about the author

Tres Crow is the world’s foremost authority on zombie mating rituals and as such spends most of his time in the field learning human brain recipes. His notes from the field can be found, or are forthcoming, in Ascent Aspirations, Shine Journal, Full of Crow, Conceit, Foundling Review, as well as the Web site Metalsucks.net. He can be found online at his blog Dog Eat Crow World.

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The Devil’s Courtyard

Tres Crow

According to the law, cutting off hands as punishment is strictly forbidden. Of course, we all know that’s bullshit. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. I’ve never stopped it, but I’ve seen it.

Commander Léon stalks about camp with his leather boots and chicotte, his eyes as faded by the sun as the sides of the steamboats that travel up and down the river, bringing guns and ammunition and caviar, leaving with rubber and ivory, charred hands. His mustache is a dirty, brown curtain drawn over yellowed teeth, a curtain which only pulls back when he’s angry, as though anger were a play or an amusing show. His skin is tanned so deeply he’s almost indistinguishable from our nigger porters, or the waifs who beg pathetically at his feet in their heathen language. Only the chicotte separates him from them, and he wields it like a scepter. He’s had malaria six times, and dysentery twice, and is now as wan and gaunt as Death himself, without half the mercy.

I came to this God-forsaken country to be just like Léon, to escape the inherited poverty of my father and my father’s father, to kick someone else, instead of being kicked, to eventually come home to Belgium after my six years of service with medals and money and a respect no one could ever take away from me. The first time I saw Léon use the chicotte it was I alone who chained the wretch to the bars, though he screamed and kicked and gibbered. I didn’t vomit when the flesh was ripped from his bones, or when his blood mixed with the dust, and I didn’t turn back when he called to me and begged me to unchain him before night fell. That was a year ago and there have been many more men since, left through the night chained and bleeding in a jungle that does not end, and does not forgive.

As of today I only have five years and 163 days left until I can go home.

In Belgium I was always cold. I was raised in a small town on the coast, where the long waves of the North Sea slowly broke the bones of the cliffs, beat-by-beat an inexorable drum stealing bits of earth away for the sea, signaling the dying of a continent. The air was always salty, and wet, and cold, and even as a boy I promised myself that one day I would live somewhere where it was warm, where the sun would burn the chill from my heart forever.

I’ve had malaria for thirteen days; my bed feels like smoldering coals and there are flies wriggling under my skin, real or imagined, I’ve no idea. The netting over my bed can’t keep out the bugs, spiders as large as my hand, centipedes like bananas. I shiver even as I sweat through my bedding. In all directions the jungle is both fence and infinity; every day, I see the same thing—trees, vines, smoke on the horizon, natives I neither understand nor respect—and the sheer size of it all is as oppressive as any cell. I can feel these walls closing in even as they expand outward forever.

Most mornings now I wake up with the ghost-kiss of that Belgian breeze on my stubbled cheeks, wondering whether the wetness there is sweat or tears. I try to not think about what I’ve seen or done, as I grab my hat and rifle and step once more into the angry African sun. I know now there will be no medals for me, no money worth having; respect is but a hollow bell clanging in my ears. I have no calendar, but I leave charcoal Xs on the wall of my room. I only have five years and 163 days left until I can leave this place. But I know now I can never really go home.

Surely this is the Devil’s courtyard; boldly into the foyer I tread, my heart as cold as the day I left home.

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