Prologue: The Village
A turtle crawled into a hole, it crawled inside of an ostrich's hole." The little girl hops from puddle to puddle, crooning to herself. A tin bracelet jingles.
Diin god gal, god gorey gal, Gorey god gal, god diin gal.
Mist drifts from gray clouds above the three children in the yard in front of the hut. That morning they ate sorghum porridge sweetened with chopped dates, and their bellies are comfortable.
The roosters crow .rst, and the dogs bark. Then a low growl grows.
The trucks that come rumbling along the dirt roads between the . elds are the biggest things the children have ever seen. Their steel projections snap branches off the young lemon and papaya trees. Their tires crush down the soft moist dirt. A goat runs into the road, baaing loudly. It halts, staring up, and a truck rolls over it without slowing. The soldiers in the truck beds are in dusty green uniforms. They're singing together, shouting out the words.
The family's hut is of hand-patted mud brick. Back of the wattle barn an old cow's tied to a pole buried in the ground. There's a privy with screens of woven branches. The yard faces a .eld of mangoes, with corn growing behind them.
Ghedi's atop a ladder, pruning one of the mango trees, when he notices the trucks. He doesn't know how old he is, but it's almost time to have a wife found for him. His arms and legs are like a spider's. He's dark, like his father, face narrow around the mouth, but with a wide brow and thoughtful eyes. He slides down the ladder as the soldiers jump down in front of the one house in the village with a sheet metal roof. The old balabat bustles out. He bows, then points at the broken branches.
The little girl croons on, oblivious to what's happening beyond her gate. "A turtle crawled into a hole, it crawled inside of an ostrich's hole."
The soldiers shoot and the balabat falls. Ghedi stands rooted, not believing it, though it's happened in other villages, the news passed from mouth to mouth across the land. Other guns pop, distant and trivial across the .elds. Engines snort from the other side of the garad, from across the canals the ancestors dug when the People .rst came to this land. Lions are growling all around the horizon, a long rope of lions, drawing tight around the village.
Their mother's scream snaps the children around. "Come in out of the yard. Come inside! This instant!"
His little brother and sister look at Ghedi. He shoulders his pruning hook and shouts, "Come!" The children trail in, eyes wide. Chickens run squawking under their feet. His sister Zeynaab's carrying her doll. His little brother Nabil is naked. He keeps pushing at his runny nose with the back of his wrist. Nabil's cute as a baby goat, but his foot drops when he lifts it so he limps when he walks.
"Huyo, huyo," Nabil whimpers. "Mama, mama."
"Mother, they killed balabat. Where's aabbe? Where's Father?"
His mother doesn't seem to hear. She's looking toward the . elds.
"Where's Father?" Ghedi grips her arm, shakes her.
"Gone. He's gone."
"What? Where'd he go?"
She doesn't answer. Just stands looking across at the soldiers, at something they're dragging into the . eld.
Ghedi turns the hook in his hands. "Mother, what shall we do?"
"They told us to go," she says to herself. "Give up the land and go. But the council wouldn't listen."
A strange humming comes then, and a moment later the air cracks like a whip but louder. His mother jerks and puts her hands to her face. When she opens them her cheeks are bloody. She looks at her palms, then cups her face again. Part of it's gone. There's blood behind her too, all over the wall of the hut.
"Huyo, huyo," Nabil whimpers, clutching her dress where red spots are falling. They rain on his head too. Ghedi slaps his brother's head till he lets go.
Their mother whirls and runs inside. As she moans in there the children look back at the soldiers. The humming drifts above them like angry bees. "Who's taking their honey?" Zeynaab asks. Ghedi pushes her inside the hut, then his brother.
Inside it's dark. Their mother's stumbling about, pulling objects down from places the children couldn't reach. Something falls and shatters. Fragments spin in the dust. He recognizes them. A white bowl with blue birds and rabbits on it. The children ate from it when they were small, .rst him, then Zeynaab, then Nabil. It would have been the baby's turn next.
The pieces crunch as their mother steps on them. Her blood patters on the dirt. It makes a red apron down her dress. She wraps muufo bread and rice in a cloth and gives it to Zeynaab. She takes off her xirsi amulet and knots it around her daughter's wrist. At Ghedi she thrusts a knife and a folded packet of dirty paper. He stares at it, not knowing they had money.
She snatches the baby up from where it lies wrapped by the door. Its hand waves in the air, black where the healer burned it. She thrusts it into Ghedi's arms. "Take care of your brother. Never let them see your sisters. Pray to Allah for those killed that He takes them home to paradise. Those who murder, he will put in baskets and burn alive. Go to your family, they'll always feed you. Go to the magaada, the great city, . nd Abti Jama. At the Suuqa Haqaaraba. Now run."
"Where is the city?" says Zeynaab, wiping her eyes. "Mama, are you not coming?"
But she's slumping, holding the table with one hand. Melting, like a candle. "Go with your brother," she whispers. "You children stay together. Always stay together."
"Why are the soldiers here?"
"The soldiers take it now, but you will take it back. This land is ours. Our blood is in its water."
"Mama, come with us."
