“Do it again, Dad!” Seven-year-old Kurt bounced on the seat beside her.
“Please don’t!” Mom gave a tight laugh and gripped the dashboard.
The Andersons had been up before dawn to meet the coluna, as Mozambicans called the military convoy to Gaza Province. The column of cars and trucks racing across the African countryside stretched as far as Keri could see ahead and behind them. From time to time they passed a burned-out vehicle at the side of the road--a reminder of what could happen if the Andersons pulled out of line. The coluna wouldn’t wait while you changed a tire or a fan belt. No one traveled in this part of the country without the coluna since the war had spread this far south.
There was not a herd boy in sight nor a sign of a cow or goat. Telephone lines hung in loose strands from poles leaning at odd angles.
“Look, an orange grove!” Keri said.
“Where?” Kurt demanded.
Keri pointed, but even as she did, she realized this wasn’t like any orange grove she had ever seen before. Weeds choked the orderly rows. Heavy branches drooped to the ground, and a smell of rotten fruit filled the air.
“There’s the farm house,” Kurt said as a dark tile roof came into view. His voice faltered with uncertainty.
Keri put her head out the window as they passed and stared back at the building until it disappeared from sight. Most of the roofing was gone, and sunlight poured into deep pink and blue rooms. All the windows and doors had been taken out, leaving jagged holes where even the frames had been hammered away. The walls were scarred with little holes like chicken pox. No one needed to tell Keri they had come from gunfire.
She pulled her head into the car and stared at the back of the seat in front of her. No one said anything.
If I don’t talk about it, I won’t be afraid, Keri thought. She crossed her arms and pressed them into her stomach. Dad kept his eyes on the road. Mom sat straight. She was as still as the jostling car would allow. They aren’t afraid, Keri told herself, and I’m not afraid either. Kurt stared at her with eyes as big as mangos. Keri rubbed her nose to brush away the tingle of rotting oranges.
“Not much farther now.” Dad broke the silence. “We’re almost to the Limpopo River.”
The cloud of dust ahead thickened, and the brake lights of the yellow Peugeot in front of them flashed a sudden alert. Dad braked quickly as the coluna lurched to a halt at the side of the road. Dust rolled in from behind.
“Close your windows!” Mom ordered, and everyone jumped to obey.
The trucks and jeeps of their escort whipped out of line and careened by. Kurt jerked back when whirling tires spattered pebbles against the glass. A truck swayed past, soldiers clinging to its sides. Most of them looked only a little older than Keri’s thirteen years. She wondered if they were afraid.
As the last military vehicle passed, the driver of the yellow Peugeot turned off his motor. Dad did the same.
In the sudden quiet they heard the sounds of gunfire.
Keri sat very still. She could taste the dust that had seeped through the window cracks. It tickled her nostrils. Kurt sneezed. Mom fished a handkerchief from the pocket of her denim skirt and handed it to him.
“Please, don’t wipe your nose on your arm,” she insisted.
As if staying clean is the most important thing to think about right now. Keri chewed the nail on her left index finger, and slowly exhaled. The heat and stillness of the closed car pressed in on her.
“What if the armed bandits come while the soldiers are all gone?” Kurt asked. The rebel faction in the Mozambican civil war had an official name, but where the Andersons lived in Maputo people thought they acted more like armed bandits. Kurt’s eyes were wide. His fingers gripped the back of Mom’s seat until they turned white.
“The bandits are up ahead.” Dad’s voice was calm, but he didn’t move his eyes from the direction of the shooting. Both his hands gripped the steering wheel, his knuckles as pale as Kurt’s. “That’s where the soldiers are going. I think we surprised them. They won’t come here.”
Keri hoped he was right. She didn’t want to think about what could happen if he was wrong.
Slowly the dust began to settle, leaving the windscreen coated with an orange film. Dad turned on the windshield wipers to brush some of it away.
A cluster of traditional huts spilled over the top of a hill a few hundred yards ahead. Their mud walls and conical grass roofs blended with the dry ground. A flock of frantic chickens flew over a thornbush hedge, squawking noisily. A river of people streamed down the hillside. Most of them carried nothing except a child or the hoe or mallet with which they had been working when the attack began.
Kurt edged toward the far side of the car.
“Do you want to come up here?” Mom asked.
“Come on, Kurt.” Dad turned and held out his arms. Kurt pushed off with one tennis shoe from the seat behind him and slithered head first into the front. He quickly righted himself and took up a position on Mom’s lap as far from the fighting as he could get.
“There’s room for you, too, Keri.” Dad tapped the padding over the gearbox.
“That’s OK.” Acting like she was afraid would be worse than saying the words. She dropped her arm over the back of the seat so it pressed against her father’s shoulder. Her stomach felt like it was some place up around her heart, and maybe about ready to squeeze past and pop right out through her mouth. She hoped she wouldn’t throw up.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” said Kurt.
