Once it happened that a man, who had turned government informant during the civil war, went to visit his next-door neighbours, in order to make sure that government soldiers arrested them before they had time to escape.
A year before the war he had been in dispute with them about a chicken, which the neighbours’ son, then a boy about seven years of age, had killed with a stone while he and the man’s children were at play. As small a matter as it would have seemed, that quarrel could well have broken down their houses, leaving everybody buried under the wreckage. Blows had been exchanged between this man and the boy’s father, who had beaten him up severely and refused to pay for the chicken. Two years had passed since then, but the man had not forgotten.
That night the neighbours, seated at the table and eating their evening meal, heard a knock on the door. The father, in the act of raising a spoonful of rice to his mouth, stiffened as though a dentist had told him to sit still with his mouth wide open because a tooth was about to be extracted. The mother too froze on the spot and sat, momentarily unable to blink, like a statue in the rain. The child paid little attention to them – though he heard the knocking as well – and went on eating. Ever since the war broke out they had had very little to eat. That evening the boy was as hungry as a locust.
The knocking continued. Whenever it stopped a man, talking as though his mouth were filled with water, his voice barely audible, would call out: ‘Neighbours, da Gbassy. The soldiers tryin to kill me-o. Please open the door. Neighbours, please help. Neighbooooooours…’
But the wife and her husband, whispering to their son to keep silent, remained seated. A knock on the door after dark in those days of war nearly always meant the arrival of government soldiers and plain-clothed security operatives, who often came to pillage and plunder, and then arrest and torture – possibly even kill – anybody the government believed a traitor. The man and his wife sat trembling, like victims just before their executions are announced. One could almost hear their bones knocking together. But there was a look of amusement on the little boy’s face. Whenever the man called out, the boy’s entire face would twitch as though he were on the verge of falling into peals of laughter. Suddenly the father said something to his wife, who, gazing at him in astonishment, motioned to him not to open the door. But the man merely whispered something else to her, got up and went to the door. The mother sighed heavily, put both elbows on the table, bowed her head and held it in her hands.
The father opened the door. A man wearing torn and dishevelled clothes, and who had on just one shoe with a big toe peeking out of it, stumbled into the house, breathing heavily and looking as though he had just managed to escape from a pack of wolves with his life. His eyes were almost popping out of his head. He shook as if his limbs were held together by pieces of string. The father feigned a smile and nodded his head at him, locked the door again and together they went to the dining table. The other man did not sit down but stood beside the table as though unsure what to do. The father, glancing anxiously between the door and the man, motioned him to a chair. Nodding his head, the guest sat down.
‘Let me get you something to eat,’ the wife said and forcing a smile at the man, Gbassy, got up and went into the kitchen. She was a tall woman of about thirty, slim at the waist and corpulent at the backside, giving her the appearance of a swan, with the neck being more slender than the whole body. As she moved away from the table, her hair bobbed gently on her shoulders and her buttocks swayed effortlessly. It was all Gbassy could do not to lick his lips in admiration. She was dressed in a flimsy nightgown which, given the thinness of its fabric, only further emphasised her curves.
Already the little boy, smiling, was motioning the man to eat along with him. Gbassy, smiling back at the boy, nodded and said, ‘Thank you.’
Soon the wife came back with a plate of food for Gbassy. They all began to eat.
As they ate, every few mouthfuls, the woman would look up from her plate of rice and palm-butter, which she had begun to toy with, and gaze at Gbassy, her face locked in a grimace. It was as though she wanted to run off to the toilet but his presence had restrained her. More than once Gbassy caught her looking at him. And as he looked back at her he noticed that her face had no evidence of age or stress, either round her mouth or her eyes. There were no wrinkles anywhere and her skin was smooth, like a peeled egg. Gbassy told himself that perhaps the woman would never age. This for some reason seemed very amusing to him. There was a mischievous gleam in his eye, as of a man when he must look on the misfortune of his enemy. The father ate, neither looking at Gbassy nor saying anything to him. The little boy observed all this. He could not understand why his mother, always so assured, seemed afraid of their neighbour or why his father was behaving as though he had never seen him before. Wasn’t this just Mr Gbassy, at whose house he had played most days before the chicken incident?
