Someone switches on the radio.
“. . . you Hutu girls wash yourselves and put on a good dress to welcome our French allies. The Tutsi girls are all dead, so you have your chance.”
Then comes music, a happy Simon Bikindi song with bright, girl vocals. They are singing in the light, while Keza hides in the dark among the feathers and manure of hens. She is huddled on the floor with warm eggs pressed to her chest. The hens are calm. She came softly into their shed. Lifting the hook carefully, sliding in, projecting love, not a person, not a hungry person, not a predator, just love and gratitude for them and their fertility. They accept her dark form on the floor of their shed, and they rise gently as she reaches under them and removes their eggs. The music is replaced by a boisterous radio voice. Keza is late; the sun is ready to pounce.
The Tutsi girls are all dead? Could it be true? The French arrived too late. What took them so long? Then there is that word allies? Allies—the word digs into her skin, begins to fester.
She slinks out of the shed, placing the hook back, avoiding a clink. Her ears are thumping, yet she moves in slow motion to avoid the attention of the dogs. She tiptoes over the cool, damp ground, leaving prints in the earth. She doubts the killers will notice, but the other day in the forest she saw a Twa tracking. He was tracking humans like he normally tracks the teardrop hoofprints of duiker and bushbuck. Following him were the killers brandishing machetes and handmade clubs with sharp metal embedded in them. She saw the Twa man’s face, taut jaw and sunken eyes and a heaviness, as though he was carrying the killers on his back. He saw her, too, a flash, yet he didn’t miss a step. He continued, the killers blindly following him.
Once in the forest, she retrieves the eggs from her clothing. Tapping their ends on tree trunks. Sucking the liquid and the small yolk, yellower than the low sun. She always hated undercooked eggs. The kitchen heavy with Mama’s disappointment and the soft yolk waiting patiently for Keza. Now she licks the insides of the eggshells dry; now she regrets her fussiness. She crushes the shells and throws them into dense patches of ferns. Traceless.
A helicopter throbs overhead. Sounds of jeeps in the distance. The jeeps pull up. Engines switch off. Keza hears voices. Not words but the French melody, curving around the hill, reaching her. It’s been three months since she has heard French, a language from a forgotten world, from a sane world. She crawls down the hill to where the forest meets the cultivated land. The jeeps are fifty meters away, lined up on the side of the road. French soldiers stand in well-pressed uniforms, some have their sleeves folded up above their elbows. From here she can smell their cologne, like the forest only sweeter. She imagines Paris: loping cobblestone streets with the scent of sweet mahogany.
“Come out! It is safe,” the megaphone shouts. “We will take you to safe grounds, where you will be protected.”
The United Nations fled, but the French are here. Finally.
Tutsi emerge from the hills on the other side of the road. She wants to be with them, in a group, in a group protected by France. A force of sanity: noble, civilized. She wants the safety of that world instead of crouching alone burping sulfur with only two bullets left in her gun for protection.
Our French allies. She tastes the words, smells them in the wind; she understands them. She climbs a tree and merges into the trunk like a chameleon.
After half an hour, fifty scraggly Tutsi have gathered; they are unkempt and sick; they are the same color as the soil, yet their eyes light up, bright in their hollowed dry faces. Hope shines even from this distance. Hope. She wants to feel hope, she wants to forget the words from the radio. The French have guns, they have reason. She slides her foot down the trunk but pauses when she hears vehicles approaching. The FAR soldiers drive past in white Toyota pickups, pointing their guns at the crowd, smiling big Colgate-ad-smiles. She draws her foot back up the trunk; she doesn’t want to be any closer to those jeering faces. One soldier is wearing a fur coat; another has a necklace of pearls around his neck. The clown in the ranks has collected belts around his skinny waist, twenty perhaps, twenty victims? They sit in the pickups—waiting. The French have their guns at the ready, forming a barrier between the Tutsi and the FAR. One French soldier is on the radio; he jumps down from the jeep and walks over to the captain. The atmosphere changes like the air before a thunderstorm. The crowd is agitated.
“Escort us!” they scream, desperation rising. “You can’t leave us here, you can’t leave us to them!”
