In the months following my mother’s death, the towering plum tree in the front yard, always healthy with fruit, produced a small crop. The bougainvillea, retreating from their vivid red and purple, settled for a faded pink. Other flowers in mommy’s garden simply refused to bloom. The coconut tree in the corner of the back yard lost several prominent branches, making it resemble a hairless dog. Nothing was the same.
“It was a heart attack, son.” Dr. Toe, our family physician for over ten years, was sympathetic. He had been speaking for a while and though I could see his lips moving, my mind had shut down as soon as he said, “Your mother is dead.”
My father walked away immediately after Dr. Toe broke the news. I figured he could not contain his grief. My hearing returned when I began thinking about my brothers, Donyen and Nimene. Donyen, the younger of the two, an unabashed mama’s boy, I knew would be devastated.
In the background, I heard the doctor speaking, “Your father declined an autopsy, but it’s probably not necessary anyway.”
My father and I had brought mommy to the hospital after she fainted at home that morning. One minute she was doing things around the house, the next, she was passed out.
“Listen Dortu, I know your mother’s death was sudden . . . um, unexpected, but these things do happen. I’m sorry for your loss.” Dr. Toe started to walk away, then stopped at the corner, “Let me know if I can do anything. See you at the funeral. It’s just too bad . . . your mother Bonyenor was a wonderful woman.”
I whispered, “Yeah, I know,” but the doctor had left. Daddy was already in the car and ready to leave when I walked out of St. Joseph’s Catholic Hospital.
My mother was fond of saying, “Dortu, if anything happens to me, you’ll have to take care of your brothers.” She usually said this to me when I did not want to assist my brothers with something. Her voice echoed, admonishing me, as I helped Donyen and Nimene dress for her funeral. Donyen was eight, Nimene, ten, when mommy died; I was fourteen. The two weeks after mommy's death proved to be the toughest period for all three of us. Nimene became depressed, and Donyen, dejected and sullen, started speaking again, haltingly, after nine days of silence. I was gloomy and sad.
“Do I have to go?” Donyen asked, struggling with his pain.
“Yeah,” Nimene squeaked out, “I want to stay home too.”
“This is tough on all of us . . .” the lump I swallowed was so dry it hurt. I started over, “Mommy’s death is tough, but as her children, we have to be there. We just h-have to. Besides, mommy would want that, she really would.” Both of my brothers’ heads were bowed, but Nimene managed a nod. “I’m sure she wants to see us there together,” I finished.
“Will she . . .” Donyen’s voice was so low I could barely hear him, but at least he was making the effort. “Will mommy be able to see us?” My youngest brother’s eyes glistened behind his tears. I felt my head nod slightly.
“Nimene, please help Donyen find his shoes. I have to get dressed before Daddy is ready to go.” I hurried out of the room before either of them saw me crying.
“Dortu, Nimene, Donyen!” My father always called us from oldest to youngest. “I’m ready to go. Let’s go.”
“Ma Mini – er, Ma Mini.”
The woman was bawling. Embarrassed, daddy tried consoling her. “It’s all right now; let’s get in the car. Come on, let’s go, it will be okay.”
Ma Mini, a wizened, loyal lady, who had worked in our household for six years, had grown so close to us that she became family. Like us, she was beside herself with grief. My father, on the other hand, was coping better than most because he carried on and sounded as businesslike as he usually did. Fifteen years of marriage did not seem to cause him pause.
At the church, the heels of my shoes barely left the floor as I led my brothers to our mother’s casket for our final goodbyes. Donyen and Nimene held my waist tightly. I was not sure if that was to keep themselves upright, or me. Daddy had already brushed by the casket and was in a side aisle talking to Mr. Peterson, a business associate. On the way to the front of the church, I made eye contact with Dr. Toe, who was in one of the pews on the left. He nodded; I am not sure what I did in return.
My mother’s hair still framed her face in a uniquely attractive way, though it was not jet-black anymore. Her fingers ducked into a pair of white silk gloves that were clasped across her stomach. Cocooned in sudden death, mommy, only forty-one years old, looked serene in her bed for once. The three of us stood silently before our mother. Donyen kept his eyes shut, though I think his mind’s eye saw her nonetheless.