A screech of metal, so close it sounds as if it's in their yard. Forcing herself up, their mother pushes them out the back. She pushes so roughly Nabil falls. She drags him up and shoves him at Ghedi. Then she sits down, and blood runs down from where her teeth were into the bare ground where the chickens pecked. "Hide in the canal. Bullets will not hit you there. Go to the city. Tell Uncle Jama a man's judged by what he does for his kin. Now go!" she screams, face smaller somehow than they've ever seen it. As if it too is a child's, and she's no older than they.
They look back to see their hut, the balabat's, and all the others on . re. The smoke rises black above hills green and golden with groves of lemons and oranges. A bright small red .ame rises and hovers before falling again. Shots snap like cattle whips through the leaves of the orchards.
Ghedi's mouth tastes of dust. He left the pruning hook in the hut. How could he do that? He could kill one of the soldiers. He slaps his brother and pushes him along the ditch when he cries and tries to turn back.
"What is it to you? Don't complain. You're not hurt!" he shouts, then lowers his voice as men yell not far away. More bees hum over their heads.
Other .gures spill from the corn rows. Adults and children, carrying hoes, bundles, babies. Some tow goats, others sheep. A woman waddles with a chicken tucked under each arm, the fowls regarding the children with emotionless eyes. A one-armed elder pushes a rubber-tired farm cart down the bank into the slowly eddying water. A toothless old woman lies on her back in the mud. As the children pass she smiles, reaches out her hand to Zeynaab. Smoke drifts overhead, a dirty drape between them and the misty sky.
When Nabil looks back, the village is already gone.
THREE days later, the children lie sprawled in the shade of an acacia. The sun's bright today, and hot. The road is inches thick with yellow dust and they're covered with it, like yellow children. It smells of dung. They're wrapped in castoff clothing picked up along the road. There's plenty to choose from. Bandits discovered the refugees the day after they began walking. Some they beat, others they killed. A boy not much older than Ghedi they simply took. Sharpened sticks are propped against the tree. At their feet is a shallow hole.
Ghedi sits with eyes open, watching the shimmer of heated air on the sand. He sees camels lurching side to side. When he blinks there are no camels there.
"Give her to me," he says.
Zeynaab hands the wrapped bundle over. Yesterday a man offered to buy Zeynaab from her brothers. He offered food for them all if she'd come with him. The sharpened sticks kept him off. He'd laughed, and asked what they were. Samaale? Bantu? "You look like Bantu," he told them. "Scum of shit, offspring of hyenas. Die on the road, then. You'll never reach the city."
Nabil presses the back of his hand to his parched lips. The people who live along the road won't let the refugees use their wells. Yesterday, after he sharpened their sticks, Ghedi traded the knife for water. The rice and muufo bread are gone. Zeynaab chewed some up and tried to feed the baby some but it wouldn't eat. It kept its eyes closed, eyelids jerking as if it was having bad dreams. They tried to give it water but it wouldn't drink. This morning when they woke it was dead.
Ghedi lays the bundle in the hole. Each child sprinkles a handful of dirt. They scoop with their arms until it's covered.
"Find stones to pile on," Ghedi says. "Or the dogs will dig her up. Remember this tree. Remember that hill. When we come back with Uncle we'll . nd her again. Take her to the village and bury her with Grandma. And with—" But he can't say Mother.
Nabil's weeping but without tears, just choked gasps. When he rubs his lips they crack into plates that bleed. He wants his mother. He talks to her in his head as they walk.
Zeynaab feels as if there's an empty room behind her eyes. The man yesterday had stared at her as if she were something to eat. For a moment she'd almost said, Yes, give us food and I'll go with you.
Maybe today she'll have to.
ALL afternoon the dust rises as the road climbs. Their village wasn't the .rst, or the last. Thousands of others walk the same road. The land of farms and rivers lies behind them, and there are no more trees. This place grows only rocks and twisted gray cacti. The children trudge along, each in his own hell of thirst and hunger. Their ears ring from the heat. One woman gives Nabil a sip of vinegary water. The others ignore them. They move in clots, with those they know, from their own villages or families. They sit apart when they halt. Those who have food don't share; those who have none don't beg.
At last the procession thickens, slows, wends to a halt. From ahead comes shouting. Ghedi jumps in place, trying to see over the crowd. Finally he tells his brother and sister, "Stay here. Stay right here."
"Don't go, Ghedi," Nabil whimpers.
His brother slaps the back of his head. "Shut up. I'll be right back." He twists off between the grown-ups, lithe body and long bare arms and legs like a snake slithering through a rock pile.
A rumble echoes through the stony hills. The crowd stirs. They pick up bundles, pull children closer.
"Bandits," someone says. "Rebels," mutters someone else.
The pickups gun up the slope. Men hang off, ri.es in one hand, the other gripping handholds. The vehicles circle inward, trailing dust. The men on them are lean and hard and keen- faced as bronze arrowheads. Ghedi can't make out what clan they are. There's bad blood and bad memories all through these lands, fought over for so many centuries. So much to account for, to avenge or atone. Struggling toward the front of the crowd, he can remember only parts of it. Only what he's been told is his own history.
The cries come on the wind, on the blowing dust. They're high, exultant, mingled with the grind of tires, the noisy honking of the trucks.
Then the killing begins.
Excerpted from The Crisis by David Poyer.
Copyright © 2009 by David Poyer.
Published in November 2009 by St. Martin's Press.
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