Long Road Home
Names: Abiona (Mother) Born During a Journey
Ainose (Father) No one is greater than God
Elo – (Daughter)
The bug crawls across my finger so slowly that I get sleepy watching it’s tiny legs crawl up my arm and onto my dirty dress. I get sleepy a lot anymore, though. Without food, I don’t have much energy. This morning I used a lot of my energy getting water for Mama. The bucket is heavy and my muscles are almost too tiny now to carry it all the way to the house. Opening my sleepy eyes, I see Mama sitting in the corner, cooking a handful of beans over a smoky fire. Good. The smoke will keep the flies away.
She looks tired too. The strangers in the village must have worn everyone out. Everyone was talking about them today. Strange men who didn’t belong here, as old Bukunmi said. The wrinkled woman said mean things about them while grinding the maze her family found on the road home. I almost took some of it when she wasn’t looking, but Mama said to leave it – Bukunmi needs it more than we do. I didn’t think it was fair, but the woman is old. She probably does need more food.
Earlier today the odd men went around the village, going into people’s houses and talking with them. Many of our neighbors got mad and pushed them out, screaming some of the meanest things I’ve heard in a while. The taller one walked home with Baba from the fields and didn’t even ask if he could come into our house. He just walked in, dressed in his funny striped suit. Sitting down, he stretched out without even a thank you to Mama for the tiny bit of beans we had left over from the night before. He must not have known they were part of our last cup of food.
Mama gave him the worst look when he started talking. His words sounded so strange to me. Each sentence was heavy and loud, not smooth and silky like the way we talk in the village. “I understand things are hard for you,” he said, his bunny teeth sticking out every time he opened his mouth. “But the world is crumbling. You should be glad you’ve stayed alive this long.”
“I should be glad?” Mama roared, losing all patience with the bunny-toothed man. “I should be glad my child starves while others die much from much quicker things? Does she deserve this?” She shouted, pointing to where I was hunkered shivering in a corner. Mama doesn’t have the strength to yell, but she did anyway. “Does she!?”
“Relax, Abiona,” Baba told Mama, placing a hand on her shoulder. Mama gets a little quieter, but her breathing stayed very loud.
“I’ve come to give your child a way out,” the man explained. “A chance at a better life than this, in a world where things are different.”
“There is no different,” Mama hissed, swatting a fly off of her dry skin. “There is no world where things are any different than they are now.”
“No? Hmm,” he hummed, rubbing his hooked nose. “No world where she would get regular meals, something to drink three times a day, running water, sanitation, baths and children her age to play with? No world where she would have the opportunity of a lifetime – the opportunity to leave this place for something better? It figures. You know no better, so you expect no better,” he says. These words made Mama fume. “Fair enough. Let me know if you change your mind,” he snapped, plucking a card from the pocket in his shirt and handing it to Mama. The fire in her eyes burned brighter than our smoky cooking flame. “My people are accepting children in the next village at evening. You want a better life for her? Be there.”
When he walked out the door, Mama crumpled into the corner. Her body cried, but there was no water left for her eyes. I crawled over to her and sat in her lap, swatting away the fly that wouldn’t leave her alone. “Did that place sound good, Ololufẹ?” She cooed, brushing my short curls out of my face with her dry fingers. “Food and water? Even a bath?”
“Yes, Mama,” I smiled up at her.
“Other children to play with? That would be nice, wouldn’t it?”
I nod and she cuddled me with her thin arms. Looking at them made me want to cry, but every time I cry she cries, so I didn’t. “Get some rest, Ololufẹ. We have a long walk tomorrow.” So I’m going, then, I thought. To wherever this man said.
Now Mama wakes me up so gently that I barely hear her. It’s still dark outside, but she’s dressed in her best dress – the one with the least holes – and has mine already laid out by the fire, warming up to protect me from the chill air. I smile. No bugs if it’s cold. “Get up, mi kekere ololufẹ, we have to go soon,” she bustles, helping me stand up as she dresses me. Mama tries and fails to feed me the last of the beans before putting the fire out with her foot. I wonder if it hurts, but she just stamps the pain away on the dirt that covers the ashes. When she opens the door, the whole village is outside looking at us.
Some of them nod at Mama; others frown so angrily that I worry what they might do. Some of the other women’s faces scare me. The fat lady who lives in the upper part of the village spits in the dirt and scoffs at us. Old Bukunmi hobbles up to Mama and on her cane and puts a hand to Mama’s cheek. “You are wise, Abiona. Does Ainose know?”
Mama just shakes her head. Baba left when the man did and hasn’t been home since. Bukunmi nods silently, her kinky grey hair falling into her face with each movement. “This is the right decision. She will be safe,” she tells Mama sweetly before leaning down to kiss me on the cheek. The villagers get so quiet that I hear the red clay dirt crunch under our feet as we walk out of the town and down the road that connects us to the neighboring abule.
Hot sand burns my bare feet as we meander down the long dirt road. Trees grow tall on each side and Mama holds me close, making me walk in front of her. This road worries because her Baba walked down it once and didn’t come back. Ìyá says a lion got him. Maybe that’s why Mama holds our only knife so closely now. I look into the trees as far as I can, searching for the yellow fur and big teeth that field workers tell about in their fireside stories.
We walk all day until the sun starts to go down. “Are we almost there?” I ask. My heels hurt from the cracks starting at the bottom of them. Biting my lip, I try to distract myself from remembering the shoes I used to have when I was younger.
“It’s right around this bend,” she tells me. “I hope that you like it…where you are going.” Her eyes shine with tears, but she doesn’t cry. Her hands clasp the knife a little closer as she traces the tree line with her eyes.
“Will you be there?”
