When Samson opened her eyes she could see her grandmother, Ma, crying. Ma’s pointer finger trembled to block the smell. Malachi, Samson’s sister, walked alongside Ma, who pulled Malachi’s face toward her lappa to cover what she could of the road and field, and the unremitting scent that encased their journey. Spread across the pavement on either side of the road, and on the outlying dirt and low-lying field, were dozens of breathless and decomposing bodies. Samson was held by her uncle, Brother John, who tried in vain to hide her face with his hands. Samson searched through the breaks of Brother John’s fingers at the grieving, slow-moving crowd around their small party, and realized that the bodies surrounding them were not resting or asleep, but dead. They were men and women and children, all wearing the colors of clothes Samson had once seen and perhaps wanted, pinks and yellows now stolen by ghosts and eternally departed from their unmoving bodies. One woman, frail, still, face down in the dirt, wore a pale green dress stained with blood from a bright scarlet bullet wound to her back. Her hair was scattered on the ground surrounding her head, and a headtie, blue and thin like the kind Samson’s mother wore, was left at the tips of her slender fingers.
“Mama!” Four-year old Samson yelled and pointed toward the corpse. “Mama!” she cried.
“No, no,” Brother John said, coaxing her and pressing her head back onto his shoulder to contain her sobs and distract the attention the small girl had caused. Samson was numbed by the thought of her mother’s hair, the remnants of her memory, her lost face. When the rebels invaded their town, her mother Lelai was at work, nearly a two-hour walk south of Kakata, Liberia. After a day of being forced to retreat north by government soldiers, their father Henry insisted he would turn around to find Lelai. He left Samson and Malachi with his brother, Brother John, and demanded that they continue to the Sierra Leone border with him and John’s mother, Ma.
It had been three weeks since.
Brother John was a pastor and a man of faith, no matter how impermanent on that road. He was younger than Henry, but bigger. Thick shoulders and hands, bark-colored skin packed into a loose fitting suit and navy-blue tie, patient steps and a bald head that shone in the sun. There were many who respected him on that road. When Ma Elody lost her house to a stove fire two years earlier in 1987, Brother John emptied his savings to build her another one. When she sold it for twice what he paid to build it, moved to Ghana and wasted all the profit in a Swiss man’s casino and returned to Kakata bawling her apologies, Brother John took apart the wooden shed in his back yard and used the material to build Ma Elody a new place to lay her head — that was Kakata’s Brother John.
“I am crucified with Christ,” Brother John prayed, huddled beside congregation members on the edges of sugar cane fields, some hoping he would take them as his own, “nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.”
“Amen. Thank you oh Brother John. You are a good man,” newly widowed women cried and trailed behind him for as long as they could, until they saw other family members or neighbors who convinced them to take another route out of the falling country.
There was a great commotion of bodies, moving and still, on the thoroughfare north out of Liberia. On the days that Brother John heard the most bullets, they walked during the night, huddled around a dimly lit lantern after he convinced Ma that the soldiers and rebels were resting from fighting. When the air during the day was bare and unmarked of grenades and bombs, they slept during the night. And during those nights as listeners of the exploding weapons and disarray, as they challenged themselves with other strangers in deconstructed houses to breathe as low as possible, so that the rebels would not hear them and sneak into their hiding places, Ma was glad for Brother John’s intuition.
As they slept one night, Samson felt Ma’s body depart from her and crawl toward the window where Brother John slept.
“John, you sleeping?” Ma whispered.
He leaned underneath a shattered window and mouthed an old sermon about the prostitute at the well. Toward distant fighting, explosions in the night — between breaks of memory, he whispered in repetition: God bless Liberia. God save Liberia. God give us favor. God save us all. He rested his head in his hand and his elbow onto his knees.
“You awake, yeh?” Ma asked.
Ma crawled to sit beside him. She had lost so much weight that the t-shirt she wore hung from her sharp shoulder. Her lappa, shredded at the sides and ends, faded purple, once beautiful, now a catastrophe of shapes and lines, also fit her more loosely as the days progressed. John could see the shapes of her muscles and swallows when she spoke and sang — both of which merged a once handsome sound with the static of crushed rocks.
