Grand Mare and Paris. 1996
I padded downstairs to Mr. Paul’s rooms. I hoped to find some trace of him, as if my old mentor, always so sure of his opinions, might advise me. When I opened the familiar door, its paint faded and nicked, Paul Bangura’s rooms were empty. Completely empty. It was as if he had never existed. The school would open again after the war, I was certain of it. But when I tried to imagine boys walking with their books, or kicking a ball across the playing fields, their bodies were faint and ghostly, like the boys in the faded photograph I had seen over the head’s desk. The war was a wall in front of us; it was impossible to imagine life on the other side.
Samuel met me in the hallway.
“This place must have memories for you,” he said.
We were to meet Johnny’s men at the river crossing, a day’s walk. But I was not ready to leave and Samuel humored me. In my old dormitory the windows were broken but for a few shards, the iron cots bare and rusting. A pile of human excrement lay in one corner. Ruin, I thought. Rack and ruin.
“You stayed here, sir?” Samuel asked.
I pointed to where my cot had been, and, next to it, Seraphim’s.
I was relieved to leave the dormitory. Across the field, the library’s mullioned windows and trestle tables had remained intact, but on the floor we found a pyramid of half-burned books. Samuel picked up a blackened book, holding it by the edges so as not to dirty his hands.
“My Adventures as a Spy,” he said. “Baden-Powell. Were you a Scout, sir?”
“A Boy Scout.”
“Were you, Samuel?”
“An Eagle Scout,” he said. “Two silver palms and one gold. The highest ranking Scout in West Africa.”
“Fine, fine, Samuel. I never knew it.”
I led him to the octagonal room of heartwood that had been my refuge. In this hidden room, everything was the same: the vaulted ceiling’s wooden trusses sound and strong, the white plaster in the interstices barely touched by corroding smoke. A pattern of quicklime droppings laced the floor. My birds had been in residence.
When I asked him to give me a leg up, Samuel must have thought me mad. But he knelt, bracing his forearms on a bent leg. Steadying myself against the wainscoting, I reached inside the crevice where the ceiling buttress met the joist, my fingers touching the curved metal of the diviner’s mirror, unmoved since I had hidden it. Grasping it, I leapt to the floor.
I had forgotten how worn it was. The mirror reflected nothing, only dull lead.
“An-memne,” Samuel said. The diviner’s looking glass.
“My mother gave it to me,” I said. “A keepsake. That’s all. It’s nothing.”
A lorry rumbled by and I winced. Looking at Samuel, I saw that he, too, had reacted to the thunderous sound, too much like a grenade. It was time to go.
I led Samuel across the school grounds, to the path that would lead us to Lundo proper. I knew every paving stone, every mud puddle, as if I were reliving my nights abroad with Lansana and Seraphim. We saw dim lights inside the houses, but the streets were deserted. The concussions of the RPGs grew louder, and we hid in an abandoned building, watching through torn yellowed curtains, as the kamajors drove the rebels from Lundo.
One of the hunters came near the window, holding a boy by the scruff of his neck. The kamajor was an ordinary-looking man, small, but with the agile body of a hunter, his bundles strung around his neck, but his eyes were mad, his face lacking identity in a peculiar way, as if he no longer inhabited his body. He brought the cutlass down with a shocking grace. The boy tried to fend him off with his hands, whimpering. After he was dead, the hunter and another man butchered him. They wrapped his heart and liver in banana leaf, and secreted the bundles into their pockets.
I could feel Samuel quivering, so I placed my hand on his shoulder. I was calm. I don’t know why; it was just my way, and I had seen so many bad things already. The fighting went on for hours, but just before dawn, the city grew quiet. It was that time before dawn when the world is leached of color. We crept from the house, making our way to the Kondawa road. I had abandoned any thought of seeing Lansana. I only hoped he and Amina had fled the city.
On the Kondawa road, grey ashes rose in the conical shape of termite mounds. If you walked close to one, you could see the fragments of bone and the ash, not fine like paper but heavy, more like cloth. The thick gray ash was all that remained of those accused of being collaborators. Necklaced with tires, burned alive. By the the rebels, the kamajors, the army. Any.
We walked for two days and two nights, avoiding settlements except for a village where we bought food and slept on the dirt floor of an old woman’s house. We heard no news of a coup. When we reached the river, Guinea on the other side, I wanted to prostrate myself on the ground. The words of school chapel throbbed in my head: Deliver us from Evil. Deliver us from Evil. Deliver us....
A boy ferried us across in his pirogue. I gave him money, hoping he would remain silent long enough for us to reach the Conakry airport.
In Paris, I had longed for home. But nothing was the same; even the school was not a refuge. In a war, there are losses, and there would be more. I did not hear of Samuel after that journey. When I sent word, I received no response. I don’t know if he fled the country or if he was killed. So many of my people believe in magic. Perhaps my mother’s dull mirror frightened him, the Eagle Scout who earned two silver palms and one gold.
A soul of an African can never truly be at rest until it is laid to rest in African soil, my mother cautioned before I left for France. Not even then, I wanted to tell her. I felt more exiled than I had ever felt in Paris, because Paris was temporary, but this departure had a finality about it. Samuel had passed me instructions, a contingency plan if the coup did not come off, and I followed it to the letter. In Conakry, I contacted a man from Grand Mare, an army man with a pockmarked face who had served under Johnny. Johnny was still in prison, he informed me. The plans had been delayed. Did I want to wait in Guinea?
I looked at his good battered face.
No, I heard myself saying. I go.
Shrugging, he gave me another false passport, telling me it would see me home safely.
Will it? I thought, recoiling at the mention of Paris as my home.
Before boarding the plane, I stopped on the tarmac. Staring across the airfield, I inhaled the scent of earth, the unmistakable smell of morning in Africa, always with a richness, and a feeling of expectation. When I ducked into the hatchway into the aircraft, I could have sworn that you might pass your hand through me. I was not merely leaving; I had died in the traces, and I was buried. Buried in my country. In Africa. Only my spirit wandered, unquiet.
Ten hours later, I was lying on the bed in Gentilly, tired and depressed, when I heard a pounding at the door. I froze. For the first time, I was truly afraid, because I had nowhere to run. The pounding grew louder. Then silence. I breathed and thought: I can rest, now I can rest. But I heard a key and the bolt slid open with a guillotine’s clatter.
Guillaume walked past his usual chair to the window. Wisps of cloud trailed along the rooftops. In the distance, the tiny beacon on top of the Eiffel Tower flared white and disappeared.
He pressed his hand against the glass. “The window, it is like a painting,” he said softly. “You remember your French?”
“Une fenêtre,” I recited. “The view is pretty. It makes this place feel like home.”
“You don’t miss your country?” he asked, without turning. “Your life there?”
“That man is dead,” I told him. “Dead.”