Everything was the same hue of brown as the sand in the desert. The clay brick streets and small, squat huts looked ancient, turned that way by the heat and sandstorms that swept across the barren landscape. In that desolate place there were no flowers, so the bright red of roses or purples of violets were seen only in the brightly colored kangas and scarves worn by the women. So too, the many bracelets they wore that jangled musically as they walked and the tinkling of the bells around the goats in the herds provided the only pleasant sounds. The songs sung by the merchants in the marketplace were dirge-like and weighed on my ears discordantly. There was an old woman who sat on a stool in front of her hut and sang from sunrise to sunset in a voice so raspy and wracked with age that it set my teeth on edge.
The only shirt I wore – a trade I made with the goat herder Abeeku for the shirt of my Legionnaire’s uniform – had lost all but one of its buttons and in spots the material had worn through, on the verge of becoming holes. My faded blue trousers belonged to Asha’s husband who had been gone for three years, having gone south to fight with a terrorist group in the jungles of a southern country. The rest of his clothes that he left in a burlap sack had all been sold or given away by Asha who hoped her husband would return one day, but she lived as if she knew he’d never return. As many times as the pants had been washed or saturated with my own sweat, the scent of her husband, Taj, still clung to them, or so I imagined I could still smell him. Asha told me his sweat smelled like spice. She spoke of Taj often, much more than I liked. Asha lived with me as my wife, but we knew we’d never marry. I hoped that when I got out of that hellhole I’d return home to my own wife who I hadn’t been in contact with in six months, which was just before I deserted from the French Foreign Legion. The only way to communicate with anyone beyond the boundaries of the village was to give a letter to someone passing through and pay them to take it to a post office in a larger town and then hope they’d do it. I gave money and letters to merchants passing through, but there was no way to know if the letters were sent and no way to get a letter in return. Asha warned me that no one who could be trusted had passed through the village in a year. I could have traveled on foot with merchants to larger towns, but the distances were great and the journey arduous. I was willing to bide my time in the village.
I kept the boots I wore as a Legionnaire wrapped in a piece of cloth and hidden beneath the bed. Asha made the sandals I wore out of scraps of leather and hemp, but I preferred to go barefoot. Most of my body had already tanned to the color of caramel because of long hours training in the glare of harsh sunlight, but in the sandals my feet baked nearly the color of Asha’s light ebony skin. The soles of my feet formed an armor of callous that protected them from the burning sand. It was only either the very young or very old who walked around the village without wearing sandals. I was twenty-six. The white turban I wore to protect my head from the sun covered my blonde hair, which Asha likened to something not finished, usifaulu, undone, as if it was in need of real color. The people of the village stopped staring at me as the stranger I was, and although I had no friends among them other than Abeeku and Asha, I was no longer spat on in the marketplace. Asha was well-liked in the village which may account for my not being turned in as the deserter I was to get a reward, or even worse, being murdered in my sleep.
Asha’s hut was made of clay and thatch, and although small, it didn’t feel cramped. The bed, made of straw that Asha changed frequently, was the largest item in the room. She had a very old steamer trunk given to her by Taj on their wedding day that she kept her clothes in and on top of that sat a small mirror. Just like all the other women in the village, Asha didn’t wear makeup, but she liked to sit in front of the mirror and paint designs on her face using colorful paints she made from plants and vegetables. There was nothing in the hut that suggested I lived there. I arrived wearing my uniform and that was it. It was Asha who found me nearly dead from dehydration and sun stroke lying in the sand at the border of the village. I had crossed fifty miles of desert on one canteen of water and pure will to escape.
My wife’s name was Janine. We had been married for six years, during four of which I was in the United States Marines with multiple tours of duty in war zones, and then I joined the Legion. She threatened to divorce me when she found out I was going to France to enlist as a Legionnaire and perhaps she did. She’s an attractive, smart woman who never anticipated spending her marriage waiting for her husband to return home from the military, especially a foreign one. I received one letter from her that was terse and angry in the three months I was at Fort Monteaux. I didn’t blame her, and still don’t. In the last letter I sent her before I deserted in the dead of night I told her that I loved and missed her, which was true, but I should have told her before we got married that I never planned to stay in one place for very long. Asha knew my wife’s name but nothing about her. I didn’t show her the photograph of Janine that was in my wallet. In it, Janine is in her wedding dress.
