I would like to introduce you to a new set of short stories: Requiem. How many there will be, I don’t know, maybe four, possibly five. Maybe more. They can each be read individually but there is also an overarching narrative linking them all. We shall begin here, in the desert scrublands of West Africa…
A Stranger In Senegal
by James Churchill
“If I live for another thousand years I’ll never see a man as peculiar as that one,” Mamman remarked, staring at the man who was emerging from the scrubland south of Sagata. “You don’t think he’s a demon come to take our souls do you?”
“I’m going to assume not Mamman,” I chastised. Rational thinking had this person not as a demon but as some European or American fool, one of these meddling gap year students perhaps, though he might have been too old for that.
He was definitely dressed for the desert, he had high boots and loose, white clothing and had his head wrapped in a shemagh. Typical European… He was on the wrong side of Africa for the shemagh. That was not the problem though. The problem was what he had on top of the shemagh, a trilby hat. He looked, quite plainly, ridiculous. No demon would be such an idiot as to wear a trilby on top of a shemagh so he must have been a European.
Indeed he was, for he approached with a big, goofy white smile. There was no lack of confidence there, none whatsoever.
“Hello,” he said in badly spoken French. “Would it be possible if I could get a glass of water?”
“Take that ridiculous thing off you head and I might consider it,” Mamman offered. The man agreed to the deal, taking the trilby off and pulling the shemagh down to reveal that his hair was the colour of flame.
“I’ve heard of his type,” Mamman whispered to me as we followed him inside the bar. “They turn the colour of beetroot if you put them out in the sun. Leave them out too long and they start to mummify.” Mamman would surely have experimented if she could have gotten away with it. She would have this man tied up outside, under the blistering sun, just to see what colour he would turn.
“What brings you all the way out here?” I asked as he seated himself at the bar. He looked down at his fingers, back up at me, and then smiled.
“Just to meet an old friend,” he told me.
“An old friend? Out in the desert?” That didn’t sound right. That sounded ludicrous.
“Maybe old friend is the wrong way of saying it. But I needed to speak to him about something.”
“You never heard of the telephone? Or a letter maybe?” Mamman rebuked.
“Mamman, do you really think someone out there in the dessert is going to have a telephone? We don’t even have a telephone.” I handed the man his requested glass of water and he thanked me before taking a drink.
“Well there’s still a letter. Even letters reach out there don’t they?”
“It was very remote,” the man grinned at her.
“Remote or not… A letter would get out there eventually.”
“I couldn’t wait that long. I needed to speak to him urgently.” Mamman and I side eyed each other. We both sensed something amiss. He was being too cagey, too enigmatic. What on earth could be so important that he had to travel all the way to the remotest corner of Senegal to get it?
“Was there nobody else? Nobody who isn’t in the middle of the dessert?”
“Nobody else I could trust,” he said briefly.
I looked at him some more. He seemed tired, worn out. He looked like he had been walking for a long time. He also looked like he was yearning to get home. Someone was waiting for him back in whichever faraway part of Europe he came from. Judging by the ring on his finger, a platinum thing with a black band round the middle, it was a wife.
“Does your woman not mind? You going off to the middle of nowhere?”
“She suggested it. She wanted some girl time.”
“Must want quite a bit of girl time if she sent you all the way out here.”
“Well… She’s going to need it.” He reached into his pocket and took out a bit of card, sliding it towards myself and Mamman from across the bar. It was one of those fancy ultrasound things and neither of us could make head nor tail of it. It just looked like a lot of fuzz to the both of us. The man had to show us where the baby was, or in this case both babies, for it was twins.
“Boys,” the stranger grinned. “I get the feeling they’re going to be a lot of trouble.”
“Boys always are,” Mamman informed. “I had three, and not one of them ever let me have a moment’s peace since they was born.”
“It was for them I went out into the desert,” the stranger admitted, taking a drink. “This man I went to see… What he knew… It might help keep them safe.”
