The WIDOWER (PART 2)

Part one: https://rustorytelling.wordpress.com/2013/03/13/the-widower-part-1/

“Come in,” I say. The hallway light near the staircase is flickering again. Betty asked me to fix it, but I forgot.

“Thank you,” he says. “This is for you.”

I take the wine. It’s red. I like beer.

“Hi Richard. How are you?” says Betty appearing out of the kitchen. She’s wearing her real smile.

“I’m good. Thank you for inviting me. It smells delicious in here.” He has a nice voice and he spaces his words well. It’s slow and soothing.

“Don’t be silly. It’s our pleasure. Eric why don’t you take Richard’s jacket and talk in the living room, I just need one more minute to finish and I’ll uncork this lovely gift,” she says taking the bottle from me. “Ha, Richard how did you remember, The Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir. It looks delightful,” she says. I didn’t know she liked Pinot Noir.

I don’t want to be left alone with him, but I take his jacket and he loosens his tie.

“Here we go,” I say showing him to the living room. I plop down in a chair and he follows suit.

Richard looks about my age, maybe thirty-five, but probably more active. His clothes fit well. I look down at my own outfit. I have a little more insulation under my button down and there is a small stain on my khakis. I wet my finger and rub, but it won’t come out. He’s tall, too.

“Would you like something to drink?” I ask with nothing really in mind. We don’t keep hard liquor.

“No, thank you, I’m okay for now,” he says.

“Just let me know.” I don’t have very much to say to him. I’m anxious for Betty to return.

“Thanks again for inviting me by the way. I tend to eat alone these days,” says Richard shifting in his seat, placing one leg over the other so that a bit of his argyle socks are just visible.

The thought depresses me and I don’t know what to say. I just rewet my finger and go back to work on the stain.

“Here you go,” says Betty entering the room. She’s holding two wine glasses filled half way and hands one to Richard. He gets up to relieve her.

“Oh…Eric here,” he says holding it out for me to take realizing there are only two glasses.

“Eric doesn’t enjoy wine,” intercedes Betty. Betty is wearing her new spring dress and her hair is done nice. Straight. Around her neck are the pearls that she surprised herself with for her birthday. She’s even wearing her black heels. She’s a fraction taller than me when she wears them. But I don’t mind. She looks beautiful. I think to tell her this.

“I’m sorry I should’ve brought something else,” says Richard.

“No. I’ll just grab a beer,” I say quickly.

“Well then dinner is served. This way, if you don’t mind,” she says leading Richard to the dining room.

The good china is out, a wedding gift from her Aunt Marge. The food’s out too and my stomach grumbles. I take my normal seat by the main window. There’s a cold Blue Moon already set. Betty sits in her normal seat and puts her wine glass down. Richard does the same. Betty invites Richard to say grace. He does. Out of respect, I bow my head. Betty thanks him and we begin.

There’s turkey and yams, stuffing too. Richard asks for the mashed potatoes and I pass them before digging in. Once I get going I don’t stop. Why would I? I don’t follow much of the conversation anyhow. I think, how many peas can I fit in my mouth at one time? I start slow with a spoonful. Then add another and another. I figure each spoonful must be like twenty peas. I switch to the serving spoon instead. It can hold probably close to fifty. Betty sips her wine and shoots me a look. They’re not even fresh. They’re the frozen kind; I saw her take them out of the freezer earlier. I swallow and stop.

Richard says something about his childhood in Long Chester or maybe about his sister’s children in Long Chester.

“I’d like a couple of my own,” says Betty. I turn towards her. Her eyes haven’t moved off him. I polish off the beer, get another. When I return they’re talking about the last book they read. Then switch to a short story that someone from the book club had forwarded.

“It was disturbingly beautiful. The passion. To feel such tremendous love for another is incredible. I mean of course she’s crazy, but it’s the love that drives her to do it,” says Betty.

Richard says slowly and with meaning, “That’s why he’s Faulkner. The way he takes us through the town, the way he invites us in on the action. I felt like I was a member of the town, rummaging through Emily’s house. And to find that gray hair on the pillow beside Homer’s body.” Richard’s voice starts to shake. I look up from my plate, turkey in my mouth, chewing. His eyes are moist. Betty’s eyes too.

“It…well, it get’s lonely sometimes, you know,” he continues. A lone tear twists down his flushed cheek. It’s uncomfortable to look at. I want to wipe it. It doesn’t faze him though and he continues. Betty puts her hand on him and leans in to console him. “Sometimes I wish I could lie with Jennifer just one more time. Roll over and tell her anything in the middle of the night.”

I guess the dead wife’s name was Jennifer then.

“I’m so sorry Richard,” Betty says, her hand warming his arm. Richard gets himself right. He pours more wine into their glasses. For a moment or two nobody says anything.
Then Betty says, “Richard?”
“Yeah?” he says with a sniffle.
“I don’t have to get the aldermen to break open your bedroom door?”
I look at her. Aldermen?
But it must be a joke, because Richard laughs and wipes his eyes clean and Betty’s smile grows with his laughter. I don’t get it and go back to eating.
I’m on my third helping. I was full after two. The conversation goes back to the club. Dinner’s over and Betty brings out cake and coffee. We all have. I like the cake. It’s coconut with vanilla glaze.
I say, “I love this cake.”
Richard asks me questions about stuff. Questions like a guy in a supermarket might ask.
“So what line of work you in, Eric?”
“I’m an entrepreneur,” I say.
“Very cool,” replies Richard.
“He’s in-between jobs right now,” says Betty.
“I wanted to work for myself,” I say.
“You know we’re actually looking for people at work. It’s an entry-level job, but it pays well enough. Plus you’ll learn a lot about advertising. You might find it interesting,” he adds not getting the vibe he wants out of me.
“That would great,” says Betty enthused.
“Thanks, but I’m not that into advertising. Not that it’s not a good field. Just wouldn’t even know where to begin,” I say.

There’s nothing like being your own boss. It takes a certain kind of person do be able to do it and I don’t think Richard would have what it takes.

We finish eating. Richard helps clear. I invite him to watch the Bulls game. He declines. I take another Blue Moon, grab a bag of pretzels and head to the den. They continue talking and I turn up the volume. I watch the first half. Cozy up under the blanket, flipping the channels during the commercial to catch part of the Hangover. I’ve seen it nearly five times, but I laugh all the same.

They’re speaking louder. Excited by something. Betty’s laughing and Richard’s talking. I lower the volume. The game’s not a good one anyway.

I hear Betty say, “I got your copy for you it’s upstairs. I think it should be a fun read. A lot lighter than the last couple. The Jane Austen Book Club?”

“I’ve heard of it,” says Richard. “My favorite book, believe it or not, is Pride and Prejudice.”

