Sunday Story – Hyenas

This story was first published in Terror House Magazine


The old fighters greeted each other with their traditional, shoulder-bumping handshake.  They went to their usual table on the raised section where they could look out at the other customers in the restaurant.  There were two types of food to choose from: Eritrean or Italian.  The fighters could remember when this colonial-era hotel had been owned by actual Italians.  Their fathers had told them of the time before that when natives had not been allowed inside.

For better or worse, the Italians were long gone.  The friends ordered a simple meal of lentils and injera because both were adhering to an Orthodox fast.  It was late afternoon.

In any group of three there is a government spy but Johannes and Tesfay were only two, and the other customers were slightly too far away to hear their uninhibited conversation.  They spoke of blackouts, feuds with tenants, mandated food prices, the water shortage.  The coup attempt.  The boys who’d been arrested for it, who they knew.  In a small city of old families, there were only a couple of degrees of separation between anyone.

Coffee came.  Now they talked about the many shops and cafés the government had closed down for supposed tax evasion.  They didn’t speak of Johannes’ surviving son.  He had vanished, presumably slipped overseas to escape endless national service like everyone else. 

They were old men so next they spoke of old times.  On this occasion Johannes was the one to bring up the hyenas and Tesfay smiled with nostalgia. 

“Think of it!” Johannes guffawed.  “You survived the Ethiopian airstrike but nearly got eaten by those beasts instead.”  They both laughed.  Their youthful exploits were their favorite topic because everything was different now.  Complicated.  It was simpler when the enemy was foreign and in the opposing trench.

Tesfay stretched his hand towards his upper back, where the scar was.  “It’s still there.  No bite marks, though!  Only the burn, thanks to you.  Thank you, my friend!”  It was something he’d told Johannes many times before.  While manning a rugged mountain redoubt on the Nakfa front, the Soviet-made bomb had sent him rolling down a steep mountain slope, coming to a halt against a boulder with several broken bones, unable to move as the sun plummeted beneath the horizon and the hyenas began to squeal.  He’d heard other fighters die that way; ones too far to be rescued by their comrades.  Unlike him, those Martyrs never aged, never saw Eritrea free from Ethiopian oppression.  Or, mercifully, what had happened to it since.

Johannes suddenly grew serious.  He looked at his friend intensely, as though about to inform him of another death in the family.  Tesfay returned his look quizzically.  Usually they bantered at this point, perhaps about how he would be a lean feed for such large predators, or how, if things had become desperate enough, he might have had to eat the hyenas instead.

The hush and the penetrating stare continued.  Somewhere in his heart, Tesfay knew what was coming.  He’d been waiting for the moment for thirty years.

“Do you remember your promise?”

Tesfay released his breath slowly and nodded. 

Of course he remembered, though they had not spoken of it since the day his comrade had lugged him to safety with superhuman strength, shooting off occasional AK-47 rounds into the dark to ward off loitering carnivores.  Johannes had been a strong young man.

“My friend,” said Tesfay, raising his hands.  “I remember.  Has the day come, at last?  It is my honor to fulfil my pledge, before God.”

“You told me that you owe me your life.  You promised that one day I could ask any favor of you, and you would grant it.”

“Yes, my friend.  Yes!  That is exactly what I said, and I meant it with all of my heart.  What is it, that you finally want?  I will help you in any way that I can.  Not that there is any need of a pledge for me to do that.  You are my friend.”

Johannes sipped his strong, native coffee.  It was bitter.  He preferred macchiato but their fasting prohibited the consumption of animal products for one month.

“I need you to kill a man.”

Tesfay smiled slightly, but his comrade was no prankster.  His smile faded.  He looked around nervously.

“My friend . . .” he whispered.

“Do not whisper.  A whisper is loud.  Look.”  Johannes was speaking in his usual voice and he motioned around the room.  Nobody paid any attention to the old men.  Families enjoyed animated conversations, toddlers fussed, young couples leaned close to each other.  “Look at me,” Johannes went on, with a big smile and an expansive gesture.  “To them, I’m talking about the strangely delayed rainy season.  Maybe I am even talking about how my nephew in Germany got engaged to a nice Eritrean girl.  Whisper and everyone strains to hear.  Speak as usual and we are invisible.”

Tesfay looked again at a young couple nearby.  Their heads were close and they spoke in low, inaudible voices, but these were no secret lovers.  Not here, in the restaurant of a major hotel.  No, they were most likely engaged or newlyweds.  Their families approved.  This was not the place to carry out love affairs.  Or plot murder.

The two old men were invisible in plain sight.

“If you come to my house,” Johannes said, “someone will see you and wonder why you are there.  I’ve been watched since the coup because I’m a former commander and Isaias is now monitoring all prominent people.  If we go to a quiet bar, everyone will know we are there for a private conversation.  That is where spies in the corner are paid a hundred nakfa for each secret they overhear.  This is the place for confidentiality.  So, will you do it?  Will you fulfill your pledge?”

“My friend . . . my friend . . .”  Tesfay managed to speak with a bold, camouflaged voice, but could not entirely conceal his distress.  “I cannot break an oath and I cannot sin against God.  Who is this man?  Is he a danger to your family?  Perhaps the police can help – I have connections.”

“He is a danger to all families.  He is an evil murderer who is a danger to everyone.  The police cannot help.  He must be stopped and so I call in my favor.”

“Who?”

“You know him.”

“What . . . who is it?  I know your enemies but none are dangerous.”  Tesfay’s mind rushed over his friend’s petty business rivals and squabbling neighbors.  Peering around, he saw that no one paid the two old men any attention at all.  One fellow waiting near the door seemed to glance at them but young men often admired fighters.  Those immediately around them were entirely focused on their own business.  “Who?”

