Men with guns turn up in the village two weeks later. Tardy, thinks Joshua, as he walks out from the west gate to meet them.
He makes a show of handing his hunting rifle to Daniel, who waits at the village entrance. Joshua is a big man, tall, straight back, imposing. He is dressed formally in a white shirt and an ukara, a light tie-dyed sheet featuring interlocking blue and white triangles and nsibidi symbols coloured in black, knotted around his waist.
The outfit is old-fashioned and impractical, but nsibidi still carries connotations of superstition and fear. Something else to keep the militia from staying too long.
He plants his feet firmly in the path.
There are fifteen men in the squad, each dressed in loose-fitting, dirty, green-camouflage overalls. Five of them are no more than boys and look clumsy and awkward in the heavy fabric. They each carry cellulosic AK-47 hybrids, the grips split and broken almost to nothing from the low-quality printing. Only one has shoes: ill-fitting and cracked boots that must be unpleasant to walk in. Only he carries his rifle in his hands. The rest wear them slung over their backs, across the small satchels that must carry their provisions, tied with rope and old straps.
The radio operator’s rucksack, with its aerial sticking up at a jaunty angle, looks like it might once have been military issue; the other bags appear to be from local markets.
Village scouts have been tracking these men for most of the day from when they first entered the southern hunting range claimed by Ewuru. They are lightly armed and the battery in the radio is dead, so the soldiers are out of contact this far from Calabar.
A patrol who do not expect to be resisted.
‘Welcome to Ewuru, my brothers,’ Joshua says when he judges them sufficiently close. Behind him he can sense scouts closing across the entrance to the village. There is an artillery emplacement set back from the wall, protected by rock and trees, covering the path. Others will be observing from the jungle further back and behind the soldiers.
‘I’m Rinier Pazzo, captain of these men,’ says the man in boots. He is short, wiry, and his eyes around black irises are yellow and bloodshot. If he notices the hostility of the villagers he regards it as ordinary.
Soldiers do not visit to protect. If one is lucky, they will only be passing through.
‘Captain Pazzo, is there something we may assist you with?’
Pazzo appears to see the village for the first time. He motions to his radio operator. The others take this as a signal to break rank, and they straggle over to the canal above the cassava field, just off the path. They scoop water on to their faces and drink.
Joshua is grateful that the water the soldiers have chosen to potentially infect with typhoid is not part of the village drinking supply.
The radio operator pulls out a map, faded, muddy, torn at the folds, and opens it out. Remarkably, the organic ink still works. Pazzo points at a line marked in red going up the Akwayafe River and drags the view until Ewuru is in the centre. ‘We’ve been following this trail for the last few days. We’re looking for something which fell out of the sky near here, perhaps two weeks ago.’
‘Yes, we saw it. We thought it might be debris falling from orbit. It took us a few days to find.’ Joshua pauses and shrugs his shoulders. ‘We are not sure if what we found is it, but beyond that point is further than we are comfortable travelling.’
Pazzo smirks. ‘You villagers are too nervous. Too scared.’ He laughs, revealing the remnants of a few surviving blackened and yellow teeth. The boys by the water canal immediately laugh too, the sound jarring and forced like the hacking of feral dogs. Joshua simply bows his head.
‘You’re right. It may not be it, but show it to us anyway,’ says Pazzo. ‘Now.’
‘Certainly.’ Joshua turns away from the soldiers for the first time. His eyes find Esther, Isaiah holding her hand. He smiles at them, loving them. ‘Daniel,’ he calls, ‘bring me my rifle and a few men to help us clear a path.’
Pazzo nods at the others, who hastily assemble. ‘How long will it take us to get there?’
‘Perhaps two and a half hours. It is in a gully at the edge of our normal hunting range.’
Daniel approaches slowly, keeping the rifle clearly visible and in front of him. No need to antagonize the soldiers.
‘We will stay the night in your village. Have food ready for us when we return,’ says Pazzo. There is a hint of menace in the statement.
Joshua could refuse, but this demand has been expected and prepared for. Out of contact and heavily outnumbered, the squad is no threat to the village. If they were to go missing, especially after following a clear path up the river, a more heavily armed band could be sent to find them, and they would not be as easy to distract. Best to show them something interesting, but not too interesting, feed them and see them on their way.
‘Of course,’ says Joshua. ‘Shall we go?’
Pazzo glares at him and then at the men blocking the entrance to Ewuru. He snorts, blowing a jet of mucus on to the path, conveying how much he despises these villages, these people. In any other place, soldiers would take what they wish, but the free villages’ capacity for self-defence makes such behaviour unwise.
