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Marilyn Westenhouse

Updated: Sep 13


Somalia—December 1976

The crests of the silver dunes shimmered over darkened troughs. The night breeze spilt trickles of burnished grains over the slowly shifting ridges.

The sound of an approaching vehicle carried on the cold air. Its engine roared and coughed, hot gears fighting the terrain. The headlights reared, sweeping searching across the dark sky. The beams swung up over a rise in a swirl of spitting sand.

Staring mesmerised into the yellow glare, a shapeless figure crouched. Then it turned, and flattening itself below the curve of the dune, it ran.

Excited laughter and shouts spilled from the cab. Yells of encouragement spurred the vehicle into pursuit.

‘Hyena eat you. Tell us truth.’ The male voice from the back of the vehicle was spiteful, struggling with the unfamiliar language. ‘We let hyena eat you.’

‘I have told you the truth.’ The girl's voice was young and frightened.

‘Aamus.’ The older man demanded silence. ‘Halkan ku jooji,’ he barked the order and the jeep swerved to a stop. The two men who jumped out of the vehicle were wearing khaki military-style uniforms. The driver hurried around to open the front passenger door. The commander, epaulettes flashing heavy with rank, stepped down. He reached back into the vehicle and dragged the blonde female half falling onto the sand.

He gripped her upper arm one-handed, checking her at arm’s length. ‘We will leave you here and the animals will get you.’ His tone was controlled and, though accented, his English was fluent.

He pulled the girl beyond the feeble circle of the vehicle’s interior light. He jolted her and she almost fell, her feet sucked awkwardly into the sinking sand. She cringed, twisting between his cruel hold and the darkness threatening. The sight of her fear amused the younger men and they laughed scornfully. The commander shoved the girl, releasing her. She staggered a few steps from the group.

‘Kaalay.’ The three men swung themselves back into the vehicle, slammed the doors, and it lurched off down the slope. The glow of the red taillights duck dived over the edge of a ravine. The sound of the retreating vehicle faded almost instantly in the deep folds of the topography.

The girl stood frozen, marooned in the emptiness of the desert night.

Somewhere off to her right, the hyena laughed, he had shaken off his pursuers and slowed to a lope.

Above, the cold impersonal vault of jewelled sky stretched, unyielding, uncaring.

The girl hunkered down. She looked at the place where the vehicle had vanished, glanced in the direction of the hyena’s laugh, and turning in the opposite direction, broke into a faltering run. Her pace strengthened as she covered ground. She was fast, strong for her slender frame. On either side, the obscurity of dunes lurked. She glanced up the closest elevation. Making an instant decision, she deviated sharply, starting to climb the slope. The slipping sand filled her shoes, clutched at her trouser bottoms. Her breathe rasped with the exertion of pulling free, of lifting and placing each foot higher on the steep gradient. She flailed to the top. With a sob, she dropped to her knees.

In every direction, the featureless tumble of landscape stretched to blacked out horizons.

There, just above an edge of the inky sky, a bright white star glowed. And above it, another. Quickly, she located the other lights of the formation. She cried out in relief. She was not lost. As long as she could see that—the Southern Cross—she could find her way. Those months at sea, George had been showing her, showing the three of them, how the stars guided his navigation. The sky above was a map.

If she used what George had taught her, she could make her way back to him. She was no longer alone. She could hear his voice in her head. At the closeness of him, a sob choked in her throat. What had they done to him? She held her breath, slowly released the outbreath, paced the inhalation, forced herself to bring the panic under control. She could use this rugged terrain, this darkness to hide her, to help her escape, to get to him.

Wiping her wet cheeks, she rose. She would make for the coast, go due east, keeping south on her right. When she reached the beach, she would find her way north, along the coast. The men had driven south leaving the village. She was sure of that.

She moved quickly, sliding on her bottom, her feet peddling, checking the downward momentum, her hands digging to pull herself up the next incline. Occasionally she brushed against one of the clumps of short prickly grass clinging low to the dunes, and an unfamiliar sweet fragrance wafted onto the night air.

Areas of levelled ground opened up between the dunes. She ran along these, keeping parallel to the slopes, resting her hammering heart and leaden legs. The moon was reaching its zenith. Cautiously she hopped over the deeply furrowed cracks and jutting stone outcrops thrown into stark relief, the mosaic of shadow and light guiding her steps. She could not afford to twist an ankle now.

The clunking of an engine drifted around the curve ahead of her. She squatted down. Was it the jeep returning? Could it be someone else passing? There was nowhere to take cover. The ascent above her was impossibly steep. Up there, the occupants of the car might not see her. But would they stop if she shouted after them? When she could be sure it was not the commander returning? Would they hear her? The hesitation cost seconds. She clambered straight up, frantically, cascades of contrasting silver and grey betraying the track of her flight. The slithering sand wave forced her back, dumping her floundering on the hardened verge. She leapt to her feet and started to run.