“Not now, Kurt.” Dad pulled Keri firmly up against him and gripped her hand. “Let’s pray,” he said.
“I agree,” said Mom. Keri recognized the deliberately controlled voice her mother used when Keri had lost her temper and Mom was trying not to lose hers.
“I’m already praying!” announced Kurt, nodding emphatically.
Keri took her mother’s hand as they always did for prayer. It felt cold and damp. Their arms were all tangled and crisscrossed in the car, not like the neat circle they made around the dining room table at home in Maputo. Everyone was touching everyone, and that was the way Keri wanted it right now.
“Help us, Lord God,” her father prayed. “We don’t know what’s happening, but we know you do. We don’t know what will happen, but we know we can trust you. Help us not to be frightened. Please protect us and bring us safely out of this, if it’s your will. Protect the people of this village, too, and give this country peace. We’ll give you all the glory. Amen.”
Keri prayed with her eyes open. She thought God wouldn’t mind if she watched what she was praying about. Her stomach seemed to settle back a few inches, and she was pretty sure it wouldn’t pop out through her mouth after all. Her chest hurt where her heart thumped against her ribs.
Her father’s eyes were also open. They both watched the refugees from the village. Some of them had reached the coluna. They spread out along its length, putting the vehicles between themselves and the thick black smoke rising from the village beyond the hill. There were a couple hundred people, most of them women and children. Loud wails filled the air like a funeral. Kurt put his hands over his ears.
A woman with a baby on her back frantically questioned neighbors. A naked toddler clung to the hem of the cloth wrapped around her like a skirt. The capulana must have originally been printed with a bright red-orange pattern and black border, but it had faded to a pale gray and pinkish-pumpkin. Some neighbors merely shook their heads. Others pointed back toward the village. Whatever it was the woman searched for, she didn’t find.
“Will Chibuto be like this?” asked Kurt. His voice sounded tight as if he might cry.
“No, sweetheart.” Mom squeezed him on her lap. “Chibuto’s a safe city. Pastor Makusa assured us that we won’t go any place dangerous, and we’ll always get back to Chibuto well before dark.”
Keri had heard her father say how foolish it was to be outside the city at night. When they drove to the neighboring country of Swaziland to buy groceries every few months, they always traveled in the middle of the day. Even then, they would turn back if the soldiers at the checkpoints said it was dangerous.
Far ahead jeeps raced up the hill between the acacia trees. Foot soldiers swarmed toward the village. Spears of light brighter than day flashed from their guns in a rhythm that seemed to have nothing to do with the delayed sounds that punctured the air. Straggling villagers fled both soldiers and bandits.
A soldier approached the Land Rover from the back reaches of the coluna. His AK47 was trained on the refugees streaming from the village. He hunched tensely over his gun, and Keri hoped it wouldn’t go off by mistake.
Kurt sat up straighter. “There’re still some soldiers here.” He pointed toward the young man’s camouflaged uniform.
The driver of the yellow Peugeot opened his door and got out. He looked like a middle-aged Portuguese. Thinning gray hair covered his round head, and his belly hung over his belt. He called to the soldier, and the two talked excitedly.
Dad rolled down the window. Keri breathed deeply of the fresh air, but the men’s voices were too far away to catch what was said.
“I’m going to see what’s happening.” Dad opened his door and jumped to the ground.
“Don’t go!” begged Kurt, grasping his shirt.
“It’s OK.” Mom soothed him. “He won’t go far.”
Keri opened her door to follow.
“Keri! Stay here!” Mom’s tone was not one Keri dared to disobey. She closed the door again and watched her father’s back.
Dad had Kurt’s stocky build. His khaki shorts and open-necked shirt made him look more like a big game hunter than the head of an African relief and development team. He was brave and clever, and Keri was very proud of him.
The other man greeted Dad as though they had known each other for years. His gestures were wide and dramatic. He followed Dad back to the car and stood behind him, adding details in the whishing lilt of a Lisbon accent.
“The bandits attacked the village a few minutes before we got here,” Dad explained. “Evidently, they expected the coluna to have already passed through.” He glanced back over his shoulder. Four soldiers were pulling smoking thatch from the roof of a hut. “Our soldiers will drive them off.” Dad looked apologetically at Mom. “He says this is the third time this month this has happened.”
Behind him the Portuguese began an explicit story of the last attack he had seen, what the soldiers had done, and how many had been killed. Kurt seemed to shrink into Mom’s side until there was nothing left of him but eyes. Dad put a hand on the man’s back and guided him away from the car. Keri glanced at Mom and didn’t dare to follow. She sat with her ear to the open window, but all she could hear was the wailing of the refugees and the sounds of gunfire from the hill.
