because they had to be paid, whereas natives were not and that Henri had better get on top of the situation or he would have to answer to the company’s board.


On Sunday morning Mr Henri ordered sergeant Pritcher to lead a team of five armed men to the village and get the slaves back. Those bloody savages would not stand a chance against trained soldiers. Everything would be back to normal by noon. The armed men were all around twenty years old, each of them having several months of field experience. All had joined the armed forces at the ages of seventeen and eighteen. Pritcher had been in the forces since he was fifteen, having lied about his age, which had gone unnoticed by the officials as he was tall and solidly built. He must have grown up working on a farm or in the mines. No one knew for sure. They left at 7:30 am.


The natives that had escaped had indeed found refuge in the village. And they did not have any inclination to come back to the chains and abuse. When Pritcher and his five men arrived along the river arm, two hours later, the natives were expecting them. They had waited in the thick of the forest, until everybody was out of the boat and was caught between the river and the village. Only Tom Welling, the last one to come out of the boat, had enough time to get back inside and turn the boat around, back downstream to the camp alone, where Mr Henri was waiting.


He was back at the camp at 11:45 am and told Mr Henri what had happened. The natives had with them stolen rifles and bows and arrows. They had ambushed the party about 200 feet into the forest and had cut off the path back to the boat. The instant he saw that his comrades were falling one after the other under the attack, Tom Welling hurried back inside the boat as fast as he could, facing downstream. When looking back to the shore, Welling saw how the natives were chopping off the hands of the soldiers with machetes.


Mr Henri did not like to wait for anything. He had meant to get rid of the village since his arrival three months ago. Pritcher’s party had brought with them a Maxim gun when they had arrived at the camp. Now, Mr Henri ordered an immediate punitive raid. Only two soldiers would remain at the camp with Henri and his associates. At 12:30 pm the other twelve set out on two boats, one armed with rifles only, the second carrying rifles and the Maxim gun. Welling had to show the way. The village harbouring the runaways was about 200 yards away from the river bank and when the two crews arrived, the one with the Maxim on board took position with the machine gun pointing towards the village. The second boat remained to the left came to a halt a few metres ahead of the first one. Both bows were looking downstream.


The soldiers positioned their rifles on the starboard side gunwales of each boat, facing the river bank, and waited. Then, when everything was quiet, the Maxim gun began to eat its way through the forest, before the bullets reached the village. One could see through the shredded tree bits that panic had broken out in the village; running was accompanied by screams of men, women and children. When the Maxim gun had finished spitting its piercing, death-bringing teeth both boats docked and eight men approached the village, firing their rifles at everything that was still moving. Some of the natives had managed to flee in panic into the forest, away from the gun fire. The ones who did not, had fallen prey to the bullets which were ripping through womens’ limbs and chests, tearing apart terrified elderlies’ faces and bursting dark-haired children’s skulls – spilling blood all over the village’s dirt ground as the villagers were struck by civilization, to the thundering clatter of the Maxim.


Then, everything was quiet again. On their way back to the boats, the soldiers picked up the maimed bodies of their comrades. Two were still alive. Pritcher was one of them. He woke up two days later, screaming – after having received basic care for his wounds, mainly shots of morphine, by one of the soldiers, who had stayed in camp and had had medical training during the first incident with the Boers.


That scream was horrifying, sending a chill down the spines of everyone in the camp. Private Adams rushed into the tent and saw Pritcher’s distorted face – eyes and mouth torn open in agony – and hurried to prepare another syringe of morphine to shoot into the body about to convulse on the field bed. He did not even try to stop trembling, when injecting the pain relief; the soldier was in a state in which he probably could not even feel the needle entering his arm. The scream was so terrifying, so close, so unfair that it brought everyone present at camp to the realization that this was not a holiday trip for the white man to civilize the uncivilized. An expedition of this sort could go that bad. Death was not actually an issue. Receiving the same treatment they were dispensing to the natives, was, on the other hand, something the soldiers they had not thought about so far. Then the morphine strangled the pain and the camp went quiet again.

The sight of arms severed at the wrists was haunting Pritcher’s mind, along with the pain of his very own mutilation. As the morphine began to work, suffocating his body, relief came for his physical condition. The vision of native men and women being held down to the ground and having their hands and their feet cut off, remained. Their cries in terror, pleas for a different ordeal and cursed promises of vengeance in the next life kept resonating inside his skull.


While his patient’s body was swamped with morphine and the convulsions had ceased, private Adams stood up again. He was concerned with the situation. Then, leaving Pritcher to rest, he noticed the post standing upright at the centre of the camp. From a nail hung a series of dark, lifeless hands held together by a thread through the palms, like the grotesque beads of some morbid necklace.


I scream. I think I woke up screaming or that it was my screaming that woke me up but I can barely get hold of any clear thought except for the pain. The handless woman’s horrified face, right in front of me, is carved into my mind. Her unending cry of agony resonates inside my brain. I remember now; it wasn’t a dream, nor was it a nightmare. I had been there and now I was lying on a field bed in a tent that served as a makeshift field hospital. I had killed and crippled natives. We and Mr Henri had maimed their arms and legs. I was one of them. I remember now – I am sergeant Pritcher. Now, I was one of them.




David Clémenceau lives in Germany with his partner and their two-year-old son. He started writing short stories in 2016 and is currently working on a collection. Although French and German are his first languages, he thinks and writes mostly in English.


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