In the months after Mam left Liberia for New York, we talked to her every Sunday. She sounded the same to me then, though once or twice her voice disappeared while she spoke. I inhaled the heavy silence, hoping that some of her would seep through the phone so that I could lay my head against it.
“I will soon be back, yeh?” she would say.
After moving into the house with palm trees, I found that her smell had moved with us, followed me as I, on so many Saturday afternoons, had trailed her around the apartment in her red high heels that dragged underneath my feet. In her closet, in her room, in the kitchen, even Korkor smelled like her—the calming blend of seasoned greens and rose water.
Every day our driver, a short, chubby man with a blunt line of gray hair an inch above each ear, picked us up from school.
Torma met him at the end of the road to walk us home. From the main road we could see our house dancing in the heated rays of the sun, a drawing that grew bigger and more real with each step. We stumbled out of the car in uniform plaid skirts and small pink backpacks. Torma waved at our driver as his tires blew a whirl of dust into the air when he drove away.
“Come,” Torma said, turning around to us. “Surprise for you all inside.”
Upon hearing the word, we sprinted down the dusty road. It was dry season in Monrovia and the sun strained its eyes, burning arms and feet as we ran. Moneysweet waved from a rosebush in the front yard and we waved back before nearly tripping over our feet into the house.
“Surprise today,” he said as we climbed, one step at a time, up the porch stairs. He laughed and shook his head at our excitement.
Inside, there was no father or grandparents. The foyer was empty.
We searched our rooms and found nothing of importance or shock, so we approached Torma in the hallway.
“You girls fast,” she said.
“Where’s the surprise?” Wi asked.
“In the den,” Torma said. Before she finished the sentence, we were in full stride through the front hallway toward the den.
PHOTO: FRED P. M. VAN DER KRAAIJ. VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS.
In the den, near my mother’s scented couch, there was a large brown envelope with black writing and stickers on it. Anytime something like this sat on the table when we came home, it meant that Mam had sent something for us.
“It’s from New York! It’s from New York!” we chanted and took turns waving the large envelope in the air.
The front door opened and after a short set of footsteps, Papa walked into the den.
“Mr. Moore, you here?” Torma asked, quickly standing. He motioned for her to sit down and allowed us to jump around the room before throwing our arms around his neck.
“I got in early. It came, enneh-so?” Papa asked. Torma nodded. She walked out of the den and returned with a pair of scissors. She cut the tape on the envelope and opened it. I reached inside.
“What is this?” I asked disappointedly. Two small boxes that looked like video cases lay inside the box with a letter.
“Movies,” Papa said as K pinched his cheeks, already distracted by his presence from the mysterious box that she was shouting over only a few seconds earlier.
“Ma-Ma-lawa?” K asked in his lap.
“No, not that movie,” he said. The Malawala Balawala country dancers were K’s favorite. The people on the two boxes I held looked different. On one box there was a girl with white skin and a blue dress, a little dog, and three Gio devils that were connected at their hips. The other was a woman with white skin and white hair with her hands stretched out in grass. I was confused.
“Read it,” Papa said.
“Wiz-ard of Oz,” Wi read from the box with the Gio devils.
“Sound of Mu-sic,” she read from the other box.
I was still confused.
“Why do they look like that?” I asked.
“Like what?” Papa asked.
“Like, sick. White, an—” I said.
“They don’t look sick. They just have different color skin. Like the missionary woman, Sis’ Walton,” Papa said.
“What?” I asked, disappointed.
“Like our neighbors,” he said.
“The neighbor not white,” I said.
“No,” Papa continued. “But he is different color.”
Torma held her hand to her mouth and giggled.
Papa stood up and took the movie from my hand. He put it in the VCR and turned on the television. He stood for a while in front of the television and then walked behind it and fidgeted with a long black cord.
“This cord is spoiled. Who spoiled the cord?” he asked, lifting the stretch of cord where tiny red and green wires peeked distortedly out of their leather shield. I would have suggested that it was K and her incessant viewing of the Malawala Balawala country dancers, but I knew Papa would call it “frisky” and I did not want to risk watching the white people.
“Mr. Moore, I can go to the store,” Torma suggested.
Papa shook his head as Moneysweet walked through the den door.
“Mr. Moore, I’m finished,” Moneysweet said, still sweating.
“Moneysweet, you can go to the market for VCR cord?” he asked.
“Sorry, Mr. Moore, I’m meeting friends tonight,” he said.
Papa nodded and reached his hands into his pocket. He paid Moneysweet his daily wages, and Moneysweet walked through the den to his garage apartment.
“Have fun with your surprise,” he said, walking out.
Papa folded his hands.
“I know. Let’s go see if the neighbor has a cord,” he said.
Wi and K jumped out of their seats. I was not so quick to move. This news of our neighbor’s possible “whiteness” both frightened and angered me.
