I lay on my back, gazing up at the sky above me, a clear aquamarine, disturbed only by small wisps of white, scattered here and there as if the master of the sky had tossed flower petals over his shoulder to give flair to the expanse of endless blue. When I closed my eyes, the soft dappled butter of sunlight oozed over my eyelids, filling me up to the brim with the honey-like warmth. I don’t know how long I would have lain there, letting the sunlight engulf me, if a shadow hadn’t fallen over my golden repose.
The sudden cool in the air made me open my eyes and sit up. The shadow belonged to a face full of fear and the air of a gazelle, ready to flee at the first sign of movement. That face belonged to my mother. “Tapiwah,” she began, her voice tight and full of terror, “we need to get into the house. Now. It’s a matter of life and death.”
That stunned me. My mother was never one to use her words lightly, so I knew this was not something to be pushed into the back of my mind. Without another word, my mother turned and started toward our small village, not running or walking, but a combination of both. I sat there for another moment or two and then leapt to my feet, dashing toward my mother.
“What’s… the… matter?” I asked her, gasping, once I’d finally caught up to her. Her face still bore the resemblance of a gazelle— attentive and on edge.
“It is the White Demons. They are here.”
I stopped in my tracks. I tried to breathe, but no air filled my lungs. I swallowed once, then twice, trying to rid my throat of the rock that had taken up residence there.
“H-here? They’re here?” My voice sounded tinny and frail, even to my own ears, nothing like the courageous and calm image I tried to project to everyone—others in the village, my brothers, even my mom. They needed the strength from someone ever since Father had been taken away. It did them good to have someone to look to for confidence.
“Yes. That is why we must hurry to hide. They must not find us.” My heart was pounding so loudly I thought the White Demons must hear it from whatever far-off corner of the universe they came from. I sent a prayer up to that blue, blue African sky and followed my mother into the house.
Our small shack consisted of one room. My three brothers were already there, casting worried glances around the room as if the White Demons were hiding in some nook or cranny, ready to jump out at any second. As soon as she closed the door, my mother walked over to our small reed-constructed rug and lifted it, revealing a petite trap door, which she removed.
“In you go,” she proclaimed, gently but firmly plopping each of my brothers into the dank hole underneath our floor. She then turned to me, but I stepped away from her.
“I’m not going in there.”
“Not now, Tapiwah. Not when I need you to stay safe. Staying in there is the sensible thing to do.”
“Father wouldn’t have done it.” The words came spilling from my mouth the way a coconut falls from its leafy perch.
“No, he wouldn’t have. And look where that got him.” Each word she said was strained and I knew that I had said the wrong thing.
“Father was brave.”
“This isn’t about Father! This is about…” She froze, and suddenly I knew why. The clack of heels on wood was sounding outside our door.
The next few seconds were pandemonium. I was flung into the pit and the trap door was sealed above me. I heard a crash. The clack of metal on wood filled the small room, accompanied with voices that demanded and scolded in a harsh language that sounded like gibberish to me. Then the noises were gone, and I sat with my brothers in the black darkness.
I sat there, a statue, until I was prodded in the back by a small fearful hand. I turned around and could just make out my brothers in the darkness. “Where’s Mother?” one of them asked. Instead of answering them, I reached above me and pushed up the trapdoor.
I was hit in the face by a ray of blinding white light. Shading my eyes, I blinked until I could understand what I was seeing. The source of the light was a hole in the wall, ragged in form. As I stared at it, I could clearly picture what had happened when I was crammed under the trap door. I saw my mother flinging me into the small hole and slamming it shut, then looking for an escape route and finding none, she had flung herself through the back wall just as the White Demons barreled through the door. There was no saying what had happened to her next. She could be gone forever. A sob of desperation welling up in my throat, I launched myself through the hole in the wall and out onto the African plain.
The White Demons were easy to track. The spikes on their shoes left impressions in the earth and there were a fair number of them. I started running, my senses alert, half expecting the White Demons to jump out of the bush and capture me.
Long after I had started panting for air, I found the White Demons. They were positioned halfway up a small hill that ended in a cliff sloping down to the sea. I surveyed the scene more closely and, with rising horror, saw that they were advancing on a lone figure with its back to a cliff overlooking the sea. That figure was my mother. She was staring at me with the same look of horror I suspected was on my face. Suddenly, her facial expression changed from terror to one of someone who had made up their mind. She gave me a warning look, then turned around. Her legs bent, and she propelled herself off the face of the cliff. For a second she hung there, as if held aloft by millions of tiny strings, but then the strings snapped, and my mother dropped downward like a rag doll being tossed aside by someone grown too old for childish habits.
I was frozen, uncomprehending of my surroundings. My mind was being ripped apart. I wanted to fling myself against the White Demons, inflicting as much harm as possible. Father would have shown them what for. But I had seen the look on Mother’s face, and, for the first time in my life, I didn’t want to be like Father. Yes, he was brave, but how would being brave by fighting help my brothers or even Mother, if she could be helped. So it was that I found my footsteps leading me back the way I had come. I let my tears and sorrow flow through me, so different from that of the sun filling me up. But in a strange, mixed-up way, I felt complete, despite the terrible, awful things that I had witnessed, because I had stepped out of Father’s shadow that had been on me so long I had forgotten it was there.
My feet led me to our village, where I walked to the front step of my house. The door had been ripped from its hinges and I stepped through the space where it used to be. In the small room, my brothers sat huddled close to one another. They brightened when they saw me, but then realized the worst had happened by the tear lines streaked across my face. I sat down and pulled them close to me, mingling their tears with my own.
We sat there for hours, letting the sorrow of loss flow between us, but after the sky had receded to blackness, I wiped the tears from my face. Knowing I had to tell them sometime, I started reciting the story of what happened while I was away. I told them everything, from the way the White Demons walked to the way I had walked away without revenge. I spoke with calmness and certainty, letting the words wash over the house, the village, and the plain. I spoke with newfound strength, for in stepping away from my father’s bravery, my bravery in myself had grown.