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Excerpt: Francesca

January 11, 2014

BetimesBooksNow

1

The shooting finally stopped. It was a miracle she had not been struck by any of the bullets ricocheting around the house. Not that she believed in miracles any more. Chances were she had survived only to be saved for something worse around the corner. But she did know she wasn’t waiting for them to come back.

How long she remained as she was, tucked in a foetal ball, she wasn’t aware, but eventually she summoned up the strength to move. Her mother’s body had taken several bullets in and around her abdomen, and Francesca could feel the sticky warm blood trickling up against her back. It took her several minutes to raise herself to her hands and knees. Each movement sent stabs of agony through her wounded internal organs; combined with the pain was an overwhelming nausea. Part of her wanted to curl up and die, but a stronger, more elemental side to her was already planning what to do next. She managed to stagger to her feet and find a towel from the kitchen. There was some water in the kettle, and slowly she began cleaning herself off as best she could. It was painful, but she forced herself to concentrate on the single task ahead of her, willing herself oblivious to the corpses around her and the sound of sporadic gunfire from outside. When she had finished, she went over to the chest and picked out some clothes to wear. She chose the most shapeless garments she could find, an old pair of tracksuit trousers, a pair of tatty gym shoes and one of Marco’s football jerseys. She had to travel light, she knew.

Every movement hurt, but walking was particularly excruciating. If she thought about what had happened to her she became paralysed, reduced to a piece of meat that had been used, abused and spat out. So she didn’t think about it, relying instead on the irrational will to live driving her forward. She wanted to tend to the bodies of her family spread out in their gruesome death poses, only she lacked the strength to do so. A line from the Bible popped out at her, Jesus’ admonishment to the living to “let the dead bury the dead”, and she realised she didn’t want to touch the bodies at all. She simply felt she ought to. The imperative right now was to get out of the house before the soldiers realised they’d forgotten the TV and the radio and returned for their loot, or a fresh platoon appeared on the scene for another round of hell.

She stripped the beds of their sheets and covered each body, hoping that some neighbour would eventually come along and see to a decent burial before any dogs managed to break their way in. She was about to cross herself and pray for absolution of their souls when she checked herself. Instead, she piled her long hair on top of her head and stuffed it under one of Antonio’s baseball caps. If she stooped and shuffled along, not too difficult given her current physical condition, passing soldiers might mistake her for a harmless old peasant.

Finally, she packed half a loaf of bread, some bananas and a bottle of water into a canvas shoulder bag and prepared to set off. The last thing she felt like doing was eating, but she knew she would be hungry later. She was astonished at herself, at how the calculating, survival orientated part of her brain had muscled in to cauterise her emotions, forcing her to apply clear logic and animal cunning to her situation. She hobbled back into the main room, past the shrouds, already bloodstained, to the door. Amazingly, it was still on its hinges. She cracked it open and peeped outside, adjusting her eyes to the early morning light. She could hear machine gun fire from the harbour, and also from the direction of the town square, but her own street seemed deserted. Where was everybody? Were they huddled inside their houses, terrified to go out while this firestorm passed over them? Were they dead, butchered in their homes like her own kin, or had they been rounded up and taken somewhere? How many of them had escaped while they still could and made for the Falintil lines before the Indonesian paratroopers had dropped in? She doubted very many. Like her father, they probably hadn’t been able to conceive how awful things could get, or how barbaric the Indonesian soldiers would be. In their optimism they had set themselves up for their end, so all the Indonesians had to do was pull their triggers. Too late, she wished now that she had run off and joined a Falintil group. At least there was some dignity in going down fighting, taking some of the bastards with her instead of huddling down at home unable to resist as they pulled her from limb to limb, each mocking taunt degrading her yet another notch, until all vestige of humanity was torn from her. So, she was an animal now, and if she was an animal, she had to think like one to plan her own escape.

Her thoughts turned to Baby Angelica, now the sole surviving member of her family, if indeed she was still alive at all, and she felt a sharp wrench of grief. She wanted to chase after her, to track down this first aid tent the officer had ordered her to be taken to. She wondered how disciplined the Indonesian army was, and whether the soldiers would actually obey an order given by a junior officer. But she could hardly wander up to the Indonesian rear lines and ask if anyone had seen a baby she was looking to claim. She could only rely on the faint prospect that some spark of humanity still resided somewhere in an Indonesian heart. She certainly didn’t trust God to protect her baby sister. His existence was likely limited to the pathetic imaginations of the nuns who had indoctrinated her with their teachings.

Think like an animal. Where should she head? The obvious, natural answer was to run for the mountains like everyone else, and hope to hook up with a Fretilin or Falintil patrol. But would they be able to provide any shelter, or would their very presence attract the Indonesians in greater number, with correspondingly greater savagery? She knew, like she had never known before, the bitter fiction of safety in numbers. She had to be smarter, stay one step ahead. Quickly she padded down the same steps she had walked up without a care in the world less than twenty four hours earlier, crouched under the porch with her canvass bag, and examined her options.