Ma Mini’s plaintive wailing was distinct from the din created by the overflow crowd at the Sacred Heart Cathedral that afternoon. Just as another volley of tears wet my face, Ma Mini made her way to the front, put her arms around my drooping shoulders, and gave me an I-know-how-you-feel look. I nodded, but knew she had no idea. When my brothers and I walked out of the church, daddy was talking dispassionately to a family friend and Ma Mini was still yelling praises about Bonyenor Wollor. She cried all the way to the graveyard.
I closed my eyes when my mother's casket was lowered in the ground. “Love you mommy,” trickled involuntarily from my lips. “Me too,” Nimene’s voice was muffled. “A-a-and me too,” Donyen murmured, not wanting to be left out.
The three of us waited in the car until our father was ready to go home.
“Dortu! You-boy, get me some water!” Miss Jones ordered. Miss Jones began showing up at our house about a month after mommy’s funeral. Though graced with smooth, beige-colored skin, and an admirably contoured body, the woman was short, five-foot-two, and had a face as round as it was wide. Miss Jones spoke too loudly each time she requested something. When she raised her voice, the bags under her eyes jiggled. This happened often because Miss Jones was always dispatching errands to people in the house. Ma Mini called Miss Jones “dat woman.”
“My chile, dat woman too proud for hersef,” Ma Mini would say. “Why dat woman gotta be sendin’ peepo here n’ der, for dis and dat, all de time?” I understood what Ma Mini was saying. When I was not being ordered around by Miss Jones, I kept my distance from my father’s friend, not quite sure of her status.
“Dortu,” Miss Jones always said my name with a hint of disdain, “where the hell is the water I sent you for huh? Your mother really spoiled the crap out of you all, but I’ll put an end to that foolishness! Just wait. Bring my water you-boy!” Her eye bags shook. They had no choice.
Change was everywhere the months after my mother passed away. One bombshell was Ma Mini’s departure.
“I know dat woman did it,” Ma Mini complained as she packed her things. “She done poisin your pa hay. I know dat her. No good woman – you hear me?” When Ma Mini looked up I saw her light brown pupils shining with tears.
“Dortu, Dortu my chile,” she said, dabbing the tears.
“Yes, Ma Mini.”
“Take care your brotha dem oh. I know you since you pekin, but you big man now . . . big man.” She folded her lappa more than it needed to be. “Dortu, you de big man oh, so for my sake, well, for your ma sake, please look afta your brotha dem.”
All I could do was nod. We watched Ma Mini trudge out the front gate. Donyen wept like a baby, while Nimene and I grappled with our distress in silence. Daddy was not around and never got to see Donyen’s tears. I am not sure my father ever knew how much that lady meant to his sons.
“Francis—Francis—please get the driver to take me to my sister’s place.” Never mind that the name of the man who drove my father’s car was Mr. Abraham. Why was Miss Jones calling daddy Francis?
“Who’s Francis?” Donyen wanted to know.
“Don’t you know that’s daddy’s name?” Nimene asked.
“It is? Thought it was Nyepan, or Mr. Wollor.” Donyen was confused because until recently, everyone on a first name basis with our father called him by his Kru name, Nyepan. Everyone, that is, except Miss Jones and the priests at the Our Lady of Lebanon Catholic Church we attended. They obviously preferred his “baptismal” name: Francis.
Miss Jones, this time with a lady in tow, returned to our house the day after our beloved Ma Mini left. I was in my father’s room giving him a glass of water when they walked in.
“Francis, my sister recommended this woman, Rebecca, to help out in this house.” Miss Jones, standing in front of the woman, stepped to the side and nudged her forward, the way one would a child being coaxed to do something. “That other person you had here was just too lazy and country for her own good.” Miss Jones turned down her lips and shook her head. “She was even making your children lazy.” Nothing could be further from the truth because Ma Mini always encouraged us to do chores around the house. Miss Jones had taken Ma Mini’s replacement directly to my father’s room to make the introduction. Odd, I thought, but then again, many things had become that way.
