They had been traveling since sunrise. The snow that had fallen only last night had leaked through Urad's boots and was making it hard to continue. The rope connecting him to the horse upon which his companion rode swung back and forth in time with the great animal's movements. He tried to think of things to make his walking easier to cope with, but they did not come easily. All that went through his mind was the cold and thirst which his marching had brought about.
High upon the hill they were climbing stood a small building, in front of which was a man watching their slow accent. The individual looked very much like another soldier, although he was not dressed like one. Urad wondered what this building could be for. It was far away from any towns or even people. This wonder soon gave way to fear, for he now realized that the building was going to be his grave. His companion was going to kill him out here, where the town would not find out about it. Hanging his head, he made his way up the slope, behind the horse.
After what seemed like hours to Urad, the soldier on the horse yelled out something, apparently to the man in the house. But the man never answered and Urad never looked up to see why. He did not care. With the knowledge that he was about to die on his shoulders, he marched onward.
Eventually, the horse came to a stop in front of the building and the man began to speak to the soldier in a welcoming tone. They were both speaking in the foreign tongue. The soldier soon untied Urad, who immediately moved up close to the stove inside the building to get warm. He stared at the snow laying motionless on the ground through a nearby window. His two companions began to talk again, but he thought only of death.
Urad knew that the foreigners' laws were wrong and had always sought to maintain the justice that had been passed down to him through his parents, and their parents before them. His cousin had refused him his grain, which he needed to live. He wondered why the foreigners thought it wrong to kill another so that he may continue to live. In the native tongue, the soldier finally called for him to come, so Urad followed his companions into the other room.
This new room was much warmer and larger than the other. The foreigners had beaten him twice before for sitting near them, so he sought a place on the floor. The man soon approached him with a steaming cup, but Urad did not reach out for it. Even if he was allowed to take the cup, he would not be able to, as his hands were still bound together by a strong line. They were going to torture him. He looked up at the man, who suddenly turned and said something to the soldier. The soldier responded and began to reach for his knife when the man knelt beside Urad, cut the bonds, and handed him the steaming drink. Urad was shocked and quickly drank the liquid down.
With this done, the man walked over to a window and began to talk with the soldier who was seated in a small chair. Although Urad could not understand any of the words, their intent was clear. The man was being forced to do something; something that would probably have to do with him.
The two men suddenly looked at him as though he had just done something horrifying. Not knowing what else to do, Urad stared back at the soldier, watching the movements of his lips as he talked. The soldier made a slashing motion across his throat. Urad knew they were talking about the killing and turned to the other man who now looked at him with burning hatred.
But neither man took any action and they soon resumed their talking. After a while, the soldier stood up and removed one of his guns. Carefully, he placed the gun upon the desk and, with a few words, stood there watching the man. The man seemed revolted at the object's sight and suddenly began to talk quickly, as if he were being asked to do something he could never allow himself to do. Urad watched in fear as the two men argued and occasionally glanced at him. Finally, the soldier withdrew to the door and with a few final words, left the building.
For a long time the man stared at the door, and then out the window, apparently hoping that the soldier would come back. The man then returned to the other room, after saying "Wait" to Urad in the native tongue. The man was gone for a long time. Perhaps he had gone after the soldier, but Urad had not heard any footsteps for a long time. He did not care what the man was doing, he wanted only to rest.
The man returned to the large room where Urad was and called for him to come into the room where the man had apparently just been. When they had entered the new room, the man pointed to a chair near a window and Urad sat down nervously.
"Are you hungry?" the man asked, now speaking in the native tongue.
"Yes," replied Urad, who kept his eyes on the man as he began to prepare a small meal of a cake and a strange dish into which the man put chicken eggs, dried fruit, and a few foods that the foreigners use for trading.
When the meal was- completed, the man put on a light and served the meal to him, saying "Eat." Urad was very hungry, so he immediately began to take a piece of bread, when he wondered why the man was being so friendly towards him. Perhaps this was some type of torture.
"And you?" he asked.
"After you. I'll eat too."
Urad wondered if the food may have been believed to have gone bad and the man was simply waiting to see if it was fit for him to eat. If he did not eat it, he knew that he would again be beaten and perhaps killed. Either way, he would not be much better off, so he decided to satisfy his hunger. With all the determination he could summon, Urad bit into the cake and began to eat all that was given to him.
The man's behavior puzzled Urad. Perhaps the man was not allowed to kill him. Waiting until the man had finished eating, he asked, "Are you the judge?"
"No, I'm simply keeping you until tomorrow."