“Mine too! Come with me, I’ll get your copy,” says Betty.

I turn the volume back up. They walk by the den. Out the doorway I see them on the staircase. The hallway light is on the frits, darting here and there. They have their wine glasses and they’re talking. One hand on the rail, Betty’s twisting her body backwards on the second step. Richard, still taller than her even in her heels, is following after. They’re not in a rush. Each step is in unison, slow boxy steps. Betty’s head tilting slightly forward, smiling something to him.

I can see cracks in the foundation of her makeup. Under the flickering bulb, it all looks caked on. I don’t recognize her face. They continue in this fashion up the stairs. I return to not watching the game. Every now and then I hear Betty burst out in foreign laughter—the type of laugher where a hand meets an arm.

I think about the story they discussed over dinner and the anonymous person copying Betty and Eric’s addresses to the chain—their names side by side, nesting between their community members. And then I realized! that anonymous man, he’s a city planner. He’s building houses in that “To” line—homes even. And that’s where they are right now. They’ve relocated there. A city planner. Now, there’s a job that worth doing. And for a moment I wanted to hit reply-all!

But then again I wouldn’t know what to write. I didn’t even read that Faulkner fellow’s love tale. Betty laughs again.

I look down at the coffee table. My Blue Moon’s made a ring. I pick it up and pull over a coaster. Bulls are down twenty and I turn the television off. I fold the blanket and put it back neatly. I fold the top of the pretzel bag, too, so they won’t get stale.

I leave the room and look back. It’s tidy. I get my coat from the hall closest and grab a scarf. They’re at the top of the stairs when I reach the door. Betty’s holding her book and smiling that smile.
“Where you going?” she asks.
“I’m gonna stretch my legs. Dinner was delicious, thank you,” I say, and head out.

I stand on the stoop, looking up at the heavens. It’s chilly outside. I can see my breath, like the thin mist of clouds gently masking tonight’s moon. She’s ducked her face behind a grapefruit bin, I think to myself, and switch over to the stars instead. They’re bright and shine through.

I fix in on the brightest one—way off in the distance.

It must be lonely.

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The Widower (Part 1)

imgres-1 The widower next door is coming over tonight. My wife invited him for dinner and I didn’t object. His wife died last spring and we went to the funeral out of proximity more so than anything else. I can’t even be certain of the dead wife’s name. Though honestly that isn’t saying very much. I am awful with names, it’s just one of those things I can never seem to remember. Faces, I don’t forget.

The other day I was in the supermarket by the produce section and out of the corner of my eye I see a face I haven’t seen since high school. I know exactly who he is. He sat two seats in front of me in freshman biology. Bright guy, always scored high. I was a terrible student. Never really applied myself to the books. Probably on account of the dyslexia, but whatever the case, I don’t read well. My wife is part of a book club, which is how she got to talking with the widower in the first place. He joined a couple months after his wife died. I imagine it must be very lonely to sit at home alone. She used to ask me to join the book club, but she’s stopped bothering with that.
I don’t say anything to the guy, the guy from high school that is, because I don’t like those types of conversations:

“Is that you, (insert name).”
“Yeesscan I help you?”
“It’s me, Eric, Eric Benjamin. From Hebrew Academy? Remember? (Insert iconic high school moment. Maybe that time someone let mice loose in Rabbi Zuckerman’s class).”
“Oh yeah! Eric how you doing?”
“I’m good, I’m good. It’s been ages since I last saw you. You look (insert lie).”
“You look…well…you look just like you did in high school …”
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A Wish for Him–Part 2 the end

Part One:https://rustorytelling.wordpress.com/2013/02/11/306/

imgres-1 My father walked out from the kitchen. His back must’ve been hurting because he was hunched to his left. Sometimes it looks like there’s an invisible weight draping him.

“There’s no need to be sorry. We had quite the time.” He pulled my head towards him and kissed it.

“Did you guys at least eat?”

“We ordered pizza.”

“Dad, I told you I made dinner.”

“I know. But now you’ll have leftovers for tomorrow. Or eat it another day. I told you I can babysit again tomorrow.”

“Dad.”

“Are you at least trying to date? Mrs. Thomson has a nephew…”

“I know. I know. And what about you? Mrs. Thomson isn’t bad herself.”

“Oh…she’s a nutter,” he said wiping it away with his hand. “I don’t even understand how Brian put up with her for so long, rest his soul. Then again, he thought the same of….” he stopped and simply smiled.

I love my father. We are close now, more than we ever were. But there are some topics we choose to let be. Mom is or was one of them. It’s something we learned to do. We know there are only so many ways we cannot agree.

Instead he said, “No. I’m too old to date. You’re young and beautiful and smart. Very smart.”

“Thank you,” I said, then seeing the look on his face I added, “I’m looking.”

He peered at me from over the bridge of his glasses, but accepted the lie.

It isn’t easy. The apartment is small. It’s really all I can afford. My father wanted us to move. He said he would help. We both knew I wouldn’t take it, though. Every once in a while he’ll offer again and I’ll say I’ll think about it.

In truth, I think I pity my father. At times, I get the sense that despite the years and space in between he can’t allow himself to heel. He thinks he’s ruined love for me, and that no matter how many milkshakes he offers, he can never sweeten it again. And then—then there are those other days in which I’m certain he thinks I’m alone to spite him. That, in the end, no matter what he does, he’ll go to the grave in regret.

I really don’t know how to feel about any of it. It wasn’t he that walked out on Jake. But it sure felt the same. They both had a way of hiding things, my father and Jake’s. They’d tuck it deep inside, then one day it would peak out over dinner, a glimpse at that carnal appetite. One day I’ll have to tell Jake the truth about my father and his. I’ll have to. But not yet. I wanted Jake to be my Jake for a few more years.

“Mommy!” Jake ran in as he always does—grabbing both my legs and sticking his head through. “Look Ada, I’m in the stocks.” He let his wrists turn to dead fish.

“I take it you guys watched another western.” I slapped his butt and he pulled out. “And made quite the mess I see.”

There was mud from Jake’s shoes on the carpet. The sofa cushions were missing. Later I’d find that they became the walls of an Indian fort. Some of it wasn’t Jake’s doing, though. The columns of mail on the coffee table are my fault. Bills mostly. There’s just never any time. For bills or for dating.

“So what did you get me?”

“Not so fast. First we need to cut the cake.”

Jake sat on my father’s lap, galloping on his knees as I spread candles on his ice cream cake. There were only six candles in the box. I quickly washed a dirty knife from the sink and brought it all over to the table.

“Quick, close your eyes.” I lit the candles, hoping he wouldn’t notice I was shy one, and turned off the light, which was already on the fritz.

“Open.”

My father and I did a duet while Jake played the composer.

