My father once told me that to be a man you must protect your family. The Reverend told me that you can only be called a man once you have taken another man’s life. They are both wrong. There are no such thing as men, only animals, living in the wild and fighting and killing each other until there is no one left to fight and kill. Here in the jungle we are wild things, fighting a war that started long before any of us were born and will continue long after we are gone.
Night comes and the moon shines bright. It is now that we become those wild things. I kneel in the tall grass amongst my brothers; next to me is Adewale, a small boy. He cradles the rifle he holds like a newborn baby. I do the same. Most of us are small enough to be completely hidden in the grass, the older boys: Vic, Sunday, Oni and the others all stick out from the bush like crops growing tall.
Ahead, looking down the valley, stands Sarge and next to him, the Reverend. The Reverend is the tallest man I have ever seen, every part of his body is thick and muscular and I’ve seen him beat a man to mush with his hands.
He is a giant and God walks with him.
‘If,’ Sarge says quietly, ‘Vic. Come.’
I rise from the grass and look at Vic. He is a skinny boy, as skinny as Adewale and nearly as tall as the Reverend. Vic turns to me and nods, his pupils black pits from brown-brown. We trot over to our commanders.
‘Look down there,’ the Reverend says, pointing.
A small village sits beside a river. A dog is barking in the night, lights glow orange from the windows of homes; there is even the faint sound of a television set drifting up towards our position in the bush.
‘Look down there,’ the Reverend says again. ‘Down there are liars. Betrayers. Blasphemers. They sit and watch as our country burns, as the Godless government rips the heart out of it’s nation. Down there are the people who help those who have killed your family, burned your homes.’
The Reverend looks at us both and places a hand on my shoulder. His hand is rough but warm, a small fire burning in him. ‘Tonight you have the chance to take something back for yourself, your country. For God.’
I smile up at him despite myself. He glows with the moon in the night. He walks with God. Sometimes when I am alone and not even he or Sarge can hear my thoughts ‘I call him Angel Nightmare, but now I only see the angel, the one to guide us beyond.’
Sarge looks at me, his dark eyes with nothing behind them to let you know a person is somewhere in his head. He moves and breathes and eats like a person but I am not sure he is one. I have not seen him sleep or laugh, only kill. The Reverend saves us and the Sarge turns us from boys to soldiers.
‘Vic, you take Sunday and his section.’ Vic salutes and rushes away. The Reverend eyes me and kneels down to my level. I watch his collar, the collar of a man of God, for a moment before meeting his eyes. They are dull, unlike the rest of him. ‘How old are you, If?’
‘12, Reverend sir,’ I say, saluting.
‘No child then. You are a man,’ his eyes narrow. ‘What is a man?’
I glance at Sarge who now stares down at the village. I know he is listening though, Sarge is always listening.
I remember the words as well as the names of my mother and father. ‘A man is a fighter,’ I say. ‘A man does not cower, a man serves God, a man gives no mercy to his enemy.’
‘What does a man do?’ The Reverend asks.
‘Fight, fight, fight,’ I say, louder.
‘What does a man do?’ The Reverend asks, standing up. The grass behind me rustles.
‘Kill, kill, kill,’ I say, not alone. Others have taken up the call, the words of our family. The words of the Reverend and of God.
The Reverend looks around at his children. ‘What do we do this night?’
‘Fight, fight, fight,’ we call, uncaring of our prey below.
‘What do we do this night?’
‘Kill, kill, kill.’
The charge begins and we descend.
Some scream, childish cries that sound mischievous, others howl and snarl like wolves, brown-brown rushing through them, giving them strength. A band of hell-hounds rushing down the bush towards life, blood hungry with hatred moving every step we take.
I move silently, steeling myself for what is about to happen. In the jungle I turn to stone and ice. I try to make myself like Sarge where nothing of me lies behind my eyes. My heart pumps blood but holds nothing else, for the sake of the life I lived before I forget my mother and father and sister and village and schoolteacher and everyone I knew before I came to be here. I do not want them to see what happens next.
The bush that comes up to our hips gives way to a road that runs like a knife through the village. We kick up dust and dirt as we charge. Some fire their weapons towards the village, shaking the ground beneath us. I do not fire. I will not fire unless I have to or am ordered to.
We spread through the village like locusts, picking our way through the houses, rousing families from their sleep. Flashes of gunfire come from inside the houses as the men are shot, women cry out as the older boys take them, children are weeping for their dead fathers and what is happening to their mothers.
