The Commander by Steve DuBois
by Steve DuBois
It was all in pieces. The bits of Fabrice’s weapon were arrayed before him, cleaned and oiled and ready for assembly, each component glinting dully under the tropical sun. But his stomach was growling with hunger, and the buzzing of the flies on the riverbank matched the buzzing in his head, and as he stared down at the pieces, he could not for the life of him remember how to put them back together again.
He had been taught how to perform the task. The months—years, now?—under Sergeant Muteba’s leadership had taught Fabrice, and the other boys, a great deal. How to assemble and disassemble a weapon. How to scrounge for food in the unlikeliest places, and when necessary, how to make a meal of grubs and grass. The boys had been taught how to hold their nerve when the air filled with screams and hot metal, and when the enemy charged them across the broken fields, bayonets fixed and eyes wild with bloodlust, and how to swallow their fear and raise their rifles and squeeze the trigger, not pull it but squeeze it, yes, just so, and how to watch the light go out in the enemy’s eyes; and how to think that this was a good thing, yes, a thing well done. They had been taught how to hold to the line next to one another. And on those occasions when the line collapsed, they had been taught how to bury one another. And how also to bury that other life they’d lived, in those now-extinct towns and villages, so long ago. Yes, that above all. The boys had been taught to forget. And now, sure enough, Fabrice had forgotten.
Your weapon is your life, Muteba had shouted at the boys, morning after morning, and here was Fabrice’s life, in pieces before him. There was the spring, the bolt, the bolt carrier. There was the receiver, the dust cover, the gas tube. He had taken them apart and put them together a hundred times, but his head spun and today he could not make them fit. Last night’s supper had been only a handful of cassava, and he had given his portion away to Sony, who had been so exhausted after the twenty-kilo hike into the highlands that it had looked like he might never again be able to stand. Perhaps it had done some good, for Sony had risen again the next morning and had joined the column. Sony was several boys down the line from him now, sitting cross-legged on the riverbank, reassembling his own weapon. Muteba was coming back up the ranks, fixing each boy in turn in his yellow-eyed glare, and it seemed to Fabrice that Sony was doing well, considering. But Fabrice’s own head spun with hunger, and he could not make the pieces fit. He will beat me, Fabrice thought, and I am in no shape to take another beating. He will kill me, and there will be no one left to shield the other boys from him. Eshele, who loves books ... Malaba, who talks of nothing but girls ... Gaussou, who plays the consummate soldier and shouts his love for war, but who is kind enough when he thinks no one is watching. Even Kama, with his red eyes and white skin, who is the most obvious target in every engagement but who never, ever gets shot, who says he cannot die, because he is a ghost already. They will put me in the ground, and they will move on, but there will be no one to protect them from Muteba.
Fabrice fumbled with the spring, his hands shaking, and sought to thread it clumsily around the bolt. And that was when he heard the voice. “No, boy!” it said. “This is not how it is done.”
Fabrice looked up. The voice had been that of a full-grown man, rich and booming, full of weight and purpose. It was the voice of one who, unlike Muteba, felt no need to shout. Yet when Fabrice looked up, there was no man present. Only the boys, cross-legged on the ground, and Muteba, more beast than man, working his way up the line.
“Look at all the pieces before you,” said the voice, not unkindly. Fabrice looked down, and all the parts were there. “It is a complex task, for one as young as you. A monumental task, even. Like eating an elephant.” There was a loud smack and a cry from down the line; Muteba was disciplining one of the smaller boys for some trivial fault. “Tell me, Fabrice, how does one eat an elephant?”
Fabrice looked up again. There was no man there. The other boys were playing a cruel joke on him, but who among them could pull it off? Who had such a voice? “I ...,” he began. “I don’t ....”
“One bite at a time,” said the voice. “One eats an elephant one bite at a time. Here. Allow me to assist you.”
