Her mother cried one last pink tear mixed with blood, closed her eyes, and died.
Nyah knelt by the bed of the last remaining member of her family. She had done her duty to the woman who had borne her; the woman who had helped hold her down so that her clitoris could be cut off; the woman who had prized both of her younger sons more than her only daughter.
Nyah looked around the hut. She saw the blanket she’d put over her basket in the corner. Other than the basket, was there anything she wanted to take with her? She couldn’t think of anything. Now, all Nyah had to do was see her mother buried and she could get on with her life.
The sound of a far off engine interrupted her thoughts. And in the country of Berhanu, in the Eastern part of Sub-Saharan Africa, an engine meant jeeps and trucks, which, more times than not, also meant death.
Nyah went for the basket, threw the blanket off, and started pulling her clothes out by the handful as she searched in desperation.
Her fingers hit the knife’s handle. She pulled it out and tucked it inside the drawstring that separated the top and bottom parts of her dress.
She ran out of the hut in her flip-flops. The basket filled with everything she owned had become a luxury she could no longer afford to take with her. Staying to bury her mother was also out of the question.
The sun was bright enough that she had to shield her eyes. Nyah squinted as she looked toward the sound of the approaching vehicles.
The dust cloud they kicked up was about a mile away and coming closer at a leisurely pace. The dirt road to her village had lots of large potholes in it and the soldiers wouldn’t risk getting injured on the way.
Nyah turned around and headed up the dirt road that cut through her village. She looked around as she walked but the village was almost empty now. Two and a half weeks ago, there had been more than six hundred men, women, and children living there. Life was tough but most of them were getting by. Then the sickness came.
No one knew what it was or how it had gotten into their village, but after the first week, half of the people were dead. With only a handful of exceptions, no one who’d gotten sick had survived for more than four days. The eldest and youngest had usually died in two.
They died by bleeding to death: from their ears, noses, eyes, mouths, anuses, penises, and vaginas. Whatever it was, it started with a fever so hot, the person couldn’t stand, then, once they were bed-ridden, the bleeding finished them off. Sometimes what was left of their adrenaline would kick in at the end and they would be awake for their own deaths but more times than not, they had been unconscious.
After the fifth day, those who had remained healthy and who didn’t have anyone to take care of started abandoning the village. As soon as the first few had been seen leaving, even some villagers who did have someone to take care of left anyway.
After ten days, there were less than fifty people left alive in the village. Of those that had stayed behind, almost all were sick.
As she walked now, Nyah didn’t see anyone else. Maybe they were in their huts, she told herself.
Nyah turned on to a second dirt road that intersected the one she was on. She saw a healthy looking man carry a pail of water. She couldn’t recall his name but she remembered she’d gone to school with his younger sister.
“Soldiers are coming,” Nyah said.
He dropped the pail. It landed on its bottom. Water sloshed around, some spilling over the top. The look on his face was of terror. “They’ll kill whoever’s left alive.”
“Where are you going?”
She was going to Jelani, the capital, but didn’t want to tell him that. If the soldiers interrogated him, he would tell. Then they might come for her. “I’m going to Tafari.” It was the next village over, four miles away and in the opposite direction. “Come with me.”
He shook his head. “Thank you. But my son is still alive and he needs me.”
Nyah gave a quick bow, acknowledging his devotion to his son. They both knew the father and son would die together and the family line would end with them. They had both seen it happen enough times in the last two weeks that they’d become numb to it.
She glanced back over her shoulder.
Two jeeps drove in front of a truck. The truck was big enough to carry thirty soldiers. The dust cloud was less than a half mile away.
Nyah turned around and started running down the second dirt road as fast as she could.
A woman a few years older than Nyah held on to a hut’s doorway to help her stand.
“Soldiers!” Nyah said not breaking stride.
That one word sapped the woman of her strength. She collapsed in the doorway and didn’t move. One way or another, she was dead.
Nyah sprinted to the end of the road. Part of it broke off into a path that led into the jungle. She made the turn onto the path and kept running.
