It is the end, or maybe the beginning, of another story.
Every story begins and ends with a woman, a mother, a grandmother, a girl, a child.
Every story is a birth …
SHE WAS THE FIRST TO ARRIVE where it seemed the wind no longer exhaled. Several miles from town, the trees had entangled one another. Their branches grew toward the ground, burying the leaves in the soil to blind their eyes so the sun would not promise them tomorrow with its rays. It was only the path that was reluctant to cloak its surface completely with grasses, as though it anticipated it would soon end its starvation for the warmth of bare feet that gave it life.
The long and winding paths were spoken of as “snakes” that one walked upon to encounter life or to arrive at the places where life lived. Like snakes, the paths were now ready to shed their old skins for new ones, and such occurrences take time with the necessary interruptions. Today, her feet began one of those interruptions. It may be that those whose years have many seasons are always the first to rekindle their broken friendship with the land, or it may just have happened this way.
The breeze nudged her bony body, covered with a tattered cloth thin and faded from many washings, toward what had been her town. She had removed her flip-flops, set them on her head, and carefully placed her bare feet on the path, waking the caked dirt with her gentle steps. With closed eyes she conjured the sweet smell of the flowers that would turn to coffee beans, which the sporadic breath of the wind fanned into the air. It was a freshness that used to overcome the forest and find its way into the noses of visitors many miles away. Such a scent was a promise to a traveler of life ahead, of a place to rest and quench one’s thirst and perhaps ask for directions if one was lost. But today the scent made her weep, starting slowly at first, with sobs that then became a cry of the past. A cry, almost a song, to mourn what has been lost while its memory refuses to depart, and a cry to celebrate what has been left, however little, to infuse it with residues of old knowledge. She swayed to her own melody and the echo of her voice first filled her, making her body tremble, and then filled the forest. She lamented for miles, pulling shrubs that her strength allowed and tossing them aside on the path.
Finally, she arrived at the quiet town without being greeted by the crows of cocks, the voices of children playing games, the sound of a blacksmith hitting a red-hot iron to make a tool, or the rise of smoke from fireplaces. Even without these signals of a time that seemed far gone, she was so happy to be home that she found herself running to her house, her legs suddenly gaining more strength for her age. Alas, as she reached her home, she began to weep. The song from the past had abruptly left her tongue. Her house had been burnt a while back and the remaining pillars were still dark from the smoke. Tears consumed her deep brown eyes and slowly rolled down her long face until her sharp cheekbones were soaked. She wept to accept what she knew had happened but also to allow her tears to drop on the ground and call on those gone to return in spirit form. She wept now because she hadn’t been able to do so for seven years, as staying alive required parting with all familiar ways of living during the years when the guns took words out of the mouths of the elders. On her way to her home, she had passed many towns and villages that resembled what her watery eyes now looked at. There was one town in particular that was eerier than the others—there were rows of human skulls on either side of the path leading into town. When the breeze came about, as it did frequently, it shook the skulls, causing them to rotate slowly, so it seemed they were all turning their hollow eye sockets at her as she hastened past them. Despite such sights, she had refused to commit her mind to the possibility that her town would be charred. Perhaps it was her way of keeping hope vibrant within so that it would keep on fueling her determination to continue the walk home. She didn’t want to call the name of that home, not even in her mind. But something now took charge of her tongue and made her ask, “Will this ever be Imperi?”
The name of her land had been released into the ears of the wind even with her bewildered question. She found her feet again and began walking around the town. There were bones, human bones, everywhere, and all she could tell was which had been a child or an adult.
She managed to conjure the memory of what the town had looked like the day before she began running away for her life. It was at the end of the rainy season when everyone repaired and refreshed the façades of their homes. There were new roofs, thatch or zinc, and the walls of some houses were painted with vivid colors, increasing the liveliness of the dry season. It was the first time her family had had the means to cement the walls of their house and therefore could paint it black at the foundation, green to the windowsill, and yellow all the way up to the roof. Her children, grandchildren, husband, and she stood outside admiring their home. They didn’t know that the following day they would abandon everything and be separated from one another forever.