“And many, many more,” I said when we finished.

“Go ahead. Make a wish, a big one,” said my father.

Again Jake closed his eyes. For a long time we sat, waiting. His face screwed up in concentration as the candles dripped wax onto the cake—but he kept his eyes closed, hard and tight. Finally he opened his eyes, smiled, and, in one breath, blew out all six.

I lingered in the dark. Closed my eyes for good measure. I was hesitant but I did it anyway. And there, I was. Again. I stepped right into the black. I took a deep breath, letting the birthday smoke waft Jake’s wish into my nostrils. I held it in me and felt it glide down the back of my throat. I could feel it flutter through my heart—the beat spiraling down my ribcage. I felt my cheeks lift.

It was nothing like my father or Jake’s father. It was sweet and innocent and warm. It was honest. And there were those hints of aged wine.

I exhaled and flipped the lights back on.

“So what’d you wish for?”

My father plucked a candle and sucked the bottom like a cigarette. I could see his crows’ feet forming. “Nonsense. He can’t answer that. Then it won’t come true,” he laughed, clapping both his hands on Jake’s small shoulder. It was an old laugh. I could feel the weight of those hands. And something stirred inside me like fingernails pulling my cheeks down.

“Presents?” said Jake with a puppy tilt of the head.

I looked at him. He looked up with his father’s eyes. It was as though that invisible weight that drapes my father had suddenly cast itself on to me and I could not shake it. That old woman began to speak to me: It’s in the genes. I passed Jake the box. I watched as he clawed at it with hungry hands, my father helping him along.

“Hey, Jake,” I said. “Jake? What do you say I come home early tomorrow? I’ll come home early and we’ll go to the park. Or anywhere. How about that? How does that sound? Just me and you.”

But they didn’t hear me. Jake gnawed at the plastic. A couple Lego pieces spilled out. My father bounced him around and clapped his back and laughed that old laugh.

I closed my eyes. Pee—KOO Lee, Pee—KOO Lee.

An architect would be nice, I thought. Jake deserves to build his own home. Then again that man—I could see that man.

I wish Jake could see that man, too.

A Wish For Him –Part 1

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(photo by Leah Runyon)
He had leathery skin and dirty fingernails. Not the kind that were unattractive, but the kind that said he was a hard worker. At that moment, though, they were on break—quietly strumming the base of a guitar as he made his way up and down the subway car. There were only a handful of people on the F and he had space to move about and sing softly to himself. Every once in a while he’d stop in front of me, reach up, and pluck a pen hidden between an ear and an old timer’s hat. Then, bending over his guitar, he’d wet the tip with his tongue and jot down a note or two in his flip-pad.

He wore a serious look when he wrote. His eyes narrowed and his lower lip came up and massaged his mustache. He was young. No older than thirty-five. He wore a heavy knapsack with a sleeping bag rolled up on the top. When he’d write, the whole thing would ride up his neck. It didn’t seem to bother him much, but watching him I couldn’t help but readjust my own belongings. I had used a similar bag when I first got married and went backpacking, laughing my way through Eastern Europe. That was when I first got married—before that bag got heavy.
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Chasing Ghosts with Arrow Boys (Part 3)

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To read Part 2 click here: https://rustorytelling.wordpress.com/2013/01/27/chasing-ghost-with-arrow-boys-part-2/

The LRA did not come to Makpandu. The army had. The army had accidently come across the LRA near the Bire Kpatous Game Reserve along the Congolese border. There was a small skirmish, both sides incurring minimal causalities. An officer, who rummaged through the damage, however, noticed something unusual. Among the confiscated weaponry were a large number of Ak-47 assault-riffles—weapons known to be used by Kony’s personal bodyguards. The small patrol unit that suddenly entered Makpandu that night were called in to join the search; its leader, a friend and contact of Alison, stopped in Makpandu to share the fortunate news.

We get back to the Makpandu where a group of Congolese refugee volunteers are loading with the soldiers into the trucks. Peter hugs me and tells me to ride with him on the motorcycle. I pull away and ride with Alison instead.

We leave the army in Nzara. The volunteers come with us as the patrol unit speeds off toward the border. There, Alison mobilizes the Arrow Boys and the refugees.

“He will die in the Bush,” explains Alison as we move out. “One way or the other, Kony will die in the Bush. He knows this. He has committed too much atrocity to walk freely. And so he will die in the Bush,” he shouts to the men with him something and they cheer.

Peter is near by, but I continue to speak with Alison. “Some of the Arrow Boys are not happy that the Congolese refugees are with us tonight. They are jealous of them and listen too much to the Yambio radio stations that throw insults out at the Congolese. In truth, the refugees are hard workers.”

“But everyone is an enemy of LRA?” I say.

“And now you see, nothing is simply in South Sudan. The Arrow Boys provide the army with valuable information on the LRA, and tonight they returned the favor. We need collaboration if we are to capture Kony. No one can do it on his own and the refugees will be able to help guide us if we cross the border. ”

I nod, though I stop listening. Everything is the same. The dirt road kicks up with each step we take. The wind blows and trees sway. The crickets shout, the moon glistens, and Alison plans out loud.

Why aren’t the animals mourning? Why doesn’t the river dry up? Why do people keep going? Keep laughing? Keep eating?

For weeks after the night I was raped and the man I loved murdered, I asked these questions over and over again.

Peter had said it best. You have to keep moving. There isn’t a choice: you must keep moving to survive. Because ultimately, the question isn’t can you forget; it’s should you try?

“The boy in Makandu,” says Alison as though he has read my thoughts. “It is a sad reality. That is what the LRA does. They bring fear to the people. And fear is a dangerous thing. We must bring Kony to justice. Dead or a live. Justice.”

I nod, clutching the camera wrapped around my neck.

We arrive at our destination hours later. It is not common for the Arrow Boys to travel so far, but Alison is emboldened by the thought of ending the war.

The first rays of orange light breech the canopy as we enter the Bush. Two boys, Seba and Veronique lead the way with machetes, slicing through the thorny fingers that cling at us as we try to push through. Kony is an expert of the land. He uses its impenetrable terrain to his advantage. It is said that 80 percent of his army is made up of abducted children forced to march far away from their homes. The first day’s march is spent deliberately backtracking and moving in circles through the Bush to disorient the children. Those who refuse to march are beaten by the others. When the LRA was at its strongest and was still operating out of northern Uganda, they imprisoned over 65,000 children and created over 2 million displaced people.

