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A tree on fire a novel t.., p.22
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       A Tree on Fire: A Novel (The William Posters Trilogy Book 2), p.22

           Alan Sillitoe

  By day they hid. He crawled along the rancid rocky oven of the earth. The sun festered on to his grey hair and blackening skin. He spent days on his belly. He was a snake. He lost his mind. The file of soldiers made a feeler from the laager of lorries, and winding up the hill passed a dozen yards away, noise and stone chips dancing around. One of the others, farther up the slope, stood and fired. He was shot dead, and the patrol carried two of their own wounded down the hill. He lay still, nursing himself on the rockbed of his cunning. In the darkness of the night he saw mirages of the day, visions of snow-mountains that Shelley had passed on to him. Glacier peaks were forested with pine and spruce, and there were green fields on the lower slopes, huts and scattered houses, cattle, camels and mud dwellings, lower and lower, descending to scorching saltflat and sand and the immense grey stone of the wilderness, and finally to the endless ocean of sand-dunes. He ate live scorpions, scooped mud, went back to the beginning of creation. By the seashore of the desert, in sand-cliffs, were tunnels that he lived in, tunnels lined with white bricks, and he walked among them. An explosion would come, because Algerians wandering by the surf mimed out a warning. In one of the cool corridors he waited, wondering if the tunnels would collapse and bring eggtimer sand pouring down on him to suffocation. He stood up and listened, waited. From the bowels of these brick-lined tunnels came a muffled roar, and the walls he looked at shook, but stayed intact and safe. Somewhere below, that he would never reach or visualise, the air had grown into combustible gas and had exploded, shaken the deepest foundations of his life and vision, opened the hiding-places of himself and all that his heart had never thought of to desire, and all that he had always been too terrified to face or wish for.

  There was no jungle in this universe. Above the sand was flinty wilderness, and higher still the meadows began. Then out of the forest spread the land of eternal snow, up to the final great peaks, the land of the abominable Wendigo, the primal layers from his underground Alhambra to the mountains of the sky and snow where the soul could sometimes go now that the galleries had reverberated to this deep-set mysterious explosion that spoke to him from all the sounding places of the walls. He stood, waiting for the sand to burst through the small white bricks, stayed calm and terrified as if he were in a dream, while the grey blades of outside sunlight moved like a windmill round and round over his eyes. The only sound was the hiss of the sea, the metallic surf lazily striking the brilliant sand. Between him and the beach a tree was burning, and while he stood in the same position he saw white flames rolling over it, shaking out smells of bay-leaf and juniper, lemon and rosemary. White phosphorous was burning on its foliage, and he was pleased because the spectacle seemed to wear off his fear and awe of the explosion far underground. The tree burned but did not die, glowed and lit up the sea-beach when the sun fell.

  He stayed buried, paralysed, unable to look up at the burning sun. There was no urine left in him, and he pulled roots from the earth to stop the flesh of his two jaws meeting. I’m going to die, he thought. I can’t go on. He was alone, forgot when he had parted from or lost the others, stood at the entrance to his brick-lined burrow, and no one came in nor even near it. The sea was an ugly steel-flat torment edging the yellow sand and reflecting the sun’s heat at him with bleak ferocity.

  When he sensed that the world beyond his closed lids had turned black, and felt the night air chafing him, he stood up again. To save rummaging into his haversack for a compass he selected the Pointers of Ursa Minor and kept the dim North Star to his left. Eyes opened and accustomed to the dark, he was at the head of a wide valley, low hills on either side. Smokeless, and without lights or fire. In the clarity of his mind he speculated on how many sins one had to commit before reaching the kingdom of heaven, how many good people abandon who had come to lean on you more heavily for support than you realised in your malformed desire to be free of them. Your life depended on people who needed you. Nancy and the children, Myra and their child, Shelley and the girl he had left in Barcelona prison – he had abandoned them to help people whom he wanted to need him, but who, in reality, had learned well enough how to help themselves, a break with settled fate in order to control the circumstances of his own life.