When the gunshots rang through town and chaos ensued the day that war came into her life, she had turned around to look at her home before running away. If she died, she wanted to at least do so with a good memory of home.
* * *
She had returned home because she could not find complete happiness anywhere else. She had scoured refugee camps and the homes of kind strangers for some sort of joy that didn’t need entertainment, something she knew existed only on the land she now stood upon. She remembered an afternoon not so long ago that had followed days of hunger and finally an offer of a sumptuous bowl of rice with stewed fish. She ate, at first vigorously, and then her muscles slowed down, straining the movements of her hand to her mouth. The pepper tasted different from the one her memory still held on to, and the water she drank was not from a small calabash that smelled of the clay pot that had cooled the water for her household since she was a little girl. She finished her food and drank to stay alive, but she knew there was more to living than these temporary acknowledgments of life. The only satisfaction that remained after finishing the food was the memory of the sound of pepper pounded in a mortar and, with it, the biting fragrance that took hold of the air around the compound and the laughter that ensued as men and boys would flee.
“It is so easy to drive them away,” her mother would say as the other women continued laughing, their eyes and noses not showing any sign of discomfort as the men’s and boys’ did.
She looked at the bones again, her eyes moving beyond the piles to find strength to leap forward. “This is still my home,” she whispered to herself and sighed, pressing her bare feet deeper into the earth.
* * *
Evening was approaching and the sky was preparing to roll over and change its side. She sat on the ground, allowing the night’s breeze to soothe her face and her pain, to dry her tears. When she was a child, her grandmother told her that at the quietest hours of night, God and gods would wave their hands through the breeze to wipe just a few things off the face of the earth so that it would be able to accommodate the following day. Though her pain didn’t completely disappear with the arrival of morning, she felt some new strength within her heart that gave her the idea to pluck herself from the earth and begin cleaning the bones. She started at her house with a pile in her hands that shivered maybe because of the cool morning air or the emotions that came from gathering what remained of others. Her feet took her toward the coffee farm behind her house. She held the bones with a delicate but firm grip, pondering how so many could be reduced to such fragments. “Perhaps it is only when the flesh masks the bones of one’s body that you gain some worth. Or is it what you do when life breathes through you that makes your memory worthwhile?” She stopped her questions for a bit to allow her scattered thoughts to coalesce. She felt this was the way to harden within her the memories of those she was now carrying so lightly. Her mind became an anthill filled with smoke. She didn’t pay much attention to where she was headed. Her feet were familiar with the ground; her eyes, ears, and heart were on another journey.
She rounded a corner and dropped the pile, her heart sinking to her waist-bone at the resounding thud of the bones hitting the dusty earth. Her feet gave way under her body as she saw the back of a man sitting on his knees tying bones together as one would a bundle of kindling. She could tell that this was an old man, as his hair was the color of stagnant clouds. The man’s movements expressed his age. This brought her heart back to its proper place, allowing the rest of her body to resume its many functions.
The old man, sensing a shadow behind him, spoke. “If you are a spirit, please pass by peacefully. I am doing this work to make sure that when people return to this town, they may not see this. I know their eyes have recorded worse, but still I will spare them one last image of despair.”
“I will help you, then.” She lowered herself and began picking up the bones she had dropped and some more, making her way toward him.
“I know that voice. Is that you, Kadie?” He trembled, his hands unable to do what they had been doing since he’d arrived as the sky was wiping the last residue of sleep from its surface. Kadie answered quietly, as though afraid to disturb the deep silence that had come about just at that moment. His heart hesitated to give permission to his face to turn around and greet his friend. He sat for some time watching his shadow move. And all the while, he could hear Kadie rattling the bones and sighing as she continued her work. Turning to see her would give his heart the burden of coming to terms with whatever condition she was in. She might be amputated, deformed in some way or another. He sat some more in his torment, and Kadie decided to end his hesitation, as she knew why he had hidden his eyes from his words. She came before him and sat on the ground. His eyes had dug themselves deep into the earth.
