issue 261 - November 1994
Illustration by LIZ PYLE
Hands of lead,
feet of clay
He is 12 years old. His country is at war. Civil society has broken down. The gun rules.
And so does the boy. A haunting tale by award-winning novelist Jamal Mahjoub.
His hands are made of lead, his feet of clay. Tiny animals live in the hardened ridges on the backs of his heels. Long sinewy loops of rope for arms, the kind you might use to string a bed with. The night is cold and hard as the strip of cardboard upon which his bones lie.
The voices are distant whispers. When he closes his eyes he hears the words of his father, telling him the same stories over and over. He has not seen his father since they came for him five years ago; crying and screaming, falling to the ground like a rag. All his learning fell from him like leaves shaken from a tree.
Now he was out in the great wide sea of nothingness, the stone-shod desert which he had watched from the open windows of the school, year in and year out until if a single stone had been moved he could have sworn he would have noticed. His father taught them. The sun, he said, does not pass over the earth from east to west, it is the earth which passes around the sun.
He dreamed of the city. Just before he fell asleep, curled like a coil in the sand he stared at the stars which seemed so close. He saw coloured lights flashing through the heavens, streaks of light so vivid that if he could just lift his arms he might be able to reach out and grasp them. The city was light, the rest of the world was darkness.
He was drawn back to the school by the radio which sang every night when the streets were deserted and his mother and sisters sat hanging their heads weeping over what was to become of them. The boys who lived in the school were the same boys who had sat beside him, or the ones from the next class, or the ones he had watched playing football as they still did in the long afternoons, running barefoot and dusty to kick a ball that was more holes than leather. The school was theirs now for all others had abandoned it to them. The teachers had packed their bags and gone, those that is who were not dismissed or arrested. The old watchman still slept against the crumbling wall, but no-one paid him anything any more, neither money nor attention.
They all knew him. They knew him by his hands of lead and his feet of clay which moulded themselves to whatever ground he walked upon. They knew him by the cartridge case that he had punched a hole through with an old nail and a stone to string around his neck and they knew him also as the son of a man who used to teach in this school in the days when it still was a school.
He was drawn in by the radio with its jittery litany of love and gibberish. When the speeches came on they switched it off to preserve the batteries, for such talk made you no wiser. They prized batteries above all else and in conducting house searches or stopping the odd lorry that rumbled lopsidedly by, the only thing they really hoped to find was batteries. He was drawn there and he stayed, hooked to that transistor like the strand of wire that was twisted around the top as an antenna.
He clung to the crippled walls where the flags fluttered, coloured rags in the soft evening breeze and he listened, for when they sat and talked the children grew wise and their eyes began to glow the way charcoal does when fanned. They were like a family, and like any family there were fights from time to time, but they never lasted long.
Once in a while a man came to see them. He was short and stubby and his eyes drooped at the sides as though he were weary of himself. He had a wristwatch that gleamed dully and skin the colour of those ochre rocks that inhabit the plains. They said he was the Government’s man, that in the army he used to jump from aeroplanes, though it was hard to imagine those sorry-looking eyes ever contemplating such a daring act.
He told them that they were the future, that the ways of the past were wrong, that there was a war, a war between ignorance and knowledge, against evil and the ruin of man, against those who sought to lead them from the true path, the straight path.
With his feet of clay, his spine was like the twisted stem of a tree from which thorns burst into the glassy shimmering air. Hatred belonged to the past, his father said, there was only one God and He belonged to all men. A fool claims to know everything, it takes a wise man to admit his ignorance. But all these clever words never helped him when they came for him, all his books and papers never saved him then.
He no longer went home any more. There was really no point. He had no wish to sit there night after night in that awful air of mourning which covered his mother and sisters like ashes. They scolded him and asked him where he had been and cursed and cried and begged him to stay at home; then they slumped on the edge of the bed side by side like three ragged crows.
It was a small unremarkable town. There were rumours of murder and slavery, of women and children being burnt alive, people fleeing for their lives. No-one paid such stories any heed for they were old stories; tales that had been told by toothless grandmothers for as long as anyone could remember. The trouble lies beyond the town in the regions still inhabited by dangerous savages who defy the Government, who poison the wells and refuse the word of God, unbelievers who still worshipped rocks, not people from this town.
