Dis' Taste

Dis' Taste

by Caven Tootell

ASIN: B076ZKH243

Publisher Caven Tootell

Published in Literature & Fiction/Action & Adventure, Literature & Fiction

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Book Description


Set in pre-WWI Congo Free State, the story follows two Belgian Colonial officers, Philippe and Augustine and the latter’s wife, Clementine.

Augustine brings his new wife into country; to bring a piece of normality into their lives, the two men strike up a friendly challenge to host each other to lavish dinner parties using exotic local foods and recipes. The story then follows the three characters, their interactions with each other, other Europeans, Africans, and the oppressive state sponsored rape of the country.

Sample Chapter

Philippe crouched a little lower in the prow of the canoe as it slid under some low hanging branches and was enveloped in almost complete darkness. The claustrophobic feeling of entering a long dark tunnel engulfed them. He was overcome by a strong desire to strike a match just so he could push away the unknowns of the darkness surrounding and pressing in on him was almost unbearable. Philippe realised the rising fear in him which he struggled to push back down, to somewhere he could hold it and not let it take control of him. The leaves brushed against him, along with a thick branch. As he tried to move his head away from the branch, something else made a dull, hollow scraping sound as it rubbed and bounced down the outer hull. It caused a disturbingly deep and low booming, an empty large tree trunk was floating right beside him, and they all felt the noise in their joints. The sound sucked the air out of the scene, each man felt as if it was an unnervingly loud klaxon peal warning every person and animal within kilometres of their immediate area of their presence and intent. A torrent of warm water fell off the leaves of the overhead trees and onto his tunic and down his back. The canoe in which Philippe was riding was over four metres long, rudely cut from a large tree and it was obviously very old and had been used considerably. There was a thick layer of slime and mud coating the lower deck which stunk of unwashed bodies and rotting food and Philippe’s boots slid as he tried to steady himself by leaning heavily on the side of the canoe. The water sloshed up over his laces and left a layer of vile smelling sludge on top of his boots. With one hand he gripped what passed as a gunwale, the rough wood finish bit into his hand, but he dared not let go in case he toppled over in front of the Company’s askari soldiers riding with him. Up ahead feeble shafts of moonlight reflected sporadically in the gloom as one of the Africans poled with his paddle as they neared the shore, while others fended off the foliage with their hands. The eight Force Publique conscripts were huddled low in the boat, now lifting their oars as they neared the bank. They were all very quiet, seemingly at the same time nervous and excited, their Belgian Albini rifles slung across their backs, the heavy stock pulled down on the sling and the raised hammer occasionally making a low clang as they bumped the wooden canoe hull. The askari were the company’s locally conscripted soldiers, forced into enlisting in the Force Publique. Most were from tribes and nations further afield than were they were deployed or stationed. This was to cut all emotional ties with locals when they were used to enforce the company’s will and rule. An added benefit was that if they were attacked they were highly unlikely to desert to the attackers, fearing the locals’ retribution. As outsiders their life and health were dependent on the control and dominance of the company. In essence they were simple, uneducated mercenaries, often co-opted into a year’s service. Their corporals were usually just the few who could hold and maintain the Europeans instructions and manage to instil fear into their subordinates.

There was a slight growing lightening of the sky in the east so Philippe knew they had to get ashore quickly and get into cover before they were spotted. It was eerily quiet, some indeterminate jungle sounds resonated in their ears and bodies almost as if the jungle itself was breathing as it slept and then this was broken by an occasional slap of water as some fish started its day of struggling through life.

Over the side of the canoe the water was menacingly dark in this light, it swirled sluggishly as if it was oil, past the boat now they were in close to landfall, gripping and pushing them forward then fighting with the paddlers and trying to push them away from the closing bank. Hollow thuds sounded as the river pushed the paddles against the hollow hull, then the straining of the Askari as they struggled to regain mastery over the lump of wood and bend it and the river to their will and objective. Philippe strained his eyes in the darkness. He had become accustomed to the low light in mid-stream as they left the paddle steamer, but here under the drooping river foliage there was a different kind of darkness. It seemed thicker, more enveloping and he could only make out the white tunics of the Askari ahead of him. He heard another much louder splash of some river dweller way off to his right, too far out into deep water to be a crocodile, maybe a tiger fish or a bird making an early start to its day’s hunting. Way off in the distance he could hear the very faint rumblings of the rapids as the Congo river finished its greatest falls from higher up and turned itself into a wide sluggish river and wound down towards the coast and Matadi.

It had taken the small detachment the best part of a day and the last night to reach close to their destination of the Inga valley on the company’s riverboat. The steamer was a broad beamed vessel, obviously with its best days well behind it. The boat was now just another old, tired vessel struggling like an old warhorse, proving its worth to its owner, so it would not be discarded. Forward on deck, immediately behind the open wheelhouse were several small spaces with ironically or in some gross error labelled, cabins. Aft of this area was an open deck for tying down cargo for transport up and down the river. A short ladder on each side led down to other open spaces running down each side of the vessel, where hammocks were slung and general cooking and cleaning areas were laid out for the Africans. Twin, small smokestacks rose through the decks, pumping out its noxious smelling exhaust which clung to everything and ingrained itself in the food, clothes and drinking water no matter what measures were taken to cover them. The steamer’s bow was grandly high and pointed, as if its speed was sufficient to require that to push the water aside.