“I tired,” Ma said to Brother John, who listened to her swallow after every couple of words and secretly hated himself for every second of her suffering. His fear grew with each passing day. Where was Henry? Had they killed his brother? Did he find Lelai?
“Sorry, Ma,” he said, seeking her face in the moonlight, and thanking the night that he could not find it.
“John,” she said tiredly. “It will be alright.”
Her confidence was untouched.
“Hm,” he said, nodding. “By God’s grace.”
“Yeh,” Ma said and smiled. “It will be alright, we will go to Sierra Leone until the people stop this war business, we will even visit America seh before our lives over.”
She laughed softly.
“We will go one day — you will see. You, myself, the children, Henry, Lelai, all of us.”
“Yeh, Ma,” John said. His mother’s infatuation with America, something that once annoyed his nationalistic spirit, now ministered to him. The possibility of salvation from this plague of misfortune further coaxed him. He missed his brother, his home, his congregation.
“You know, I think,” Ma continued, “I think instead of … instead of trying make it Sierra Leone, I want go to Riti.”
“Riti?” Brother John asked, surprised at the proposition. Riti was Ma’s childhood village, where even after leaving it to move to Monrovia, she took John and Henry on every holiday.
“I think we can hide there until the war stop,” she whispered. “The people will not find it. And maybe Henry thought the same way and he already there. Him and Lelai with the rest of them from Lukin Town.”
“But how?” he asked. “It risky, Ma.”
“Crossing to border town risky too. You’n know when the people will stop. And they say, they say it bad there? Dangerous, yeh?” she insisted.
Brother John, reluctant to obey her wish, but unable to disagree with her desperate plea to simply find a place to rest her head for more than one night, to rest her aging feet for more than a few hours said: “Yeh. Okay, Ma.”
He had hoped to begin heading east to make it into Sierra Leone without having to go through the northern border towns, which were rumored unsafe for escaping refugees. Although Ma was correct that Riti — the old village separated by a lake from the mainland — was their safest plan, if the rebels were to ever find Riti, they would all be killed. However, traveling with an old woman and young girls was a risk in itself.
To get to Riti, they would have to take a shortcut through the woods to avoid checkpoints. On the following morning before entering the woods, Brother John grabbed a handful of mud and smeared it across Samson and Malachi’s faces until they whimpered with discomfort.
“What you doing?” Malachi asked.
“Hiding you,” Brother John said. If he could offer Henry nothing in his lifetime, he wanted to return his daughters to him safe and untouched, and the only way to avoid stolen daughters was to devastate their faces with dirt, rip their clothes, and hide them behind long lappas. Samson whined and fidgeted.
Once they entered the woods, they were not so deep that Brother John could not see the main road in the distance; however, they were far enough veiled in the envelope of trees and bushes that Brother John walked ahead of them to clear the dense thickets so they would not scrape their arms and legs. They stepped carefully over the bases of the towering ironwood trees. The black roots stretched their many arms from the ground so they could perhaps escape the blood-laden Liberian soil, their womb, their asylum. Samson was terrified since she remembered all of the stories she heard in class about the various animals that lived in Liberian woods and forests. But the more steps they took without seeing any bothersome creatures, it occurred to her that perhaps the animals were running also — the inquisitive monkeys who never took no for an answer; the pygmy hippopotamus who protested to her father that the fly on her back was not a fair mate; Kweku Anansi the spider and all of his friends — now runaways and exiles, refugees and ghosts. They tried to avoid stepping on dead leaves to keep from making noise, but all of the living among them were dying, and the sound of them split the earth in two.
“Sh!” Brother John said, quickly turning to Ma and the girls.
“Plenty leaf —”
“Shh! Get down,” Brother John whispered loudly.
“What?” Ma asked.