The war has changed and so has Kony’s way of fighting. His guerrilla tactics are no longer directed by political aims as they once were. It is difficult to imagine, but there was time when the Alcholi people of northern Uganda supported Kony. Their common enemy was Yoweri Museveni government and Kony had promised to remove the yoke of an oppressive ruler. I am saddened to image the people proudly sheltering and arming a man that will ultimately mutilate, rape, steal, and murder their own sons and daughters. When it became clear that Kony’s political aims had given way to a pseudo-religious mission, one that the Holy Spirit commanded, the Alcholi people together with their former enemy, the Museveni’s government, pushed Kony out of Uganda.

Today, in the Bush, Kony’s sole goal is survival. His back is against a wall of enemies: The DR Congo, South Sudan, Uganda, and the Central Republic of Africa surround him. But Kony is just as dangerous and we are not here just to push him out.

I believe Alison is correct. Kony will die in the Bush. But I think of Jasphet’s father and know that a surrounded man is a desperate man. And so I fear that things will only get worse before they can get better.

We push on for miles and miles, but we find nothing. We rest for a while as Alison determines where we will go next. Some of the Arrow Boys lay down and go to sleep. I think to do the same, but Peter soon approaches.

“You need to drink and to eat,” he says, handing me a piece of bread and water. My stomach growls loudly.
“Thank you.”
Peter starts to walk away, but I tell him to come back.
“I’m sorry about last night,” I say. “I—”
“There is nothing to apologize for,” he speaks softly but makes it clear that the conversation is over. I nod and continue to eat.
“Where will we go next?” I ask.
“There’s a river not far from here. It coils like intestines around to the west. Alison thinks that he will certainly go this way to throw us off his scent, but is worried about crossing the river.”
“Why?”
“It will be difficult and we will lose a lot of time. And maybe we will lose the scent completely. But in the end we must go that way, if we are to capture Kony. So we will go.”

Peter was correct. Alison ordered the Arrow Boys up and we continued up for a while until we did indeed reach the murky river. We walk north until we find the narrowest point of entry, about thirty feet wide.

Alison is the first to enter. He takes his bag and holds it high over his head as the water rises to his chest. It is slow going as he wades through. I wait back with Peter, taking pictures.

Finally, it is our turn. I hold my camera bag over my head. I am shorter than Alison and the water rises to my neck. The river is cloudy and I cannot see where am I going.

“Just keep moving. There is nothing to worry about. Only crocodiles and snakes,” laughs Peter.
“Not helping!”

The Arrow Boys, many already on the other side, are looking back and laughing at me. Even Alison is finding it hard not to grin. When I finally make it to the other side with my camera safe and dry, the men clap. Peter grabs my hand and we bow together.

We continue wandering, though our pace is much slower now. Once again, just a Peter predicted, the tracks have gone cold and we are no closer to catching the LRA than we were the first time we patrolled. Alison orders the group to stop once again as he figures out our next course of action. We have wasted most of the day already. I take a picture of one of the refugee volunteers with his head down.

“What is you name?” I ask the man.
“Fresnel.”
“Jessica,” I say walking over with an outstretch hand. He reaches up and takes it. “Nice to meet you, Fresnel. Do you speak English, then?”
“Yes. I learned in university, but I speak French better. Do you speak French?”
“No. I’m sorry.”
“English then.”
I nod. “Don’t worry, Fresnel. We will find them. We will capture Kony.” It was a stupid thing to say and I don’t know why I said it. I just wanted to believe. But we were lost and Fresnel knew that and so he didn’t smile.
“Things working differently here. In Africa everything is much, much slow. There is not going to be car chase. It will be a marathon and this Kony knows. He can survive a long time in the Bush and that is why we must wait,” he says, gesturing that I should sit with him. I do. “We must wait.”

Alison, meanwhile, asks for a group of volunteers to scout out the area. He does not want to venture too far and risk straying away from our water supply, a creek a hundred yards south. Four people come forward, including Peter, which makes me feel uneasy.
“Where you from?” asks Fresnel.
“New York,” I say.
“I never been to America, but one day maybe I go,” he laughs. “One day, maybe. Do you have husband there?”
“No. My fiancée died.”
“I’m sorry,” says Fresnel. I wait for him to ask how, but he doesn’t. Instead he says, “My wife and my three children are all safe in Makpandu. We moved away from the Congo in time.”
“Why did you leave your family to join the Arrow Boys, then?” I blurt out before I can stop myself.

Fresnel looks taken aback by the question and I apologize. He closes his eyes and takes a deep breath, then says, “because it is the just thing to do. When I was Université de Goma, the genocide was operating in Rwanda,” he takes his finger and draws a map of the Congo in the dirt, which I take a picture of. “The University is near the northern shores of Lake Kivu, which is near the boarder of Rwanda. I was young and I was not married. All I wanted to do is to study my health sciences so that I will become a doctor of children. When the Hutu genocide of the Tutsi began my friends and me would hear news travel across the lake. Horrible news that we knew could not be true, but was. When the Tutsi succeed in pushing the Hutu powers out, they poured over the boarder into villages near Goma with more than two million refugees, their militias among them. When the first refugees arrived, that is when I left the university and traveled north to the village of Dungu where I meet my wife. I left Goma because I feared trouble would follow. And it was good I did this because from Goma, the Hutu continued their attack and rape and murder of the Tutsi who lived in the Congo. And that is when war would brake out and so I was happy I left.”

“But you were not safe in Dungu for long,” I say piecing Fresnel’s history together. “When the aerial assault in Garamba fails to kill Kony, the LRA retaliate against the surrounding villages, including Dungu. And so you and your wife and children fled to South Sudan and settled in Makpandu.”

Fresnel nods. “And now war will follow my family here. But I am tired of running. I am tired of war. The Hutu and the Tutsi, the LRA–everything. I am tired. And so I will not run anymore. I will fight and I will chase if I have to. That is why I have left my family in Makpandu and that is why I am with the Arrow Boys,” he closes his eyes again. “I am tired of running from wars I did not start.”

The patrol does not come back and Alison is worried. He says that we are to stay the night and set up camp. Fresnel asks me if I’d like to go fishing in the creek with two other refugee volunteers. I am worried about Peter and want to stay with Alison, but Fresnel insists and so I go.

The creek dips into a shallow valley surrounded by a group of small hills. Fresnel introduces me to his two companions: Régis, who is young, tall, and looks like a soldier, and Walia, who is older and missing two front teeth. The two men do not seem interested in speaking with me. They each reach into their sacks and pull out nets and wade in the creek. I follow after, but Walia says something to me and I turn to Fresnel to explain.

“He say that you should not come in the water. There is crocodiles in the waters. Walia has been bitten by a crocodile before and nearly lost his leg. Fresnel yells something back at Walia, who, with a toothless grin, pulls his leg out of the water, rolls up his pants, and points to a heavily scared region in his thigh. Régis laughs at the look on my face and returns to fishing.