Fabrice looked down. There was no act of will on his part; instead, he saw his hands go to work of their own accord. There was none of his boyish clumsiness in them; they did not shake with hunger or fumble with the gun’s components. Every action was strong, sure, and entirely outside of his control. The small end of the bolt slid into the bolt carrier, rotating counter-clockwise to seal with a click. The end of the bolt carrier group then matched up with the hole in the gas piston chamber, notches and openings aligning. As he watched, his hand pushed the carrier down and slid it into place. Next, the spring slid into the rear opening of the bolt carrier group ... and Fabrice was suddenly reminded of an evening in Muteba’s tent, the Sergeant drunk on lotoko mash and calling out to him, beckoning him closer, his face leering, his voice full of false cheer, his belt undone. Fabrice struggled to forget what had followed—but all the while, his hands never paused in their task. The rear end of the spring was already aligned with the notch in the receiver, and his hands had folded the rear sight forward; the front end of the dust cover was in place, and as his hands pressed down it shut with a snap.
“One bite at a time,” the voice repeated, and the strength and surety faded from Fabrice’s hands; they were once again his own, the hands of a boy, not of a man. Muteba was before him now, staring down yellow-eyed at Fabrice’s reassembled weapon; Fabrice stared steadily at the ground. “I will not countenance eye contact,” Muteba says. Do not look up at him. You know what will follow if you do. At length, out of the corner of his eye, Fabrice saw the older man nod sternly, then proceed to the next boy.
Muteba had told them, many times, not to look directly at him. He had also told them not to talk. “I will not countenance discussion in my presence,” Muteba said. “When you are alone with one another, you may be boys. But in my presence, I countenance only soldiers.” So why am I not being punished? Did Muteba not hear the voice?
“Of course he cannot hear me,” said the voice, as if in answer. “Nor can the other boys. Only you can hear me, Fabrice. For it is you whom I have chosen.”
“Who ... who are you?” Fabrice whispered. “Are you a demon? And for what have I been chosen? Will you steal my soul?”
There was a brief silence. “No, Fabrice,” said the voice. “I am not a demon. Though some might say I once was one. And though your soul is of interest to me, I am not here to attain it for my own purposes. Who am I? I once had a name, though I scarce remember it. But you and the other boys are soldiers, no? A soldier has no name. A soldier has only a rank. Therefore,” the voice concluded, “let us call me the Commander.”
* * *
It was another engagement. There were no battles in Sergeant Muteba’s world, only “engagements.” Battles were things to be feared. Sergeant Muteba did not countenance fear. Battles were said to be glorious, and these things that happened to them every few days were not glorious in the least. So, yes. Engagements, not battles. Just so.
The routine was well-established. They hunted and tracked the rebels through the bush, or the rebels hunted and tracked them. Sooner or later, they came upon one another, and there followed a sputtering, flickering mess, devoid of tactics or strategy. The boys and their enemies dove behind logs or into ditches; they took turns spraying bullets randomly into the opposite foliage in the hope that someone would pop their head up at the wrong time. Muteba, leading as always from the rear, would scream at them to advance; occasionally one of the new boys would heed him and, invariably, would be scythed down. The long-termers, survivors such as Fabrice, knew that to obey the order was to die, but to ignore it and pretend not to have heard was acceptable. The Sergeant could not live with the shame of being disobeyed, so if everyone disobeyed, he had to pretend never to have given the order at all. Eventually one side or the other would grow tired of the fiasco and retreat. Then it would be time to bury the bodies—men, occasionally, but usually the corpses on the other end of the fight were those of boys no older than themselves. The men of the nation had long since been used up. And then would come night, and Muteba would cook up the lotoko mash, and whatever boy had fought best in Muteba’s eyes would be “invited” to share it, and to share the Sergeant’s tent as well.
It was better not to fight too well. Better to keep your head down. And best of all, perhaps, would have been not to fight at all. But that was not an option, and with Muteba at the rear, any boy who fled would be shot down with the sergeant’s own weapon.