Had the child at that moment known what was running through Gbassy’s mind, almost with the swiftness of a bullet, he would perhaps have understood his parents’ response and even harboured towards Gbassy ill feelings of his own. Because upon the people seated with him at the table, the food he was eating, the table on which it was set and every other object in the house Gbassy looked with utter contempt. He was wondering where they could have managed to get the rice from when he and his family, for almost a month since the war had broken out, had eaten nothing but snails, which he got up at five in the morning to look for round the vicinity, even though by then the whole neighbourhood had turned out in search of the same thing. And here these people had cooked rice and soup and there was even fish in it. He wondered from where they could have gotten the money to buy such expensive furniture, which now he could see in the house, though he knew that the husband had worked as the owner of a respectable newspaper and could possibly afford to purchase it. He could even recall that the man had had two cars before the war. There were two large dish-cupboards against the wall, built of solid wood and full of expensive breakable dishes. Then there was the dining table, also built of oak and surrounded by soft chairs that you sank in immediately you were seated. But why this evident display of wealth, as though you alone had money and could choose to do whatever you wanted with it? Gbassy himself had very little and lived in a rickety corrugated house. His only valuable possessions were a few ramshackle chairs, and table and two old mattresses through which rats frolicked and woke him and his family in the night. And when he looked at the wife, the father and the son and saw how their faces shone with health, how his own family, even before the war, had had very little to eat, it was all Gbassy could do to stop himself from screaming in repugnance.
Then he thought about the chicken fuss, levelled his gaze like the double barrels of a gun at the man of the house, and said to himself, ‘This man could have bought a poultry farm if he wanted to, but chose to beat me up instead of paying for my chicken. But tonight I will make him pay.’
At that moment the wife looked up at him again. He smiled at her as before. She did not return the smile but sat in shocked silence, as if he had just told her to go and dig her own grave because she was about to be shot. Gbassy remembered that during the quarrel she had been the most vociferous; that if she had not been there the husband probably would have paid for the chicken and the row would have ended altogether. But she had cussed him, hurled a bucketful of water in his face, grabbed him by the collar and slapped him. When he had retaliated, the husband had joined in because he could not be expected to stand by when another man was beating his wife. Gbassy had heard from a neighbour that the wife was poorly educated and that she had probably never reached high school. Yet he could see that she was beautiful and he told himself that in a society where a woman was rarely judged by her education, such women all too often had the opportunity of marrying men who were wealthy. Besides, he reasoned, a beautiful woman gives a man more consolation from his labour than a wife who is ugly. Gbassy could remember that while the husband, who was a wealthy man, was away at work the woman did nothing but attend to the house, preparing her husband’s meals and taking care of the only son she had borne him. Some of the neighbours said she was given to vanity, others that she was greedy and manipulative, others that she had had only the one child because she wanted to look forever young and that she might well have drunk a bottle of elixir if only it were available. Sometimes Gbassy would meet her in the street or around the neighbourhood. On greeting her, he would get no response, not even as much as a slight nod. And at times the woman would look at him as if to tell him how poor he was. Like most empty-headed women she is proud and haughty; these are the types who destroy their husbands for nothing, Gbassy thought to himself.
The boy turned and looked at Gbassy warmly. As before, Gbassy smiled back at him. For a moment they sat looking at each other, until the man reached for a glass of water and became absorbed in his own thoughts again. The child can hardly be to blame for his parents’ bad behaviour, he thought, setting down the half-glass of water on the table and returning to his food. He’s only a small boy and most often the children of rich people are prejudiced only because the parents are bigoted. Gbassy could recall that during the quarrel the small boy had stood in a state of perplexity and had begun to weep after he and his father started to fight. One of the neighbours, trying to soothe him, had taken the child to her house. But he had only ceased weeping after the fight was over and the mother had come to take him home. A day after that, however, the child was seen back at Gbassy’s house. The mother, finding him, had beaten him severely. The child had since grown afraid and came no longer to play there. But even though the child’s parents no longer spoke to Gbassy, whenever the child saw him he would smile tenderly. Well, the soldiers will come for his parents tonight. Perhaps I will be able to save the boy, thought Gbassy, turning to look at the father across the table.
