House of Stones
Othelia Malan lay face up in the dirt. The wind picked up, and above her, dark ashes clouded the sky. A grey flake settled on her cheek, then several others on her hair. Her blond plait was caked in warm blood as was her shirt, flapping in the wind. In the distance, a lion coughed and a second answered, and Othelia said to them, in a whisper, "Can you smell me now?"
Later, she was dragged through the dirt and the singing grasses to where the mopane tree line began. Her father had once hung a tire swing nearby, and now, Othelia saw Nduma pushing on it two little blond boys. Nduma was dressed in her buttoned-down uniform and white head wrap, and when Othelia waved to her, the old woman smiled back and said, "You can't be here, Mukiwa baby."
"I know, but I'm not sure anymore."
"Othie-ba," said Nduma. "It's already so late and so dark."
Othelia had hired a guide, Tom, to cross the closed border between Zambia and Rhodesia. He was a tall and stocky mercenary on convalescent leave from the fighting in Mozambique. That morning, a bloat of hippos was basking in the warm waters of the Zambezi, and Tom navigated the dugout canoe with care. When they had passed them, he said, "You speak Shona, then?"
"A little," said Othelia. "Farm talk, a few words."
"Enough to talk yourself out of trouble? I know it's not my business—"
"You're right, it isn't."
Tom shrugged, so Othelia added, "And what do you suggest I do?"
"For what? For the embargo to never lift?"
"You think you'll find their bodies?"
"We have a family plot near the farm," she said. "If I don't find them, I'll mark their passing with crosses near my brothers' graves. They would have wanted that."
"You see there?" said Tom, and he pointed south at the shape of Rhodesia's hills across the river. "Over there, you're at the bottom of the food chain. You get me? You're the top choice prey. You're a kudu, an impala."
"The farm's only thirty miles inland."
"Thirty miles in guerrilla territory," he said. "Look, what do I know?"
"I'm not paying you to talk me out of it," she said. "I know my country."
"Your country? Your country? You protested against your kin."
"Who—?" she said, and she lowered her voice. "Who told you that?"
"I did some background check, nothing too difficult in my line of work. London, 1965."
"I was a student. So what?"
"You protested against Ian Smith. Outside Rhodes House. With ZANU partisans." He leaned in with the movement of the paddle. "You think your white face didn't stand out?"
"Smith doesn't represent my people."
"Who are your people, then?" said Tom and he leaned back. "Those who will shoot you tomorrow, maybe the next day? Was it Ian Smith who killed your parents?"
She didn't answer and they paddled on. Finally, Othelia said, "There must be a way for all to get a share."
"You sound like that Marxist, what's his name."
"Mugabe?" she said. "He does have a point. What gives us Whites the right to keep it all?"
Tom inspected the bank for a place to land. He said, "Shame, such a smart girl. A London doctor at that."
Othelia jumped off onto wet sand and pulled the canoe ashore. On the bank, Tom faced her. "You know the frequency?"
"Radio whenever you want to cross back. You have four days. After that—" He paused. "How many guns have you?"
"Just this one." She tapped the rifle hanging from her shoulder.
"Is it loaded?"
"Load it, then."
She moved swiftly toward the woodland where the mist still hung low. A blue duiker broke through the fog. Othelia jumped and the small antelope halted, smelled the air, and bounced back behind the sunken cloud. Her going became slow, careful. She tossed out the orange she had packed and had forgotten to eat; this early in the morning, she risked running into the odd elephant on its way to the river.
When the mist lifted and the sun filtered through the trees, Othelia heard the voices of women and children in nearby villages. Once, she stopped to rest and eat a morsel of bread. She crouched near a tall termite mount. Through the bushes, she spied the clay walls of a cattle kraal, and three, maybe four huts surrounded by chili plants to keep elephants at bay. Dark smoke was coming from inside the enclosure and, for a moment, the air smelled of maize and home.
When the sun was already high and she had passed the first hill, she came upon a small boy of seven or eight. He was carrying a sack of charcoal. His face was colored with red and grey dust and so were his T-shirt and shorts. He had come up from behind a tree, or perhaps Othelia had not seen him in the distance. Her eyes had constantly been scanning for snakes on the ground amidst the dry foliage.