They fought the rebels over anything or over nothing. Today they were fighting over a forest clearing. The rebels were hunkered down in the opposite trees, which extended rightwards up a gentle slope to a low bluff that commanded the whole battlefield. Fabrice and his comrades were ensconced behind a low rise in the tall grass on the other end of the clearing. It was gradually becoming clear, however, that there was something different about today’s enemies; there was a pattern in the bursts from their guns, evidence of a plan, of sorts. Fabrice would have scented the danger even if the voice of the Commander had not suddenly emerged from nowhere. “Fabrice,” it told him, “they are trying to outflank you.”
Fabrice snuck a quick glance over the rise. It was true; there had been distinct movement in the trees off to the center-right. The enemy was seeking to gain a position on the bluff; if they gained it, they could pour enfilade fire into Muteba’s boys, attacking both from the side and from an angle above, rendering their cover useless. They would be massacred.
Muteba was, as always, screaming at them to advance. That would be even more suicidal than usual, Fabrice thought. Advancing a flanked position will leave us entirely surrounded. “What can I do?” Fabrice whispered. “I cannot retreat. I cannot advance, and I cannot stay where I am.”
“Think, boy!” The sonorous tones of the Commander’s voice were somehow clearly audible even over the pop and crackle of the rifle fire. “They seek the bluff. Their attention will be directed at your current position. Prepare properly, and you may pay them back in their own coin.”
Fabrice swallowed and nodded. The next bit would be the hardest part, but if he could carry it off, he would save the whole platoon. That is, if I can survive Muteba ....
Fabrice desperately crawled backwards behind the rise; then, protected from the enemy by the sloping ground in front of him, he popped up into a crouch and raced off to the right at a dead sprint. He heard the Sergeant shouting behind him, heard the hum of bullets close behind as Muteba fired at him, but he managed to dodge and roll into a hollow beside Sony and Pierre, one of the new boys. Pierre’s eyes were wide, his rifle preposterously huge in his tiny hands; he had been the youngest boy taken on the latest “recruiting drive,” and was in truth too young even for this battalion. It had taken all of Fabrice’s persuasive powers to persuade Muteba to take him on as a soldier rather than to throw him into the burning hut beside his parents.
Quickly, Fabrice explained his plan. He would require covering fire from two directions—one boy would have to hold off the enemy, one would have to hold off their own sergeant. They nodded agreement, and then Fabrice was off again, like a shot, into the trees to the right, the roar and crackle of gunfire behind him.
Slow and silent, Fabrice worked his way deep into the woods, then circled back left. By the time he arrived at the clearing, the bluff now directly in front of him, three of the enemy had already gained command of its heights. They were preparing to pour fire down upon Fabrice’s comrades. But it was as the Commander had foreseen. They were used to fighting pigheaded, straight-ahead types like Muteba. It had never occurred to them to think that someone might see them coming and prepare a surprise of his own.
Fabrice raised his weapon to his shoulder. The first shot took one of the enemy, a full-grown man with the look of hard-won experience, cleanly in the back of the head. The second, a man with skin so black it was almost purple in the afternoon light, turned just in time to catch the remainder of the burst full in the chest.
The third man was no man at all; just a boy, no older than Fabrice himself, his skin sallow and pitted with acne. His eyes were wide with terror, his weapon lowered; he knew he was done for. Fabrice raised his rifle again ...
... and suddenly, for the second time, his hands were not his own. He had intended to put a shot cleanly through the boy’s forehead, but instead, his burst went skyward. The boy before him screamed, dropped his rifle, and ran, disappearing down the bluff and into the trees beyond.
Fabrice was livid. “Why?” he growled in a hoarse whisper. “They were the enemy! They wanted to kill us! They deserved to die!”
This time, the voice of the Commander was sad. “Fabrice,” it intoned, “the first two deaths were necessary, to save your friends, but they were not deserved. No one in this war, save those who perpetrate and profit by it, deserves to die. And the third boy ... his death was neither deserved nor necessary.”