The father had just finished eating, as had the others, and was wiping his mouth with a napkin. He caught the other man looking at him, seemed to duck his head as if a bullet had been fired at him, and with trembling hands laid the napkin onto the plate in front of him.
The wife cleared the table and took the dishes into the kitchen, leaving the father and the son alone with Gbassy.
Dressed in a pair of blue pyjamas and bedroom slippers, the son got up, smiling again at Gbassy, and went into the living room, which could be seen from the dining area. He sat down cross-legged on the carpet, opened a book, which had been left lying there, and began to read.
Now the father and Gbassy were left alone. At first Gbassy tried talking about the war, as would have been expected; about how government troops were being routed on the battlefield; about the news he had heard over the BBC two days before, which said that the rebels were about forty-five miles from Monrovia. But the father only shrugged his shoulders, coughed whenever he could, and began instead to talk about the weather, telling the man that this December was perhaps the coldest, all the while averting his eyes. To this Gbassy said nothing but sat looking at the father, who, feeling the other man’s eyes mocking him, fell silent.
From outside came the chirping of crickets. Bullfrogs croaked in the swamp nearby, like so many people farting one after the other. From the kitchen came the smell of palm-butter, some of which the wife had left over and was warming to be eaten the following day. The rustle of pages could be heard every now and then from the living room, where the child was reading. The father and Gbassy, making no further attempts at small talk, sat silently at table. Even so, each was absorbed in his own thoughts, like opponents circling each other and looking for a chance to strike.
The father was thinking about the position in which he found himself ever since the war began and government soldiers and plain-clothed security agents started hounding real and imagined traitors. Already they had burned down his newspaper offices, calling the newspaper ‘subversive’. It was only a matter of time before they would come for him and his family. Once, along with his wife and son, he had tried leaving the country for the United States, but they had been arrested at the Roberts International Airport. It was a few days later that he learned from a former colleague that one of his neighbours – and he never found out who exactly – had been behind the arrest. And although the soldiers had only sent him and his family home, often they would whisper threats as he passed them on the road. The father looked at Gbassy and wondered if he was the one who had been behind the arrest. Could it be that the man had said something to the soldiers or were they only trying to get him as they were everybody else? At first when he had heard the knocking and then the frantic voice of the man calling for refuge he had not wanted to open the door. But the thought that if he had not opened it for him the other man would possibly have harboured a grudge and accused him of something which the soldiers, already eager for an opportunity to arrest him again, would immediately take as gospel, left him with no alternative. Already he had heard most neighbours were turning Judas. And was not the burning down of his newspaper offices enough to leave him feeling insecure? As for the chicken fuss, he thought nothing of it at all.
But Gbassy had thought about it and knew that it was why he had come; that tonight he would make this man pay for the shame he had poured on him by beating him up for chicken business. It was of course not only the disgrace that hurt him but the prejudice of it all. Now he would make him pay. And when the soldiers came for him and his family perhaps he would even help in the killings. This time he thought no longer of saving the small boy.
The wife emerged from the kitchen, went into one of the rooms, and came back carrying a pillow and blankets. These she handed over to Gbassy and said to him, ‘You can sleep in the sitting room. In the night if you would like to use the bathroom, there’s one we have in the garage. Come and I will show you.’ And she left along with Gbassy.