The French captain replies, “We don’t have the mandate . . . we’ll be back in three days, then we’ll get you to safety. Stand back! Wait here! We’ll be back.”
The crowd asks for someone to wait to keep guard. “Don’t leave us alone.”
But the captain says, “We’ll be back. We know where you are. In three days we’ll be back.”
“Three days!” they shout. “In three days we’ll all be dead.”
The jeeps start up.
“Take my son, there is room for him!” A seven-year-old boy is lifted up on the jeep, but a gun blocks him. The soldiers look forward with stiff shoulders and stone faces; they ignore those hanging on to the sides of the vehicles. One soldier fires a warning shot, and they’re off. A Tutsi stands in front of a jeep, jumping aside at the last moment.
“In three days. In three days not one of us will be left alive.”
The road is rough, and those clinging to the sides are soon shaken off. They lie on the ground where they fell. They have no strength to stand up. Keza understands—they have been running for three months, they can’t run anymore. She holds tight to the tree, listening to hope driving away. It was never really hope, it was a trick. That is what she heard on the radio. Allies—the French are friends with the killers.
The sound of the jeeps fades, replaced by shouts. The boys and men of the Interahamwe emerge from behind the FAR pickup. They wave machetes; they are ready to work. She digs her fingernails into the bark, closes her eyes; she does not want to witness the inevitable. She hears pleading, screaming, then bleating like goats. A grown man whimpers, Mama. The sound of flesh being cut, soft, dull. Horror. She opens her eyes. The Interahamwe swing their machetes with the same enthusiasm they would swat flies. Their leaf-skirts sway as they swing, and their goat-horns skulls are slightly off-kilter. They cut the Achilles’ tendons first. With severed tendons the Tutsi drag themselves across the ground with their elbows, like lizards without back legs. One elderly man crawls in Keza’s direction, followed by a boy with a machete held high. The boy is Keza’s age, still not out of school. He swings his machete. The man’s screams explode in Keza’s head. An arm is freed from the body, twitching on the ground. The machete comes down again, severing the other arm. The boy slashes the old man’s head, one slash; he is quiet.
The first bodies Keza saw lay tidily with slashes to their heads. Now three months later, the killers have stepped up their game. She has seen crucified bodies, a baby impaled on a metal spike; she has observed the creativeness of the human spirit.
The Interahamwe are moving away, spreading out, searching for those that got away. It is dusk. Darkness creeps into the forest; they light torches. The screams continue but farther away, as though the volume is turned down. The French have flushed the game out of hiding. The Interahamwe take this chance and work deep into the night.
By dawn the killers have gone home to sleep. She climbs down into a silent forest. Flies swarm, it smells of hibiscus and blood.
“Anyone . . . alive?”
A moan. She walks between the fallen bodies, sticky blood between her toes. An old man stretches his hand up to her, Keza sees his face is open. She can see his brains, he won’t make it, so she turns and walks away.
“Please,” he calls after her.
Keza’s heart cramps, her shoulders heave, she starts to cry. Surprised, she is still capable of tears, surprised she has a human left within her. She turns, she aims the gun, the man blinks like a cat, yes this is what he wants. She puts a bullet through his forehead. A single bullet left.
A whimper comes from beneath a tall mahogany tree. Keza crawls through the undergrowth. She sees a small baby pulling at the clothing of her dead mother. The baby tries to drink from dry breasts, swapping backward and forward—she is frustrated. Hungry. A small cloth covers her bottom. Keza picks her up by her forearm, and her little body follows, compact, unscathed, and strong. The baby’s dark, reflective eyes are wells of knowledge, as though she knows; she knows the beginning of the universe and the structure of cells. She straddles Keza’s side as if she belongs there. Her fingertips tap on Keza’s chest like drops of heavy rain. They run through the forest of corpses. Keza tries to climb a tree, but the baby weighs her down. Impossible. They will have to stay at ground level, but with the gun they have a chance. She rips a strip of cloth from her top. After months in the forest, her clothes are now thin, brown, organic—almost like skin. She rinses the rag and dips it into a fresh puddle of water; the baby latches on, sucking the empty moisture, frustrated sounds coming out of her small mouth. She looks at Keza; she is hungry, and she is telling her with all her being, this is not good enough.