My identification as a member of the Legion was also in my wallet. Perhaps I would have completed the four month training as a Legionnaire if I hadn’t seen the writing on the wall. Despite being a former Marine, I was accused of being undisciplined and a trouble maker and was on the verge of being thrown out. Instead, I ran away before that could happen, which if I had been caught, could have landed me in prison for three years. Asha only knew that I was once a Legionnaire and then I stopped being one. She asked no questions. Like everyone in the village she had no love for the French Foreign Legion. Fort Monteaux was fifty miles away, but as the villagers liked to say, “Ina miguu kubwa.” It has big feet.
It was stifling hot in the hut during the day, and although it was no cooler outside, while walking about the village, the sand-filled breezes removed the sweat that poured from my body. At Fort Monteaux we were forbidden to remove our shirts while outside unless we were doing physical training. I felt trapped in the uniform; like being in a suffocating straitjacket. Asha walked with me sometimes, staying close to my side, but never touching me, neither did I touch her. Her English was poor, but adequate, and she chattered on about the gossip she had heard from other women in the village. Sometimes we would wander through the marketplace, which was small but active, where merchants and villagers sat on rugs placed on the ground with their wares and foodstuffs around them. There were nothing electronic for sale since the village had no electricity and the fruit that was sold bordered on being rotten as it was all brought to the village from somewhere else. Yams, bolts of material and stacks of bracelets were ubiquitous. I didn’t tell Asha I carried enough money in my wallet to possibly buy out the entire market. I bought her a bracelet once, but she gave it to the old woman who sat outside her hut and sang.
I didn’t know Asha’s exact age but the girls of the village married at age fourteen or fifteen if they were lucky enough to find a husband. It was Abeeku who told me that the engagement between Asha and Taj had been unusually long as he was from a distant village and the families squabbled over Asha’s worth. Eventually, Asha’s family was given three goats and several chickens for her. There was a maturity to how Asha carried herself, as if she understood the woes of the world and carried them on her rigidly held shoulders. She laughed and giggled like a schoolgirl, however, when she was talking about Taj. I rarely made her laugh.
There were two wells in the village, both dug by government agencies that showed up to inspect them every few years. At sunrise every morning Asha would take her pale to the well, fill it with water and return to the hut. We would both drink hollow gourds full of water and then she would pour a portion of the water into an earthen basin and set the pale aside. Then, using a rag, she would stand in front of the mirror and wash her body with the water in the basin. While I lay on the bed, she would then bathe me. During this, she hummed melodically the entire time.
It was when she returned from the well one morning that she told me three Legionnaires were in the village and asking questions about me. They had been looking for me for months and thought no man would be crazy enough to travel this far on foot, until I showed up nowhere else.
Four days passed and I remained in the hut the entire time. Through Asha I learned that the Legionnaires had set up a tent on the edge of the village and had been routinely circling the village in their jeep. The village chief had kept them from doing a hut-to-hut search. I had never discussed with Asha why I had left the Legionnaires, but several times since the arrival of the other Legionnaires, and now that it was out in the open, she called me mtoji, deserter, in the same tone she used when allowing her anger about Taj’s desertion to show through. During the sweltering days I laid naked and inert on the bed, my body awash in my sweat while Asha came in and out of the hut, reporting back to me what the Legionnaires were doing, and tending to my needs. Unable to sleep at night, I looked out the small window at the star-speckled sky and listened to the cries of vultures that circled above the village.
In the morning when she bathed me, Asha no longer hummed.
On the night of the fourth day I told Asha that I was leaving, that I had to escape being caught by the Legionnaires. As she sat in front of her mirror and painted sun-like figures on her cheeks, I put on my clothes, and then unwrapped my boots and put them on. The boots felt foreign, unnatural, as if I could feel the gravity holding me bound to the earth.
“Kuja na mimi,” I said. The thought of asking her to come with me had suddenly sprung to my mind and surprised me when I said it. In that moment I realized I loved her.
Without saying anything she opened her trunk and took out several kangas and scarves and tied them in a bundle. She blew out the wick of the oil lamp and we snuck from the hut and down the street. The village was quiet except for the tinkling of hollow, wooden chimes that hung in the doorway of a hut. We walked to the edge of the village, to the border of the desert, heading south. I felt the heat of Asha’s body beside me and smelled the scent of the homemade lotion made from honey that she put under her arms and between her legs. Suddenly, she stopped.
She looked back at the village.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Taj,” she said and then turned and walked back.