Our neighbors lived behind a tall cement wall crowned with barbed wire. Papa said they blocked off their house like this because the rogues kept coming to steal from them. Their gate was open, so we walked through. When he opened his door, I did not know what to expect. I thought he would be as blue as my skirt or as orange as Torma’s shirt. He was, however, still the same as the last time I saw him.
“Hello, Mr. Moore, girls,” he said, nodding toward us with his syrupy accent. They said hello. I whispered it while inspecting his face for rainbows.
“Hello,” Papa said. “The girls and I wanted to know if you had an extra VCR cord. Mam sent a video from America that they want to watch,” he said.
“Sure, sure, yes,” our neighbor said and invited us into his house. Their den was decorated with porcelain statues and many pictures of their lives and family in China. Bright red drapes hung down to the floor and the gray couches and chairs were covered with plastic. His wife came toward us from the back of their house. She shook Papa’s hand and nodded her entire body toward him multiple times. Our neighbor returned to the room with the cord, and after taking it from him, Papa became distracted by a stack of boxes in the corner. He fidgeted with the cord and stared at the boxes, then at our neighbor in concern.
“You planning to move?” he asked, pointing toward the boxes.
Our neighbor put his arm around his wife’s shoulder, squeezing it underneath his fingers.
“Yes, yes, we going back for a while,” he said, and glanced at my sisters and me.
“Why? What about your business?”
Our neighbor removed his arm from around his wife’s shoulder.
“Mr. Moore, can I talk to you? In the sitting room?” he asked. Papa nodded and followed, closing the door behind them.
“Wait here,” his wife said with a voice as soft as feathers. She exited the den and my sisters and I were left standing alone.
Behind the door, I heard Papa say the name of Samuel Doe: the Hawa Undu dragon, the monster in my dreams, the sum of stories I was too young to hear. He did not sound angry, but he was not laughing or smiling. I could tell he and our neighbor were very serious. There were many boxes in the corner. Torma said once that if someone came to remove Hawa Undu the dragon and the people started to fight, they would hurt not only other Liberians but also the Chinese people who were bad to them. And they would go find the Lebanese people, too, and they would hurt the boss man who slapped their sons at work. And they would find the professors who failed them for not being smart, the professors who did not take money for grades. And they would find the people who were rude to them once or twice, and those who had offended them years ago, and they would hurt them.
His wife returned to the room with three pieces of candy, which she gave to us, smiling. Shortly after, Papa and our neighbor came back.
“You should come, too. Come with us to China,” he joked, patting Papa’s arm.
“No, no. We’re staying here,” Papa said. “Things will be fine. You will see.”
“Yes, well. Hopefully. Then we come back,” our neighbor laughed.
On the walk home I asked Papa what they had talked about in the room, but his eyes looked as serious as he sounded behind those doors. His grip on my hand was tighter than it was when we walked to our neighbor’s house. He was murmuring to himself and he shook his head, as if he did not hear me, and he was sweating, because of the sun and maybe because of what they had talked about. I asked once more but a gust of wind upstaged me. Rainy season was coming and the wind was angrier every day.
The Sound of Music was the first film in. After the first several minutes of the movie, when I realized that none of them were going to turn purple, I learned about children like me, whose mother was far away. I wondered if Mam had seen this film and if she was singing along with me. When she called that Sunday and it was my turn to speak to her, I sang her the verses that I had memorized and she laughed on the other end of the phone.
“You learned the songs already?” she asked.
I agreed and sang, and as Mam joined me her voice left the small circle near my ear and filled our den with a soft alto trembling that could only be hers. When I forgot the words of the song, Mam continued until her voice broke on the other end of the phone.
“You there?” she asked.
“Yeh, Mama,” I said, wanting all of her back in Liberia, hating the sound of music so far away.
Some Saturdays later, my Ol’ Ma was visiting from her house in Logan Town and after eating breakfast, I led her to the den to watch The Sound of Music with me. I sang along, echoing their words since I did not know them, trailing behind a story that I could not fully understand. Wi and K sat in the den also. They were more entertained by the head tie wrapped around Ma’s head than by the movie. They were taking turns unfolding it from her head and wrapping it around again.
There was a loud knocking at the front door that escalated to a persistent thud. Papa walked into the den from his room, and he looked like he was ready to yell at us for jumping or tapping on the walls.
“What’s that sound?” he asked.
The thud was accompanied by a soft wailing, voices that at first sounded like singing, then rose to collective screams.
We turned toward the noise and the clamor of voices when a neighbor beat on the den window.
“Turn that down,” Papa said, pointing toward the television while he opened the window.
“Mr. Moore! Mr. Moore!” The woman was Mam’s friend, and she lived several houses past our neighbors. “They coming! The war now come! They coming!” she shouted.
