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A tree on fire a novel t.., p.17
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       A Tree on Fire: A Novel (The William Posters Trilogy Book 2), p.17

           Alan Sillitoe

  It seemed infallible and classic. Afterwards, they would retreat the way they had come, but veer south-east to avoid the village bombed over them in the afternoon. ‘They won’t spill out,’ said Shelley, ‘not for night fighting.’

  ‘They might.’ Frank laid down his rifle to look for wood.

  ‘My old man boasted all his life about a night attack in the Argonne Wood in 1918. He lost his whole battalion capturing four shell-holes, and got a string of medals for it. He’s retired from the Army now, after a lifetime of service. Always wanted me to go in the Army, but they threw me out of military college, which broke the old man’s heart, as my family said, and I never thought it’d be so easy, because that had always been my sole aim in life. They play right into your hands, parents.’

  ‘That way they really cut you up,’ Frank said, ripping at a tinderous bush with hand and boot. ‘Best to keep away from them, then there’ll always be a bit of love left between you. You should start a guerrilla war in the Deep South, and if the Yanks send the Army to put it down, you might get a chance of shooting your old man between the eyes – if it means that much.’

  Shelley spat. ‘You’re a real barrack-room lawyer. I liked it better when you were a taciturn Limey who didn’t know his own mind.’

  ‘When was that? There never was such a time. I’ll bet we get them out of that post. They’ll think it’s a group of nomads over here, and come to check up.’

  Fires were lit below the col, on the blind side from the camp, so that only smoke and a glow would be visible to their observant eyes. They would imagine that whoever it was hadn’t yet seen them, and would come out to make a surprise round-up of the fires.

  ‘It’s a tightrope,’ Shelley said. ‘There are six of us, seven with the guide, which is too few to pull it off. Mokhtar’s forgetting the basic principles, and I don’t like it one flat bit.’

  So as to move quickly in the dark and not lose contact they tied a length of string from hand to hand. The moon had flowed behind the hills. Even if they don’t fall for it, we can make a surprise raid and vanish, and if they don’t check on the fires, they won’t come out and pursue us. If they do come for the fires, it means we’re not outnumbered, since we’ve split them. Divide the mind, a decision one side that you could never make, and on the other something that went fatally wrong, because it was too easy. That way was madness and defeat. When you sharpened the mind to its perfect logic, it was always too late to withdraw from plans whose contemplation made them perfect and so could not be abandoned to the anarchy of futile speculation. Three fires cracked into flame, sere branches bunching and falling apart, then shooting up again, sparking and bursting around their faces. They stood a few minutes among swirling smoke, then drew back as upshooting flames strangled it.

  They descended the slope, convicts chained by the dark string of an idea that could only snap through panic or disaster. Voices were curbed, even thoughts, as they slid through the darkness and flanked away from the treacherous pull of the heart which would have led to a premature clash with any group snared towards the smoke. The situation was spun out of nothing, a needle of fire, a shadowy trick, and as far as Frank could see, it might be only a nomad camp they were approaching to blow the middle out of.

  They paused, still visible to each other. He loathed silence, the dangerous voiceless steppe over which all the stars of the universe were poised like a planetarium, the white blood of the Milky Way fixed in that atrophied spurt towards the ultimate back-end of creation. Each star was a spyhole through a great black wall laid over the sky; above, it was all dazzling phosphorescent light that shone through these pinpricks. The cool wind blew at his shirt and shook his matted hair. With relief, he heard the jackal blowing its heartbreak back in the hills. If it was a nomad camp there’d be a place at the fire, a dish of beans, and tea. Then more walking, machinery, marching, counter-marching, involved trigonometrical exercises through the Djebel Amour, the barren mountains of love parsimoniously decked with alfa and shrubs that hardly sustained the life in your boots. Myra must be back in England, and he pictured her in bed with a baby in its nearby cot, breathing through the hours of similar silence wherein he went over the rocks and stones in darkness. Sensing danger, he felt alone, not belonging to the other six as they belonged to him and to each other, but a man trapped by extreme isolation, caught under the stars and fixed like a fly on the steppe which seemed of absolute immensity now that they’d been an hour on it. They were descending slightly, and he wondered if ever peace would come so that he could see the hills with the good eyes of someone who is not hunted. They were a band of men marked down, and since they were in a land where other groups roamed, they had not yet been identified and cordoned off. They struck, grabbed, ran, hid, sweating and starving in the lonely darkness, but so far, the precise military tactics of the French had not pinned them down and scorched their rage and rags off the face of the earth. Napalm and flamethrower, the cruel and wicked kiss of the sun-god was out to get them, but this great land gave them cover, and the people of similar faith somehow found them food. Such hard living settled his regard for Myra and brought on a greater longing to see his child, because it seemed that they’d probably given him up for ever – whether or not he might one day go back again. This comfortless, stark knowledge had strengthened him at the time of his greatest despair when traversing the sandwaste and pure dust of the blinding dunes, a week after crossing from Morocco. With little water and no food they staggered for days over the blinding sand and grit of Satan’s earth, scorched and bleeding from mouth and rectum, scabbed and tortured as they held on to rifles and submachine-guns, insane and sick, followed by huge birds waiting for them to finally drop. It was the only way to survive the hedgehog fort-zone of Colomb-Bechar, throw themselves into the worst land of the earth. Remembering it made this stony, mountainous, scrub-wilderness seem like paradise.

