Now, two days later, his hands trembled in the beams of morning light breaking through the torn curtain covering the tiny window near his bed, and beads of sweat splashed onto the red dirt floor below his feet. 'I just need to get up and get going,' he thought to himself. 'Do some work outside, look after the crops, and I will be right as rain again.' Feeling weak, he pushed himself up from the simple makeshift bed and, careful not to wake his wife and children, stepped outside. The warmth of the morning sun felt good on his cold and clammy body. He noticed the dark veins. Standing out against the greyish black skin, they now covered most of his arm and torso.
“Time to get moving,” he mumbled in defiance and, grabbing his old hoe, walked along the narrow dirt path leading into the family’s maize fields. He paused for a moment as he passed the makeshift cemetery. The horrors of war and the unimaginable cruelty with which warlords had ruled had left their mark on his family, just as they had on the entire region. In the tall grass, roughly carved crosses, crooked and weather-beaten marked the resting places of loved ones gone before him. His nephew and niece, along with their father and mother, or what was left of them after the marauders had done their bidding, now lay here, peacefully and forever united in the very soil that had sustained their family for generations.
And then there was Amadou. His second nephew and the one the rebels had taken away. Taken away to be transformed into one of their own. His would be an entirely different kind of living hell, one in which he would be as much a perpetrator of evil as a sufferer from it. They had never heard from Amadou again after that fateful day. He often wondered whether the boy would ever take his rightful place here among his beloved, or whether his body would be cast aside and left to rot wherever it may fall in the course of the rebels’ reign of blood and terror.
He sighed. Burdened by the memories of the violent deaths of his brother’s family, he lumbered on into the fields. Tall green corn now lined the path on both sides. The upcoming harvest would be a proud achievement, widely celebrated each year in a region where life was fickle at best, and infestations destroyed entire crops in the blink of an eye. His hands stroked the leaves of the plants he himself had sown earlier in the year, a reminder of the cycle of life and how apt he had become at farming, despite his father having passed too early in his life to have given him the necessary knowledge. He reached the far end of the fields where the maize plants skirted the edge of the forest and paused again. A never-before-felt tiredness swept through his body. His knees grew weaker by the minute. What had been a brisk walk during the last few yards had slowed to a shuffle. Like invisible hands drawing him to the ground, he felt the energy draining from within. A dark force descended, compelling his very soul to surrender. His mind threatened to succumb to its siren call, and momentarily he tried to shrug it off. Shaking his head in disbelief at how much the illness had taken out of him, he thanked God and the men in white for his recovery. As much as he tried, though, the fog in his mind grew stronger with every attempt to resist, soon muffling every rational thought, taking over his motor skills and draining him of the very will to go on. It took but a few more clumsy steps before he felt himself fall to the ground. Helplessly and unable to move any further, he lay there on his back, his empty eyes staring at the blue sky above, limbs pinned to the red soil beneath him by some unseen, all-consuming power.
‘It will be fine,’ he heard himself think, the voice fading into the mist that now completely engulfed his mind. ‘I’ll just lie here for a little while…It will be fine.’
The sun was already low, its last heat-filled ambers burning across the treetops to the west and bathing the maize field in a fiery hue reserved for but a few minutes each day right before dusk. It was still as it always was at this time, when even the usual daytime breeze retreated in awe of the spectacle that was sunset, leaving the air filled but with the sound of the insects heralding evening and the night to come. His eyes opened and stared up at the theatre of orange light across the sky and the clouds above. He had laid there for hours, perfectly still, resting on the warm earth, surrounded by the tall plants. Now, after what seemed like an eternity, his limbs sprang back to life.
Trembling at first, at last, he moved stiffly, pushed his upper body off the ground, and sat for a while, gazing ahead in stupor. His eyes wandered down along the well-trodden path. Somewhere off in the distance, children’s laughter caught his attention. His head tilted with curiosity. Within a few moments, he managed to get back to his feet. He stood in silence, regaining focus with every passing second. Tall among the maize, he swayed in the evening breeze like the plants around him. His legs barely obeyed his command, but ever so slowly, he found his groove and began his long journey back, here and there staggering off the path and into the field, following the magical sounds of children at play as it shifted direction. Cattle scurried out of his way as he approached their homestead, but he paid no attention and instead picked up his uncoordinated pace towards the lure of the noise up ahead. Dusk was already firmly at hand, the colours of the day reduced to lifeless shades of grey when he finally stepped out into the open. He felt irresistibly drawn to the hut now. There, their evening meal was bubbling over an open fire, and inside their small but comfortable abode, his wife and children were busy shucking corn as they did most evenings.
He was close now, the flames from the fire reflecting in his eyes and dancing across his pale features. He stretched out his hand towards them. His wife placed another batch of maize into the basket in front of her and looked up. With a furrowed brow, she let out a sigh of relief as she finally saw her husband emerge. The children, seeing their father’s outline appear as it had done a hundred times before, jumped up, screeched with joy, and ran towards the dark figure.
“Dad, dad…you are finally home. Mum was worried!”
He raised his stiff arms in excitement, his gaze fixed upon them. He tried to speak, but all that escaped his gaping mouth was a sorrowful moan. The boy, eager to welcome him back, was first to reach him but recoiled when his eyes finally met his father’s. They had once been the loving eyes of a man who cared more for his family than anyone could have imagined. Eyes with such passion that it radiated through and from him in everything he did. Yet now they were no longer those of the man he knew. Empty, lifeless and grey, devoid of any feeling but burning, hateful lust. He wanted to get away from this thing that had taken possession of his father, but it was already too close. Cold hands clutched at him in deadly embrace, drawing him to its cadaverous mouth and the gnawing teeth that lay beyond it. No matter how hard he tried, he was unable to free himself from its vice-like grip. He watched in horror as his father, with a nimbleness belied by his uncoordinated gait, closed in. Teeth wrapped around his arm. Jaws chomped, again and again, tearing warm flesh from bone. The boy writhed in agony and screamed for his mother. Bone-chilling screeches for help pierced the night air. Like an octopus consuming its prey, the father consumed the boy, his bloodied mouth blindly tearing into soft tissue wherever it could find it.
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