Keza collects a handful of biting ants; she chews them into an acidic paste and spits them into the baby’s mouth, but the little girl vomits, covering Keza’s clothing in black dots of ant body parts. This baby needs milk.
In the middle of the night Keza sneaks into a compound, crawling up to a goat with a full udder. The twin kids hop and twist in the moonlight. She can see corn cobs drying under the eaves of the house. A house breathing dull killer’s dreams. Keza slides the baby under the goat. She latches onto a swollen teat, sucking with enthusiasm. The goat stands still. Keza inhales the odor of the animal and her milk. The baby is finally getting nourishment. Keza holds the baby as though an offering, one hand cupping her head and one holding her bottom. She tries to say a prayer, but only the words thank you fall from her dry lips. She doesn’t know whom to pray to anymore.
A dog whines. The door opens, a man stands there eclipsing the light; he ties a wrap tight around his waist and steps out. Keza disengages the baby, who struggles—her expectant mouth open. The dog barks, the baby squeals. Keza stuffs the rag into the baby’s little mouth and sprints; the undergrowth slapping them.
She listens behind her, but no one is following; the barking dog masked her escape. She stops, breathing heavily. The baby’s arms are flailing, the rag is suffocating her. Keza removes it. “Sorry,” she whispers. “Sorry little one.” Keza sees the moon reflected in the baby’s eyes; bright moon and dark anger.
They crawl into dense undergrowth, Keza’s arms shielding the baby. Here they will wait. Dawn arrives with the dense smell of swollen rotting bodies. The day stretches in an eternity of hunger. Birds sing, chimps squabble. Keza holds the baby firmly allowing her to struggle then bringing her close when she tires. “Tonight,” whispers Keza, “Tonight I’ll find you a goat.”
They crawl out close to midnight—when the killers are rocked by the lullaby of alcohol. This time she will lead the goat into the forest with her, the baby will have milk as long as she needs. The goat is tied to a stake. Keza lays her gun down and fumbles with the knot of frayed rope. She uses her teeth to loosen the knot; the dry fibers fill her mouth, almost choke her. A dog barks. She picks up the gun and crawls back into the forest, spitting out frayed rope fibers. She tries another home, but before she even gets close, she hears dogs. She walks along the edge of the forest, but the dogs are barking; betraying her. She gives up when the birds warn that dawn is coming.
The baby writhes in hunger, stuffing her fists into her mouth. Exhausted, she finally sleeps in the cradle of Keza’s crossed legs. When she wakes she is not strong enough to hold her head up anymore. Keza swings the rasta beads hanging from the gun and the baby smiles, almost giggles. She grasps the air, her hands stutter. Keza tries to give her water, but she spits out the sodden rag. When the sun is at its highest, her eyes glaze over; she doesn’t see Keza or the beads anymore. Panic grips Keza: she can’t let this baby die, she can’t die. Tonight she will steal a mother goat—no matter if dogs flash their jaws at her or if men swing machetes—she will get a goat even if she has to use her last bullet.
By sunset the little body in her arms is still. Keza knows the baby is dying, her breaths are shallow, so weak she has to check closely every few minutes. Keza rocks her, telling her of the world she is going to, “. . . where your Mama and the rest of your family is waiting and you can live together in a green world of eternal crops and neighbors who love you.” That was how life was here only a few months ago, eternal crops and neighbors who love you. Yet the flames spread fast, effective and even a rainy season couldn’t dampen them. She doesn’t understand what happened.
She is dozing when she feels it—she feels the life force leave the baby. As it lifts from her, a heavy, empty weight descends. Oh, the soul does not have a weight, it is the soul that is keeping us light.
The empty stare of the baby’s eyes scares Keza. She strokes the tiny eyelids shut. The baby looks at peace; she has a perfect face, tiny nostrils, little pouting lips, curly hair, her arms are downy with dark, soft hairs. Curled in a fetal position, this is how she will be returned to the earth. Keza doesn’t want to let her go, doesn’t want her to be alone. She holds the baby against her body and with her right hand digs the soil by the buttress roots. The roots will offer some protection. But from what? It is too late. The softness is leaving the little body; she is turning from flesh to ebony. Gently Keza lays the baby in the shallow grave, bare skin on bare soil. A life soon to become earth. She places a cupped palm of soil softly on the baby’s side. It feels wrong; it feels like a promise has been broken. She continues scooping soil, covering the baby until the hole is filled. She lies down, embracing the mound of red earth. Down there beneath her, the baby is alone, suffocated by earth and darkness.