“Rebel,” Brother John said, falling to his knees. Ma dropped to the ground and pulled Malachi and Samson’s hands to join her. They lay as flat as they could on the ground near Ma, who removed her headtie and unfolded it. She shook the cloth and used it to cover their bodies, then crawled to where Brother John was kneeling.
When Ma reached him he was panting and becoming more nervous by trying to suppress his deep breaths. “Ma, go back with the girls,” he whispered.
“No. I staying here with you.”
Unable to reason with the old woman, Brother John pointed through the brush, where in a small clearing in the distance a boy, no older than ten years old, pointed a rifle at a man’s head. With his face in the ground, the man’s voice was muffled.
“Give me your change!” the shirtless boy shouted as he poked the mouth of the rifle into the man’s head. He wore camouflage trousers and black boots that were too large for his feet; he had a smug smile and eyes so red that they bled through the heat of the coppice.
“Please, please, don’t shoot,” the man cried, lifting his head from the ground. The boy laughed and scraped the rifle against the man’s neck and ear.
“How we will leave without that rebel hearing us?” Ma asked, turning around to see if the main road could still be seen.
“Wait … wait,” Brother John said, focusing on the two bodies on the other side of the shrub. He moved to get a clearer view. “Chid!” he said.
“What?” Ma asked, dropping her head to peer between small cavities in the nettings of the branches.
“That’s Chid!” Brother John said again, this time overcome with his own fear. Chid, a member of Brother John’s congregation, waved his hands behind his head and desperately pleaded into the soil for the rebel to free him.
“I’n got money! I’n got change!” he yelled into the dirt.
“We got to do something,” Brother John said.
“What now? The small boy will kill us too,” Ma reasoned, wiping the sweat from her head.
“No, no. That’s Chid. We got to do something,” Brother John said again, slowly standing up behind the shrub. “That small boy.”
“That small boy with gun. What small boy with gun small boy?” Ma protested. “Don’t go there. Don’t do it.”
Brother John, knowing there was no way that he could explain to Ma that he wanted to confront a soldier, stood up before she could stop him. Sensing his lack of acumen from where she bent in the dirt, Ma held out her hand to him from a distance and shook her head. Brother John rushed out from the bush to where the child soldier stood.
“Don’t shoot!!” he shouted to the boy. “Don’t shoot!!” The boy turned his gun to Brother John.
“Stop running I will shoot you! I will shoot!!” the boy yelled and shook his gun.
“No, no. I got money. I got change for you,” Brother John said, searching his empty pocket with a quavering hand. “I got money,” he said while he searched.
“Where? Where the change Papay?!” the boy asked. Brother John noticed the young boy’s possessed eyes and sent an unspoken prayer to his God for mercy.
“Where the change?!” he screamed.
“Here. Here, right here.” Brother John’s joints weakened when his fingers touched a crumbled wad of money in the depths of his pocket.
“Where? Chunk it on the ground!” the boy said.
Brother John raised the money in the air between his fingers.
“Don’t shoot,” he said. The boy’s eyes penetrated Brother John’s, then lifted to examine the old five dollar bill in the air and remained there. Brother John threw the wad of money on the ground in front of the rebel. The boy scuttled to pick up the pale green wad. He turned around, jumped over Chid’s body and continued in the opposite direction through the woods. It was then they all heard it — the crying of Samson and Malachi. Ma shuffled toward them so that they would be still, but both girls could not restrain their terror.
“What’s that?” the boy asked after he suddenly stopped running and turned around. He pointed the gun at Brother John. “Where are the girls them?” he shouted. “Tell me or I will shoot!”
“Don’t shoot!!” Ma yelled from behind the bush.
“Ma, no!” Brother John said, but it was too late. She walked slowly toward the confrontation, with Samson and Malachi by her side at the ends of each hand. The boy laughed and shot his gun into the air. Shouting could be heard in the distance and Brother John’s heart fell.
Malachi and Samson hid their faces in the hips of their grandmother’s lappa.
“Give me the girls,” the rebel said.