She pumped her legs as hard as she could. She started breathing heavy and, after another thirty yards, gasping for breath. Further and further into the jungle she went. The muscles in her legs started to hurt. She couldn’t take any more. Nyah slowed down and stopped next to a tree, putting her hand on it for support. She took one deep breath after another as she tried to fill her heaving lungs with desperately needed oxygen.
She’d almost caught her breath when a short burst of machinegun fire in the distance made her jump. She looked back over her shoulder but all she saw was jungle. The killing was happening a few hundred yards on the other side of the trees. She took off down the path, even deeper into the jungle.
“Shoot the living, burn the dead!” The Colonel yelled from the front passenger seat of the truck. The first group of soldiers were already on the edge of the village. The second group was still pouring out of the back of the truck.
The Colonel shook his head, regretting not having a flamethrower. His men would have to endanger their lives by setting the huts on fire by hand, or more precisely, by stick. If even one of them got the sickness, that single soldier would infect the others and then they would all be damned.
That he disagreed with his orders was immaterial; he still had to obey them. Had it been up to him, the infected villages would have been quarantined until the sickness ran its course. After that, if there were any survivors, they could be studied. Wasn’t it even possible someone could make a vaccine from their blood to help others?
But his was a poor country. And while it was true, creating a vaccine was one way of stopping the spread of disease, killing the infected before they infected anyone else was irrefutably another.
In the beginning, he had tried to convince himself that he was giving the infected the mercy of a quick death. But then he saw the conditions of both the dead and the dying. Sadly, there was no mercy to be had by any of them.
He scanned the abandoned village. It was the third he’d had to put to the torch in the last week. If the sickness wasn’t contained, the international doctors in Jelani would find out. And if the ones in the capital discovered what was happening, there would be no way to keep it quiet. Not only did they have the internet, they also had satellite phones.
It was humiliating; do-gooder, white doctors had better communications than the country’s army. But such was life in most of Africa.
The Colonel wondered if it would always be this way. With Africans looking up at the Asians, Arabs, Latinos, and those Goddamn Europeans. How the hell did the Europeans manage to dominate three fucking continents?
Nyah hadn’t heard any gunfire in more than an hour. She was exhausted, hot, and terrified. With the knife still inside her drawstring, she looked up at the sky in the direction she’d come from.
Columns of dark gray smoke stained the otherwise clear blue sky. She approximated they came from where her village had been.
Nyah was caught off guard by the sadness she felt. Yes, she had known what the soldiers would do the instant she’d seen them, but that still didn’t make hearing it happen any easier to take.
The village was where she had been born. It was where she had grown up. She had thought it would be where she would die, but no, she would die somewhere else: maybe the jungle; or the city; or the road to the city. But not in the village. If she accomplished nothing else, she had managed to outlive it, at least.
Nyah tried to figure out where the soldiers would go next. Not Jelani. There were too many people in the capital for the soldiers to kill without the fear of repercussions. Well, that wasn’t exactly true. There were too many white people for the soldiers to kill. If there was one thing Africans had proven over the last fifty years, it was that killing people of their own race in vast, heartbreaking, numbers was not a problem.
Yes, of course, the same was true of all other people on all other continents, but Africa was supposed to be special. The Eastern end of Sub-Saharan Africa was alleged by experts to be where the human race had begun. Therefore, it should have been where then next step in human evolution would take place.
That step would be the one that would end war. Of course, there would always be individuals who committed acts of violence. But large numbers of individuals committing many acts of organized violence? No. Stopping that was surely the next step in human evolution and Nyah had been positive it would start here.
She had been very much mistaken.
Not only had wars around the world not stopped, but the local strongmen in and around her country had ratcheted up their own ambitions to control more territory than they already had. And they had gone about doing it by the very un-evolved methods of raping women, kidnapping boys to conscript them into joining their armies, and killing everyone who stood in their way.
Nyah stepped out of the jungle and came to a savanna. There was a small lake about a mile further into the grassland. She figured, if she stayed away from the lake, she could avoid any wild animals looking for a mid-afternoon snack.