Fabrice scowled and kicked a stone into the underbrush. “I fear, Fabrice, that you have seen too much death. I fear that you have grown too used to it, that you have grown a callus on your soul. Yet I have also seen you show mercy and wisdom. You, of all these boys, are the only one who can ...”
The voice cut short as, suddenly, Muteba came racing out of the undergrowth and onto the bluff, followed by most of the other boys. “COWARD!” he roared. “TRAITOR! YOU HAVE DENIED US ....” He suddenly stopped short, staring like a stupid ox at the two corpses on the hilltop, and at the still-smoking barrel of Fabrice’s rifle. And slowly, very slowly, a smile spread across his face as he realized exactly how close he had come to disaster, and exactly how that disaster had been prevented.
“Ah!” He shouted with sudden discovery. And then again, “Ah! A cunning stratagem, to be sure! An advance against the enemy, just as I ordered!” Muteba raised a warning finger to the other boys, who all averted their eyes at his yellow glare. “Did I not order you? And here, finally, is a soldier who takes orders!” He suddenly surged towards Fabrice and ensnared him in a monstrous bear hug, laughing wildly; Fabrice fixed his own eyes on the center of the big man’s chest, smothered under his attentions. “I am a commander who will always countenance cunning and bravery! And Fabrice is cunning and brave, indeed!”
With one of the sergeant’s arms still around him, Fabrice was whirled around to face the rest of the company. “A cheer for Fabrice!” The other boys raised their rifles in a ragged cheer, but Fabrice never saw them. His eyes were fixed on two figures in the distance, their backs turned, dragging two corpses towards the assembled battalion. Even from afar, Fabrice could recognize the bodies—Sony and Pierre, each riddled with bullets. Perhaps the bullets of the enemy, perhaps the bullets of Muteba and their comrades; who could say? And from a glance at the eyes of the boys around him, Fabrice knew that they would not say what role they might have played in the deaths of the two boys who had watched his back, that they were already forgetting.
We have all become so good at forgetting.
The entrenching tools were already out, digging a pair of shallow ditches, but Fabrice was being half-dragged back to camp, Muteba’s arm tight around his shoulders. “This calls for a celebration, don’t you think? Yes, certainly! Let’s have a drink, you and I, my brave boy ...”
* * *
Night had fallen. The firelight glistened off of Muteba’s bare, brawny, scarred torso. Fabrice sat before him, eyes averted, as the sergeant scooped up yet another cup of lotoko from the basin. There were cobs floating in it, which meant that this would be a blind-drunk; tomorrow, the sergeant would barely be able to see. Fabrice could empathize. He had his own worries about seeing tomorrow.
“Command is a lonely burden, my boy, and a heavy one.” He offered the cup to Fabrice, who shook his head, his eyes downcast. The big man shrugged and raised it to his own lips for a long gulp, then continued. “No man who has not picked up the burden can know its weight. No man can know the pain I feel at the loss of each man under my protection. Did you know that, Fabrice? Did you know that I feel these losses? You can look at me, you know. You have earned the privilege. I will countenance eye contact, under these unique circumstances.” Fabrice kept his eyes low, and his face expressionless.
Muteba shrugged again. “As you will. It is true, though. I feel each loss.” He shook his head. “But it is not the luxury of the commander to allow himself to feel these deaths as keenly as he might. For if the commander succumbs to grief, who will lead his soldiers? Who will ensure their safety, and the success of the mission? No. To be a commander is to learn to put one’s own deepest feelings aside. It is but one of the many sacrifices one must make. One cannot look back. One must advance, my boy. One must always advance.”
“Now, you, Fabrice,” spoke Muteba, gesturing sloppily at him with the crude wooden cup, “it seems to me that you have the stuff of command in you.”
A voice spoke, rich and resonant, a voice only Fabrice could hear. “Indeed.”