"Hesi," she said. "Hello." In reply, the boy lifted his chin just a little under the weight of the charcoal.
"Uri bho?" said Othelia, for this is how her nanny used to ask Othelia and her brothers how they were. The boy didn't reply, and Othelia realized she had spoken in the wrong dialect. She tried a more formal way. "Wakadini?"
The boy smiled and said, "Eeeeheeeh."
She pointed at herself. "Ndi Othelia." She pointed at him. "What's your name?"
He put the sack down and wiped his palms on his shorts. "Peter," he said and shook Othelia's hand. They both clapped once, then twice after touching fingers again.
"Unagara kupi?" she said, but her voice in Shona sounded off to her now as though she were talking through the bitterness of an acid fruit stuck in her throat. The boy pointed to her left, past her. That's where his village was. The last one she had passed and the only silent one.
"Your mama, amai?" said Othelia. The boy shook his head. No mother. "And your baba?"
Again, Peter shook his head. "Akafa?"
"Akafa," said Peter. Dead.
Othelia readjusted the straps of her backpack. The boy watched the swing of her rifle.
Finally, he pointed at it and said, "Amai and baba. Bad man, zing, zing, zing."
"Who—?" Othelia said, then thought better of it. "I need to get going."
"I go with you," said Peter. His English voice was high pitched, much more than in Shona.
Without looking back, she said, "No, eeweeh. You go home now."
She reached the third hill just as the sun began its descent over western Rhodesia and Botswana and war-ridden Angola. Othelia grabbed her rifle and she clicked the safety off. In a small clearing between boulders she found a black fire pit, still warm; nearby, patches of flattened grass and shoeprints in the dust that led to an eastward path. Whoever had been here had already moved on.
Gun shots echoed above the wind and in the valley between the hills. They came from the east, possibly from the north toward the Zambezi. There, in the distance, a tall and thin smoke plume indicated yet another kraal, or perhaps an encampment. Several large birds were circling the area. When the shots resonated again, she knew it had come from there.
Othelia scouted a spot by a tall mopane tree and dropped her bag. She jumped and kicked dirt in all directions to scare away any creature lurking under the rocks. A crack in the bushes below the peak made her look up—Nothing, it's nothing, she thought. She lowered herself to sit on the ground, holding the rifle. Then, she looked ahead and stood up. A young puff adder the color of sand and leaves was coiled not two yards away. It inflated and puffed loudly, its eyes on Othelia, but just before it could leap at her a hand came out from behind the rocks and grabbed the snake by the neck. Othelia tumbled backward and hit her head on a root. Her rifle went off, and it was as if the evening sky had cracked open.
Birds flew out of the tree above her and Peter let out a small laugh of victory before tossing the reptile down the hill toward the small bushes that peppered its slopes. The serpent flew in the air. Its body first made an arc before contracting into a zigzag of scales and muscle; it landed with a thud.
Othelia's left ear rang. She covered it and tilted her head. A hole the size of an apple pierced the mopane bark. She lifted herself on her elbows as Peter approached.
"Bad snake," he said. He helped her sit up. "You have ropa in the hair, M'zungu." She touched the back of her head and felt a warm and moist spot.
"You wash it now," said Peter and already he was going through Othelia's backpack.
"Hey," she said. "Leave that." She snatched it by a strap.
"I look for mvura," said Peter. "Water. You wash your head now. Animals, they can smell you. The big shumba, the lion."
Peter pried the bag from her grip and said, "You have water, yes?"
She nodded and her eyes ventured toward where the adder had been. Peter fished out one of Othelia's gourds and took a sip. He said, "M'zungu, I wash you now-now," and he poured the rest of the water on her hair, patting her blond curls down with his small hand. He took out a fabric from his satchel and gave it to Othelia to wipe her face with. "I go with you, yes?" he said.
She thought, He's just a small child. I can't take him on. She stood up, dizzy. She held on to her knees but straightened up the second she heard muffled voices coming from the northern slope. She grabbed Peter by the arms. "You come down with me, but then you go back home, got it?"
He nodded again.