  He walked, feeling only the rub at his feet of grit and dust. Even the ubiquitous dog-jackal no longer broke its heart in the interstellar spaces of the night. He plodded through an unlit silence, in no hurry any more to do fifteen or twenty miles before rest. No one was on the road, no stragglers from the attack. He seemed too far north, according to Mokhtar, but remembering many glimpses of Shelley’s map (more clear and familiar now than the cycling map he had used as a youth around Nottingham), he kept his track parallel to the mountains, and in a few days he would go up and over them till sooner or later he reached the Kabylie mountains which backed on to the Algerian coast. He was on his own, in no man’s land and no man’s army, felt clear-brained and energetic, and as he walked he did not think of fighting again except to decide that he was armed against friend or foe, which thought gave him not only freedom (to say it aloud) but also an affirmation of life that he was determined to hold on to. Without Mokhtar’s group, he was exposed to friend and enemy alike, though if he weren’t knifed or shot by unsuspecting friends he could always show the FLN identity card given him in the Monts des Ksours. Three weeks east-north-east would get him into Tunisia, and he was tempted to go there, but he wasn’t in that sort of mood yet, still wanted to try his arm in the area of main fighting to the north. The purpose that had led him here raged more clearly under his vacillations of selfish desire. The tree had burned off its foliage, but the tree was even hardier, and ready to grow again. By Tunis he could reach London in a month, but he was not yet drawn to that other section of his heart. As much as to see Myra and the child, he craved in the bursting heat of the day to go back to Nottingham and visit his children. The catastrophic act of leaving them struck full force, and he wept in the night, saying not yet to himself, not yet.

  The bottle was full, warm and slightly salt, and he sat down to uncork it. He smoked a cigarette, carefully lit and hooded in the middle of the night, took off his sandals and rubbed his feet free of grit. They were tough, and he wasn’t bothered by soreness, saw himself walking barefoot, for when these sandals were gone he might not find more. He had no fear of the wilderness. There was food in his pack, and he could last a few days even without. He had Algerian money, mostly coin, which might help if he met nomads, or got into an oasis one night. But there was no need to set himself spiralling on the course of desperation. He wanted no plans, especially those that might lead him astray or to disaster. He would respect patience and instinct and so be helped by them.

  During the walk he enumerated the contents of his knapsack. There were biscuits and chickpeas, chocolate and sardines, dried figs and a mush of lentils. There was a map which Shelley had taken from the back pocket of a guidebook, and annotated against other maps, as well as a compass, binoculars, pencils and notebook. The watch was in his pocket because the strap had rotted some weeks ago. He had fifty cigarettes, matches, and an unworn shirt for use when the one on his back fell off in shreds. There was a three-pronged clasp-knife, an oil-soaked rag and pull-through, and a small screwdriver. This traveller’s bric-a-brac took little enough space, but to it was added a water-bottle, a light machine-gun, and one thirty-round clip of ammunition. Of the three passports, he had kept only the British one, in order to back up his story if he were captured.

  Walking alone at midnight hammered schemes into the head, inebriation of hope that softened the brain and bled even the blood-poison out of you, that acid protection of borderline health that kept you alert and visionary under the stars, and cool under the sun. There’s two of us, he muttered. There’s Frank and there’s Dawley, and we’ll look after each other, so that neither of us will come to harm. The left hand must look to what the right hand does, and both can lash out for the benefit of each other, all for one and one for all. You’re a one-man circus, but whate
ver you do you can’t retrace your steps or go back into the imperative-negative blackout of the past for reasons of ease and sentimentality. Walking backwards is as evil as writing your name backwards, an exercise in weak-minded satanic self-destruction. He felt the black web of the blackest spider shaking before him, its fabric beckoning when he turned towards it, as if death were really and readily stalking and had taken the place of his own backward glance. He had never felt the weight of evil so close, and this at a time when he considered himself on a great mission of good.

