Andrej Blatnik

A Thin Red Line
Blatnik-cover7
Translated by Tamara Soban.

When Hunter arrived in Ayemhir the village was shrouded in twilight. The children had begun to screech the moment they spotted the unknown figure, but when they could make out his white, almost translucent skin, they became embarrassed. They huddled in a group and covered their genitals with their hands. Mzungu, mzungu, they whispered to one another. Hunter nodded and waited. Next came the headman. Hunter handed him the bag of salt and told him the name of the sender. The headman scowled, and Hunter felt that the young man he´d let on one of his drinking tours of the waterfront dives and who´d told him to go visit his village, wasn´t so much in the villagers´ good books as he´d bragged over his drink. But it was too late now for Hunter to change his mind. The bus only came to these parts once a week, when there was regular bus service at all.

The headman addressed him in his guttural speech, of which Hunter could not make out a syllable. The old man repeated his jabber two more times, then gave up and summoned somebody who spoke a little Swahili. Hunter tried to explain in the best Swahili he could muster that he was not really fluent in that either and then asked for the use of the empty hut, the kind that is available to visitors in every village. The headman nodded and kept nodding, then stared at Hunter for a long time, apparently pondering something. Hunter could feel the rivulets of sweat trickling down his back. It was such a long walk back to town.

Suddenly the headman seized Hunter´s worn backpack and weighed it in his hand. Instinctively, Hunter´s hand shot out. Ever since the mugging he´d mentally practiced this gesture, every time he was scraping the bottom of his tin plate at some road-side eating stall or entering notes in his travel journal: a passing thief tries to snatch his backpack but he´s quicker, he grabs his bag, maybe even the thief´s hand, and everything´s clear, it´s all resolved. There is no doubt. But the situation never occurred, all his alertness had proven pointless, no-one else craved his traveler´s possessions. And now he´d reacted at a wrong moment.

The headman gave him a questioning look, and Hunter thought he had caused his own undoing. How could they take into their village someone who didn´t trust them? Out here in the open feelings must be mutual, as equally portioned as possible. If he does not trust them, how can they trust him?

He tried to mitigate his mistake, pretending on an impulse to need something urgently, but what could be so urgently required by a man who had possibly just been granted a roof over his head, that is, the only thing available in the village? His best option, he decided, was to pretend he wanted to give the headman something else in addition to the salt. So he rummaged through his backpack, but after the long months of his going walkabout there wasn't much left. His fingers finally encountered a smooth surface that he knew: His little shaving mirror, from the time when he still bothered to shave. He wouldn´t be needing it now, he realized. He handed it to the headman.

The headman accepted it cautiously and diffidently looked at his own reflection in the small rectangle. Then he raptly began to study his image close up to his eyes and then at a distance. He seemed to find the face in the mirror familiar, but not familiar enough to address.
He did address Hunter, though. Actually, he addressed the mirror, and the man who spoke some Swahili nodded and said something in Swahili. Hunter did not understand a word except for mzungu, foreigner. Helplessly he shrugged, and equally helplessly the translator shrugged. The headman nodded and uttered a single word: ´Mary´.

The children shrieked and rushed off toward the edge of the village. The translator shook hands with Hunter, squatted before the headman and began to retreat backwards. The headman motioned to Hunter to sit down. Hunter looked at the ground, at the exact spot the headman had indicated, and automatically wiped off the dust. In vain: There was only more dust underneath.

Then they waited in silence, until a woman approached, squatted in front of the headman, and said to Hunter: ´Welcome´.

Hunter thought he had gone out of his mind. Ever since he had drunk water from the village well in Ga-mendi he hadn´t felt exactly clear-headed, but rather as if his eyesight and hearing might have been affected. In any case, this was the first English he´d heard since he spoke to the two Frenchmen who were driving the stolen car across the Sahara and who had taken his money-belt and his papers. They´d had a simple strategy: A knife blade against the throat. All the boot camp training Cherin had made him attend was of no avail when he came into contact with the sharp, cold metal. He did not feel excessively humiliated, though; after all, he had spent most of the time during training pondering how he was not the right guy for the job.