“De ole’ pa in his room callin’ you,” cross-eyed Rebecca informed me one day. None of us had taken to this new lady. Not that we could have, even if we wanted to, because she kept her distance and did not talk much.
“Come in,” Miss Jones responded when I knocked. Why was she answering daddy’s door? I entered and spotted her handing my father an envelope. I came to attention as daddy cleared his throat. He always cleared his throat before he said something important.
“Er, Dortu,” he began in his trademark businesslike voice, “this vacation, um, you’re going to spend time in Grand Cess.”
“Grand Cess?” My question nearly cut my father off, which would have created a whole different problem. I did not know much about Grand Cess other than it hugged the Atlantic Ocean along the southeastern coast of Liberia, and that my parents, both Kru, had been born and raised there. They left over twenty-five years ago in search of higher education and a “better” life and never returned. I'd heard my parents talk nostalgically a few times about Seeklaykpor, the Kru word for Grand Cess, but nothing they said had piqued my curiosity. The thought of traveling to that place would never have crossed my mind.
“Yes, your ma and I talked about this before. Did she ever mention it to you?” Miss Jones’s eyes never left my face the entire time my father was speaking to me. “Did she?” daddy prodded.
“Um, n-no. Um, I mean, maybe she did.” I was confused. “What about Donyen and Nimene?”
“Don’t worry about them,” Miss Jones snapped. Why was she answering anyway? “They’ll be going to a fine Christian camp my sister recommended.” I wondered if this was the same sister that referred Rebecca, who happened to be more aloof than alive. “Because you’re the oldest, your pa wanted you to visit his so-called home.” Her smirk gave the words an edge that hurt. “You understand don’t you?” Before I could figure out what to say to my father’s lady-friend, he started to speak again.
“You’ll be leaving in a couple days, so go start packing.” I remembered the last beating he had given me and that prevented any protest of the verdict. I darted out of the room, away from Miss Jones’s triumphant stare.
Why, all of a sudden, did my father want me to go to Grand Cess? Why now, especially since he seemed to be distancing himself from his roots? He was answering to "Francis" more, and, since mommy died, I could count, on one hand the number of times I had heard him speak Kru, which he reverted to only after someone shamed him into speaking it. Though these things bothered me, the biggest drawback to this trip was that I would miss all the vacation games of blades, marbles, and basketball with my friends. That was the real tragedy here. Despair pelted me the way hard raindrops did during a rainstorm.
Doom came quickly. The two days before my departure felt like two hours. My brothers had to beg my father to let them come to the airport to see me off. The drive from our house in Congo Town to the Spriggs Payne Airport took only fifteen minutes, and before long we were in the terminal.
Donyen hugged me hard. “Please bring me something back.”
“What do you want?” I asked.
“Hmmm,” my brother paused, then stroked his chin. “I’m not sure. What’s in Grand Cess anyway?”
“Guess I’ll find out because I have no idea.”
Turning to Nimene, I asked, “what do you want?”
“Nothing. Just don’t stay long.”
“That’s all you have to say?” I inquired.
“Um, oh yeah – have a safe trip. But how long are you going to stay Dortu?” Nimene appeared more concerned about my trip than I was.
“Daddy didn’t tell me how long I’d be in Grand Cess, but you two won’t be here anyway. Both of you are going to camp. Miss–” Nimene’s eyes begged me not to mention her name. “Camp should be fun.”
“I don’t want to go. Hope we don’t stay there more than two or three days.” Nimene grumbled.
This was going to be my first time away from my brothers since our mother passed. It was going to be tough. “Nimene, look after Donyen okay? Remember what mommy used to tell us about watching out for each other.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll help Nimene watch me,” Donyen joked.
“Keep acting frisky,” Nimene warned. He was not in the mood to play. “Just keep on. I’ll make you pump tire back at the house.” Donyen backed off because he hated clasping his fingers behind his head and doing leg squats.
“Don’t mind that boy,” I chuckled, “he’s just messing with you Nimene. Donyen, you heard what your brother said? Don’t be frisky.” Donyen nodded sheepishly.
