Across the Scrubland, Among the Dunes
From a work in progress
In the little town surrounded by arid scrubland, it was always the baker who woke first. She would get out of bed, change, eat a light breakfast, then finish her coffee in the back garden of her simple house. It lay on the outskirts of the town, its garden facing the barren landscape. Here she took her time, contemplating whatever thoughts happened to arise that morning, or simply appreciating the view. She would notice the shapes the wind made as it blew through the bushes and plants, revelling in the silence and the predawn sky where the stars would still glisten until well into her working day. She would then leave for the bakery on foot, walking along derelict-looking street. There she would open up and begin the mixing and baking so that there would be fresh bread, coffee and other assorted confectionary ready for the first customers of the day. There she would stay, serving the early risers. Her first customer was almost always the newsagent, her brother in law, the second person in the town to wake. He would wait for the daily newspaper delivery from the capital which would arrive at dawn like clockwork. After the delivery was made, he would head over to the bakery. There they would chat, him always sprouting some comment about the day’s news, like how there was “trouble in the capital”, and how there would be “a big fight between the people and the government.” These were things that disinterested the baker. She knew that she liked what she understood, that these were simple things, but she drew pride from this and therefore was dedicated to mastering all things quotidian, becoming a font of local and familial knowledge. The conversation would eventually change and come to an end as the newsagent went to open up for his business before the rest of the town fully woke.
Such was the baker’s morning routine (except for Sundays), which would officially come to an end before midday, when her husband would come in and take over before the town had lunch. She would leave and eat her lunch in the plaza where and most of the town’s commerce was situated, leaving the bakery in her husband’s hands before he closed up later on in the afternoon.
Today was to change all that, and the Baker knew this as she took her coffee in the back garden. For she saw, for the first time in she didn’t know how long, activity on the road leading to the military base that lay among dunes way off in the distance. There was a single dirt road, invisible in the flat terrain from where the baker’s house lay, which snaked up an ever-so-subtle incline and disappeared over the brim of a gentle hill. That morning, some time in early autumn, as the baker began to feel the promise of the coming winter with surprise at the seemingly sudden drop in temperature, she spotted three vehicles make their way along this dirt road.
The sound of engines came first, elbowing its way into the baker’s reality, then came the glare of three sets of headlights shining in the darkness, cutting across her daily view then finally cresting the hill and disappearing. Though it was dark, the baker thought she could make out the shape of two military jeeps, one in front and one behind, escorting what looked like a school bus painted in camouflage. The windows were dark. With the sight of this convoy, there arose in the baker an entirely unfamiliar feeling. It was not exactly fear, though it did come from a part in her where the rawer, less restrained emotions came from, a part which she did not visit — or have to visit — all that often.
Though the convoy was the first sign of activity she’d seen at that time for many years that did not mean that there was no activity in the military base; during commercial hours it was possible to spot a number of jeeps to-ing and fro-ing along the slender road to the dunes, taking soldiers to the town, or taking the other turnoff at the junction on the outskirts and heading for the main road. The presence of the soldiers was visible and tolerated, mostly; they were usually little groups of young soldiers completing mandatory military service after high school. They were just adolescents, enjoying their free time as adolescents did, only clad in camouflage. They would keep to themselves, with an exception every once in a while as relationships would form, then ultimately dissolve and pass. The baker herself had a brief but intense love affair of this sort, a fact which she told her husband, though shamefully omitting the promise the soldier had made her that he would return some day, and keeping away from him her secret hope that after twenty or so years, he still would.
Recently, however, the baker sensed a change in the presence of the military. The officers who would arrive at the town every now and then, drinking at the town’s bars, or occupying a number of seats in the cinema, began to appear less fresh-faced. There was less youth in their composure — not ambling but stalking up and down the streets with heavy, suspicious expressions on their faces. A good friend from her days at school, a bar owner, had to break up three fights in the past month (the last fight, one of the soldiers broke a beer bottle on the head of a local, one of the farmhands’ sons, which left giant splotches of blood trailing out across the floor and onto the pavement outside). Nobody dared talk to the senior officers, who ate at the same restaurant and drank at the same bar every weekend, and who could be seen leaning back in their chairs, their hands fiddling precariously with the leather lids of their holsters. Indeed, their presence had grown more menacing and unpredictable in the town.
The baker remembered around the time they started to trouble the locals. It was when the radio station she usually had on in the bakery had started to punctuate its stream of national and international pop music with news bulletins: bombs let off on buses, strikes paralysing the capital, public demonstrations dissolving into violence. The baker still didn’t understand all too much; these were incidents that happened far away, in the provincial and national capitals, but she began to suspect that this was what the newsagent had been talking about after all — that trouble really was happening, and that there really might be a big fight this time.
