It’s been years since I last came here. The feel of the sea breeze on my face blowing in from the open window of the taxi reminds me of the time I spent growing up here. Snapshots of memories like pictures viewed through water stained glasses pervade my thoughts. It is a sleepy little town by the sea, a fisherman’s paradise with fishing boats and canoes, the whole aqua caboodle. It brandishes rich culture and boasts of its own indigenous civilization, visible in the many artefacts and statues in its only museum and around town. Growing up here in a family of my mother, three brothers and a father who left in the conflict had morphed me into something of a tom-boy. I had mastered every trick and task known to manhood like fishing and causing trouble at school and around town with pranks tainted with bits and bobs of craziness. I have been aboard the taxi for hours and the driver just has not stopped talking about life, a pregnant girlfriend and the country’s problems, save the time he stopped to get me food. I figured he would do well in an advert of remonstrance or as a monkey salesman. I wasn’t feeling chatty, but the distraction was needful so I kept humouring him with chips of ‘ohs’ and ‘reallys?’ which didn’t admit of any commitment on my part but was enough to keep him going. The taxi flashes past the toll gate which marks the only entrance in and out of the main town. It amazes me to see that it survived. It is a magnificent structure with three pillars capped with a life-sized statue of an eagle with the middle pillar dividing the road into a two way drive. I remember my kite perched gracefully on the eagle many years ago when I went with the boys flying kites after school. It was a beautifully crafted kite with coloured paper trails dangling from it. I had stopped running to make it come closer to the ground, so I could pass easily under the arch of the gate without problems but a gust of wind had taken it up again and wrapped it around the sculpted eagle. It stayed there for months perched on the wings of the eagle; held fast by the ropes like the bird was about taking a leap off the top of the arch and go paragliding, until the wind or it must have been the environment officials who took it away . . .
A jolt wakes me up from the brief slumber I had reclined into. I was getting sleepy and tired from the stress my mind had gone through the last few hours but the bumps on the road shook it constantly off my eyes. Home was coming closer by the moment. . . Home – what does that mean anymore?
The conflict had marked a turning point in my life. My father and two older brothers had joined, fighting for what I can’t remember. It had gone on for days, spilled into weeks, then months. I recollect spending my nights in mother’s room; two shivering bodies huddled together while we were entertained with an assortment of fireworks and bangs. I shut my eyes most of the time, attempting fruitlessly to chase Morpheus. I vaguely remember the blinds, convey lurid colours of red and gold on the opposite wall from a battle somewhere in town. Finally, we had to leave. People with families elsewhere went to them. Those who had no one, like us, were herded to a camp three towns away across the border where there was peace. I met Roland there.
Like most camps for war escapees, water was quite hard to get. We had to walk two or three miles to the river to get some. I went there one evening in company of two of my closest friends from home. We were halfway back when three men attacked us, natives who undeniably, wanted our bodies. Rowland had appeared on scene and saved the day. Yea, there you have it, your typical knight-in-shining-armour. He escorted us home and kept in touch – with me. I found him amusing at first – his clever eyes, slim frame and endearing coyness. But with time, the ridges of amusement broke softly into torrents of feelings I never knew I could dispense. One evening, I was preparing to go get water when I opened our tent flap and saw him come. He stopped when he saw me watching and suddenly his shoes became quite interesting. He had appeared with a handy basket full of stuff I couldn’t comprehend from the doorway, so I went out to meet him. The sunset had an unearthly beauty about it as we talked and walked towards the river to meet it. We ended up having a picnic on a bench at the harbour facing the river. I had heard tales of the way the moon increases in size when love’s arrow hits you but in our case, it surprisingly remained small with a slight ring of white dust around it. But it looked enchanted well enough and alluring coupled with the beautiful reflection it cast of the water, which shattered and made the water glisten and shine, whenever the wind kissed its surface.
An image catches my eye and I focus on it snapping my mind out of my thoughts. The street hawker pushed his cart slowly down the road, screaming out its contents. I had only a moment’s glimpse of him before the car’s thrust lost him behind. He reminds me of the pastry trader who would always stop by our house every morning to drop a few loaves of fresh bread for our breakfast. Soft waves of the floury scent of fresh bread and sweetened milk still entice my memories. One morning, after he delivered bread, we were on the breakfast table when we heard the first burst of gun fire signalling the beginning of the conflict, assaulting the morning air. We all lay on the floor until it stopped and dad took us to school that day and back. The picture of the young man garbed in white long sleeves and a crimson trouser, facing the floor with blood all over his back still remain etched in my mind. Worse still are the remains of his shattered cart lying in the gutter by him with broken pieces of fresh, fresh pastry. I didn’t eat bread or baked stuff for months after that morning.
The driver turns on the radio and static washes over us.
“Please turn it off” I half scream, quite shocking him.
He turns it off with a shrug and continues with his driving. On the night I left with Rowland the song ‘Dead man’s party’ by the band Oingo Boingo was playing on the car radio. It was raining heavily outside, but I was barely aware of it. The thrill of a new life and a glimpse of the world was all I could imagine. Time had come to return home but I wasn’t ready. I wanted to be with him. My mind as I know now, was quite immature at the point and despite the different entreaties by my mom and warnings from my brother, I went away with him, to the new life he had in mind planned for the both of us. To my mind, he was another camp, one I was so happy to run into or in this case, run away with; a sort of fortress and refuge from the drab and empty life that awaited me at home. His promise of newness and a life of fruitfulness was all I could think of. He was studying at a university in the town and had just finished at the time my family and I were supposed to return home. We made plans. Quick hasty plans and left.
