Inspired by Nadine Gordimer
We had to leave. It was no one’s fault. They came with dogs during dinner. We heard them a long ways off. I saw Grandmother tense across the table. At first it was the sound of dogs baying. Then loud voices and yelling. I couldn’t tell what they were saying. A man from our village began yelling, "Run, take nothing. We must run." Grandmother shoved me out the door. We had been taught how to run. We had practiced too often. We had been lucky last time to find a place to camp near a river. They had not bothered us, perhaps they did not know we were there. They did not know we were here. Until now.
The villagers ran out of their huts. My grandmother had rations in her hands. A sack of mealies. We had to kick down our metal huts. It wasn’t hard. It didn’t seem to have any purpose; they knew we were here. The other people were frantic, milling around the man who had called us out of our houses. I heard the dogs howling and we all ran toward the tree groves, away from the broken houses. Everyone had a sack of food. A couple of families had babies. The children, the youngest, were picked up by their parents. Grandmother was strong but I was still worried. My feet hurt but I ran anyway.
We walked for days. By the third one, there was no water. During the day we slept in the shade. A couple of men kept watch for lions and listened for dogs. I was scared so I stayed close to Grandmother. She was tired, I could tell. Her feet were swollen from the walking. Her feet reminded me of a boy I knew a long time ago. He was bitten by insects when he fell into their nest. His face puffed up and his eyes became swollen.
We fell asleep on the third day, Grandmother and I, under a short tree. There were few leaves left and we found little shade. Revered shade, nonetheless. The others clustered around bushes and logs and quickly fell asleep. It was hot and even though I was tired, I couldn’t sleep at first. The man who had led us kept guard, and I watched him. He looked skinny and tired, too. I finally fell asleep with my head on my grandmother’s stiff arm.
When I awoke, the sun was setting. There were no fire to cook food since no one had any. I was hungry but my thirst was stronger. Grandmother plucked a cactus and sliced it open with her knife. I sucked on the juices but was still thirsty. Grandmother did the same but she looked worse than me. Everything was quiet except for the sound of the others waking and getting to their feet. Many could barely stand.
For months we had eaten little. We had survived on wild mushrooms, a few berries, and what little we could grow in the dry soil. I had hoped, prayed, that our previous home would be our last, that we would not have to leave again. We had water and had managed to start a small garden, though not much had sprouted. One time I found a full hedge of berries, dry and miniscule, but berries, nonetheless. I had picked them and, pulling the bottom of my shirt up into a makeshift sack, run home with them. I thought Grandmother would shame me for not offering them to the other villagers, but she didn’t. Instead, she took the berries and put them away for us to eat.
Our little band moved on slowly, my grandmother breathing heavily and leaning on a stick she had found. The man who led us walked among us encouraging us to go on. "Water is near," he said, "I can hear it." But I couldn’t. All I heard was the gentle rustle of our feet in the grass and the occasional raucous cry of an ugly bird with a curving beak. More joined him: they circled above us. It was dark but the moonlight bounced off their talons.
"I am frightened, Grandma," I said quietly. I expected her to say, "Everything will be alright, we are close to water. I can hear it. You’ve had bad ears since you were young, child." But she didn’t say anything. Perhaps she hadn’t heard me. There were no more cacti and I felt drained and weak. Grandmother stumbled and I held onto her tightly. Behind me, I heard a thump and a groan. Someone had fallen.
"Cover your ears, child," Grandmother said. The man who led us walked back. "Cover your ears, child!" Grandmother said again, louder this time. I saw others beside me putting their hands over their children’s ears.
I heard the man who led us say sharply, "Get up, you must get up. Keep moving."
I covered my ears tighter to push out the sound. I could still hear him, though.
"You must get up," he said. "The group cannot wait for you. You must get up. Do not make me force you to keep moving." I heard the fallen man groan in response.
There were two loud thumps and a gurgle from the fallen man. I dug my nails into my ears to block the sound as I pushed Grandmother along. Her face had gone white and she had a new quickness to her step.
"Get up," I heard the man say again as I began to run. "I will do it again if you do not get up; you must keep moving. You are holding back the group."
We soon out-distanced the noise. I began to cry, a tear rolling down my cheek. Soon, the man who led us came back, striding ahead of the group to take the lead. The fallen man did not join us.
We rested that day in a haze, sleeping
under trees when we could find them, covered in dirt and reeking of exhaustion. My lips were cracked and bleeding, and
Grandmother’s breath was ragged. I slept near her, our bodies a tangled mess under a drooping bush.
At night when we woke, several of our group did not rise. They just lay there looking into the starry sky. Grandmother was awake but her eyes looked glossy. I pulled her up, and she leaned against me. So we continued, and left those staring at the sky. Grandmother and I walked leaning against each other. I kept squeezing her hand, and whispering, "I hear water nearby, Grandmother. Keep walking, one foot in front of the other."
She didn’t say anything. A man next to us swayed and fell. His wife yelled for him to get up and she slapped his face. The man who led us turned toward him, holding his walking stick firmly in his hands. The wife became frantic and the fallen man got to his feet, stumbling, leaning on her.
Those ugly birds came back with their curvy beaks and nasty talons. It was night but I could still see them circling us.
By now, most of us said nothing, focusing on the effort of walking. My throat felt crusty and hot, and I leaned heavily against Grandmother, no longer talking.
Grandmother fell suddenly, and I stumbled, tripping over her. "Grandmother, get up, get up!" I dropped to my knees and slapped her face, shaking her. "Grandmother, you must get up!" I tried to pull her to her feet but she just lay there, her breath coming slowly. The man who led us heard her fall and began to walk toward us. The others looked at us and kept walking. I began to cry as I lay my body over hers, tears rolling down my cheeks. She just lay there. The man who led us towered over Grandmother and me, his walking stick thick and heavy, his shadow falling across our dusty backs.
"Get up," he said. "You must get up. You will hold down the group. We cannot wait for you." He motioned for me to move. He raised his staff in his hands. "Get up."
The others, walking quickly ahead, covered their ears with their hands.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.