Sticks & Bones

A boy, skinny and weak, walked up to Sire. The sun, as unrelenting as always, showered its heat on the boy, overwhelming each step that the boy made towards him; his legs, seemingly being sucked of their energy at each twist of the leg joints. The boy looked so brittle, and walking looked like he was putting himself already, through a lot of discomfort. The boy’s faded pink Juventus soccer jersey, that he adorned on his body, spread a stark contrast against the dark colour of his skin. Much of the volume underneath the t-shirt was unoccupied, and if someone tried to pull the t-shirt out of him, it would, Sire imagined, come off with one single motion, unlike Sire himself. Sire stole a glance at his tummy, that began showing against his blue t-shirt, a sign of how, even in situations where hunger spreads its tentacles everywhere, like a plague, some people seemingly eat well enough to gain a few extra pounds. For a moment, Sire pulled in his tummy, but he relaxed it again, letting it show its nipple position against the t-shirt. Sire wondered if the kid approaching him would notice this, his slightly overweight body.

“Hello sir, do you have some candy?” Sire recoiled at the title of sir. He had not ever, well not yet been referred to as sir. Such a high title he thought, for the kind of work he did, the helping. Sir was more of an office-style kind of title, and he was far away from being in an office. But all the refugees here called him and the other volunteers sir, or madam. Perhaps in an aim to appease them to increase their rations of food, or, in the case of kids, give them candy.

“Sorry, I’m out of candy for today,” Sire had given them out earlier, when he found some kids playing soccer with a handmade soccer ball of paper, plastic bags and tape, such that each time one of the kids kicked the ball, they would do it with a little care so that it doesn’t fall apart. The ball’s weight, was coupled by having soaked in the water and mud puddles nearby, and so that it didn’t go far even as they played; condemning the kids to limit their playing area to a small space, no bigger than a tiny bedroom and, with stones as goal posts. Yet, they could not help but move their skinny masses of bodies here and there, following the ball rather aimlessly, like some kind of god. One girl never stopped smiling, and giggling once in a while, to herself even though she barely had a touch of the ball. This all surprisingly caught Sire’s attention, and he couldn’t hold his joy, so he reached out of his pockets and pulled out the sweets he had. Immediately he did so, the kids rushed to him, all surrounding him, making him feel all special, and he wondered whether all these time the kids were actually waiting for him to do that.

“One by one fellas…” Sire shared each of his sweets, to each, among the six children. They each ran off, one by one, not returning to where they were playing, but off to different corners of the camp. They always did this, the kids, whenever they were offered sweets by any of the volunteers. And after they were alone, Sire found out that each kid would first taste the sweet to know its flavor, then hide it under the mattress, or bed, to taste another time. If they found out that they all got different flavors, they would exchange one lick of their sweets, and put if back for the next time the felt the craving for sweets. They would do this for the rest of the day, suckling once in a while, preserving the sweet taste in their mouths, never eating the candy too fast. Or else they would have to look forward to the tasteless meals they had during the day, and covet, miserably, at other kids enjoying their pieces of candy.

The boy who had come asking for candy, delayed his gaze upon Sire’s eyes just for a second longer than he would have liked. Sire found the boy’s gaze purely desperate, maybe for candy, or for something else, then the boy turned away, wanting to return back from whence he came from.

“Hey, What’s your name?” Sire tugged him back before the boy was too far.

“Oloo…”

“Hey, Oloo, tell you what…” Sire could already see the expectation glowing in his eyes, like a light bulb, “If you see me again tomorrow, I’ll give you one.” The boy smiled briefly, then turned away towards to his tent. Sire felt the satisfaction sink inside him, slowly but surely. He liked this feeling, of helping. It was what frankly drove him through every single day in that refugee camp where he had volunteered for close to three years now. With the kids, it was even more thrilling, because their expressions were more often than not more hopeful ones than what their mothers and fathers showed. Hope, was nothing short of a wind that the volunteers clung on to. Sire, together with other volunteers in the camp, were always told to have candy in their pockets, for the kids especially, to keep their spirits high. It was worth distracting the kids, with sweets, and goodies, because they couldn’t afford to let their parents brainwash them with hopelessness or worse still, let them slip into the hands of the rebels, due to boredom and curiosity. It would be bad for them, bad for the organization. Oloo, not far from him, turned back to Sire who was still a few meters away.