Rattling loudly, the vehicle jarred around the rutted bend. She shot a glance over her shoulder. She wailed as she recognised the outline of the jeep, the shapes inside straining towards her. The headlights surged forward. The beams, throwing blackness to either side, captured her in their narrow confines. The level ground widened, and the jeep swung past her to the right and circled back. Her shadow stretched, reaching grotesquely out towards the encircling dark. Engine revving, the vehicle closed the spiral. The girl dropped to her knees and flung her arms up to ward off the impact. The jeep skidded to a stop, almost touching the collapsed figure, billows of steaming oily air engulfing her.

The doors banged open. The men jumped down, no longer laughing. They moved with purpose. The commander grabbed the girl and yanked her to her feet. She struggled back, pulling away from him.

‘In. Get in.’ He hoisted her up onto the front seat, climbing after her. A curt gesture beckoned the others to follow.

The men did not speak. The girl's sobs subsided to ragged breathing. Slowly she regained control. She glanced across at the driver. His face, uplit in the dashboard lights, was young, soft around the mouth. His eyes and high forehead creased in fierce concentration as he fought the wheel.

Crushed between the two men, she peered skyward through the small windscreen, trying to see the stars above, trying to keep her bearings in the slewing vehicle.

The jeep bucked and splashed into a puddled streambed. The men's heads crashed against the vehicle’s roof and the commander cursed the driver. The motor engaged a lower growling gear, with tyres straddling and slipping over sloping rocks, the vehicle scrambled out of the dark waddi.

Ahead, set against a rise, a settlement materialised out of the night. It took the girl a few seconds to realise that the buildings were derelict. The oasis, it seemed, was populated only by a copse of waving palm trees. The driver drew up at the outskirts of the huddled buildings and switched the headlights off. Darkness closed in. The men alighted from the vehicle. From the rear footwell, they lifted two large rifles. Swinging the slings onto their shoulders, they balanced the guns, curved magazine in the crook of their arms.

‘Get down,’ the commander barked at the girl. She hesitated, looking into his angry eyes, and jumped wordlessly. ‘Move.’ The tone was neutral, the barrel of the gun in her back pointed in the direction. The group entered the cluster of earth buildings, a dank wet smell emanated from the hive shapes. ‘Stop.’

The men stopped. The girl looked at them, eyes searching from face to face.

‘Take your clothes off.’

She backed away and the group closed in on her.

‘No.’ She faltered. Then again, more firmly, ‘No.’ She looked beyond the men, searching for some escape, somewhere to run. The commander stepped towards her.

‘Off, clothes off!’ His voice grated, and he jabbed at her with the butt of his gun.

Slowly she pulled her arms down into the sleeves of her jersey. She looked up, at the men, but her eyes dropped swiftly under the weight of their intent gaze. She lifted the garment over her head. It fell at her feet, but the men's eyes did not drop with it.

She attempted to step out of her bell-bottom jeans, tugging the heavy fabric over her tennis shoes, tripping on the bundled jersey. She stood in her underwear, arms crossed to cover her bra, her panties, white in the darkness.

The man grunted and gestured, a vertical flick of the gun—up, down—for her to continue. The girl fumbled with her bra, her hands struggling to comply and at the same time shield her body from the unswerving stares of the men. Her face was pale, she exhaled deeply and squared her shoulders to crush down the dread building inside.

‘Move!’

The gun in her unprotected back jabbed her up the slope towards a rectangular whitewashed hut, tattered palm frond roof. The shadowed doorway was low. The muzzle pushed her towards the opening, thrusting at her hesitation. She bent and half crawled through. Trying to stand up in the unseeable interior, the ground gave way under her searching feet. She overbalanced, pitching forward, down uneven descending steps. With a shocked splash, she plunged into a pitch-black pool.

The odour of the stagnant water was overwhelming, she whimpered in revulsion.

‘Down, get down.’ The dark shape of the man's head was silhouetted against the grey of the doorway. He ducked in, glinting shoulders dipping, and moved towards her. The girl stepped deeper into the pool, recoiling with a sharp intake at tickling movements scuttling across her bare skin. She stood, face upturned to the man, shivering, teeth chattering. The water level reached just below her breasts, she wrapped her arms over them and clasped her legs tightly together.

Looming over her, the man hawked and spat into her face. He waved the gun and said, ‘Now you are going to tell the truth.’

Not releasing her arms, she blinked the splatter of sputum from her eyes. ‘I don’t know what you mean. What truth?’ The girl's voice was high, confused, scared. ‘Everything I have told you is the truth.’

With a curse, the man kicked the fetid liquid up into her face. She could feel its warm viscosity running down her eyelids, lips, her hair hanging drenched, limp against her cheeks.

‘Down! Kneel!’ the man shouted. For the first time. The suppressed hate exploded off the walls and water.

