Photo Art by Michael Dooley
This is a part of Biology I like: dissecting the maggot. I had seen enough of these plump bundles of puss swarming in the school's latrine to know them well. My classmates work silently around me, all in green and white uniforms, all intently examining the white presence before them. There are more than 40 of us; therefore, more than 40 maggots as well. I poke the bulging stomach of my fresh specimen with a pointed piece of metal and wonder when it was harvested. Was it fresh? Did Mrs. Kabenje, our teacher, just scoop it out of the toilet? Mrs. Kabenje seems to sense I am thinking about her because she moves towards me, her over-worn, patent heels making crunchy sounds as they sink repeatedly into the earthen classroom floor. I will never know what she would have said to me or what my response would have been. I cannot know because the soft noise of her shoes was replaced by a loud, offensive ratatata. This noise beats at my eardrums as I run into the stream of green and white uniforms. None of us had ever heard these sounds before, but we had all heard stories of them. It was the machine gun announcing the entrance of the rebel soldiers into a village.
I am running away from school, fast. My plastic sandals fail to match my pace, so now I run barefoot, but I cannot feel the burn of the sun-baked earth on my soles because my mind is preoccupied with other things. In my mind, I can see the rebel—big, no, huge—and I can smell his freshly bloodied machete. Our village of Fabaina sits at the southeastern edge of Sierra Leone, hugging the border of Liberia. For months refugees had spilled into us, coming over the Manor River Bridge. They had told stories of child soldiers, whose voices had not yet declared puberty, who would make grown men kneel and watch grown men urinate on themselves and shoot grown men directly in the face, standing close enough that blood splattered onto cheeks still chubby with youth. They told these stories, and the elders of Fabaina took note. The elders said this is what we will do if the rebels ever cross the border and made the war of Liberia a war in Sierra Leone: There was a bell that would sound; there were places in the forest for hiding; there were ways to survive on bush meat, fish, and boiled water. One of the grandmothers, Mama Matu, had gathered together the young women and instructed them how to inform the children, so the children would be prepared but unafraid. From my own mother, I had heard the approved, watered-down version of what the refugees said. But I never believed this day would come, so I had had no reason to fear. But the day had come, and the rebels had not sent notice. They had not said, "On so and so day, we will invade your country." They surprised us in Fabaina, and there was no time for any of our bells to sound.
I stumble, fall, bleed, but I keep running home. Children diverge in different directions, running to find mothers, fathers, and relatives. I run down the winding path where the "cutting grass" irritates my calves, my legs trying hard to find a shortcut to my little house on the outskirts of the village. I am running and thinking and seeing so many things. I want to scream, but my hoarse throat tells me I have already done too much of that. Bismi 'llahi 'r-Rahmani 'r-Rahim—the words of the Al-Fatiha must have come to me from Allah Himself—with them I think of God and all things good; I think of my mother, my blind mother to whom I run without even stopping to breathe.
Now it is only the familiar image of my mother I can see, and it makes me run faster, makes me feel stronger. I can see my mother the day she came back from burying one child only to find another dead of the same fever.
I see her. I see the way she sat with a thud, all of her collapsing onto the ground.
I do not know I have already run past the open marketplace, nor do I see the stalls still loaded with fresh produce have been abandoned. I do not feel my soles have now burst into open sores under the torturous, untarred road.
I see my mother, her hands raised to the sky, her head shaking vigorously. She had cried so much, she no longer knew where to find more tears, and she just shook and convulsed uncontrollably as though she had given up on the world.
I am getting closer to the village now, and there is an all-consuming stillness that would, perhaps, have scared me terribly if not for the business in my mind.
I go up to my mother, collapsed as she is on the ground, dirt and dust hugging her feet and skin and garments. And I, with all the force my seven-year-old body can muster, make a sincere promise to her. Over and over again, I say, "Mother, I am here. I will always be here for you." Of her five children, I was the only one who had stayed. Stayed alive.
I keep running, running to my mother and praying my now 14-year-old self will be able to keep the promise I made to her when I was half this age.
Mom is not at home. I look under her bed, behind the door, in the latrine, around the kitchen and in the living area. She is nowhere to be found. Had she made it to the temporary safety of the forest surrounding the village? I run out to find a neighbor or anyone who can tell me where my mother has gone. Everywhere I look I can find no-one; not even the chickens, goats, or dogs can be seen. I run to the barri or village hall in the village center, and what I see there makes me stop for the first time since I left my class full of maggots.
There are men with guns all around the barri. There are at least a dozen of them clad in dirty and sweat-drenched combinations of T-shirts and jeans. I cannot see their faces, and it isn't because I am not looking hard enough. Some of them nibble hard at chewing sticks, others have dreaded hair obscuring their faces. They all seem preoccupied—pacing, talking, pointing. Out of nowhere, it seems, one of them comes running up to me with his gun pointed, screaming, "What you be doing out here, eh? You for be inside wit all de other ones!" It is then I realize, without being fully aware of the realization, that some of these men are in fact boys, younger than me. The cold metal of the gun I feel at the small of my back makes me cringe, but my legs do not hesitate. I walk straight into the barri.