“The rebels, most of them at the bridge now. Go, Mr. Moore! You all hurry and go!” she shouted and pointed in the direction of the Caldwell Bridge, only a quarter of a mile away from our house. As soon as the words left her mouth, she turned her head toward the sound down the road and ran at full speed toward a car that overflowed with clothes and disarrayed dishes and furniture. Her husband’s hand beat the driver’s door.
“Let’s go!” he yelled to his wife as she jumped into the car and closed the door. He waved at Papa and the car sped off, followed by a cloud of dust.
Papa’s eyes grew wide and he closed the window quickly. Torma and Korkor ran into the den.
“You all hear that noise? What’s that noise?” Korkor asked hysterically. I turned away from the film and wondered why Torma looked afraid.
“Go get your shoes,” Ma said to us.
“No, stay together,” Papa said, holding out his hand.
“Hawa Un-” I tried to say.
“Shhh!” Papa said. “Y’all lie on the ground.”
“Why?” Wi asked.
“We don’t want them to see us,” he said.
“Just stay here.” Papa got to his knees and crawled across the den toward the hallway to his bedroom. When he reached the doorway, Korkor grabbed his arm from the floor.
“Mr. Moore. The war now come. My family,” she said. She was crying now, shaking as sweat dampened her head tie.
Papa nodded and touched her hand.
“Go from the back. Hurry,” he said. Korkor crawled out of the den and got up, running past the kitchen and out of the house, crying loudly as her head tie fell from her head and lay stranded on the tiles of our hallway.
Ma unraveled her head tie and used it to shield our bodies.
“Hide and seek?” K asked. Ma nodded, though her eyes looked less and less like Mam’s as we lay there. “You all right, my children?” she whispered beneath the lappa. We nodded.
“It’s the dragon?” I whispered and my Ol’ Ma’s face froze, as if recalling our stories, blackened and still.
Papa rushed back into the den with a backpack and three pairs of slippers.
“Crawl to the kitchen,” he said, at first squatting, then he picked up K. Ma led us on our knees out of the den. When we reached the kitchen, Papa stood up and lifted us to our feet.
“Put these on,” he demanded.
We put on the slippers as the popping sound got closer.
“Let’s go!” Papa said, putting on the backpack as he raised K to his waist.
Ma picked me up and I watched Maria sing on the television screen until she was out of sight. We left the house from the back door, where Moneysweet was kneeled down peeking around the side of the house. Papa saw him and went to him, kneeling beside him.
“Come,” Papa said to him, “we going through the woods.”
“Mr. Moore, I can’t go. I can’t leave,” he said.
Without asking, Papa hugged him. There was a back street to the highway behind a house across the road. Moneysweet squinted to get a clear view of it from where he knelt. He stood up with Papa and leaned against the back of the house, periodically looking out onto the road. He took several deep breaths, took Papa’s hand and squeezed it, and ran across the yard. His shirt soared in the air as he sprinted from the back of the house, across the road to the street and highway.
“Where is Moneysweet going?” K asked softly.
“To visit his family.”
“Why is he running?” I asked.
“Why not? Don’t you like running? When I say go, we run,” Papa said as soon as he saw Moneysweet disappear behind the house across the street. Ma put me down.
“You hear? When I say go, we run to the woods, okay?”
I waited while in the background “Edelweiss” was being sung by the captain and his eldest daughter in harmony. I smiled at my father.
“What is that sound?”
“Don’t worry,” Papa hurried to say. “When I say run, we run like Moneysweet.”
Papa adjusted the straps of the backpack and the popping grew louder, and so close it sounded like the roses in Mam’s bush were exploding at the other end of the house.
“Go!” Papa yelled.
We ran past the garage apartment through the mammoth yard as the popping in the air increased above us. I was not running fast enough and Papa pushed my back, his backpack flapping behind him. I swung my arms as hard as I could, and Torma pulled my hands until my legs ached, and I concentrated on the woods ahead.
“Go, go, go,” he said. “Don’t look behind.” We ran through the yard away from the box and triangle and towering palm trees that we once drew. I was almost out of breath and I noticed Wi’s slippers fall off her feet and stay behind in the thick grass.
Papa went back to grab them, and we continued with Ma as the popping seemed to be coming from the leaves ahead. We reached the edge of the woods and ran until dense bushes that sat among the vast spread of trees covered us, and we could finally stop.
“Nah-mah. It’s okay,” Ma said, as we all panted together.
“Keep walking,” Papa said, also out of breath. He picked up K and me, one on each hip, and continued to stride through the woods.
“Where we going now?” I asked, now uncertain of what game we were playing. I thought we would run to the woods, then back to the house. Ma stood up straight, heaving as she held Wi’s hand. Torma trailed behind and the orange shirt she wore collected leaves and masses of sweat as we walked.
I stared at Papa and Ma rushing through the woods. They could not hear it, but it was there, whistling in the distance, just as I imagined from Ol’ Ma’s stories. Settled wings. They had come. A prince entered that distant forest to kill Hawa Undu. The war had just begun.
(Source: The Paris Review)