I’m sitting by the river, dragging my short knobby finger in the cold, wet sand. Slowly. My thoughts get lost in the loudness of the water washing the surface of the rocks underneath, wearing them off to create new ones at the bank. Call the old rocks Peter, the new ones Paul, and let the stream wear the robber’s cap that fits him perfectly.
You’d think the breeze makes me feel good. The water rushing, the leaves of the massive trees that loom over me rustling. You’d think I love the calm round the stream; that I feel at peace sitting on the ground with no cares in the world, smiles on my face, hands in the sand. Warm feelings within, balmy weather without.
But I don’t. I hate every bit of it. Every fragment. Every iota. Every little atom that came together to form this warped idea of a perfect place, I loathe it. Nothing other than my pride and preference in ways to die holds me back from hanging myself on the vines that swing before my eyes, or from throwing my body downstream to have my life sucked out by the water, the rocks, or who knows what god lives down in the nothingness.
I hear my little siblings giggle and play behind me. My heartstrings throw a lasso around my heart, and squeeze. They don’t know what it’s like. They never had anything to lose. No life back there. No first kiss. No people to care about. They never had a life. And they so gladly crossed over to come here, this ‘perfect place’. They left nothing behind. They came with all of their being, while I came here with some of me.
I’ve forgotten what it feels like to sleep peacefully. We have spent a hundred and ninety-three nights here already; I mark tallies in the tree with my fingernail when the sun rises again, because there is no measure of time here. For a hundred and ninety-one nights, I woke up from dreams playing out scenes from the past, drenched in my sweat, my imaginary blood, and fear. It was the same scenes over and over for a hundred and sixty days, and for each day after that, the story in the dream continued a little more. The other two nights, I didn’t sleep.
My mother keeps saying we are still hiding ‘till the coast is clear.’ I feel sick each time I hear it because I know it’s not true. There’s nothing to hide from anymore, no one. They’re all gone. But it’s her daily mantra; “It’ll soon be safe now. We’re still hiding till the coast is clear.” It makes me even sicker because I’ve heard those very lies about being safe before. It was all a lie. Ma is a liar.
Last night’s dream was different. Because I saw the story till its end. Everything began to play out wildly, as if Morpheus decided to fiddle with the fast-forward button. I caught a glimpse of my plaid government school uniform, then I saw the time my mother slapped me for talking back, and then I saw the moment Paul kissed my lips quickly and ran away. Then, the scenes slowed down.
The ground was shaking in resonance with the feet of people running for their lives. Only a while before then, the only running anyone was doing was in the lavatory after eating too much of everybody’s Easter food.
I was sitting by the river, trying to lose myself in the gifts of nature around me, and the ground began to shake under my feet and backside. But I still sat. It took the sound of three gunshots and an explosion to drag my feet to the town.
I saw people fall to their death. Children were screaming, scared. Adults were not, because dead people have no voice, do they? The ones left alive only kept mute and ran. Grenades were flying. Men were firing. Blood was pouring. And who wasn’t running? Me.
The entire town was running away from the terrorists. But I was walking in the opposite direction. Nobody was brave enough to stop me. They were all crippled by fear. I think my brain died, because my legs were moving in obedience to my heart.
The children were being dragged into trucks, their nails digging into the ground till they bled all their resilience away. I marched on towards the wails as if they hypnotised me.
“Run, Asante! What are you doing?! You will die! Run!”
Every bit of me yearned to act on the warning, but I had lost control of my being and what my heart was leading me to do.
I can’t run. I belong here. I need to find the house. And go home. It will all be fine there. I know. It’s a safe place. Ma told me it was safe. That’s where I’m going.
My mother’s voice stung my ears. “Asante, what are you doing?!”
I’m obeying you, Ma. Isn’t that what you’ve always wanted? I’m going home.
My legs continued to move me toward the house. Gunshots were everywhere, but I paid no heed. I couldn’t stop. Something had taken over my mind. I was walking. Home. I couldn’t turn. I couldn’t run away.
I got to the place which was meant to be my home, and stared until my brain began to breathe again. Fire. Ash. Rubble. I felt myself go mad. I struck myself on the debris and dragged my nails in the ground. And screamed.