“I play… Come, I show you what I play with.” Oloo became excited, and certainly did Sire. The tents were all arranged in rows and all one had to do was to map where one’s tent was within the close to five hundred of them. Sire counted. They passed twelve rows of tents before turning towards where Oloo found his own. It was a dark blue-ish, slightly worn tent, not completely well set up, but big enough for at least three or four people. Next to it, was the metal frame of a bike. Rust had still left some of the paint on the bike visible so that one would know that its initial color was red. Its front and back ends where the wheels would be, were forced into the ground, into the soft earth, such that it looked like the ground was sucking it in. There were many irregular tiny holes alongside the bike, and Sire would think to himself how many times Oloo had moved the bike from one spot to another because it had sunk too deep into the ground.

“Watch…” Oloo scrambled towards the bicycle, not even flinching when he stepped barefoot into a mud puddle, and quickly got onto the bike.

“My papa brought me this…” He put both feet on the pedals and pushed them forward. Sire watched how he built his own little world, of playfulness. Dreams. Possibly he dreamed, Sire wondered. And what would Oloo dream about. A better life? A future? The question disturbed him.
“My papa promised to get me a real one sometime, so, I practicing till he get me a new one.” Oloo said to Sire. This pidgin English, often how most of them spoke, was characteristic of them.
“He will grow up to be a good boy that one…” Sire jerked away like a scared snail into its shell. The voice had come from behind him, sort of disturbing the calm that he achieved through looking at the boy. That was the first time that he met Mr. Ding. And from then, Sire knew that Mr. Ding was a man desperate to become whole. A man who was desperate to live for something. Since, every time Mr Ding began a sentence he either said “There once was…”, or “I once had…”. He told Sire about his wives, and his other children, and how he never used to beg for food like he was doing now. It’s odd how he held on to a past that was the basic definition of his life, but now, it looked like Mr. Ding was too old to start all over again, and Oloo, his son, was his only source of remembrance of a life he once lived.

At night, is when things got a little crazy. No one would sleep soundly. Sire, in his own little tent, was always uneasy throughout the night, juggling his body between right and left, as the cold wind blew softly against the canvas of the tent, meeting with his face. It was the best they could do, the tent, with the little funding they got to sustain the volunteers. Sire felt like removing his shoes. His sole was becoming itchy. Everyone slept with shoes on, even the volunteers, because shoes would run away if left unworn, to those who would use them. The stealing, is something that had become a pastime in the night. Thieves became shadows, no one would see them. But it was something they had to put up with, because they also couldn’t do anything to the so ungrateful thieves, because the volunteers were not the law. They had no power. The only thing that kept the thieves from attacking the volunteers was the fact that the volunteers would wake up every morning to feed them.

Sire woke up to something pushing him, like the way you would feel someone poke a stick into your arm, he felt a solid push onto his arm, before opening his eyes to a set of widely opened, staring popsicle-like eyes, sticking out of some skinny eye sockets. He wiped of the sleep from his eyes, before making out the face of that kid he met the day before. What was his name? Oloo. Yes, it was him. Sire propped himself on his elbow only to see the outstretched hand of Oloo lay there before him. Oloo didn’t say anything, nor did he move away. He just stayed there, in front of Sire. It was as if Oloo knew that Sire knew what he wanted.

“Have you come for the candy?” It took a moment for Sire to register, when no one answered him, that Oloo was, in fact, not in front of him, and that all he was doing was probably dreaming. He had just dreamt of Oloo. He was somehow burdened by the promise that he made to Oloo so much that he couldn’t get himself to settle back under his one blanket. He sat in his tent, not asleep, but not wanting to get up. It was still dark, and he had to wait for dawn for work to begin again.

