The Bastet

Bujumbura (1994)

Maryse had her head down on their host’s kitchen table when Hans burst in. She was too tired to think straight, and the afternoon heat of Ngozi was making it worse. “Did you hear? Habyarimana’s plane has crashed. Both Habyarimana and Ntariyama are dead! The Hutus, they are going crazy!”

“What?” she raised her head.

“Oh, shit. Wait!” Jake kicked his ancient chair back, the wheel creaking loudly as it rolled across the wooden floor. “What’s up with the border?”

“It is a mess,” Hans said. “The rebels, they are going insane! The Interahamwe have threatened to kill every Tutsi they can find, and there are already masses of refugees headed across the border! We are too close.”

“Already?” Maryse said.

“News flows fast.” Jake opened his backpack, a ragged canvas thing that Maryse thought had been around since the United Nations had politely “allowed” the Belgians to continue “administering” the state of Burundi. He sneezed suddenly, swore, then reached in and grabbed a hat that pretended to conceal his ears. He pulled out a large, heavy belt, at the bottom of which Maryse saw a gun.

“What are you thinking?” she said.

“I’m going to Kigali. He’s there, Maryse.” Jake didn’t have to say who ‘he’ was. The mystery boy. The missing Bastet, the one that a cameraman had photographed four months earlier, being led along the sidewalk with a rope about his wrists. Jake had told Maryse about the money and the footwork he’d done to learn the name of the man leading the boy. Jake had a name. He had an address. What they didn’t have was authority. “If Dallaire lets Rwanda lose its mind– and he might not have a choice– there’s going to be enough chaos and confusion. I might have a chance.”

“You could get killed, too! And in UNAMIR catches you–“

“What? They’ll kick me out of BTRP?” Jake shook his head. “Maybe. Maybe not. It’s a chance I have to take, Maryse.” He finished buckling the belt on.

“I’m coming.”

“What?”

“I can shoot as well as you, Jake,” she said. “I was riot control. They taught me how to shoot a rifle.”

Hans cleared his throat. “Maryse, the cartoons. You have seen them, yes?”

Maryse had. They were hard to miss since they were everywhere in Burundi. The Hutus had recently started to publish mini cartoons, crudely drawn flyers and even little booklets, that stated outright that when (not “if”, everyone knew) the civil war began, the Tutsi women were going to be the subject of institutional rape. Maryse had not worried too much: she was, by her own admission, painfully white, and wore her blue vest almost religiously, sure it would protect her. The other two members of her UN Bastet Tribal Rescue Program team often did the same.

The UNBTRP mission to Burundi was there to investitage if there were any Bastet in the country illegally being held in indentured servitude. Maryse knew that back in Australia Jake had wealthy backers who could probably buy or bribe any Bastet out of slavery, but that aspect was quietly kept out of the mission assignment. Bastet weren’t difficult to keep out of sight. If a wealthy man wanted to keep a Bastet enslaved, keeping one indoors would not have been difficult, and while the Muslim population of Rwanda was tiny, a chador was not entirely out of place in a city like Kigali.

“I’m still going with you,” she said.

“Then leave your blue,” Jake said.

Hans started, “I cannot believe you are…”

“Hans, hold down the fort. There’ll be refugees. UNHCR’s gonna be here soon. Tell Mr. Nyarimohoro’s that we’ll be back before tomorrow.”

Hans’s eyes flickered from Maryse to Jake.. Despite being tall and broad, Hans was anything but the Teutonic warrior of his background. “It could be 1968 all over again. The Tutsis will flee south and start killing Hutus here.”

“If it is,” Jake said, “Nothing you can do will stop it. Just run, then. C’mon, Maryse.”

They found their truck outside, a sand-colored Land Rover that the pool officer in Sawakin had claimed was built in 1965 and if it survived thirty years, it would survive another thirty. It started with a rattle that Maryse had learned was normal. Jake roared down the countryside.

The truck bounded up the dirt road that ran from Ngozi straight to Kigali. Both Burundi and Rwanda were barely a hundred miles across; the distance from Ngozi to Kigagli was less than seventy, through some of the most beautiful pastureland Maryse had ever seen. She watched with increasing awe as Jake maneuvered the truck around oxcarts laden with straw and sheep with an insane confidence, then pulled back onto KKMR14, the Kicukiro-Kirundo “highway,” which had the distinction of being packed gravel rather than mere dirt. As the truck bounced across ruts and cast dust high into the air a farmer shouted and waved his fist, but Jake ignored him, eyes to the road, focused.