`Do you speak English?´ he asked. The woman nodded.
`I do. Just call me Mary. My real name´s different, but I´ll be Mary to you.´
`How come? Where did you learn English?´
The woman smiled at his astonishment.
`I went to university in the United States. Washington D.C. I never graduated, though. I stayed on for a while and worked in an African restaurant, and then I came back.´
`Why did you come back?´ Hunter realized the insolence of his question the moment he uttered it. If he´d come to this village, why shouldn´t anyone else? And in particular someone who´d departed from here sometime before?
`If you can´t change the fate of the majority, you must share it,´ said the woman and looked at the ground.
The sentence had an oddly familiar ring to Hunter. It sounded vaguely similar to what Cherin might say at a cell meeting when he ran out of arguments in favor of suicide missions. Cherin incessantly kept sending him the same questions by e-mail: Why did you run away? Why did you desert us? Hunter never answered; where would that get him if he replied to the people he was actually running away from, but if he had to decide on a single answer, it would probably be: Because of stale rhetoric. That would cut Cherin to the quick.

The headman touched Hunter´s hand and began to speak. He spoke for a long time, and the young woman translated it all in a single sentence: `He´s glad you have come to our village´. Hunter took a deep breath. Finally the moment had come, the moment he had been musing about all this time ever since he had decided to leave everything behind and travel as far away as possible. He suddenly felt it was of utmost importance how he formulated his question. Then it dawned on him that all his caution was immaterial: He was totally at the mercy of the translator, who could twist his words around any way she chose.

`I´ve come in search of the Nameless One,´ he said. And hoped that she would understand him, that she would find the right name in their unearthly language for the Nameless One, that the headman would nod, that he would finally find what he has been seeking.

The woman did her translating. The headman scowled and gave her a piercing look. The woman repeated her patter one more time, and now the headman nodded at every word.
`The Nameless One,´ he enunciated, in English that sounded no worse than Hunter´s. And he continued in his own language.

`He says it´s an honor to meet the Nameless One,´ explained the woman. `He says it´s a great privilege to have the Nameless One in his village.´ Hunter felt the temperature rising with every word. The earth, or not even earth, just pounded dust under his legs, emanated heat in waves.
`Well,´ he said, `well - He knew what he wanted to say, he wanted to ask: Who is he? What is the Nameless One like? When is he coming? Can I see him? Can somebody introduce me? A thing like this can and must only happen here, flashed through his mind, only here, in this hole in the back of beyond, where else if not here where things haven´t changed their names hundreds of times, does this village have a name at all, it does, but I can´t recall it this minute, nobody knows it, not even on the bus where they looked at me strangely when I shouted for them to stop, to pull over for Christ´s sake, and then I walked for a long, long time, I walked until my mouth was all dry and it´s still dry, so dry that right now I can´t say a word -
The woman waited. To Hunter it seemed as though he could discern scars on her ankles, the kind that leg irons would leave, but he could not be absolutely sure.

The headman said something and the woman translated it immediately.
`You´ve finally arrived in our village.´
Hunter did not understand.
`Were you expecting me?´ he asked, surprised that his voice found its way through the stuffy heat, and they both nodded simultaneously.
`Why were you expecting me?´
`We need you,´ said Mary.
Wrong, thought Hunter, wrong again. Like so many before. Like too many times before. Far too many times for him to believe in coincidence any more.
`If you need money - he felt about his pockets, but what he knew already could not be changed: He only had a few fifty-dollar coins left. The headman shook his head and Mary translated his motion into English without hesitation.
`We don´t need money,´ she said. `You´re here to give us something else, something that will be truly helpful.´
Resigned, Hunter nodded. Cherin always said we had to get to the point where money wasn´t the most important thing in the world, and I´ve arrived there, Hunter thought sarcastically. He waited to hear what the something was.
`Rain,´ Mary expounded.
`Rain?´ Hunter glanced at the ground and then at the sky. Both dry matters looked equally unreal to him, equally unchangeable, eternal.
`Rain,´ started Hunter slowly, pondering the right words,´ - does not depend on me.´ Nothing depends on me, he reminded himself. But he did not say it.
The headman murmured something.
`The juice of life comes from the belly of creation,´ translated Mary. It sounded somehow solemn, somehow elevated, as though Cherin was about to give the signal and they would burst into song.
`I don´t understand,´ said Hunter.
`There´s only one way out of a drought. Only one solution.´
Hunter waited. Mary looked at him and he felt as though he could read in her look more than just the search for the right words to translate. That she was sizing him up, weighing him, as though she were picking him out of a brood of similar specimens and fretting whether she´d made the right choice.