You just don’t prepare for some kind of ills. They do not hurt you only from the blade of a knife or a strike from someone’s fist. They may consist of those, but what makes them stand out is the supporting trauma from within. A sense of betrayal, hurt and shattered dreams, tearing you from inside-out before you even understand you have to be strong. We started out well in the beginning, with lots of plans and promise. Surprisingly, in two years or so, we were living quite comfortably with a rented house and a business of his own. But time happened and the more he owned he changed. Grumblings gave way to full blown flares and malice. I still remember the many times my head was bonked on the dresser with as much force as a raging juggernaut could muster. Late dinners always granted me inky rewards of blackness tattooed lavishly on my chin. And he never failed to remind me I wasn’t married to him. I was a mere pickup, an add-on… a refugee. He warned me never to leave or I would regret it. I knew or felt I would. Going back to everything I ran away from, was no solution. I would stay with him… and work it out. Only cowards leave, heroes fight or die trying right? But in life, this much is clear; the only way you change the end in most situations, is by going back to the beginning. He grew worse as days went by. There were days I wouldn’t leave the house or speak with anyone because my face was a mess – not like I knew a lot of people, he made sure of that. There were other women, though I never met them. The frequent weekends out and the calls he made most evenings were tell-tale signs.
The last straw materialized one evening. He came back quite drunk when I was already in bed. I heard the door creak open and sensed him tumble in along with the familiar smell of alcohol. He dropped his keys on the dresser and lumbered towards the bed. I shivered as I felt cold hands moving slowly up in between my thighs. I stiffened, for the first time, unwilling to let him in. He came closer, more persistent this time; his left hand fondling my breasts. I turned around in a fit of anger and pushed him away. He fell back, his face painting the perfect picture of shock and dismay which slowly morphed into rage. Swifter than a drunk should have managed, he landed two hard slaps on my face which stunned me momentarily. I recovered soon enough and tried to fight him off to no avail. My hands were twisted to the side and pinned down by his right hand, while he went into me and filled his hunger again and again. Except the times he had hurt me or turned my head into a battering ram, I have never felt so helpless. So worthless. Like a chattel. A thing.
The taxi rounds a bend and passes by my old school, pushing me out of sleep again. For almost eight hours I have been on the road, leaving shadows behind, events in my past, crawling towards refuge. I turn to the side to look at my alma mater. It was different from what it used to be with a new sports facility and more structures visible from the mesh fence around it. The town itself has changed quite some, with businesses; mega markets and lights open everywhere. But it still has that pinch of sleepiness to it all. It is so easy to forget the many atrocities committed here during the conflict. The bodies in the street and screams of my friends next door while they were ravished by combatants, still cut at the strings of my sanity. We had a few of our things ready, as we expected evacuation at any point so it wasn’t hard for mama and I to grab them and run out into the saving cloak of darkness that night.
My eyelids close and I am back with Rowland again. He comes to me stealthily with a blood stained knife in his hand and that smug smile of satisfaction that clothed his face when he came out of me last night. He holds me down sending his length in and out of my partially clothed body, while I scream. To my remonstrance, he kept asking with glee painted all over his porky face… Are we there yet? Are we…
Madam! Are we there yet? My mind snaps to attention to see the driver looking at me with an angry expression on his face.
“Huh?” I managed.
“Are we there?” He repeated.
“No, no. Soon. Keep down this road and try the first turn to the right” I ventured.
“Try?” he repeated, as if I just said something stupid.
It has been a long time since I last saw this town and many parts of it have been reconstructed. I was only sure of the general direction of home, not more.
“Please just take the next right turn, drive a little then you can stop.” I answered in a pacificatory tone.
“You will have to add some money to what you initially gave me” he said “I will have to spend the night here”.
I count some more money from my purse and give to him, which he collects, adds to his stash in his pigeon hole and resumes his chatter. My mind wanders back to the writhing and thrashing about the previous night, on the bed in a fruitless fight against an unneeded intrusion. By the time he was done, I had stopped crying, my mind devoid of comprehension. I stood up and walked out of the room and by the time I knew what I was doing, the 8 inch blade of our kitchen knife was dug deep in his back. I kept dealing blows on his head and only stopped when he stopped moving. My mind flew into auto pilot and I didn’t even wait to see if he was still alive. I hastily packed my things from the closet and dresser into my suitcases and ran out. It was hard getting a vehicle to go where I wanted but after many trials, climbs and drops, I got lucky and with enough money from Rowland’s wallet, the driver was more than willing to follow my directions.
“Here. Stop” I shout.
I step out of the car and walk towards the porch. A few feet to the door, a woman opens it, spilling yellow light on the verandah steps. Mama’s face when I see her almost makes me break apart in tears. Recognition dawns and she grabs me in an eternal hug while choking back her own tears. In her eyes, I see more than my mother, the absence of judgement, more than a frail widowed woman. In her eyes, I see home. We go inside and my brothers each almost squish me in their bear hugs while the driver continued to honk outside.
A home is different from a house. A home is where family resides and family does not consist just of people who live with you, profess love to you but fail or those related to you by consanguinity or marriage. Family consists of your very own heart and soul living in other humans; people who despite your inadequacies, wrongs and weaknesses, still find substance in your emptiness and power in your essence, humans who care for you not because of duty but out of love. That’s family.
I come out to the porch, and beckon to the taxi outside. The driver materializes from the back of the vehicle, carrying my suitcases like an elephant trudging through a dense pond. I close my eyes and take a deep breath. The air smelled suspiciously of the night-blooming cereus as I take one last look at dusk creeping slowly from the horizon and walk down the steps to meet it.