The father got up and went to the child. The boy was reading a tale from Arabian Nights. So absorbed was he that he took no notice even after his father had stood beside him for quite a while. Obviously the father was proud of the child, which could be seen in the way he stood gazing at him and by the warmth which had flooded his face, suffusing his whole being as if it were illuminated by electric lights overhead. Although he and his wife had only one son and the boy was only nine years old, the child had always filled him with pride and a sense of self-sacrifice. He wished his family were in the United States now, for then the child would have had the opportunity for a splendid education. He had wanted the boy to be a newspaperman like himself and possibly even a novelist. Having sent the child to some of the best schools in Monrovia, he had furnished the living room with a number of books, among them stories by Tolstoy, Guy de Maupassant and Chekhov, all of which he hoped his child would soon read and enjoy, as he had. But here was a senseless civil war in which the child’s future was being threatened for nothing. Every night he was afraid for his life and for the lives of his family. Every knock on the door turned him into a corpse. His thoughts went again to the man who had come to shelter that night and the lingering suspicion that the man was a betrayer. But then he sighed heavily, knelt beside the little boy and put his arm round his shoulders. The child turned his head, looked up at his father, gently touched his hand and went on reading.
The wife came back with Gbassy and said to the boy, ‘Let’s go to bed, Saye.’
‘Mama, I’m reading,’ Saye said, not looking up.
‘It’s late,’ the mother said.
‘I’m almost finished,’ the child said, frowning.
Gbassy said, ‘I think it’s all right if the boy wants to read. Besides, I will be here with him. When he falls asleep I will come to your room and call you to take him to bed.’ And he smiled at the boy’s parents, who seemed only more uncomfortable. But for some reason they said nothing.
Gbassy spread the blankets calmly on the carpet and sat beside the child.
The child’s parents stood there for a few moments, looking down at the man seated beside their son. Both appeared stunned, as if the house had been struck by an explosion. Yet glancing at each other and without a word, they turned and went into their bedroom.
As soon as they got into the room the father and wife collapsed. A muffled groan, as of an animal wounded in all his limbs, escaped the father, who lay flat on the bed. The wife lay on her back fighting for air, as though she had just been rescued from drowning. They lay there for a few moments. And then the wife sat up and said:
‘Why did you allow this man into our house? I think he has come here not to seek refuge but simply to turn us over to government soldiers. Wasn’t this the very man with whom you had that fight over the chicken?’
‘What fight over what chicken?’
‘Oh, don’t you remember the day you fought him when our son killed his chicken?’
‘That’s been a long time, Korzu.’
‘I’m sure the man hasn’t forgotten. Didn’t you notice the way he was looking at us?’
‘I didn’t notice anything,’ the father said, sitting up and shaking his head. ‘All that came to my mind when he knocked on the door was that I could help a neighbour. He had seemed so desperate, standing out there in the darkness and calling for help.’
‘Well, if anything happens to us you will be the one to blame.’
‘Listen, Korzu,’ said the husband, with a note of annoyance in his voice. ‘What if I hadn’t opened the door to him and he had harboured a grudge and brought soldiers to arrest us? You know ever since the war broke out they have been threatening to come for us. It’s even the thought of what this man could be capable of – remember it was one of our neighbours who informed on us when we were about to leave the country – that I haven’t yet found the mouth with which to say anything to him. That is the same reason I’ve left the child alone with him because I am afraid of hurting his feelings in the slightest.’
‘It’s the same with me,’ said the wife, wiping the tears that streamed down her face. ‘Oh, God, how can people be so wicked? We can only hope and pray that he hasn’t come to betray us. But if the morning meets us alive do you not think it will be better to leave the neighbourhood altogether? I have heard of a church that’s receiving displaced people.’
‘Then we will go there in the morning,’ the father said, nodding his head.
He sat down beside his wife. Tears pouring out of their eyes, they embraced and retired to bed, one trying to console the other. But the father did not immediately fall asleep. Every so often he would get up, slip out of the room and stand in the shadows of the foyer, from where he could see the man and his son in the living room. Yet each time he returned it was only to meet the little boy reading and the man seated quietly beside him. At last the father got tired of it and, his eyelids heavy with sleep, he returned to bed and fell asleep.
It was a little after one o’clock in the morning that the small boy, having read a number of tales from Arabian Nights, closed the book and looked up at Gbassy, still with a smile.
Gbassy grinned back at him. ‘You read very well. Your parents should be proud of you. My oldest son, he’s eighteen, and he can’t read.’