“Sire! Wake up, they took someone today!” This time, he was sure the voice wasn’t an illusion. Sire swiveled and spun around like a lizard, grabbing his jacket before getting out of his tent to meet Mose. Mose was one of the few volunteers he knew. Sire found it hard building relationships since he left home, and since he left the one person that he liked back at home. Everyone here was so different. They came from countries like Ghana, Zimbabwe and South Africa, where he had never been. So, he found it hard to start a conversation with them in any other subject other than “what do you think about the refugees”. Some of them had various reasons for volunteering. The one from Zimbabwe was escaping the anti-gay atmosphere in the country. The other one from Ghana was just collateral damage from strain of joblessness the that ravaged the country, and the one from South Africa was a self-confessed pedophile who was escaping the temptations in his home. He tells Sire every time that “they are everywhere, and you cannot escape the sudden burst of energy when they walk past you in the streets where I’m from. At least here, all of them are too skinny to attract any attention.” Mose is the one from Kenya, and whom he became friends with because Mose was his only option. Mose was about ten years older than him, but they found common ground in talking about their home, and their families (Mose’s family mostly), the awful government and how every day the government of Kenya steals from its own people. However, mostly it was of how they missed home, or how they didn’t miss it. They both left for completely different reasons. Mose told Sire that he once had a family, a beautiful young wife and a baby girl. But when he found out that the girl was not biologically his, he kicked out his wife and her daughter, and decided to come here to volunteer before he drowned in despair.

“They took Fardousa! They took her Sire!” Mose shouted once more as Sire emerged from his tent.

“Wait, what, who?” Sire was now holding Mose’s shoulder, trying to calm him down.

“They took her at night!” Clearly Mose didn’t need to have Sire start doubting him right now.

“Who took her?” His heart prodding, questioning, begging Mose to say everything.

“The rebels!!” Mose himself was uneasy, he looked like he had just received the same information that he was telling Sire.

“When?”

“Let’s go, I show you”
Mose led the way, still dressed in his pajama-looking pants (unclear due to the little light that the time of the morning offered- An odd mix of light and darkness). They snaked their way past several rows of tents, before coming to where a little crown was gathered. They were all volunteers, nearly a dozen of them, all surrounding the tent where Fardousa was allegedly taken from. Sire had never seen the volunteers become this afraid before. Every day, the volunteers had sucked in the cold of the night, as little as it was. They never thought that the rebels would go to such an extent as to take one of them. And that did it for some of the volunteers Every day the volunteers had withstood the heat of the day, as exhausting as it was. But there and then, Sire could see the volunteers shivering in the wind that brushed by their legs. They looked at the disassembled tent, with a hint of tears in their eyes. They suddenly knew fear. No one knew where Fardousa was taken to, and the relief organization could not be held accountable for events such as these.

The relief organization advised extraction that same day. Sire watched, as they a good number of volunteers packed their bags and left. He, and some others decided to stay that one more day, at least not to leave the refugees stranded. But, as everyone in the camp soon realized, this was not just small time rebel thieves, not just crumbs, this was the whole fucking pie. That evening, before they could get themselves to sleep, Sire heard screams. It was like a large mess of confusion. There was blood. It was then that he heard Mr. Ding’s voice-that hoarse, crackled voice, attain such high pitch for the first time.

“They cut him! They cut him!!” He saw Mr. Ding dance round, mumbling, and throwing his arms here and there shouting, “They cut my son!” Oloo had been to the rebels, the exclamation mark on the order to leave. The rebels had cut Oloo’s feet, and some of the volunteers who remained helped offer him first aid, stitching the poor boy up before he bled to death, and giving him some anesthesia before the community doctor could patch him up. There was no other future for him. Oloo wouldn’t walk again, and the doctor told him. The only way he could walk was if he had money, and lots of it for that matter. Out of courtesy, the doctor spared him of this alternate reality that would never become manifest for him and his son. It was better to spare them the pain of this knowledge.
Yet, oddly enough, in all this, all the boy kept asking his father was “Dad, will it grow back again?”

