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This is a shortlisted story for the 2012 Litro & IGGY International Short Story Award for Young Writers.
The camp was lifeless, except for jacaranda leaves rustling in the gentle morning air. A silence followed them everywhere. My newfound life began here: in the woods of my motherland, Africa. Twenty of us were stolen from faraway. Clad in dead green leaves crispy with age. Rifles draped across our shoulders like hunters’ games. Time faded like the rays of an ancient sun, bright-yellow and full of life.
Rebels never die. They are legends of a distant country.
General Colombo’s voice melted into my head like the famished mosquito that pierced my skin, carrying memories of a place I once called home. My tongue tasted of rainwater droplets and my heart still pulsed like an overused contraption, waiting to split apart. It said I was not alone in this half-darkness and that the skies weren’t naked blue anymore or dark green like the eyes of General Colombo, a man with a heart made of sandstone.
Mali was beside me, asleep or probably dead. His eyes were large and full, reminding me of those of my one-armed grandfather. Gentle breeze crawled across his face. The smell of it twitched Mali’s nostrils which seemed too aquiline to be African.
“I’m not fighting the war again, Tega,” was the first thing he said to me, without opening his owlish eyes.“I’m leaving for the city. Are you coming with me?” His voice was soft and silky, muffled from hours of quietness. Until he finally said, “General Colombo is going to kill us.”
“Escape? Mali, are you dreaming?” The voice came from behind us, because I was speechless. “I swear you don’t know the road to the city. By the way, which city? Do you know where we are?” I turned to see Fela, the short mamba boy, roaming his fingers across fading grasses beneath us.
“What if they find out? What if anything happens?” I asked him, raising my head from the sheepskin-sheltered grass. My fingers were quivering beside me, the way they did the first time I pulled the trigger of a rifle, days ago. All I remembered was the sound which could deafen a day-old baby. Captain Musa said soldiers don’t have to remember.
Fela turned silent, as if with pity or anger, or both.
In a voice choked from waiting, Mali said, “They took everything I had left. They burnt our house in broad daylight. The smoke curled into the skies that evening. They threw my parents into the great Atlantic and stole me away under the angry rains of December.” He looked at me, shifting his eyes in their sockets like half-melted butter. Then, he said to me, “There’s no such thing as home, Tega. Now, we must find one.”
Mali closed his eyes again and perched his head on the safety of the sheepskin whose mustiness didn’t seem to ever disappear. The purple tinge of dawn crept across our faces in the shadow of the sun which climbed over the horizon a distance away. Before it disappeared, the voice of Captain Musa shrilled from the shack hidden beneath a hoary-looking trumpet tree. His voice was like thunder. It crashed into the morning air, but there was no lightning.
“Wake up! Wake up! Morning has finally come. Sleepers die young, soldiers don’t,” he said, clapping his hands or killing mosquitoes. His pimply face almost seemed like a Picasso painting.
In a small moment, other voices rose around us. Eyes fluttered open to the gleaming, golden sun hanging above us and the sight of morning in a foreign land. The voices resembled murmurs of the lost and hopeless.
“Quick! Quick! Time is no man’s friend,” he said in an accent which sounded Indian, yet unnatural. Behind him was the gap-toothed Captain Boniface whose cigarette was trapped between swollen lips almost the color of charcoal.
Mali finally rose to his feet and so did the rest of us, the ceiling of the shanty nearly scraping our dark disheveled hair.
“Walk like men. Like soldiers who want nothing but freedom,” Captain Musa said, adjusting his oversized khaki trousers on his tiny waist. “The General has something for you. Now, you must make him proud.”
Just then, Mali’s eyes met mine. He smiled like a grown man and touched my left shoulder, but Fela’s eyes wandered away, trailing a cicada whose right wing had broken off. The next time I lifted my eyes, Mali’s face had changed color. My heart thumped inside my chest, then stopped. Surely, there was something else he hadn’t told us.
When I was a child, I wanted to rule the world.
Walking past the flowing stream, all we saw were trees and more trees, rising above our heads like Liberian soldiers not willing to die. They were full of leaves perched along their half-nude branches and the morning breeze carried them away when no one was looking.
Fela was walking in front of me and a bald beanpole stumbled behind me every now and again. Too much order made us resemble slaves. At the sound of Captain Boniface’s voice, the line paused.
As I dropped to my knees, the raffia sponge landed on the ground. Fela looked at me, then drowned his face in the water in a cold splatter.
“I used to take my bath in a shower,” someone said almost behind me. Laughter rose in the air like a cloud of dust around us. Perhaps, he didn’t remember that rebels don’t.
In another moment, it was all over and the shanty was our home again. It would remain our home forever, except we die in the war. In the middle of waiting, we heard General Colombo’s footsteps pound towards us. The age of his boots told from the way it killed silence. Everyone stood and saluted the man who rendered us homeless. That burning thought would not disappear from my mind in a long while.
The General’s eyes were shaped like those of the father I never saw. The man who ran away fourteen years ago, when I hadn’t even imagined he could exist. Mama said he was a white man, and that our great grandparents thought white men were gods sent to enslave us with chains and religion. I promised that if I saw him, I would punch him in the face for leaving me fatherless for so long.