All up and down the line people got out of their vehicles to watch and wait and talk to the villagers. The woman in the orange capulana moved up the coluna. She questioned everyone she met.
“You know, this is exactly why we have to go to Chibuto,” Mom explained in her teacher voice. “The bandits will steal what they can and destroy the rest. These poor people will be left with nothing.”
“Do you suppose the clothes got there all right?” Keri asked. She had helped her father and the workers from Africa Assistance fill the truck with bags of used clothing donated by people in North America. Two weeks helping distribute them to needy villagers had sounded like an adventure. Now it was scary to think of going where the bandits had been.
“There’s a public phone in town. Pastor Makusa called last night to say the truck had arrived with no problems,” Mom assured her.
“They don’t have enough food in Gaza either, do they?” Kurt said.
“No, Kurt, they don’t. Some of the trucks in this convoy are probably carrying corn and chickens. The only food in Mozambique right now is what the relief agencies like ours bring in.”
Dad slid into his seat and smiled weakly at Mom. “Sorry about this,” he said.
Keri wrapped her arms around her father’s seat back. He smelled clean and minty like the antacids he always kept in his pocket. “Dad, you brought corn up one time, didn’t you?”
“Yep.” He shook his head at the memory. “Even an overloaded truck wasn’t enough. Each family only got food for a couple days. Kids littler than Kurt picked up grains of corn that had fallen in the dust. They didn’t lose one kernel.”
Thinking about hungry people made Keri flush with anger. Why did there have to be a war? Each side claimed to be for the people, but it was the people who died and went naked and hungry. There was no reason for it that Keri could see—only selfishness and greed for power.
Usually the war seemed too far away to touch her. In the three years they had lived in Maputo she had gotten used to the gunshots of nervous guards that they heard almost every night. It was scary when she lay in her bed and listened to the booming of heavy artillery from the other side of the bay. The first night she heard it Dad sat on the edge of her bed and prayed with her. He told her the guns were far away, and it was only the water in between that made them sound so near. But he didn’t go away until Keri had fallen asleep.
Keri seemed to be constantly holding her breath, waiting for something terrible that was just out of sight, not talking about it, pretending it wasn’t there. She was proud that their family had come to Africa to help. She knew her parents wouldn’t let anything really bad happen to her. But right now, if she let herself think about it, she would be more frightened than she’d ever been in her life.
The shooting grew more distant.
“I’m hungry,” Kurt said.
“I suppose we could have lunch.” Mom brought sandwiches out of the cooler. It felt odd to sit in the car eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with carrot sticks and listening to the war.
“Shall we read The Silver Chair?” Dad asked. He picked up at chapter 3 where they had left off last night, but no one could concentrate. Even Dad’s voice sounded forced, and after a few pages he stopped.
The Portuguese man came over to talk and brought chocolate for Keri and Kurt. He told them all about his grown children in Portugal and the grandchildren he hadn’t seen since they were babies.
The refugees sat on the side of the road or paced nervously up and down. The woman in the orange capulana stopped near the Andersons and sat on the ground with her legs straight out in front of her while she nursed her baby. Her face was tense. Her black hair was done in tight braids neatly tucked under. The toddler sat at her side in exactly the same position with his patient little face turned, like hers, to the hill.
Suddenly the woman leapt to her feet, shouting and waving frantically. There was a responding shout, and a boy about Kurt’s age appeared, running amidst the scanty shrubbery at the foot of the hill. He bounded toward her over rocks and around bushes. He wore only a pair of ragged shorts, and his dark legs and bare, callused feet were thickly covered with yellow dust. His mother shouted at him and boxed his ears when he came close, as if her worry had been replaced by anger that he should have scared her so.
Keri found herself grinning. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Kurt relax and readjust his position on Mom’s lap. Mom squeezed him and gave him a kiss on the cheek. “I love you, too,” she said. “Both of you.”
At last the sounds of gunfire ceased. The jeeps made their way back down the hill and foot soldiers returned to the waiting trucks. Keri took a deep breath and settled back on the seat. Everything was going to be OK. The bandits hadn’t come near them. Their family was safe.
“Thank you, Lord,” Dad prayed as he started the motor.
The coluna slowly moved forward as clusters of villagers straggled across the hillside to discover what was left of their homes. Keri felt a pang of guilt. Not everything was OK. Not for everyone. Her eyes darted here and there trying to find the woman in the orange capulana and her children among the figures climbing the hill. To leave not knowing what became of them felt like not reading the last chapter of a book, or turning off a television program five minutes before the end.
They’re real people, Keri thought. Not book people or TV people.
“I hope their house wasn’t burned,” Kurt said. Keri didn’t have to ask who he meant.