“But you care too deeply, Fabrice,” Muteba said, his words slurring. He shook his head again. “The boys will follow you. You proved that today, with Sony and the other one. They would risk their lives for you. But to allow yourself to care as you do? That is a mistake. To care too much can drive a commander mad.”
The voice spoke again. “And you have no idea, fool, just how mad the Commander has become.”
Fabrice risked a glance up. Muteba’s eyes were already clouded with drink, his reactions slow and unsure, as he reached out an arm, wrapping it around Fabrice’s shoulders. “Let me help you, Fabrice,” he said. “Let me show you, as one soldier to another, how to cope. I will teach you to go away to a place inside where you cannot be hurt, where one can do that which needs doing without shame. Let us give you some practice.” And Muteba’s voice hardened for a moment as he reached down to loosen his belt. “That is an order, and I will not countenance dissent.”
The voice spoke a third time. “No more than we shall countenance you any longer, Muteba.” And when Muteba looked down at Fabrice, he saw a nine millimeter pistol in Fabrice’s right hand, pointed directly at his heart. And when Muteba looked at his own belt, he saw his sidearm holster unlatched and empty.
“Your weapon is your life,” Fabrice whispered. Muteba’s eyes widened for a moment, and then a strange smile creased his face as he understood.
And the voice of the Commander spoke. “Here is a death, Fabrice, which is both deserved and necessary.”
Muteba grinned at Fabrice. “Ah. But are you sure, boy? Have you truly learned the lessons I have tried to teach you? Are you truly ready to be a leader?” And Fabrice found that even now, he could not look Muteba in the eye. And he knew that, in truth, he was not ready.
But he knew one who was.
“Allow me to assist you,” spoke the voice. And Fabrice’s hands were not his own, and they did not pull the trigger, no, but squeezed it, yes, just so, just as Muteba had taught him. There were two shots, surgical in their precision. And when the other boys came running to Muteba’s tent, their rifles at the ready, they found Muteba flat on his back, bleeding out in the dirt, and Fabrice standing over him, the pistol in his hand.
The boys stood in a half-circle, surveying the scene. At length, it was Kama who spoke. “This is not a bad thing you have done, Fabrice. But it will end badly for us. Now it will not just be the rebels who want to kill us, but the government as well. Now there is nowhere for us to run or hide. Now there is no one to lead us and tell us what to do. You have saved us, but you have doomed us as well.”
Fabrice opened his mouth to agree, but his voice was not his own. It was the Commander speaking through him, and though Fabrice’s voice was that of a boy, it suddenly held the authority of a man. “You are mistaken, Kama,” he heard himself say. “I have led you into peril, but I will lead you out again. Now you must trust my authority, and obey my orders. For I am the Commander.”
* * *
The journey was long and brutal, upriver and across the highlands and down again into the swampy, verdant, mosquito-infested plains. Kama had not been wrong in his prediction; the sporadic bands of rebels were only half the trouble. At some point the government forces must have worked out what had happened, because the boys were pursued. They travelled for fourteen hours a day, then for eighteen, then for twenty. It seemed to Fabrice that he barely shut his eyes at night before the Commander’s voice woke him, and he was shaking the other boys out of their own slumber and piling them back into the column and onwards.
All along the way there was conflict. And all along the way, there was mystery—for Fabrice had suddenly become a master of trickery and deceit, doubling back across streams to confound the enemy’s dogs, directing the boys to lay snares and rig deadfalls and dig pits to catch their pursuers. Had Muteba once taught them tricks like this? It seemed to some of the boys that he had, but who could remember? What had become of Fabrice? What could explain his transformation?
As for Fabrice, he could no longer converse as one boy to another with his former friends. Now, when they looked upon him, their eyes held not gratitude, but awe. Muteba had not been wrong; command was a heavy burden. But Fabrice refused to allow his duties to harden his heart; whatever he allowed the Commander to do with his hands or with his voice, his heart remained his own.