“Yes, it will grow back… ” Mr. Ding’s response was one Sire expected, but not one he would have ever thought to actually be.

“And will I be able to ride my bike again? ” Sire could see the tear forming in Mr. Ding’s eyes. He stammered a little, and couldn’t bear looking at his son as he answered him again

“Yes, my son, you will ride your bike again.”

“You must go, go home; there is no more work for you here.” The community doctor advised Sire and the few remaining volunteers. It wasn’t safe anymore. The once so happily consolidated amalgamated conglomeration of a newly hopeful generation was once again struck to hopelessness and stripped of its newly found home. People didn’t stay after that, How could they? They moved out numbers, in their hundreds, as a matter of fact. Refugees packed their tents on their shoulders, children in their arms, and their entire so called household and possessions in a matter of minutes. One would then understand why it was that refugees were able to survive so long, at least most of them. It was because they could carry their whole home with them, including the little possessions that they had, to somewhere alien, somewhere new, without any hustle.
An agent from the Kenyan consulate came to their aid. He explained that the rebels wanted to ensure there was no opportunity for opposition to mount in refugee camps such as those. They were housed at the former Kenyan embassy, now a makeshift buffer zone that had been evacuated following the state of insecurity. There they would be safe till the next morning, at least.

Sire wondered as he covered himself in between the sheets, how his work had been squashed like a bug at the hands of power hungry people. He couldn’t sleep. He could even find the peace to lie down. It was this peacelessness that made him expect anything. Even as the rebels came once again, with determination, first at the gates. Tearing them down with ease. Then the gunshots. Loud and awakening. All of the residents in that building were shaken to full cognizance. From the windows, they could see, that the street was lit with orange and red burning fire-lit sticks. It was like a freaking witch hunt. All of their voices, rising up like the chanting of a spell, slow but picking up more and more adrenaline. Sire could hear them. He could listen as they advanced past the guards with ease, not even deterred by how easily they took life away from them. They knocked. They howled. They pushed. As if they wanted to shake the whole three story building to its foundation. They had burst into the compound. With so much verve and vitality that he wondered how these people never put up a show at the Olympics. That energy would have been put into such good use.
That was the building just across the street from them. They had no time. The Kenyan nationals and volunteers had to be evacuated sooner than anticipated. As the Kenyan representative led all of them to the transport waiting at the back, Sire wondered what the rebels would have done to them had they found them asleep.
***

The white flower petals seemed to by dying off, maybe from the cold of their season. They hadn’t fully blossomed. Maybe they had a mind to blossom but they waited too long. Too long that the freezing winter caught them on their blind side and slowly drained their energy to get to their full bloody beautiful potential. Sire looked at them, with pity. But what could he do? He couldn’t just will them back to life. He wished he could. The first person Sire could think of contacting after coming back was not his mother, or father, but Risper.

“How long has it been?” Risper’s voice hadn’t changed a bit. She still had the firm sureness that Sire always liked about her voice. Yet, as Sire looked at her face, he was bewildered by how much more strikingly beautiful she looked to have become.

“Three years.” To him, it never felt like three years. Rather, just another bracket in time where he seemed to find himself in. “I’m sorry.”

“Why?” It boggles him that she could ask him that. Shouldn’t he be? But really, there in that little outdoor restaurant, sipping a mug of House Coffee with Risper, he isn’t even sure why he is sorry.