A man cleared his throat close enough for Othelia and Peter to scurry down a southern path, through thorny bushes. The boy led the way, light on his small feet, and Othelia held on to her rifle tight against her side to stop it from clanking against her bag. When they reached the bottom of the hill, they looked up to see silhouettes in the moonlight and the orange glow of cigarettes.
They walked a way toward a dirt road where, hidden by the trees, Othelia kneeled down beside the boy. She said, in a low voice, "Okay, you go now. Go home, Peter."
"We had a deal, Peter. Eeeheeh? We had a deal. I go this way"—she gestured toward the darkness across the road—"and you go home." She pushed him a little and the boy hung his head and pursed his lips. "Okay," he said and gave her a limp handshake. She waved for him to go around the hill, and he was gone.
Othelia crossed the woodland slowly, even more carefully than she had walked at dawn. Whenever an image of the snake came forth, she shook her head and clenched her teeth and walked on. The forest soon ended and a low veld began with tall grasses moving in the wind. Othelia broke a path through their silver waves until she reached a small kopje with an acacia tree between two boulders. She unlatched the rifle's safety and climbed on. She first inspected the rocks and what lay underneath their sides before she turned to the branches for any sign of wildlife. Satisfied, she sat with her back against the bark. She removed her boots and wrapped herself in her blanket. She put the safety back on and placed the rifle across her lap. The wound on her head was sore but clear of any blood.
A hippo's grunt, followed by a fury of snorts, indicated a nearby river. It was late in the dry season and getting her bearings in Mashonaland Province based on bodies of water was easy. All ponds would look like craters now, and only three rivers were still possibly flowing: one of them led to Mozambique and another to Salisbury and Umtali; the third one passed her parents' farm.
She took out her radio, checked the frequency, and pushed the talk button. "Breaker, breaker, Tom, 20, 20, over." She released but only heard static. She tried again and was met with silence once more. The hills must be blocking, she thought. She looked at the sky. Not a single cloud for the signal to bounce off, not even on the horizon where the Southern Cross was already peeking out, just above the trees. A hippo groaned against the cicadas' nervousness, and the radio in her hands chirred. "Breaker, breaker, Tom, 20, 20, over," said Othelia and released the button. An urgent voice came on: "Crippled Eagle 1 to John John. Over." She dropped the radio and stood up.
By the time she picked it up, she had heard the message twice more, and before she turned it off, she heard a reply spoken with a drawl: "John John to Crippled Eagle 1. Give your location, man. Over."
Othelia woke up with the first sun rays. She had curled up during her sleep at the foot of the acacia tree, hugging her rifle tight. Her left ear stung but her hearing was improving; the morning sounds were already less muffled than the evening ones. She hurried down the kopje. Slightly bent over she walked through the tall grasses until a clicking sound made her look back. Peter was sitting on the tallest boulder near the acacia, beaming.
Othelia waved him away but the boy must have understood this as an invitation. He got down the kopje and followed her at a distance. The low veld extended on all sides down a gradual slope and ended on a mopane woodland where stood the remains of a farm. The land had once belonged to the McBrides, whose youngest daughter Othelia had befriended in school. The father, murdered with an axe to the head, had been one of the first casualties of the Second Chimurenga back in '66; the mother now lived on borrowed land in Malawi.
The lawn around the house was burnt and Othelia took care not to step on any growing shoots. She peeked in through the broken windows. Here and there, small animal tracks broke the thick layer of dust and ashes on the floor; otherwise, no human steps. She sat under the half- fallen roof of the veranda and watched Peter come out of the grasses.
"M'zungu," he said. "I go with you now." He took out a large cassava root, boiled and wrapped in cloth. "Eat, M'zungu," he said and gestured with his fingertips from the root to his mouth. "Eat and I go with you."
Othelia hesitated. Sharing food here symbolised agreement. She said, "Thank you, for the snake. Last night."
Peter broke the softened cassava in two. He offered half to Othelia with his right hand, holding his forearm with the left.
"Brothers? You have brothers?" she said, though she didn't dare ask, "What happened to your family?" This far into the war, it could have been a guerrilla trap or, worse, Othelia's own people. Though own only through the color of their skin. Shit, it could have been her father for all she knew, a man so mad about his land that he would have followed any ideology, however wrong or filthy. It was because of men like him and women like her mother that Othelia had sworn nearly eight years back to never set foot on African soil again. Until that telegram to London a fortnight ago from a family friend.