He gestures for Joshua to take the lead. Five men accompany the soldiers: sufficient to be difficult, not so many as to make the men with guns feel threatened. Daniel brings up the rear as they walk around the outer village wall, past the maize field and into the jungle.
This is all show. Scouts are concealed in the trees along the route. The soldiers will not be permitted to cause any opportunistic trouble.
The soldiers are not that fit, and the men of Ewuru deliberately slow, pretending to struggle to keep pace. Joshua leads them by a longer, slightly circuitous route, adding to any difficulty Pazzo may have in finding the exact place again. He notes that they have no automated navigation and only rudimentary map-reading skills. He shakes his head. Their ruse is almost wasted on these men.
‘What is it?’ asks Pazzo.
‘I am sorry we are not as strong as you,’ says Joshua carefully.
‘We are getting close now,’ says Daniel, hacking at a thin branch that has fallen across the route they have selected. Pazzo motions at his radio operator, who is holding their map. They look up at the sun through the branches and then at a cheap plastic watch that Pazzo pulls out of a grubby pocket. Dead-reckoning is not accurate beneath the trees, but they can see they have travelled roughly north-east, the route that witnesses told them to follow.
‘That is clever, knowing our direction like that,’ says Joshua, hoping that he is not going too far, but Pazzo expects flattery. He treats him to another black-toothed smirk.
‘Just over this next hill.’
On the night of the fall, two weeks ago, and immediately after securing the crash site, Daniel began searching the jungle for a sizeable rock they could use. It needed to be a single piece, irregularly shaped and sufficiently hard to at least appear as if it could have fallen from space.
Late that same night, in the sweltering blackness beneath the tree canopy, they found something suitable. The boulder was completely overgrown and partly buried in the ground. A group of scouts worked till morning, destabilizing and cutting trees, clearing and scraping earth to make it look as if a meteorite had fallen. As first light was creeping through the tree canopy, they carefully removed all traces of their presence. The jungle was left to reclaim the space, and each day of new growth would date the damage.
‘Interesting.’ Pazzo squats at the beginning of the path carved in smashed trees. The soldiers fan out down the trench.
One of the young militia pulls up a plant and holds it to his face, then plucks and chews on one of the leaves. ‘Captain, these plants are only growing a week or two. This is a fresh clearing.’ He grins, his few teeth splayed out and manually sharpened. It is a mystery as to how he eats without injuring himself.
‘Where’s the debris?’
Daniel unglues himself from the spectacle of those teeth and says, ‘It is about fifty metres along, below where the earth has been pushed up into that lip,’ leading the way.
They walk towards the rock. It is pitted, the fissures filled with green, slimy water and the surface caked in mud. It is not overly large, a big boulder, maybe four metres wide where it sticks out of the ground.
Pazzo kicks it, then knocks it with his rifle. ‘Have you tried moving it?’
Joshua is seeing it for the first time, impressed at the work Daniel and his team performed on such short notice.
‘It weighs several tons. We are not moving it,’ he says.
‘What’s it made of? Don’t you think it could be valuable?’
‘Not that we are able to see.’ Joshua nods towards Daniel, who hands him a curved machet. ‘I will show you,’ and strikes down with the back of its long blade.
There is a ringing chime and a flat groove is left in the rock. A chip flies on to the ground. It is a muted grey-brown. Pazzo scowls at it, picking it up. ‘Can’t you tell if there are minerals in the rock?’
‘No, we do not have such technology, and we would be unable to process it even if we did. You and your men are welcome to take it if you wish.’
Pazzo appears to consider this, but he knows it is too heavy for his small band. Besides, his men would probably refuse even if it were possible. Best to leave it to the jungle. He puts the chip in his pocket so he has some evidence of what he has seen.
Unfolding his map again he studies it intensely, as if it will somehow show him where he is. There are maps with built-in positioning; this is not one of them.
‘Where are we?’ he asks eventually.
Joshua looks at the map, estimates and marks a spot. It is much further east than their real location, adding to any future navigation difficulties. Pazzo saves it.
‘We had reports of something that might have fallen somewhere near here. Our Awbong thought it might be valuable and we could sell it to the printers. It looks like we weren’t lucky this time.’
He looks around the clearing again and sighs. ‘Let’s go back to the village. My men will be tired and hungry.’
The soldiers are bored and subdued on the walk back and pay little attention to the route. They have spent two weeks searching, and the meteorite is an anticlimax. They will have nothing to show when they get back to Calabar, and Pazzo will have an angry Awbong to placate.