Sandor Jaszberenyi: THE BLAKE PRECEPT

photo by Lujza Juhász photo by Lujza Juhász

 

THE BLAKE PRECEPT

 

I was in Abeche, Chad. I was supposed to fly to ‘Djamena, but two days before my departure the Habub descended. It came savagely from above Darfur, and under the orders of the UN, all flights were cancelled for safety reasons. The locals knew it was coming; their camels wouldn’t drink, they just stamped their hooves restlessly and shook themselves loose from their ropes. One camel kicked a boy in the chest who had dared to get too close, breaking four ribs. Within moments, the streets were empty of people.

I was standing in the airport, ready to go, when the news was broadcast. “Don’t be too distressed,” said the pilot, who was standing next to me. He informed me that within spitting distance was a Legion base, and its commanding officer was quite an affable guy. I might be able to pass the night there while the storm calmed, and I might even get something to drink in the canteen. With nothing else to do, I gathered myself and started walking towards the base, which was perhaps two kilometers from the airport. As I went, the sky covered over, and the wind began to blow with terrifying strength. Soon the clouds were so full of dust, it seemed like it was night, though it was still early afternoon.

And then came the sand. It burned when it hit, and there was no keeping it from getting in my boots and under my clothing, where it scoured my skin into blood-red scrapes. It took a concerted effort just to make my way down the short road, as I continually had to stop and wipe sand from my eyes and clean it from my ears. When I arrived at the legion’s double-gated, modern fortress, I was virtually blind. The man on guard pointed his gun at me and began shouting. He left his post to better see who I was. It wasn’t an easy job, because the storm was raging ever stronger, and every exposed part of me was painted by sand: I might have been anybody. When he realized I wasn’t a local, he let me in, directing me towards the building marked by the words ‘Nihil Obstat.’ There I would find the canteen, and in it I would find the base’s commander. And so I went.

In the canteen sat a man dressed in typical combat fatigues, gaping at the storm. He greeted me, and I introduced myself and explained my predicament. He was indeed a nice person–and French–Jules Lacroix was his name. He was the commander, and the highest ranking of the four hundred or so legionaries stationed there. Without asking, he put food in front of me and brought a bowl of water, so I could wash the sand from my face and hands. He immediately proposed that I stay in the camp for as long as the Habub held us in its grips. He would arrange everything, upon the condition that I attend an evening poker party with the officers. I saw no reason why not, and we laughed and shook hands on the deal. He then invited me to his quarters, where he offered me whisky and beer. We drank four beers each, and only then did I begin to relax. Outside the storm wailed with its full force.

We talked about Africa, Europe, and anything that came to mind. He was pleased to have my company, as he rarely saw Europeans in these parts, especially those who weren’t on the run from the law, though these sorts were mostly already serving under him. For six years, he hadn’t set foot outside of Africa. He was a generous sort, and listened attentively when I told of my own travels. He mostly spoke of the difficulty in living there, the unit’s losses, the tropical sickness, and how Africa was like a huge branding iron, leaving its stamp on anybody who happened to find their way near the equator…A knock came at the door, and young conscript entered.

“Commander, ten of the men would like to go into town for some R and R,” he said and clicked his heels. The commander momentarily looked over the conscript, and then assented with a wave of his hand. I watched on in amazement. I couldn’t imagine that anybody would want to be out in this storm. Before the conscript left the room, the commander called after him, “Remind them that the Blake Precept is in effect!” He noted my expression, and leaned back in his chair, lit a cigarette, and reminded me that this was the French Foreign Legion. His men could eat this little storm for breakfast. “But much more interesting is the Blake Precept,” he said, and poured us both another whiskey. He lifted his glass and said, “Let’s drink to the Blake Precept.” We drank. Then he told the story of Sam Blake.

Blake was an Australian captain who was in the Legion about five years ago. Blake isn’t alive anymore, but he had received a posthumous de le Valeur Militaire, the highest level of state and military decoration. His story went like this. He had been transferred into the Chad armed corps, as a chauffer. During that time, the Darfur conflict was raging, and six tribes from three countries were killing each other for the region’s arable land. The frontiers were totally unstable, and because of this the legion had been deployed there.

Blake was a relaxed, quiet man. There was nothing to really distinguish him from the other soldiers; he was neither braver nor more cowardly, exactly as a true Legionnaire should be. On weekends he went into town with the others. There is not much to do in an outback dustbowl like Abeche, though there was a bar and a whorehouse. It was on one such weekend when it happened. He was drinking with a fellow officer in the bar of the town’s only hotel, when one of their translators showed up at the door, and asked if they would like to see something that they would likely never see anywhere else in the world. Blake and his friend weren’t especially thirsty, so they agreed, and followed the translator, who took them to a ghost-rider.

The Darfur conflict had mixed everything up and triggered a movement of the tribes. Along with the upheaval a lot of strange phenomena emerged. The ghost-riders were one of them. These were locals who were capable of letting a ghost possess their body and speak with their tongue. The tribes greatly respected these people. They heaped offerings on them, and consulted them with their lives’ gravest questions.

It was already late when Blake’s group arrived at the ghost-rider’s hut on the edge of town. The ghost-rider was an old Kununbu man, and the fingers of his left hand were missing, though it was still possible to count on the five stumps. According to the translator, he was visited by the spirit of a great Sudanese warlord when he clutched a white-hot ember in his hands. The two legionnaires sat on the floor of the hut and handed over gifts (scarcely worth a dollar) then waited for the old man to perform. The ghost-rider smiled at them, flashing a mouth of missing teeth, then without the slightest indication of pain, put his left hand into the fire and scooped out an ember. The iris of his eyes turned white, and he spoke in a greatly changed voice.