‘No,’ she screamed. ‘It's too deep!’

‘You are a dirty spy! Admit it now or I will kill you. I will give you to the other men.’

For a moment, the space dimmed as the second man stamped down the steps. He pointed his weapon at the hysterical girl and shouted at her. ‘Dhillo. Basaas wasakh ah. Dhillo. Runta noo sheeg.’

She sobbed up at him, uncomprehending.

He shouted louder. The weeping fuelling their anger, the men kicked more water into her blurred vision. Kick. Kick. Kick. Now they both shouted at her. Dhillo. Basaas wasakh ah. Waan ku dili doonnaa. Whore. Spy. Kill you. She understood only some of the broken phrases of her own language.

With a final curse, the commander stooped and snatched the girl’s arm. He yanked her stumbling behind him up the stairs, his companion shoved her from behind.

They emerged jostling into the moonlit passageway. The men forced her between the squat huts, towards the dark cluster of palms.

Reaching the perimeter of the towering trunks, the commander twisted the girl's arm, turning her towards two mounds of freshly dug earth. He pointed at one of the mounds.

‘We kill you like we killed your friend. She is dead here.’

He pointed to the second mound. ‘Tell the truth, admit you are a spy, or you will lie here next to her.’

The girl, still covering herself, looked at the gun in his hand, scanned the listening trees, the watching buildings, the dark unseen, for a sign of salvation.

‘Move.’ He pushed her toward the mounds. ‘Stand.’ He forced her to stand on the overturned earth. ‘Who sent you? What do you come to spy on?’

‘I am not a spy. I am no part of your war,’ the girl wept her denial.

‘I know all about you, you and your friends on the boat. I know about you in Seychelles. My spies, they told me about you.’ He struck her. ‘Bitch, you tell me the truth. Tell me who sent you people here to spy on my country.’

He struck her again, and again, blows and obscenities falling harder, faster, his control shattering. The girl fell to her knees. He kicked at her, spat at her again, till finally, spent, he dragged her to her feet. Muttering to his subordinate, he shoved her down the slope ahead of him. She could barely walk.

The commander flashed on a torch. The beam led them, crisscrossing over a large concrete slab, coming to rest on a black square in the centre.

‘Get down.’ He pushed the girl towards the hole. She dodged, breaking free of his grasp. But the second man, standing at her elbow, caught her and slapped her, once, a sharp ringing blow, across the face. He flung her on the ground next to the dark opening.

‘No,’ she sobbed. ‘No. Please. No.’ Grim-faced, the men pushed her towards the void with their heavy boots, stepping to drive and direct her with tips of their toecaps. Weeping soundlessly, blinded in the beam, the girl scrabbled on her knees on the concrete. Haltingly she uncovered her breasts, gripped the concrete rim, and lowered herself through the gap. The torch followed her, playing over her body hanging above the blackness.

She gasped as liquid swallowed her feet. Arms quaking, she sank down, down. The water reaching up over her thighs, over her stomach, over her breasts, her shoulders sinking beneath the surface. Her cry drowned, then her toes scraped the bottom of the pit. She struggled to the surface and threw her head back desperately, her extended chin barely clearing the water. She lost her precarious toehold. Her head went under and she came up coughing and sobbing.

The water was warm and putrid, alive with small pulses.

‘Tell us the truth! You are South African spies. You are spying for the Americans. Tell us now.’ The torch interrogated her in its glare. The litany continued. She could see only the barrel of a gun illuminated inches from her head. A black boot menaced into the beam, and stepped down onto her upturned face, pushing her under the surface in a struggling froth of pleading.

The pressure lifted.

She spluttered up, lungs burning for air. Overhead, the men were arguing. Concentrating no longer on her, they were locked in an intense exchange. In the deflected torchlight, the girl made out the commander pushing the second man away from the hole above her. The commander lent down and seized a fist of her sodden hair.

‘Out,’ he spat. She reached weakly for the rim. He stepped back. ‘Hel iyada,’ he ordered. The young driver stepped into the light. He knelt and, reaching down, took the girl’s extended arm. With a powerful jerk, he heaved her onto the concrete slab. Her left thigh and hip scraped on the jagged lip; long red wheals snaked across her white flesh. She curled into a ball, her naked chest heaving.

The men hauled her to her feet. She reeled between them, her limbs loose with exhaustion and terror.

They thrust her towards a rusted corrugated iron shelter, wide cracked concrete stairs ascending into the inscrutable interior. The commander threw the girl onto the steps.

The three moved a short distance away and resumed their hissed argument.

The girl looked up into the sky—the stars were very clear. Orion, the Hunter, with his bow trained on the Seven daughters of Titan and Pleione.

The men had stopped talking. They looked at her, faces set with the weight of their decision. The girl stared up at them in the moment of dead stillness. In flanked formation, they moved towards her.

The piercing scream reverberated between the abandoned buildings and the silent sky.



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