(An extract from the novel August 1990)
By Saah Millimono
Then he thought about the cassette booth and wondered if he should go and sleep there again but dispelled the idea. What if the reggae dancer was neither asleep nor drunk this time, as he had been and left the door open the day before? No, he couldn’t go to the cassette booth. He turned and looked at the video club behind him, and wondered suddenly if he should ask the attendant to stay overnight. No, he couldn’t do that either. He had told the attendant that he lived with his sister, and the attendant would be suspicious. And what if the proprietor refused? They were both still in the video club, with the door shut, and Kollie wondered why they hadn’t yet come to put the generator off. By then everyone with whom he had been in the video club had left and he had watched as they disappeared into the darkness.
He looked into the solid mass of darkness that stretched unending in front of him at the same time he noticed an empty beer bottle, shown in the dim light of the electric bulb, not more than three yards away. A thought flashed through his head. For a moment he couldn’t breathe, his eyes fixed squarely on the bottle. Then he went and picked the bottle up. Holding it tightly round the neck, he slammed it against a cement block. It broke with a hollow sound. From his tightly closed fist there dangled about six inches of glass, the edges as sharp as razors. He would use it if he were attacked, he thought. He turned and walked into the darkness.
Red Light market was silent, save for the sound of the generator from the video club. Behind him, the electric bulb glowed in the night. Suddenly he heard somebody screamed somewhere in the darkness. He stopped and looked about apprehensively, and felt his hair rise. His fingers gripped the fragment of the beer bottle so tightly his knuckles seemed to crack. But he could see nothing, save for the silhouettes of buildings in and round the market, the asphalt road black in the night, the dusty path that was Pipe Line Road wounding and curving as far as the eye could see and, in front of him, the stalls and tables by the roadside. His heart pounding, he waited a moment then continued walking but slowly, in order not to attract attention. He felt that in the open he could be seen easily and ought to move with as much stealth as possible. But he knew he had to hurry in order to reach the stalls and disappear among them. After a while, he started to walk faster until he came within just a few yards from the stalls and tables by the roadside.
Finally, he crossed Pipe Line Road. Looking about one final time, he walked down a path that led into the stalls and tables by the roadside. He felt it would be safer not to sleep next to the road, and walked on farther into the market, where the stalls and tables were grouped more closely, like trees in a forest made even darker and denser in the night. To his left he found a table he could sleep on and climbed on top of it. He sat for a while. He was suddenly tense, listening for the slightest sound that would have indicated the presence of someone closely by or if he had been followed. But the market was silent, save for the draft as it whispered softly through the market stalls. He lay down on the table. Unaware of his own fatigue, he fell into a deep sleep.
The villagers did not see the rebels until they had rounded a path and entered farm. Ahead came two of the village men, their arms tied behind their backs. One of the men had been on the lookout while the others harvested cassava. The other man had a little before dawn left to cut palm nuts and had been captured. Thinking the rebels would spare their lives, they had agreed to lead the rebels to the others on the farm and finally to a hideout, where all the villagers had escaped following the fall and capture of Bomi County to the NPFL. The two men had been beaten severely. Blood poured from their wounds. Those on the farm were a few men and women, including some teenage girls.
As the rebels approached with their captives, they stood up from their work and would have fled but one of the rebels fired into the air. They fell to the ground, trembling and begging for their lives. They were ordered to sit up with their hands on their heads. The rebels then took their hoes and machetes. The cassava they had harvested lay in a small pile. The rebels ordered one of the men to gather it into an empty rice bag, and then everybody was marched into the forest, where the rest of the villagers were believed to be hiding.
As the rebels did not know the path, one of the village men led the way. Behind him came Kollie, an AK-47 assault rifle slung over his shoulder. In the middle were the captives, including the man in front, and the rest of the rebels came up on the rear.
After a while, they heard sounds in the distance: the voices of men, women and children not far ahead. Then the first part of the forest came to an abrupt end. They broke out into a clearing and found a rice farm and about four thatched huts in the middle of the forest. The man ahead led the others through a path, and they came upon the thatched huts and found the villagers they had heard a few moments earlier. There were a few men; four of the younger ones were sitting on bamboo benches. The others split firewood wood and five or six other men sat on the ground, plaiting bamboo mats with which some of the men were building the walls of a new thatched hut. There were a group of women, teenage girls mostly, and a few were tending to the day’s meal. A girl pounded something in a mortar, and a small group of children were at play.
