While in their little country, I had my peaceful sojourn in the home of the Prophet. We were up in the mountains, and the main building on the estate was being used as a spiritual retreat. The meeting hall was spacious and covered with cushions and pillows, with windows taking up most of the wall space, commanding ample views of a pastel-colored vista of rolling mountains. It took your breath away to be here among the eagles, as it were. Most people were in pairs or small groups sitting up straight or slouching, conversing about mysticism and esoteric knowledge. Some sat alone, apparently in a total state of alertness, focusing on nothing, on inner thoughts, on the horizon. The Prophet had introduced me as the scholar from the big, wonderful country out west, and I denied it, laughing because I was only a speech coach and a failed actor looking for tranquility in this life.
Such was my situation when the news came suddenly. The country was in a state of high alert since the routine mountain fighting between the rebel guerrillas and the government soldiers was spilling into the streets of the capital, forcing the acting government to flee. Breaking a long silence, the Prophet approached us about the situation and said there had to be measures taken. He said that my people were involved in defending the mountain country from the bellicose northerners who were assisting the guerillas. Then, he addressed everyone. “Once again, men will take up arms and kill one another in another large struggle. Will this always be the lot of man? What will you do about it as beings that live on this planet?” No one had anything to say.
Later, he took me aside. “I don’t know how your people’s involvement in this affects you, but I think you should get ready.” Shortly afterward, it came in. I had been drafted and I was ordered to leave soon. I had never fired a gun before, but now I was ordered to carry out a special operation alone through a mountain pass, and then rendezvous with the main mass of our forces on the eastern ridges. An understanding man, the Prophet handed me a revolver and some equipment he found in a storage space, escorted me to a bus station, and wished me luck.
The bus will leave the terminal soon, heading to the mountain pass that will get me to my rendezvous point. My equipment is mixed with everybody else’s luggage on the roof. I’m crammed in a seat with families and poor people all around me.
I was familiar with the National Fighting Song this country adopted. The National Fighting Song was started during the revolution, and was originated by the dervishes: the ones responsible for initiating the war against the old government. It was a strong song, delivered by powerful masculine voices, with a strong cadence, and simple backbeat.
The bus is now going through the dusty streets of the capital’s downtown area, days after the government forces succeeded in retaking most of the city. On the bus radio, a tune comes on, and I immediately recognize it as the song I was just thinking about. The passengers clap their hands to it and sing. One man wears a turban and has a scimitar at his side. Emotion overtakes me as the song continues and I decide I like this stranger enough to join along. I give it my own rhythm, my own feel and style. I do a two-step stomp, howling along with him and everyone else on the bus, and then I add a third step to my stomp. I close my eyes and see turban-cowled warriors with curved swords facing each other on the flat wall of a cave or a temple. In this dark mural, they do the dance of death during a song called War.
I hate being a tourist, but this is what I saw.
I open my eyes. The dervish that inspired me is now looking at me. He holds his hands up to stop everyone from singing. With grave curiosity he approaches me, his face is a confrontational mask. He looks down at my feet, and I can’t think of anything to say. Then, he does a 2-step stomp followed by a 3-step stomp and he encourages everyone on the bus to do the same, and the song kicks on again. Rifles are fired out of the windows of the bus, and everyone joyfully sings the murderous revolutionary song of this wonderful nation with the one contribution I think I will ever give the world.
It takes two days to get on the other side of the mountain pass. I am taking my equipment to the rendezvous point. I’m not sure what to expect.
I find the camp. They give me orders. They say I have to go back to the capital. After I finish my assignment, I will return to another rendezvous point that will be disclosed to me at a future date. I say okay, that’s fine. I guess I should have said, “Yes sir.”
I stay at the camp for another day. News of the conflict changes by the hour. It seems that once again the capital is in the rebel’s hands. An hour later, there are conflicting reports as to which side is gaining. Then, a report comes in canceling all previous claims, stating that the rebels have not had control of the city since Wednesday. In the camp, there are rumors that masses of government troops are grouping toward the southern border, but that couldn’t be right. The enemy is up here, not in the south.
I should turn in soon. I have to wake up early to get back down to the capital. I guess then I will find out if it’s in enemy hands or not. Either way, I’m not looking forward to it.