Philippe along with the German, Messerli and Philippe’s countryman, Augustine had relaxed on the upper deck as the boat chugged its way upstream against the current. They had played baccarat whilst the European Sergeants had supervised the Askari, making sure their weapons were cleaned and serviceable down on the quarterdeck under the awning. For a short time the officers had gone below deck to oversee the work, but the heat, stink and frustrating incompetence of the Africans proved too painful for them to endure and they finally retreated back to their own whites only deck away from it all. At sunset whilst the men prepared their meals and sang, the three officers, tunics unbuttoned under the oppressive heat had drunk a bottle of cognac Augustine had brought with him. The boy also brought a bottle of gin and two beers to table as they relaxed in the canvas chairs, absentmindedly watching the river banks as they slipped by.

The river side scene also proved tedious to maintain the concentration of the party. With almost no break there was simply a solid green wall of jungle down to and out over the water. As the steamer neared a bend it appeared that the jungle had won its struggle over the river and had actually closed of their path, until at the last moment, the boat rounded the corner and the next monotonous stretch unveiled itself in front of them. Every now and then there was a small beach, often no longer than the steamer itself, and even at one very rare moment a primitive wharf showed through the trees, a jumbled collection of pilings and branches, leading back up and away to some desolate and forlorn local village. No villagers ever came out to look at the boats transiting the river, either because everyone had deserted the area, being driven out by the Company or its commercial practices or they had learnt of some officers’ predilection for taking pot shots at what they referred to as ‘game’.

Messerli had his new Mauser he had recently had shipped to him from Germany. It was a splendid looking weapon with its newer lines compared to the standard issued Albini rifle, the Company issued to its employees. Messerli played with the bolt several times, revelling in the smooth action. With a beer bottle in one hand and the barrel supported by his boot resting on the boat’s railing he seemed intent on shooting at whatever strayed into his line of fire. Philippe leant back in his chair, stretched his legs and also lazily put his feet up on the rail as well. He drank deeply from his bottle of beer and grinned at Messerli and his antics.

The jungle overhangs were of such vivid and loud green colourings that they overwhelmed the senses. Without the dirty brown of the actual water and occasional less dirty brown beaches and embankments, if you stared outboard your world was absolute green; it overpowered the senses and acted if it was the source of the heat and humidity rather than the unseen sun.

Each side of the river worked as huge lungs sucking the coolness and freshness out of the river and its passengers into its darkness and exhaled it as a wet sticky heat, as if the men were trying to breath under water.

“Do you think you can kill any wild pygmies from here Richard?” Philippe enquired jokingly of Messerli.

Messerli turned his head slowly and peered at Philippe, “Most definitely my friend, could not miss if he was related to a Belgian!” grinning and turning back to his field of fire. With a conspiratorial smile, Messerli clicked the five round box magazine into the magazine spring. This was one of the nice improvements over the earlier single shot Albini which had a front hinged; forward lifting breech and a large flintlock striker.

The heat and humidity was becoming unbearable, even this close to the water and under shade. Smiling at his friend Messerli squinted with his eyes and scanned the jungle lining the river banks. The steamer grunted and belched smoke as it pushed against the current in its never-ending trip up river. Its progress was slow as if it too was pushing through the water logged air and cloying vegetation. Messerli looked down the barrel and sight taking aim at something imaginary on the near bank. Intermittently they would see a troop of monkeys screaming and clamouring in the overhanging trees, but Richard’s shots would drive them back into the safety of the deep treetops. Philippe took a long draught from his bottle of beer and threw the empty over the side. Absentmindedly he called for the serving boy to bring him another from the tub of water below where they were kept in a pretence to keep them cool. The boy dressed in crisp white looked slightly ridiculous in his livery against the wild background setting from the deck, but dashed off to comply with the white man’s order.

“Have you chaps had any encounters with this Inga village before?’ Augustine interjected into the quiet reverie. He looked like he had been half asleep in the torpor.

“What killing the kaffirs?” questioned Messerli, “no they are more shit scared than any locals closer downstream near us, but they seem to have upset the District Officer up here and that is why we are going to make sure they understand the law and what they should be doing.” He punctuated his sentences by raising his Mauser and clicking the empty chamber at a log floating past them.

‘I have though enjoyed a close liaison with what looked like am Inga woman!’, he replied over his shoulder with a mocking sneer, curling his lips. ‘She stunk to high heaven and had some weird scars all over her tits, but she was a wild fight, hey.’

Philippe and Messerli had been in country for over two years now and while both men had differing opinions on how things had to be done, they both had developed a sharp hatred for the kaffirs and their way of life. Messerli had an evil streak in him which at times made Philippe feel uncomfortable. Philippe had seen Messerli beat a local man to death for dropping a rubber sap collection can on his boots. As he beat the man with his chicote, he spewed an uninterrupted torrent of invective. Messerli whipped him for almost five minutes, the blows landing all over the screaming worker. Large cuts opened on his skin and quickly large splashes of bright red blood covered the ground surrounding him. This seemed at the time to spur Messerli on, continuing without a break or concern, while the man’s screams , after reaching a nauseous crescendo tapered off to animalistic grunts and groans replicating those emanating from Messerli’s own exertions, only going deadly quiet when the poor wretch lost consciousness.

During the ordeal, Messerli’s eyes focused on an object in the distance, he gave the outward appearance of being detached from the horror he was committing, as if he was merely cleaning his boots, all the while taking very shorts breaks to mop his brow, look dispassionately at his victim, then to start afresh. Slowly and purposely, looking at the bleeding and moaning kaffir, Messerli would pause before choosing the next untouched piece of skin, to lay the hide whip onto. Blood was flowing freely all over from the boy and the mud around him turned a gruesome dark maroon colour, of dead earth and life’s essence. The boy’s skin was slick with congealing blood, changing the hue of his natural colour to a darkest black against the vibrant green of the undergrowth. When Messerli had finished, he simply went quiet, smiling to himself, took out his handkerchief and wiped his forehead, ‘God damned dirty bastards,’ he muttered arrogantly, turned on his heels and walked off. With trepidation and never taking their eyes off Messerli, fearful of setting him off again, the beaten man’s friends gingerly approached his prostrate body, like cringing dogs approaching the leftover carcass of a lion’s meal, wary if the beast turned on them for committing some unknown transgression or just because it felt like hurting them. Philippe had no real sympathy for the natives, they were a lazy, dirty and uncivilised rabble and his drive was to make a success of his life, maybe even make some money, so he had almost no feelings towards them if they stood in his way. But also he did not go out of his way, as did Messerli, to harm them. They were simply human-like tools to exploit and use, Philippe would not be cruel to a workhorse, that would be counter-productive to his objectives, but he would not spare the whip to push it onwards.

