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Most people left Rhodesia to get away from the War. We came back for it.
It was April 1975. One year after moving to South Africa to start a new life, we were in a car crammed with possessions and we were barreling once more into the indigo haze, into the thorny, blond bush, somewhere beyond which our next new life was waiting. Dad had a Peter Stuyvesant out in the air, twisting smoke, the twin gray lines of the strip road were tapering crazily into the horizon, and he was saying, categorically: "Two things got me down about Cape Town. One was the weather and the other was people telling me I'd run away from the War. I couldn't stand people saying I'd run away from the War."
Which was ironic because it wasn't even his war.
It had become his war only because in 1960 he happened to see a recruitment ad for the Rhodesian Army the same week he received his National Service papers in his home town of Uitenhage, South Africa, and he'd thought to himself: A chance to see another country! What a pleasure! Even though he was only eighteen and it would mean fighting for someone else's cause. And even though his family had been putting down roots in the Eastern Cape ever since their ship, buffeted by ice storms on the Thames in England and ocean winds in the Bay of Biscay, had docked at Algoa Bay with the 1820 Settlers. By the seventies the Rhodesian War had become Dad's war because he'd spilled blood for it and also because he'd married Mom, whose great-grandfather had been an associate of Cecil John Rhodes, who "discovered" Rhodesia. Her ancestry was full of stories about pioneering uncles walking barefoot from Durban to Bulawayo, more than a thousand miles, to save their shoes.
Mom always said that Dad was Rhodesian from the moment he set foot in the country and saw how beautiful it was. Not that South Africa wasn't. In almost every way it was more blessed with visual splendor, more rich in natural resources, and unlike its landlocked northern neighbor, it had the ocean, steaming up to the coast in a smoking white rush. But something about the landscape of Rhodesia spoke to him. He liked its unshowy loveliness. He liked the way of life, and he liked the people, who for the most part didn't think there were many worse crimes than getting above yourself. Above all, he liked the sensation that poured through him as he crossed the Great Green Greasy Limpopo -- "this incredible sense of being free." It stayed with him even after he stepped hot and sticky from the train in Bulawayo, aged eighteen, and saw the smart peaked caps of the RLI (Rhodesian Light Infantry) officers, who waited with crocodile smiles and soft, welcoming voices to greet the new recruits. He thought of Rhodesia as the Promised Land, and he'd brought me up to do the same.
Now we were Rhodesian to our souls.
Heat and dust boiled in through our car windows and the leathery smell of cattle and something else -- something that forced its way into your nostrils like a dissident spirit and set nervy adrenaline jangling through your veins. Something as old as Africa, like the loamy earth or the sweat of the Africans walking along the roadside, backs as stiff as cats', their heads loaded with sky-scraping stacks of mielie-meal, crates of chickens, or economy-size Sunflower oil tins slopping water. They passed in an arc of Viewfinder snapshots.
"How come their heads don't get sore?"
"Their heads are very hard," Mom said. "Shhh, keep your voice down. You'll wake Lisa."
She took off her tortoiseshell sunglasses, pursed her lips in the vanity mirror, and reapplied lipstick in anticipation of the journey's end. I leaned over the wicker carry-cot and smoothed the downy hair of my sister, thinking that, though she'd cried so hard for so long that some days it seemed a miracle she found time to draw breath, she still resembled a Pears' Baby Competition winner. But her skin was thin and clammy. I noticed with alarm that my own arm was as blue-white as hers and snatched it away lest my mother see it and comment. "Are you anemic?" grown-ups were always asking me. "Have you been ill?"
A black sign flashed by: GADZEMA.
If there was a town about, it wasn't apparent.
We flew over a narrow bridge and ramped up the other side. Dad had one eye on his watch, and he drove without troubling the brakes, never once slowing for pedestrians or cyclists. Their only warning was a last-minute toot, at which point they'd jerk into life, see they were about to join the kaleidoscope of twitching butterflies on the grille of the car, and fling themselves sideways, trying desperately to maintain their towering loads.
"Errol, please slow down," Mom entreated. "You're going to kill someone."
"For goodness' sake, you people, I'm not going to hit them. What do you take me for? But why must they walk in the middle of the road?"
He bore down on a bicycle. My fingers dug into the seat, trying to stop the car by sheer willpower.
Mom said: "I don't understand why you're driving like a maniac. If we're five minutes late, it won't be the end of the world."
I didn't have to be in the front seat to know that Dad's blue eyes would be turning Cape-of-Good-Hope-in-a-squall gray, and he said through his teeth: "Any minute now, I'm really going to lose my temper. No ways am I going to be late. No ways."
I twisted around. The cyclist was skidding uncontrolled down the gravel incline, bare toes splayed, scrabbling for a foothold. His back was rigid with indignation. He wobbled to a halt on the edge of the bush and turned his head to glare at us, but by then he was just a speck against the green and gold, and the red dust spun up and erased him.
I faced the wavering strips again, but the atmosphere in the car had changed and I was no longer looking or listening. On my lap were my favorite books, their covers faded and scarred. A dozen times over the past year I'd pressed my palm against their pages and wished that the lives of the characters, the pea-soup fogs on smuggler-crowded moors, the starlit beds of heather and bracken, the wild gallops over mountains and deserts, would flow into my fingertips by osmosis. Now I would no longer have to. Now I had the promise of a horse of my own and life on a farm, all in the middle of a war with terrorists.
I widened my window and leaned out into the charged, leathery air. Please, God, I thought, let me be someone who has adventures.
Copyright © 2007 by Lauren St John