By Armod Zyther
“My wish is to go to Palpapepana,” Lopar said. He spoke in a whisper, even though the two men were well outside the cramped lanes of the village and onto the flat, gray, dusty plain.
“Last night you said Tespa is bigger,” Weldon said.
“Tespa? Oh yes, Tespapapela. You are true, it is ‘bigger’. But I know better the people in Palpapepana. I think they will know who knows how you can return to your country.”
“I prefer we go to Tespa,” Weldon said. From the way Lopar had talked the previous evening, he had the impression the Palpa place was a village no bigger than the village behind them, perhaps even smaller.
Lopar smiled and bowed, as if a great responsibility had been lifted from his shoulders. “I am glad you have preference. We go to Tespa this way.”
They set out across the plain toward a range of hills, away from the ignominious remains of the irrigation project. Even though it was less than half an hour to sunrise, the sky had only fringes of a lighter indigo along the hills to their left. The stars had all fled.
Neither man said anything in the hour it took for the sun to clear the hills and to start flooding the plain with intense heat. Lopar, normally loquacious, walked silently, his eyes straight ahead, as if he were still asleep. Weldon spent his time sifting through the tumultuous events that had led to this journey.
“How many people live in Tespa?” Weldon asked, as they entered the shadow of the far set of hills. The hills rose solidly, in layers of rust and maroon, as if they were piles of heavy, wet sand dropped and left there by an indolent god. Weldon could not see any pass through them or track over them.
“How am I to know every one’s name?” Lopar snapped. He had not been asleep at all.
“In English we don’t have to know the names to count,” Weldon said. He was not as dismissive with Lopar as he had been through the irrigation project. The events of the last few days had made him keenly aware of the man’s skill in carrying out complex negotiations and in soothing egos ruffled to the edge of bloodshed.
“Do you wish to teach me in English counting?” Lopar asked.
“Yes. You will find it helpful.”
Lopar gave his slight bow again. “I am at your preference, Weldon.”
“Good. How many fingers do I have?”
It took some coaxing before Lopar would respond. “Ten.”
“How many fingers do you have?”
Lopar looked at his hands. “Ten?”
“Yes. Ten,” Lopar said, as if he had uncovered a great truth. “They are my fingers. Ten.”
“Good. Now if we had three more with us, and another five,”—Weldon could not remember Lopar mentioning the numbers between five and ten—“how many fingers would we have?”
Weldon kicked at the dust at his feet. “Um. Takar, Pelepa, Sickna, uh, Regor, Pepela, uh, uh, Tato, Pesno and that short one with the limp.”
“Takar, Pelepa, Sickna, Regor, Pepla, Tatu, Pesono, and Tetrika. Yes.”
“How many fingers would we have?”
Lopar mouthed the names of the other eight men before replying, confidently: “Ten.”
“Yes,” Weldon decided to be indulgent. “Each has ten, but, in English, altogether we have one hundred.”
“One hundred,” Lopar repeated hesitantly, as Weldon had just contradicted himself. “One hundred. Even Tetrika? You didn’t know his name.”
Weldon began to see how naïve he had been about the irrigation project.
They were now close enough to the hills, and the sun had flooded the plain with enough light, that Weldon could see the hills were indeed made of stone and rubble, not of sand. And what had looked from the distance like a single, impenetrable wall had turned out to be two overlapping ridges. Between them the plain extended, like a newly flooded dam-lake. Only the hardiest of bushes grew, in small tufts, at the base of the slope. Weldon could see no sign of water coursing, and he wondered, for the hundredth time, where the water in the village well came from.
Now in merciful shade, they passed from that valley into another, all the time at the same level. Weldon could see no real road, signposts nor any sign of wheel marks in the packed sand. Weldon found it hard to shake the fear that, when he got to Tespa, he would find no sign of civilization there either.
“We must be careful,” Lopar whispered. “Robbers keep these hills.”
Weldon scanned the ridge on either side. He saw only smooth, sheer rises. “I don’t see where they can hide.”
“You are true. That is why they keep here. But we started early. Perhaps they still sleep.”
“I wish you had let me bring a stick,” Weldon said. What he really wished for, though, was his M9 pistol, but that was back wherever civilization was.
“Oh no,” Lopar said. “They would say we are trying to be better robbers than them, and that we cannot be. We must be as meek as beggars, or be religious travelers.”
“Okay,” Weldon said. “If they approach, we can chant something like Misereatur tui omnipotens Deus…”
Lopar stared at him with a curious partial tilt of his head. “Is that what religious people do in your country? How strange they are!”
Weldon stared at the ground. The words had raised a torrent of feelings he’d rather have left behind.
“Here, to be religious one must take a vow of silence. We will stay silent, and wave our hands like so.”
“It’s too late for that,” Weldon said. He nodded, over Lopar’s shoulder. “They’ve already seen us talking.”