In these quiet times, travelling on the river and between the rare exciting periods, with so much dead time the officers often talked about what they would do when they finished their contracts and returned to Europe as moderately rich men. The places they would live, women they would court and what they would do for the rest of their lives. They all knew though deep down that the Congo had infected them, changed them. The last time Philippe returned home, really to see his father and visit some old military friends, the overriding influence on their return was that it was all like some exotic disease, the colonial lifestyle, with its dangers, jewels, filth and personal compromises, was deep within them and they knew it affected their dreams, it all made it seem so surreal. At home the weather was atrociously cold and Philippe found it difficult to sleep at night. He had spent some time with his father, reminiscing about his life and what he hoped for. His father had never achieved the high goals he had set himself and tended to live through Philippe. While he was never openly critical, he never seemed to reach the heights of pride Philippe had hoped with his father. His escape from the formal constraints of a peacetime Belgian army to the Congo seemed to rip another source of pride from the old man and he simply drifted now, drinking more heavily, talking about his wife, dead but ever present in his father’s world, and tending the small vegetable patches he owned close to his house. All of Philippe’s friends also had settled into a more steady life, something Philippe felt he longed for but not on the terms life seemed to have dealt for him. Philippe went out and had drinks late into the night, visited the whores in Patershol quarter, a rabbit warren of ancient streets and laneways, sat innocently at his friends’ dinner tables with their wives and children. All of the time he felt distant, he was a visitor not from their shared lives but someone looking from the outside in on them. They seemed either happy with the mediocrity and daily sameness or growing embittered on not achieving some mythical goal in their lives which in essence had only been a mere dream. Their mindless chatter was superficial, Philippe could not relate to it at all, it had no substance, it was pointless, and he only attended because he thought he should, some long lost drive to stay connected because that is what normal people did, yet it was a superficial treatment of a deeper injury. Nights were probably the worst for Philippe, he would wake violently, trying to jump out of his bed, grabbing for a gun that wasn’t there. Then followed sheer terror of an unknown. This thing stalking him was faceless and formless but his half-awake mind knew there was something there close just about to pounce but always outside of grasp of his consciousness thinking brain. Then he would endurelong minutes sweating, straining his eyes in the darkness trying to make sense of his surroundings, an inner sense of reality trying to tell him that he was safe, but a deeper urge wanting to strike out at the shadows, either in front of him or inside him. Alcohol sometimes helped and sometimes made it worse. He spent many nights lying and staring at the ceiling or waking early in the morning, just sitting and looking out at the deadly quiet and uninviting street from his grey room. Even worse were the nights he sat with his father in the gloom and oppressive atmosphere of the kitchen, all windows long rusted shut, glass panes smeared with years of sorrow and lost hope. His father would pour out the pooled bitterness of his life, hour after hour all the while drinking himself towards a welcome release, often repeating himself, often contradicting himself but always with the same underlying pain that Philippe could not assuage. In the darkness his father always appeared smaller than he actually was both physically and mentally. He was shrinking downwards and into his own personal hell, reliving disappointment after loss. Philippe saw him not as someone living but a shadow of someone already dead, not aware that they were dead and for some morbid reason clinging to the mortal sphere. Hour after hour this would go on half in an alcohol fuelled delirium, railing against real and imaginary injustices of his life. Philippe watched and listened to his father who was always on the wrong side of everything. The shell that was left, what made the man what he was, the essence of his father, poured out of him through the darkness of the room to embed itself in the walls and add further grime to the windows. The despair and sickness of the old man was thick and cloying, reaching in and affecting everything in the room, including Philippe, leaving its own horror ingrained on what it touched. But the most unsettling aspect was the transfer of the hopelessness onto Philippe. He absorbed the distraught emptiness and it was filling him with a dread he had to escape because he knew it would eventually subsume him as well.

When Philippe returned to his present on the river, it was early in the night when they all tried to get a few hours’ sleep before they had to transfer to the canoes for the trip to the village. It was still extremely hot; the thunderstorm around midnight did little to quell the heat. Philippe lay on top of the bunk in the tiny claustrophobic cabin. Outside he could hear the heavy rain smashing onto the deck above and somewhere close by a small torrent gushing down on the steamer’s upper deck guttering with the creaking of the hull, and underlying that the constant thud, thud of the engines, and countless rattles as small objects moved or rolled in the cabin kept him in a dreamy half asleep state. Finally he mercifully drifted off to sleep and once again dreamt unhappily of home.

At around four in the morning the sergeant banged on the door, waking all, it was time to move out. Quickly pulling on his boots, Philippe picked up his weapon, checking its load out and grabbed the light pack he had readied earlier in the night. After a quick wash in the tepid water basin and throwing on his creased uniform coat, he walked down aft. His boots thudded heavily on the wooden deck in the still dark morning with the engines off and the jungle mostly asleep, it felt like he was in a large hall, the smallest sounds echoing and making more noise than expected. The native soldiers had already lowered one of the canoes they had bought downstream and were scaling down a jumping ladder to get themselves seated. It was only a metre drop over the side, on the sheltered side of the steamer, but it was relatively easy to simply step down, although the more people clambering into the canoes caused them to bob in the current. With little talk other than some muffled threats of death from the Sergeant, Philippe’s canoe pushed off first, he was to land about a kilometre downstream from the village with only a dozen or so natives. The steamer was to move further up river, so Augustine could accompany Messerli’s main force. Augustine would hold his section back in reserve as Messerli circled the village and attacked from the east. The stink of the river was cloying, dead vegetation moved reluctantly and sluggishly past the steamer on its way to its fate at the mouth. A familiar sense of purpose started to grip the men; minimum talk took over everyone, melding them from different backgrounds and tribes into one purposeful force.

A quick wave to his two colleagues, Philippe’s canoe was soon swallowed in the blackness of the early morning and shadows from the jungle. The scouts had told them that there was a good landing site close by so they made directly for the near bank, probably less than a kilometre. The natives on both sides of the canoe struggled with their oars trying to keep the canoe straight and pointed towards the landing, all the while the river attempted to claim them as another piece of rubbish or flotsam and take them to its conclusion in the sea.

After only twenty minutes or so they neared what looked like the spot. From what Philippe could make out in the darkness there was a small break in the larger tree line and a muddy beach of sorts. The oarsman in the prow held his paddle slightly ahead of himself, reaching out for and pushing against some higher branches overhanging the landing point, trying to keep a heading towards the small clearing. Philippe could feel his chest tightening, the first rush of nerves, breathing shallowing, so he took a moment to slowly draw in a long deep breath and slowly let in out through his nose – trying to keep his actions from the Africans he was leading. It was probably an hour before sunrise, and while it had been cool during the time they have been paddling from the steamer now further upriver, it was starting to warm up. Sweat was running down his back, and he casually wondered whether it was from the heat and the closely packed bodies or another symptom of his nerves. The smell of the natives, their sweat and their fear was pungent and forced Philippe to cover his nose and mouth with his hand. A strong scent of rotting vegetable matter hung in the air; the large masses of plants carried down the river and were now caught in the tangled undergrowth lining the bank. It was a rich stink, cloying in the heat giving a heavy underlying flavour to the whole environment. It wasn’t, at first, too bad, but the continued assault and immersion to their sense of smell became nauseating. In patches where some of the rotting debris had been sitting stagnant longer it induced a gag reflex. In yesterday’s daylight these floating islands as they floated past them on their way downstream looked solid and strong enough to walk on. In the darkness now they were just black inky blotches which soaked up any available moonlight, and added to the complete darkness enveloping them. Their canoe had separated from the rest of the detachment soon after leaving the boat they were instantly alone, unsupported, vulnerable and could only rely on themselves. Philippe knew that Augustine, as the second lieutenant would soon be ashore and working his way with his small squad further inland. The main party under Captain Messerli was at least five kilometres further east, to strike from the rear of the Inga village. Philippe had served with Messerli, a very good military man, but he tended towards arrogance and with a distinct sadistic side to him, particularly with the kaffirs. They had fought together on several small battles in which both of them had been injured, but with their superior weapons always victorious. Augustine was different though. He had only been in country for a few weeks and seemed pleasant enough. Philippe had heard over drinks in their mess one night that Augustine was the third son of one of the King’s inner court, so more than likely sponsored out here as a second lieutenant to prove himself, and also to save his father an embarrassing reminder of a liaison at court. The rumour circulating which had quickly gained credence and then local truth amongst the old hands was that Augustine was one of King Leopold’s numerous bastards, although it was a subject that had tacit understanding by all not to be fully discussed. Perhaps Augustine knew of these rumours, perhaps he had even started them for his own agenda, he did nothing to fuel the speculation nor to disprove it, perhaps it suited him, this mystery, giving him some aloofness, a proximity to power to gain an advantage of comparative superiority, merited or not, with most of the colonials in country. So everyone cautiously gave the outward appearance of being friendly just in case he could be of use to them. He seemed pleasant enough, quiet, and drank which meant he socialised with everyone well enough and was soon an accepted and integral part of the close colonial team and culture of the District Officers.

In the middle of his ruminations, the canoe roughly hit the mud bank with a dull thud at the side of the river, the shudder ran through the wood and flesh of the boat and everyone rocked forward. It was a quiet stretch of the river, almost a backwater protected by a sandy mud bank and fallen tree, with the water eddying slowly. There was some muffled sound behind Philippe; the harsh clink of something metallic striking the hull and an almost inaudible curse from the stern, the sergeant threatening the offender with physical harm. Philippe didn’t have the luxury of a Belgian NCO to assist him in his group, that sergeant was off with Messerli’s main force – he was definitely needed to control and direct that larger group which included a few older recruits from the warrior tribes in the upper reaches of the Congo river and hence required greater vigilance on their service, and, if needed, harsher punishments to drive them. The main body of the Force Publique, the state’s official armed force, was recruited for a minimum of seven years and to Philippe and his fellow officers they were only slightly better than useless. They were untrustworthy, lazy, and argumentative and the whites could never be completely at ease with having their back turned to them. Philippe felt for the grip of his FN handgun holster at his side; it felt surprisingly cold but gave him a form of self-assurance. In itself it wouldn’t allow him too much protection considering its range and accuracy, but the cold hardness of the weapon reassured him of his options. It was time to move.

The Force Publique was Belgium’s – and therefore in reality King Leopold’s – military force used to control security in what was now the state’s responsibility in the Congo Free State after being handed over to them from the King. The officers were typically ex-servicemen from Belgium’s army with a few other European adventurers all experienced in similar circumstances to some level. The non-commissioned officers, the sergeants, were also white Europeans who normally had even greater levels of experience. The general soldiers were a diverse rag tag from the upper Congo reaches and western Africa. Discipline was maintained with brutal efficiency, often by way of the chicote, a bull whip made from hippopotamus hide. In the hands of a tough and skilled NCO, or someone like Messerli, it could quickly cut to the bone and strip skin. When laid on, usually with the poor wretch held face down by the hands and feet by two Askari, it would slice through the skin of the hapless victim. The Force Publique’s mission was simply to secure and grow the often tremulous Free State borders, offer some protection from the Arab slave traders, although this sometimes turned into a mutually beneficial business arrangement, and less than friendly Germans to the east. In reality the Force Publique was a private police force, unbeholden to the people who they oversaw, for the state to maintain its revenue flows from rubber and other high price and exotic trade of the region.

The King had created the Force Publique as a vicious organization where rubber and ivory quotas were enforced by the feared military, who were officially encouraged to use torture and murder to achieve their aims.

As they came to rest the Askari in the prow leapt from the canoe and managed to clear the cloying mud grabbing at the canoe which had become stuck, but they landed heavily against the drier clay bank which climbed steeply about two metres above the water line. The soldier quickly managed to right himself and clambered immediately over the embankment and disappeared in the half gloom. They were ashore and it was time for Philippe to assert his authority and to get the squad under cover as quietly and as quietly as possible. Philippe followed closely behind, dragging himself up the slimy incline and onto the flat over the lip of the riverbank on the other side. Two to three Askari pulled the canoe further out of the water and secured it with some vine rope to a tree root, before they also followed the group over onto the plain.

As soon as he crested the rise, Philippe threw himself to the ground, drawing his pistol and flattening himself behind a large fallen branch. His trousers were slick with the filthy water and oil from the canoe and some large chunks of mud from the river’s edge. With a pair of pocket binoculars he scanned the near ground both for any of the rebels as well as searching for a better observation point.

In the rapidly lightening dawn, Philippe could make out the plantain grove which they had been briefed was to the west of the village, but they were a lot closer than what they had anticipated. The trees they intended to move towards were laden with some poor excuse for fruit and were starting to lean at strange angles, as if they were as tired and diseased as their burden of fruit and the people around it and completely looked untended. To the front of the squad now there was a clear view of the village huts. Miserable lean to affairs, some even looked abandoned, with wood and brush hanging from their walls giving the impression of skeletal remains of some beast after the scavengers had stripped it clean, laying were it had died. It was half an hour before Messerli was planned to launch his attack down the one muddy path up from the river which was as close as Philippe could make out as the main entrance to the village. Behind him an Askari farted and there was muffled laughing at what appeared to be a joke in some unknown dialect which Philippe couldn’t understand. Philippe glowered at his native NCO and waved his hand in a cutting motion to make them maintain a modicum of silence. Again he wished he had the troop’s Belgian sergeant with him, a quick slap on any idiot with his chicote would have silenced them, albeit it would have opened a bloody welt and they would have started some wailing, but a simple raised or implied threat of the long hippo hide whip would instil fear in any black, as it was his local non-commissioned officer, Gure, kicked the offender into quiet submission.

Seeing that the askari had cowered somewhat resentfully and that problem was closed for now, Philippe turned slowly back towards the west and scanned the ground ahead of him again with his field glasses. His breathing was shallow but he was winning the battle to get his nerves under control. The glasses were a set he had ‘liberated’ on leaving the Army. No-one had asked him for his kit which he had been issued with, so they obviously didn’t want them back and they ‘walked’ out the gates in his bags. The binoculars were short with nickel tubes with some leather protectors, made by Marchand in Paris, they were actually a much sought after set. It was less than two hundred meters to the nearest hut over open ground, covered in knee high grass tufts and a few toppled plantain trunks. The sun was now almost clearing the hillock further to the east and the shadows surrounding the trees, jungle and huts were rapidly shortening, almost inviting or drawing their eyes to the village. Philippe dug his elbows deeper into the soft clay of the mound so he could build a stable base to scan through the binoculars. The hovels loomed larger into his view; they were even worse than what he first saw, truly in a deplorable state and probably indicated why this tribe were even worse than the rest of the kaffirs the company were employing.

A company section of Force Publique had visited the village a week ago to collect the assigned rubber quota. The sergeant at the time, Pauwels, a stocky older Belgian, had reported back after he had interrogated an old man, who passed as a village spokesman, had been surly and completely uncooperative in handing over the baskets of wild rubber, the required quota for the village to fill. Through his native interpreter there was something to do with illnesses, which in Pauwels’ world simply did not interest him slightly, and there were not enough young men to travel even further into the jungle to collect the quota. They were, according to Pauwels as usual, trying to pass off a low return with their usual lazy excuses. Pauwels had eventually lost his patience with the decrepit old man and started to make an example of him in front of the villagers. Pauwels struck him several times with the chicote without warning. The old man had immediately fallen to the ground, curling himself into a ball and crying out like a baby. The Sergeant had not been influenced by this, so continued in his punishment and only stopped when his arm grew tired. It was then that a couple of young bucks had pushed menacingly towards the Force Publique section, one of them shouting and gesturing. Pauwels ordered his Askari to raise their weapons and had slowly retreated back to his canoe, he realised there were too many villagers around him and he had not had a chance to reconnoitre and did not know if he was outnumbered. Personally Philippe thought Pauwels a lazy, cowardly fool and simply ran like he had done before when anyone confronted him. He should have stood his ground and shot a few of the kaffirs to make an example of them. There were too many of that type of person here in country and not just with the Company or Force Publique. Too many failed people from Europe usually washed up here at the frontiers and outer reaches of civilisation. They were typically unemployable in normal society, too violent, too lazy, too incompetent or had characteristics which were just not accepted in their homelands. Pauwels, in Philippe’s opinion, was just one of these, a bully with a gun or a whip, too stupid to read a situation and then to work out a sensible solution or best way to exploit it.

Philippe refused to work with Pauwels; he was the type Messerli liked to have. Far too stupid to question Messerli’s orders but only too ready to jump to extreme violence to achieve an aim, Pauwels and people like him actually revelled in it and Philippe mused that if he was any smarter he could well be a danger to himself. Anyway, what he had done was done. In reality the reasons behind why they were here now did not matter. If the tribes were left to see weakness in the Force Publique it would escalate to open challenges on every action, their authority to rule would be undermined and therefore the very reason for their being, revenue collection, was at serious risk. Now they were here in greater numbers to do just that because one idiot NCO couldn’t do his job properly and manage a simple task and a few dozen macaques.

Philippe continued to keep his binoculars trained on the village, waiting to get vision of the other detachments. Suddenly a piercing screech caused Philippe to jump noticeably. He quickly rolled onto his back on the lee side of the mound, his heart felt as if it was about to burst and his nerves were so taut he felt brief physical pain throughout his body. As soon as he grabbed for his pistol though he realised it was a fish eagle close by but out over the river, probably calling to a mate in the early river mist. It spread its wings, quickly tucked them back into its body as it plummeted towards the water in an arc, at the last minute it unfurled its wings, tilted its body back and extended its large claws at the surface of the river. There was a momentary slapping sound and whatever the bird had seen proved to be that fish’s luckiest morning, as the bird came away without breakfast, swooping back to its solitary lookout post. The eagle was large for what Philippe had seen before, its colours, even in this early poor light contrasted between its white upper body and tail and a dark chestnut underside, with jet black wings, almost a metre and a half across. In all it was a magnificent animal, a contradiction to the gloom and filth Philippe was lying in and seeing ashore. It was a superbly clean majestic thing, not some diseased and poor imitation of life that he was witnessing across the fields and in the village.

Philippe glanced back at his Askari, hoping they hadn’t seen him and registered his nervousness. Most of them though had also been frightened by the sudden noise, so were too busy saving their own faces rather than to laugh and ridicule the scared white man. Philippe took a slow and deep breath and relaxed his clenched muscles calmed his racing pulse and rolled back to prop the binoculars on his arms again focusing them on the village, scanning the nearby fields; animal pens and further to his right down to their jetty. All looked calm and peaceful, nothing was moving, then it struck him that at this time of the morning there should be someone outside relieving themselves or tending the livestock, at least he should be able to see smoke rising from breakfast fires. He dropped his arms and looked directly out over the flats and fields. There was no one anywhere and no indicator of humans being present, something was amiss. The ground between his position and the closest hut was relatively unimpressive, a wide area of lanky grass with a few well-worn pathways leading to the village, river or plantation crops, it all looked as if it was made up of very old cultivated areas, where the villagers had long ago abandoned their work for whatever reason and moved to more fertile gardens further up the hill. Quickly he raised himself to a crouch and looked at his timepiece. Messerli’s attack was due to start in just a few minutes, would he be able to tell that something was wrong, could he see something different from his vantage point? Philippe tried to make out where the main body would be waiting for their order to attack, could he get some form of message to them? If he stood and shouted he risked alerting either the sleeping villagers or whoever was watching them. Desperately he turned to the askari nearest him; “Gure, go to the Captain, tell him danger in village, quickly, go”, Gure, probably the askari who Philippe had known the longest looked blankly back, Philippe swore under his breath and pulled his hand back to see if he couldn’t slap him into understanding. Just as he raised his hand a shot rang out in the thick morning air. The sound was sharp and split the air in a physical sense, separating what had been and what was the reality now, a new danger. Philippe threw himself violently down behind his viewing mound again and strained to see from where the report had come. He could just make out far off to the right of the village, a line of dark clad figures advancing towards his position. Clearly from their uniform dress and the way they moved it was part of Messerli’s detachment – over a dozen askari and probably a company non-commissioned officer. They were moving methodically and purposely in a straight broad front towards the closest huts and crossing around one hundred metres or so of open fields with little cover. Several of the askari held aloft burning branches to torch the huts as they entered. Still Philippe was unnerved; there were no women or children fleeing the village, the warning shot and noise Messerli men were making surely should have garnered some form of reaction. Messerli’s team was now almost at the village, the nearest soldier flung his firebrand onto the roof of the nearest shack. It took some time for the fire to catch in the morning dew and wet thatching, so by that time it erupted in eerie orange flames, the remainder of the troop was amongst the main settlement, askari running between huts and searching for the locals. There was a short period of seeming chaos before almost all movement of the company forces seemed to change, like an open bleeding wound, blood congealing in and around itself, they started to mill on the western fringes on the dirt track leading into the deeper jungle away from the village. The period of confusion appeared to stretch, highlighting confusion, as the squad sought to regain its drive or decided collectively what to do next, but in reality it was only seconds, before complete hell seemed to descend on the area.

A scream erupted and jolted Philippe back to his immediate area. It was low pitched and came from some terrible place inside of a man and cut through all emotional protection Philippe had. Quickly he twisted himself around onto his side, drawing his 9mm as he rolled. The shock of what confronted him was almost too confusing to take in. An askari was bent backwards at an impossible angle, a long thin spear shaft stuck out from his side at a comedic angle. Philippe twisted himself again, this time away from the soldier who was now tilting backwards, his hands clutching ineffectively at the shaft as he screamed. In slow motion the skewered askari arched his back falling into the mud, just as another spear skidded off the dirt mound beside Philippe.