I turn away from these houses and carry on. I do not close my eyes for God is watching me and God tells the Reverend everything, Sarge said he does.
Adewale is behind me as we move to a small house, one that is silent. I am small but I am strong enough to shoulder the door open without breaking anything after a few tries.
It is quiet in the room, ever so quiet that you would think nothing is wrong. We move through, checking everywhere for anyone. Maybe I am lucky, maybe no one lived here or the family has gotten away. I pray to God that this is true then I stop myself, remembering that the Reverend might be listening.
But God does not hear me, or maybe he is ignoring me, because the room is not empty. A mother is crouched in the corner, her arms wrapped around a boy and a girl. The girl is small, four or five, but the boy, the boy is no younger than me. He is big too, bigger than me and he is not looking at me with fear in his eyes like his mother and sister. The boy is angry.
This boy could become like us.
‘What have you found, If?’
I turn to see Vic and Sunday coming into the room, their guns raised at the family.
Sunday spits on the floor. ‘The woman is ugly and the girl too young.’
‘The boy,’ Vic says. ‘The Reverend wants the boys.’
‘He is weak,’ I say, looking up at the older boys.
Vic laughs. ‘And you are so strong?’
‘Stronger than you.’
The older boys laugh. I turn to Adewale who is not speaking but is looking at the woman and the girl. His eyes are wide and a tear is running down his cheek. A man is not supposed to be afraid. I curse Adewale and hope that the older boys do not see. They will punish him if they see.
‘Kill them,’ Sunday says, turning away.
Vic holds out a hand. ‘Hold on.’ He looks past me to Adewale. ‘He has to do it.’
I look up at Vic’s smiling face; his wide brown-brown eyes and wish God would kill him right there and then.
‘I’ll do it.’
The words are hardly out of my mouth when my vision goes black and I see stars for a moment. I am on the floor and Vic is standing over me, his gun raised high.
‘You don’t talk anymore, boy.’
I breathe and let my vision come back, slowly. Pain rises in my mouth and I grope inside it, bringing out a tooth and a lot of blood. Spitting it on the floor, I stand up, grabbing my rifle. Vic smiles that smile at me and I stare back at him.
Adewale looks at the family as if we are not in the room.
Slowly he nods.
Vic and Sunday smile and rush forward. They tear the mother from her children, she screams and screams and the girl cries. Sunday grabs the girl by the scruff of the neck and slaps her once before shoving her down. The mother cries harder and it takes both Vic and Sunday to get her to kneel before Adewale. Even knelt down the women is nearly the same height as him.
The boy in the corner stares at me, his eyes filling with tears.
The mother is rocking back and forth, crying and crying, looking at the floor. Vic and Sunday try to hold her still. She begs to us and to God but none of us are listening.
Adewale raises his gun, his hands shaking. His eyes are wide, his lip quivering. He is trying to hold back tears but they are falling down his face. I see in his eyes that he is not lost. There is the sun in his eyes and a God that does not listen to the Reverend.
There is still a boy in there.
I turn to him, Adewale the boy, swinging my rifle.
I pray to my mother and father to forgive me. I pray to a God that is mine and not the Reverend’s. I pray to Adewale.
A flash. My ears ring and smoke rises from my rifle. Adewale falls, red bursting from the side of his head, painting the wall behind him and splatting on my face.
‘What are you doing?’ Vic says, raising his weapon towards me.
I look down at Adewale. ‘He wasn’t going to do it, he was just a boy.’
I don’t look back as I leave the house. Three pops come from the house and I try to ignore the silence that has replaced the crying.
Here silence is better, silence will not hurt you or turn you into a wild thing. Adewale is now silence and he can be a boy forever. Now he can live. I do not live, I am dead in the jungle for I do not know love or happiness or hope. Adewale was not empty behind the eyes like Sarge, like how I am becoming.
That is all we are now, the empty dead, moving through the bush towards-
I don’t know.
I am only young but I know this; that the only ones who are dead are the ones who still fight. To be dead is to lose life itself and I have lost life for I feel no love in my heart. My love is for things that are gone and now when I think of them it only makes me feel empty and cold.
I am not a man or a boy called If. I am dead already, praying for silence.
Banner photograph: By jlrsousa (Povoação desconhecida Uploaded by Martin H.) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons