THE SOUND OF A MARCHING BAND
People say no matter how long the night, morning will come. But it’s been night for the past twelve years and I’m still waiting for the sun.
I was dreaming of my father when I heard the sounds. I sit up on my mat, my body covered in sweat. There is the faintest trace of something burning. Meat. I listen. People are screaming outside; shouts, cries, and something else. A sound like a marching band. No, a sound of machine guns firing in the distance.
I scramble off the mat, wincing as my fingers find the cold earthen floor. I snatch my slippers.
“They can’t be here yet,” I say aloud. “The government said…”
The government said a lot of things these past twelve years. They are good orators. But their hands are forever tied behind their backs. To them, this is a silly game they’d rather use for their campaigns and twitter rants. But to us in the village of Kuda Kaya, it is life or death. Mostly death. So many people have died in the past twelve years that we do not even bother to bury the dead. My father has a farm, and I am afraid to dig deep because my hoe might hit a fresh corpse. There are a lot of those littered around these days. It is not an uncommon sight for street children to ogle around an exposed body. Some of those corpses are given the decency of being covered up. But like I said, they get too many it will take several weeks to bury them.
I am fifteen and I have never been to the four walls of a school. My father was amongst the first to die. He wasn’t killed in battle. No, he was killed while on his way back to the village. The vigilantes were celebrating their success in defending their land, when a young recruit, no older than I am now, exploded killing them all.
People waited for days for the vigilantes to come; wives for their husbands, mothers for their sons. I was young at the time and didn’t know what was going on.
“Abba,” my mother would say, which is what she calls me even though my name is Dantala, “Go to the top of the hill to see if your father is coming.”
She said this every evening as the sun set. And I always went to check. No one ever came. And for a time, neither did the raiders. But something happened a couple of years after the death of the first vigilantes. Some said the raiders became more courageous, more sophisticated. Now they attack us almost every day.
The villagers told me that my father was a man of mettle. He gave the young men courage, which was severely lacking at the time, armed them, and succeeded in driving the raiders as far north as Maiduguri. But of course, he lost. Courage is foolishness with a C.
Ever since his death, I have carried on the mantle of head of the family. I herd our cattle, till the soil, and keep a watch for the sound of gunfire. For the latter part, I am not alone. Several young boys and older men act as sentries to the village. Whenever they hear the sound of gunfire, someone blows a horn and the villagers pick up their things and leave. I was only allowed to sleep tonight because yesterday was the beginning of Ramadan, and no Muslim goes on Jihad on Ramadan.
The sound of gunshots erupts outside. I am right in thinking this is the sound of a marching band.
I pick up a few clothes and grab an oversized cotton shirt from a basket, which I wear to accompany my short. The other clothes, I tie up in a bundle and hold under my arm. I reach for a stick in the calabash holder and begin to chew. Hygiene is hygiene. Even though the world is ending.
“Mama,” I cry as I rush out of my room. The echoes of my footsteps are more frightening than the sound of gunfire. I check the two rooms of our hut. Empty save for our household guests; lizards, and cockroaches, and rats. The mattress on mother’s mat still shows signs of being slept on. Mother never leaves her bed unmade except in life or death situations. She always berates me whenever I forget to make my bed, or wash my clothes, or bring in the animals.
I check the kitchenette. Dishes are piled up in an old bucket. House flies buzz around the remnants of our supper, but I don’t have time to be concerned with that now. I make my way for the door, but something explodes outside, sending such shockwaves that it throws me to the floor. The dishes spill out of the bucket, some shattering. I pick myself up and rush into the parlor, my heart hammering loudly.
Where is mama?
The parlor is a crisis, framed pictures lying on the floor with their glass shattered. There is the framed picture of mother and father getting married, hung next to that of the holy prophet. Lying cracked with the others on the floor. I reach for it, but another exploding and my fingers catch on the glass shard, drawing blood. I wipe the tears from my eyes and place the picture inside my clothe bundle.
The light cast distorted shadows on my parlor walls, of people running around, almost as if engaged in cultural dance. It is bright outside even though I know that night time is still in session. The morning cock has just gone to sleep.