Peter's knees were dry and grey with dust. Othelia held her right forearm and took the cassava he was offering her. "Ndatenda," she said, and he replied with a quick "Yeeh yeeh." They ate, listening to gun shots coming from behind the hills between them and the Zambezi.
She sucked on the inside of her cheek. "Okay, Peter. Okay."
They left the veranda and the veld when the sun was already half way up the sky. They had hoped to refill on water at the farm's well, though, when Othelia pulled the bucket, all they found were sticks and leaves so brittle they crumbled in their hands. On their way out, they hid behind trees near the road by the McBrides' overgrown iron gate. At last, a pick-up drove by on the sand-dusted tarmac. Its back was loaded with hay and Othelia said, "A farmer," and already she was on the road, waving for the driver to stop. Her gesture was shrouded by a thick cloud of dust and debris. Beside her, Peter spat out the red sand and wiped his tongue with the inside of his T-shirt. Othelia flapped her clothes.
"Well, hot damn, if it ain't a vision," said a man.
Othelia pulled Peter behind her before turning around to face three soldiers in jungle fatigues.
One of them, the one with a khaki beret, said, "Leave it, Alabama." He pointed at Othelia's rifle. "You going hunting, wyfie?"
"Home," she said. "What's it to you?"
He had a light moustache and black eyes and leathery skin on his thighs. He looked like he had worn shorts all of his life. "Where's home?" he said.
"You're Jamie and Mariette's daughter?"
"Koetze, Johan," he said and gestured at Peter. "And the boy?"
Farms were large and people scarce in this area of Mashonaland. Nduma used to weave the names of the valley's newborn babies—White and Native—into her Shona songs. As far as she could tell, Othelia had never seen the man and neither had she ever heard of a local Koetze. Not even in her parents' unanswered letters.
She said, "One of our workers' kids."
"There ain't no workers there," said Alabama.
Othelia took Peter by the hand and held him close to her side. "He got scared and fled and I promised his parents."
Alabama kicked a small rock and looked up. "You promise the Shona things now?"
"Let's go," said Koetze and he took her by the elbow. She jerked her arm away. Alabama grabbed her by the hands and took her rifle. Othelia froze and so did Peter close to her. Finally, she said, trying to keep her voice from trembling, "Where to?"
"Home," Koetze said. "Isn't that where you're going? You'll need an escort."
Three rounds of shots sounded somewhere behind the veld and the men all crouched at once. They pushed Othelia and Peter into a dry ditch where they all rested, their backs against the small slope. Koetze gestured for the third man, a short American with tattoos up his neck, to go and check. Alabama licked a joint and lit it. Koetze said, "I didn't know you were back in the country."
"I wasn't," she said. "Just last week."
Koetze exhaled smoke. "Shame we didn't run into you before."
"How well did you know my parents?" she said.
Tattoo man came back, running low. "Charlie's behind the elephant grass," he said.
For miles, the road followed the curve of the river that led to Othelia's farm. The sun was high and Othelia's eyes itched and watered. Peter, on his small, thin legs, was already lagging behind.
Where the river curved south, they reached a dirt path lined with tall eucalyptus trees; a shortcut Othelia used to take on her horse to the McBrides'. They turned right onto it, and Peter sat down from exhaustion. She picked him up. He was heavy enough despite his small frame, and several times Othelia's knees threatened to give in on the soft path. His skin had the earthly scent of rain falling on dry soil. She thought of Nduma carrying Othelia's little brothers and her from the garden to the house; Nduma's skin smelled of honey and cinnamon.
Koetze said, "Why do you carry him?"
"You know what he is."
"He's a child."
Koetze drew his face close to hers. "Drop him."
She held on to Peter and stepped back only to walk into the tattoo guy.