She decided to tell the newsagent, as she trusted him, and knew he kept abreast of the goings-on of the military in the area. Indeed, with this talk of conflict in the city, and the recent intimidating behaviour of the officers who visited the town, keeping the everyone on edge, she wondered whether these might somehow (though exactly how she could not even begin to imagine) be connected. He was the first person she knew who might have had any idea about all of this.
He passed by as usual just before 7a.m, just as she had taken the first fresh batch of bread of the day out of the oven, with a copy of the daily national newspaper under his arm. She served him his daily coffee and bun at the counter and they had their daily conversation like always, though towards the end, as the newsagent was getting ready to leave, she told him about that she saw earlier that morning. The newsagent’s face clouded over. His eyes were full of foreboding, an expression very unfamiliar to the baker; she could not remember the last time she had seen such a serious expression.
“This is bad news,” said the newsagent, shaking his head.
“What’s going on?” Asked the baker. “I saw these vehicles this morning, and every day the radio announces something violent happening in the capital. Explosions, gunfire, hostages… And the soldiers. They don’t look so young anymore. They look more aggressive. They start fights all the time at the bars. They’re hungry for conflict!”
“You might be right” the newsagent said, “this is too much of a coincidence. I’m going to get to the bottom of this. I’ll leave the assistant in charge of the shop this afternoon.”
“Where are you going?”
“To the capital of the province. There’s someone in the federal university who knows these things. If anyone asks, tell them I’m in a meeting with a supplier. Even to my brother. It’s very, very important that nobody finds out, especially him. Understand?” This alarmed the baker. She didn’t feel comfortable with having to lie right to someone’s face. “This is really important” he repeated. She nodded back silently.
“Thank you” the newsagent said. “I’ll be back by tonight.” With that he turned on his heels and trotted off. This conversation troubled the baker. There were things bigger than her going on right here in this little town, things she preferred not to get involved in. However, just knowing what the newsagent was up to and having to stay silent about it left her feeling alarmed and very uneasy; it was the sensation of slowly losing control.
The next morning, the newsagent didn’t turn up. She woke up and carried out her routine as usual, drinking her coffee to silence once more. She walked to the bakery and started work. Once she’d finished the first batch, she glanced at the clock, and the feeling of unease which hounded her thoughts since yesterday morning turned into full-on dread: it read 07.41.
She heard a beeping horn sound from across the plaza. Glancing back and figuring she could spare a few minutes, she turned off the furnace and left the bakery, locking the door behind her. Heart pounding, she headed across the plaza towards the newsagent where a large truck was idling outside and a man in a notepad peeking into the shop through the glass door.
“Where the hell is the newsagent?” The deliveryman demanded. “We have to get a move on!”
“He’s out of town for business” she replied. She signed the receipt on the notepad and handed it back to him.
“Hope you have a better day than those poor bastards over in the dunes” he said as he climbed into the truck. The dread she’d felt was now compounded by a rising sense of panic. What on earth did he mean?
Before she could ask him the truck had sped off to the next town, leaving the stack of published newspapers on the pavement. She took the newspaper out of the stack and read the headline:
TWENTY KILLED IN MASSACRE ON MILITARY BASE
She didn’t need to read the entire article, in fact she only read the opening paragraph which gave her all the information she wanted — and simultaneously did not want in the slightest — to find out: that the massacre had happened right here in the town that she had lived in all her life; the remote, happy town where everyone everyone knew each other, or at least of each other, coexisting in relative harmony.
The moment she read the national paper’s front page was a moment she would never forget, for a boundary had been unwittingly crossed. She no longer lived a life of peaceful unknowing bliss, where the days and weeks melted into one and passed by in one long, content cycle; where the happenings of family, friends, associates and unknowns were the constantly-transforming font of knowledge which sharpened her mind and tongue; for the simple act of witnessing something and passing it on had resulted in the disappearance of her brother-in-law, a man who said that he would be back in the town by last night, and who never missed a delivery. She knew something nobody else did; something she was not to tell anyone else, her husband included. She could not imagine the consequences if she let on what little snippets of information she knew about this ghastly act that had occurred across the scrubland, among the dunes. It felt as if the existence she now led was charged by the tense undercurrent of a deep fear, and she dared not tell anybody.
Although the town was situated a number of miles away from the coast, and though winter proper was still many months away, the first icy wind of the encroaching season blew through the plaza, causing the paper to flutter in the baker’s hands, sending a shiver down her spine. Among the rustling of the leaves of the tree-lined pavements, stood next to the mountain of bad news that was to cause infinite commotion and distress among her fellow citizens, she felt paralyzed and profoundly alone in the town she had come to know more than herself at times