I followed him into a building. This is the toughest mission I’ve ever been tasked with—I’ve never killed a man before. The war was over and I couldn’t understand it, but my government had assigned me this task before the armistice and they didn’t countermand the order. I asked headquarters to make sure, and they told me to go along with it. It can be reported as an accident and made to look like I had no idea peace talks had started. “And this guy needs killing,” the field officer on the phone told me. I guess they knew what they were doing. I’d heard of incidents like this. Nine times out of ten, the government went along with it because they predicted more trouble from the individual down the road.
I don’t know how I’m going to do it. I’ve lost all my equipment, except the old revolver the Prophet had given me. I can’t kill him in public but this might be the only chance I have.
It’s so dark inside this parking pavilion that I can barely see in front of me even though it’s early afternoon. I saw him go through a doorway with a red neon sign above it reading “bar” in curly letters. I straighten and go in as casually as I would at a bar back home. I see him at the counter with a drink. He turns around as if he planned it but then he is surprised to see me. I don’t think he expected me since he had just given me directions to get to the open market. I was confirming his identity then. I had to make sure it was him, so I struck up a conversation at the bus stop. NowI have to take him out. He is a threat to my people; and to my host country. I have to do what I came to do. He smiles after his initial surprise.
I’m in his company again, and this might be strange to him. I’m ready for anything. He had shown me his pictures at the bus stop. We talked about different things, his life, and all that. He was friendly, and so was I. From how he was going on about it, I really didn’t believe that he suspected a thing. But after our goodbyes I saw him meet some men on the street, and they walked together for a bit in deep conversation. They looked like they knew each other. I was looking at some merchandise, killing a little time. When he was alone again, I followed him here.
Now he offers me a drink, and asks if I saw him outside with some men. I effortlessly make it known that I assumed they were people he worked with, and that they must be very proud of him. He shakes his head and answers something, but I can’t make it out. I’m right there with him, acting the part of the consoling stranger. He’s shaking his head; maybe I don’t understand. The bartender says something. He is laughing and lauding the man. He calls my target the artist. I suppose he must be an artist to be able to do the things he does. The artist looks attentively, answering whatever the bartender asks him.
We finish our drinks. I tell him I have somewhere to go too. I offer to walk him out. I really should get this over with. I have to be at the other end of the city in less than an hour.
I follow him past an open plaza and into the alley. The most incredible artifact of cables and transformers draws circles of cables around a giant nest held up by two logs connected by a steel plate. This is the thingamajig that powers the TV the people in the neighborhood use on balmy nights right here on the sidewalk. I know what he is talking about, because I’ve seen the fan-dependent citizens on impossible nights gather outside to watch a movie depicting my people, as he calls them. “Where all stars are born.” He suddenly turns around and smiles at me.
I tell him I’m not understanding him. He asks me if I know what this white rectangle is doing on the wall. My hand is in my jacket pocket, and I let go of the sweat slick handle of the revolver and bring my hand out to just touch the white painted surface, in pure affectation.
He claimed it was the start of a painting someone was going to make on that wall. The revolver dangles heavily in my pocket, cooling off the sweat; it was damp with palm heat like everything else I touch for too long. The alley has a network of many buildings, and although very little can be seen of an overcast sky through the cracks in between the buildings, it makes me feel better. He asks me to come with him. I can find another opportunity in the next moment or two, after my hand dries of the perspiration.
A throng of kids jumps out of a nearby door. They’re pawing him, saying something and laughing in fits. I don’t like it. These are the real patrons of our society. That is what he tells me. The gunshots go off under me. I find the whole thing funny. I think I’m on the floor, trying to understand a complicated pattern right next to my head, and then it’s a rug I recognize from its color and texture. I still have the revolver in my pocket. I feel it jabbing against my hip bone. Three or four words I kept repeating in my head all day are here with me, the words that greeted me when I woke up.
Rey Armenteros is a Los Angeles-based painter and writer who has had his essays and poetry appear in numerous literary journals and art magazines, including The Nasiona, Lunch Ticket, Umbrella Factory Magazine, and Still Point Arts Quarterly.