`After a long drought, it is customary for the headman to sacrifice himself in a special ceremony.´
`In a special ceremony?´
`He slits his belly and soaks the earth with his juice.´
Blood-soaked earth. That´s a sight Cherin would thoroughly enjoy, thought Hunter. He should be here now - instead of me, he wished.
`I can see why he´s putting it off,´ he said.
`No, you don´t see,´ said Mary softly. `Not yet.´
Hunter looked at her questioningly.
`Our lore has it that sometimes a foreigner comes. Who´s got more juice. So that after his sacrifice it rains longer.´
Hunter´s head spun. In his mouth he could feel matter throbbing, he felt his tissues fighting for liquid, and he licked his lips.
`You´re making it up,´ he tried to reason. `You´re trying to scare me.´
Mary shook her head.
`It´s common knowledge. Everyone in the village knows it. That´s why they´re so happy you came.´
`Happy?´ Hunter could not see anyone. Just the woman and the headman. The children no longer dared come near.
`Happy,´ she confirmed. `There´s going to be plenty of rain.´

Wrong. Wrong again, as so often before, thought Hunter.
`I have no intention of slicing open my stomach,´ he said. He tried hard to smile, but Mary´s glare told him he had not quite succeeded.
`You don´t have a choice,´ she said, surprised. `You don´t have to share the fate of the majority. Because you can change it. You don´t have to die of thirst. Because -
Because I can die of losing my own juices, thought Hunter.
`Do you believe in this sort of thing? You went to university.´
`Yes, I do. I studied anthropology,´ said Mary.

Hunter nodded and suddenly felt tired, very tired. It occurred to him that he hadn´t checked his e-mail in a long time. That for a long time he hadn´t kept up with what was going on in the world. Cherin might have been tracked down and shot dead in the meantime. Hunter could be the only one of the cell still being searched for. Perhaps even they had stopped looking. The only one who never gave up was Cherin. The others were not so tough. Cherin told them they were bored children, that they were there just for fun, for the hell of it. Because they´d thought it would be fun to shoot cops and throw bombs and so they joined the cell. And Cherin told them over and over that the old had to be demolished before the new could be established, and so they demolished. For others, Cherin would say. We´re not doing this for ourselves. For others. Everything was for others. Cherin was a believer.

`Come with me,´ said Mary.
Hunter hesitated. He felt it was all a bizarre misunderstanding, that he only had to find the right word which would clear everything up, but he couldn´t think of anything, anything at all except the face of the child he could never forget, and the woman´s hand, the hand of that woman who was everywhere with him, eternally reaching out to grasp the door handle.
`Where?´ he said.
`Not far. You´ve come to the right place already,´ said Mary, `and we´re almost ready.´
Hunter thought of the plane ticket he´d carried around in his shoe since the encounter with the Frenchmen; they´d graciously let him keep it and advised him to use it as soon as possible, seeing as he was not cut out for these rough parts. He´d been telling himself all the time that he could not use it, that it was a useless piece of some useless stuff from a useless world he no longer belonged to. Perhaps he had been wrong all along, but now this would be true forever.

The man who suddenly materialized by the headman´s side, holding a brightly colored spear in his hand, nodded at Hunter amicably. Other warriors came closer, and when Hunter did not move, they started jostling around him. Every last one of them patted his shoulder and grinned widely.

`Our man,´ said one of them in Swahili and they all nodded.
What Cherin wouldn´t give to be in my shoes, to bond with the simple folk so easily, thought Hunter and he had to start laughing. The guards were elated by his mirth. They dropped to their knees in front of him and rolled around in the dust. He heard drumbeats accelerating somewhere, and guttural cries syncopating the rhythm, and approaching.
You´re always making up your mind first, and then having second thoughts, Cherin wrote to him. In a tight spot you run off with your tail between your legs. You get lost, like a dog without a master. Like that time in front of the embassy. All you had to do was cross the threshold and the mission would´ve been accomplished. But you chickened out, you dropped the bag and ran. And then that poor woman who came begging for a visa got blown up. And her child. And the cell got a bad name. Killers of women and children, instead of exterminators of the class enemy. There´s a fine line between an unnecessary, pathetic, pitiful death and a world-changing death. And you don´t know how to cross that line.

The line, thought Hunter. To draw the line. In some languages this means to set a limit, in others, to escape. Who knows what it means here. The headman stood in front of him. He drew a knife from his belt and proffered it, holding it by the blade. When the handle settled into Hunter´s palm, he realized with sudden clarity that all those men in illegal joints in the port who´d told him that the Nameless One could be found in Ayemhir had not been spinning a yarn; He was here alright, waiting. For Hunter.
The headman spread his arms. Hunter knew there was no other way. He nodded and the headman nodded back at him. Hunter could read contentment in the headman´s face, happiness that this performer of sacrifice from the far-away white world who was about to save the desert from drought h





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