“We’re going in the spirit of our forefathers,” General Colombo started to say, wearing his glasses again and cradling his pistol like a lost child. “Rebels are born once, but never die. Is any one of you afraid of dying?”
“They took away our parents to fight the World War in Burma,” he continued, hands balled into fists. “They blindfolded our leaders and stole away our dignity, our pride. What do we have left?”
“Nothing, General,” a cauliflower-eared boy said, then breathed deeply. His name was Nelson.
“Is any one of you afraid of facing the rifle when it sounds?”
“No, General,” our voices rang louder in unison.
“Now, let me warn you. If you try to run away, you will be shot. If you want to be like me, then you mustn’t take cover when the bullets come. Walk towards them. They will never find you.”
Before he said anything else, Fela looked at me, his hand twirled around a wooden support holding the thatch roof above us. “Where is Mali?” I whispered into his left ear.
“Away at the stream,” he murmured back. My heart lifted in my chest. Before long, he added, “Mali is not afraid of dying. Those village people would teach him a lesson, I swear.”
“Is he leaving us here?” I asked, though my voice was so soft I barely heard it myself. “Does he want us to die?”
“Maybe,” he said in a tone of voice which kept me trembling.
Once I looked away, the General had left the shed. Both Captains followed him with hands twisted away behind them. They were whispering to each other in a way the other boys didn’t understand. Instead, these ones talked about eagles and tigers they wished to see in the woods. But the look on Fela’s face did not give me any hope. It took everything else I had away.
“Get ready to die, Tega,” he finally muttered in my ear. “Some rebels do.”
After a meal of rice mixed with too much water, we were marching up and down the stream, chanting war songs and stamping the grass-littered soil to the rhythm. All of a sudden, Mali stood behind me, his rifle slung across his right shoulder like everyone else. Something jumped inside me.
“Quick! Quick! Take your positions,” Captain Musa yelled. “This is the time to regain our freedom. Hold your weapons. Move like gazelles with speed and energy. Across the tall bushes.Through the open streams. They’re as hungry as you are. Make space where there is none. Rule your world like Charles Taylor.” He paused and looked into our eyes, one by one, as if searching for something that wasn’t missing at all.
Then, he singled out three of us. They were in front of me, hands shivering like leaves fluttering in an evening wind. When he walked up to me, his smile had left his face. His breath smelled of tobacco mixed with liquor. He quickly turned toward them and relief reflected in my eyes.
“Are you so tired you want to rest?” he asked them.
Nelson nodded gently, but did not say anything else. Immediately, a rifle blasted his leg from a distance. I shivered, my heart pounding harder. There was wetness in my eyes. The smoke from Captain Boniface’s rifle swirled upwards as we watched it.
Nelson landed on the grass with his gun still hanging down his shoulder. His groaning resembled that of a woman in labor for the first time.
“Take him away,” Captain Musa said and the two others obeyed without question.
“Now, who’s next?” he asked, but nobody replied. He shot in the air and shrilled even louder, “I said who is next?” When nobody responded, he went on, “We need food, don’t we? We’re going to the village to take them away. We’re not going to steal. We’re taking them because they are ours too. Go and prepare yourselves. Dismiss.”
So we marched away, one trembling foot after the other. In the shanty, Mali’s voice jolted me from my reverie. He said, “This is our chance, Tega. Nelson never saw it coming.”
“Mali, I can’t,” I managed to say. “I’m afraid of what is going to happen.”
“Listen. Our deepest fear is not that we’re inadequate.” He looked into my eyes and added, “Tega, we’re powerful and truly, what kills a man is his fear for the unseen.” He placed the bowl beside the duffel bag they handed him on arrival in the camp and fastened the zipper.
“Do you even know which way leads to the city?” Fela asked from behind me.
“I don’t,” Mali said. “The air breathes. It will tell us.”
Fela then burst into laughter, unmindful of the eyes watching him already. “I knew it from the beginning. It was only a dream, wasn’t it?” Mali turned speechless, perhaps not because he had no words. I didn’t know why. But his shadow followed him out of the shed. The sun baked the air into stillness and splashed yellows everywhere.
In the middle of our journey, a handful of minutes after, General Colombo ordered us to shoot at some innocent men who scampered away from us. My single shot didn’t reach anywhere. The tree it struck had a hole in its trunk. After miles of walking and walking, a market finally appeared. The sight of rifles made women abandon their stalls in search of safety. The rumpus rose when Captain Musa shot into the air again and again.
“Take everything you can,” he said to us. “It’s ours.” His eyes were so sharp he noticed every movement, even the perch of houseflies on the barrel of his rifle.
I trotted into the stall which faced me. There, a little child wailed and wailed. His mother had probably left him. Beside him was the basket of oranges which Captain Musa said belonged to us. My breathing was ragged and shallow with pity. I looked into his eyes, searching for hope. As I rose again from the floor, someone’s shadow crept over me. The boots resembledthose of Captain Musa. I didn’t realize my rifle had dropped from my hands which were quivering already.
