The Child that Smiled

The long, tan stems of African grass leaned against their brothers on the bank of a mud puddle. As the wind shifted, pushing the arid air to the east, the starving grains switched sides. There was no breeze at the mud puddle; breezes were refreshing and comforting, like a friend’s hand gently squeezing your shoulder. There was just wind. A constantly moving wind that whispered unintelligible words as it filtered through the weeds, shuffling wave after wave of heat across the African plain.

The sun beat down on the people of the village that sat next to the mud puddle. The days would get hotter, never cooler. When night came, and the sun was hidden beneath the barren horizon, the heat would disappear. The people of the village soon learned the sun was only saving up for morning of the next day, when it would return with a hotter, more ferocious shine. The sun cracked the callused hands of the children as they worked to plow the fields, then dried the blood that poured out onto their knuckles. The sun made the oxen’s eyes roll back in their heads as they crunched dry plants between their teeth, dreaming of finding moisture in those stems as they toppled onto their sides. The sun dried up the wells, hardened the clay houses, and kept the leaves a crispy brown. The mud puddle stayed wet.

The people of the village carefully navigated around the mud as they went here and there. They would avert their eyes if they were forced to walk past it. In fact, most of the town’s folk had forgotten it existed. Most had, but not all, not little Suzie.

Suzie wore a dirt caked, striped shirt. It had once had crimson, gold, and forest green stripes. Yet, the people of the village had never seen green forests and the green faded to grey. They had never seen gold and so it turned to an ugly shade of off-white. They had seen a fair share of blood and so the red stripe stayed. She had thick black hair, crusted with dry mud and tied behind her head with an old shoe lace. Her smile was wide, happy, and as ever present as the suns hateful rays. She was just a child; she still had a blissful naïveté that allowed her to be happy.

Suzie loved the mud puddle. Her mom always told her to stay away. Her mom always told her to play with the other little girls, at least until she was old enough to work, but her mom said a lot of things.

Suzie played with a tennis shoe, half submerged in the mud, spitting on it and rubbing it in a useless attempt to clean it.

Her mother said funny things like “run” and “hush” and “breath through your nose, Suzie.”

Suzie wasn’t dumb. She knew why no one looked at the mud puddle. She had been there. The people of the village had learned to move on; it was simply the way of life.

They worked.

They survived.

They died.

It happened on a rainy afternoon, when Suzie was four years old (the only rainy afternoon the little girl could remember). Yet, on that afternoon, it had poured. At that time, the mud puddle was nonexistent; in its place was a plain weed-filled field with the same bending grass that surrounded it years later. A group of men stood with the tips of the grass brushing against their knees as rain covered them, splattering on the long barrels of their M-16s and mismatched firearms. A group of shivering boys stood behind the soldiers. They didn’t shiver out of cold; Africa only grew cold at night. They didn’t shiver out of fear; what is there to fear in a village where death was an assurance and life was an unexpected treat few enjoyed? They shivered out of anger. It wasn’t the village that fueled their anger. No, that was the only home they knew. This was their only life; they didn’t know miles away children cried over broken toys. They hated the men with guns, the men that they would become, and they made promises to avenge themselves, promises they would never keep. Yet, in reality, their anger was fueled by their own helplessness. In the village that sat by the mud puddle, people didn’t volunteer for their fate; they were drafted.

In front of the soldiers, kneeling in the growing mud, were the mothers and fathers. They were the parents who had tried to hide the young boys from the soldiers and among those men, was Suzie’s father.

Suzie watched as she lay beneath the shack she called home, squeezed between the dirt and support beams and shoved beneath her mother and brother.

“If they see you,” her mother said to her two children, “run.”

Sweat dripped from the children’s faces, running down the foreheads and dripping off their noses.

Suzie began to cry.

“Hush,” Suzie’s mother whispered, “and breath through your nose.”

The soldiers started to yell as lightning zig-zagged across the black clouded sky and thunder began to roll in over the peaks of the mountains. Rain fell in giant globs and the earth slurped it up taking all it could hold.

A woman cried out to the heavens.

The soldiers fired.

Bullets flew through the air, shooting through flesh and bone only to be swallowed up in the mud. Some hit the shack above the three’s heads, splintering chunks of wood and imbedding themselves in the thick walls of clay. Mothers and fathers fell with jumbled cries to their children and gods. Their blood spilled out of their bodies, mixing with the thick mud. The soldiers didn’t stop firing. Even as the bodies had long since stopped moving, they continued to shoot. They fed the gluttony of the mud puddle.

Days later, the bodies still lay there in the mud, cooked by the, once again, pitiless sun.

Months later, the mud remained, but the bodies had long since disappeared from the surface. A boot, belt buckle, or bullet occasionally drifted to the surface, but that was it. The puddle never seemed to dry out, even as weeds shriveled up and houses cracked down the middle; the puddle stayed wet.

A few years later, Suzie smiled as she sat, playing in the mud. She was young. She wasn’t an old mother with chapped lips from unhealthy skin, with bruises from where she’d fallen in the field, with pus filled sores dotting her legs where insects had eaten, and with the pink remnants of scabs where blood had once poured and maggots had once squirmed. She wasn’t old enough to be forced to hide her children beneath a wobbly shack, burrowing into the dirt as the soldiers made their annual visit, but one day she would be.

One day, she would be the dry grasses that populated her home, being bent this way and that from the arid winds, her back stooped out of sun-baked exhaustion, only to be smothered beneath the blood and bodies of her family until the muck swallowed her up.

But she was still a child, a child who had survived days so hot that cattle would topple over dead, a child who had gone days without a meal to eat, a child who had watched her father be slaughtered in the rain, a child whose friends had been kidnapped at gunpoint, a child who smiled.