The boy shrugged his shoulders. ‘Not everybody likes to read. Maybe he will join the army. Do you know Mr Jabateh, the carpenter who lives across the road?’
‘His son Mulbah is eighteen years old too, and he’s joined the army.’
‘Only yanna boys are joining the army these days.’
‘What do you mean it’s only yanna boys? I’ve seen the soldiers. They have guns and look cute in their uniforms.’
‘They are nothing but thieves and yanna boys, those soldiers. The government has been taking them off the streets in truckloads just to get killed for nothing, because many of them are not even taught to take cover and still less how to aim their rifles properly.’
‘Are the rebels thieves and yanna boys too?’
‘Nobody knows yet. But I hear some of the rebels are as young as you are.’
‘But I’m only nine! How would boys like me be able to carry a gun?’
‘Myself, I don’t know.’
‘Who gave them the guns? Who sent them to fight?’
‘The big, big people here in our country, but most of them are living in America now. There’s a man called Charles Taylor who’s leading the rebels. He used to work for the government.’
‘So this is the man who’s sending those small boys to fight?’
‘He and the other big people in America.’
‘What do they send those small boys to fight for?’
‘They want to rule the country and don’t care about the lives of small boys.’
‘So those small boys will die for nothing?’
‘Can’t somebody do something?’
‘Do something like what?’
‘They could take the guns from the small boys.’
Gbassy laughed, his teeth as brown as if stained by kola nuts. ‘It wouldn’t be so easy.’
‘Because most of the boys will shoot you before they give you their guns. I hear they have been given opium to smoke and have even been made to eat human heart.’
Saye shuddered. ‘Are they cannibals?’
‘Their leaders want to make them as bad as they can and so they give them drugs and force them to eat human beings. That way they get them to kill people and show no conscience. Besides, when war starts it takes a long time to end. One thing leads to another thing and soon what started the war is forgotten. Some people will want to get rich out of the war and so will want it to go on forever. And these are mostly powerful people with money who can buy enough guns to fill the whole world.’
‘What will happen when the rebels reach Monrovia?’
‘There will be a lot of looting and killing and maybe even worse than what government soldiers are doing now.’
‘But would we be able to watch TV? Do you remember Balawala Malawala? They haven’t shown it for two weeks now.’
‘You mean the TV miniseries?’
‘Perhaps when the rebels reach Monrovia there will be no more TV.’
‘Are you joking?’
‘I’m telling you the truth, my friend. And perhaps there will be not only no TV but also no electricity or running water.’
‘What about school?’
The boy fell silent.
‘Things are going to get bad.’ Gbassy added quietly.
‘And so what are we going to do all day?’
‘Stay home hungry and dreaming about food, when we are not running away from the rebels and government soldiers who would try to kill us.’
‘Would things get as bad as that?’
‘Yes and maybe worse.’
The boy bowed his head and fell silent again. Seated cross-legged on the blankets, Gbassy watched him and wondered what he was thinking.
Then the boy looked up at Gbassy and said suddenly: ‘You said government soldiers are trying to kill you.’
The abrupt change of subject caught Gbassy like a sledgehammer between the eyes. He almost fell over backwards. For a moment he did not know what to say. Then he scratched his head, slapped a mosquito that had bitten him, said, ‘Yes,’ and looked at the boy, as if wondering what other secret weapon he had in his armoury.
‘Why would the soldiers want to kill you?’
‘I don’t know,’ the man said. ‘They are trying to kill everybody because, like I told you before, when war starts one thing leads to another thing. And then the soldiers come to get me, you and your parents and anybody they would like to come for.’
‘But I still don’t understand what started this war in the first place.’
‘I don’t know,’ the man said. ‘And you, don’t you want to sleep now?’
The boy sighed heavily and took his place on the blankets. Exhausted, just a few moments later he was fast asleep. But it was a while before Gbassy could sleep himself, for his head was crowded with thoughts.