This is the grand space where chiefs gather to settle village disputes. I look around but cannot recognize this place where I had once played hide-and-go-seek on warm, moonlit nights. There is a bloodied body standing (or perhaps slumping) against the curvature of the great walls. My eyes run away from that sight. I need something soothing, something familiar. There are eight or so men carrying weapons and speaking loudly and incoherently in Liberian-accented, broken English. It doesn't occur to me then that most people in the barri, those who have not gone to school and learned English, cannot understand what the rebels are saying. But these rebels are saying so much without actually saying anything. The young women are all bundled together. Every now and again one of the rebels goes and fondles a breast here or a bottom there, all the while playing with himself. Aside from the voices of the rebels, there is a kind of deadly silence, and I feel like emptying my own stomach for want of some kind of normal human action to fill this void. I see old men and young women, little children, people crying silently or with painfully loud sobs. There must be several dozen of us here. I see there are many who aren't here, I wonder where they are. My eyes eventually fall on what I have been searching for all along: my mother.
She is sitting on the ground. Her hands are raised to the skies. Her blind eyes are as dry as the harmattan winds, but her face is painfully wrinkled and her mouth fixed in an unrestrained frown. She shakes, again and again. I want to be that seven-year-old child who could run up to his mother and easily promise to stay. But the cold metal at my back directs my movements, and I know I cannot be that boy. Not yet, at least. I look away from my mother and, without intending to, find myself looking directly at the man slumped on the floor, bloodied and still. It is Papa Johnny. As young children, we found Papa Johnny to be as tall as a tree, and we would try to climb him, and he would let us try to climb him. He would put something sweet and rare on his head, like candy found only at the expansive monthly market at the border between Sierra Leone and Liberia, the place where things could be purchased in Sierra Leonean Leones and Liberian dollars and where people understood enough bits and pieces of their neighbors' languages to trade with ease. I know Papa Johnny. I know he would have made others stand behind him and his giant frame. Supported by his walking stick, he would have approached the invaders. He would have yelled at these little rebel boys and raised up that stick at them. He would have been a formidable sight, but one of these boys would have simply thrown a machete at him, and his stick would have fallen. This is how he now came to lay on the floor, cradling his intestines in his dead hands.
For the first time, I thank God for having taken away my mother's eyesight.
"Sit down!" The gun behind me digs into my back, and my tired legs obey. I sit, no, fall, into a little mass, separate from everything and everyone. Al-hamdu li'liahi Rabbi'l-alamin. Ar-Rahmani 'r-Rahim—I am not too tired to continue to pray for a miracle.
Sometime that night they take all the women, girls, and men somewhere else. It takes all my courage not to respond to my mother's wails, her calls of "Munda!" It wouldn't help matters if the rebels knew we were related—they could force me to do things and use her as leverage. That is the kind of thing they do. The rebels, with their thick accents, do not understand our language, and they do not know the rhythmic cries of the blind woman they now drag out are a distorted lullaby this woman had sung to her only surviving child. A child she had named Munda, Mende for "our own." Maliki yawmi 'd-din. Iyyaka na budu wa-iyyaka nasta in—beseeching the God of Judgement I stay crouched, staring at those on whom God's wrath will fall.
They are no older than me, I tell you. Once the adults and girls are taken away, we are left, nine of us boys, with four rebel boys. I am still sitting by myself, exactly where I was ordered to sit, while the other eight boys are somewhat clustered together on the other side of the room. One of the rebel boys decides to come and talk to me.
"You want some cigarettes?"
I will not answer the rebel boy, will not look at him. He gently nudges my bare, swollen and bloody foot with his booted one.
"You not going to talk to me, man?"
Silence from me. I can hear the other rebel boys chatting up the little mass of frightened boys. Someone must have shit himself because I can smell an unambiguous stench blending into the overall foul air.
"I got some food," rebel boy declares.
My stomach takes charge, and every inch of my body feels like an open mouth begging for morsels. The rebel boy standing before me is not as intimidating, close up, as I had feared. Though I am crouched on the floor, this rebel boy, standing upright and fully armed, does not tower over me in the manner I had expected. Rather, he keeps sticking out his tongue to lick his chapped lips the way lizards do in the smoldering heat of the dry season, and this, together with the manner in which he repeatedly blinks his eyes, makes him look almost ridiculous. The way he holds his gun, finger caressing trigger, however, tells me he is up to no games. Moreover, in a fleeting moment I catch a glimpse of what lies beneath the continuous blinking, and his bloodshot eyes make me tremble unconsciously. Perhaps sensing my unease, rebel boy slumps down beside me and puts his arm around my shoulder as though we are old buddies. I am too weak to revolt, and but for the gun resting between us and his intolerable stench, his unexpectedly clean smile makes him seem harmless.