Daddy was standing about thirty feet from us engaged in a conversation with a well-dressed gentleman. No matter where we went, my father always found someone to talk to, mostly about politics or business. You wouldn’t know that judging from how withdrawn he was at home. His words had become fewer after Miss Jones began visiting regularly. Five months after the funeral, Nimene had asked me, “is daddy vexed about something? He always looks upset.” Donyen had completed his chores and was outside playing. Nimene and I were scrubbing the hallway floor. I tried to explain.
“Our ma and pa were married for over fifteen years–”
“But–” Nimene interrupted.
“Wait,” my hand motioned him to stop, “let me finish. Anytime you lose someone after a long time, it takes a while to get over it. I think daddy’s behavior is a result of this.” Nimene’s eyes suggested disagreement, but he kept quiet.
I continued, “None of us have been the same since mommy died.” My brother looked out the window when I mentioned our mother’s death. “So don’t read too much into daddy’s actions. People deal with grief in different ways.”
“But then why is Miss–” Nimene paused, then sighed. “Okay, I see what you’re saying.”
Daddy shook hands, exchanged business cards with the man he was talking to, then walked towards us.
“Dortu,” he called out.
“Time to board.”
I hugged Donyen and Nimene again, and just as I was about to head onto the tarmac, my father stuck out his hand and said, “Have a safe flight.” The handshake was quick. I turned and waved several times as I walked towards the small aircraft. After my first wave, I noticed that daddy had turned away and was talking with the person next to him. My brothers were the only ones who waved back.
Wide-eyed, with my back pressed firmly against the seat, my heart hammered against my chest as the puddle-jumper descended over rugged jungle. The window view convinced me that the pilot was attempting to land in a forest. Tall trees, crowned with luxuriant green leaves, feigned attempts to tickle the belly of our aircraft, then bent their trunks in reverence when we buzzed by. Out of nowhere, just beyond the thick tree line, a cracked runway, with more grass than cement, popped out running north to south. The slab of concrete, surrendering to the local vegetation, led my eyes to the Atlantic Ocean in the near distance. It was more comforting to look out instead of down since the landing strip resembled a long-since abandoned floor of a never-built building; a floor left to be reclaimed by nature. Surprisingly, and much to my relief, we landed safely, though roughly, on the airstrip in Grand Cess.
The coconut-laced ocean breeze invigorated me as soon as I stepped out of the cramped aircraft. In the middle of my third deep breath, Aunt Comfort wrapped me in a hug, flashing a wide, warm smile. She was my aunt because I had been told so, but I had no idea how we were related. Our family commonly assigned uncles, aunts, and cousins without offering an inkling about the familial ties. Children knew leaves of our family tree without knowing branches, much less the trunk.
Full-figured with caramel-colored skin, no longer pulled tightly in all areas, Aunt Comfort was still a striking five-foot-ten-inch beauty at sixty-nine years old. She wore an olive green and white dress with a matching head tie. Several silver strands peeked from the sides of the head wrap to see what the hubbub was about.
No stranger would have guessed that she had also given birth to seven children. Only one of them, Sion, still lived in Grand Cess. Her other children, like my parents, had moved to Monrovia in search of better opportunities.
Aunt Comfort, still holding on to me, was blurting a hundred words per minute in Kru. I remembered several of the phrases, but could not understand most of what she was saying.
“Na ju, ku nee ooh. Na bley na! Na dee oooh! Seeklaykpor mon a bley.”
Growing up in Monrovia, my brothers and I were not sufficiently exposed to our native tongue. Location, however, did not fully explain why my generation of Wollor boys was “lost.”
“What kind of Kru boys are these who can’t even speak their own language? You all are lost!” That is how relatives and friends of our parents summed up our condition. I kept my views to myself, but always believed that if our parents really wanted to teach us the language, we would really have had to learn it.
“Uh-huh,” and a forced smile was the only response I could give my aunt. I dropped my head, but she rambled on joyfully, as if my face did not reflect the embarrassment racking my body.
