Nearly three months since it departed, and still there is no news of the expeditionary force. Instead, terrible rumours everywhere, that the force has been lured into the desert and wiped out; that unknown to us it has been recalled to defend the homeland, leaving the frontier towns for the barbarians to pick like fruit whenever they choose to. Every week there is a convoy of the prudent leaving town, going east, ten or twelve families travelling together "to visit relatives," as the euphemism has it, "till things settle down again." They leave, leading pack trains, pushing handcarts, carrying packs on their backs, their very children laden like beasts. I have even seen a long low four-wheeled cart drawn by sheep. Pack-animals can no longer be bought. Those who depart are the sensible ones, the husbands and wives who lie awake in bed whispering, making plans, cutting losses. They leave their comfortable homes behind, locking them "till we return," taking the keys as a memento. By the next day gangs of soldiers have broken in, looted the houses, smashed the furniture, fouled the floors. Resentment builds up against those who are seen to be making preparations to go. They are insulted in public, assaulted or robbed with impunity. Now there are families that simply disappear in the dead of night, bribing the guards to open the gates for them, taking the east road and waiting at the first or second stopping-place till the party that accumulates is large enough to travel safely.

The soldiery tyrannizes the town. They have held a torchlight meeting on the square to denounce "cowards and traitors" and to affirm collective allegiance to the Empire. WE STAY has become the slogan of the faithful: the words are to be seen daubed on walls everywhere. I stood in the dark on the edge of the huge crowd that night (no one was brave enough to stay at home) listening to those words chanted ponderously, menacingly from thousands of throats. A shiver ran down my back. After the meeting the soldiers led a procession through the streets. Doors were kicked in, windows broken, a house set on fire. Till late at night there was drinking and carousing on the square.

When they were first quartered on the town these soldiers, strangers to our ways, conscripts from all over the Empire, were welcomed coolly. "We don't need them here," people said, "the sooner they go out and fight the barbarians the better." They were denied credit in the shops, mothers locked their daughters away from them. But after the barbarians made their appearance on our doorstep that attitude changed. Now that they seem to be all that stands between us and destruction, these foreign soldiers are anxiously courted. A committee of citizens makes a weekly levy to hold a feast for them, roasting whole sheep on spits, laying out gallons of rum. The girls of the town are theirs for the taking. They are welcome to whatever they want as long as they will stay and guard our lives. And the more they are fawned on, the more their arrogance grows. We know we cannot rely on them. With the granary nearly empty and the main force vanished like smoke, what is there to hold them once the feasting stops? All we can hope for is that they will be deterred from deserting us by the rigours of the winter travel.

For premonitions of winter are everywhere. In the early hours of the morning a chilly breeze rises in the north: the shutters creak, sleepers huddle closer, the sentries wrap their cloaks tight, turn their backs. Some nights I wake up shivering on my bed of sacks and cannot get to sleep again. When the sun comes up it seems farther away each day; the earth grows cold even before sunset. I think of the little convoys of travellers strung out along hundreds of miles of road, heading for a motherland most have never seen, pushing their handcarts, guarding their horses, carrying their children, nursing provisions, day by day abandoning by the roadside tools, kitchenware, portraits, clocks, toys, everything they believed they might rescue from the ruin of their estates before they realized that at most they might hope to escape with their lives.

In a week or two the weather will be too treacherous for any but the hardiest to set out. The bleak north wind will be howling all day, withering life on the stalk, carrying a sea of dust across the wide plateau, bringing sudden flurries of hail and snow. I cannot imagine myself, with my tattered clothes and cast-off sandals, stick in hand, pack on back, surviving that long march. My heart would not be in it. What life can I hope for away from this oasis? The life of an indigent bookkeeper in the capital, coming back every evening after dusk to a rented room in a back street, with my teeth slowly falling out and the landlady sniffing at the door? If I were to join the exodus, it would be as one of those unobtrusive old folk who one day slip away from the line of march, settle down in the lee of a rock, and wait for the last great cold to begin creeping up their legs.

I wander down the wide road down to the lakeside. The horizon is already grey, merging into the grey water of the lake. Behind me the sun is setting streaks of gold and crimson. From the ditches comes the first cricketsong. This is a world I know and love and do not want to leave. I have walked this road by night since my youth and come to no harm. How can I believe that the night is full of the flitting shadows of barbarians? If there were strangers here I would feel it in my bones...

I pass the ruined fields, cleared by now and ploughed afresh, cross the irrigation ditches and the shore-wall. The ground beneath my soles grows soft; soon I am walking on soggy marshgrass, pushing my way through reedbrakes. I wade deeper, parting the reeds with my hands, feeling the cool slime between my toes; the water, holding the warmth of the sun longer than the air, resists, then gives way, before each stride. In the early hours of the morning the fishermen pole their flat-bottomed boats out across this calm surface and cast their nets. What a peaceful way to make a living! Perhaps I should leave off my beggar's trade and join them in their camp outside the wall, build myself a hut of mud and reeds, marry one of their pretty daughters, feast when the catch is plentiful, tighten my belt when it is not.

Calf-deep in the soothing water I indulge myself in the wishful vision. I am not unaware of what such daydreams signify, dreams of becoming an unthinking savage, of taking the cold road back to the capital, of groping my way out to the ruins in the desert, of returning to the confinement of my cell, of seeking out the barbarians and offering myself to them to use as they wish. Without exception they are dreams of ends: dreams not of how to live but of how to die. And everyone, I know, in that walled town sinking now into darkness (I hear the two thin trumpet calls that announce the closing of the gates) is similarly preoccupied.

What has made it impossible for us to live in time like fish in the water, like birds in air, like children? It is the fault of Empire! Empire has created the time of history. Empire has located its existence not in the smooth recurrent spinning time of the cycle of the seasons but in the jagged time of rise and fall, of beginning and end, of catastrophe. Empire dooms itself to live in history and plot against history. One thought alone preoccupies the submerged mind of Empire: how not to end, how not to die, how to prolong its era. By day it pursues its enemies. It is cunning and ruthless, it sends its bloodhounds everywhere. By night it feeds on images of disaster: the sack of cities, the rape of populations, pyramids of bones, acres of desolation. A mad vision yet a virulent one: I, wading in the ooze, am no less infected with it than the faithful Colonel Joll as he tracks the enemies of Empire through the boundless desert, sword unsheathed to cut down barbarian after barbarian until at last he finds and slays the one whose destiny it should be (or if not his then his son's or unborn grandson's) to climb the bronze gateway to the Summer Palace and topple the globe surmounted by the tiger rampant that symbolizes eternal domination, while his comrades below cheer and fire their muskets in the air.

--- From Waiting for the Barbarians
J. M. Coetzee
©1980 Secker and Warburg
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