I can’t leave this place. Ma said this is where we are all safe. This is my haven. The air is me. The ground is me. The water in the river is me. This place is me. This is all I have known. This is all I have had. All my life.
“If it is perishing, then may I perish with it too!”
Those were supposed to be my last words. I thought I had died, but I woke up by the river to find a pair of curious eyes peering down at me. I immediately leapt and reached for a stone. “Who are you?! You’re one of them. Where’s my family! Speak, or I’ll kill you!”
She raised her arms and fell on her knees. The girl was definitely one of them. I noticed the weapons on her belt. Why wasn’t she trying to harm me?
“Please. Please. I beg. Run. Away. Go. Go.” She looked frightened. She was begging me?
I arched my hand back further, stone in hand.
“No! No! Don’t shoot me. With stone. Run. Please. I save your life. Live. Go away. And find family who has not die. Run. From the men. Go!”
I was confused. But I took to my heels. Who was she? A stowaway? Why am I still alive? God, you didn’t kill me when I said my last words?
I saw my mother and siblings after walking for eighty-two days. I was looking for a river. Not to drink from. Not to bathe in. But to sit by and see if it could make me feel the way the river back there made me feel. Some feeling of home. And then I found them, cooking by the river as if they were expecting me all along. Papa was not in sight, but I needed nobody to tell me anything. Ma got up and stretched her arms wide apart for an embrace. And then the dream ended.
I woke up with a start, drenched in my sweat, my imaginary blood, fear and something else. The same feeling that made me walk toward my house when everyone else was running away from death.
But I’m still sitting by the river. I’m biding time. I want my mother to come out and see my back of my head as I leave. Back to the place where I really belong, finally. My siblings are still laughing and playing behind me. The door bangs. I get up and start to leave without looking back. I know she can see me. I feel her eyes burning holes of confusion inside my back.
No words. I’m gone.
I think it’s Christmas now. I can tell because my feet are covered in dust, my lips are parched, and my throat is sore. That’s how it is in these parts. Harmattan. I have been walking for centuries. But I know I have reached home because I feel it inside of me. I know the feel of the wind. I know the way it tastes. This place and I, we know each other.
I see the road that leads to our house, or at least where our house used to be; the legendary tarred road the government gifted us when I was ten. I call it legendary because it was nothing like anything my rural folk had seen before. I remember how the old people worshipped it, as if it was the road which lead to the end of their poverty. As I walk on, my eyes take in the familiarity of the road’s dark colour, the colour of my soul. I take my shoes off and tiptoe along the two faint yellow stripes on the edge, the colour of the white of my eyes. The image burns its place in my brain, a dark mental picture.
The night has fallen, no moon in sight. It’s pitch-dark, so I can’t see the end of the path. A stop sign appears as I move closer home. I laugh. Sorry for my defiance, Ma. There’s nothing here, this town. It’s just as it was in the dream. Rotting. Rotten. Burnt down. Broken. I want to walk to what used to be our house and lie in the rubble, and kiss the ground. The debris is in the same place when I get there, but the ash is gone with the wind of the past days. I lick the ground, and hug the remains of my house.
Where’s the river, the river that is mine?
I find it in its same old place. Unchanged. The only thing that kept itself from rot. I begin to feel safe, almost complete. I sit and dip my feet in the water. The breeze makes me feel good. The water rushing, the leaves of the massive trees that loom over me rustling. I love the calm round the stream and feel at peace sitting on the ground. No cares in the world, smiles on my face, hands in the sand. Warm feelings within, balmy weather without. My blood flows in sync with the rhythm of the water dancing. We are in harmony.
“I never understood why you never got over it.”
My heart skips a beat.
She only smiles. “I knew I’d find you here.”
She sits beside me and holds my hand. “I knew I had lost you when you found us. But I could never tell why.”
I look into the sky for a moment and say nothing. We sit by the river in silence till day begins to break. No words. Just feelings.
“The reason is-”
She touched my hand. “I know.”
Ma turns to me and takes hold of my hands. “I know, Asante, that -” She begins to cry. “I know that it’s because-”
“Part of me never left this place, Ma.”