  He turned again, but whatever lurked in his wake was there no longer. It fitted too well perhaps to the tune of his own footsteps and the midnight rock-shadows shifting across his eyes, and he became confused and blinded on swinging quickly to try and catch a glimpse of him or it. The wilderness is full of ghosts. Everyone comes here when they die, or when life has ripped the bowels out of them. If an atom-bomb drops the shadows will rush in million upon million to choke the living, suffocate those who elected to come here.

  Whoever pursued him (or dogged him, for there could be no purpose in ever catching up) wandered through the dream-Arabian deserts of his own mind, in those villages where he sketched the depraved inhabitants of his secret landscapes. All houses were crumbling and all people old, or eaten by the vices of their ancestors which kept the pretty mouths of their daughters half-open and their eyes large. Even the hills on which their villages stood were falling to sand and ruin. This pilgrim who sketched his own world and followed him through black night and bright day played a mouth organ, and his best drawing was an auto-portrait of a lonely, thin, long-haired, half-young, pain-racked figure with a meagre wallet on his back, and a vine-stick in hand, making his way across a plain, the eternal pilgrim, poet-painter, still endeavouring to escape the packed tormenting dissidence within himself, to find another pilgrim with the symptoms of the same disease and totally infect him.

  You could not hide among the rocks and wait in ambush for him, because he was as cunning as you would ever be. In any case, you do not meet your pursuer when hundreds of miles of wilderness are spread around. And if during the day he caught you up while you slept, then he could do you no harm, for anyone was entitled to share your dreams and get what they could out of them, and put what they could into them. No matter how long he follows me, he thought, and I expect he’ll stick close behind for a while, he’ll get little enough to eat or drink on this thin leg of the trip.

  He walked beyond dawn. Pokers were laid over the shoulders of the mountains as if the sun were handing out knighthoods that would last only one day. They were pale orange, about to merge with each other as the bloody middle pulled itself up among them. He crawled across the map at half an inch a day, soon to turn north and head for the mountains. In a pool of water he saw his walnut face, and the sun burned as if to draw a deeper hue out before finally releasing him.

  His legs would not stop walking, and he let them have their way. They would run his soul into the ground. There were no shadows in the daytime except his own, the two of them going along pleasantly together. The sky was empty except for a few birds wheeling some way ahead, but he went on in a state of total alertness, looking for any movement in the flanking hills, and listening for the first cat-purr of aircraft or lorry-engines.

  The valley widened, hills far away. In the middle of the plain a few birds gyrated above a black mound, angrily trying to make a foothold among the mass of birds already there. He threw stones, and a score of humpbacked hawks rushed into the sky, so huge and many that he thought they might attack him. One by one they swooped down again at the camel carcass, wings wide but perfectly still before the feet touched down. He stood some yards away and watched, fascinated at this manifestation of natural activity. They tore and scraped deep into the open flank of the dead animal, with many sharp swipes exchanged among themselves as they fought to close in on more tender regions. He walked near and they ignored him, as if no danger could threaten the ranks of their hunched backs set against him. Triumphant and all-conquering, they indulged in a rite peculiar to themselves rather than a common and horrible meal. They fed as if, after a great and valiant effort, they had dragged the camel from the track while it still walked. He threw another stone, but when they did not move, he passed and walked on, hoping that soon he would catch up the people and the caravan to which the dead animal had belonged.

  He found a sheltering rock where the valley narrowed, rested where there was shade. He never completely slept, haunted by the thought of fire, the dread of a sudden-opening bomb that would come on like a furnace and burn him into the rocks where he lay. There was nowhere for him to run, but he hoped to hear the warning of the engine and get one last look at life before it happened or, if there was still time, roll into a position where he would not be seen. Dawn was the hour to look for a hiding-place, but he had for once ignored this necessary caution. He didn’t know why. There was no hurry, and it was unwise to let exultance carry you beyond the pitch of mere tiredness, to the insomnia of exhaustion when the shallow sleep hardly brought back your energy. In rest you withdrew from the world, closed your eyes, in sleep but not of it, bound by innumerable steel threads to the stones that ultimately refreshed you enough for another long span of the wilderness.

