Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Burning Bridges

"Maathi! Maathi! They're burning the orchard!"

The old woman slowly raised herself from where she had been inspecting the roots of a gnarled almond tree. The boy ran down the dirt path, his bare feet beating the dust as his lungs stretched to their limited with his panting breaths.

"Jannis. What's the matter?" She said as the boy collided into her, wrapping small arms around her thighs, pressing his face to her as he sobbed. "There, there my child. What is the matter?"

"The orchards. Our family orchards. They're burning them." The child raised his large, swollen eyes to the old woman. "What will we eat if they burn them, Maathi?"

The old woman placed her cool, dark hand against his red, burning cheek and spoke reassuringly, "There, there. Jani. Everything will be alright. If they burn your orchard, then you can come eat from mine. Did you see the papaya's down by the riverbank? They are as big as your head already. There is no need to fret."

The child still clung to her, but she felt the sobs die down. She placed her hand reassuringly upon his head as she looked to the two other women with her. The younger of the pair looked towards the direction the child had run from, the Jones Farm on the other side of the river.

"Wangari?" She said pointing towards the smoke rising above the trees, "Do you think they will come here next?"

"Tamar. Take Jannis inside and get him some juice." She answered, handing the child to the younger woman. "Helvi and I will go talk to them."

As they walked up the path, the sheer silence of the moment seemed to breathe terror. The small section of forest before the clearing was unusually quiet. As if the forest knew what true terror was lurking on its way through the darkness within.

"Wangari, you don't think they'll cross the bridge, do you?" Helvi asked, trying to match her stride. "They know that the international community will not just sit back and let them breach the clear demarcation boundary."

"This is not about my farm and my orchards. This is about my neighbor's orchard." Wangari said as she continued her march towards the river. "Helvi, if you want you can stay behind with Tamar and Jannis. But I would appreciate having you at my side when I speak with them."

Helvi simply nodded and decided to turn the tape recorder in her pocket on. She might not be a lot of help in their confrontation but at the very least she could document what happened. And she could be there to help Wangari.

"There they are. Up ahead."

They walked out onto the riverbank where the small bridge spanned the rushing torrent. On the other side a group of men stood around the two bodies lying on the ground. They didn't seem to notice the two women on the other side as they kicked the forms and spat on them.

"You! There! What do you think you are doing?" Wangari was suddenly more angry than she had ever been in her life. The rage consumed her and she couldn't stop her mouth as she continued yelling, "Those people have done nothing to you!"

"Old woman, stop your yelling!" One called back as the rest turned to look at her. "We're here to help you take back our land!"

"From whom exactly?" She called back, already knowing the answer.

"From the imperialist! We are here for the good of our people! Go back to your house and make us some food. You should be thanking us." They laughed at this comment and Wangari clenched her fists.

"Do not try to teach me about manners! You obviously have none! Behaving like animals, destroying a family who never harmed you in any way! You should all be ashamed of yourselves! You bring shame to our people!" She called back, turning her back on them in a sign of dishonor.

"You old hag!" The leader called, throwing down the stick he had been using to hit the two bodies, grabbing the gun he had given to a comrade. "You don't turn your back on us! Maybe we should teach you some respect!"

The group grabbed their machetes and guns as they advanced towards Wangari on the other side of the river. They were shouting and yelping, making obscene gestures towards the old woman and her companion while gripping the ropes on the bridge.

"Wangari! We should go!" Helvi said, taking the old woman's arm.

"No. You stay here." Wangari said, as she moved forward on the bridge to meet the men.

The group moved towards the figure walking towards them, hefting guns as if to scare her.

"Old woman! You are a fool! You should have run while you could."

"I will warn you only once. Do not come any closer. You have already destroyed enough life today. Turn back and do no more harm." She answered, looking the leader in the eye with a look that said she pitied him.

"We have not even spilled a quarter of the blood that will run this day! And yours will be the next blood to flow!" The leader called, his eyes burning with anger.

"Well, I warned you." The old woman said, sitting down on the wooden slats.

"We are the ones warning you!" The leader shrieked as they reached her. "There is no use begging and bowing now!"

The old woman looked into each of their faces as the one with the largest machete stepped forward, letting the sun gleam off his blade.

"You're all just children. I am sorry that you will all have to die today. I am old. I have helped people and have lived life. But you. You have barely tasted it. I am sorry. So, so sorry." She said as she closed her eyes.

The group jostled to get closer to her when they heard it. The snap. The entire bridge lurched to the side as it swung horizontally. They grabbed frantically at the ropes to find a hold as one of the group fell into the rushing currents below.

"What did you do, you old fool!" Yelled the leader as the bridge swung back like a pendulum, a few more of the men falling into the river.

"I'm not the one who didn't read the sign. It says the bridge can only hold two people at a time. You should have seen the signs." She said, not opening her eyes.

There was another snap, followed by another and the entire bridge disintegrated into a jumble of wooden slats, trapped limbs, and snake-like rope binding all together. For a moment this strange conglomerate creature hovered in the gap above the river. Then it seemed to slowly descend and disappear into the rushing water below.

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