“No, mi kekere ololufẹ. I can’t go with you. It’s just for children. There will be other little girls and boys like you.”
“Will you be okay here?” I ask, worry rumbling around inside my empty belly.
The shine in her eyes grows brighter as she bends down, getting on her knees with her eyes on me instead of the brush. “Don’t you worry about your Mama,” she tells me, cupping my chin in her thin hands. The smile on her face doesn’t look quite right. Something about it doesn’t look real. “Mama will be right here when you get back, Elo. So you come home as soon as you can, all right?”
“All right,” I say, nuzzling my cheek into her palm. She sniffs and stands up, leading me into the next village and lining us up behind with the other iya and baba that brought their children to the bunny-toothed man’s people. I see my friend Akin with his Baba. “Akin!” I shout. He turns around to look at me, never letting go of his Baba’s hand. “Are you excited?”
“No,” he replies. His tummy pokes out even farther this time than it did last time I saw him.
“Baba has to leave tonight and I don’t know where he’s going.”
“Oh,” I say. I want to tell him it will be okay, but I don’t know if it will be or not and Mama always said not to lie if I didn’t have to. So I tell Akin that his Baba will find him, instead. This makes Akin smile, so I tug on Mama’s hand and tell her Akin is going with the bunny man also. “I’ll have a friend!”
“Good, Ololufẹ,” she whispers, her jaw clenched tight. It doesn’t take long for our turn to come, and the bunny-toothed man is there with his strange, white-clothed people. A stranger with something over their face picks me up and puts me in the back of a truck packed tight with kids. I didn’t get a chance to hug Mama, but she’s right there beside the truck, so I grab her hand. “I love you, Ololufẹ!” She tells me, shouting over the rumble of the engine and the loud families saying goodbye.
“I love you too, Mama.”
“I won’t forget you, mi kekere ololufẹ! Come home soon,” she says before the truck pulls off. I don’t get a chance to tell her that I will because the dust from the truck makes a big cloud and I can’t see her anymore. We drive for a long time. Akin and I talk about where we might be going. He thinks we’re going somewhere with lots and lots of water. Maybe where it rains all the time. His Baba told him about a place that stays green all year. I hope he’s right. Maybe they’ll let me send some water home to Mama.
After half a day, we arrive at a big field. More white-clothed strangers load us into tiny planes like the ones I see flying overhead during harvest season. It’s cramped, but the flight is short, so it’s not bad. When we land, we pile out of the tiny plane and into a huge one ten times the size of the one we came out of. This flight is much longer, so I crawl over to a seat by a window and look out.
Outside, the ground stretches out so far below me that the land looks like a blanket. I thought there would be green places like Akin’s Baba told him about, but everything is brown. Smoke rises up from some places and the ocean that we’re crossing looks much smaller than it did in the old school book Mama kept hidden under her blanket. It looks like it’s hot everywhere. And dry. The height makes me dizzy, though, so I curl up in a seat next to Akin. My whole body fits on the bottom of the seat. It’s comfy, so I doze off.
When I wake up, the plane is rumbling to a stop in a big grey field covered with a hard substance that burns my feet as I walk across it. This stuff is even hotter than the dirt road was back home. The building we walk toward is so big that I can’t see the end of it in either direction. Part of its roof is shaped in a half-circle, like they built it to look like a bowl turned upside down.
Inside is much cooler than outside, but the workers don’t give us any chance to rest. They hustle us through a big room with water that comes down from the ceiling in tiny streams. We scrub clean, opening our mouths to drink the cool water that falls onto our faces. It seems like it’s been forever since that last time I wasn’t thirsty. There’s not much time to enjoy it though, because as soon as we finish, the water shuts off and we’re herded single-file out the door. Akin goes through ahead of me.
Unfamiliar buzzing noises come from the room he went into before a worker appears and walks him down the hall and to the left. My turn comes, and I go into the same room. Inside is a metal chair and a worker dressed in all white holding some sort of buzzing thing in their hand. It makes the same noises I heard earlier when Akin went in here.
I sit down and they strap me into the chair. The worker talks quietly and tells me everything is all right. It sounds like a woman. She starts to use the buzzing thing to cut off my short curls, but I fuss too much, so she pokes me with a pointy thing that makes me sleepy. After she finishes cutting my hair and sticking a tag onto my shirt, another worker comes in and takes me down the hall and to the right. When I ask about Akin, they won’t tell me where he is. I look down at my tag. The words, ‘Elondra. 5. Room 2804. Nigerian’ are written in a language I do not know.
I have to trot to keep up with the worker’s quick walk, which is hard because I am still so sleepy from the haircut. By the time we reach the big metal door that we stop at, I’m so tired that I just want to go to bed. The door opens outward. Behind it is a grey room with grey walls and a tiny bed with grey sheets. A toilet is in the corner with something Mama called a sink. I’ve only seen one once, when she took me to the doctor the time I had a nasty cough.
I take a step in and the worker shuts the door behind me without a word. A slot opens in the door and a bowl of steaming brown mush and a cup of green juice is placed on a tray on the inside, low enough for me to reach if I stand on the tips of my toes. It’s cold in here, so I grab the bowl and juice and crawl into bed to eat it. I’m just finishing when the lights dim to a low yellow glow. Rolling over, I pull the covers up and write Mama’s name on my wall so she knows I won’t forget her either. Never. Then I go to sleep.
I dream about a happy-looking, dark-haired man walking with me down the road that takes us back to my village. Mama is at the end of it, waving at me with the prettiest smile on her face. Somehow, even though I can’t see them, I know that there are lions in the trees beside us. But I’m not even a little bit afraid, because I know that the kind-looking man can take care of me. I know that he will take care of me.
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