“Please remove your eyes from the body of the earth and see your friend. I am sure your heart will perform a joyful dance when you see that I am as well as I can be.” She placed her right hand on his shoulder. He held on to her hand and slowly, like a child caught making mischief, he lifted his head. His eyes surveyed the body of his friend while his mind confirmed: her hands are both there, her legs, too, nose, ears, lips …
“I am here, Moiwa, all of how I came into this world is here.” Her voice stopped his mind’s roll call on her body parts.
“Kadie! You are here, you are here.” He touched her face. They embraced and then sat apart looking at each other. He offered her water in a small old pot. She smiled as she took the water in a fractured calabash that sailed on top of the water. He had one of those round and dignified faces that always had a pensive demeanor and could hold a smile only for a short time. His frame, hands, and fingers were thinner and longer.
“It was all I could find in the ruins that could hold water.”
What he didn’t say was that a week ago he had come nearer to Imperi, near enough that his eyes could see the big mango tree in the center of town, but he hadn’t had the courage to enter it. His mind had immediately stopped longing for home and replayed the horrors of the war. It started with wails of people who had passed, people he knew. He had made a temporary home in one of the many burnt vehicles by the river. Those vehicles had once belonged to the mining company that had been preparing to start operations six months before the war. The company had refused to build a small bridge across the river, which it regretted when the war came, as it couldn’t get its new cars and equipment across. The foreigners who were supposed to start working for the mining company had at first dismissed the possibility that they would ever have to abandon their cars, loaded with food, clothes, and other provisions, but the first gunshot had sent them running with only a bag each, packed in canoes that almost sank, shaking with their nervousness. They pleaded with eyes wide open for the canoe owner to paddle faster.
Moiwa asked his friend Kadie only how she had brought her spirit into town and which route she had taken.
“My feet touched this land on the day that gave birth to this one. And I walked the path, as that is the way in my heart.” She wrapped her fingers around one another and rubbed them to summon warmth.
“I should have known that, my dear Kadie!” She hadn’t changed her ways at all. Kadie almost never walked on the roads. She did so only when there was no path. She believed in the knowledge of her great-grandparents, who had made the paths and knew the land better than those foreigners who just get into their machines and carve roads into the earth without thinking about where the land breathes, where it sleeps, where it wakes, where it entertains spirits, where it wants the sun or the shade of a tree. They laughed, both knowing that part of the old ways remained, though they were fragile. At the end of their laughter, words were exchanged, briefly, leaving many things unsaid for another day that continued to be another and yet another. Some things were better left unspoken as long as handshakes and embraces could manage their emotions—until the voice could find the strength to leave the mouth and bring out what was in the guarded mantle of memory.
Mama Kadie and Pa Moiwa, as all those younger would respectfully call them, spent weeks removing things that did not belong to the surface of the earth. They couldn’t tell which bones belonged to those they had known. At some houses there were more bones than the people who had lived there. Bones were littered around the town and the nearby bushes. It was the same for the many towns and villages they had passed through; some were burnt and some had become forests, with trees growing inside houses. So they made a decision to take the bones to the cemetery and pile them there until it could be agreed upon by the whole town, when enough people had returned, what to do with the remains. During the entire process, they never cried; they spoke very little to each other except when they rested. And even then, it was in the most general terms, about the past before the land had changed.
“I do hope the other towns will come alive soon. I am fond of wandering down the path to another village or town at midafternoon to sit with its elders.” Pa Moiwa surveyed the four paths that came in and out of the town.
“Just as in the old days. You think all such simple things can become our lives again?” Mama Kadie asked. She didn’t want an answer and her friend gave none. They became quiet, each thinking of the day their lives had been shifted in another direction that they were still trying to return from.