Philippe tried to right himself and locate where this attack was coming from. Off to his left among the plantain gardens he saw shapes moving and then several Africans detach themselves from cover and started running across the open ground towards him, in their hands were more weapons. Struggling to get to his knees in the slippery mud, Philippe braced himself and drew his pistol, taking aim at the lead man, who was now only twenty meters away. To his left Philippe could hear askari cocking their weapons, screaming at each other and their attackers. Philippe lowered himself forward and took aim at the chest of the nearest warrior and squeezed the trigger. The man stumbled forward dropping his cult knife, before his face hit the ground, crumpling in a hideous way, the skin pushing upwards towards his hair, as the rest of his body then added weight behind the fall and it came to an ungainly halt. Philippe watched this with some form of grotesque voyeurism, before his mind was snapped back into the reality around him. With seeming detachment he again raised his pistol and fired into the centre of the next attacker as he hurdled the prostrate body of his companion. This time the recoil meant the bullet hit high on the right shoulder of the man. Bone and blood erupted from a huge gash as it ripped through his muscle. The man screamed and as he turned his head towards where his arm now dangled, he dropped his club at his feet. Philippe didn’t hesitate and fired again, this time at the man’s stomach and he dropped like a stone where he stood.

Philippe heard the attacker’s scream as yet another kaffir came over the fallen bodies in front of him. As he raised his revolver Philippe felt agonising pain in his leg. Firing off a round as he fell, he looked down at his leg. The shock was almost overwhelming; from his left thigh a spear stood bizarrely upright in the air, its head buried deep into his muscle. Philippe grabbed at it in shock and the blade came clear but blood squirted from the wide gash. Everything seemed to be moving in slow motion, Gure had rallied the askari and they were trying to form in a tight group around him in the hollow and seemed to be holding the attackers at bay, although there were a lot of bodies around him. Philippe tried to prop himself up and pull his leg away from the dead attacker. As he did this he noticed another wild eyed kaffir break through the thin defensive line and making directly for him. Philippe raised his revolver, slipping in his hand from the blood which he now noticed covered him almost completely. Detached he wondered whether it was his blood or someone he had shot. He also had thoughts in this compressed time to think whether he was about to die, and disconcertedly this did not worry him, fear was too far in the background masked by adrenalin, pain, noise and a strange sickly metallic smell he felt he should know but could not identify. The new attacker was raising a war club and his wide eyes were fixed on Philippe. Vainly Philippe raised his revolver but it slipped from his hands, the club descended on him, clipping his outstretched hand, which diverted it striking Philippe high on the cheekbone and he fell forward into a pool of mud, his head twisted awkwardly to one side.

Through a dark haze everything around him moved slowly. A naked African stood over him with a crazed, distant look in his eyes, staring down at Philippe. The African lifted a large war club above his head. Philippe knew desperately that he had to move or he was dead, but with all his panic and might he could not manage any movement. A strange feeling of peace came over him, Philippe felt he was not connected to what was happening and was not worried about the consequences other than the anticipated pain of the imminent blow, which he strangely hoped would be brief. He almost felt acceptance of all of this in a dazed way, the coming end and was at peace with it.

There seemed to be an eternity as he watched the savage hover over him, waiting to land the blow. Strangely though, through his clouded vision, he saw the man’s eyes shift away from Philippe in a searching fashion. His attacker stood mutely, unmoving, and then Philippe was showered in blood obscuring his sight and forcing him to spit violently trying to gasp air. A large and dark spot appeared on the man’s chest. Slowly the attacker’s body buckled and he fell forward on top of Philippe, crushing what little air out of Philippe’s lungs.

Philippe could hear a voice somewhere above him, was someone calling his name? Should he respond to whoever it was? Philippe’s whole world was now red-black noise, his head screamed at him in unbearable pain and his body kept bucking and shaking. He tried to open his eyes but for some reason what he wanted his body to do and what actually happened did not match, they were operating in different worlds. One a world of logic and mechanical instructions and responses and the other complete dysfunction, messages being relayed from his consciousness and not being listened to by the unconscious parts of his body. Again he could hear his name being called, but from far away. The ringing in his ears was the only true thing he could cling to. Something cold splashed over his face, this made in wince in pain and terror, was it blood, was he now drowning? Someone or something, was it a beast, had a limb or a paw under his head and he could feel a cloth being rubbed on his face.

‘Philippe, Philippe,’ again the voice called, but it sounded closer now, more reassuring, it was someone caring for him, a voice he knew he should know but for some reason he could not connect to a concrete and recognisable person. Struggling he managed to open his right eye as whoever was with him wiped blood from his forehead and eyes. He had trouble focussing, things looked too close and blurred but it was a relief when he realised he could make out the tunic of a Force Publique officer.

Augustine had brought his reserve quickly to the aid of Philippe’s squad when he saw the trap that had been set for him being sprung. As Messerli went about his wanton destruction of the village and whatever poor unfortunates remained there, the weak and the women, Augustine had laid down fire and quickly crossed the open ground to where Philippe was being overrun. He saw Philippe fall from the spear to the leg, as well as the horrifying scene as the warrior stood over him with the war club, attempting a second blow on the prone body of his friend. Augustine had immediately dropped to his knee, shouldered an Albini and fired off a round, hitting the man fair in the chest. It only took another few seconds to reach the fallen Philippe. Augustine cradled his injured colleague’s head, pouring water from his canteen over his face. There was a frighteningly large gash on Philippe’s cheekbone, with his eye and surrounding face already turning a dark purple colour and blood streaming out of the wound. He could see the clear white bone under ripped flesh. He called to Philippe while gently rocking him. Philippe’s breathing came in large sucking gasps as if he was a fish landed on dry land, trying to suck in as much oxygen as it could.