“Safe?” I worried.
“Aye. Safe. There’s…” He went very quiet.
“Bad men,” he answered simply.
“This man out in the desert? He one of them?”
“Not anymore… But he worked with them a long time ago. That’s why he’s out in the desert. Hiding from them.”
“So what are you going to do? Hide as well?”
“Me? No. Hiding is for cowards. But I want to make sure the boys are safe. If I have to hide them, to keep them safe, I will.”
“If you hide them you’ll have to hide yourself with them,” I warned. The stranger gazed at me, quizzically.
“You can’t leave those boys without a father,” Mamman pressured. “You know what happens to boys without fathers? They go bad. Every time. You don’t want those boys to end up like the men who are after you, do you?”
“No, I suppose not,” he said after a while.
“Well there you go then. You hide those boys then you’ve got to hide with them. You want to protect them from those bad men then you got to be a coward!”
“I might not have a choice,” he responded.
“You’ve always got a choice. Even when you think you haven’t there is always another option.’ The stranger contemplated my words, fingering the edge of his glass. I noted there was a redness to his eyes, a sign that he hadn’t slept for several weeks. He wasn’t there yet, but I saw this as a sign that the world was crashing down around him.
“Perhaps you’re right,’ he said eventually. “Perhaps I have to be a coward. But… I worry that if I hide as well then they’ll find me and find them with me.”
“That is a possibility… But those boys will need you. You have to risk it.”
“Is there nothing you can do about the bad men?” Mamman asked. “Can you not tell the police?”
“No. Sadly. If it would do any good I would… Not only are these men too powerful, but the police will only say I’m being paranoid.”
“If you don’t mind my asking, what did you do to make these bad men come after you?”
“Me? Nothing,” the man replied. I got the feeling that he was telling the truth but Mamman didn’t believe him.
“You must have done something,” she accused. “Bad men don’t come after people and their families for nothing.”
“No. They don’t. But these men… This is a very old vendetta.”
“How old are we talking?”
“Eighteen seventy nine,” the stranger said bluntly.
“So they’re coming after you for something your twice great granddaddy did?” The stranger shook his head and smiled.
“My great grandmother actually… And even then she didn’t start it. It was them.”
“Know what my daddy always used to say?” I said, leaning towards him. “Revenge is a dish best avoided. What good does it do in the end? It does nothing but cause misery and heartache. Look at these bad men of yours, chasing after some vendetta for one hundred years. I take it your great grandmother is dead?”
“Well there you go then. What use is revenge when everyone is dead? Seeking revenge doesn’t solve the problem. It only makes things worse.”
“It does… But try telling that to the people who are coming after me. They’re… Fanatics! Zealots! They won’t stop until my entire family is dead.”
“Then surely that is all the more reason to stay alive. Be a coward not just for those boys of yours, but to thwart these bad men. So long as you live, they lose!”
He sat, still fingering the edge of his glass, and contemplated, perhaps wondering what his next move ought to be. I decided to offer him some advice.
“If I were you I’d get home as soon as possible. Get back to that wife of yours… And then go somewhere those bad men will never find you, never think to look for you.”
“And you make sure those boys have a father to see them straight,” Mamman intruded.
“I’ll try,’ the stranger smiled, finishing his drink. “I don’t suppose you know someone who could give me a lift to Saint-Louis?”
“Of course,” I smiled. “If you wander down the road aways there’s a truck stop. Somebody there will be glad to give you a ride.” The stranger bowed his thanks, left a centime on the bar and, lifting the trilby back onto his head, retired into the blistering heat.
Our meeting was brief, as are so many in this world, but I have never forgotten this man, this stranger. Who he was, where he came from, who the bad men so keen on his death were, I know nothing. I often wonder what became of him, if he is safe and well somewhere in the world, his two boys now grown with children of their own. Or did the bad men catch him? I shall never know, but that does not stop me from staring out into the desert scrub from which he first emerged, wondering if he might ever come back again.
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