From time to time there was fighting in the hills to the south-east. The stubby fellow drew them into a circle. He wore grey trousers and a white shirt that hung over his belt where his waist protruded. He held the rifle loosely in one hand, dangling by his left side. He waved them to come forwards. Watch, he said and he flipped it clumsily from one hand to the other, raising it to his hip and pulling back the bolt. He showed them the cartridges and he sighted along the barrel at the pockmarked wall. You, he said, the one with that thing around your neck. So he stepped forwards and the man handed him the gun. It was heavier than he had expected and the man laughed. How old, boy – how old are you? Thirteen, he lied, for he was tall for his age. Like this it fires one bullet, and like this it fires many, the man beamed.
The drill over, they climbed excitedly into the back of the small pickup with barely enough room for them to stand. The car rolled slowly away, bouncing over the waves dug into the ground by countless lorries and last year’s rains. The desert was transformed into a wide golden sea upon which they floated. They laughed at the feel of the wind in their faces, falling against one another as the vehicle rolled from side to side. The army was busy, surprised by a sudden attack; all their forces were concentrated to the east and there was a danger now of the rebels breaking through their flank across the mountains.
The droopy fellow climbed from the cab and lit a cigarette. There was a small dry valley which turned into a river during the rainy season but was dry as a bone now. Its sides were flanked with stunted trees and patches of yellow grass. Follow that up towards the top and stay there by the sandy grey rocks you can see. He walked along the troupe of boys inspecting them. He paused, his eye drawn by the flash of light on metal. He reached out a hand for the brass case. Why stuff the neck with cloth? he asked. To keep the rain out, the boy answered. The others laughed, but the man looked concerned. Amulets, talismen, superstition. When would these people give up their old beliefs? He turned away in irritation and waved them on their way.
They started up the valley together, but soon he had put a distance between himself and the others. They stopped to chat, to smoke cigarettes and look at their guns. His bare feet left no trace on the hard ground and soon he could no longer see them when he looked back. He slowed a bit. These mountains were strange. The air was different and the sky was deeper, more blue. It felt like a drum skin against which he rested his head. A bird flew over and he raised his gun, sighting along the barrel. He liked the feel of it in his hands. The sides were scratched and beaten. The wood which he gripped was worn smooth by other fingers. It surprised him how well it fitted to his hands, as though all of those people who had handled it before had been preparing it for him.
It was so still and silent. He had no idea of time, of how long he had been walking. The sun was falling, crashing towards the plain. He sat down to watch as the shadows grew longer. His father was wrong, the world was flat. When he turned his head he caught sight of a small lizard on the ground beside him. Stripes of orange and green ran the length of it. Its belly rose and fell at a fast beat. He stretched out a hand and it was gone. He continued upwards towards a pile of sandy grey rocks that seemed to have been stacked there by giants.
The man must have been crouched there among the rocks for he suddenly appeared, rising up before him. The tallest man in the world with long sharp limbs, bones like a bird. The two of them stood there, silent and motionless. Then the man’s taut face relaxed and he seemed to say something, a greeting perhaps or a question. A great flower bloomed on his chest, spreading its crimson petals across the khaki fatigues. He vanished from sight as suddenly as he had come.
The sound of the shot came slowly as though off in time, many hours, many days away. He looked down at his hands and marvelled at the way in which his fingers fitted to the wood. The way the metal seemed charged. The ground beneath his feet was crawling with ants. He felt his muscles growing in his arms as he grew towards the rifle.
His hands are made of lead and his feet of clay. He remains standing there unmoving as the sun becomes the moon and his shadow turns silver and faint. When he reaches the bottom of the hill the laughing boys are gone, there is no-one about. His father was a fool. All that nonsense about ghosts and spirits being a thing of the past when nothing in the world had changed. It was the books and the papers with their mystical signs which had confounded him. The hills still rattled to the tune of their ancestors’ dead bones. He begins to walk. Night becomes day and day night and so it goes. The sun blisters his tongue. His eyes are two dark holes torn in the blue blue sky by the hawks escaping through to the dark extraordinary night beyond.
Jamal Mahjoub’s latest book is Wings of Dust (Heinemann, Oxford 1994). The Sudanese-British author now lives in Denmark.