Maryse had known Jake for three months, during their trip first through Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda and finally Burundi. He was an intense young man– tom, she reminded herself– obsessed with his mission of rescuing as many Bastet as he could possibly find. He was also a beautiful man, like many Bastet, strong-bodied with lean arms and a long neck up to a head of dark hair cropped obscenely short. Every Bastet Maryse had ever seen in a magazine or on TV, male or female, had long hair. It complemented their ears. The buzz cut made Jake’s ears stand out like sonar dishes even though they were broad and low compared to many Bastet’s.

KKMR14 had been completed four years earlier by a UN mandate, a commerce road linking Burugumi and Kigali, the capitals of Burundi and Rwanda, in the hopes of furthering trade. Both countries were among the poorest in the world, with painfully short lifespans cut even shorter by the emergence of AIDS throughout Africa.

It was AIDS that made the Bastet so much a commodity. Bastet didn’t get the disease. In fact, none of the thousands of diseases that commonly afficted human beings ever seemed to bother Bastet. That made them valuable and rare in those parts of the world that still practiced slavery, especially sex slavery, and even in places where it was officially banned. Like Rwanda. The BTRP had field agents everywhere in Africa these years, eight years after the Sudanese government had turned its back on the Tribal Bastet and let the poachers take what they wanted. The destruction had been horrific, and the Bastet had fought back, but in the end the results had been inevitable. The UN Commission on Human Rights was now “protecting” thousands of Bastet in squalid conditions on the Egyptian side of the Sudan-Egypt border, but thousands more Bastet had “disappeared” into the modern African slave trade.

The drive descended into rhythmic impacts. Jake would swerve around someone in the road, the overpowered horn screaming, and Maryse would find herself swaying inside the cabin. Sometimes she’d sway against Jake’s body, thudding against the iron build of his shoulders and hips, before pushing herself back into her seat. The truck had no shoulder belts.

They drove into the dark. The road became empty. They stopped at the border control point and nobody was there to take their passports or their bribes. They were really on their own, outside of their mandate. “If we don’t get back with the truck, Hans will kill us,” she said. “Jake, is this really worth it?”

“Yes,” he said. “Yes, it’s worth it.” He pushed down the gas, and the truck hit its limit. “Maryse, how many Bastet are there in the world?”

“I don’t know. A million?”

“Something like that. Every one of us counts. Every one of us, killed by one of you, is… is… ” His mouth compressed hard. “There are as many Bastet in the world as there are Australian IPs, but you people have been scattering us across the world. There are fewer Bastet in Africa, our birthplace, then there are in the US. Every one counts. Every one. Why are you here?”

Maryse had a pat answer. It didn’t feel right anymore. “I don’t know. I wanted to make a difference. I guess after the Navy I wanted to get out of France, too. See the world. Africa was exotic, and volunteering for a French-paid UN mission seemed like the ticket. The BTRP was just what was available. It’s a good cause, I guess.”

“It is. It is to me,” Jake said.

“I can’t believe we’re driving into this.”

“It’s forty-eight klicks to Kigali. Hold on.”

They saw people running along the sides of the road. They encountered no other vehicles until they were less than six kilometers from the city’s edge. Two trucks filled with soldiers passed going the other way, men with wide eyes and eager faces. “There’s going to be a slaughter. Jake!”

“We’ll make it. This is all we have to do. I know exactly where the house is.” He reached under the seat. “Put this on the roof. Turn it on first.”

“Where did you get that?” Mayrse asked as Jake handed her what looked like a blue police light. It had a heavy base, and after turning it on she felt its magnetic tug against the car door.

“Sawakin. Thought it might come in handy.”

“We are so in trouble.”

“Only if we get caught,” Jake said.

Kigali was on fire. Not everywhere, and not just in one place, but the glow rising from specific places told Maryse that the fighting had already begun. “Jake!” she screamed as he did one of his his insane dodges around a body in the road. It had lacked a head.