* * *
Imperi was attacked on a Friday afternoon when everyone had returned from the market, from farms, and from schools, to rest at home and pray. It was that time of day when the sun came to a standstill and flexed the brightness of its muscles so intensely that even for those used to the dry season it became absolutely and unbearably hot. People sat on their verandas or under the shade of the mango trees in their backyards and drank hot tea or something cold, whispering to one another, as even their voices needed rest. The excited voices of children, however, didn’t need any respite. They came intermittently into town from the river, where they swam and played games, chasing after one another, their school uniforms strewn on the grasses at the riverbank.
There were three primary schools in town and two secondary schools nearby. While they didn’t have sufficient school materials, there were a good number of benches and desks. And the buildings were solid, though they had no doors, windows, or roofs. They did have the openings where these “ornaments,” as the headmaster called them, were supposed to be and where sometimes patches of zinc hung on the rafters. The teachers used to joke, “Who needs things covering the roofs, doors, or windows when you need the breeze to blow through your classroom all day or the heat will teach you more of a lesson than what you had planned for your students!”
The teachers were lively and the students were even livelier, in their colorful uniforms, so eager to learn that they would sit on the bare earth under mango trees or under the hot sun, excitedly reciting what was taught to them.
The inhabitants of Imperi had heard of the war that was hundreds of miles away, but they didn’t think it would enter, let alone severely wound, their lives. But that afternoon it did.
Several rocket-propelled grenades introduced the people of Imperi to war when they exploded in the chief’s compound, bringing down all the walls and killing many people, whose flesh sizzled from the explosions. These were followed by gunshots, and screaming and wailing, as people were gunned down in front of their children, mothers, fathers, grandparents. It was one of those operations that the fighters called “No Living Thing”—they would kill everything with life. Anyone who escaped such operations was extremely lucky, as the fighters would ambush towns and attack, shooting at will.
Chaos had engulfed Imperi, and some people, especially the very old and children, were trampled on. The passing soldiers, mostly children and a good number of men, shot those who hadn’t died when they came upon them. They laughed at the fact that by creating a stampede, the civilians had helped to make their operation easier.
Mama Kadie had watched the bullets tear into her two eldest sons and three daughters. They each hit the earth with eyes wide open, filled with surprise at what had just happened to them. Blood poured out of different parts of their bodies and then at last their teeth were covered with red saliva as life departed them. It had all happened so quickly, and she ran toward them not knowing exactly why, but her heart as a mother had been shattered and this was all she could do. She had no fear for her life. But someone seized her arms from behind and dragged her away from the bullets, away from the opening and near the bushes, where she was left to wake up from the shock and where her instincts to live emerged. In such circumstances, one has to abandon not only the feeling of pain but also sometimes even maternal instincts, and it must be done with immediacy.
She thought about her grandchildren. What if they survived, since they were at the river? Even though the voices of the children had ceased coming through the wind since the gunshots started, she wanted to go to the river, but sounds of heavy firing were coming from that direction. She deliberately turned to see her home one last time before she took up all the speed her age could bear, with bullets flying and catching people around her as she ran out of Imperi.
* * *
Pa Moiwa woke her from her thoughts with a deliberate coughing fit. Her face, the slouching of her cheekbones in particular, had given away that difficult memories consumed her just now.
“I was here on that day, at the mosque,” he said, “and I ran away from the prayer mat. I think God understood because he let me live through that day.” With a stick, he drew some lines on the ground, a way to distract himself somehow so that the thoughts of that day didn’t get a complete hold of him. They knew they had to put off for a while speaking about this part of the past. But their thoughts diverged. Pa Moiwa’s mind dwelled on the fire that had burnt his house that afternoon. His wife had been at home in bed recovering from a small illness and his twenty-year-old granddaughter had been tending to her. When he saw them run out of the house, slapping the fire off their bodies with all of the remaining might they had left, he thought they would live. But two children, a boy and a girl, had gunned them down and carried on shooting at other people and laughing. He knew he had to go before the children saw him.
“Well.” Mama Kadie’s voice waited for strength.
“The spider sometimes runs out of webs to spin, so it waits in the one it has spun.” Pa Moiwa used the old saying to assure his friend that more words would come to her and she might be able to dwell on things other than the horrors of the past. They were still holding on to old times, to old things, to an old world that didn’t exist anymore. Fragments of it worked every now and then, though. She regained her voice.
