A noise and I open my eyes, straining to hear, stiffening, my breath held. What was it? Memory of the sound fades with wakefulness. Adrenalin floods through my veins as I hear the hum of night and the soft soughing of wind in the trees. Is that the same noise?
Fecund dew-damp earth floats its particles on the breeze as I listen. The crack of a twig breaking sends fresh surges of fear shooting through me. Now I know there is someone outside.
In the bed next to me, I feel the empty space of my husband’s absence. He didn’t come home from cards last night. That doesn’t surprise me. He said he might stay over for safety.
I know he is right but can’t help a sneaking suspicion that tells me it’s probably an excuse. I wish he wouldn’t go to cards every week and leave me alone but I am not invited. I’m being mean.
He’s probably just being sensible. We live in a dangerous place. It’s where dirt roads are mined nightly only to be cleared by our Security Forces each morning. It’s a place where violent death is common, where people are attacked in their beds or ambushed in their cars.
It’s 1978. We are in South Eastern Rhodesia. My husband is building a railway line and we live temporarily in a mobile home. It is the only home in the district without security. There are no fences, no rocket or grenade shields, no perimeter lighting, just the closeness of forests that lead inexorably to the Sabi River and onwards to the Mozambique boarder.
Yesterday we heard of a brutal attack on a farm nearby. We didn’t know the family but attacks like this seem to be increasing. Unprotected as we are, we are an easy target.
I listen, my eyes willing themselves clarity thought the weight of blackness. Shadows play at the window. There are no curtains and little in the way of furniture because we aren’t here for long. A month more and we’ll be back in Salisbury.
The crack comes again and a cloud uncovers the brilliant moon. With certainty, I know they are here for me and terror threatens to engulf me. I can smell it rising from my armpits.
Turning my head on the pillow, I look at the FN FAL rifle leaning against the side table on my husband’s side of the bed. At least he left that. I also have a Browning 9mm in my handbag. A friend loaned it to me when he heard I was coming down here. He also taught me to use it.
A wave of anger rides the adrenalin sloshing in my blood. I am too young to die I wail silently but if I have to, I will take as many of the bastards with me as I can. I am a good shot. We practice weekly at the range so I know if I can turn the tables and ambush them I will have a chance depending on how many of them there are.
I slide out of bed. I’m naked but don’t think of that. There is no time to dress. Sitting on the floor my back to the wall, I ease out the bedside drawer and lift out spare magazines. He hasn’t filled them and I despair, my fingers are never strong enough to pop in the rounds although I have tried.
Bugger that I think lodging the magazine between my knees. Taking a handful of bullets, I align them the right way and with both thumbs push down hard and sharp. To my amazement, the first round slots in with a soft click. I do another and another. How is it so easy? I fill two magazines in seconds and pick up my bag to get out the Browning.
I stop, the twig cracking stealth sounds again, loud and sharp in the night. It’s coming closer. Clouds cover the moon, diming the light in the room. How will I carry all of this? I change my mind and leave the pistol in the bag. Taking out the make-up pouch, I grab a box of ammo and stuff it in with the gun.
I wedge both spare rifle magazines into the bag and sling its strap around my neck. Then I wriggle it around so its leather heaviness rests against my back, it’s strangling me. I adjust the strap over one arm, bandolier like. Then picking up the rifle, careful not to bump anything or make a noise I slither to my stomach and elbow walk to the door.
I don’t want them to see my silhouette through the window but I am not very good at moving on my stomach. My bum sticks up and my elbows and knees hurt but I persevere, picking up the rifle and laying it down silently with every advance. The bedroom is now between me, and the noise on the other side of the van.
I make my way down the hall towards the front door. It opens away from where the movement came so I can probably get out unseen. The moon is once more behind thick clouds and the passageway is dark but I feel my way forward. The smell of mopped disinfectant is faint as I move, nose inches from the floor, my senses screaming.
My hand slides up and eases the handle of the door. It’s never locked. Three iron moulded steps down and I am on the ground. Ostrich like, I don’t scan the ground in case I see something I don’t want to see. My quarrel lies the other side of the van.
Hyper-vigilant, breath shallow, I inch my way through the dirt under the mobile home, disturbing ant-lion funnels but I don’t notice anything except the darkness pressing against straining eyeballs and the inadequacy of my ears. A wild animal smell haunts me in the blacked out night.
I reach the edge of the van and stop, peering through darkness, seeing nothing. I place the rifle in front of me, pulling out its forked stand, to rest it tripod-like on the ground. I ease the strap from my head, laying the bag aside. Feeling my way, I carefully extract the extra magazines, the pistol and ammo box, lining them up on the right of the angled rifle. Now I am ready. I wait and listen.
Time stops and then there is another sound. It’s not a crack as before but a brushing noise. It sounds like a heavy thing dragging through grass. It stops. I hold my breath. There is another crack to my left but I can see nothing except the black of night.
Slowly clouds move across the sky uncovering the moon and lighting the grasslands between wood and me in silver brilliance. The dark horizon of forest and tall waving grass is all I see. Then there is movement. A scattered herd of Impala languidly graze the succulent grass as they move towards me. To my left Giraffes nibble the trees.
For a paralysed moment, reason suspends. I have no thought and then it dawns and I release my breath. I lay my forehead on the ground as tension drains. Embarrassed by my nakedness and aware I lie in the dirt with a small armoury at my head normal sense prevails.
I am glad there is no one to witness my shame but still it grows. Covered in dirt and stinking of fear I laugh aloud, frightening the animals so they turn and flee.