“You are allowed one question,” said the translator. “You have one question each.”

Blake smirked and asked, “How will I die?”

“It won’t be by bullet,” said the aged man. “But you will die when you rise into the air like a bird.”

Neither of them thought much of it: Europeans hadn’t believed in things like this since the French enlightenment, but it transpired Blake would indeed never be hit by a bullet. That very week Blake was sent in a convoy to Gozbeda, a place where it was possible to see low-flying Sudanese bombers dropping ignited barrels of gas over the villages. On the streets eight different armies were mixing, and were looting anything they could. The border was mined, to be certain that the tribes wouldn’t cross. Blake and perhaps thirty people were delivering medicine to the refugee camp when they were ambushed. It wasn’t an amateur piece of work, they lit them up with sprays of gun fire from atop four hills, while RPGs on the ground took out the vehicles. Everybody died, with the exception of Blake, who fled across the minefield, and returned fire from the far side. When it was all over, he hadn’t suffered a scratch.

When he returned to the camp, he was called a hero and immediately promoted. The other legionaries embraced him, patted him on the back, and said he was born under a lucky star, and that’s why he didn’t take a bullet. But Blake wouldn’t talk about the incident and whenever anybody asked, he just began to hum. Everybody knew you couldn’t survive something like this without divine intervention. After that, the commander tried to give him less dangerous assignments, but Blake only volunteered for riskier and riskier missions. And he returned from each one. As his brothers-in-arms fell, he remained unscratched, fearless even in the fiercest hail of bullets. News of his heroics spread and he was promoted to captain. Blake was up for anything outside of flying in a plane. This was the one thing nobody could persuade him to do.

The news of Blake soon reached the legion’s top brass. The story pleased one of the generals, and he decided that the time had come to give a commendation to the young officer. He telegrammed his decision to the camp commander, who then read the decree out loud in front of the whole detachment. When the news broke among the soldiers, they took the hero on their shoulders. Blake was the only one who wasn’t celebrating. The commendation, he learned, would be handed out in Paris. And he would have to fly there. As the time for the ceremony approached, Blake became increasingly nervous; he fought and spoke disrespectfully to his superiors, so that they would demote him and he would be passed over for the medal. His superiors, however, just thought it was the pressure showing, and let the digressions go, even overlooking it when he returned from leave terribly drunk with two prostitutes.

The day arrived when he was to fly to Paris. The legion had sent a private plane especially for the occasion, with two generals aboard to escort him. Blake, however, wouldn’t leave the barracks. He shouted out that he would shoot anybody who tried to put him on the plane, and didn’t they know that the ghost-rider said he would die if he flew? The military police had to put him in shackles and drag him to the plane as he whimpered between them like a child. The entire company saw, and heard what he said, and thought the poor guy had gone crazy.

The plane never arrived in Paris. Due to some technical problem the pilot had to make an emergency landing before even reaching the Chad border. The plane exploded upon touchdown. There were no survivors. As talk of this episode got around, more and more soldiers began to visit the ghost-riders. It got so bad that some soldiers gave up showering, shaving, wearing the Kepi Blanc, and one wouldn’t even ride in a car, heeding what the ghost-rider had fore-warned. The camp commander instituted a penalty to get them back in line. This is how the Blake Precept was born. If any legionnaire was caught consulting a ghost-rider, he would be locked away for four weeks in solitary confinement, and in Africa it averages 105 degrees, so it’s not exactly a day at the races…

After the commander finished the story, we continued drinking, then later went to play poker in the canteen. I was lucky, winning almost a hundred bucks. The storm raged on into the night, so they showed me to a bed. I slept very well. The morning was bright, clear, and beautiful; the Habub had blown back to Sudan. The commander insisted on having breakfast with me before I left. At the canteen, the Blake Precept was still on my mind. Now there was almost nobody at the camp who would have known Blake personally, outside of the commander and a repairman from barrack number three. I couldn’t stand it any longer, so I asked the commander how well he knew Blake. “I was with him in the ghost-rider’s hut,” he said, and stopped eating. He looked me in the eye. “Don’t worry, everything will be OK for me, so long as Lake Chad doesn’t dry up.”

I made my flight to ‘Djamena, and from there I traveled on to Tripoli and then Cairo. In my hurry, I forgot all about Commander Lacroix. I arrived in Cairo, and threw myself into my work. Four months later, on a Cairo to Budapest flight, the commander popped into my mind, when after the meal, I opened the in-flight magazine. There was a longish article about how Lake Chad was drying up at an astounding pace, and now it didn’t even reach Nigeria. A brief shudder ran through me as I recalled the prophesy of the ghost-rider. Later that spring it wasn’t totally unexpected news that the rebels had attacked and taken Abeche. There were no survivors.

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SÁNDOR JÁSZBERÉNYI (1980) was born in Sopron, Hungary. He works as a correspondent in conflict zones for several Hungarian newspapers and currently lives in Cairo, Egypt. He started writing short stories in 2006 and has been published in all the major Hungarian literary magazines (Élet és Irodalom, Kalligram etc.) and in English in Pilvax magazine. His first collection of short stories, Az ördög egy fekete kutya (The Devil is a Black Dog) will be out in 2013.

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About the Translator:

 
M. HENDERSON ELLIS is the author of the novel Keeping Bedlam at Bay in the Prague Café (New Europe Books, February 2013). He lives in Budapest, where he works as a freelance editor at Wordpill Editing, and is a founding editor at Pilvax magazine.

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Read more work by Sándor Jászberényi:

 
Short story in Pilvax

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