We walked towards Aunt Comfort’s house while my head swiveled, sizing up my new surroundings. Having surrendered to the will of the blowing wind, tall, lanky coconut trees leaned away from the ocean. Old, brownish-gray branches hung on for dear life as new ones sprouted forth, green with vitality. The sun was vigilant here, staying high and hot as the ocean dispatched scented air to moderate its heat. Occasional footpaths meandered through the dense green vegetation that framed both sides of the road. The path to Aunt Comfort’s home was just wide enough for a car, though none were in sight. It was one of those roads with a strip of grass down the middle that massaged the undercarriages of cars as they navigated annoying holes and ruts.
Everyone knew each other in this town, and my arrival from Monrovia was apparently a major event. Men and women went out of their way to walk by and offer greetings to my proud aunt – she was beaming. The women smiled, nodding their heads as they tied and re-tied their lappas; their children simply stared until we were out of sight. Sion, Aunt Comfort’s son, embraced me as if we had been close friends since childhood. There were no guarded pleasantries, none of the sizing-up that occurred back in the city. Our bonding only took minutes.
“My man, today was just too much,” I exclaimed to Sion as we laid on our sleeping mats later that evening, “all the people!”
“Yes, yes,” he smiled.
“People were coming around like I was a big shot or something. I didn’t know what to do. To tell the truth Sion, I was confused by the attention.”
“Yeah, I know. My ma been makin’ your news high all ‘round. Ev’rybody know you wah comin’, so dey been waitin’. ‘Nother ting – planes don’ come here plenty.” Then he began to ask me a barrage of questions about Monrovia, the big city. We talked until fatigue knocked us out.
Something big was happening the next morning. The town was bustling. Conversations were animated and people were moving about quickly. There was more excitement than when the single propeller, eight-seater plane, the only flight for the month, had landed in the sleepy fishing town.
“Don’ worrae, I will take you to de action,” Sion volunteered in his Kru-accented English, as we headed toward the commotion. “You my guess here.”
Soon after we arrived at the beach, I saw the approaching canoe, a tube of vibrant color, gliding on the waves like a flawless dancer. Two passengers and a glossy brown coffin were in the canoe. When five eager, bare-chested boys splashed into the water to guide the boat ashore, several women, all clad in black and purple lappas, began crying as if on cue.
“De woman who die was a big shot,” Sion explained as we watched. “Dats why dey pay to bring her body all de way back here for burial. My ma say she was doin’ real good in Cape Palmas.” Judging from the increasing crowd, the lady must have been popular as well.
As soon as the canoe was pulled onto the sand, I felt the sound. It stretched the skin away from my bones and caused tremors in my gut. Though I did not know what the words meant, the refrain reverberated in my memory.
Kafa na mu weejlah belohpoh - ein!
Deebleh na jay lay mu bo – ein!
Deebleh na weh dey – ein!
Grievers paused their weeping; the ocean noise deferred to the singing. Rumbling towards the beach, the sound rose from every direction, except behind us, where the sea watched in anticipation. Furtive glances bounced around the crowd.
Looking directly into the crowd without making eye contact, they moved rhythmically, locked in a tight, high-energy formation the way Poro secret society initiates performed on graduation day. The men sang so loudly that their faces scrunched into frowns as the words leapt from their throats. For some reason, thirteen struck me as an odd number for a dance formation, but that was all there was. Thirteen.
“Kru Warriahs doin’ de war dance,” Sion whispered loud enough for me to hear, his shoulders moving to the song. The cream paint plastered on the warriors did little to disguise bare, brawny chests and arms accented by glistening sweat. Majestic headgear wrestled to stay atop frantically shaking heads. Dusty feet led to sinewy legs that ducked under thick thatch skirts. The garb thrashed wildly, attempting to contain the movement from the men.
Six of the warriors hoisted the coffin onto their shoulders, four formed a horizontal line in front, and the remaining three posted in the rear. A fluid, yet unyielding phalanx, they began running back into town as swiftly as they had come. The spectators followed, with older folks limping along as quickly as their bones allowed.
