Published:  12:50 AM, 15 August 2019

The return

The return

D. E. Meredith

The hut was at the dip of a hill on the edge of the forest, unguarded except for a young girl whose face was a constellation of scars. It was hard not to stare and wonder where these nicks and troughs came from, what diseases or tribulations she must have suffered.

The photographer studied her face, which was wide like Lake Kivu. She must have been here all night, he thought, like a shepherdess watching over her flock.

She shivered against the cold, self-consciously running her hand across her disfigurement, as the guide took the photographer aside with, "Her face, monsieur? It bothers you?"

"Of course not. But tell me, she's young. Too young, uh? For the war, I mean. So why has she got the scars?"

The guide stroked the bottom of his chin, as if he was thinking. "Traditional medicine; a shaman, monsieur; it's three hours by car to the nearest clinic and she's poor, has no one . . ."

The photographer nodded, pressing a thousand-Rwandan-franc note into the girl's hand. Was it too much? Or too little?

"That was good of you," said the guide as the girl led them down the track towards the hut. "Very good of you, monsieur. So few people come here, and she guards the place alone."

"All night?" "There are animals in the forest, and sometimes bad people come, rebels from over the border."
"But where does she sleep?"

The guide gestured towards the hut. "With the dead, monsieur."

Marcel took a deep breath, afraid of what he might find, but as the door swung open what shocked him was the peace of the place, and the clean smell of the bones, almost like wheat. The body of the hut was dark, womb-like, except for a tiny crack where light pierced through, creating a moon-like disc on the mud-baked floor, illuminating the wounds. Marcel narrowed his eyes, concentrated, ticking off skull by skull - "Round for a bullet and long for a cut . . .".
And the skulls almost whispered to him. Look, monsieur. See how we died.

But he knew how they died, as he stopped at the last trestle table, where the skulls were mounted in piles. One of the skulls - a child's; it just has to be - had the sharp end of a spear still embedded. He had done nothing then, as he did nothing now. Simply hung his head and accepted.

Beyond the hut, beyond the hills from the east, mercurial clouds were rolling in so that all the colours of the forest were changing, the shadows constantly moving. But here everything was black and white, freeze-framed, in perfect perspective.

Marcel bent down a little, so his eyes were level with two gouged-out bone sockets, a gaping mandible as he said in all seriousness: "I'm sorry that I took so long, but can you hear me? Can you hear me, Innocent?"

But there was no reply.

D. E. Meredith is the author of the Hatton and Roumande

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