The high yellow grass rose up to her waist. The trees she walked by were a little wider than they were tall. She took slow, deliberate steps. Partially because she was tired and partially because she knew sudden movements would attract unwanted attention from potential predators.
Nyah approximated the savanna was about three miles wide. She had no doubts she would be able to cross it before it got dark. But would she be able to make it all the way through the jungle on the other side of the savanna before dark? Not easily.
She stepped out of the tall grass to where a large patch had been eaten by herbivores. Here, the grass was less than ankle high. She walked until a low half-purr, half-growl made Nyah freeze. She wasn’t sure where it had come from. She kept her body still and held her breath. Nyah turned only her head to look around.
A tree was about twelve steps to her right, further into the savanna. The jungle she had come from was maybe sixty steps straight behind her. In front of her, there was nothing but short grass for twenty steps, then tall grass for another sixty. To her left--
Something moved the blades of high grass beyond the short patch she was in. Whatever it was, it was big, thirty steps away, and closing fast.
Nyah ran to the tree on her right. It was only about three times taller than she was. The sound of something large shoving its way through the high grass made her turn her head to look.
A lioness burst out of the yellow blades that grew a few inches taller than her natural crew-cut. She turned her head, saw Nyah, and charged.
Nyah knew climbing the tree was useless. She reached out, grabbed a branch about as thick as her wrist, and cracked it off the even thicker branch it was growing from.
She looked at the spot where the tip had broken off. It was jagged but Nyah wasn’t sure it was sharp enough to successfully stab the big cat with. She turned around, gripped the makeshift spear about two-thirds of the way down from the tip, and waited for her enemy.
The lioness hadn’t eaten in a day. Determined that she and her cubs would not go hungry for another, she closed in on the dark, skinny, two-legged human female holding a stick in trembling hands.
Nyah felt the ground shake under her flip-flops as the lioness’ paws pounded the earth ten steps away. She knew she would only have one chance at the predator.
The lioness growled as she leaped up with her front paws extended and her drooling jaws wide open.
Nyah stabbed the tip of the tree branch forward. And missed.
The cat was already past the branch’s point. Nyah ducked and swung the branch while the lioness was still in mid-air. She caught the beast on the side, near the rear right leg.
The lioness swiped at the dark female as she went by but the stick pushing her side turned her sideways. Her swipe missed. Before she could do anything else, the side of her head hit the tree trunk and knocked her dizzy.
The lioness landed on the ground hard enough to bounce on her stomach, turn in the air, and land on her back. In addition to a concussion, she also had the wind knocked out of her. She couldn’t move.
Nyah saw the lioness helpless on her back. Should she run into the jungle and hope the big cat didn’t hunt her? Or should she attack?
Nyah pulled the branch back and stabbed the lioness under the chin. The big cat growled but the jagged tip wasn’t sharp enough to pierce the fur. Worse, the new pain seemed to be reviving her.
Nyah accidentally cut the drawstring on her dress as she pulled the knife out. She lunged down and sliced the lioness inside her right rear leg where it joined the torso.
The blade went through the fur and cut the veins and tendons. The leg opened up and fell away from the body, only held in place by the fur on the leg’s other side. A fountain of blood spurted out.
Nyah jumped back. Blood landed on her leg. She frantically tried to wipe it off on the grass next to her. When she thought it was all off, she grabbed some dirt and rubbed it on her leg where the blood had been. Savanna, jungle, or anywhere else in the wild, she could not walk around with fresh blood on her.
She got off all the blood she could see and turned around to look at the big cat.
The lioness was still on her back, bleeding out from her leg. Every heartbeat caused another spurt of blood to pulse out.
Even though Nyah was tired, sweaty, and thirsty, she was also proud of herself. The number of men from her village who had singlehandedly killed a lion could be counted on one hand.
Nyah closed her dress around her, turned, gripped the poor excuse for a spear in her hand, and headed for the tall grass with a renewed sense of confidence and determination.