I hurry out of the hut, past the clattering wooden beads that serves as a curtain, and into the chaos outside. Initially, I intended on shutting the door, to come back for my things when the raid is over, but looking around at the rest of the village, I don’t see the point. People are not just running from the raiders, but the billowing skeletons that they once called home. The fire steadily approaches from the raiders’ direction, each fiery kiss igniting the thatched roof of the hut next to it. Some houses have corrugated roofing sheets, but even these are crumbling embers in the distance. People come out of those houses, alight and running around looking for water to jump into. But it is the driest time of June, so they fall, charred and smoking husks.
I am brushed roughly aside by an old man in a kaftan. He forcibly props his hat on his head and barely even notice me. I stay close to my hut trying not to get in the way of people rushing about, falling from the weight of their panic, the mothers calling out to their children, farmers dragging their obstinate donkeys and goats by their necks, people dropping to the ground and quickly buried in the stampede.
I cup my palms to my mouth and cry, “Mama!”
“Dantalla,” an old woman says. “Your mother left the other way,” she points to where the fire is coming from, “she said she saw your father.”
Ra ta ta ta ta…
My stomach sinks. Why? Why did she leave me alone at a time like this?
“Yi hakuri dana.” The woman claps me on the shoulder and is helped onto a donkey by a young man.
Telling me sorry won’t bring my mother back.
As I ponder going after her, I hear a loud wail. I look to the source and notice a boy struggling to get out of the way of a frightened donkey. The animal raises its forehooves and brings them down hard on the ground. The boy is directly underneath the donkey, hands and knees crawling at the earthen floor as he tries to avoid being crushed by those hooves. The rider pulls at the reins of his frightened mule, trying to control it.
“Get away!” screams the man. “Sauri!”
I look in horror as one of the donkey’s hoofs comes down hard on the boy’s knee, fracturing it. The boy moans, the donkey brays and finally gallops away after the rider smites it hard on the rump. I leave my hiding post and run to the boy who lay with his legs misshapen and bleeding on the ground. He looks frightened and alone, a feeling that I can identify with.
I crouch next to him and tug at the right sleeves of my oversized shirt until it rips. I hold the piece out nonthreateningly and reach for his legs, but he shouts and knocks my hands away.
“I want to bind your leg,” I explain, slightly annoyed by his foolishness. There is a deep gash left by the impact of the donkey’s hooves on his right thigh all the way down his knobby knees. Blood is bubbling out even as he tries to move them. I suppress a strong urge to throw up.
“You don’t want pus in it,” I say, looking a bit queasy.
The boy looks at his legs, then looks at me. I am surprised at how nice and long his lashes are. Like a girl’s. His honey-brown eyes travel to my now soiled shred of shirt and he nods faintly. I wrap his legs, attempting to bind the bruise before it gets infected. He winces and kicks his legs when I touch them, but he doesn’t try to stop me from binding the injury. Most of us young children received training on First Aid when the Red Cross girls came several years ago. I tighten the knot and help the boy to his feet. He struggles to stand, hopping on one good leg.
“Where is your mother?” I ask. That is the most important question to ask in a raid. Not how is your leg? Not are you hurt?
“We were running there.” He points towards the fire, and I can make out someone lying on the floor. “Fire everywhere. She fall down and did not stand up again because of hole in her head.”
“Come with me,” I say, lifting the boy to my back. He shoves me away, and drops to the ground, nursing his legs.
“What are you doing? I want to help you. If we don’t go away from here, they’ll come.”
I look at his mother’s battered corpse. “Mama will join us later. But we need to go to the soldier place.”
“We will not make it. It is deep deep inside forest.”
“I know. Allah will guide the raiders from our path.”
“Inshallah,” he says.
“Allah yusallmak.” I smile. “So we go now?”
He nods. I picked him up and place him on my back. He is a tiny boy, perhaps five or six years. Limbs like toothpicks, he weighs almost nothing when I pick him up. He wraps his rail-thin arms around my neck. I hold on to his legs, careful not to squeeze his fractured knee, and begin to move. It is too dark to see so I try to be careful where I step. I don’t want to fall with the boy on top of me. The boy is like a china cup, easy to break, near impossible to mend.
