23 May 2002
They were our saviours, you see. I pause, my sentences punctuated by a deliberate series of sluggish modulations as our self-appointed interpreter relays each instalment to his companions contorting themselves between the crates and the side of the cart. The rocking motion jars and skips as the wagon's wheels race in, out and over the potholes and mounds of the traffic-beaten track, slamming our bodies with the splintered edges of heavy crates. Trapped against the wooden frame, our only defence is to tense our bodies in anticipation of each bruising impact as the cart's movements rattle their way to a precarious and irrythmic crescendo.
In the light coming through the cracks between the wooden slats imprinting themselves against our flesh, the faces of his audience are illuminated by vanishing trails of jumping shadows: sallow, expressionless apparitions that flash across my vision, built around the sunken pits of vacant eyes which ache to close but are thwarted by each bump and jolt. The tunic of one man less than a foot from me is spattered with vomit; I stare, fascinated with watching it dribble its way down him each time enough light flashes over the coarse garment for me to track its progress. Someone has shat themselves, also, I imagine, if that's the smell I'm picking out from the sweat and hay and urine; eight hours at least, we must have been going, if it's light again outside, the merchantman laughed when we asked about stopping to relieve ourselves and relax our bodies after we'd given him our coins to take us to the city. My interpreter has finished and looks again to me as the shards of light jump about the haggard faces crammed into the wagon's cramped interior: I cannot tell if my words are sapping their energy still further or the only thing keeping them going but I press on and tell my tale.
They were our saviours. We'd celebrated, of course, when their soldiers had pulled out, the despised enslavers, resented with a spirit passed down from our grandfathers' time when they had found our puffed up local chiefs easy to divide and overpower; it was no great movement of resistance, their interests had shifted elsewhere, they told us, and with a little pomp and ceremony they were gone. Freedom, we called it; I was only a boy but I remember those revelries, the fires and the dancing, and a joy my own children have never seen- troubles did not exist and we shared all we had with strangers, everybody gave and took without a second thought in those nights, not like the mean-spirited squabblings over scraps and desperate invocations of long-subsumed ancestral holdings you see there now. It was only later that we began to take stock.
Our mines had been stripped bare; the earth's supply of precious stones and metals that for generations we had traded had dried up, exhausted by the intensity and efficiency of the strange contraptions and sheer weight of manpower they had targeted at it. The teachings of our fathers had been neglected and replaced with foreign icons. The chiefs that had collaborated with them still held sway, clinging on ruthlessly to their power and holding banquets as others starved. Nature was against us, also, as year upon year it declined to rain.
When eventually they returned, men coming down from the city, this time not with swords and armour but smooth words and proposals, we were too hungry to allow ourselves to be proud. The dam gave the men jobs as the mines once had and the pay, though poor, was the only chance of earning coins we could hope for: it was awesome to be involved in a project of such magnitude, tons of earth shifted year upon year, thousands of men and beasts busy towards a single goal, the very landscape changed from the one that our forefathers knew. We were slow, it is true, to understand the implications. We petitioned our chiefs but they had grown too fat on city money to abandon their support now.
We watched from a nearby hill as the waters thundered down: it was impossible not to take a certain pride to hear the roar, enough to rival anything sent by the gods, and know that you had a part in it, even as the buildings of our village were swept away like leaves. Our house used to be of stone but the hut I left my wife in was of wattle and hide; I am hoping that she will join me but at the moment we have an infant that is too sick to travel. They left again and things are as before; the reservoir helps the crops, of course, but in return for their money, they bound us to use our fields to grow their luxuries rather than grain. That is what these carts take back there, what's in these crates, and men began to migrate with them: returning with gifts and fine clothes. Parting was hard but perhaps in a few months she can follow, if they spend so much for the sake of beans to grind for their drinks surely there is much to be earned from an honest day's labour?
Their story is different, a country razed because its ruling cabal harboured an enemy of the city, or so it is said, but their situation the same. My travelling companions know few details but lost many loved ones, their crops destroyed, their homes torched; they recount atrocities with grim faced concision. The interpreter was taught by an uncle who had traded with men from the city, the others seemed to look to him with respect.
The tower was the first thing we saw, piercing the horizon, then as we got closer the walls formed around it, flanking out in great masses of impenetrable stone. At the gate the armour of the dusky-skinned city guards glinted with carefully polished precision, as did the pommels of the swords that hung by their sides, and i thought I saw something akin to pity in my interpreter's glance back as he passed between them speaking a few words and they closed ranks in front of me.