  It was impossible to edge right out of the sun, and his legs and feet seemed too close to a fire. He slept with head covered by his arms, locked in a fever of sweat and darkness.

  A cool breeze opened over his legs, shadow and wind, as if he lay under a tree and the leaves rustled. A bayonet scratched the length of his clothes, grazing his skin, tugged as if to pull him from the rock. The shade had gone. He dreaded to see on opening his eyes that he had been caught. His senses swam in an ocean of darkness, then gathered together, separated and became suddenly clear. Reaching to the gun, he was surprised at the steel touch, gripped it hard and opened the safety-catch. Hearing no voice, he expected the bayonet or knife to go right into him. They were not standing close by, but perhaps lying flat a few feet away, watching, waiting for the moment of his greatest hope before striking so as to get the most amusement out of his death. The shadow came again, a rustling of palm-leaves. They were playing with him. He heard a soft noise, like an arm coming to rest.

  Opening his eyes, a huge black vulture sat a yard away, hooded, unmoving, yellow and black eyes beamed on him. It seemed all set to sit there for months, though patience could not describe the fixed gaze. Its eyes were as inhuman as its feet, head, drawn-back wings, part of the expressionless whole, two coloured stones someone had thrown at it that had stuck right in and been used from then on as eyes, when instinct would have done just as well, because it looked as if it had no need to see.

  He moved his leg, horrified but not frightened, wanting to kill the bird. The blue-black, glossy feathers were unreal, shining in the sun as if they were wet. When he stood up, a ripple went across one of its eyes, and he stared into them as if they were daring him to push down their impossible wall that blocked him from a world he should know about, to horizons of heaven and hell beyond the scattered horrors of the plain that he was already familiar with and only wanted to defeat and forget.

  It was the middle of the afternoon and he had slept a few hours out of the day. The buzzard must have lost its glut from the camel, and set off through the scorching bileless sky to find more flesh. A line of others sat along the bottom of the valley like blackened tree-stumps that had burned down years ago, whose ash had been utterly blown away. The one nearest lessened in size, and he levelled his gun. To shoot that head would show nothing beyond the wall of merciless unfathomable eye. Within the eye was a desert brain that craved food from a desert that had none. Its life was a miracle, and if it hated anything it was only the earth from which it could get so little food, and this hatred was a javelin for nosing out the dying, whose digested flesh would let them fly eternally through this hell-sky and sometimes perch on the baking land. If he shot it, would they tear the dead bird to pieces? Or will they gang up
on me? They lived on the mountains to the north and roamed over thin forests and wilderness, hunting and haunting all flesh and blood from their endless province of space between sky and earth.

  He walked slowly, gun levelled, not wanting to waste a bullet, or send the noise of its death far enough to bring worse depredators on him. It was a pity; plucked and roasted it would make good food, tough but filling, though the smoke of cooking might also give him away. It was well-protected, he thought, by the hard laws of the world – passing out of its gaze and continuing his journey.

  From a range of higher ground he saw the buzzards squatting where he had slept, as if still waiting for the last crack of life to leave him before coming on to where he was now. Their numbers had increased, holding a meeting perhaps on why they had permitted him to escape, discussing bad tactics and better measures for next time. Two people were walking through them, and a cloud went into the air like large flakes of burnt paper. He was disturbed at being followed, when all he wanted was to climb away from the track and rest, instead of walking on through the wide open day. The sharp beak had torn skin from his arm, and gave an intense ache. He poured water on, which burned as if it were acid. Then he drained the bottle, which did not filter through to his thirst.

  When the first breeze of dusk wakened against him he saw a well in the distance surrounded by tents and camels. He hoped he had left his pursuers far enough behind to stop and get water for his bottle. The heat of his shirt, which did not normally bother him, now began to torment as if it were actually on fire, afflicting his whole body with an intolerable fever.

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