"I said, drop—"
"Fuck you," said Othelia, and she spat in Koetze's face. Peter woke up and slid down her arms. The Afrikaner raised his hand at Othelia, but Alabama put his hand on Koetze's shoulder. "Not here, cap." A gun shot resonated not too far off from the direction they had come. Weaver birds nesting in the eucalyptus trees flew out and everyone looked up. When Othelia finally lowered her eyes on Koetze, he was lighting a joint. He blew out smoke in her face and said, "He'll be trouble. I say, get rid of the boy."
She shook her head.
"When they come," said Koetze, "and they will come, the boy will run to his kin and shoot us all, you just wait." He let out a pow, pow, pow, pointing at her with two fingers, and laughed. "Tie their hands," he said. Alabama cut two pieces from a longer rope he carried across his chest.
"This is war, bitch," said Koetze. "You gotta pick sides."
"This is my country," she said. "You've got no right, you Boer pig."
Koetze neared her left ear. His voice was muffled but Othelia clearly heard, "Funny, that's also how your father called me." He pinched her chin and turned her face both ways. "Shame. I guess them apples, they don't always fall that far, nè?"
"M'zungu," said Peter with his hands behind his back. "M'zungu, I go with you."
She looked at the boy, and to Koetze she said, "What did you do to my father?"
"What?" said the Afrikaner. "You don't know?" Tattoo man whispered in his ear and they both gazed back the way they had come.
Alabama thrusted Othelia and Peter forward. They marched on in silence until they reached a jacaranda tree tunnel that led to the farm. The purple flowers had already gone to bloom and many were falling in the sweet honey breeze. At the end of the covered alley was an orchard. To its right rose a two-story house with a thatched roof bleached grey by the sun.
They hid amidst apple and plum trees in bloom. Alabama scouted the premises, starting with the house and proceeding to the other smaller buildings and the barn. He gave the all clear though they still crossed the front yard with urgency. Pushing them forward, Koetze said, "In this war, the first to see lives."
They passed a big, dark fire pit now flattened by the wind. Near the edge, Othelia spotted a small, dirty fabric, yellow with red flowers—her mother's Sunday dress. What was left of it— of Mariette Malan—was flapping in the late afternoon breeze, held to the ground by a charcoaled plank. She slowed down her pace. "Move," said Koetze and he grabbed Peter and Othelia so hard that the boy let out a cry. Othelia dug in her heels, groaning from the effort. The man pulled with a jerk; Othelia's head swivelled and the world around swam. She followed, kicking and yelling until they had crossed the veranda and were inside the house.
"M'zungu," said Peter in a whisper. "Don't cry, don't cry."
"I'm okay," she said. "We'll be all right."
They were rushed through the living room. It was empty but for the old sofa her father had made with a worker when Othelia was small. It had been pushed near the fireplace and now stood under a single photo frame of three blond children. Alabama threw Othelia's backpack on the sofa but kept her rifle.
The dining room was empty, too, though one of its walls was splattered with blood near where her parents would have sat to eat. Peter lowered his eyes, and as Othelia dug her heels in again, he said, "Don't cry."
Koetze led them through the kitchen where even the oven was now missing. He opened the pantry door and kicked them inside. They both fell on the ground. Othelia hit her face and when she opened her eyes she saw a fat cockroach belly up, kicking its little legs in the air. One of the men jammed something heavy against the door. After, the mercenaries' voices echoed in the empty and bloodied dining room as they walked back to the front of the house. A gun shot, far away. Twice, three times. Four.
The evening light was coming through a small window high above empty pantry shelves. Othelia had forgotten the opening even existed; the space had always been filled with conserves and jams and pumpkins, yams, cassava, and sacks of maize and wheat. Othelia's hands felt for Peter's. They both remained still for a moment, and at last, she went to work, prying the boy's rope loose with her swollen fingers.
The mercenaries' whispers halted and someone ran up the staircase. Alabama's voice came from high up: "They're near, by the river bend."
"Our guys?" said Koetze.
"I can't get them on the radio."
"The fuck, cap," said the man with tattoos. "You said this was a white zone."
Othelia hurried, lost her grip, and tried again. She heard Koetze say, "Fucking hell."
The men ran around the side of the building. They were now at the back, under the pantry window, whispering.