“He survives, though, which is one of the few miracles that have happened in the Bush. But we don’t test it on you,” Fresnel says seriously. “You come sit with me,” and he pulls at my arm. “Let them catch. We will play.”
“Play what?”
“Do you know what is Tsoro Yematatu?”
“No.”
“No? Then I will teach you.”

Fresnel walks back to the creek, sticks his hand in, and grabs a fist full of rocks. He opens his palm and instructs me to pick three that I like. He does the same and tosses the rest of the stones back into the creek so that they splash on Walia, who shouts at us. Then Fresnel draws a cross inside a basic triangle with two equal sides on the muddy ground.

“Your job is to get your stones to create a row of three,” he says adding 7 circular points on the board: three along each side of the triangle and one in the center of the cross. “You begin by putting one stone in one of the points on the board. Then I go and put a stone in another point on the board. Then you go and so on, until all six stones are on the board. We then take turn sliding our stones along the lines and into the open points, until you have a row of three. When you get a row of three you win. Understand?”

“So it’s like Tic-Tac-Toe.”

“What is Tic-Tac-Toe?”

I draw a board next to his and play a mock game to show him.

“Tsoro Yematatu is better,” he says and we begin. He’s right. The ability to move your pieces after setting them down makes for a more challenging game. Fresnel laughs as he easily beats me in the first couple of matches. Finally, though I get the hang of the game and he claps when I get my first win.

“I must be a good teacher,” he says.

“I must be a good student.”

Régis is the first to catch a fish. He yells back at us broadly gripping a squirming fish in his strong hands. Fresnel takes a cloth out his own sack and lays it on the ground where deposits the fish. I watch for a few moments as the eel-like fish gasps desperately for air. A Bush fly lands on it and Régis winks at me, then continues to fish.

A number of the Arrow Boys migrate towards with firewood. Fresnel helps them get the fire going. Some take out their own nets, while others sharpen branches into spears and take up fishing. From the looks of Walia and Régis, they are not happy to have company, but they say nothing.

By the time the sun sits low in the horizon, Alison’s joins us and says that the fire will let the patrol know where to find us. Sure enough, he is correct. Peter leads the group of men toward us. Alison greets him eagerly, but is soon disappointed to hear that the track has gone cold once again. Alison thanks him for his effort and beckons the men to sit and drink.

It is a strange feeling and for a while the search for one of the world’s most infamous criminals fades to the back of my mind.

When I was growing up my father used to take our family hiking near Bear Mountain, NY. We’d help our mother pitch our tent on the camping grounds, while my father went fishing. As the sun would set, we’d cook the fish on the fire that we made the real way.

“We don’t use start up fluid in our family,” my dad would say. The real was the teepee way. First, my sister and I would collect 10 or 12 stones to create a circle around a patch of open ground. Then we’d collect the same number of long thick sticks, preferably those with a forked edge. We’d jab the stick into the ground on an angle, with the forked sides resting on one another at the center like a teepee. The key is to leave an opening on the side of the teepee facing the wind. That opening becomes the doorway where we’d pile high grass, woodchips, twigs, and smaller sticks. At this point my dad would tell my sister and I to close our eyes.

“No peaking!” he’d insists then point a long finger in our faces to test that they were really closed. I’d always flinch and he’d tackle me and tickle me. “Keep them closed.”

When he knew for sure that we weren’t looking, we’d her him strike a match or two and toss them into the doorway.

“Tada. The real way!” he’d say, when the fire would catch.

“You used a match!” we’d yell and stomp our feet at him.

“If don’t see something, how do you know it happened? Now get your camera out of the tent, Jessica, and take a picture of me and your mother. Then I’ll take one of my laides.”

I turn to Alison and ask, “Can you tell everyone to gather together before the sun goes down? For a picture,” I explain.

Alison takes a bite of cooked fish, wipes his hands clean, and tells the men. Many of them groan and he barks at them to quiet down. Fresnel, Régis, and Walia, on the other hand, are the first to get together. They wrap their arms around each other in the center of the photo and smile happily at me.

I bend on one knee and focus the lens upward to capture part of a small hill where the sun is setting in the background. I take the first picture, then tell everyone to push closer together and again some groan. But ignore them and focus on Fresnel who is smiling now eagerly.

“Okay. Last one, everybody…ready—”

But then I see her. She is sitting in a narrow clearing on the hill just to right of Fresnel’s ear. I zoom in on her as much as my camera will allow. And what I see make me nearly vomit on myself.

“There!” I yell. “Alison! There!”

Click here to view part 4: https://rustorytelling.wordpress.com/chasing-ghosts-with-arrow-boys-part-3-the-end/

Chasing Ghosts with Arrow Boys (Part 4–the end)

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Read Part 2 here: https://rustorytelling.wordpress.com/2013/01/27/chasing-ghost-with-arrow-boys-part-2/

I bend on one knee and focus the lens upward to capture part of a small hill where the sun is setting in the background. I take the first picture, then tell everyone to push closer together and again some groan. But ignore them and focus on Fresnel who is smiling now eagerly.

“Okay. Last one, everybody…ready—”

But then I see her. She is sitting in a narrow clearing on the hill just to right of Fresnel’s ear. I zoom in on her as much as my camera will allow. And what I see make me nearly vomit on myself.

“There!” I yell. “Alison! There!” I point.
Continue reading

Vacation

When you’re on vacation you don’t need to wear a watch. You can go by the tide or the shadows on sidewalks or the pangs of hunger in your belly. And when you’re on vacation you don’t have to worry about people knowing you. You can do as you please. Come and go as you wish. You can be who ever you’d like to be –like Michael or Sal or Roger. It all makes no difference. So tonight I’m Randolph and I work in Wisconsin, and I’m in South Beach for the weekend. I’m also very successful, but I don’t like to talk about that because I’m humble.

I think that’s what she probably notices first: my humility. She walks over to me and leans on the bar. She gives me the look like I can buy her a drink. I do-–a cosmopolitan. We speak. Her name’s Carmela. She has soft brown eyes and a quiet sense of humor.

“That guy over there,” she says after our second drink, “he’s looking for men.”
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Chasing Ghosts with Arrow Boys (Part 2)

To read part one click here:
https://rustorytelling.wordpress.com/2013/01/20/chasing-ghosts-with-arrow-boys-part-1/

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We walk 9 kilometers through the night and find nothing but Bush flies, which swarm everywhere.

“We stop here for the night, because there is no water ahead,” explains Peter.
“So we are sleeping here?” I ask.
“Yes. We will make a fire.”

There was no use for a fire. It rained heavily that night and no one slept. The Bush is a vast kingdom of trees. And no doubt, we are not the only group out tonight combing the grounds for Joseph Kony.