"So you want some food, eh? Dat won't be difficult to arrange." Again, that broad white smile.
"I say, Turay!" rebel boy calls out loudly.
"What you want now?" one of the other rebel boys responds sharply, probably angry his attempts to start up conversation with my eight peers is being interrupted.
"Get our friend here some fine goat meat wit lots of salt," rebel boy yells back.
"Where I for get di salt?" other rebel boy booms.
"Ask Major Bloodthirsty. He got lots of salt."
Rebel boy pats me on the shoulder and whispers mischievously, "You goin to like di salt." I try to avoid his breath because in such close proximity, it stinks even worse than the odors coming from Papa Johnny's dead body or the shit that was unleashed somewhere. When the goat meat comes, I gobble it down and it tastes salt-less, in spite of the abundance of a white powder over it. I don't care. Captain Serpent (for this, it turned out, is rebel boy's name) starts telling me fascinating stories about rebel exploits and rebel camaraderie.
"Dere waz dis one time we come into dis village, me man!" Captain Serpent has actually put down his gun and is waving his hands about; he becomes fully engrossed in his story.
"All man begin run when we begin fire." Captain Serpent does a rendition of mass running. His eyes are so alive, and in his body movements I really do feel like I see a whole village on the run.
"Dis one man in the town, though. He told all man that he not able walk! Hey! But it was dis very man who be the first for jump and run, run fast past any other person!" Perhaps it is the way the Captain Serpent gets up and begins to do a cheerful rendition of the lame man's run; the way he twists and gyrates in a comical dance complete with imitations of the lame man's calls of "Oh! I now have my legs! Where did dey come from?" that makes it all so captivating. I can hear laughter and catch myself when I realize it is my own.
He feeds me, this rebel boy does, and he gives me something to drink, and I am feeling warm inside. It is fun to talk to kids my age. At some point they start telling me how they are always on the lookout for new recruits and I would fit in nicely. He talks. We talk. I eat more of the saltless meat, distantly wondering what the white powder could possibly be.
I think I must have laughed myself to sleep. When I wake up, all the other boys have gone. It is just me and Captain Serpent in the barri. Captain Serpent asks me to help him drag out Papa Johnny's body. I still feel kind of elated and surprise myself at being so talkative. I tell him about the ample mango trees we have in our area and how great it is to climb up to the top of them and pick and eat mangoes all day. I don't even know what he is saying, but I keep chatting anyway, oblivious of whatever is taking place around me. Papa Johnny's body had been covered with a raggedy, dirty blanket, and it lay in a heap at the far end of the hall. In one movement, Captain Serpent pulls the blanket off, leaving the body in full view. I stop in mid-sentence and shut up long enough to realize my voice was all that had been resonating in the space. I stare at Papa Johnny. I don't know for how long because everything seems so still. Everything except the maggots. Yes, the maggots have come. Little white maggots oscillating in the bloodied tissue gorging out of what was once Papa Johnny's stomach. I stare and stare, and soon all I can see are the maggots. I can feel my damp hands clenching and unclenching. In my mind's ear, from very far away, I can hear Mrs. Kabenje's crunchy heels and her uncharacteristically soft voice saying, "Everyone thinks the maggot is nasty, but it actually serves a useful role. It degrades all the stuff we would rather do without—dead animals, feces, and the like. Life would be hard without the maggot."
These words are my sign. Ihdi-na 's-sirata 'l-mustaqim—Allah, guide me upon the straight path. This is how I can keep my promise to my mother.
I have been staring at the body for so long, Captain Serpent has grown impatient, and I only now realize he is poking my stomach with the cold end of his gun. His voice is angry as he repeatedly asks, "What is your problem?"
My problem? I want to scream. I am scared and stupidly giddy, man. I can't feel my body and all my eyes can see are these maggots. My problem? I want to die and go to Heaven and take my mom with me. My problem? My mind is turbulent, it is as busy as the vigorous dances of the masked devils during Christmas parades. My problem? All I had wanted to do this morning is go to school, go to school and not have to run home.
"What is your problem?" Either Captain Serpent's vocabulary is terribly limited, or my mind is being overloaded and is now caught in this single moment.
With my eyes fixed on the maggots, I say very quietly, "My problem is I have to become one of you."
"What is your problem?!" Louder now.
"I want to join you." My steady voice does not betray the turmoil within me. I speak clearly, to myself and to Captain Serpent.
Captain Serpent drops his gun and embraces me. Then he keeps slapping me on the back in a warm, congratulatory spirit, or maybe in an attempt to loosen up the stiffness he feels in me. He must be doubly happy because he didn't have to go to extraordinary lengths to recruit me.
"What you want your rebel name to be?"
For the first time I look straight into Captain Serpent's bloodshot eyes.
"Call me Maggot," I say with a clear white smile of my own.