  Both fires were visible, a dying glow from their own, the other constant as if continually built on. At the half-way point they moved in silence and slow motion, the guide covering them a few yards to the left and keeping a sharp watch to avoid any investigating party. The night was as big as the land, endless, and it needed to be, he thought, for all they had to do. At a signal, they lay flat, no stone disturbed. The noise of boots came so close that Frank thought they would be walked on, used like stepping-stones across some shallow stream. His ear to the ground, he heard their weight, heavily built and laden, not too extended, fearing nothing because they were being as cautious as they knew how, though grunting and baulking over the unexpected distance.

  Mokhtar stood up. Frank walked slow, quiet, hunched. Several universes had passed over their heads but nothing had altered. Space, stars, apprehensions were the same. They quickened, keeping a single file. A Very light went over the hills from the outgoing party, a thin luminous snake vanishing into some black window of the sky as if to do its worst on the inhabitants within. A reply shell curved from the point they were approaching. Mokhtar must be happy, he thought, sensing his smile of satisfaction, forehead creased with anxiety at evidence that his plan of vengeance was half-way coming to pass.

  The fire on the hills was out, and no doubt the soldiers imagined they’d been sighted and so were extending their line for the round-up. Pitch night seemed like day to Mokhtar, for he had fixed the now darkened camp in his deepset eyes for so long that he knew exactly where it was. They closed up and followed him like cats to the leeward side from which a raid would be least expected, and which was also the best direction for a retreat, since another line of broken hills sloped up out of the plain a few miles away. The pinpricked skullcap of the sky held darkness firmly over them, and with sensibility and care they picked a way bund to the far flank of the entrenchment.

  A stone rampart had been thrown round a low rise of ground. Mokhtar went forward on his belly like an alligator, loaded with grenades. The others spread a few yards apart, flattened, waiting. He considered that you hadn’t really experienced the wilder
ness unless you’d been completely alone it it, hunting and hunted in the dark middle of the night, full of uncertainty about your own self but clear on the universal laws that sent you there. The wind searched out your marrow to blow it dry and empty. He pushed forward the safety-catch, no more safety from this second on, the mechanism easy and silent, William Posters strikes again, black heart and white heart, blue brain and red, roulette-wheel spinning behind those bleeding milksop stars.

  A line of sound rumbled from the hills, then a ripple of ammunition paying its own way as battle was joined with jackals and phantoms. The humping burst of a grenade carried back, and all attention in the camp was on that side. A flare issued from the hills, momentarily hung like a grey jellyfish, an unwanted diminishing moon bursting into a dazzling chandelier as if a state reception were to be held beneath it. It threw a faint light over them, and he made out the dim shadows of Shelley and Mokhtar. When the flare died and scattered its ash the night was so intense that Mokhtar, not at the closest range for throwing bombs, stood up to full height and urged them to get nearer, looking as if he would walk into the camp and shake hands with the first man he met. The Lion of Judah, he breaks every chain. Once it used to be: Kiss the hand you cannot sever.

  Men were bending over the fire, some slept, and four sentries were outlined faintly in a renewed glimmer of starlight. The pain raged in his hand as if all blood were rushing there in the final tensed wait, and only the rifle lying heavily on the open palm stopped it actually jumping.