Suddenly, the warriors stopped. Frozen. Still. A hush draped the crowd. Just as abruptly, they began to dart back and forth in a series of violent, disjointed motions, resembling headless chickens scampering before inevitable death. As the three warriors in the rear placed their hands on the back of the coffin to stabilize it, the troupe spun around, faced the crowd and paused. Then, without warning, they stormed towards us. Everyone scattered in a frenzy, but Sion held onto the back of my shirt to prevent our separation.
Sweat flew off the men’s faces and chests. The decorative paint fought to stay in place and remain relevant. Crooked headgear stayed crooked and strands of thatch declared independence from their skirts. Anklets of cowrie shells echoed each move, making loud, dissonant music. Glazed eyes remained still as the warriors’ bodies pledged allegiance to involuntary control. After the casket forced itself in a different direction, Sion, panting, began to explain. “Somebody witched de person who die. Now de dead body doesn’t wanna go to de grave ‘til she find de person who did it.”
“How will they find this person?” I quizzed. “And how do you know that the dead person doesn’t want to be buried yet?” I had been startled – well, okay – scared by the charging warriors, but had not lost my senses.
“Looka de warriahs – dey ain’t in control of demselves! Dey goin’ anywhere de casket send dem. Dortu, dat’s de dead body controllin’ dem – I’m tellin’ you.”
“Sion, have you seen anything like this before?” The casket’s following continued to grow. All of Grand Cess must have been there.
“Well, de ole’ peepo talk ‘bout spirits, but I mysef have neva seen dis.”
“A dead person looking for their killer, huh?” I scratched my chin.
“Dat's where de coffin goin'. It lookin’ for de killa. In de end, it will take us to where dat person is.”
Soon after Sion spoke, the lady in the coffin led the crowd to the east side of the village. After more spurts and turns, the casket came to rest at the steps of a small, ochre-colored mud brick hut at the edge of a clearing facing River Nungba.
“Juwledi Wreh house,” Sion whispered. “Her husban’ die two years ago. One day he was okay, de nex, he was gone jes like dat. Peepo say she hersef kill him because he use to beat her; dat and his woman business. I even tink he use to love to dis woman who die. Anyway, dey find his body in de river behind der house.”
“What will they do if they find her?”
“If? If? Oh, dey will find her, don’ worrae, but I dunno wha dey will do.” Sion’s gaze was fixed on the lady’s house.
Juwledi Wreh, a haggard, middle-aged woman, was expressionless as four warriors escorted her outside to shouts of damnation from the mob. I didn’t understand the Kru words, but could tell from the texture of the voices that they were convinced she was guilty. Two of the men took her away after a few minutes of jeering. This time, no one followed.
Now pliant, the casket allowed the pallbearers to carry it to the graveyard, where I watched them lower it into the ground without incident. My city sensibilities mauled, I remained terrified the rest of my stay in Grand Cess.
My gut feeling that thirteen was a strange number for the warrior formation turned out to be true. After the burial, the fourteenth warrior audacious enough to skip the war dance was rounded up and punished in a manner I had never seen before. The six warriors who performed the ritual were somber and serious.
Four were assigned to hold down the violator, each holding an arm or leg, while a fifth warrior methodically crushed green and orange peppers against two flat stones. The fumes from the peppers wrestled tears from many of the onlookers. The last warrior chanted while pacing alongside the outstretched body on the dusty earth.
The crowd circled the man, who had shirked his warrior duties, leaving only enough room to avoid being harmed by the mashed-pepper venom, which was simmering in a tin bowl under the sweltering sun. After a few minutes, the chanter became quiet and approached the bowl in soft, deliberate steps, a leopard on the verge of pouncing its prey. The warrior dipped his index finger into the mixture, decorating it with moist pieces of pepper, and with the cadence of a solemn religious ceremony, walked toward the man wriggling on the ground. The limb holders started a low, meditative hum.
The man’s head swiveled rapidly, chasing his eyes that flitted like flies. Large drops of sweat lodged on his quivering top lip, and heavy panting threatened to drain him of air. Using his thumb and forefinger, the pepper crusher spread open the lids of the negligent warrior’s eyes, while the chanter ran his pepper-laced finger across the man’s pupils. As if pushed by a powerful force under the earth, the young man’s back arched off the ground, shooting his stomach skyward. The move was so forceful that his body may have levitated had he not been held down. I recoiled, but could not turn away. My nose watered from the pepper’s vapors. After both eyes were served, the warriors moved, in no particular hurry, to the nostrils.
