a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
There was a time when there wasn’t war, when red meant roses, and not the wounds of a body, the tingling surge of some things missing, tides of blood out of a broken skin. It was a time when ears still knew music, singing voices and the ebullient magic of them, and not the shots made by guns.
I wasn’t born into the war; my brother was. Around the same age when I learned about the fearful avidity before stepping into a river, pants rolled up and tanned skin fondling the water, he learned about a country that was torn apart and sewn back together, stared with his newborn eyes at the seam left behind, jagged scar on the face of an entire people.
In summer afternoons when heat drained down from the sky, like the weight of clothes pressed against a clothesline, the two of us would leave our tents to the adjacent fields. We would race against each other, past timber planks that bridged creeks thick with runoff, plastic blue tents coated in mold, cans and glass bottles that, like dandruffs, dotted dirt paths. Perhaps all the time, scuttling and gasping into the wind, we had really been racing against the world.
“We lived in a house,” I would tell him when we rested our heads against our knees, T-shirts cuddled to our chest. “Not a tent.” I drew it out on the soil, the heat flickering against my finger. “We lived in a town called Nyamata. Not Zaire.”
“Nyamata,” he would repeat the name to himself quietly, feeling the weight of the word against his tongue. “Place of milk.”
“The place of milk,” I said, the heels of his feet pressed against mine. It was what the word meant in Kinyarwanda, our language. “It’s why Dad named you Amata,” I told him. And also why I always called him Milk.
Before my mother died giving birth to Amata, we lived in a tall, narrow house with celadon green roofs. It was the most novel, eccentric one in the town, my father had told me, one with orange-plastered walls and grand casement windows in sapphire blue, birchwood frames.
Inside the house, enveloped in between the tang of salted broth and stewed plantains, was a kitchen, where I had listened, humming, to the drums of a metal spoon against a pot, the whacks of a blade against an onion, sliced away like trees chopped by swinging axes.
“There is a whale who brought me out of the sea,” my mother sang, her caramel-brown hair tied in a ponytail, the curls cuddled to her back, “and took me to a land where a man met me. We went to a castle, and all was meant to be. There was a door to happiness, and you were the key.”
The first night when the gunshots came, zigzagged across the flatness of tin roofed houses, pricks of Acacia flower buds, crumbled and collapsed onto dirted doorsteps, my father was away at the hospital. He was there finishing his night shift as the doctor when he hurtled home and took my brother and me into our bedroom, the one at the center of the house.
For hours, I sat shadowed by his silhouette, stared at the flecks of moonlight on his thick, boxy glasses. I could feel the crisping chill from the birchwood planks that made up the floor beneath me, the lacquer thin and glassy, like grass glazed by dew. He hummed to Amata softly, my brother in his arms and the lights above us turned off. Somewhere, someone hollered against destiny.
At midnight, he woke me up. There was a sack on his shoulder, scattered clothes on the bed, splayed out like mustard seeds frying in a pot. But I couldn’t see any steam. “We need to leave,” he told me.
“But what about Mom?”
He opened the door of the room, his bronze fingers curled up around the door knob. “She’ll be here,” he told me, taking my hand in his. We strode out of the house, the darkness descending above us. The patches of clouds were thick, the heat choking the air, its weight like a wet towel. “Always here,” he said, a promise.
For a time, I hated my brother.
I kept my distance from his cradle at our house, inside my father’s room, glaring at him whenever I walked nearby. When he tried to hold my hand, his hands plump and infinitesimal, I would shake it off, tell him to back off.
For years, I couldn’t forget about the evening he was born, at a hospital in Kigali miles away from our home. I was waiting outside at the end of the hall on the ground floor, the door of the room partly open. I could see my mother lying inside, on a table, beneath a sheet. There was a nurse on her right and the doctor on her left, the air a tang of antiseptics.
The nurse slipped out of the room. “You want to come in?” she asked my father, handing him a gown. He put it on and paced in. I stayed outside, twisting a rubber band with my fingers. The strand of rubber stretched and slipped from my hands, scudded across the air like a stone skimming, scratching the surface of a river.
“You killed my mother,” I told Amata one evening, voice deepened by the glare pressed against my face, forehead creased in the darkness and gossamer mist. He laid still beside me, the tent around us flapping in the night.
He thrusted his hands out into the air, fingers clenching into fists. “It’s our mother.”
“Huh?” I asked, sitting up.
He picked up a rubber band from the ground, twisted it in his hands. “She’s mine too.”
We left Nyamata in the back of a lapis-blue truck of my father’s friend.
The truck steered by cascades of people, pilgrims carrying white burlap sacks on rusted bicycles and on their heads, their moans lit by the rising sun.
“Where are we going?” I asked my father as the truck jolted down another dirted path.
“Do you know about the Whale?” He asked me, fanning air against his face, the two of us drowning in the heat.
“There’s a whale that can fly,” he told me, hands splayed out in the air. “It owns a castle. That’s where we are heading to now.” He turned around and gazed out of the truck, at the gray sky, fallen houses with bullet-punctured walls, a man on the street behind us hobbling down the path, a cane in his hand.
“A beautiful castle,” my father said, humming the words into a song, “with a river, a river to swim in. And a house with a green roof, and your mother, your beautiful mother. And a castle, a castle for the four of us.”
The day my father died at the hospital on the outskirts of the camp, I walked up to the top of the flat, tiny hill at the center of the settlement. Amata was screaming, yelling at me to come back, but I kept on walking, a swarm of sand around my bare feet, shins scarred by weeds.
I stumbled up the soiled path tucked between knots of blue tents, dusted and buried in dirt, past fields of withered corn that never sprouted. Halfway up the hill, rain came down, softly, then all at once.
“Look for the green roof,” my father had told me once, “and you’ll find the way home.”
At the top of the hill, I looked down at the soaked land, a bare-boned child pushing a wheelbarrow down a dirt path, two men trudging across the corn fields. I thought about what he said as I canted my head up, skin flecked by the falling rain. Silently, I listened to its rhythmic beats against the ground, the rattle synced to my own pulse. But I couldn’t find any green-roofed houses.
* = Editors' Choice work
Unless otherwise noted, all pictures used are open-source images in the public domain.
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