Jake was looking at a sheet of paper with a hand-drawn map on it. The ramshackle sheds made of mudbrick and gypsum gave way to modern constructions and then up into compounds. They saw few people, but Maryse heard gunshots in the distance. Jake stopped the truck. “It’s just the beginning,” he said. “It’ll get worse soon.” He glanced left, then right. “There,” he said, pointing to one house back from the road, an iron fence and scrag grass protecting it from the unwashed masses. The fence gate had been torn off its hinges, door was open, and the windows smashed. “Oh, no.”

He dove out of the truck, taking the keys with him, pistol in hand. He moved like a soldier, head down. Maryse didn’t know how to be a soldier. She’d been a sailor, and a riot control officer, and it had all been play-acting. This was different. Gunfire erupted somewhere, less than a block away, and she shrieked and ducked behind the truck’s dashboard. Nothing hit the truck, and she scrambled to get out and follow Jake into the house.

There was blood in the front room. Four bodies. Two men and two children had been hacked to death in this tiny, hot room with an Afghani carpet and Victorian wallpaper. It stank of blood and metal, of shit and death. She tried not to look at the bodies or the small ceramic bowls, the remains of their last meal. Her throat constricted, holding out the disgust, preparing her to vomit. “None of them are him!” Jake snarled. “I’ll check the basement. Maryse, check upstairs!”

“What?” She was shocked. She hadn’t expected him to order her, but he was right, that was what they should do to get out of there quickly.

“Go!” he roared. She saw the stairs, an attached flight leading up, and she took them three at a time. She found three small rooms, and all were empty. Dressers were overturned, beds stripped, closets ransacked. There was a door at the end.

Inside was a small bathroom. A Bastet tom was there, body thrown across the toilet. He was naked from the waist down, and his hollow eyes stared at her in one last plea for mercy. Blood had streamed down his cheeks and dried there. It took Maryse several seconds to register what the bloody white revelation of his skull meant. The boy had been scalped.

She screamed.

“Maryse!” She heard footsteps running, and Jake caught her as she threw herself back into the hallway, her body heaving as her empty stomach tried to reject whatever it was she’d just taken in through her eyes. She couldn’t unsee that. She’d never forget that.

Jake let her slump on the floor, then checked the bathroom. “Oh, cursed river,” he groaned.

When they got back outside, two men were looking at the truck. They held only crude machetes. “Get away,” Jake yelled in perfect French. They turned to look at him, raised their knives. He raised his gun. “Go!”

They ran. “Get in,” he said. “Get in now.”

Maryse, still dazed, did as he said, her hands moving slowly. “Here,” he growled and pulled the belt buckle across her lap before slamming the truck into reverse. “Hold on!” Jake backed up fast, then tore the truck around in a maneuver she’d only ever seen in movies. They were rolling out of Kigali. They passed a church on fire. Men milled about it, holding machetes and rifles. They watched the truck go by with only passing interest.

“They aren’t attacking us?”

“They don’t want USAMIR coming down on them. The fewer atrocities they direct toward blueheads the better,” Jake said.

“How do they knew we’re blueheads?”

“You’re white,” he said.

“So’re you, from a distance.”

Jake snorted.

The trip back was slower. There were more refugees on the road, now, and at the border Jake was forced to say “USAMIR” and pay a bribe, but they got back into Burundi. Jake said nothing the entire trip. They reached Mr. Nyarimohoro’s house after midnight.

Mr. Nyarimohoro was their UN host, a nominally wealthy man paid by the UN to house their UNBTRP mission when they passed through the Ngozi district. His home, a two-story affair, had room enough now that he had no children living within. He met them on the porch, standing with his cane. “Did you find what you looked for, yes?”

“No,” Jake said, passing by.

Hans came bounding out. “You’re alive!” Maryse nodded. “You didn’t find him?”

“We did, they, he was killed. Already. When we found his body. It, I can’t–” She didn’t want to put into words what she’d seen. She wanted to forget it. She wanted to erase it. She had wanted to do something that would mean something, but there was no meaning in a world that allowed what she had just seen to happen. What she had seen was a tiny fraction of the horror that would engulf Rwanda tonight, just as it had destroyed the country nearly thrity years earlier.