The crowd remained fixated as gobs of fiery pepper were stuffed down the man’s nose and throat. He gagged, then, vomited all over himself. Mucus streamed from his nostrils and his pupils were locked behind swollen eyelids. No one turned away as the warriors ripped off his trousers. His genital area got its application first, then he was flipped onto his stomach. This time they used a small stick to shove some of the pulp between parted butt cheeks. The sun’s heat intensified the man’s anguish, his naked body thrashed in the dust.
“Oh my peepo! Yor please hep me! I beg yor oooh! I beg . . .” The man’s cries fell on deaf ears and ricocheted off the unflinching looks hand carved on the warriors’ faces. No one helped. Tightly shut eyelids failed to stem the tears wetting his cheeks. Sweating from every pore, he continued to scream between erratic, labored gasps for air. Sion and I stayed until he fell silent.
First the spectacle of my arrival coupled with the natural beauty of the place; then the justice-seeking casket; now this peppering. Grand Cess had me awestruck.
My brothers and I made it back home a few days apart. Donyen said that they had enjoyed camp, but Nimene refused to admit it. Though Donyen had interesting news to share, it was my Grand Cess stories—the one about the peppering ritual, for instance—that kept us up at night. During our absence, Miss Jones had moved in and taken over our household, neutering our father in the process. The bags under her eyes wiggled as her voice reverberated off the walls with her never-ending demands. It was difficult for everyone, including Rebecca, to deal with her.
Two weeks after our return, Miss Jones was yelling for this-or-that one afternoon when the sounds of war stomped into the city and unleashed chaos in our neighborhood. The people scampering outside reminded me of dry leaves being blown around by Harmattan winds.
“De rebels dem coming-oh! Dey coming!” A middle-aged man warned as he fled past. Gunfire punctured the air. Inside, people gathered in the living room where daddy was.
Miss Jones’s voice was dominant. “These damn ignorant fools, calling themselves rebels, are just messing up this country. This place is dangerous, and these country people around here are deceitful. Let’s go to my sister’s place; it should be safe there!” she barked to daddy, who, though quiet, was visibly shaken.
“I’m going to pack my things. Come let’s go, and bring those three boys of yours. Come on – now!”
Nimene, Donyen and I exchanged glances, unsure of what was going to happen next.
Daddy was looking at Nimene when he spoke, “We’re not going anywhere. My children and I will remain right here.” In spite of the confusion all around us, daddy spoke in a level, deliberate manner, “Cecelia, you’re welcome to stay if you want to.” My father, bless his heart, had finally found his voice.
Miss Jones stayed, probably because she was too scared to leave. Rebecca was there as well. Before long, several neighborhood families came to our house seeking refuge. We all huddled together for three days. During this stretch, daddy shared our food with everyone in the house, over the objections of his friend, Miss Jones.
The third day was the longest. Time crept, then crawled, taunting us with slow ticks. Suddenly, mortar shells rocked the ground, threatening to uproot the house and fling it off its foundation.
“Put on shoes and get on the floor!” daddy ordered as bullets zipped by. The war had put him back in charge. “Stay away from the windows! Lie on the floor!” My father dashed through the house shutting windows, pulling curtains and pushing furniture against doors, transforming our home into a flimsy fortress. The burst of action to fortify the house was followed by thick, humid silence. Everyone was on the floor, most curled in fetal positions. The young snuggled and trembled against their parents’ shaking bodies. My brothers remained by my side the entire time.
The booming outside became a suffocating blanket that made each breath deep, labored. We could feel the anguish coming closer. Blood curdling cries told of pain and maiming and death. We listened to the staccato pounding of feet as droves of young boys offered their bodies for nothing in return. The air smelled similar to stale death in an ill-kept slaughterhouse, a stench that stained everything for days.