"Why do you eat with me?"
Urad fell silent. The man soon left the room and returned with a cot, which he set up in front of the bed which was already in this room. With this done, the man sat down on the bed and asked hastily, "Why did you kill him?"
"He ran away. I ran after him," said Urad, looking away from his companion. His head began to fill up with images of people like himself being executed and put in prisons. Afraid of this foreign justice, he asked, "What will they do to me?"
"Are you afraid?"
Urad lowered his head. He could not bare to disgrace himself by I answering the question truthfully.
"Are you sorry?"
With this, Urad turned and stared at his captor. He wondered if the man actually believed that a man could kill another man for a reason and be sorry. Then, suddenly, his mind returned to the possibilities of what could happen to him.
"Lie down there. That's your bed."
Urad knew that the man was avoiding the question and cried out "Tell me!"
The man did not answer.
"Is the soldier coming back tomorrow?"
"I don't know."
Urad was not sure why, but he felt much safer tonight than he did last night in the prison run by the foreign soldiers.
"Are you coming with us?"
"I don't know. Why?"
He was sure that the man did not care what happened to him much more than the soldiers did, but he did not answer. Instead, he simply got into the cot and closed his eyes.
Again, the man asked, "Why?"
Urad slowly reopened his eyes, turned to the man, and said, "Come with us."
Urad could not sleep at first. He lay on the cot thinking about what kind of future he had and how nice the man had been to him. Eventually, these thoughts gave way to dreams and he fell asleep.
During the night, Urad awoke very thirsty. He had not had anything to drink since he had taken the hot liquid with the soldier. Slowly, so as not to disturb the man's sleep, he got up and crept outside. The air was biting cold, but he soon found a small faucet upon the wall. After drinking all that he could, he returned to the room and, laying down on the cot, went to sleep knowing that the man had seen him walking about.
As suddenly as he fell asleep, he awoke. The man was shaking him. This would be it. "He is going to kill me now. He saw me leave last night and now he's going to kill me for doing that," thought Urad as he stared at the man in horror.
"Do not be afraid. It is I. You must eat."
Urad thought it strange that he would be allowed to eat before he was killed that would be a waste of food. Perhaps the man was not going to kill him. Realizing this, he slowly nodded, keeping his eyes fixed on the actions of the man, who had now begun to make a small meal.
They sat together on the cot, eating more of the cakes the man had made last night and drinking another hot liquid. After they were finished, the man led him out to the faucet where he had drunk last night, but did not appear angry. Urad suddenly felt unclean next to this man who had been so kind to him, so he began to wash and the man walked around to the other side of the house.
Just as he was finishing the man came back and said, "Come," leading him into the building. After many preparations, the man pointed to the exit and said, "Go ahead." Urad could not believe that this man was placing so much trust in him. Maybe he was going to shoot him in the back, later claiming that the prisoner was trying to escape. However, these thoughts were soon put a little more at ease, when the men said, "I'm coming." Not knowing what else to do, he had no choice, but to obey.
After doing something inside of the building, the man slowly came out and locked the door. When he was finished, he turned to Urad and pointed to the east, saying, "That's the way," and began walking off in that direction. Suddenly, the man turned around and looked at the building. For some time, he stared at it, as if looking for something. Evidently not finding it, he said, "Come on," and returned to his journey.
The two companions walked for some time through the puddles made by the melting snow, and eventually reached an intersection of two paths. The man looked around and, seeing no one, hurriedly shoved a package into Urad's hands.
"Take it. There are dates, bread, and sugar. You can hold out for two days. Here are a thousand francs, too."
Urad did not know what to do. He simply stood there.
"Now look," said the man, pointing to the east, "there's Tinguit. You have a two-hour walk. At Tinguit are the administration and the police. They are expecting you." Jerking him to the south, the man said, "That's the trail across the plateau. In a day's walk from here you'll find pasturelands and the first nomads. They'll take you in and shelter you according to their law."
Urad suddenly realized what the man was doing. He was not a soldier at all, but in reality a civilian who had been told to deliver him to the police. The man had too much honor to do so, and had decided to provide the prisoner with a means of escape. He did not want to be treated like this. "Listen," he said.
The man swiftly shook his head. "No, be quiet. Now I'm leaving you." With that, he turned and began marching away, back towards the building. Urad wanted to stop him, but he knew that this would only dishonor the man. For a long time he stood there, watching the man march off. "Which is better, my justice, or his?" thought Urad. Knowing the answer, he bowed his head and began walking toward the town.
©1983 James (Gary) Geniesse