On the other side of the house, a sound of tires crunching on gravel. Heavy footsteps ran through the empty house and echoed in a way Othelia had never heard steps echo before. Someone went upstairs and walked above their heads. A window shattered. At last, Peter's wrists were free and he cuddled against her for a moment before Othelia said, "My hands now, zvanza, zvanza. Now-now."
Outside, below their window, Koetze said, "Di, di, di, di, di" and there were shots and screams and a thud. Then, "Man down, man down."
"Fuck," they heard. "Fuck, fuck, fuck." Then, nothing but men shouting and running through the back woodland.
Peter wiped his face on Othelia's sleeve. He tried the knots and groaned a little. "It's okay," she said. "Try again."
He did and, finally, he loosened one knot and then the other. Othelia massaged her bruised forearms and massaged his. Peter made himself into a ball and Othelia held him tight as Nduma had cradled her so many times. You're not my baby and I'm not your amai, the maid would say. But you are my other baby, the one with the white, ugly face. "She didn't mean it," Othelia said.
The pantry door flew open. Black boots and long khaki pants and a rifle's barrel swinging low. Othelia's rifle. "Manheru," said the man. His voice was deep and large like the sky. He wore a red beret.
Peter and Othelia greeted him back but didn't move. Another man showed up, a long, shiny machete in hand. He pointed with it at her and said, "Mabhunu, eeeheeh." White farmer scum. He pulled Othelia by the hair, and she kicked and said, above Peter's already pleading words, "No, no, I'm on your side, I'm on your side, ZANU, ZANU."
They dragged her out and took the boy with them. On the veranda, a man, much larger than the others, was sitting on the old hanging bench. He was smoking, and so were all his men, passing joints all around. Mbanje, locally grown in the velds. A jeep was parked across the flattened fire pit. Troops in uniforms were coming back from around the house. In the last sunray, the jacaranda tunnel was the color of purple flames.
The man on the bench gestured for Othelia and Peter to approach. They had Othelia kneel down. The red beret dropped her backpack and rifle at the large man's feet.
"And who do we have here?" said the man on the bench. His accent showed time spent in England, and his epaulettes a rank, of colonel, perhaps.
"Please, please"—Othelia clasped her hands—"please, let the boy go. He's not from here, I shouldn't have brought him here."
"Oh, he's free to go," said the colonel. He gestured at the farm, the orchard, and the veld. "If anything, this is his land."
Peter didn't budge and the man said, "Boy, gara pasi, boy." Peter sat down on the wooden floor.
"I can explain," said Othelia.
"Yes, yes," said the colonel. "Very well. All in due time." He frowned and smiled at once. "And what is your name?"
"Jamie Malan, he is your father? And Mariette? Your amai?"
"Was, were," she said. "I came here to find them and to lay him and my mother—"
"Ah yes, I heard." He paused. "Jamie, he was a good man, good man." He patted Peter's head. "Repeat that, boy. Good man."
"I'm sorry," said Othelia. "What do you mean by 'good man'?"
The colonel took the bag and began emptying it out. "Oh, but he helped us, you know. He fed ZANU troops and gave them land to camp. I never knew him, but I heard." He fished out a small canvas pouch, inside which was her British passport.
"But, daughter of Malan," he said. "We are countrymen. I studied at Cambridge, you know. Tea time and all the books." He flipped through the pages. "You came all the way from Great Britain to pay your respects?"
"Where is your stamp? The borders, they are difficult I gather," he said and gave her the document to find what wasn't there. Othelia held the passport unable to open it. "Well?" he said and took the next thing out. It was her radio. "I don't know much about these things," he said. "Here"—he gave it the red beret—"Make it work."
A radio creaked behind Othelia's back. "Military category radio," said the man. He handed it over to the colonel, who said, waving the device away, "Why do you have a military radio, Malan?"
The man in the red beret crouched beside Othelia. "Speak," he said, and he clicked the talk button on and off.
Othelia turned away and Peter placed his hand on hers. "M'zungu," he said. She gave him a pursed smile. The red beret pushed her and she tumbled on her side. "Speak," he said.
She neared her mouth to the receiver and said, "Breaker, breaker, Tom, 20, 20, over." The man released the button.
"Crippled Eagle 1, Crippled Eagle 1, 20, 20, give your position, man. Over." The colonel stared at her.