Fighting continued even after the sun, having painted the earth in radiant gold, commenced its slow descent. Night’s ensemble, intimidated, yet undeterred, began singing its chorus anyway. During fleeting moments, when madness paused, I could hear frogs croaking and insects chirping. They feigned normalcy, but even they knew something was awry because their music was tentative and thin.
The brash pounding on the front door unnerved our congregation more than the bullets and bombs jarring the house. No one moved. The furniture propped against the front door threatened to surrender as the door shook on its hinges. Crouching, my father swallowed hard, then yelled, “Who’s that?”
“Open de doe!” The reply was coarse. “Open de damn doe befoe I shoot it down!” The message was menacing, but the voice was not; it sounded high-pitched and unseasoned, not yet hardened by life and its tricks.
Daddy inhaled and continued nervously, “W-w-what do you want?”
“Foo and wata! Open now!”
“We . . . my son . . . we’re not bothering anybody. There’s no food here, no water,” my father pleaded with the intruder, but the pounding grew louder.
The rebel, no more than twelve years old, stumbled into the living room when daddy relented and opened the door. Quickly gathering himself, he positioned his gun, barely able to hold it straight, as if he had landed in enemy territory. A boy-child held our lives at the tip of his finger.
The boy’s bulging eyes, windows to a disconnected soul, were stretched such that his face reflected perpetual surprise; they darted back and forth, without the benefit of blinking from otherwise disengaged eyelids. His head twitched, and at times, moved in tandem with his roving eyes. A mishmash of tattered, foul-smelling clothes hung off his small frame as if exhausted from failed escape attempts. The t-shirt covering his chest had a picture of a man in a suit sporting a short Afro, right hand raised, looking out over a crowd. Above the man’s head, a few holes interrupted a phrase: “Let Free– Ring!” And under his torso, “I– a Dream.”
In silhouette, the boy’s baseball cap, which was circled with palm thatch, could have been mistaken for horns sticking out of his skull. The small soldier waving his gun at us had a scowl that displayed missing front teeth. He was so young that his contorted face, which he intended to appear gruff, simply looked stupid.
My father stood to the right of the rebel. The rest of the people in the house had scurried into the corner furthest from the crazy, rifle-swinging boy-child. I was in front, crouched low with outstretched arms, as if poised to catch any bullets the fool might blast our way. The wide, watered eyes of the children behind me told of the kind of fear that permeated bones, seeped into the marrow, and remained for life.
A cough startled the small soldier’s demons. I saw him spin with his assault rifle in firing position.
“NO!” Daddy stumbled, arms flailing in involuntary urgency, his body gallantly, uselessly, objecting to the direction it had been forced to move. The cream-colored cement wall and the linoleum-tiled floor took most of the spray, resulting in a pattern that feigned intentional design. Donyen, Nimene and I watched our father's skin regurgitate red flesh. Donyen’s cry silenced everything in its wake.
“D-d-daddy! My Pa oh!” I heard my brother’s voice, then felt a warm splatter on my face and heart. Frozen, I watched as my father began his descent, accompanied by his child’s voice. “Daddy oh! Dad-dy! NO!”
I got to him first, knelt down, and lifted his head off the floor. The rebel bolted out of the house as my father coughed, sparring with death. Everyone closed in around his shuddering body. Miss Jones cowered behind me.
“I – I,” it took all he had to try to talk. His eyes rolled as if he was slipping away. “Your mother, um, D-Dortu . . .” My lips refused to move, so I just rocked my father’s body. The fighting outside seemed to pause. “M-me.” Another cough racked his body. He squirmed in pain.
“What daddy, what?” Nimene shouted at the top of his voice, “WHAT?”
“Dad-dy!” Donyen reached out, crying. A lady held onto Donyen, preventing him from falling on our father. Miss Jones had moved to the front of the circle.
“Poison, I . . . pois . . .” He couldn’t lift his arm, but turned his head toward his friend.
“S-she made me . . .”
I closed my eyes and my mind took my father to Grand Cess for the Kru Warriors to deal with him as they had the absent warrior. I stayed beside him until his body stopped shaking and fell silent.
Copyright © 2007 Doeba Bropleh