“Give me the girls!” he yelled and shot another round into the air. He pointed the gun at Brother John, ready to fire a round aimed straight at his head, when only several feet away from him, Chid scurried from where he lay covered with dirt and blood, and dove into the child, tackling him at his legs. The shouting grew in the distance and the soldier fell to the ground, dropping the gun onto the floor of the woods. Brother John retrieved the gun; his fingers found the trigger and he prayed.
“Shoot!” Chid yelled. “SHOOT!”
“John!” Ma shouted.
The yelling of Chid and Ma, the crying of Samson and Malachi, the gunshots in the distance froze Brother John where he stood. As the shooting got closer, the young rebel stood up from the dirt to run. Chid rushed to where John stood and tried pulling the gun from his hand.
“He is a boy, Chid,” Brother John said, firmly holding the gun.
“There are no boys in this war, Brother John,” Chid said with tears in his eyes, as if the weeks that led to that moment held a noose around his understanding of humanity. He choked. Samson and Malachi’s crying escalated to piercing screams and in that instant while Chid and Brother John both stood gripping the gun, a chorus of bullets crashed into the neighboring trees and the ground shook. They fell to the forest floor, dropping the gun, and smoke corralled the air around them, making it impossible to see each other through the thick haze and potent smell.
“John,” Ma coughed, and Brother John crawled through the smoke in search of his mother’s splitting voice. He searched for them until a biting pain on the side of his face forced him to cup his ear.
“John!” Ma screamed.
He felt the blood fill his palm, making him too weak to fight the haze, the woods, the howling.
“Ma,” Brother John muttered before finally fainting atop weakened and dying stems.
When he opened his eyes again it was mid-afternoon and the smoke from earlier that day lingered about the forest. His shoes were missing, as was the bag he had been carrying with a bible and few other belongings from home. The blood from his ear wound had dried to his face and clothes. Instantly thrust into the present, Brother John searched for Ma, Malachi, and Samson.
“Samson,” he called out. “Ma!”
He saw Chid’s body several feet away from his and shook it until Chid moved.
“Come, we must go!” Brother John said. Chid shot up and looked around the nearby woods. “The boy ran,” Brother John assured him. Brother John left him immediately and searched nearby tree stumps for his mother. “Ma,” Brother John called. “Malachi. Samson,” he said. Only thirty or so yards from where he was lying, Brother John spotted them at the foot of a bush, obfuscated by several fallen branches. He rushed to them and picked Ma up, hugging her.
“Come,” Brother John said and pulled Ma’s weak and shocked body in the direction they had come.
“Wait, take this,” Chid said, retrieving the rebel’s gun from the ground.
“I will not —”
“TAKE it!” Chid demanded, seeming to have had enough of John’s righteousness. With hesitation, Brother John took the gun from Chid to ease his nerves and spirit. The strap of the rifle hung from his shoulder. Chid passed him and ran through the woods toward the main road.
“Chid!” Brother John called after him. “Chid, wait.”
Chid forged ahead in a desperate fit.
“No worry, we will see him on the road,” Brother John assured Ma. Samson and Malachi remained close to Ma’s sides, clutching her lappa.
“You all alright?” Brother John asked them. The girls nodded. Samson dug her face into Ma and whimpered.
“I cold,” Samson cried. “I too cold.” She shivered and wrapped her arms around Ma. Upon seeing this Brother John unbuttoned his shirt and pulled it off of his diminishing bones. He wrapped the shirt around Samson and patted her back.
“Come, let’s go,” he whispered. “You will be home soon. You will see your Ma and Pa soon, yeh?”
He turned and led them in the direction they came out of the woods, moving branches out of their way and clearing the forest floor for them to walk.
When they arrived onto the main road it was dusk. The air was damp and Brother John only wanted to find an empty house for Ma and the girls to rest. He feared that they would eventually be found or recognized from the confrontation and his barefooted, anxious steps hurried through the crowd. He searched the faces among them for Chid but his friend was nowhere to be found. The rocks and debris on the road dug into his flesh and Brother John limped along.