And finally, one day, they crossed the great western river, on the far bank of which lay another nation. And there the tents with the red cross beckoned, and the men and women in the sky blue helmets waited, with all the food a boy could eat and all the rest a boy could desire. With a chance at a new life, and with a chance to forget.
* * *
But Fabrice was not allowed to forget, because the Commander would not grant him the gift. Instead, the Commander made him remember.
Fabrice struggled to dam the tide, but the Commander’s influence was inexorable. It all came rushing back in upon him—the months of horror and pain, the harsh days and the harsher nights, all of Muteba’s cruelties, all of his fallen friends. All of the unspeakable “recruiting drives,” all of the things he’d been made to do to strangers in order to fill the holes in the platoon. And back further still, to the day he himself had been made a soldier—to the mother and father who’d loved him, and to what had been done to them before his eyes. And Fabrice had thought the pain would crush him utterly. He had curled up into a ball and had cried inconsolably for hours on end. It was a week before he emerged from his cocoon of pain, and when he was finally able to open his mouth without a sob emerging, it was to ask the Commander, “How can you be so cruel?”
“This cruelty is a kindness,” the Commander told him. “This is a good pain, like the disinfecting of a wound. You must remember it all, Fabrice. You must never forget. It is remembering that will ensure that you never pick up a weapon again. It is remembering that will make you safe when I am gone.”
“But you cannot leave!” Fabrice protested. “I am not strong enough without you!”
“You were always stronger than you knew,” the Commander responded. “And across the river, there are yet boys forced to fight men’s wars. They need my help. They need me, Fabrice. They need us both.”
Fabrice sat on his cot, knees folded under his chin. Outside the medical tent, one of the men in blue helmets gestured towards the tent’s entrance. There were other men with him, men with cameras and with microphones, and also boys: Eshele and Gaussou. Fabrice heard snatches of their conversation, and heard his name mentioned often. “Who are you?” he asked the voice.
“I was a soldier, Fabrice. I led men into battle, and later, to my shame, I led boys. I am one who killed many enemies, and whose actions led to the deaths of many friends. But death came for me, eventually, as is the way of war. And yet I did not die, but live on. And it is my fate, Fabrice, to be one with the children I once led into battle—to share the hardships and suffering that men like me once inflicted upon them. My soul bonds with that of a boy. I share his fate and his experiences. I share his pain. And I must live on in this fashion forever—or until twenty-four hours pass without a single child in this nation firing a weapon in anger. Until that event occurs, I can never rest.”
“But ... that is impossible,” Fabrice said. “You have been set an impossible task.”
“How does one eat an elephant, Fabrice?”
For the first time in weeks, Fabrice smiled. “One bite at a time,” he responded.
“Yes. Just so.”
“How can I help?”
“You may help by becoming a soldier in my army, Fabrice. By refusing to take up arms again. By telling your story to all who will listen, for in this new war, your life is your weapon. And you may help by telling them about me, Fabrice. Spread the word to every corner of the nation, to every village and every camp. Let the boy soldiers know that the Commander is on the prowl, and that I am coming quickly to their aid, to be their partner and their shield.
“Who can say? It may be that, when my legend becomes known, the rules will change—that I am suddenly everywhere, all at once. That I am whispering simultaneously into the ears of many boys, speaking to them of their true strength, of what it truly is to be a man and to be a soldier. Whispering about who the true enemies are, and at whom the guns are to be pointed. Yes, just so.
“And tell the others, too. Tell the likes of Muteba. Yes. Tell them that the Commander is coming for them, as well.
“Tell them, Fabrice. Tell them the Commander is coming.”
There was no twinkling of the air, no apparition of mist or smoke appeared, to tell Fabrice when the Commander left him. Nor was there any diminution of his own newfound strength. There were only the men with cameras and microphones at his bedside, clicking away and asking their questions, and Fabrice greeted them with a smile.
What, after all, had Fabrice to fear? He was a man with a mission, ready to advance and fully in command.