When they saw the rebels, their first thought, like the others before them, was to flee. But a volley of gunshots fired into the air made it clear that any attempt at escape would be futile. They stood in shocked silence, unable to believe how the rebels had found them.
The rebels ordered everybody to sit on the ground. Then they ransacked the thatched huts and took the men into a bush nearby and had them all shot and killed. The women and children the rebels herded into the thatched huts and set them on fire.
It was the sound of the women and children yelling and screaming as the thatched hut caught fire that awakened Kollie. He sat up on the table, his body covered with sweat. He groped for the fragment of the beer bottle lying beside him on the table, picked it up, and looked round in the darkness. But the market was as dark and as silent as it had been a few hours before.
Kollie thought about the dream that had awakened him, and remembered that he had had it before, or many others like it. They were, in fact, a sort of recurring nightmare. But how they troubled him so! Probably that was one of the prices for which he had to account for his life as a child soldier, a life in which he couldn’t remember not having killed somebody or thought of killing. It was as if the whole essence of a human being had been explained to him in a single word — death. And he could remember having to kill so many people that sometimes he would toy with the idea of seeing their bodies fill the ocean except that he loathed having those corpses floating up and returning to haunt him. If only he had marijuana he could smoke and try to forget. It amazed him that ever since he came back from rebel territory he had never felt the urge to smoke. Perhaps it was because he didn’t like cigarettes much. Marijuana was a man’s medicine because one could smoke it and forget while cigarettes tended to cause for nothing illness. But he did not know where to get marijuana from and, worse still, he was broke.
He lay back down on the table and tried to sleep but could not. That dream had shaken him to such a degree as to keep him awake for a long time. Probably he ought to think about something other than sleep, hoping that while he did so dawn would come. From the feel of the breeze, he could tell it was the middle of the night. But sleep is a thief; he was still trying to get his mind to think about other things when he fell asleep again.
When he got up again day had broken. The sound of traders and others returning early to the market filled the damp morning air. He climbed down from the table, avoiding the stares of passersby who looked surprise at finding him asleep on a table in the market. He walked through the market stalls until he came out on to Pipe Line Road, crossed it for the other side of the market, and headed into the direction of the video club. As always in the mornings, the smell of garbage, thick and rotten, hung like a blanket over Red Light market. As he walked Kollie kept his eyes on the ground, just in case he did not step into human feces. People tended to lose their bowels wherever they could.
The video club attendant was out early than usual, tacking movie posters to the wall. He saw Kollie from a distance and smiled broadly. “Cha, pekin! Where you comin from soon dis morning so?”
Kollie said nothing until he had approached and stood just within a few yards from the attendant. “My sista put me outsa,” he said, and kept his eyes averted.
“When?” the attendant asked.
“And you na tell me?”
“I wuh shame to tell you.”
“Don’t be shame. You suppose to tell me and I wuh goin to leh you sleep wif me in de video club. But where you sleep last night, eh?
“I sleep in de market.”
“Where in de market?”
“On a table in de market.”
“Cha, pekin! You brave-o.”
Kollie said nothing.
“Don’t go sleep in de market again,” the attendant said, “because sometin bad can happen to you. Anytime it get in de night, ask me and I will leh you sleep wif me in de video club. You hear?”
“Yes, and thank you-o.”
“All right, pekin. But looka your clothes, mehn. I see you wear dis one clothes for three days na. Looka de shirt sef, it fini tear on your back. You don’t have no clothes?”
“Come, I’ll give you some of my clothes.” The video club attendant tacked the last poster to the wall, got down from the cement block on which he had been standing, and together they went into the video club.
To be cont’d.
Copyright © Saah Millimono 2017
About the author:
Saah Millimono is the author of “Broken Dreams,” which was awarded the Short Fiction Prize for the Seabreeze Journal of Contemporary Liberian Writings. In 2013 his first novel, “Boy, Interrupted,” was awarded Second Prize for the Kwani Manuscript Project, a one-off writing prize for African writers across the continent and in the Diaspora. He reads English and Mass Communication at the African Methodist Episcopal University in Monrovia, and is at work on second novel, tentatively titled August 1990.