José Migeul Pereira drifts upwards, weightless, free. He’s not concerned. He has no pain.
He doesn’t know what exactly happened. Didn’t see Pedro’s leg tremble, tremble…and move. Vaguely recalls the second click as the toggle switch moved upward, sending the electrical signal to the M18 mine. Didn’t – couldn’t – see the mine strapped to a tree, its killing face pointed to the track at waist height. Didn’t even hear the explosion where he was crawling along the ground, following the wire.
One moment he was busy sweeping sand off the concealed wire, the next he is floating above his bleeding body. Weightless. Free.
Oh, he can see his damaged body, no question about it. There’s blood on the left side of his face. A lot of it. The left side of his shirt is also soaked in blood, some of it forming a small pool in the soft sand. This doesn’t worry him at all. No pain, just free.
A voice? Here? Who?
“It’s me.” Two words, explaining everything.
And suddenly he is aware of the ship’s captain in front of him. Why didn’t he notice the handsome man in the old-fashioned uniform before? And yet, there he is! Exactly the picture of his father, the one he never knew but always thought would look just like this.
“That’s right, son. Me. I’ve always been there, remember?”
José is confused. What is happening?
“Relax, José. Just be. Accept.”
“But…but why? How?” The questions flood his consciousness.
“To reassure you, son. You’ve always been lonely. You’ve had a hard life and became bitter as a result. And you’ve still not forgiven Manuel or Matron Anna.” The captain shrugs. “You’ll never move on unless you do so, José.”
“Move on? To what?” José experiences a touch of anger. “I’ve been abused, used, belittled all my life and….”
“Shhhh…” Is there any other way to describe the captain’s eyes, other than kind and sympathetic? Even – the thought surprises José – loving? “Hush now son. You had to endure unspeakable hardship for you to understand what you have to do. In a short while you’re going to face a difficult situation. I want you to think about what I just said when the time comes, José. It is very, very important. And then, when you are confronted by that choice, you’ll make the right decision.”
The image of the captain seems to waver, fade, as he draws back.
“Wait! Papa! Don’t leave me…again?’
“I’ve never left you, José. I’ll always be there…”
And then, suddenly, the captain is gone.
Voices… Other voices. Urgent words. Lots of voices.
Then men appear, running towards him. A few stop to stare at the mangled body of Pedro. One bends over to vomit. Others just stand there in shock, staring.
But two men rush to his side to turn him over. They wipe away blood, working silently. The medical kit gets opened. They put up a drip, managing with the third try.
“His rucksack and radio saved him,” the one says, “and most of the shrapnel went right over him. He was too near the tree and the mine was too high… Lucky devil!”
“Poor Pedro,” the other one murmurs, “he didn’t stand a chance.”
José feels himself drawn back to his body. He wants to resist, to remain in this state of blissful peace, but the pull to return is just too strong. He feels a different darkness approaching and surrenders to it.
The pain is excruciating.
José wants to open his eyes, but something is wrong. Even when he tries focussing, all he can see is black. He wants to scream, but he only manages a protracted, croaking groan.
“You’re awake?” The voice is soft, a woman’s voice. Where the hell did she come from?
“Are you in pain?”
He manages another croak and a nod.
“I’ll give you something.”
The darkness returns.
Time passes. How long? He’s not sure. Time has no meaning. When he becomes aware again, the pain is less. Mainly his head, also his chest. It’s still dark.
“Welcome back, José Pereira. Feeling better?” The same voice. Kind. Soft.
“Yes.” The words comes out slowly over his dry tongue. “Th…th…thirsty…”
“Here.” He feels a straw on his lips. Sucks. It’s Coke! His favourite… He drinks eagerly, smacking his lips.
“How…how did you…know?”
Soft giggle. “The Coke? Comrade Vasily told he. Said I had to keep it at your bedside.”
“Dark..why is it…dark?”
“You’ve got a million bandages over your head, José Pereira. The doctors had to operate to get the pieces of iron out of your face. You’re a very lucky man, José. Or you have a powerful guardian angel.”
“I’m Maria da Silva, José. Your private nurse, Comrade Vasily must like you a lot, he’s payng me well.”
And then, in bits and pieces, she allows him to assemble the puzzle to understand what’s happened in the last fourteen days. How the men got the radio working again, to notify their basecamp what’s happened. How Comrade Vasily twisted arms, called in favours and almost shot Chung to get a helicopter to fetch José. How he was taken to Luanda where the Cuban doctors spent eight hours – eight hours! – operating on his face and fixing his ruptured lung. And how she sat there, day after day, praying for him to get better.
“I did your bandages yesterday evening, José. The doctors…well, they did a marvellous job. When you came in, you were quite a mess. Now you’ll only have a scar over your left cheek. I think you’re going to be even more handsome for it.”
Despite the circumstances, José finds himself smiling beneath the bandages. She’s got such a beautiful voice…
“And Comrade Vasily… Does he know I’m okay?”
“Oh yes! I have to phone him twice a day. He’s really worried about you, you know? He said he’d be off this weekend, then he’d come and visit you.”
When José feels himself drifting off into a slumber again, he nearly didn’t hear her question.
“José? Your records show you’re an orphan. But you know? The funniest thing happened. Right after you returned from the operating theatre, A man came to visit you. A sailor, I think. He didn’t look old enough, but he said he was your father. He stood there, silently, looking down at you. Then he asked for a glass of water. I fetched it. When I returned, he was gone… Do you know such a man, José?”
Jose Migeul Pereira feels how the tension drains from his body. He also knows exactly what to do.
“Please, Maria? Will you ask a priest to visit me? I haven’t been to confession for…such a long time. I need to put a matter straight.”
And then, he thinks, if there are difficult decisions ahead, he’ll be ready.
Sometimes it s so easy to say we’ll do the right thing. And sometimes, when faced with a difficult choice, we back off, knowing the price is too high. It is fair to assume that José Migeul Pereira had no idea how much he’d have to sacrifice if he wanted to be true to his intentions.