By now, even though it had been a short but intense period of extreme violence, the skirmish around them had abated, the firepower of the Albinis and the little coordination and military skills the non-comms had managed to drum into the askari, as opposed to the frenetic, primitive and ill-disciplined warfare of their attackers had allowed the small force to survive although grossly outnumbered and then wreak modern warfare on the natives. As it was, Messerli was now moving his squads out of the village in hot pursuit of the attackers. As soon as the village men realised the opposition’s fire was so devastating on them, they had quickly dispersed back into the nearby jungle, leaving their dead and injured crying out where they had fallen.

Philippe tried to rouse himself, deep babbling confused with blood showed he was coming out of his semi-conscious state. ‘Don’t worry, my friend, you are safe and I will get you back to the boat,’ Augustine reassured him, although in his mind he feared for his friend. He got the senior askari to build a makeshift litter for Philippe and the other injured askari. Augustine stood in the centre of what had been until so recently a scene of bloody horror. One askari was dead, and several were seriously injured, but around them lay a large number of the attackers. The coppery smell of blood was in their nostrils and he wondered whether he could ever clear it from his memory. Intermingled with that were the unmistakable traces of fresh meat and shit.

About one hundred metres away Messerli had already captured a handful of stragglers and had them kneeling in front of him. He casually walked behind each man and fired a single round into the back of their heads while screaming something unintelligible in German. Several askari were already cutting the hands from the corpses to claim their bounty. The Company’s bounty was paid by to the soldiers according to the number of hands they collected, and they were eager to make as much money as they could. As they were from distant tribes the savagery and murder they were part of did not affect them, they were merely doing what the officers told them to do and they were simply killing animals.

Messerli had had his troops lay the mutilated bodies of the kaffirs out as if for inspection of his trophies by the proud Force Publique. All neatly laid side by side each other as firewood collected. Having been carefully conveyed in the litter, Philippe was by now propped up against a small tree in the shade not far from this parade. Death here was not some noble ideal but rather a base and obscene outcome. It had taken Messerli almost an hour to have his boys drag the corpses from wherever they lay, even in hollows were they had spent their last precious seconds in abject terror. Philippe still groggy with a pounding headache, could not drag his eyes from the scene before him, he looked closely at the bodies in detached horror. The faces of these people were not serene – they showed what could only have been, in Philippe’s mind, grotesque masks of unimaginable terror fixed on them while the rest of their body was covered in its own loathsome mixture of blood, mangled pieces of meat, piss and shit. Eyes were wide open if somehow the incomprehension of the fatal blow or bullet could be understood better or if at all, capturing for eternity their last conscious comprehension. Large slices of meat hung off arms and hands indicating where in some vain attempt they thought that their own bodies could stop or deflect the dropping panga or thrusting spear. Flies already swarmed over the gaping exit holes where 9mm bullets had sliced through their stomachs or chests, dragging out with it as it exited any flimsy organ it came into contact with or penetrated on its short flight through the native. The smell of death was unpleasant but mixed with the assault of the visual turned Philippe’s stomach. The buzzing of the insects was amplified in the quiet and somewhere in the background there was an unnerving ticking as if nature’s clock was marking the occasion, which had now descended after the last shots and screams of the dying had moved on further into the jungle to be absorbed in that unforgiving entity, fuelling and feeding its needs.

What a difference it was. What were these people up until only a few hours or days earlier – did they realise their fate, were they in anyway aware of their onrushing doom? What was coming towards them with unrelenting, uncaring speed and total indifference to them as people? Did they know they had done any wrong, or the extent of the retribution? Did they know when they were eating their morning meal, playing with their children or simply stretching after a night’s sleep that they would soon be simply a useless piece of ripped meat and bones, lying where they had stood, with other natives and the white officers looking at them as if they were just another dead animal on the side of a jungle path, more worried about the smell and severing of the valuable hands or whether they would need to clean something off their boots than who they actually were? To make matters worse for Philippe, the Force Publique soldiers were continuing with their macabre hacking off of hands from the victims. Back at the station, these soldiers would need to account for every bullet they had expended – one bullet for one dead villager, and their evidence was the right hand of the victim. One was even sawing off ears of the dead and threading them onto a sick and gory necklace as he grinned and held them up for his fellows to marvel at his skill as if he was some child showing off his new watch to his friends. His compatriots nodded and acknowledged his superiority all the while standing and stamping in their countrymen’s blood pooling on the ground. This lack of empathy, the callous non-caring about another human being was starting to affect Philippe. They treated the whole atrocity as if they were higher food chain animals, in some profane comedic parallel world, it was just nature that they were allowed to kill these lesser animals. They feared no God or eternal damnation, there was no authority to whom they answered, who could explain their errors to them. They were in effect rewarded for this horror, multiplying the wrongness and perpetuating the fear for what in effect were simple villagers.

Eventually the blood lust of the afternoon cooled with the rising sun and heat. The team simply walked away from the village carrying Philippe and carefully transporting him for the short trip back down river with the current to the hospital and Philippe blissfully accepted unconsciousness.


Excerpted from "Dis' Taste" by Caven Tootell. Copyright © 2018 by Caven Tootell. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Author Profile

Caven Tootell

Caven Tootell

Caven Tootell is the author of - Dis’ Taste - and avid reader of historical fiction, particularly tales of the conflict between colonial masters and their local population. His passion is to draw out the opposition of the ‘ruling and ruled’ classes both within the expatriates and the locals which drive their interactions and how they live their lives.

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