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For him war was the sound of vehicles. The ones so heavy they had to bounce as they moved to let the ground breathe between blows. They scuttled through the night, rattling mechanically. His mother told him that they were taking supplies and aid to camps near the border, but she had been lying more and more since the fighting began. Everyone knew there were bodies in those cars.

The bar where his father drunk every night was painted blue for the coming world cup and somehow this color—in its distance black or red—made it seem like safest place to be. The adults were there for the radio, which echoed distant threats onto the loose brick walls. They were brittle as clay and in his boredom he sometimes chipped at his own shadows.

People drank in metal cups as they talked, interrupting the radio to add their own spin; some detail that had been overlooked. The war had missed them by less than a hundred miles and some of the men felt left out by its fury and significance. They called out to it as they would a football game, calling key battles, wondering when or whether this and that city will fall, and generally making themselves part of the game.

Lumenga was Winifred the bar owner’s favorite. It was close enough to the border to be in their country and hadn’t yet been threatened by the fighting. He had already claimed the Lumenga’s victory over both the rebels and government forces and this allowed him to stay relatively neutral and play devil’s advocate to many in the bar who supported the rebels.

“If you run a country like your personal toy you will pay the price” said Pisho’s father, to whom the bar belonged. “The people will rebel. People who don’t take shit always rebel”

Right on cue their own president came, talking of peace and caution, and waiting to see. They booed him like they would any white person.

“This pretty boy would faint if he ever saw a gun” said his father, uncupping his ears. He leant close each time the president spoke in order to find the best way to make fun of him.

The numbers came next; hundred thousand, hundreds of thousands. The bar fell quiet for moment then as there was nothing to support or reject. The radio were treated like silence: something to stop a room in its tracks, tun air solid with lack of meaning. After they would walk home under the stars, cold and thinking about numbers so high that the truncks his nightmares groaned under the weight like angry horses.

By the time Pisho woke his father was gone. But he had absolute faith in him. His pickup truck was too small and nimble to be hit.

They lived in a small concrete house with a large room in the middle, a storeroom at the back and two small rooms with only beds in them. Mundane things were fetching a fortune across the border. Material especially; rugs, curtains and other cloths that could be torn up and used as bandages or clothing. His father traded one of these for a rifle that was kept hidden in the back room next to the flour and beans.

 

***

“You are almost a man now” he said when he showed it to him. The storeroom was full of empty crates as well. That was all he could see at the time, bottles scattered around plastic cubes with holes in them. His father breathing and lifting the rifle up and then bringing it down in his direction.

He aimed and pulled the trigger, but it clicked emptily. A loud, shuddering click. Louder than any bullet. Click! Click! Click!

“It’s not loaded” he laughed. He moved it between his arms in a thrown and catch routine and then put it down. Pisho was still shaking. His father was tall and thin but moved like heavy man, weighing the effort of each move before deciding to proceed.

“I’ll put this in the corner” he said and began sorting the keys to the storeroom. He placed one like a pill in Pisho’s hand.

“If trouble comes and I’m not here you take this and point. They’ll know you mean business.”

From then on he delayed getting up until he heard the car leave. He flamed the coals and put on some water for a shower and for tea. His mother was already awake. He could hear her among the women of the other houses. He could hear the threshing of the clothes they washed and wringed and washed again.

Her mother talked about her choking on hot ash dream or the medicine giving children sharp teeth across the border. These stories had preceded the war as he remembered them as the kind of things they talked about before the fighting began. They were like women. Making up stories to feel important. He could not imagine going back to that life again.

The trees near the edge of the town were narrow and scabbed with wide shapeless blots. The smooth, peeling bark was flaky and ashen close-up; trees scarred long before they started clearing the forest for safety. There needed to be paths and places to hide. They needed to know this forest as well as anyone else just in case.

The other side was visible through the forest, identical trees climbing from a muddy river at the bottom, on a hill cut up by empty tarmac roads. The speed at which everyone worked and recurrent, percussive force of spades hitting the ground and metal cutting into wood made it seem plausible to clear the whole forest from top to bottom. There is nothing that can’t be done when life is threatened.

Pisho was late and avoided looking up at the old night guard running the effort. The man had been here before with Idi Amin and to look at him and his evident lack of fear was to be confronted with one’s own. He wore boots and rifle coat everyday, with everything. He worked as a guard around town before the war and it was still odd seeing him and his dark coat and boots during the day. The light seemed hard on his features and all around him was a kind of tension, foreboding of the kind that surrounds all night things forced out in the day.

Pisho worked by Isa and Baduru and cut away brush and grass around the trees. The old man was called Chane, meaning plenty in his language, considered a dialect in their country but identical to what was spoken officially over border. Chane talked up might of their army as they worked, daring their neighbors to bring their war over to them. He would show them like he showed Idi Amin. He eased some fears that the fighting might actually cross over.

