Black Stoneby Mildred K. Barya
Nyana Promise leans against the camp wall a few feet away from the maimed old women. Two lines of tears trek down her young face and she licks them when they arrive above her lips. She makes no sound. But there she is with wet eyes and a fisted hand concealing a black stone.
Other children do not call Nyana by name. They know her as the lone one, like the single mushroom growing behind an amputated tree. Women are afraid to use the mushroom for soup because mushrooms are supposed to grow in clusters.
Nyana goes to the children, thinking she should say goodbye. She wants to die. As usual, little Margo's nose is running. Her navy-blue dress is clean but probably will not survive three more washings. Nyana lifts the hem and cleans up Margo's nose. Margo thanks her and Nyana wants to tell her she can do it herself, it takes no effort, but she says nothing. Besides it's not even true; everything requires effort.
The kid called James Bond makes Nyana smile. He's always angry; his lips permanently in a pout, his eyes two red chilies. Nyana offers him a high-five and the kid frowns. On her way out she sees Kizito slumped in the folding chair, brooding. She searches for what to say. What eventually comes out of her mouth is a command: "Don't tell," then she walks away.
She knows she's breaking an unspoken rule; she's not supposed to walk alone but she couldn't care less. She imagines it would be a relief if the rebels killed her. She knows that when you die you die. Living is the tough part and her fear of getting kidnapped is worse than the fear of death, because then she'd have to go on living. In the doorway is Hillary, her hands up against the frames. She is said to be the oldest but she doesn't look twelve years old. Obviously stunted, her stomach is big like a pregnant woman's, and Nyana thinks it's full of worms.
"Move," Nyana says.
Hillary drags her feet.
The women see Nyana leaving but they don't restrain her. There she goes again, is all they say to let the one who can't see know. Nyana walks down a short bend that connects into a broader, straight path. She arrives at a silent stream tucked away in the bush. She halts, then bends abruptly and falls flat on her stomach. A group of armed men in military fatigues treads past her. Minutes later she rises to her feet but is uncertain whether to proceed to Gulu town or walk back to the camp. Two steps forward she hears: Don't.
Back at the camp, James Bond is missing, and one of the old women, Tasha, is on the ground writhing, her right hand holding back her intestines, trying to stop them from spilling and mixing with dirt. Her blood flows and merges with the dark soils of Acholi.
At night, Nyana dreams that Kony, the rebel leader himself, is trying to wrench the stone from her fist.
"Bastard," she screams. She kicks fiercely and lands on the floor.
"Nyana?" Modesta, the eyeless one, whispers and holds her. Nyana's back is hot with sweat. Nyana stares. She wants to know how the eyeless one has found her. How she can tell Nyana from the other children. Nyana peers into the empty sockets. She relaxes her tightened fingers and uncurls them.
"This is all I have of my people," she says of the small black stone, and guides the old woman's fingers to feel it.
"It's all right," the old woman says. She tilts her hand and closes Nyana's palm over the stone. "Nobody is going to take away your people. They're here and here," she says, touching Nyana's chest and forehead.
"Try and sleep some more," Modesta says, helps Nyana back to bed and gently tucks her in.
Nyana sleeps coiled like a fetus in the womb.
Around 4.a.m, there're more screams from the little ones. Modesta tiptoes to the makeshift kitchen to boil some tea. "Once it starts it starts," she says to Estelli, her colleague who lost her legs.
"Hmn, Hmn," Estelli says, and hobbles along.
The screams have become a routine, a signal to start the fire and make tea. The two women fill small plastic cups and put them on a basket tray. Modesta carries the tray with Estelli in tow. Together they pass on cup after cup of lemongrass tea mixed with honey and chamomile flowers.
Modesta lost her home and eyes the same afternoon that Nyana's home was torched. Nyana returned from school and found their small house burnt to ashes. She tried to think she was in the wrong place, but an old man from the village called her name and told her the family line now rested with her.
"May the ancestors be kind to you. You're the only one left."
Nyana started to rake through the ashes, looking for remains of her family.
"You're wasting time, child. Come with me and I'll take you to a place where there are others like you."
