“Momma, come quick! Hurry! Hurry! James is back!”
I dragged aside the curtain that served as a door to the hut, and rushed outside, scattering a clutch of chickens pecking at insects in the dust.
He was leaning against a tree on the outskirts of the village, an emaciated, bedraggled boy little more than nine years old. The AK47 rifle was limp in his left hand and he swayed, eyes drug fuelled, listless and blank.
I looked at Joseph, my youngest boy, and shook my head. This wasn’t James, surely? Not my boy, no sir! James was God–fearing, wouldn’t hurt a fly. This boy breathed violence and hate from every pore of his skin.
A year ago, just twelve months, they took him. He had been running down the road towards the village, home from school. The local militia, a recruiting mission, slammed car brakes on and slid to a halt, churning up a cloud of dry dust. They dragged him into a car at knife point and I didn’t expect to see him again.
I’d heard the tales. They were teaching them to fight. Not in a proper army. Not in a proper war. They butchered mothers and babies in other villages.
“Not my James,” I crooned to myself, “He’s a God-fearing boy. He’s got goodness in his soul.” But I couldn’t pretend that I didn’t know what they could do to a child in a year.
The boy crouched beside the tree plucking at the tail of a bloodied, outsized T-shirt. A scar ran down the front of his leg, from knee to ankle, an untidy line, puckered and stretched.
“He’s come home, momma!” Joseph moved towards the boy.
I grabbed him, fingers digging into the soft flesh of his upper arm. He squealed and raised terrified eyes. I pushed him behind me and picked up a spade, grasping it firmly between my hands and raising it above my head.
Shouldn’t a mother know her son? Shouldn’t she know somewhere deep inside if this were her boy? Shouldn’t her skin know his? Not just after a year, but even if he turns up a grown man? This boy was a stranger.
I’d heard other stories too, stories of boys running away from the army, jumping out of moving trucks, scuttling into the forest and hiding. There were always more boys to snatch, so they never bothered looking for them. The deserters went home only to become outcasts. I said to myself, when I heard those stories, it’ll never be me. I won’t throw stones to scare my boy away.
“Father,” I whispered, “Help me! What do I do?”
And even if it wasn’t James? What if my boy turned up at some other village, looking like dirt and disease, dragging a gun? Wouldn’t I want some other mother to drop the spade she’s holding and take him in her arms?
The spade clattered to the ground.
The boy lifted the rifle.
The air was heavy with the scent of mango blossom and jasmine. I could hear the flutter of birds’ wings, and the drone of a cricket in the grass beside my feet.
Suddenly the harsh staccato hiccoughs of rifle fire split the air, and dust jumped up from a hundred tiny eruptions in the soil all around me.
Screams exploded, high pitched and frantic. The sound of bare feet on hard baked clay thudded as people ran away from the boy and the rifle.
The boy slammed the rifle against the tree. Once. Twice. A third time and the metal and plastic buckled. A fourth time and it shattered completely.
“I don’t want to be a soldier any more. I want to come home.” His words ended with a piteous wail.
It took them a year to destroy my boy. I had to believe there was still goodness in his soul and I prayed to God that I would find it.
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