“Come Ma. Come girls,” he said, waving for them to follow him. “You still cold, Samson? We will rest soon, yeh?” Brother John pursued the road and noticed that as they moved forward the walking crowd parted for him. Some saw him come and sped into the sugarcane fields on either side of the road.
“Wait, wait,” Brother John waved. The gun moved against his back. “It not my gun. It not my gun!” He pivoted to fully view the moving and terrified crowd. He thought to leave the gun there but grew wary of the coming night and the threat of the gun finding its way into the wrong hands. The travelers ran still and Brother John simply shook his head and beckoned for Ma and the girls to continue behind him.
“You scaring the people,” he heard Ma say behind him. “No shirt, no shoes, gun seh.”
“I know,” Brother John said. “I will bury it tonight. We will rest tonight.”
A few dozen yards away, Brother John noticed a member of his congregation, Marietta, who had dropped a bag of clothes on the road. Marietta hurried to retrieve her belongings with her daughter Sadie. “Marietta!” Brother John called ahead. “Marietta! God bless you. Let me help you,” he said, rushing to her. Marietta and Sadie hustled to gather their belongings as he approached.
“Run!” Marietta said to Sadie with despair. The eleven-year-old girl, whose mother was the only person she loved, refused.
“Sadie, run!” Marietta demanded, pointing toward the field, and Sadie began to cry and fought with her mother to pick up their few belongings.
“No, no,” Brother John said, reaching him. “No running. It is me. Let me help you.”
Only several feet away from her now, Marietta stood in bewilderment.
“Brother … Brother John?” she asked, pulling Sadie close to her. She beheld the gun over his shoulder, his bloody ear, his bare chest.
“Excuse me,” he apologized. “I will bury it tonight.” She nodded, chagrinned.
“Excuse me, Marietta,” he begged again. “I had trouble in the woods today with Ma and the girls. They alright.” He pointed to where Ma, Samson, and Malachi stood, and Marietta glanced their way in amazement.
“Brother John,” she repeated softly, with cold and quivering lips.
“Come, come. I will help you.” Brother John kneeled down and grabbed the articles of clothing. He held them close to his chest.
“Ma, I coming,” he said, looking back to where Ma and the girls stood. “I coming — I know they cold.”
Marietta remained still and Sadie hid behind her back. Embarrassed, Brother John handed Marietta her belongings.
“For you. Let me pray with you before going,” he said confidently, standing upright. “I coming Ma,” he said, looking back.
“O-Okay,” Marietta stuttered.
“Give me your hands,” he said. “Sadie. Come. You too.”
Marietta reached behind her back and pulled Sadie’s arm. Sadie kept her eyes on the ground and her body visibly trembled.
“It is alright, Sadie,” Marietta said. “Look. It is our Pastor. It is our Brother John.”
In the kitchen corner of an abandoned house, Brother John wept. Other families who were hiding had left upon seeing him or cajoled themselves into empty cupboards, closets, and underneath beds. The girls were sleeping and Ma did not interrupt his lamentation. He loved her for seeing him only as perfectly as the day they met. He reached out his hand in the dark for hers and she, after seeing it through breaks of light from shattered windows, held it.
The war ensued in the twilight and descending bombs could be heard in the distance. The moon had been broken and her skeleton edges raced toward the distant sun. All was lost.
“You did not hide it?” Ma asked from the opposite corner. “You did not bury it like you said?” She winced as bullets clashed the night.
“I scared the boys will find it and use it to keep killing, Ma,” he said.
“Yes — you are a good man John.”
“I cold,” the girls whined together, waking up and interrupting them.
“They are getting sick,” Ma said. Brother John searched her face and recognized only sorrow. Her former years had run. “Do not cry, John,” she said. “Do not worry about Riti. We will go to Sierra Leone. We are close and we will go there and to America before we die. You will see,” she whispered.
“Yes, yes,” John said, abashed at his own exposure. “To Sierra Leone.” Malachi and Samson lay huddled in the corner. John saw his brother in their faces and his eyes dampened again. He stood and unbuttoned his pants.
“John, what are you doing?” Ma asked.