A few of the Arrow Boys get undressed and hide their clothes in sacks so that they do not get wet. We sit in a circle near the remnants of the premature fire, and I take a picture of them, but their flashlights are off and I doubt it will come out well. Peter gently puts his hand on the small of my back and offers me shelter under his jacket. I thank him, but take off my own coat, look up, and let the rain wash over my face and fill my mouth. Towering trees will blot out the sun during the day, but the heat trapped within.

I do not ask any questions, but Alison begins to speak. He wants me to understand, he says. So I listen. Much I know already, but I do not interrupt him. The Arrow Boys sit and listen, while Peter translates for them.

We are to trek through endless miles of elephant grass and wade through swirling brown rivers that twist and bend like snakes and that are infested with crocodiles in the hopes of finding one man. This is where Kony operates. The Bush is as vast an expanse as the size of California. It is so rugged it renders much of the American loaned gadgetry useless.

The Americans arrived late to South Sudan and Alison believes that much of the decision to help has to do with the regions rich oil supplies. He is probably correct, I tell him. “But they are helpful in some ways. I think this is true,” he continues.

After 9/11, President Bush declared the LRA a terrorist organization and Joseph Kony, its leader and deity, was charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity. Kony claims to communicate directly with the Holy Spirit who guides this “holy war.” In the name of God, The LRA have mutilated victims in Northern Uganda, The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Central African Republic, and South Sudan.

In 2008, the US supported these four countries in Operation Lightening Thunder, an aerial assault on the main LRA camp in Garamba region of the Congo, a region that the LRA had migrated to after being chased from Northern Uganda in 2005. The operation, which intended to destroy all senior leadership of the LRA, failed to eliminate the threat. Many LRA members, including Kony, sought refuge now in the Bush along the boarders of South Sudan, the Congo, and Central African Republic.

Since the operation, The LRA has resupplied and continues to prey on the nearing towns. Alison tells me the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army has not done enough to help the villagers around Nzara and Yambio.

“They are fighting a war with the north. The north is not happy that South Sudan is free because the oil is here. The oil is in the South. They vow to take hold of the region and the Liberation Army is fighting at the northern border, while the LRA is abducting and killing its people in the west.”

One boy stands up when Peter finishes translating Alison’s words. He is wearing only underwear and he begins to shout at me as water drips off his nose and down his body. He ignites a fire in the group and they all nod and shake their heads as anger swells in their eyes.

“Aliswiso is telling you about one attack on his village,” Peter whispers in my ear. His breath passes through my wet hair and it gives me goose bumps along my spine. “The LRA come in the middle of the night. They come to his house and they take his younger brother. His father tries to stop them, but they surround him and a group of boys beat him with bats. Aliswiso’s father is nearly dead when the LRA give a wood paddle with nails to his brothers and force him to stab holes into his father’s body. Aliswiso’s mother tries to stop his brother and they make him kill her too.”

Aliswiso continues to shout and the others are on their feet around him. “Now he must be an Arrow Boy, protector of life. He is an Arrow Boy.” And now everyone is shouting together in one voice and Peter’s voice rises to meet theirs: “We are Arrow Boys. We are Arrow Boys. We are Arrow Boys.”

Alison allows them to rage together then commands them to sit. They do. “We are hope,” Alison says to me. Alison is compassionate—I can see that. But there are no tears in his eyes. He is the leader of the Arrow Boys and there is pride in that.

I take a picture that I know will not come out.

The next day, we are forced to move through the Bush at a much slower rate, cutting through vines and leaves to make a clearing. It is hot and I feel light headed, dirty, and tired.

Alison instructs Jacques to climb up a tree and look out. He does not see tracks, nor does he see any signs that the abducted children were tied to these trees.

I ask Peter, “Why would they be tied to the trees?”
“Because they are all the time trying to run away. So they leave them tied to trees until the morning,” he says, slapping at a Bush fly.
“Do you have family of your own?” I ask.
“I am not married if that is what you ask. I have no children. But I am very much looking for a bride,” he winks and I blush.

The tracks have suddenly gone very cold and there is no water up ahead. “We are not going to find them,” Alison determines. Instead we head back to the villages outside Nzara.

There is a refugee camp near Nzara called Makpandu. Alison, Peter, and two Arrow Boys take me there for the day. “Arrow Boys will not be going out again tonight. Tomorrow we can return and we will continue the patrol,” explains Alison.

We arrive to Makpandu by motorcycles and a group of boys hurry out to greet us. The camp was original set up for men, woman, and children fleeing from DR Congo. There are now more than 4,000 displaced people because of the LRA. Peter introduces me to one boy named Japhet, while Alison and the Arrow Boys search the market in the center of the camp for cheap supplies they can use on the next patrol.

“Where is your family?” I ask as children climb on the motorcycles. Peter picks one girl up, throws her in the air, and catches her like she’s a ballerina. The girl laughs and I take a picture.

The boy understands me and points to the field on the outskirts of the camp where a man is cutting wood. “There is father,” he explains. The boy leads us to him and Peter and I follow.

I introduce myself to the father, whose English is more polished than both Peter’s and Alison’s.

“I was a secondary school teacher. The LRA came in the morning to arrest the children. They had already attacked the village near by. They killed my older brother, my wife, and all my children, except Japhet,” he says grabbing hold of his son. “My younger brother they took with the other children they arrested. 150 children they took. They tied ropes around their neck and with machetes to their bellies, marched them away into the Bush. I could do nothing, but find Japhet hiding in a tree near my village.”

“150?”

“Yes. And they will never come home. If they do, they will be ruined for life. It is almost more humane that they die in the Bush, Jessica.”

I do not know what else to say. I ask him if I can take a picture of him and Japhet. I’m not sure whether my pictures will accomplish anything if I do not find Kony. But I do know that at the very least it can remember those who are forgotten. Japhet is smiling up at his father. For those few seconds, he feels special. My battery is low, but I keep snapping. I keep snapping and when the camera is dead, I am still clicking because Japhet is smiling up at his father.

“Do you want to return to the Congo?” I ask Japhet.
“No,” answers his father. “There is nothing in the Congo anymore. I will stay here and Japhet will stay with me.”

We stay through the evening and Japhet gives me a tour. There is little water and minimal food supplies in Makpandu. But when it is time to eat, the people gather together what resources they have near the market square. Japhet and his father help build the fire, which the women stand over, rigorously mixing pepper into a large pot of fumbwa or vegetable stew. When they are finished, a tray of green cassave leaves and fufu dough are placed on the ground. Japhet sits with me on the floor. His fingers are dirty and there is sweat in his hair. He reaches down and grabs a small piece of fufu. I run my fingers through my own hair, wondering what I must look like.

“You,” he nods at me to copy. I thank him and take a bite-size piece. Japhet rolls his into a ball then makes an indentation with his thumb. One of the women pours a small amount of fumbwa in the center. “Now eat.”

