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Riverwide

This story was shortlisted for the Ip-Art Short Story Competition 2008.

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Riverwide

The camp had burned long into the night. Smoke filled the heavens like a swarm of locusts. Swirling white ash and cinder idly fell from the sky and settled on the ground like snowflakes.

On the morning after the attack Eliki and his family returned. The remaining huts spat crackling embers, their last smoky breaths exhaled in wispy black columns. Vultures circulated in the ether above charred animal carcases below.

All the animals had been slaughtered or taken. Eliki was a farmer and this saddened him. But he knew by hiding in the dense forest they had avoided the militia. They were alive. That was enough. “We must move across the border very soon,” he said.

Eliki’s sons Deo and Sese gathered whatever food and utensils they could find. His wife Nyokato and daughter Nyangoma prepared some maize meal, yam and a little meat that was left.

They left as soon as they had eaten. For miles they followed the water and crossed at the point where the river’s throat was at its most parched.

The day was hot. No one spoke. For hours at a time the only sounds were the drone of insect chatter and gentle whispering of the grass. Eliki carried Nyangoma. Her skin was rich coffee and her hair like cascading molasses. She is my beautiful girl, Eliki thought. He squeezed her hand.

At dusk they came across a village that had been attacked by the militia. The huts were still smouldering. Bullet holes and flecks of blood covered the last standing walls. And there were bodies. Nyokato screamed and held Deo to her breast. Sese cried silently with Nyangoma. Eliki betrayed no emotion. He said only that they should keep moving.

They spent the night by a stream and drank milk in gourds made from pumpkin husks. They were all hungry, but there was no food. Eliki said they must be strong and huddle together. Through the night the bowels of the heavens rumbled but no storm ever arrived, though gunfire echoed somewhere in the distance. Eliki stared at the stars. He did not sleep.

The border passed through a river. They crossed it two days later. They were all weak from hunger. Sese could barely walk. Eliki swam determinedly, carrying his son upon his back. The river was deep and wide. Beneath the surface dark shapes cautiously followed their progress. At the other side of the river Eliki collapsed. Deo pulled his father to shade.

After three more days of walking they finally encountered people again. Nyokato wept as they were embraced like family. Eventually people came with medicines to take them to a new camp, this time with many thousands of people also displaced by the militia.

Eliki missed home. He knew they would all have to start again, a new life for all of them on a new farm in a new country.

But they had each other. Eliki tenderly ran his fingers over Nyokato’s skin. He closed his eyes and dreamt.

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