“They are cold. I have boxers underneath,” he said. “Please, Ma.”
Reluctantly, Ma took the trousers from Brother John and ripped them in half. She used each of the two legs to cover Samson and Malachi’s shoulders.
“Thank you, John,” she said.
On the following mornings they joined other groups of escapers on the road to Sierra Leone — the final stretch before reaching the border. Again, his countrymen looked down when he passed, refusing to make eye contact. Some also ran into the fields like the day before. He stopped seeing members of his congregation. He recognized no one and his exhaustion mingled with the worry that all whom he loved were really lost, and he let the hunger and fury overcome him.
“Chid give me gun!” he shouted in the night as families ran from him. Nothing would ameliorate their fear. “Come Ma. Malachi, Samson, come.” Once he was sure he had lost them and ran in circles around the houses in Caldwell for hours before finding them huddled together in an open field. He slept in corners with what was left of his family tight against his chest. In the passing days, he wanted only to escape. In the mornings his prayers diverged from thankfulness that he still had life, to ramblings to distract him from the unbounded suffering of his reducing stomach.
God thank you for your mercy thank you for life God thank you for my pardon thank you for Liberia in her hard season in this season protect her and forgive her and protect Ma and Malachi and Samson and Henry and Lelai and all Lukin Town and all Kakata God thank you for Kakata and thank you for Chid where Chid God where Lukin Town where Henry and Lelai God where are you where are you God where are you God you said call you and where are you now you left me and left your children and killed us all God where are you where are you now
One afternoon away from the Sierra Leonean border, Brother John limped, almost naked, on the road north out of Liberia. “Come Ma. Come Malachi. Come Samson.” Again as he walked through a frenzied crowd, people ran from him. That day he did not wait until he hid in the dark of abandoned houses to cry. He drank the salty tears as they settled on his parched lips.
“JOHN!!” he heard behind him in the distance. “JOHN!”
It was Lelai, who appeared to be fussing with Henry. Henry shook her and held her shoulders but Lelai insisted and continued to yell after her brother-in-law. Brother John turned and recognized the two familiar faces in the mass of frightened runners. Lelai ran to him and Henry ran after her. She had almost reached Brother John when she abruptly stopped. Lelai’s beauty was veiled by the affliction of weeks past. Her coarse hair was pulled back into a ponytail and an old, bloody dress hung from her emaciated body. Henry had lost all of his weight also, and the straps of an old backpack covered most of his bony shoulders. Lelai glanced at Brother John, afraid to look down or see his mangled penis that showed between torn boxers.
“I told you it was him,” the words came out of Lelai’s mouth but she stood terrified, motionless.
Brother John approached them with moist eyes, extended arms.
Lelai and Henry stepped back. “What are you doing with that gun?” Henry demanded. “And where is Ma? Where are the children?”
Henry barely recognized his once dignified brother — now no different in appearance from the drug-fueled rebels that peppered the country. Spellbound, Brother John took another step forward to hug Lelai. She pushed him and asked again.
“Where is Ma? Where is Malachi? SAMSON?”
“My brother is mad,” Henry muttered and the surge of tears blinded him.
“Where are the children?” Lelai demanded.
“What is this you mean? They are right there,” Brother John said, pointing behind him. “Come Ma, come Malachi, come Samson,” he said as if reciting a Psalm. He said it again with his finger extended in the open air toward a crowd that moved quickly beside the open field. He saw Ma and Malachi and Samson standing against the backdrop of Liberia’s carnage. Standing still, standing waiting, as perfect as the day they met.
“Come Ma, come Malachi, come Samson.”
At that moment Lelai dropped to the ground and pounded her fists against the earth as her soul escaped her from her mouth.
Brother John stared at Ma’s face to the accompaniment of Henry and Lelai’s crying, and he was not sure if he had truly survived, or if perchance the boy had killed him when the rebels stole Ma and Malachi and Samson. If the boy had killed them all, he was summoned by the spirits of other lives lost in those woods — now resurrected cadavers, unrecognizable sufferers, nature wanderers, risen and undone.
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