Nyana continued rummaging, using both her hands and feet. She stopped when her left foot came in contact with a hard substance. It looked like a bead her mother wore, the one that her father had given her when she delivered the baby boy. The bead which Olga loved so much that her mother had made her a promise that when she grew older and passed her primary leaving exams, the bead would go to her. Nyana picked it up. It had been green, now it was a black stone.
"It's getting dark and we have a long way to walk," the old man said.
Nyana did not move. The old man moved.
"Come," he pulled her gently and she followed.
When morning breaks, the women and children silently dig a grave and bury Tasha, whose intestines refused to go back inside, and whose blood chose the land.
Days later, Modesta and Estelli are seated on the large stones in the compound having a conversation. Their heads are covered with bright headscarves; gifts from the outside world. Keeping their voices low, they can't help wondering how Nyana stays out of harm's way when she's clearly courting danger.
"That girl will bring us trouble," Estelli says.
"We are like family," Modesta says. "She wouldn't betray us."
"I don't trust what I see."
Nyana walks towards them and stretches out her hand to touch Modesta's scarf. The woman ducks her head, making Esteli laugh.
Nyana murmurs, "How does she know what I'm about to do?"
"Senses," Esteli says. "Sometimes I walk but I have no legs, you see."
Nyana is about to sit when she smells danger close by. First there's a cry, then she sees red and yellow flames, a man on fire, running.
"Everyone take cover!" she shouts.
Modesta lies on her stomach begging Mother Earth for protection. Nyana leans against the mud wall, visible. She listens to the gunfire that's getting closer and strident. This is it, she says to herself, looks around and notices the grass is not even tall enough to cover her people, and the small cactuses would not shield a rat. But the women and children keep their bodies to the ground, hugging Earth and praying to the all-knowing Protector to have mercy and preserve their lives.
Nyana waits for the rebels to appear, her heart beating fast but not wanting to hide anymore. What happens disappoints her. Every sound eventually dies until the only loudness is the emptiness.
"Bastards," she says, with renewed anger, and moves to rouse those in hiding.
She lays a hand on Modesta's shoulder. Modesta recoils in terror.
"They're gone," she says.
"Jesus," Modesta cries in relief, then stands on her feet and shakes the dirt off her body.
Nyana finds Hillary lying on her back. She taps on her stomach and it makes a tom-tom sound like a bongo drum. It hadn't occurred to Nyana that with such a tummy, Hillary might have difficulty lying on it. She taps on it again but suddenly withdraws her hand, horrified. Could she be heavy with a rebel's baby and not worms? What could be worse? She avoids looking at her face and goes to Margo.
Margo is weeping softly. Nyana picks her up and carries her to the women. Kizito refuses to acknowledge the pat. Rebels employ all sorts of tricks, he thinks. If they imagine you'll be scared with prodding, they'll prompt you nicely and when you open your eyes they'll whack your brains out. Nyana turns him over, and he remains rigid. Stone dead.
"Kizito," she says, "it's Nyana."
Eventually he rises.
The rest of the day, Nyana walks aimlessly, the fisted hand close to her lips and her tongue kissing the stone. It occurs to her that her family might be protecting her, wherever they are. If they're dead, they're saints praying for her. She perforates her stone and weaves through the hole a string to wear around her neck. When darkness approaches, she's far from the camp. A crescent moon comes out, resembling a tambourine. Nyana imagines a woman's profile shaking to music only she can hear as the moon moves. After several hours walking in step with the moon, she arrives back at the camp, goes to her bed and crashes.
That night the women decide to make tea before the crying hour. They awaken the children tenderly and pass on the cups. Nyana remains in the fetal position.
"Give it up, child," Modesta says. "Release your body so your people can freely move."
Nyana shakes her head.
Modesta strokes her fisted hand. It no longer holds the stone. There's anger in her fist, and the stone around her neck.
"You have to imagine them safe in you but they cannot breathe, walk or move with you curled like that. Do you want to suffocate them or to keep them alive?"
"I want to keep them alive."
"Then ease up and your people will live."
"They're here and here," Nyana says, touching her chest and forehead.
"Good," Modesta says, and ambles back to her bed.
Nyana relaxes and remembers the half moon with the dancing woman. The woman becomes her mother and she has company. She is dancing the conga with baby boy, Papa and Olga. They move swiftly like beads along the thin line of the moon. Nyana begins to laugh, softly at first, then with bold joy.