Before dawn, she can’t bear it anymore; she puts down the gun and digs in the soil until she touches cold flesh. She carefully scrapes the soil off the baby’s body and pulls her out. The baby is stiff—a doll made of hard plastic. Beatrice had a doll like this, while her’s was pink with yellow hair. One day they swapped and the sun shone until Beatrice’s face darkened, “Changed my mind,” and Keza had to release the brown doll into her friend’s eager hands. Where is Beatrice in all of this? Keza had almost forgotten her. Life before the killing consists of memories of her family. Memories played up as a colorful film. Them eating together, walking to church, their blurry early morning faces. Papa wasn’t in a wheelchair, Rosalie and Keza shared a bedroom, and Keza had never left to go to school in Nairobi. The greens were greener, the earth was as young as Keza, and there had never been a last time. A thought crawls inside her: could Beatrice also be wearing dead girl’s shoes?
She brushes the dirt off the baby’s face and blows the soil from her eyelashes, from her nostrils.
And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life. . . .
Please God, I beg you, blow into her nostrils, breathe her back to life. Breathe her back to me.
Nothing happens. Another proof God is not here. That He, for some unexplainable reason, left Rwanda on Easter Sunday. He turned his back on them at the exact moment when they needed Him the most. She will never forgive Him for this.
Keza lifts her shirt and holds the baby to her naked torso. Three days ago the baby was full of wonder, but without her mother’s milk there was no hope. Keza’s love was not enough to keep her here. She holds the baby against her, crying unstoppable tears. In this forest, water divides, tears divide. Some tears flow to the Nile, others to the Congo. Rivers filled with tears, filled with broken dreams, broken bodies. A stream of misery from Nyungwe all the way to the Atlantic, to the Mediterranean.
Keza lays the baby down, encircles her, keeps her warm. She’ll stay here forever. She sinks into the soft soil; her only wish is to go to her death holding this baby, holding her so she will not be alone—ever. Her hand rests on the small body, so when they rot her finger bones will fall through the baby’s ribcage. This is Keza’s last wish. She is heavy and light at the same time; she is defying the laws of nature. She is ready.
Sometime in the depth of the night, arms pick her up, place the baby back into her grave and cover the small body with soil again. They help Keza walk, lead her to a tree, and push her up the trunk to the first fork. It was not her doing; there was nothing in her that had the will, nor the energy. Her parents? One on each side of her like when she was seven. She lay on the cool bedroom floor in the heat of a malarial fever; they came in and lifted her onto her bed. She didn’t care, she was OK on the floor, but they wanted her in bed. Their words flew over her like strange birds, they made no sense, yet she felt her parents’ tenderness as they lay her down and covered her with a single sheet. They are gentle this time too. They want her to survive. If it is for her? Or them? Or their parents? Or their ancestors who wandered into the green hills of Rwanda all those centuries ago? She doesn’t know, but she knows she has to survive for them. She sits in the fork of the tree, eyes open, barely blinking. The sun brings warmth, a gift in the months of no gifts. A leaf carries a drop of water; she extends her tongue and the ball of water is transferred from the leaf to her. The single drop moistens her mouth, almost rehydrates her. The sun wanders, a tree-fern’s frond unfolds, from rusty furl to fully extended leaf; it takes the whole day, but she can see it move. Leeches feed on her and leave engorged. The sun lifts the moist breaths from the trees, lifts the dampness from her skin, dragging it up into large cumulus clouds that move westward over the Congo basin, falling, running into rivers running deep, flowing to the sea, the waves lapping fast, the earth spinning almost out of control, day, night, day, night, she sees something. She understands she is part of this world. She understands life will continue after this abomination. The forest barely feels it, rapidly reabsorbing bodies offered in evil. There is life after this. She lands back in her body, landing heavily with the words,
The Tutsi girls are all dead.