Sire remembers well that he didn’t even say goodbye when the relief organization called him to volunteer in some refugee camp in South Sudan. The year after he was through with high school, is when he met Risper, at a function, somewhere; where people were, all jumbled up there like candy in a jar. Sire didn’t even have any expectations in making many friends. However, life had brought him there, at that moment, sipping soda and a snack, during that mixer event, next to Risper. Sire was anxious, to at least talk, rather than just standing there all stone-like. And so, he whispered a faint Hi.
“What?” She might have not heard him but she smiled anyway, at him, awkwardly, the kind he always found lovely about her. That she kept on smiling, until Sire spoke with a more composed and steadier version of his previous self. Sire liked her. And he sensed that she liked him. A kind of friendship that grew into a flowery exchange of attitudes and experiences. Sire remembers the first time he kissed her. At the end of the event, how she fully accepted his kiss and in that moment, feeling awesome and whole. Sire told her that they should remain friends, because he feared that their want for each other might crumble even before it got a chance to mature. Now he wonders if he had single handedly crushed it himself, be telling her that they should just remain friends.
After weeks of testing his conscience, his resolve and hers, through the endless string of texts and hour(s)-long calls, knowing how she liked to be talked to, how she loved mint flavored ice cream and velvet cakes, knowing that her favorite color was pink and what she liked to wear, and that every night she picked up what she would wear for the next day; he now did actually want her; that they be more than friends. But then the letter came. The letter he had been waiting for, for some time. And it had come with its own share of wants. It wanted him to go. It wanted him to leave and actually go, to a place he had only heard of but never really been to. It wanted him to will himself out of his current life and into another life completely different from what he had ever known. But mostly, it wanted him to suspend his feelings for her. Sire had really worked for this volunteer opportunity in the United Nations through the relief organization and he was not at any position to let his dreams go. So, before he got on the bus the next day, he called her and told her that he was leaving. Risper didn’t reply, and the next day, he got on the plane. Sire wasn’t sure whether it was the leaving that was too painful for Risper to concede, or it was the fact that Risper actually loved him that she didn’t reply.

“Why did you come back?” Risper asked to break the chilling silence that was creeping its way to her sinuses and into the back of her eyes. Risper felt her chest heavy with tears. After he left, she was so distraught that she wished he would never return. That Sire would go and die there. Maybe that’s why she never bothered to look for his number after she lost it. She wasn’t even sure if she had lost it because she had blocked him. Then when she wanted to call eventually, his line was no longer in service. She cried by herself.

“The heat… I came back because of the heat.” He said. It was a lie. It was all bullshit. Since when did he start lying to her. Sire knew that Risper had noticed the twitch in his eye as he said this. He wondered if saying the lie in two sentences would make her angrier if she actually already was. He knew that she had noticed how his eyes glanced away from her. For him to return in that manner, of being chased away like a rat, made him embarrassed. He had left her, his future with her, as sure as it was, to go to an unknown land, and for what? To be chased back home by machete-wielding dissidents? He couldn’t confess the truth, not now. Sire looked squarely onto her nicely tanned skin colour of her arms and hands. How he desired that they could touch him every day, that he and Risper could be a thing once more. Sire knew that now it was past a breaking point in their relationship. Risper knew that something had happened. Something that had forced him to act like that, to lie, and to do it so blatantly, knowing very well that he couldn’t ever lie to her.

Sire looked at Risper. She had moved on, and it was clear to Sire. Had she and ignored him, her feelings and his feelings, or the future that they could have had? She was supposed to be his; he was to be hers. He was angry with himself. Points in time, how when one looks back, a difference in choice could have resulted in two totally different outcomes. But now he decided that he couldn’t live on the what-ifs any more.
He noticed her necklace, the pink top she was wearing and her hair. Pink, how predictable. Ever since he knew her, she always loved pink. That had seemed not to change even while he was away. He feigned a smile.

“It seems you didn’t divorce the pink colour in you!” Siri struggled to say, with a slight shrug. Risper looked at him. And laughed. It surprised him-the laugh, so new, so solid, so alive. How could she still laugh? She looked down, then up, then smiled back. Sire stared at her. He touched her hand, sort of brushing it before letting go again. Risper now really looked at him, into his eyes. Was she searching for something in his eyes, Sire thought.

“I loved you Sire.”

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