She went upstairs and knocked on Jake’s door. “Jake?” There was no answer, so she pushed the door open. Jake was lying in his bed, curled into a tight fetal position, his back to the door. She sat down on the bed and put a hand on his shoulder. She could feel him sobbing. “Jake?”

He didn’t answer. She wanted to do something. It wasn’t a desire to ease the loss he felt, or to erase her own growning disgust with other human beings. It was just a desire to do something, to fill the time that passed. To provide a distraction.

She ran her hands down his back, softly. “Pet me,” he mumbled.

“What?” She wasn’t sure if she’d heard him correctly.

“Pet me,” he said again. “Harder. Like… like you would a cat.”

“Jake, this isn’t really the time–“

Please.”

She ran her fingers down his back, through the sweaty cotton shirt. She felt curiously better for doing just that, so she did the motion again. Jake’s sobbing eased. She used both hands, running them along his spine from his neck down to his beltline, over and over. The miserable ball that was Jake Lyon Hull eased, and a soft purring began to emerge among the fading sobs, until the sobs were gone and only the hum remained.

He was so beautiful. Bastet often were, legendarily so. There had been magic in the world once, or so both historians and scientists agreed, and the Bastet were one of the few true artifacts of that period to survive, but they were such an artifact, so lovely and so lonely. She could feel that magic running up her hands as she stroked his back, felt the muscles and bones underneath, a cool sensation, an electrical sensation, like playing with white light.

Jake turned over. He tried to smile, but the devastation in his eyes only helped resurrect within her the feelings, but not the memories, of what she had seen.

He reached out to touch her face, and then… did she try to kiss him? Did he try to kiss her? She couldn’t remember. It just happened, they were together, Jake held her in his tameless embrace and their mouths were pressed together, lips crushed to lips crushed against the teeth in ways that should have hurt but didn’t, and they were falling, falling to the creaking, ancient bed that bore them both. Maryse tore at his clothing, he tore at hers, and soon they were both naked on the bed.

He entered her in a single, simple stroke, and she gasped as his cock speared up into her sorrow and broke her open. It poured out of her in tears. “Maryse?” he asked.

“Fuck me,” she whispered.

His mouth closed on hers, his chest pressed her hers, and his cheeks slid against hers on spit and tears as they coupled desperately, humanely. She surrendered to whatever it was Jake needed at the moment because she needed to surrender. She needed to give up. She opened herself to him, wrapped her legs around his thighs, and held him inside her. Someone beautiful was inside her, displacing her sorrow, her horror, and she welcomed him. As his cock slid in and out of her the passion she felt became more real, more now. Jake’s thrusts grew in intensity. Jake’s needs dragged Maryse back to reality and she held him as he came, hard. His cry of release was accompanied by her own, final sob of joy.

He held her for a long time, his cock shrinking within her, falling out, a dribble of fluid behind it. Maryse hadn’t had sex with anyone in almost two years, and her body informed her that that had been too long. When he finally pushed himself off she felt as if she could breathe again, and then wondered why she hadn’t noticed before that she couldn’t.

He was still beautiful. She hadn’t expected that. He didn’t look right with his hair so short, she wished to see in him the sweet, silly dishevelment of lovemaking, but the beauty of his face and the grace of his body still overwhelmed her.

She had a chance now to see it naked, all of it, as he lay beside her, face down. “What happened?” he said. She looked at his tail, the sudden uneven emergence of a patch of white fur at the cleft of his ass curling away in a thick, expressive stretch of muscle and bone. Jake usually kept it hidden inside his pants, tucked away along one pantleg. It was longer than his leg. How did that work?

“I don’t know,” she said. She felt guilty, like she’d taken something from him she wasn’t sure was hers to ask. She touched his face, and he smiled at her. “We could do it again.”

“It wouldn’t happen the same twice.”

“I know,” she said, and the sadness settled again on her shoulders. “I should go.” She shifted to the edge of the narrow bed. He caught her by the wrist. “What?”

“Thanks. I appreciate it.”

She nodded. She went back to the room Mr. Nyarimohoro had given he, with its own tiny bed and looked out the window. It was dark in Africa, she though. Moonless tonight, as dark as the frenzy that consumed Rwanda. Jake was right: it was going to get worse. The UN wouldn’t do anything about the killing.

