Cheryl Collins Isaac
Selected by Guest Editor Chauna Craig
Followed by Bio and Q&A
Gambia wants Ousman Sonko back, I read online today. The name reaches me from someplace faraway, yet distinctly close.
From my backyard, where I’m knee-deep in dirt and surrounded by red hibiscus, I smell the aroma of coffee as it drips through the espresso machine in the house: bold, roasted Ethiopian beans.
“You don’t need this fancy machinery,” Amadou said five times as he carried it from the store to the car that day. He balanced the box on his shoulder and I envisioned the fishermen from back home as they returned from the city with boxes of oscillating fans balanced on their shoulders and heads, goods they had traded with small grocers in exchange for fresh fish from the river, goods they would later sell to local hotels.
“Who knows, I might open a coffee hut someday,” I said.
“How? You don’t even leave the house.”
I watched him struggle, saw the sweat form a line down the middle of his t-shirt and I wished I’d parked on the farthest end of the condo’s parking lot. He carried the machine into the house and I packed the teacups, the toaster, and the microwave into a box, so I could have counter space for the machine.
Amadou looked disgusted. “Waste of money,” he said.
I did not respond and he walked off like he normally does on the weekends: his overnight bag in hand, his shoulders stooped, his lower lip pulled out and upwards, as if everything around him had turned to garbage. He’d be gone until Monday. Working at Delta in Customs, he says. But I know he spends the weekend with her.
The scent of fresh soil lingers in my fingernails and I take a careful whiff as I wipe the sweat from the top of my lips. I’ve planted a row of hibiscus, their colors bright red like fresh blood. I walk into the kitchen to steam some sweet vanilla milk. The steamed milk dances with the coffee in my mug and I watch the whiteness swirl with the dark espresso and blossom into a flower. The flower in my cup resembles the hibiscus that grew around our house in Liberia, round buds that started inward and ballooned into exquisite shades of white.
Every wedding in our Liberian neighborhood had been decorated with flowers from my Ma’s white hibiscus garden: a sprawl of flowers that wrapped around the one-acre lot of our ranch home. Her dream was to have a white hibiscus farm; it would nurture blooms of white in homes all over Monrovia and this would ensure peace in the city, she hoped. Despite her despondency, she’d managed to remain optimistic. She had experienced the Liberian Coup of the 1980s, when the former President was assassinated and his entire Administration strapped to poles and executed on the beach. The coup had a toll on Ma. She slept beneath her bed for a week and refused to see anyone. When she finally emerged, she was wearing white. She’d lit a fire in the backyard, burned her wardrobe, and saved the white pieces. Later, during the Liberian War, years after the coup, when we turned our house over to armed rebels and fled for Gambia (the homeland of my deceased father), Ma could not stomach the sight of hibiscus gardens.
Gambia wants him back to be questioned for war crimes, the news reads. But Sonko is in detention in Switzerland, where he sought asylum.
I hand the iPad to Uncle Siafa when he comes home from work. He reads and shakes his head. “Eh these African countries. Finally they get bold. When people responsible for your women and children dem dying in cold blood, you need to do something, hehn?” Uncle Siafa uses questions to complete his thoughts.
“Uncle,” I say, “Look at the name.”
He looks at me strangely and then reads again. Suddenly it sinks in. His face turns an ash gray and his full eyes seem even bigger, brighter.
“Aryana,” he starts to say something.
I interrupt him. “Uncle, you hungry? Want me warm up some check rice and gravy?”
He shrugs and watches me in silence. I reach into the ice cooler we’ve been using for weeks to store cooked food, since Amadou came home one day and took the refrigerator. Something was wrong with it, he said, and he was taking it to get fixed.
“But I just used it this morning, Amad. It was working!”
“You call me liar?” he asked.
What could I say to that? I felt the tears sting the back of my throat, felt my eyes itch from the pain. I watched helplessly as his friend helped him load it onto the truck. They drove off. I knew where they were taking it.
I empty the gravy from the rubber container into a saucepan, the rice into a pot. As I stir, I feel Uncle Siafa’s watchful eyes burn through my back.
“Uncle, go wash up. Food will be ready soon.”
“But I want to help. You want me to lay the plates?”
“No Uncle. I don’t want you in my kitchen.”
He exhales heavily and walks over to the coat closet. I hear him hang his coat and take off his work boots. I know that once he enters his room, he’ll discard his work clothes by folding the t-shirt, trousers, and socks and placing them neatly into the dirty clothesbasket. His white boxer briefs he’ll hand wash himself, as if he doesn’t want me getting to the root of his dirt. He knows I’ll pick up his hamper when I do the weekly laundry.
