Talata picked up the crying Tamboul, ready to carry on with her itinerary to nowhere. As she put the child on her back and proceeded to fasten him with her wrapper which had remained unwashed and unchanged for two weeks running, a bitter chill ran through her, and she knew it was not from the bruising harmattan wind which held sway this morning in the place that had proved her refuge for one more night as countless places had done in the past seven days.
The chill had a familiar provenance and Talata knew it.
She knew it gushed forth from the unsafe knowledge that she had nowhere to go and hunters littered the roads, hunting with ferocity and potency. She had pulled off a great escape; now was the time to consolidate.
She was determined to hold on to the last vestiges of her determination and the very last frays of her shredded linen of her hope, now savagely assailed by the welcome that had worn out. She could feel the eyes of the aged widow who reluctantly gave them shelter, if it could be called that , last night and was now undoubtedly praying they leave and quickly too.
If only she knew, Talata thought. If only she knew of the bounty, she would have laid out a lavish reception for her destitute guests while she fine-tuned preparations for their capture. She did not know and Talata was cautious enough to make things complicated for their pursuers. They would eventually catch up with her but it was better they worked for it.
She dropped to her knees before their one-night benefactress in a symbolic gesture of gratitude and the tears immediately welled in her eyes. They had gathered from a rock of memories prodded open by her knees falling to the floor, but Talata was not ready to let them flow. She took a minute to stanch them and to find her voice. `Thank you, Mama,’ she said. `You saved us from the cold and wild animals last night and we are grateful. But we must be on our way now. Our destination is far and the road ahead of us is a long and difficult one.
`My child,’ began the ancient widow, `Stay here with me. I have no one here. This whole place could belong to you for as long as you desire. I know I do not know where you are coming from or where you are going to but I feel that you need my help and that child on your back needs a normal roof over his head, not the exertions of journey.’
`You gave us rest for a beautiful night that will stay in our minds forever,’ Talata said, her words belying the fact that she had barely shut her eyes even as Tamboul slept peacefully last night. `But we cannot stay here. We are on a journey to somewhere and if we remain here, we might bring you peril. Our pursuers are swift and deadly. If they find us with you, they will neither spare us nor you. So we must go lest your blood becomes the price you pay for harbouring us.’ Talata said, rising and dusting her knees.
The old woman sighed deeply in resignation and defeat, for the stranger standing before her was a mask of a mind made up. `We will be on our way now, Mama,’ Talata said and turned to leave. Time was of the essence.
The old woman mumbled her blessing after the mother and child and looked wistfully at their retreating backs and feet as their departure gathered pace and space. When they were well out of sight, the old woman leaned on her walking cane and let the storm of nostalgia wash over her. If only yesterday could return.
Talata turned a corner behind the old woman`s decrepit house and immediately quickened her steps in a bid to change her stride and inject some alertness and vigilance into her senses. They were crucial to their survival and she was loath to let them remain deadened after being dampened by the old woman`s unexpected hospitality which Talata had found both surprising and reassuring.
All credits to him, Tamboul had developed the habit of slipping into peaceful sleep each time he felt the contours of his mother`s back and even now the child was already drifting into perfect slumber. He would remain like that unless Talata ran too hard with him. Though, barely a year, the prescient child seemed well versed in the difficult labyrinth of survival.
Talata felt the loose end of her inner wrapper and the hard feel of the gourd was greatly refreshing. She knew they still had time and chances to add a few days to their haunted lives. The gourd would ensure that. She slipped the gourd open and with a finger she pried just a trace of the white power to her tongue and it immediately worked its wonders. At once was gone the guise and the theatre that had been set out for the impressionable old woman. They were back in the trenches and no one went into the trenches with the illusion that it were a table of ambrosial delights, lest there be no return.
She walked briskly on a path that now ran through her head like it was imprinted there. She was desperate to connect to the next village and from it to the next and yet to the next. She was determined to put as much distance as she could between herself and her assailants.
She was only half aware that they gathered their own pace and were closing in on her and Tamboul. They were experienced and artful in tracking down escapees, but Talata was a first time trial at the complicated act of escape.
The Chief guard glowered at his men, his expression inscrutable, and the impression on his men unmistakably dark and ominous. Omari felt a shiver skitter across his spine. They were in the cross hairs of an approaching storm and they knew it. The woman and her child had escaped and the hunters sent after them had failed to return with them or to return cheery news.
Omari knew that heads would roll, he was not just sure of the identities of the heads. If the woman and her child were caught, their heads would undoubtedly fall on the slaughter slab in just deserts and as deterrence to would-be escapees. But if they eluded capture, the guards under whose derelict watch they had slinked away as well as the guards whose feet and eyes were not swift or sharp enough to sight and capture them would definitely be considered too incompetent to continue in the band of hunters.