It is almost midnight now. Only a few people remain in the street. Most of them gravely injured, the others unwilling to leave their huts. Naturally, night is a stark contrast to a harsh day. Sometimes it gets so cold you do not dare go outside without several layers of cloth. Tonight is not like that. The smell of burning wood permeates the air, and in the brightness of the fire, ash and other debris floats around. I have never been in a snowfall before. But if I did, it will probably look like this.
Ra ta ta ta ta ta ta. I stiffen and quicken my pace. They are closer now. If I look back, I might even see them. No matter how fast I move my legs, I can’t run away from the sound. It seems to be increasing in intensity. They’ll probably reach us before I can get to the army place. The boy on my shoulder begins to wail.
“Keep shut!” I hiss. “They’ll hear us.”
The boy shuts up, but I can hear him whimpering still.
“We must look for somewhere to hide.” I spy an abandoned hut just at the edge of the village. It is the local hunter’s hut. I stumble towards it and rush inside, just as the raiders burst into the street waving their guns and cutlasses and chanting, “Allahu akbar,” while they fire at anything that moves.
The boy moans. I quickly clap my hand around his mouth and move deeper into the hut. The boy is bony, but I have a bit of flesh. I wouldn’t fare well in a cooking pot.
A light bulb goes off in my head. I look around the hut, feeling certain objects with my hands. I finally touch one that is suitable; round, hollow, a cooking pot. It is not big enough for me, but the boy might be able to fit inside. I’ll need to make a quick dash into the forest if I’m to make it out of this night alive. And I can’t do that with the boy riding on my shoulder. I pat the boy on the arm.
“Look, you will hide inside this pot.” I scoot down so he can touch the pot. “When the raiders leave, I’ll come and carry you.”
“No,” I heard him say. “It is dark and the snakes and scorpions will—“
“You will hide here,” I snap. “I do not have time for this.”
“Do you want them to catch you?”
He doesn’t say anything.
“Fine. Now you’ll do what I say. Those men are dangerous. Both of us can’t go outside together. With you on my back, I will slow. I cannot pick race.”
He doesn’t reply. I can hear him sniffing his tears. I feel sorry for him, but there is nothing more I can do. Not until the raiders leave.
“Okay.” I lower him to the ground, flex my hands, lifts him, and place him inside the pot.
“Don’t make a sound, you here? Even if something bite you.”
He nods. I feel around the ground for the pot lid but touch several bales of hay instead. This will have to do. I rearrange some of them, placing some on top of the pot others around it so that it cannot be easily spotted at first glance. It is dark so it will be even more difficult to spot if the boy doesn't give himself away.
“I will come back for you, I promise,” I whisper and wait for a while to ensure he doesn’t ignore my warnings.
Satisfied, I brush my hands on my thigh and creep to the entrance of the hut. The old hunter never believed in curtains. Who would dare enter his hut to steal? The man was notorious in the village for perusing with shamans.
I see the raiders in their frightening attire, marching from hut to hut, looking inside and then torching the place. The raffia roofs catch fire sending plumes of smoke that rise like a dying spirit high into the heavens. I always wondered how the spirits of the dead rise to heaven. But watching this spectacle, I realize that they are most likely aided by the smoke. If I look intensely, will I find my mother?
Ra ta ta ta ta!
My heart hammered in my chest. This will not work. I will be caught. Closer and closer the raiders come, their magazines jingling like Christmas bells on their neck as they shuffle down empty streets. Everything is an eerily pitch-perfect silence except for the crackling of burning wood and the crunching of sand underneath worn boots. Embers dance in the air, wails die abruptly with the sound of a marching band. I think about the boy hiding in the pot, his mother lying cold on the ground. I hope he gets the chance to live. Even though he never gets to experience true daylight. Better a life of suffering than no life at all.
The forest is just beyond me. I have really long legs. Just ten steps and I am safe. Perhaps I will climb a tree and wait for them to leave.
I take a deep breath and burst out of my hiding place. Someone shouts. My long legs sprint. I count the step, one, two, three, four, five, and then I’m lost to the sound of a marching band.