Towards four in the morning he got up, went to the door, opened it and, making sure it stayed unlocked, made his way into the darkness. The soldiers had promised to pay him. He was angry that they hadn’t come yet. One of the most infuriating habits of these soldiers, many of whom were nothing but pickpockets, he thought grimly, is that they’re very unreliable. Every minute he had lain there on the blankets had been spent listening intently, like a man who had lost all his senses except the ability to hear, for the knock that would have signalled the start of the massacre. But the more he listened the more distant his prospects grew until finally it began to torture him, like thorns in his clothes. Now he would go and see the soldier Mulbah and the others, and tell them that this man and his family were rebel collaborators. It was hardly a sophisticated lie, but at least one on which he could count, because it had worked for him when the family was arrested at the airport. Even now it was the kind of untruth you told and which immediately was taken as gospel because the government was so desperate it would rob a priest. And although he could feel nothing but resentment whenever he thought about the chicken fuss, he now needed to get something out of it as well, especially since food was scarce. He wondered if the soldiers would keep their word and give him the half-bag of rice and the small gallon of cooking oil as he had asked.
But he did not find Mulbah and came back feeling like a man with a big family but not a coin to his name. One of the child’s parents while he was absent had come to the living room and taken the little boy away. The thought that perhaps the family might have escaped already, made Gbassy nearly cry out with rage. He was on the verge of running into the bedrooms to find out, when suddenly he heard sounds coming from one of the rooms. He sighed gratefully, like a beggar who finds a snug place to sleep during a night when it is raining, went to sit at the dining table and began to watch the hallway where the bedrooms of the family were, like a hyena waiting for the moment he would finish off a wounded animal. They must not be allowed to escape. Just then he heard footsteps in the yard. He jumped up, ran to the door, which he had left unlocked, and threw it open. But it was a group of displaced people going by with their belongings on their heads. They looked at him, seemed surprised that he was not running away himself and continued on their way. He closed the door again. As he turned round he saw the family standing there behind him. Both the man and the wife had got dressed and looked as if they were leaving the house. The child too had been made to put on sneakers and a jacket. They were carrying nothing but one travelling bag.
Gbassy frowned and looked darkly at them, his eyes seeming to scorch, like fire.
‘Morning,’ said the father.
‘Morning,’ said the wife.
The child did not speak.
‘Good morning to all of you,’ Gbassy said, standing inside the door as if barring the family from getting out of the house, arms akimbo and feet planted firmly on the floor.
The father said, ‘My family and I are leaving. We would like to seek refuge somewhere else rather than stay here until the war reaches Monrovia.’
Gbassy did not move, as though he had scarcely heard the father, and stood with a wicked gleam in his eye.
There was a long moment of silence, and they all remained motionless, like an audience waiting for the moment the curtain would rise, so that everybody, long spent with anticipation, would sigh gratefully. The child looked up at the faces of his parents and at the man inside the door. But when he looked at the man now it was with raised eyebrows, as though unable to believe that this was the very man with whom he had slept only hours before. Already his parents had told him why they thought the man was there; now all the friendly feelings he had felt toward Gbassy had vanished.
The father put his hand into his trouser-pocket, removed a thick wad of American notes, and handed it over to Gbassy. ‘It’s five hundred dollars, ‘he said, ‘and you can have the things in the house. We don’t need them anymore.’
Gbassy looked past the father’s shoulder, over at the furniture, and nodded his head. Then he stood aside from the door.
‘Thank you,’ said the husband.
‘Thank you,’ said the wife, and gazed at Gbassy like a sinner repentant in the presence of the Pope.
Gbassy smiled at the boy, but the child did not return the smile and looked at Gbassy as if he wanted to run away.
The man and his family walked out into the yard, then onto the tarred road and headed in the direction of the church that the wife had heard was receiving displaced persons.
Saah Millimono was born in 1981 and is a graduate of St. Michael’s Catholic High School in Monrovia, Liberia. He has worked as a freelance fiction writer for the Liberian Observer and in 2009 his short story, ‘Broken Dreams’ won Sea Breeze Journal of Contemporary Liberian Writing’s Short Fiction Prize. Boy, Interrupted is his first novel and was 1st runner-up of the Kwani? Manuscript Project in 2013.