The night was a sweltering, hazy kind of hot, like inside the barrel of a freshly fired gun. Victor St. Martin lay on a hill of wet grass, staring up at the sky through a thick canopy of palms. The tree trunks stretching overhead resembled the fingers of some righteous alien hand, he thought dreamily, closing imperceptibly to crush them all into a blissful nonexistence.
A horrific scream suddenly tore through the blackness and reminded him that a man was being murdered only a few meters away. Reminded him that he was a long way from Virginia. A very long way.
He listened to the cicadas and watched the shifting pictures that formed as the inky sky flowed between the waving leaves. He remembered the fields of wheat on the farm back home, how every straw and head of them had glowed with pretentious life, a glory of his God and a source of pride to the men he knew who had cultivated them. He remembered how much he used to love the natural world, the cells of the leaves, the utilitarian scurrying of the ants, the half-ripe raspberries in his parents’ backyard garden that he would spend hours scavenging. It seemed odd now that the world had somehow once been an object of wonder.
“Pascal,” he murmured quietly, a piece of grass in the corner of his mouth dancing as he spoke. “Do you ever stop and wonder at how we all wound up here, in this… (he tried to think of a word in French to substitute for ‘God-forsaken,’ and settled for maudit) God-forsaken patch of African wilderness?”
The Frenchman at his side grunted softly, but said nothing.
“I mean…” started Victor again. “How we…”
“How people as different as you and I can be lying here together, in the middle of a war-torn country most people couldn’t find on a map?” said Pascal, his pronunciation exaggeratedly nasal due to a deep gash someone had carved into his nose years before.
“Well… yeah,” said Victor, cringing as another agonized cry resonated through the air. “That and how we can lie here and do nothing while we hear a man being tortured to death,” he thought to himself.
Pascal saw the reaction and grinned. “You are far too sensitive,” he chuckled. “Too soft. Too green. How old are you again?”
“Twenty-six,” answered Victor.
“Twenty-six,” echoed Pascal with nostalgia. “I remember when I was your age. I was doing my first tour in Algeria. That was back in ‘57, at the end of the French pacification of the anti-colonial resistance. A year I’ll never forget. You think things are nasty here, Vic, but that’s only because you don’t have anything to compare it to. Maybe that’s your problem. Lack of perspective.”
Victor said nothing. The screaming had stopped. Hopefully the man was just unconscious. Or maybe it was a smoke break. He put his hand to his mouth and made a blade of grass whistle.
“Algeria! Putain de merde!” continued Pascal. “Now that was a fight! We slaughtered about 400,000 of the black bastards! And dirty tactics too… They were doing terror campaigns against anyone they thought was sympathetic to the French. Kidnapping, rape, mutilation, ritual murder, you name it, they did it. The Prime Minister of France had been pelted with tomatoes on his last diplomatic visit, you see, so he had given us carte blanche to use absolutely any means necessary to annihilate the resistance. The sergeant told us that our job was to make the people even more afraid of us than they were of the rebels. First we dumped napalm all over the countryside, then we would creep into the villages under cover of night, pull people out of their beds and cut off their ears and noses. And then after that, the orders came down to start in with the torture. We weren’t after information, the commanders explained. We were told to do it just to terrify the people. If the rebels had raped the daughter of a family, then we would rape her too, and then electrocute her, just to make them fear us more. If the villagers fled to the caves, we would brick them in and suffocate their whole families…”
Victor listened in silence. The Frenchman talked about killing people like other men talked about the hassles of desk work or the thrills of illicit sex. Victor supposed to Pascal it was a bit of both.
“You know why the French were in Algeria in the first place?” asked Pascal, looking over. Victor shook his head in the grass. “A fly swatter. The head of the country had whacked the French consul with a fucking fly swatter a hundred and fifty years ago, so we came and took the whole damn place over in revenge!”
Suddenly they heard a bestial howl, followed by an explosion of furious cursing. The door of the cabin behind them burst wide open and a naked Angolan lurched out, wielding a hammer in his trembling right hand. The entire left side of his face was coated with a caked mask of blood, and his strained breathing was fast and heavy. As he stumbled into the moonlight and whirled to face the glowing open door, a lattice of bleeding welts glittered across the broken skin of his thinly muscled back.
Victor and Pascal lurched to their feet, hands scrambling for the pistols in their belts. But Captain Wainwright and Colonel Callan had already exploded out of the door to tackle the escapee. Wainwright wrested the weapon out of the man’s hand while Callan slammed his shoulder into the black’s thin ribs and brought him breathless to the ground.
The man continued to struggle with a seemingly superhuman effort, as blows rained down on him from two sides, until the African finally exploded in a paroxysm of screaming, insect-like convulsions.
The two men dragged the spasming body to its feet.
Then Jorge came and stood in the doorway, his military uniform silhouetted against the light inside. His shadow moved to light a cigarette, and when he struck the match, Victor could see a thick, purpling bruise on his right temple. He stepped out and flicked the match to the side, dark eyes glaring at the agonized man with the terrifying malevolence of an insulted god.
Although it was obvious that he could barely see and barely stand, the African was still fighting desperately to get away. Jorge moved behind him with the cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. As the soldiers on either side held the jerking body steady, he reached out with both hands and slammed a black hood over the man’s head, pulling it taut. The suffocating man erupted into another hysterical frenzy, as the three soldiers dragged him back into the cabin.
The colonel shot an upraised thumb at Victor and Pascal to signal that the situation was under control, and slammed the door behind him.
Pascal cursed. “Try not to think too much about it, Vic,” he said, putting an avuncular hand on the younger man’s shoulder. “And don’t worry… In five years, nobody is going to remember any of this shit.”
“Remember it!” thought Victor. “Nobody even knows it’s going on now! What’s to remember?”
“And if the stories ever do come out,” continued Pascal, “Tout comprendre c’est tout pardoner. If they understood the situation we were in, they would have to forgive us.”
Another piercing blast of desperate agony exploded behind the closed door. This time it was a sustained scream, rising to a hysterical, throat-peeling level, only to sink back to hacking hyperventilations, and then shatter the windows of the mind again with another monstrous barrage of shrieking.
The two men sat down on the grass and turned their backs to the cabin. Victor lit a cigarette and tried one more time to think of the wheat fields of home.