It’s peppery, hot, and soothing. “Delicious,” I say and Japhet smiles.
Peter takes some as well. “When we are back in Nzara, you will have Kissra. Is made of cornbread. And we have Asseeda and Kawari—is made with sheep’s—I don’t know how to say in English—” Peter points to his foot.
“Feet? Hooves?”
“Yes! Sheep hooves’ soup. That is truly delicious. Goldilocks porridge and sheep hooves,” he laughs at his own joke. “Much better for you. It will make your baby grow strong,” and he continues to laugh, placing his arm around my shoulder.

There is a festive joy in the air throughout the night: the comfort of being together and sharing in pain.

“They do not need to speak of the horrors to one another, but not because they are hiding their sorrow. If you ask they will tell you because they will hope you will show your pictures to the world and then the world will bring back their sons and daughters,” Peter says to me after we eat. I am sitting on a log, changing batteries, and taking pictures of a group of teenage girls dancing near the flames behind Alison. He puts his hand on my leg and shakes his head at me as if to say that such notions are foolishly idealistic. That, at best, the images will encourage a few passing remarks over Sunday night dinner tables or, more likely, will be diverted by a concrete canal of collective consciousness into a cistern labeled African problems, or even more disheartening, an amalgamation of images stretching from Rwanda to Darfur—a collage of nothing at all.

“But when they are together, when they move together,” he points at the girls. “That is when hope is born. That is when their pain is mixing into one and so there is no need to speak on it to each other, let a lone a deaf world. There is just the comfort of being together with pain. Comfort in just moving again.”

I stop taking pictures, turn, and look at him for sometime.

Peter has beautiful eyes that remind me of the man I once loved. Three weeks from today was going to be my wedding day. I smile at Peter holding tears back with words stuck in my throat.

I stand up, join the group of girls dancing, and let myself begin to mix. They are dancing with me and they are excited and the men and women seated around the fire see us and join too. I wave Peter over and he hurries forward. Japhet and his father throw more logs on the flame, though the fire does not need it yet. But we are living for now and there will be time tomorrow to collect more logs. Time tomorrow. And so the fire grows and the cheer is loud and I think of the boy I first met when I arrived in Nzara who is nearly deaf and I scream so that if he were here at this moment he could mix with us. The older women, who are not dancing clap their hands and someone begins to play a beat, a drum—a drumming that makes my feet lift off the ground like I am floating—floating towards Peter and his beautiful eyes. And Peter takes my hand and we are moving together and he is touching my body and I am holding his neck in my arms. He rests his lips on my skin and I close my eyes and go with him. I want to keep mixing; I want the drums to beat faster, the fire to grow. I want to feel his breath on me because I know that when the dancing stops and tomorrow comes our pain will drift apart and I will not be able to hold back the tears. I will be pregnant and alone and then it will flood over me—a static image, easily passed over, easily airbrushed into a statistic. I put my lips on Peter’s ear—

The drumming stops. Peter jumps back. There is the crackling of engines and the heavy sound of tires on dirt roads. The people are rushing off. Japhet’s father grabs the end of a log sticking out from the fire and rolls the flame off. Peter takes out a gun I did not know he had. I hear a woman scream and grab one of the teenage girls.

“Quick! Into the forest!” Peter yells at me. “Go!” I don’t move. Japhet’s father grabs me and pulls me toward the field, toward the forest. Peter is not coming. He is staying and I want to yell, but the words won’t come. My camera falls; I turn my head, and see Japhet coming up the rear, scraping it off the floor. His father shouts something to him, but we do not stop. We are moving into the forest and it is dark.

“We are going to the safe house. There are weapons there. You must use them,” says Japhet’s father to me. But nothing is making sense now. Where is the safe house? In the forest?

There are knives, bow and arrows, handguns and some food waiting for us when we arrive. Japhet gives each of us a handgun.

“If you hear them. Shoot. But save one bullet for yourself,” says Japhet’s father.

“Not to let them capture you,” Japhet explains.

We wait in the dark for hours; each splash of sound causes stiffness in my back. When the sound finally ceases, I picture the girls as spoils of war being presented before Kony as wives; the boys’ metamorphosis into LRA soldiers; the men and woman murdered by their own children. I look at Japhet. His gun does not shake like mine.

And then the snapping of dried branches breaks the silence.

“Hold until you see whites of eyes,” whispers Japhet.

The footsteps are getting louder and we can hear voices coming from every direction. We are surrounded. Flashes of light shoot through the leaves. One rests on Japhet’s foot.

“Hold until you see whites of—”

Boom!

I whip my gun around…but I see no one except Japhet’s father, who drops his gun to the floor and hurries over to his son’s dead body.

The footsteps are here and I hold my wobbling gun up. The light intensifies. I see the whites of eyes and know I should shoot, but I can’t. I will die. I will die, but I can’t shoot.

“Jessica! Don’t shoot! Jessica!” It’s Peter and he is with Alison and the two Arrow Boys who are holding flashlights up to my face.

I shield my eyes then look to Japhet and his father and drop the gun. Alison goes to Japhet’s father, whose body shakes as he shrieks uncontrollably. Japhet’s eyes are open, staring at me from the floor, while blood pours through the side of his head, mixing with the dirt. Peter picks my gun up and kneels beside me. I pull away.

He’s killed his own son.

My brain is spinning. The tears flood over me carrying with it the familiar images stained in my mind: I can see blood in the bathroom, on the sink, on the floor, on the toilet, and I can see it all through the shower curtain. I am watching the man I love die and begging the man inside me to call for help…

Peter pulls me from the safe house. I don’t resist. Cool air reaches my sweat, but it hardly Régisters. I feel numb. I shake my head, but the images won’t leave me. Past and present chase each other around and around and around.

“Stop!” I cry. “Stooop!” And finally the carousal screeches to a halt. Peter stops pulling.

I shake my head. He’s killed his own son.

Click here for part 3: https://rustorytelling.wordpress.com/2013/02/06/chasing-ghosts-with-arrow-boys-part-3/

CHASING GHOSTS WITH ARROW BOYS (PART 1)

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It takes nearly 17 hours to travel the 372 km from Juba to Nzara, but when I arrive Alison wastes little time in introducing me to the villagers he is trying to defend.

“They cut your body and put oil inside like magic and it is to change your mind. What you are seeing in not human beings no more, but animals. And if you say you see human beings still, they come again at you and cut your body until you see what the magic tells you to see.” Alison stands by the threshold of the storehouse, which is nothing more than a straw hut where food and weapons are stored side by side. I can see from his shadow stretching across the dirt floor that he is shaking his head as the boy who escaped from the Lord’s Resistance Army two years ago recounts the torture he was forced to commit. But as I have learned from past experiences, images like these cannot be shaken. Instead, I ask the boy in a loud voice so that he can hear me despite the damage to his eardrums if I can take a picture of him and he says yes.