  A ribbon of machine-gun fire came from the hills and, using this as a signal, Mokhtar stood again. Five of them windmilled two bombs each to the middle of the camp and fell flat before the collective roar. Frank lifted his head after the earth cracked, and while stones and gravel and death-screams raged in the chaos, he joined the rapid fire into the smoking ruin of the camp on which three rifles and three light machine-guns now played. Shelley sent a magazine bursting at the antennae, hoping to wreck the signals unit. There was an impression around Frank as he knelt for better aim at the stunned, slow-moving figures, that bees were being thrown through the air at fantastic speed. His ear burned, then turned cold as he loaded, fired, and reloaded and slotted in another clip. ‘They’ve got me,’ he thought, still firing and in plain view. Sweat and a more copious liquid dropped on to his shirt at the shoulder. Shelley’s gun leapt free, and he fell back into cover. Frank steeled himself to run forward, but wanted a general rush. He smiled at such impotence. It’s all at once, or none at all, for no one man can clean up that butcher’s shop. He flattened, worked towards the left: ‘You all right?’

  ‘My hand’s gone. It’s knocked right out.’ A stone splinter caught his cheek. Steel hooks were pulling up the ground from left to right. The Lion of Judah launched his last grenade and the machine-gun stopped its multiple biting. Ahmed lay still. Dust in his mouth tasted like iron shavings and, thrown by some explosion in himself, he ran towards the parapet. Flames crawled up the tent, and his course was fixed on it, insects biting the air around him. He took cover, and Mokhtar crashed by his side: ‘Allons y!’

  They moved back through shattering stones, while Idris and Mohamed covered them from the front. I hope they think there are more than six of us, that we’re holding off in the hope that they’ll show the white clout. But we’re finished, the ragtags of the wide open spaces: Ahmed killed, Shelley’s hand paralysed, my face bloody and fit only to show its paint-side to the moon: and the guide is unarmed, which leaves four of us to make for those lovely, endearing blister-hills.

  He carried Shelley’s gun. ‘Bury me with it,’ he said, ‘so that I can shoot the jackals when they come in to rip my meat, if there’s anything left on my bones by then. I’ll never see the deep, blue sea from the highest pass of the Kabylie mountains – after the fashion of Xenophon and his ten thousand nits.’

  ‘We did damage,’ Frank said. ‘Or Mokhtar did.’ Out of the fire, there were no more boiling bullets to sneak up your backbone, or go ping at the neck. They ran, shots following.

  ‘It lasted ten blind minutes,’ Shelley said, tearfully.

  ‘Twenty,’ Frank insisted, his breath rasping. ‘Your watch stopped. It’s one o’clock.’

  ‘We’ve got four hours then to get into the hills and bury ourselves, if tomorrow isn’t going to be our last day on this earth that we hoped to make so bright and marvellous.’

  ‘They’ll pick up our tracks.’

  ‘They might on God’s earth, but this is the devil’s.’ They stopped to swallow water. A heavy lorry roared, blazing headlights set for the camp. ‘Helicopters in the morning.’

  ‘Let them come,’ Frank said bitterly. ‘It’ll be a relief.’

  They ran, and in three hours were stumbling over the rocks of a defile. The guide was an old man, brown cloth turned round his head, the gentle, half-idiotic, smiling face of one who had grazed goats and camels all his life on these slopes and knew every curve and twist of the range. They came to a valley and crossed it at right angles, crawled and cursed at the boulders.

  He walked asleep, senses anywhere but where his body was. It felt as if the grazing bullet had left him bald, the wind flickering across to restart the fires of pain. There was nothing to his body but lungs and legs, engines and wheels, hands for rudders, eyes for a compass, a machine made only to transport the body without which his senses would vanish into a grave of blackness. All it could do was show him the charnel-houses of the moon and the sherbet-gardens of the sun. His body was the four-pronged cogwheel of his retreat, out of the desert, into the desert, a retreat and at the same time an orderly advance given importance by the visions which his body carried, exuded from the pores of his sweating tormented skin.