"I can explain," said Othelia.
"You already said that."
The radio creaked again. "John John to Crippled Eagle 1. Change position. Mapata farm. Charlie Charlie. Over."
"It's just a frequency problem," said Othelia.
"Crippled Eagle?" said the colonel. "Mercenaries?"
"It's not what you think," said Othelia. "I just came to bury my parents, I promise. I am pro ZANU, I protested in London when Ian Smith, when he—"
The colonel snatched her passport back and let out a laugh. "I would have remembered a white person there," he said. "I would have remembered your foul smell."
Suddenly, the entire veranda erupted in clatter. Men jumped, men clapped. One of them said, "Mabhunu," and another joined him until it became a chant. The colonel gestured and Othelia was lifted by both arms. Peter held desperately to her hand.
They dragged her down the veranda steps and the colonel followed. "Shame," he said facing her. "I was really hoping we could be friends, Malan." He winked at Peter and looked up at the house. He said, "You know"—he wrinkled his nose—"this place reeks. Let's burn it down." He pointed at Othelia. "And you, your father would have been ashamed. Helping Ian Smith. You traitor—"
Othelia kicked in the air. "I didn't help him," she said, out of breath. "I'm against him, I swear. I crossed the Zambezi just to bury them."
The sky was almost dark now, and the moon still low and dull. "We have a ritual," said the colonel. He snapped his fingers and a man pulled out an old drum from the back of the jeep. The colonel tapped it once and the whole group fell silent. Even the cicadas hesitate, thought Othelia.
The colonel said, "The house, we burn. It breathes of this traitor, this woman Malan, whose father and mother raised the wrong child." No one moved. "Now."
Two soldiers sprayed the veranda and walls. The tallest struck a light. It took only an instant for the fire to catch. Peter approached Othelia. He said something quietly and touched her leg when a soldier pulled him away. He screamed and yelled in Shona and tried to bite the man. The flames on the veranda licked the thatched roof.
"To the fields, shall we?" said the colonel.
The red beret man picked up the drum. They walked past the flat pit and Othelia glanced at her mother's dress again, orange in the fire's glow.
They neared the grasses and the veld. Behind her, Peter was sniffing and whispering "Bad man, bad man." At last, the colonel stopped. "Here," he said. "Here, and we can start your initiation to Africa."
Othelia's lips burned from thirst. "I was born here," she said.
"So you say." He clapped, and the red beret hit the drum, alternating hands. Under her breath, Othelia recited, "The beating, the beating of the heart."
"What did you say, girl?" said the colonel. He was handed a rifle. He showed it to her. "This is yours, I think."
The thatched roof was now completely aflame and Othelia focused on the sound of dry hay and grass crackling toward the sky. "Usah," said Peter and he tried to slip out from under the soldier's grasp. "Don't, bwana, usah, usah. She is good man."
"You stupid, stupid boy," said the colonel. He gestured for the soldier to bring Peter over and crouched level with the boy. "You know how to shoot, child?"
"Please, please, not the boy," said Othelia. "Please, don't."
The colonel showed the rifle to Peter and forced it into his arms. Peter slumped under the weight. The colonel lifted the barrel and clicked the safety off. "Like that," he said and smiled at the boy. "What a lesson, what a lesson."
They let go off her arms and Othelia stood alone on the path. In front of her were dozens of silhouettes against a purple sky. The drum's hollow voice was now under her skin, inside her skull, behind her eyes.
"Walk," said the colonel.
"Walk," he said. He waved away from the house and into the darkness of the veld and the woodland behind it. "Walk, I said."
She shook her head, and the colonel shrugged. "As you wish," he said. The drum died and again the cicadas, so loud, screaming.
Peter's face was closed and wet. His voice failed him and he mouthed "M'zungu," looking Othelia in the eyes.
"Why don't we help our little friend here," said the colonel, and a gun was pointed at the child's head.
"You're making a mistake," said Othelia.
The colonel brought Peter's hand to the trigger and bent the boy's finger into the guard. "I doubt that," he said and he glanced at the first stars. "You know, this is a wonderful hunting night for the great shumbas."
A blast went off and Othelia flew back.