“Isaias.”

Tesfay’s face became gray.  He put down his tiny coffee cup so that it would not spill.

“He is the enemy of our nation.  The President has enslaved our children, ruined our lives.  Everybody lives in fear.  The young flee as soon as they are old enough to try.  So I call in your pledge.”  Johannes finished his own coffee with a final gulp.  “And also, I cannot forgive what happened to my oldest son.  To be imprisoned for lending a friend his travel permit is one thing, but for him to die there, like a dog, supposedly of typhoid . . .  They killed him, Tesfay.  Isaias killed him.  He is responsible for all the young who are dead, or enslaved, or who had to run away from their own country.”  His voice was carefully even and calm as he spoke.  Invisible.  “We cannot wait for him to die of old age.  Even in his seventies, he is too healthy!  And now it seems his son will inherit the communist throne.  The son, that fool.  For my eldest, and for the country, it is our duty.”

“But . . . how can I kill the Boss?  He’s been hiding in the Presidential Palace since the last coup attempt.  He thinks the ministers are against him.  He won’t even dare call a cabinet meeting.  I cannot get near him.  And I had to give my rifle back when I turned sixty.”

“You know what to use,” Johannes said, his voice as even and light as though he were discussing the football.  Tesfay’s daughter was still living at home and had completed military training so her mandated AK-47 was there.  Johannes promised him some ‘real ammunition’ because the standard-issue, Chinese rubbish would almost certainly jam.  He told him that his ‘connection’, someone high up in security, had given him details about the President’s upcoming visit to the Intercontinental Hotel.

“You’ve a clear shot from the fourth floor,” he explained.  “The room is already booked.  You’ll see when his convoy arrives.  Don’t open the window until after his security team have scanned the area.  One automatic burst in the chest, no more, to evade return fire.  Then flee via the emergency stairwell.  There will be a ladder already against the back wall.  Our comrade on the other side will take you to shelter in the Chinese embassy.  Isaias stands in the way of their naval base.  But they won’t do the deed themselves, nor do they want their cooperation known.  It was their agent that gave me the rounds.  They know their own product is trash.”

Tesfay looked like a man whose world had fallen away beneath his feet.  He stared into the darkness of his coffee, now cold.

“I think I shot a hyena that night,” Johannes mused.  “I heard at least one yelp, when I fired into the dark.  Its fellows would have eaten it – that’s what they do.  There’s no loyalty in the pack.  Now, I need you to kill a hyena for me.  Yours will be far more dangerous than mine.”  He sighed, gazing for a while at the ornate ceiling.  They don’t make them like that anymore.  Then he looked back at Tesfay and smiled sadly.  “If you cannot fulfill your pledge, I release you.  Perhaps it is a young man’s job – we did our duty long ago.  Six years in the bush.  That’s enough!  If you can’t do it, promise me only your silence and we are even.”

Tesfay looked into his friend’s eyes.  In a sudden rush of exhilaration, the ancient warrior spirit returned to his heart.  He had killed before – surely he could kill again?  The escape plan seemed fanciful, but what did it matter?  He was an old man with a heart condition.  Fulfill his pledge, free his nation once more – or spend another decade sipping sweet tea in the local café until his Lord finally became impatient and called him?  His children . . . the ones still in the country could fend for themselves as he had done after he ran away to join the rebels at age eighteen.  They were not infants any more.

“When?” he asked.

“Next Tuesday, when the EU delegation arrives.  Be careful not to hit any of them.  They will be waiting in the foyer but some may wander out to smoke or take a call.”

“And the ammunition?” 

Johannes took a container of black Kenyan tea from his plastic shopping bag and handed it to his friend, like a souvenir from abroad.  The heavy tin rattled.  Tesfay placed it in his bag and turned to his friend with some of his former, youthful bravado upon his face.  He could feel the vigor of certainty returning.  No more hiding under a rock.  Why him?  Why not?  None of the fighters had asked themselves that on the Nakfa front.

“I will put my affairs in order and perform a pilgrimage to St Mary of Debre Sina.  Next Tuesday, God willing, I will fulfill my promise to my friend and my duty towards my country.” 

He stood to embrace his old comrade, but Johannes was looking across to the other side of the room and Tesfay saw him nod to a man in jeans and dark glasses.  The man gestured to somebody outside and in an instant a dozen men strode into the restaurant, making directly for the old men.

Tesfay thought many things in the five seconds it took them to reach their table, considered many actions, but all he could do was utter one, anguished word: “Why?”

“They caught my son in the plot,” Johannes replied almost inaudibly.  “He’s all I have left.  I had to give them someone.”  He said these words as he stared at the table, hunched over; a defeated man.

The secret police seized the limp Tesfay and his bag with its heavy tea-tin, dragged him towards the door.  Everyone turned away, not wanting to take one last look at the old man before he disappeared for good.

“I’ll kill you!  I’ll kill you!  My family will avenge me!”  Tesfay tried to yell more but one of the security agents punched him in the mouth, sending blood spraying across the clean floor of the restaurant.  The other diners sat frozen, not daring to do or say anything that might entail sharing his fate.  When the fighter was gone, they carefully ignored Johannes and the cleaning, turned quietly back to their own group, ashamed eyes not daring to meet.

After staring into space for a long time, the old man paid the bill and left a generous tip on their usual table.  He hobbled towards the door alone.  Outside in the cool air, ten thousand stars shone unnoticed.


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One comment

  1. MD · December 20

    Great story! The one from last Sunday (“Who eats who?”) was excellent too. Thanks for sharing these on your blog.

    Liked by 1 person

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