  A depression in the earth held a lake of sand which they waded through, ankle-deep, waist-deep, salt and grit blowing against all wounds and eyes. The rhythm of his legs pushed it back into the machine which he could ignore. He was climbing a great tree with many convenient branches, clothed with numerous twigs of small green leaves. It reached high, and his legs and arms took him up with the speed and ease of an orang-utan that had been born and bred in that particular tree. The wind blew cool and leaves rustled. Soon he was a few branches above the surrounding trees and able to look out of his own tree-angle at the forest ceiling that went on for ever. There was nothing to see but this gentle green undulating ocean of giant treetops, a vast extent of emerald as if, were he to launch himself surreptitiously from the end of the branch and start walking, he would find them solid enough to support him, a new earth made from the tops of massed trees. But where and in what direction would he go? It was the same wherever he looked, so he climbed higher, hoping to reach the highest branch and twig, as if this would give him a different view, some clue at least concerning the direction he should go in. Arms and legs carried him upwards pleasantly enough, so that he could imagine no better way of using his life’s strength. Once he thought of going down again to the undergrowth of the forest, but the idea almost brought the vomit into his mouth, in a way that alarmed him. After years he reached the top, wiped sweat from his forehead and looked at the perfectly flat green sea of treetops hundreds of feet below. He saw himself flying, arms outstretched as he drifted down and over it, but arms not moving and head held back, legs together, gliding perfectly in a wide arc between the sun in a blue sky and the plain of tree-tops. The thought made him dizzy, but he felt great pleasure even at contemplating such a flight, and when it beckoned him he spread his arms and took a long breath of the cool air to give strength and force back the vomit and flex his heels for the leap.

  Mokhtar gripped his forearm. ‘You were about to fall.’ They had reached the summit, sky faintly blue to the east, and for a moment stood grunting and still, bent over like apes, faces and clothes as grey as the rock. The old man led them down and when almost at the bottom of the narrow valley turned into a cleft concealed by a huge boulder. They passed, one at a time, squeezing their bodies between smooth slabs of rock only a foot apart.
It led through a damp, narrow corridor that opened slightly to a ledge with enough space for them to lie on. From a rock water trickled, clear and icy, and Mokhtar unhooked a mug and set it underneath so that it filled in a few minutes.

  He lay flat, eyes pinned open by stars in a sky that was turning grey. They had made it. I understand you, he said, fixing them in his stare, and they became flatter, closer, lost the mystic phosphorescence in the dawn. They needed the night to flower in, to bleed themselves white for. The dawn flattened them into a sheet of paper so that the sun could burn them up. He lay calm, wide awake while the others slept, looking at the softening stars as if he’d never seen them before, or as if he’d just been born. Three months in the desert and he’d lost his identity. Killing didn’t give him one, and neither did being hunted. They were part of it though, joined by this long cool examination of the stars fading above the parallel cliffs as if they would never come back. The clarity of the grey rock and the stars made him feel as if he were dying, the sky turning blue and powdery the more his eyes tried to penetrate it. He was afraid of dying, but only when he thought of going to sleep. The blank exhaustion left him heavy and boneless, yet without the need of immediate rest and like watching the minute-hand of a clock move he pressed the sky across its colour from black of night to the day’s pale blue. He belonged nowhere, basked in the disembodied serenity that comes only after driving the mind and body to their limits. But the body and mind had, after all, driven you, driven themselves which were you, completed you by their movement. He belonged here, emptied even of ideas that had sent him to this particular hiding-spot in the mountains of love and desolation, and being emptied of them at such a time meant that he was fulfilling them. A man of extremes loses his identity, but a man of the middle way is referred to by the two extremes which hedge him in. Starving, riddled with exhaustion like a disease, he belonged nowhere except where he was, and saw no limit to the world that he lived in. Down in the hidden basin of the hills he could see nowhere except upwards. ‘Flesh into heaven, and bones into hell. The soul falls apart.’ He wrote the words across the patch of sky as if to send them somewhere as a telegram. People who feel that the full life is not sufficient end up in the desert, if they fight hard enough to get there. The greater the fight to reach it, the more bitterly scorched is the earth that you left behind. It forces you to search the bottom of the heart, where you reach sand, stones, rock and slate, the geologic ages of your own private earth – scorched earth and sun, frost and scorpions, salt water and bitter thorns that fester your hands at a single touch. Once in the desert you have to cross it, forget what sent you there and for what spiritual loot and lot, or what you might find on the other side, but survive in it, live in it, and move over it. The salt of the earth comes out of the desert. The great spirit rests in the wilderness – Sinai, Sahara, Takla Makan. You choose the desert, or reject it, but you reject it before you get to the point of choosing it. If chosen it is because there is no other way, because the longer way would be through death, and no one would choose that when there is no chance of resurrection, so you take the short-cut through the desert because a chance of survival is easier to believe in than the possibility of salvation.

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