The gathered guards knew it and the absence of those who were on watch on that fateful day, precipitated by the fact that they were in the dungeons and the Chief guard`s glowering eyes sent jitters down their spines. Whether it was among the incarcerated hunters or the itinerant ones, they had friends and mates who were undoubtedly in great peril.
Asiya clung to her beads in her quarters and muttered a prayer for Talata and Tamboul.
It was a thousandth of such prayers and she knew that if they were captured and brought back here to face possible execution, she would question her faith as she had done on that eternally dark night three years ago when her twins, Mahmoud and Miriam died, three months after their conception. She had cursed that night. Now, she was a woman on a different mission though and in spite of her uncommon submission and deference to her husband, she felt greatly repulsed at the human trafficking chain he ran.
It was a literal sale of human beings to fates unknown.
But she knew that though she was his only wife, itself a mark of love as he could have had as many as he desired, he would waste no time in stripping her of her position and privileges if he detected even the faintest hint of her opposition to his trade. So she had to be careful, and careful she was from the moment she had got wind of the birth of a new child among the human cargo from her Chief maid, Sadia. Word had slipped from the unguarded mouth of a guard in a moment of flirtation and Sadia had whispered same to her queen. She was the only one who knew of Asiya’s deep-seated revulsion for the trade and her abundant compassion for the victims. In a moment of raw grief after the twins died, Asiya had denounced human suffering as a whole, letting slip the pathetic fate of prisoners. It was only in Sadia `s hearing anyway, for it was a matter of life and death.
Now, Asiya prayed that the escapees were never returned to Takur. It was a matter of life and death, not just for the mother and child but for her as well. The role she played in aiding their escape must never come to light as she would be doomed. If they were caught and returned, her worst fears would come to life with vengeance.
Tamboul was still soundlessly asleep and as Talata made her way through a fog of thickets, she felt a wash of gratitude. It was as if the child knew the art of survival and was prepared to play along. Since they left the old woman`s, he had been quiescent as if he had been fed sleeping pills. Talata needed him to be if they were to put more distance between the place of their nightmares, their probable hunters and themselves. She knew there were hunters on their trail. It had happened before that Maloul had sent hunters after his escaped victims and they were all caught and returned. Talata could not see that hunters would not be sent. Herself and Tamboul were prize prisoners and they owed their lives and escape to the benevolent Asiya. If they were caught, they would unwittingly imperil her. It was unthinkable and Talata was desperate to ensure that the hunters recorded the first blot in their escutcheon of capturing escaped prisoners. The portent was already there for them to see. Undoubtedly. It had been three days since Talata and Tamboul slipped away in the middle of the night, unseen. No capture had ever taken longer and the more the days went by, the more the hopes of a capture vanished away.
Mariel scribbled the last lines on the last sheet of paper she had and finally dropped the pen. It had been two unbroken hours of intense writing. She stood, kicked the chair back gently and stretched. She grabbed her thermostat flask of coffee and headed outside to look into the beauty of a brightening day. A clutch of armed security men and inspectors huddled under the Baobab tree in a corner of the compound. Most were deeply involved in a game of cards.
Mariel gazed into the rising sun and wistfully thought where she would have been if only the spectre of human trafficking did not blot the landscape of this world and something else had fueled a mission that had become her life`s work. They were on a two-pronged mission to gather information and comb the surrounding areas. Feelers had come to them that a trafficking enclave was near and they were here to map out a strategy. Glenn and Viola were on their way from the Capital, together with Jeanpierre and Marie Assumpta.
Mariel whispered a prayer for the safety of the team. The last time they had been on a collision course with the traffickers, they had lost three team members and Mariel had barely escaped with her life. Only her fight kept her in this work. It was her life. She turned to return inside to get some rest just as the team`s second vehicle whirled into the Compound, spewing a cloud of dust in the process.
The driver sighted Mariel and drove towards the door where she stood smiling. The vehicle stopped there and discarded its cargo. The team immediately high-fived each other while the driver who was also a soldier drove the vehicle away. They shared hugs with Mariel and immediately went into the two-room building where they hoped to put a final gloss on their strategy and head out on the combing mission.
Salik was getting despondent, and try as he did to keep his despondency from seeping into the features and hearts of his men, he knew that time would wear out even his best efforts. It was why they needed a breakthrough really soon to revive their drooping spirits. He quickened his steps and barked out a staccato of orders to his troop of six increasingly weary hunters. They straightened themselves and tried to appear valiant and defiant, yet truth was they were fast losing their vigour and spirit. It had been three days of the search, of makeshift camps, makeshift food and endless uncomfortable interrogation of wary wayfarers and the scant villagers. Just one had admitted seeing a woman fleeing with a child and as their journey continued to produce no fruits, the doubts were beginning to trickle in and the questions rise, raising their hackles; maybe their lone informant was a decoy anyway.
