Crossbones

by Nuruddin Farah

Hardcover, 389 pages, Penguin Group USA, List Price: $27.95 | purchase

Purchase Featured Book

Title
Crossbones
Author
Nuruddin Farah

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: 'Crossbones'

As YoungThing searches for the house with the green gate and the inscription, he blames the frailty of his memory on the fact that he has eaten no breakfast, and that a young thing like him can't comprehend the intricate political games adults play. He suspects he is being used. Everything is a muddle. All at once, though, he finds the front gate with the inscription and he forgets his doubts. He walks past it and then takes a left turn. He wants the back gate, as per the directive. Here is a high fence, which he must scale.

His heartbeat quickening, he sends a one-word text message informing his minder that he is at the back gate, and he receives a reply encouraging him to gain entry right away. He opens the carryall and takes out a light machine gun and a belt strung with bullets. He slings the collapsible gun over his shoulder, girdles the belt round his waist, and throws the carryall over a low part of the fence, then waits for a few minutes.

YoungThing wishes himself good luck. As light-footed as a young dikdik, he runs at the fence, and shinnies up and over. He drops down on the other side with a quiet thud and remains in a crouch for a minute or so, his gun poised the way he has seen it done in movies.

An untended garden stretches before him, the shrubs low and scraggly, the trees stunted, and the wall of the house crawling with vines. He moves stealthily forward, as silent as the leopards in stories he has heard. He is certain his instructors at the madrassa would be pleased with him, assured that his brief training has turned him into a cadet ready to martyr himself in the service of the insurgency. He pauses for a startled fraction of a second when he picks out the sound of movement somewhere nearby. With purposeful speed, he retrieves the carryall and stands firm and unafraid behind the low shrubs — there are benefits to being of small size, after all, he thinks. But now he comes upon a shorter fence, of which no one has spoken. It goes to show, he tells himself, that even Shabaab's intelligence gatherers are fallible. Still, he doesn't look back, thinking that is the way of doom. Besides, there is no place for fear in a martyr. He'll use the gun, shoot and kill, if there is need.

He backs up three paces, breathing in and out quicky until he feels a burning sensation in his lungs. Having omitted mention of the second fence, the men may have missed something of a trickier nature; he must be ready for all eventualities. Unless, of course, the omission was deliberate, meant to test his mettle. His minder has impressed on him the importance of using his weapon only when it is imperative, or in self-defense, and of using the silencer if he does have to shoot.

One nervous move follows another. He throws the carryall over the fence. He waits for a few minutes, then runs at it, vaults over, and, landing, gathers himself into a tight ball — he's learned this from watching videos on a jihadi website. In one video, the instructors encouraged young jihadis to retain the scalps of high-profile targets as trophies. YoungThing is uncertain that he will ever want to hang on to the head of a man he has killed. In fact, there is no chance in hell that he will want to do so, and in any case, he has no place to conceal a dead head; he has no home he can call his own.

Now he happens upon a second discrepancy in the directives given to him: he finds a half-open window, but it appears to lead not into a bathroom, as he was told, but into what looks like a kitchen.

He hides behind a huge tree with a trunk as big as a baobab's. He is still as a worshipper waiting for the imam to resume his prostrations. Then, committing himself fully to every move he makes, like a jihadi leading the onslaught on the enemy from the front, he gains the back porch in two swift, long strides.

He scans the area for evidence of habitation: the telltale presence of a wicker chair someone has brought out to sit in; a cat curled up in purring slumber; clothes drying on a washing line.

He enters the property by the kitchen window, squeezing himself through — thank God he is small and as agile as a cat on the prowl. Of course, no instructions can prepare one for every contingency. There are decisions one must make on the job, without help. As far as he can tell, all is quiet inside. He walks about the house a little, feeling triumphant, then comes out to retrieve the carryall and take it back indoors. He makes a phone call to tell his minder that he is in the house and that it is safe.

His minder asks him to describe the outside of the house he has "consecrated." In fact, he asks him several times to repeat how he got there. At first, YoungThing puts this down to a bad telephone connection. Then he begins to doubt whether he has gone to the right property.

He ends the call and embarks on a thorough reconnoitering, something he should have done first. He walks up the stairs and goes into the bedrooms. To his dismay, there is evidence of life. The rooms feel lived-in: drawers ajar from recent use, socks black with dirt, a pair of underwear still damp from wear. He is in the wrong house, he thinks again. But what can he do about it?

The refrigerator in the kitchen is buzzing with life. He opens it and, seeing plastic containers full of last night's leftovers, he feels hungry, and angry, too. On the one hand, he hasn't had his fill of meat for a long time and is tempted to stuff himself with good food, as if it were his last meal; on the other, he wishes he hadn't already made the phone call.

He hears movements coming from the front porch. He turns and then sees through the open door an ancient man, unshaven and in a dressing gown and flip-flops, tottering in the direction of the house. The old man seems equally surprised to see him. But the old man mistakes YoungThing for one of his many grandchildren and says, "Why, you are back early! You see, the wind pushed the door locked and when I couldn't get back in, I fell asleep on the bench under the tree in the front garden."

Excerpted from Crossbones by Nuruddin Farah. Copyright 2011 by Nuruddin Farah. Excerpted by permission of Riverhead Hardcover.