“It’s me,” Mali said in a voice which I knew wasn’t his. “We’re going that way. That gate leads somewhere.”
“What about the oranges? Where is Fela?”
“The two of you. How long is it taking you to plunder that stall?” Captain Boniface asked as he approached. So Mali lifted the basket in the air and placed it on my head. Once I picked my rifle from the ground, the child stopped to watch us. But the Captain didn’t, anymore. He turned away.
After another moment, General Colombo reminded us that we were soldiers, not thieves. That meant we’d stolen enough. Despair glimmered in my eyes as we journeyed home, through a different route.
This path was so narrow the bushes rubbed against our faces as we passed by them. Before we reached the sharp turn in a small distance, a gunshot sounded in the air from somewhere not too far away.
“Wait a minute,” Captain Musa said to us, roaming his eyes around us, as if listening to something, as if the air truly breathes. “Drop your goods and hold your weapons. They are government troops. They came for us. Hide in the bushes.” On Mali’s face, I saw a longing to escape.
He clasped my palm in his as we retreated into the thick of the forest on either side of the path. The moment we hid away from fate, another gunshot kindled the air. It was then that Mali whispered into my ear. “When I say the word, follow me.”
“Alright, Mali,” I replied, my brows furrowed a little.
Before anything else, someone shot in the air. This time, from beside me!
“Run,” Mali yelled and turned away. In one moment, confusion swept across my face. My head plowed through tree branches in my way. My legs seemed too heavy to hold the ground beneath me.
And as if he had woke up from a trance, Captain Musa shot in our direction and ordered the rest of them after us. Fela followed me, firing into the space behind us. Like a true soldier.
“Keep running, Tega,” he screamed, but the footsteps still pounded toward us. They grew fewer as time passed, but Fela continued to say, “The bullets will never find you until you walk toward them.” But, inside me, everything was shaking. That was before he disappeared from behind me.
“The stream,” Mali finally said, clutching his rifle which was draped across his shoulder as ever. “Don’t jump into the stream. Don’t look behind you.”
“Fela is gone,” I told him. “They’ll kill him, Mali. He’s one of us. Have you forgotten?” I struggled to catch my breath, to trap more air in my nostrils. But before anything could happen, I collapsed onto the leaf-littered forest floor, panting harder, as if I was going to die. The gunshots began to disappear too. I wondered if Mali would wait. Flat on my back, my rifle clinging to my chest, the sunlight shimmered against my face, piercing through the leaves hanging above me.
All of a sudden, there was a small stillness curling upwards like a wisp of smoke. I heaved a deeper breath, holding my gun closer to my heartbeats.
To die a soldier is to die a hero, I muttered to myself, trying not to think like General Colombo. As I closed my eyes, something gripped my foot. I gasped, but Fela’s face emerged out of nowhere.
“We’ve run out of time, Tega. Mali is waiting,” he said to me.
“But where are the others?” I asked him, listening to the rhythm of my heartbeats which for once resembled tiny gunshots.
“We are the others,” he said without a glint of innocence in his expression. The smile on his face reminded me of Mama. It reminded me of the day they whisked me away in a pickup truck, when her smile finally melted away.
“Are we safe now?” I asked him, first with disbelief.
“Soldiers are never safe, Tega,” he said, and then started to creep away, while I hurried after him. “The government troops won’t forgive us. They would kill us for other people’s sins. They wouldn’t mind how small we are. Once you hold a rifle, you’re now a man.”
“Why would they want to kill us? We’re fighting for their freedom, not ours.”
“There’s no such thing as freedom, Tega,” he said. Almost immediately, Mali rose from his hiding in a shrub which was half his evening shadow. The scars hadn’t left his face. His gun hadn’t left his shoulder.
“So, which way leads to the city?” was the first thing I asked him, my skin feeling as lifeless as a jacket around me.
“I still don’t know,” he said, then wiped away the mud across his forehead. “Someday, it will come to us. Mama used to say a man cannot be lost forever. Either he finds his way or his way finds him.”
We slept on forest floor that evening, waiting for morning to find us amidst dead green leaves and silence. When it finally came, the dew had disappeared from our faces, but the rifles still clung to us. In the middle of nowhere, our journey to the city began. But the days passed away under the same sun, each one trailing the other like footsteps on sheepskin-sheltered grass.
One day, we would find Monrovia. By then, everything else would be a memory.
Fego Martins Ahia was born in Lagos, Nigeria in the middle of 1995 when the angry rains of July still pelted down from the skies above the coastal city. Aside from this, what inspires him is his drive to tell stories from a different point of view. At fifteen, he was shortlisted for the Litro & IGGY International Young Person's Short Story Award 2010 and later won a bronze award in the Commonwealth Essay Competition 2011 for his essay, “The Shadow of a Woman’s Dream”. Although a passionate storyteller, who also won the Ugreen Foundation’s Creative Wings Short Story Prize 2011, he found solace in the sciences when he was still a child. Naturally, Fego enjoys visiting art galleries, writing mainstream fiction, reading books that matter, and touching lives in his beautiful community.