`We should spot them in no time,’ Salik barked. `Of course we cannot afford to return empty handed, lest Maloul beheads all of us. At his use of the name `Maloul’, some of his pack shifted uneasily. It was an abomination to call the dreaded ring leader by his name. It was a taboo that could only be committed away from the jungle. Yet it was eminently courageous of Salik to even do that within earshot, not to talk of in the presence of six men. The weariness of the search had obviously worn away his guard and he had forgotten that walls had ears. There were no walls here, but the winds and trees had ears too.
They quickened their steps.
The Amour Laboure team finalized their plans and rose from their respective chairs, chattering as they filed to the door. They were about to begin their mission to comb the surrounding bushes and put out feelers for any signs of human traffickers or their victims. It was a mission riddled with danger and the loss of three team members last year was a constant reminder of the perils they faced, yet there was no going back. The nondescript Rubicon had been defined and crossed irreversibly a year ago, when Scholastica, the last of the mortally wounded team members had breathed her last. The sacrifice of Dave, Serge and Scholastica had been the galvanizing force their then-fledgling mission needed. Since then, they had made rescues of over a hundred victims. Some in very dramatic circumstances.
Dave whistled to the team of security personnel and the game of cards ended abruptly. The men rose at once, and picking their rifles, began to walk towards the team`s two cars. The team also moved as one to the cars. While Mariel, Jeanpierre and Marie Assumpta, together with three soldiers piled into one of the vehicles, Glen, Viola and the remaining soldiers got into the other. They set out. In spite of the probable peril, they felt the tickle of excitement. Rescuing was their life and a triumph usually kept their spirits high for a very long time.
Talata was tired and in spite of her best efforts, she knew she needed a rest. The sun was high up in the sky and the usually quiescent Tamboul had stirred on two occasions and she knew the boy was getting increasingly restless. Sweat made her body gummy and hunger clawed at her innards. She had had a mouthful of wild fruits but they had provided no satiety. She was out in the wild and though convinced she was headed in the right direction to a place where she had heard was a rescue mission long before she fell victim, she knew there were enemies on her trail and the endless possibilities of running into the jaws of danger. However, her heart held little fear. Her father always told her and her siblings before he died that ‘slavery is the spawn of fear’. Father had taught all of them to live without fear. Fearlessness had driven her far and was about to rescue her and Tamboul from a nightmare. There was still some distance to go and a gap of danger, but she knew fear was the dark debris that filled that gap and she was unwilling to become the victim of its spawn.
She sighted a huge tree which was surrounded by a thicket, but had roots and stumps around which the ground was clear and the shades generous. She immediately walked to it and loosened her wrapper`s hold on Tamboul. Pulling the child into her arms and bosom, she let herself down and cuddled her child. Looking into his eyes, she thought she saw determination and something else: Tamboul was getting sick. She kissed his forehead. His temperature was rising.
The increasingly exhausted and exasperated pack trudged along wearily. Defiance was the only fuel they ran on. This search was a matter of survival for them. Salik was sensing a mutiny but he knew it was still a distant possibility. Not only could he punish it swiftly and rather mercifully with an execution, he had the other option of bundling the mutineer to Taruk to face Maloul`s dreaded justice. He felt the incipience of a smile but quickly smothered it. They were on a hunt that was gradually proving to be a wild goose chase and there was nothing to smile about.
The two cars drove into the bush with increasing acceleration. About a year ago, local scouts had helped with the clearing of the spot from where their combing would begin. A devastating case of tens of dehydrated and starving people in the bushes as they escaped from their trafficker-captors had transformed the modality of their search. They had begun the complex routine of combing bushes. Their onerous efforts had met remarkable, heart-wrenching success. They stopped the vehicles and all trooped out .They were to leave in two groups, in different directions, the smaller group protected by the most soldiers. A soldier was to stay behind and watch the vehicles. They started out. Two teams heading in different directions.
Talata felt sufficiently rested. A well-breastfed Tamboul had slept off, clutching a strand of his mother`s long hair. It was time to go. She pulled herself off the ground and put Tamboul on her back. She tied him in place and continued on her journey.
It was something.
Salik was convinced.
It was still only a speck in the distance but his practiced eye was so experienced in such situations that it left only very little margin for error.
He whispered harshly to the troops and their sagging shoulders immediately straightened to attention.
`I can pick out movement and people in the distance. My take is that it is either our quarry and her child or some other people hostile to our search. We must ambush them. Now, easy. We are on the cusp of something big,’ Talik said.
Talata felt it in her heart. It was an eerily familiar feeling of approaching danger. The sudden amplified senses of a prey in the crosshairs of a predator. She ducked behind a tree and tried to hold her breath. Her heart was racing.
She peered around, trying to get a good view of all directions. Then she saw them.