“Well, I eventually ended up on a small island near Bonthe. A fishing village that had nothing but fishermen, their families, and huts that the wind tossed into the air and set back down every other evening as though searching for something.” Mama Kadie leaned against the guava tree under which they sat.
“I just wandered everywhere for years, sleeping wherever night found me,” Pa Moiwa said. “My old age became a blessing many times on those days when everyone wished that their youthful qualities were behind them.” He said nothing more for a while and Mama Kadie didn’t ask. He was thinking again about the war, specifically about the numerous times he had escaped death. About the time the soldiers decided instead to chase after the young people, saying, “He is old, so don’t waste the ammunition on him. He can’t go far, so we will catch him and use the knives when we get back.” A group of boys who could have been his grandchildren had run after more agile folks, shooting at them.
But when Pa Moiwa spoke next, he described something different from what had possessed his mind just then. “The bones and muscles in my feet never felt tired of wandering; in fact, they felt restless. It was only when I set foot here—” He placed his palms on the ground and rubbed the dirt with his eyes closed for a few seconds before continuing. “It was only here that my feet and spirit suddenly felt tired.” He let his tongue rest for the passing wind to speak.
The only time they allowed whatever was inside of them to take hold of their faces, driving away their shiny wrinkles even in the presence of the sun, was when they came across bones of children, especially when there were too many of them in one area. They both had several grandchildren; Mama Kadie had five and Pa Moiwa counted six. Mama Kadie would sometimes look at certain piles of bones so intensely that her eyes watered. She hoped that she would recognize something on the bones that might reveal to her that it was one of her grandchildren. After a long period of separation, not knowing whether they were alive or dead, it was sometimes easier to want to bury them; the pain of unknowing was severe and never ending.
“This is truthfully of a girl,” she whispered to herself while examining a pelvic bone. “And these are of boys.” Three of her grandchildren were always together, so she wanted these bones to be them. “If only the clothes on them didn’t rot.”
Pa Moiwa would often press the palms of his hands on the small bones and wait to hear the voice of one of his grandchildren, to feel something that reminded him of one of them, but nothing occurred. Only the faces of the children and the sound of the school bell that morning before the attack filled his memory. He was convinced that the bones communicated with him, even if generally. He used to walk his grandchildren to school every morning and greeted people at every household. He would sigh as this memory ached his entire being.
* * *
The two elders had been in town for almost a month and had managed to clean up quite well. Every morning, Pa Moiwa would rise earlier than Mama Kadie and go to the bush to check the traps he had set the previous evening. Whenever he went into different parts of the forest, he saw more remains. These he would hide under shrubs or bury so the animals would not find them. He returned with whatever animal had been caught in the traps—a porcupine, a guinea fowl—which he would cut into pieces and have Mama Kadie cook for them. He didn’t tell her about the skulls and chopped hands he had seen and how he had examined the ones that had bits of flesh for the birthmarks of his children or grandchildren.
She would go wandering around the old farms looking for potatoes, cassavas, anything edible that grew in the neglected plots to cook with the meat that he brought back. Mama Kadie also saw skeletons, hung in farmhouses with fracture marks from bullets or machetes on the bones. She did her best to set them down and find resting places for them. She said nothing of this to Pa Moiwa. They took care of each other during the day, but at night they went to the ruins of their own houses. Each had found a corner to sleep in shielded on one side by a wall and the other by sticks and thatch. They struggled to find sleep on the mats that separated their bodies from the earth. The tattered blankets couldn’t warm their old bones. But they were home, where they knew exactly which tree the first sunrays would pierce through, a signal for God to connect with humans, every day. They had to be in their homeland for that—one could, if possible, hear God only through the words of one’s own land.
* * *
One morning after the first month and while they were both gone to look for food, another elder, a man, arrived in town. He also had come by the path and saw the footprints around town. He didn’t know whether they were friendly ones, so he hid in the nearby bushes and waited. The war had ended, but the reflex of disbelieving in the kindness of a quiet town remained with him.
