The journey has been a long exhilarating adventure, especially this last stage. The two of us, sweeping through the lush valleys with the windows open, the air cool in the soft sunlight. Breathing the sweet, fresh fragrance of the meadows and watching the endless procession of mountains drift by. The most regal of them crowned with pristine, radiant snow. The air so pure and transparent it seemed to magnify the surroundings.
Michael is the driver and driving force behind the trip. An endearing character, he always appeared to me to have wisdom beyond his twenty four years. As a child his father had taught him the language of his forefathers. Michael had argued, ‘What’s the point? I’ll never go to that awful place?’ But then, just two months ago, he realised he needed to visit the land of his ancestors and asked for a volunteer to go with him. The prospect of the trip filled me with anticipation and excitement that I hadn’t known before. Despite Michael’s warnings of the possible dangers I was certain I wanted to go.
And now, just two kilometres from the border that certainty has left me and the reality of the danger is beginning to dawn on me. Michael too is showing signs of feeling the tension. Neither of us has spoken for an hour. Our car is loaded with contraband in every available space, barely concealed beneath our bags of clothing. How can we possibly get it through undetected? Will they throw us in jail, or worse still a labour camp? What would stop them executing us and denying we ever entered the country?
We arrive at the border post; the guard gives our passports a cursory glance and raises the barrier. Michael drives slowly across the short stretch of no-man’s land towards the second check point. We stop at the barrier. Two guards approach with automatic rifles held at the ready. One of them gestures to us to get out. He points to the back of the car for Michael to unlock it. The other circles the vehicle, peering in the windows.
Rummaging beneath our bags of clothing the first guard pulls out a book. With a stern expression on his young face he inspects the cover of the book then shouts a frenzied message over his radio. Both raise their guns in our direction and stand silently watching us.
I turn to Michael. ‘What did he say?’
Michael was looking pale. ‘He asked for the commandant to attend urgently.’
I have no idea what to do. I consider trying to plead or negotiate, to offer to turn around and drive back where we came from. Lacking the courage I just stand and await our fate. Michael knows the language; why doesn’t he say something?
We stand petrified for what seems like an eternity. A strong, mature figure in a grey sharply pressed and heavily braided uniform marches slowly towards the guards. The heavy tobacco coloured moustache gives him a hostile, intimidating air. I feel the panic rising in me.
The guard hands him the book and pulls aside the clothing bags to reveal the hoard of identical books. The commandant stares at the cover of the book, reading the words ‘The Holy Bible’ in his own language. He opens the book randomly and reads. The tension is unbearable. I look to Michael but his eyes are closed. He must be praying.
Eventually he closes the Bible and runs his fingers over the embossed title on the cover. He looks directly at me and I can see that his eyes are misted. He hands the book to me and says, ‘It OK. You can pass.’
I know that, at this point, we should jump in the car and drive as fast as possible before he changes his mind. But I’m curious. ‘Why?’ I say to the commandant.
‘My grandfather. He read to me. He tell me long, long ago, not forget Jesus. Jesus love me and look after me.’ He pauses and considers the words he had just spoken. ‘I forget,’ he admits.
I offer the Bible to him. He looks warily at both the guards, weighing up the risks. Taking hold of the book gently like a fragile treasure, he gives me a nod of thanks.
‘God be with you,’ he says softly, the tone of his voice acknowledging the astonishing bond we have found.
‘He is,’ I reply.
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