She tried sleeping, failed. She pulled on shorts and her safari shirt, and went outside to the porch to listen.

She heard only the sounds of a village at night. A clink here, the shuffling of feet to an outhouse there. A door creaked. She heard footsteps behind her, then felt something tap her arm. “Anaesthetic?” Jake asked her.

She smiled in the dark and reached up, wrapping her hand around something metallic. A beer can. “Where’d you find this?” she asked.

“Bujumbura,” he said.

“Do Bastet drink?”

“Poorly,” he said, cracking open his can. She found the poptop on her can, pulled it open, listened to the brief hiss of escaping bubbles. The beer was strong, locally brewed. He sat down next to her, kicking up the smell of dust around both of them. “Like everyone else.”

“Jake, I’m sorry.”

“One in six thousand. The numbers got worse today.” He took a deep drink of his beer. “And I’m sorry you saw that. I shouldn’t have asked you to go.”

“You didn’t. I told you I wanted to go. I lied to go.”

“About?”

“About being able to shoot. They taught me how to shoot in riot control in Paris, yes, but only beanbag guns. Shooting someone in anger? To kill? No.”

“You didn’t have to.”

“We were lucky.”

“We were early. Early to the massacre,” he said. “Before they’d gotten their shit together. Before they figure out they can shoot at anyone with impunity.”

She decided to change the subject. She didn’t want to think too much about what had happened today. Didn’t want the harrowing bloody vision of that Bastet boy in her mind for the rest of her life. She wanted to remember only the sweetness of Jake’s body against hers. It wasn’t affirmation or replacement, only dilution. “Hans joked that you were famous. What was that about?”

“Me?” Jake snorted. “I’m not famous. My grandparents, now they were famous. Jake Hull was a US sailor who settled down in Australia after the war and adopted a Bastet tabby– that’s what they called it, adoption– and her kits. We don’t get along, Bastet toms and tabbies. Actually, Bastet toms don’t usually get along well with other Bastet of any kind.” He laughed. “It’s in our nature. We’re territorial. I would have held that down, I would have controlled myself, I would have done anything to get that Bastet out of there.

“Anyway, my grandparents. There’s a big romantic story– a true one, too, I’m told– about how Grandpa Jake and my Bastet grandfather, Lyon, saved my grandmother from South Seas pirates on a deserted island. There was a gun battle and everything. But after that, they settled in Darwin. Jake became active in both the gay rights and Bastet rights movements in the fifties and sixties. Famous for it. The pirate story brought him to the attention of the press, and he used that attention really well to make the case for civil reform.” Jake took another sip of beer. “It was good, but bad in a way.”

“How come?”

“Because he linked the two issues in everyone’s mind. Now whenever an Aussie thinks of Bastet rights, he automatically thinks of gay rights to, and thinks about the promiscuity of gay men and AIDS and all that and somehow it’s the Bastet’s fault, or vice versa. Most people don’t know what they think. I hope you guys find a cure soon.” He turned his head to look out over Ngozi. “Poor Hans. He’s so straight it’s painful. Straight in that German misery way, like German opera is straight.”

Maryse laughed. “That’s mean, Jake. But you’d do him if he weren’t? Are all Bastet like that? I mean, promiscuous?”

“Sure, why not? Whatever it is that made us, we’re safe from you, from everything. And you’re safe from us. Why not boink our brains out? Besides, I think it’s more than that. I had a lover once– big woman, gorgeous– and she told me that she had gone from twenty to forty raising kids, and now she had another ten or twenty years to be as slutty as she wanted to be. It must be nice to have that. To know that you will live that long. To be able to have kids at thirty and know you’ll be able to see them off to college.

“When you turn fifteen, you know you have, if you’re ordinary, maybe fifty or sixty years to figure life out. I don’t. I have half that; twenty-five to thirty. The Great River is waiting, Maryse. I have only so much time to get all my living in.” He sniffed, and she heard the sadness. “Poor kid didn’t even get that.”

Maryse slid over next to him and put her head on his shoulder. “I’m sorry, Jake.”

“Yeah, me too.” He kissed the top of her head. “We can do it again if you want.”

“I would want.”

“It’s not like a privilege or anything.”

“Yes it is,” she said. “One in six thousand.”

“Mmmm.”