Sunday, September 27, 2009

Death and Grasses

The day I cleared my farm -sweeping grass and sticks into piles which I then set ablaze- became the day I never wanted to see. It doesn't matter where I was when I heard the wailing, it doesn't matter where any of us were, we all came running. As I ran across fields of freshly plowed earth I hoped it was a house fire, a case of damage goods, an opportunity to quell an inferno with the community, then join hands together to rebuild. A fire wouldn't be so bad I thought, please let it be I fire, but I feared worse, I was running towards a well. Soon, I, and everyone, arrived chests heaving at the perilous well. There was no fire to be seen and those already on the scene were peering down the abysmal cement-lined cavern, some of them frantically trying to prepare a pulley. Someone has fallen.

Before long, the whole village materialized, women at a distance wailing and men surrounding the well, watching helplessly. The average heartbeat of the village must have been the highest in the world. An intrepid young man offered to descend to retrieve the one who had fallen. I wanted to believe someone could survive the drop, could salvage some kind of life, yet from below we heard nothing. The young man finally went down with an improvised rope harness, his mission to secure another rope to the incomprehensible form at the bottom.. A team of men slowly lowered him in to the depths of the well. I tried to imagine what it must have felt like to be inside, the overwhelming heat and the obscured reflection of the clear blue sky on the water below. Before long his voice echoed information skyward and the team was pulling him up. He placed his feet on solid ground and hastily stripped off the ropes. He sighed deeply and walked away from the well, having seen enough.

Our optimism was diminished now, little doubt lingered about the fate of the fallen one. The ropes were pulled once more and the fallen one began to rise. It was then that I realized I didn't know who fell, whether man, woman, or child. I hoped it wasn't someone from my host family of someone I knew well. I hoped it wasn't a person at all, but a beast instead, for there was nobody I could think of whose passing wouldn't bring suffering. The pulling of the rope, the shrill screech of the pulley seemed to go on for far too long, a testament to the depth of our water table. When the fallen one was too emerge however, we collectively felt it, and instinctively began to move towards the well. A donkey cart was secured as transport and a cloth was provided as cover.

Here we go, I thought.

The sun shone hot and bright on the illuminated body as the rope was removed and the cloth quickly draped over its face. Through the crowd I took a glance at what we all simultaneously wanted and did not want to see. A small crumpled frame, tattered jeans, a little boy. There was relief in seeing, our imaginations could now rest and we could begin to fully accept the outcome. The masses of people began to walk slowly down the road to the boy's compound, everyone looking forward and towards the ground. It wasn't far to the compound and we all entered solemnly. ***(See the note at the bottom.) Every sitting place was taken and those of us behind were forced to stand. In the compound the wailing of the women refused to abate. The arrival of the boy's body ignited a whole new round of emotional cries. The cries swirled through the air like the rapid winds of a cyclone. A few women collapsed on the ground and were taken inside.

Leaning against a compound wall I glanced from face to face. People seemed unabashed in expressing their sadness, even a few men had the distinct trail of tears shining over their dark skin. Every time I met the eyes of someone crying I too came close to tears. They never came, though sweat dripped down my forehead past my eyes and I imagined the droplets as tears. I kept my composure breathing through clenched teeth and with rumbling tremors in my stomach. Respected men went into the room where the boy was taken, I presume to inspect the body. I was glad I hadn't gotten a better look at the boy when they raised him from the well, a fall like that must be pretty brutal.

I then noticed a chicken with its throat cut lying lifeless in the middle of the compound. I pondered its significance and I wondered why nobody else seemed to be paying any attention. When the group of men charged with inspecting appeared again, it seemed like the right time to depart. I ambled home, all the while finding it difficult to summon my voice, even for greeting. As I walked, I thought of my farm and how most of the grass raked and burned was dry and old, yet some of it was green and fresh. In the end though, it all came to ash and was returned to the soil.

*** Author's note - At this point I was called as the only skilled photographer in the village with a camera to take pictures of the body for the police. I reluctantly agreed and walked back to the boy's compound. I found the police officer at the compound entrance and suggested that he borrow my camera to get the needed shots. He replied simply, "You're the professional." Inside the compound many people had remained and were praying together. I kept a straight face as I walked past them, camera hanging off my shoulder, pausing to remove my shoes as I crossed over a prayer mat. I could tell all eyes were on me. I summoned all my poise, took the required shots and left. One from the front. One from the back. One from the side. I was curious and a little nervous to see him. Though I'd finally heard the boy's name by now, I hadn't recognized him upon the photographic unveiling. He had a gash, long and deep, across his swollen face. His unfamiliar features made it easier to take his pictures without flashbacks of his life running though my head. I'm sure however, I'll eventually figure out where I know him and then he can do his running.

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