At the Mountain Steps
At the ancient stairway of Mt. A. the tourists rested their lungs and legs. The crackless concrete ran up the eastward face of the sandstone mountain, past the peak and the rolling clouds. On either side of the first step a leafless palm tree rose up to the two-hundredth step.
"Who knows what's waiting for us up there?" Ernest said to Angela.
With the timbre of the archangel Gabriel's trumpet, loudspeakers blared into existence at the treetops. They played a note spanning two minutes. A native tongue uttered a monotone announcement in dissonance with the conquering note. It then repeated the proclamation in English.
"After swift and decisive elections, our young nation has declared a new president. The old government is dead. Long live our leader."
"Elections?" Angela said. "I thought they weren't due for months."
"We repeat: our illustrious and venerable nation has overthrown the previous dictator and instituted an interim government that will last a thousand years."
A waist-high airport belt branched out from the left tree trunk. The sateen cordon circled the bare mountain and latched onto the right tree trunk.
"C'mon, Angie, no time for dallying," Ernest said.
"Shut up, I'm trying to listen."
"This backwards country will still be here when we descend. Up the steps we go."
"Ah, gentleman and lady, I must apologize," a black private said, sprouting in front of the taut belt. Under a neon red beret, he wore a pearl single-breasted jacket and trousers with a matching red, diagonal stripe on his breast pocket. A giant white hibiscus with a ruby stamen, an AK-47 was strapped across his chest.
"What are you apologizing for, boy?" asked Ernest.
"No, dear, the guidebooks say you have to speak slowly to them." She turned to the private. "Why...do...you...say...sorry?"
"I apologize because I cannot let you up the steps."
"What? And why not, boy?"
"The steps are reserved solely for our leader."
"And who is this leader, exactly?" Angela said.
"I've planned this trip for months."
"You are free to raise the belt and climb the mountain that way," the private said. "Like this." Lifting the belt, he ducked back and forth under it.
"Blast the mountain, boy. I came here for these steps."
"I'd rather not get eaten by wildlife at that," Angela said.
"No worries, madam," the private said, hand on the butt of his rifle. "For your protection, I will keep my scope trained on your backs."
"I demand to speak to someone higher on the ladder," Ernest said.
"What seems to be the problem here, private?" an apparated lieutenant, two stripes on his breast pocket, said. Several hibiscus soldiers trailed behind him.
"Mr. and Mrs. wish to climb the mountain."
"And they are free to do so. Did you demonstrate to them the proper method of raising the belt and stepping underneath it?"
"Numerous times, sir. I followed the manual to the letter, even making sure my left hand--not my right--was on my rifle as I offered my protection."
"Might I have a copy of this manual?" asked Angela. "As a souvenir."
"Blast the manual. I want to know why we can't climb these steps. It's why we're in this blasted country."
"Please, sir," the lieutenant said, "do not insult The G-. We are a young but proud and old nation."
"I'll tell you what the G- is," Ernest said. "It's a pit."
"That's The G-, sir. You have to pronounce the capital T."
"You'll have to forgive him," Angela said. "He hasn't read any of the guidebooks. You natives are particular about your capitals, aren't you?"
"Capital? Is that what this is about?" said Ernest, reaching into his adventurer's pants for foreign currency.
"Don't give too much, Ernest," Angela said.
"Would a gift make this easier?"
"How did you know it was my birthday?" the lieutenant asked, a wide, childish grin spreading underneath his crimson beret.
"And mine," the private said. A chorus of "mine toos" rang from the other soldiers.
"Hang on, it can't be all your birthdays," Angela said.
"By fortuitous chance, we all share the same birthday with our new country and tremendous leader."
"Blast that, d'you accept the gift or not?"
"It would be rude not to. Have you baked a cake for us as well?"
"What? Just step aside and let us up the concrete."
"If you so much as hover one foot over the steps, we'll be forced to shoot you," the lieutenant said. Flowers stirred behind him as their numbers increased. A guard station erected itself a few meters from the commotion brick by ruddy brick.
"But you've taken our money," Angela said.
"We were told it was a birthday present."
"You know damn well what it was."
"I am truly sorry, sir and madam, but the steps are reserved for the leader."
"But who is this leader?" Angela asked. "It's hard to keep track, in this sort of place. Ten leaders in ten years, no?"
"We have only had our leader."
"But the loudspeaker said something about a dictator before this one."
"Excuse me, madam, but do you trust plastic lips over ones of flesh?"
"Just tell me this," begged Earnest, "what is past the summit?"
"The house of our magnanimous leader, of course. Even children know that."
M.L. Kejera is a Chicago based writer of Gambian origin. His work has previously been published in riverSedge and the Quarry.