“You may come, Jessica,” says Alison on our way out of the storehouse. “But you may only come on my patrols so that I will know where you are most safe. We go into the forest along the boarder. They disbanded into small groups these days, which is bad because they moving like shadows through the forest.”

South Sudan’s tropical forest stands in stark contrast to arid desert in the north. For years, the LRA have used this terrain to their advantage. The swamps, the wild game, the tangle of trees, the ivory of elephants are all at their disposal. But they cannot survive forever in the Bush and so they come to villages around Nzara like Siimbii, Buretiki and Baguga to pillage, rape, kill, and abduct new recruits: children, who, like the boy who escaped two years ago, they will teach to see animals in place of humans.

I nod in agreement and I thank him for his hospitality. He looks at me and laughs. “The driver says that you are pregnant. He says you need to stop many times along the way from the capital in order to urinate.”

“It took us 17 hours,” I shrug.

Alison laughs again. “That is good.” I’m not sure whether he is referring to the time we made or the pregnancy, but I smile all the same.

Alison introduces me to the patrol group I will be traveling with. They are nothing more than a band of farmers; fathers, brothers, and husbands who have volunteered to chase ghosts through the Bush. “The LRA move quickly and to track them can be much difficult, if not impossible in the night. But the women says they have seen footprints and so we go shortly. I will like you to stay close to Peter,” he adds pointing to the tallest man in the pack. Like Alison, Peter is one of the few who is fluent in English. He is an attractive man: strong and charming. He welcomes me with a broad grin and offers me water from his canteen.

I am tired and would have liked a chance to rest before we moved out, but I will be in Nzara for little over a week and so I will need all the opportunities I can get. The patrol unit is armed with bats, rocks, poison darts, spears and, of course, bow and arrows, which is where their name originates from: the Arrow Boys. One or two fortunate ones carry locally made rifles, which can be fired only once before reloading, and Alison proudly carries a handgun issued by the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army.

I carry too much the Arrow Boys complain. I will not be light enough to travel through the Bush. I tell them that the bag I am carrying is filled with cameras. I take a picture with my hands to demonstrate my meaning. They laugh and repeat that I will be too heavy to move quickly through the Bush. I am three months pregnant and think that I have managed well so far. Peter offers to carry my bag for me, but I do not want to slow him, so I take two cameras, wrap them around my neck, and leave my bag with a group of beautiful young girls who have come to wave the Arrow Boys off. I take a picture of a girl kissing one of the Arrow Boys on the cheek.

“If the LRA make it to Nzara, these girls will become sex slaves,” says Peter matter-of-factly.

 

When I was twenty, I took what little money I had and bought myself a computer and camera and tried myself as a freelancer. I was willing to go where few would volunteer. I started in Afghanistan where I was supposed to stay three months; I stayed instead nearly three years, where I was one of the few photojournalists to meet the Taliban face to face. From Afghanistan, I went to Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Somalia, Columbia, Guatemala.

A man I loved once asked me if I am ever scared. “Sometimes. Sometimes yes. But if there is time for fear then it is already too late.”

South Sudan’s Western Equatoria is no place to be late. I put my eyes to the lens, but scarcely any light can penetrate the tangle of branches and leaves that hide the secrets of the new nation’s struggle against the Lord’s Resistance Army. But as Arrow Boys push deeper into the black forest, they flip the flashlights attached to their caps on. Batteries are one of the Arrow Boy’s most prized possessions and I am told that I am fortunate to have arrived when I did because a fresh supply had finally reached Kassia today, a small village near Nzara.

I am certain the light will attract gunfire should we encounter the LRA, but I do not say this. For one thing, it allows me to photograph them on the move. For another, I think they want the LRA to know they are here. We enter the Bush and one man leads the chorus of chants. Peter translates for me: “The war is serious. And we are serious too!”

Alison adds proudly that “over the past six or seven months, chiefs of Yambio has collected over 21,000 Sudanese pounds from their communities, 89 buckets of maize corn, 108 buckets of dura, 150 buckets of cassava flour, 129 buckets of groundnuts, 19 bottles of termite oil, 10 packets of table salt, and 18 bottles of honey. They give much of this to us to protect life. That is what the Arrow Boys are: protectors of life.” He picks up a pinch of dirt and plays with it in his hands. “They are fighting for their land, Jesicca, and so they are not scared to die tonight.”

Over the years, I have learned that taking the picture is not the difficult part. In photojournalism, it is positioning yourself for the image that is most challenging. And I not only want to capture the LRA; I want what the Arrow Boys want. I want Joseph Kony.
Peter tells me that the LRA come in the dark; machetes in their hands, their bare chests crossed with red oils and mud. Kony has taught them that these crosses will protect them from the army’s bullets.

I run ahead of the Arrow Boys, squat between trees, and lag behind for the picture. I can tell that Alison does not like me straying, but he allows it. One thing that I learn quickly about Alison is that he rarely smiles while on patrol: “The war is serious. And we are serious too!”

We come across the point where the women say they saw the tracks. There is blood on the ground, but Peter says they are not sure whether it is human. A young boy name Jacques who is no older than fifteen, sticks a cigarette in his mouth and reaches down to touch the blood. I take a picture. The boy says something to Alison, who appears to agree and we pick up our pace.

The Arrow Boys are quick and the rush of getting lost internally is starting to return to me. I remember sitting on the couch in my sister’s living room a few weeks before I left, telling her that I accepted this assignment.

“So soon, though?” Lauren says, her head tilt in the same way my father responded the day before. I look away.

“What would you have me do? What does everyone want from me?”

“This isn’t about what we’d have you do…don’t roll your eyes…you’re pregnant for Christ sake. You’re pregnant. This isn’t about going to a dangerous land. This isn’t like the other times and you know it,” she pauses, seeing I’m on the verge of tears, and grabs my hand.

“Are you really going to put your body through that?”

“There are millions of pregnant woman around the world doing incredible things,” I say wiping my eyes. “Why not me?”

“It’s not a question of why not you. It’s a question of what you are really hoping to accomplish in South Sudan?”

I shake my head at her and look away again because I don’t have a response.

“Jessica, look at me. Please, look at me. If you are trying to loose the baby…”

“Lauren!”

“If you are trying to loose the baby,” she continues, “you can do it safely, here, with me by your side. There isn’t anything wrong with it. You don’t need to carry that pain.”
She waits for me to respond, but the words are stuck in my throat and I can’t.

To read Part 2 click: https://rustorytelling.wordpress.com/2013/01/27/chasing-ghost-with-arrow-boys-part-2/