The gunfire from the square and the harbour was intensifying, and it had an almost musical rhythm to it: silence, followed by a sharp burst, followed by silence, before another burst. It didn’t sound like an exchange between two positions, more the start stop start stop of a percussion solo. She very much doubted whether there were any Timorese forces remaining in the town centre. If she walked straight into it, there was every chance she too would be sucked into the grisly massacre again. On the other hand, it was the last move anyone would expect someone in her position to make, and hence it possibly became the right thing to do. It was also the last place anyone would think of looking for her. Everyone, from the Indonesian army to Fretilin, would assume any stragglers would run south. Now she had been left alone her best chance was to remain alone. So long as she could steer clear of marauding patrols, the safest place for her might well be behind Indonesian lines, where the soldiers weren’t expecting any resistance because they had crushed it all.

There was another, deeper reason why she was reluctant to follow the tide of refugees into the mountains. These were her people, and how could she look them in the eye after what had happened? Even if she said nothing they would know, they would know because similar things had most likely happened to many of them. They would become a stigmatised group of victims, untouchable objects of pity, but untouchable none the less. No Timorese man could possibly want her now, and whilst the thought of any man, Timorese or otherwise, being inside her ever again made her shudder, she had no wish to be an outcast amongst her own people. If she was to live, it would have to be somewhere else, some place where no one had seen or knew of what had just happened . Maybe then she, too, could wipe the slate clean, eradicate the nightmare of the past day. It was a long shot, she knew, but she also knew it was her only shot. Suddenly, she was filled with a sense of gratitude for the first time since the Indonesian artillery bombardment had begun; grateful for her passion for languages and the curiosity that had led her to learn not just the usual smattering of Portuguese, but conversational English on top of the Bahasa she’d picked up from the Chinese coffee traders over by the waterfront. She knew she’d never be able to pass herself off as an Indonesian, whatever that meant these days, but she knew enough of the dialect to understand what people were saying around her, and that alone might be sufficient to keep her alive.

She was decided. She would make for the waterfront, keeping in the shadows between and underneath the houses. She didn’t have a plan beyond that, although she was vaguely aware of the pull of the sea, as if somehow its purifying powers could cleanse the abomination her poor battered body had endured.

Checking for soldiers, she set off along the street. With her awkward gait and instinctive caution, progress was slow. She took the back streets, avoiding the main thoroughfares where troops were most likely to be combing through houses. Halfway down the street adjacent to hers a kampong dog, its curled tail high up in the air, stood in the middle of the road gorging on a corpse whose entrails had been ripped open by machine gun fire. Pieces of flesh flicked out from the dog’s greedy mouth and when it glanced up at her she saw its entire snout was covered in bright red gore. The dog stared her down, reluctant to abandon such a feast. Enraged, Francesca reached down, picked up a stone from the gutter and hurled it at the animal as hard as she could. The stone struck the beast square on the shoulders and it jumped with a sharp yelp, scurrying away from the corpse as Francesca reached for another stone. It was a futile symbolic gesture, she knew, the dog would return to finish off its grisly meal the moment she was gone, but she had needed to do something to take a stand against the horror unfolding all around her.

She continued her shuffle in a broad northerly direction through the routes she knew so well. There was an eerie quiet to these normally bustling back alley ways and side streets. Shops were either boarded up or spilt open, their contents looted by the invaders who could only carry so much and had discarded the rest. Where were all the inhabitants? The machine guns had kept up their sporadic firing ever since she had left her house, presumably shooting at someone. She wanted to bang on the shutters to see if anyone was inside, to find out what was going on, but she knew she couldn’t.

Eventually, she reached an alleyway that led out onto the harbour and she stopped, her heart racing in terror. An Indonesian platoon was directly in front of her, less than fifty yards away, marching at double time to the command of an NCO jogging along at the side. Rifles were shouldered, as the troops struggled to keep up the pace whilst hauling their bulky packs. Darting under a set of wooden steps, Francesca waited for the soldiers to pass, convinced she would be spotted. She tucked her head under her arms and crouched herself into a ball, desperately making herself as inconspicuous as possible, even though the stance was agony for her injured body. She heard the steady rhythm of the platoon as it pounded by almost on top of her, two dozen pairs of rubber soled boots slamming down on the dusty road overlaid by the metallic rattle of loose magazines and mess tins. So this was what invasion sounded like, this was what it meant to be embraced into the fold of mother Indonesia. Her thoughts turned to her own mother, and tears welled up from her heart. Perhaps she was looking over Francesca right now, guiding her hand, willing her to make good decisions, seeing her through to safety. Out of habit, she fingered the tiny silver crucifix around her neck, astonished now she thought of it that none of the soldiers had seen to rip it from her throat. She would keep it as a talisman, the only touchstone she had in a world gone crazy.

Think, girl, think, she admonished herself. They’ve all abandoned you now. She tucked the crucifix back inside her shirt and looked up through the slats of the stairs. The soldiers had moved on, for now there didn’t seem to be any more. She remained still for three or four minutes more, then darted out from under the steps to a house three doors down. She took up a similar hiding place under the steps, from where she could see the harbour.