He had come from the capital city, where he had eventually ended up after searching every refugee camp for his family. At each of these camps he’d had to register as a refugee, so his pockets were filled with ID cards. He didn’t like the squalor and congestion in the camps and so had started making traditional baskets, which he sold for enough money to rent a one-bedroom in the western part of the city. His new neighbors felt sorry for him and gave him food every day, and their children took a liking to him, but the relationship hurt his heart. They made him remember his own grandchildren. Still, he would sometimes walk the children to school. The children thought he did it because he liked it, but in truth he had been going from school to school in search of his son, Bockarie, who was a teacher. Wherever he stayed, he would visit all the schools and observe all the teachers. There was no sign of his son. He knew that if he was to find some family members, if luck was to smile his way, he would have to get back home. Therefore, as soon as it was announced that the war had ended, he began making plans to return to Imperi.
* * *
When he got nearer to his town today, he began remembering the day he had run away, the day of “Operation No Living Thing.” He was at the mosque and the gunmen came inside and started shooting everyone. He fell and bodies piled on top of him. The soldiers fired some more at the bodies to make sure everyone was properly dead. He held his breath. He didn’t know how he lived through it. After they left, he waited, hearing the sounds of men, boys, girls, and women crying in pain as they were tortured and then killed outside. He knew most of the voices, and at some point his ears cut him off of their own accord. He stayed under the bodies until late at night when the operation had finished and there was no sound of any living thing, not even the cry of a chick. He pulled himself out and saw the bullet-ridden bodies, some hacked. He ran out of town covered in the blood and excrement of those killed on top of him. He could not feel or smell anything for days. He just ran and ran until his nose reminded him what he was covered in. It was then that he searched for a river and washed himself clean. But water wouldn’t clean the smell, sound, and feeling of that day.
* * *
As the sun was stretching the cold bones of morning with its warmth, Mama Kadie and Pa Moiwa returned to town. They both noticed footprints that weren’t theirs and became worried. As they whispered about what to do next, a voice spoke from a concealed position under the bushes: “The marks you see on the earth are traces of your friend Kainesi, whose words of greeting come from the coffee trees behind you.”
Meeting old friends had become strange. “I am now going to place myself in front of your eyes.” He pulled his thin body from under the bushes whose leaves had left pimples of water on his face. He was wearing a blue hat with the letters NY that young men wore in the city. He had found it on the ground somewhere and wore it to cover his head from the wrath of the sun and because the initials on the hat were the letters of his family name, Nyama Yagoi. He removed the hat to reveal his much-wrinkled face, the scars across it and his skull. A young boy had slashed lines on his face with a bayonet and tried to open his head with a dull machete, proclaiming that he was practicing to become a “brain surgeon.”
At first, Mama Kadie and Pa Moiwa didn’t want to look at their friend, but in each other’s faces they found courage to do so. They embraced him, squeezing him between them until he laughed, making the scars on his cheeks magnify, resembling a second grin.
“Well, you came out of that madness with an extra smile!” Pa Moiwa commented, and they shook hands, their old, warm fingers holding on to each other for a while, each man’s eyes fixed deeply on the other’s.
Mama Kadie wanted to ask, How are you, your children and grandchildren, your wife, their health? as greetings were in the old days, but she held her tongue. These days one must be careful to avoid awakening the pain of another. She placed her hands on each of their shoulders, gently releasing her friends from the stupor of all that had come to pass. She thought, We are here, alive, and we must go on living.
“Now I have two men to take care of me. Two old friends whose strength may equal a young man’s.” They all laughed.
“We still have laughter among us, my friends, and hopefully some of those we have shared it with so deeply will return and we will be waiting,” Pa Kainesi said.
And the three old friends walked into the ruins of their town, the air sailing a bit livelier, waking the trees from their slumber and making a small tornado of dust as though cleansing the air for the possibility of life again.
Copyright © 2014 by Ishmael Beah