Three gun-wielding men first, in outfits that looked like uniforms. Talata knew because she had seen similar attire when she had a village and a normal life. There were three unarmed people with the soldiers. One man and two women. They each had a camera around their necks, and one of the women clutched what seemed like a metal Box.
The armed men were on high alert and Talata knew they were on a search for something. They did not look like enemies. At least the woman with them did not look like a captive; neither did their features give away the unmistakable menace lurking in human predators that a human prey could sense in the throes of danger. If anything, they looked like searchers in search of treasures.
If only she knew they were indeed searchers in search of priceless living treasures assailed by the dark evils of human trafficking.
She thought of whether to approach them, and if yes, the best way to do it. She knew she could elude them, but she was also certain that there were others not far away. It would have been foolhardy of this team of six to venture into these terrain alone.
`Shhhhh,’ whispered Talik harshly, silencing two of his men who were making a bit of chatter. `I can now see them clear. We must take them from behind or we would all be dead meat if they get to us first. Now fan out into these bushes. Be careful, do not give us away.’
It all happened in a moment of deadly fire. One of the five soldiers escorting Glen and Viola spotted an armed local hiding in the bushes and trying to circle them. He immediately gave orders for his team to take cover. It was abrupt. It had been part of their safety training.
It was also a trigger for it gave the local away as an enemy because he panicked, surprised at having been spotted and abruptly tried to open fire. He was too late. The soldier who had spotted him took him out with a single shot and since the ambush was foiled, Talik and the others opened fire too, trying to take out any one in sight.
But they with their rusty tactics and inferior weapons were no match for the better trained soldiers and in a matter of minutes, five of the six guards had been cut down. In their covers, Glen and Viola huddled close to each other, the events of two years ago spiraling in their memories.
The gunshot jolted Talata out of her indecision and galvanized the last grains of her choice. She decided to put her life and Tamboul`s life in the hands of this team. She began to duck out of the trees, but the team was already taking off, the soldiers in front, running towards the gunshots. The four soldiers were in the lead and the unarmed man and women brought up the rear.
Talata took her chance.
Ducking out from behind the tree, she ran, immediately waking Tamboul.
`Help me!’ She cried, raising her hands. `Please help me’
The man and the women behind stopped first and turned. The soldiers stopped too, alarm and alert crossing their faces. Then one of the soldiers looked at Talata with a practiced eye and took up her immediate surroundings, even from a distance. Rapidly, he took the lead and began to walk towards the mother and child. The other team members fell in behind him, the soldiers all with their guns at the ready.
Mariel knew it and she knew the others knew it too. In spite of the extraordinary circumstances of the past few minutes and the unknown fate of the other team, she felt an exhilaration that only a rescue could give.
They drew closer to the team and while the soldiers stood closely examining the woman, Mariel stepped ahead of them and walked behind the woman to peer into the face of the child.
She thought she saw a smile there.
Wordlessly, she took the woman’s hand and turned. The soldiers and the other team members had already turned and were running. They did not care if the woman was a trap; all they could see and hear at that moment were a woman who held a baby on her back and the gunshots which carried death in their joules.
Their attackers had been gunned down and in spite of the fact that one of the soldiers had taken a hit in his leg, he was holding up well and the team had no doubt they had cut down the size of the traffickers by a number.
Glenn gazed at the lone guard who was still alive. He seemed the leader of the guards. He had been caught in the thigh and in the leg and lay paralysed, writhing in pain. Perhaps he would live to divulge crucial information to them, Glenn thought.
The soldiers, Mariel, Talata who still had Tamboul on her back, JeanPierre and Marie Assumpta ran towards the sounds of the gun shots and even from a distance, relief washed over them as they could make out their team. Relief soon turned to concern when they saw one of their soldiers on the ground, clutching his leg with another soldier trying to stanch the bleeding. They drew nearer and the carnage was before their eyes.
From the corner of his eyes, Talik saw her and wished he never did. Talata and Tamboul! Alive and with the killers of his men! If only he had known, he would have killed her the day he forcefully claimed her.
Talata`s eyes moved from one dead face to the other, tears glistening in her eyes. They had been after her, there was no doubt. When her gaze rested on Talik and his eyes opened for a moment from a face contorted in pains, fury rose in her like a sea wave.
He was the monster who had raped her and fathered Tamboul. But she was determined to raise Tamboul in love and with love. She felt her fists tightening and the tears filling her eyes.
Mariel had been in such moments before and she knew they defied words no matter how heavy.
She walked closer to the woman whose shoulders were beginning to shake from sobs. She took her hand and gently squeezed them. The woman looked at Mariel, tears cascading down her cheeks.
`Look at him no more’ Mariel said. `Feel your eyes. They glint even in tears. They glisten at the vista of a new life for you and your child.’
Image: Pixabay.com remixed