Suddenly, the sporadic machine gun fire made sense, consistent with all she had witnessed so far during this excursion into hell. A heavy machine gun had been set up on the wharf pointing out to sea, a long ammunition belt snaking out of the side into a large tin below. Two soldiers were operating the weapon, one firing while the other fed the belt into the mechanism. For now they stood casually around the gun smoking and kicking the occasional spent cartridge into the sea. While they chatted, two other soldiers led a group of a dozen Timorese Chinese up along the jetty, occasionally prodding one with their rifles, until the men (she could see they were all men, from kids barely out of their teens to grandfathers) were standing in line at the end of the wharf, facing out towards the sea. The soldiers then withdrew to behind the machine gun, and the gun burst into life.

From her hiding place under the steps the condemned men looked like toy soldiers being knocked down at the end of a childish game. The bullets ripped through the bodies, each hit whipping its victim off his feet before continuing its trajectory to splash into the sparkling sea with a pop of white foam. The massacre was over in seconds. She watched the machine gunner don a pair of gloves and remove the barrel from the gun, replacing it with another he had resting at his feet. He turned to exchange a few words with his comrade, his face animated by the power temporarily handed to him.

Already, Francesca could see, more soldiers had a fresh group of victims waiting to be escorted to the execution point. Suddenly, she put her hand up to her mouth to suppress an involuntary cry of horror. Fourth from the left, stooped in silence, staring at his feet stood Miguel. He had lost his glasses, presumably not wanting to be identified as an intellectual, but it was definitely him.

She knew then that it really was all over. She couldn’t watch any more. Crouching into the darkest recesses of her hiding place, she tried to close her ears to the next burst of machine gun fire, then shut her eyes. This time there were no dreams of walking hand in hand with Miguel along the beach, just a blessed nothingness. Oblivion.

It seemed like she had closed her eyes no more than a minute or two, but it must have been hours for when she woke the sun was high in the sky. The steps, which had been in dark shadow when she crawled under them, were now exposed in bright daylight. She squinted against the glare and rubbed the dust from her eyes, looking up as she remembered with a dull sense of dread where she was. Oblivion had been a blessing, and for the first time she envied her fellow citizens who wouldn’t have to wake up again and face a fresh round of horror.

Because she had been discovered. Standing above her was a middle-aged man, smoking a cigarette and observing her as an object of curiosity.  He wasn’t a local: he had that Javanese look to his eyes and his stance bore the casual confidence of the victorious invader. He wasn’t crouched in fear or bothering to hide himself from the soldiers, yet neither was he dressed in uniform. From her position on the ground she could see a pair of oil-stained training shoes, giving out to a pair of dark blue and equally besmirched trousers. On top he wore an open-necked white shirt and a pair of sunglasses.

“Good day, my little sleeping beauty,” he began with a smile.

She turned her head towards him and looked up suspiciously.

“Who are you?” she replied in Bahasa.

“Hasan Budiarko is my name. And you are?”

She looked at him guardedly. He seemed friendly enough, but she had learned never again to take a smile at face value. “I used to live here,” she said simply.

“Well, you don’t want to be walking around the streets now. It’s not safe.”

She gave him a look which he must have interpreted as contempt, for he softened his jovial façade and reached down, ignoring her flinch, which she realised was a type of movement you’d expect from a cornered dog used to beatings..

“Do you have a name?” he asked kindly.

“Why should I tell you?”

“Because I can help you.”

“I don’t need your help. Or anyone’s.”

To her surprise, he didn’t rise to her hostility. Instead, he reached a hand out to her to help her onto her feet. She felt wobbly, her bruises aching all the more for the rest she had given them.

Around them the firing had stopped, the wharf was clear of bodies and the machine gun crew were gone. Instead the harbour was now full of boats, boats of every size from large naval ships to small fishing boats and cargo tramps. There was still sporadic gunfire in the distance, while nearby soldiers oversaw motorcycles, TVs and bicycles being loaded on to other vessels.

“Come with me,” he said simply, and for some reason she didn’t understand, she took his hand. She stood up, holding her bag with her free hand, and gave him a closer look. His face, though weather-beaten, seemed kindly enough, certainly not the face of a murderer or a rapist.

“Who are you?” she asked again.

“I told you, my name is Hasan.”

“Yes, I know that, but what are you doing here?”

“I’m just a passing through on a job.”

“Are you with the Indonesian army?”

He let out a little laugh. “Do I look like a soldier?”

She looked at him guardedly. “Not especially,” she replied after a moment’s thought.

“I don’t think the Indonesian army would have much use for someone like me in their ranks.”

“Then is it safe for you to be out on these streets?” she asked.  “They are killing everyone, you know.”

“I know,” he said quietly, and she could see the sorrow in his eyes. “But they won’t hurt me, and if you are with me, they won’t hurt you either.”

“Where are we going?”

“Away from here.”

“How far away?”

“Oh, a long way. Is that alright with you?”

“I have nothing left here,” she said, and hobbled alongside Hasan, trying to keep up with his jaunty pace as he sauntered towards the harbour.

ENDS

To order Francesca click here.

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