So far it was only one spy that had been found . A man pretending to be a milkman. The man’s face was already swollen when Pisho arrived, his neck handing boneless and elastic over his left shoulder. Chane wouldn’t let anyone else near him. It was enough he said and let him go with a warning.

More boys joined after that, including Pisho’s friends who had been reluctant at first. This is how they spent their days now. There was no more school since some many teachers came from across the border. Pisho waited five days before saying anything about the gun.

Baduru wondered at way around Pisho’s coyness as they walked back from the forest on the last day they were together. Behind them was Isa, older by a year but already much taller. There were brother’s and somehow this made Isa’s height more pronounced and made Baduru to be generally seen as the shortest of the three. He made for this with relentless, talkativeness; a general lack of stillness.

“It’s probably an owl or something” he said, “Everyone knows this one’s mother is mother is a witch.” He laughed pointedly Isa’s direction, forcing him into the joke. Isa relented stiffly.

“If you don’t want to see then don’t come” said Pisho. He was distracted, wondering if he could get away with bringing the rifle out to the light of the front room or even outside.

“Maybe I won’t” said Badu; no discernible in change in his direction.

“I heard the animals ran away” said Isa, eyes moving between Kito and Baduru in need of assurance or confirmation, some sign that there words were equally balanced for both. There was nothing Isa feared more than indifference to his older brother. Pisho had heard the story and was excited to speak. He said nothing.

“Cats, dogs, cows; all of them formed a big heard and cross the border together. Owls too. That’s why you here them more at night now.”

“It’s possible” said Baduru, unconcerned either way. The ground emitted less dust as they neared the house, growing harder andmore solid. Pisho parroted another of his mother’s stories.

“Well I heard that Musa’s father found dogs floating in the river.” he said. “Ten or fifteen of them close to the shore” Isa looked at him with intrigue, quiet and wary eyes shining. Pisho turned bitterly.

“He probably fished them out and ate them though” He said. His laugh a cackle. “That bastard’s the biggest witch there is.”

Baduru laughed as well but Isa persisted, his lack of amusement justified by how quickly the humor seemed to fade.

“When did he go to there? To the river?”

“Anytime he wanted” said Baduru. Isa staggered on the dry ground as he was pushed. “Not everyone’s a coward like you.”

Isa pushed back with surprising force and Pisho had to quickly intervene finding that it was now his turn to avoid looking at either one of his friends too long.

“No one’s a coward” he said forcefully. “After this we’ll go the river tonight by ourselves and no will be scared.”

They were quiet suddenly, no longer curious; excited but not wanting to ruin their own surprise by disclosing that they knew what they were about to see.

Isa shot across the room, long limbs flailing like drunken joyriders, knocking over crates and stumbling into sacks of flour as he dashed in the other corner. Baduru had fallen back laughing even before he heard empty click.

“It’s not loaded” said Pisho. But Isa refused to emerge. He remained behind the sacks, an arc of floured back that was the only clear target in the shadow. Pisho suddenly joined in the laughing.

“See” he said, pulling the trigger again with the gun pointed at the roof. Click! Click! Click!

“It’s not loaded”

Baduru staggered upright and lifted the rifle free, aiming it around the room.

Pisho adopted a matter of fact tone. “My father showed it to me. He said that I’m a man. And I need to protect the house. I won’t be going to the market anymore.

Isa came towards them. His voice cracked and dry, and the flour making him seem shriveled and calcified. He held the gun awkwardly at first, his elbows jutting at angles away from his body now that the space that the center was taken. But seemed more natural as he aimed, lifting it up to his shoulder instead bending down towards it. For a moment he seemed to tower over them.

Baduru snatched for the gun and with little effort Isa raised it from his reach. Baduru punched him twice hard in the stomach and in return one of those wild drunken limbs whirled the rifle into his face and sent him sprawling. Isa moved towards him, once or twice more the limbs deliriously swung the gun down on his face, turning inside it out, churning skin into blood and blood into bones.

 

***********

Post image by Louise McLaren via Flickr.

About the Author:

portrait-mpangoJesse is from Kigoma, Tanzania. Stints in England and America have led him back to  Dar-es-Salaam where he works as a teacher to support his tea habit. Has plans to write more.  

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I hold a doctorate in English from Duke University and recently joined the Marquette University English faculty as an Assistant Professor. I love teaching African fiction and contemporary British novels. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

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I hold a doctorate in English from Duke University and recently joined the Marquette University English faculty as an Assistant Professor. I love teaching African fiction and contemporary British novels. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

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