Uncle Siafa is a landscaper, sometimes a hardscaper, he tells people because his job includes laying bricks for patios and garden escapes. Before the war, he worked as a secret agent for a West African peacekeeping unit, but he does not discuss this. He owns a small landscaping company that works on projects along Middle Georgia’s countryside, during those warm months when the wind blows through pine trees and leaves light brown pine needles and dark brown pine cones in its wake. Uncle’s team uses the cones and needles to decorate flowerbeds and cutouts in that good old Georgia-brown way, he likes to joke.
The iPad in one hand, the cookspoon in the other, I stir and read: “Ousman Sonko is believed to be responsible for torturing members of the opposition under the rule of former president Yahya Jammeh.”
Jammeh, Ma always said the name in a whisper. Jammeh find out, we all in trouble for helping the resistance, she repeated during those dark days. She started saying it when the whispers began over friendly conversation, when her workmates discussed the latest gossip from the Gambian countryside: they whispered the names of people who had disappeared suddenly, the ones whose names never appeared on the news, those who didn’t receive proper burials. Before this, Ma’s friends from the pharmaceutical company where she worked as a lab technician, dropped by for card games on the weekends. There were usually four to six people, mostly Gambians. Ma loved to cook them a Liberian dinner—usually fufu and pepper soup or cassava leaf and rice. After dinner, they would sit on the deck for the card game, beers in hand. But Ma only drank coffee, double servings of espresso from a tiny, cheap machine she’d found at Wal-Mart. Her friends teased her about her coffee drinking, said someday she would turn as dark as the espresso she liked to drink.
If only they had known that their prediction would come true. Inwardly, she grew darker and darker. Soon, her friends stopped visiting. Slowly, the rest of her world eliminated her and she stopped existing to them. Most nights she didn’t sleep but sat in the rocking chair facing the window, anxiously rocking, as if waiting, as if she lived only to wait.
“You scared his people will show up here one day?” Uncle Siafa asks between mouthfuls of rice and gravy. We’ve each been deep in thoughts at the dining table. I glance out the window, where cars fill the once-deserted parking lot—tired employees returning from long days of work.
“I don’t know what I think.” Coldness fills the space around my lungs and suddenly it is hard to breathe. I clutch my chest and Uncle Siafa runs for the brown bag. He pats my back as I exhale big breaths into it.
“Don’t worry. This time, I’ll be waiting,” he says after a few minutes.
Uncle Siafa came after it was too late. The day I made the call to the Uncles, it had been one of the coldest days in Georgia. Little drops of snowflakes had fallen to the ground and turned into sheets of ice and Georgians were perplexed because they don’t see snow often. I left the message on the Google Voice number my Uncles shared: She says it’s time. My mother always said her ex-military brothers were the only ones she trusted. I dusted the flakes off the windshield and began my drive to Washington D.C., just as Ma had instructed. I was to stay overnight at a cheap hotel along the way, and once I got to D.C., I was to spend every single day at the Liberian Embassy until they closed at night. Come up with some reason you’re there, she said. Just stay put all week if you have to, right where you’re visible. At night, I was to avoid staying with family in the neighboring suburbs and stay at shelters instead. Get on the line promptly in the evening, find a bed, sleep with your bag as your pillow, and then get out of there first thing in the morning, head back to the embassy, she said. She made me repeat the instructions: where to find cheap food, how to find shelters that served food, how to sneak into continental breakfast spreads at hotels, and more. So when I woke that morning and found the envelope of money and the letter from her placed next to my pillow, I grabbed the already-packed overnight bag from beneath the bed and headed out without even washing my face. On the way to Washington D.C., I sobbed incessantly, felt tiny needles butcher my heart because I did not get to hug her goodbye.
I never really found out what happened to her. No one will tell me. Some whisper he sent someone to our house at night. Some say he used someone who worked with her, and the person got to her in the crowded company parking lot. Some say she went to the Uncles’ house and waited, but they didn’t check their voicemail and when they returned from work late that night, they found her lifeless body on the back patio—she had been strangled to death, the police report noted. I think the last scenario is true. I think this is why Uncle Siafa is here, why he calls me three times a day from work; why he gets so upset whenever he misses a voice message; why he refuses to discuss the details of my mother’s death with me.
At the private funeral, she looked beautiful and rested; her lips were pulled into a smile, her wood-stained complexion a glow, the contours of her face fixed into peaceful sleep. After the funeral, Uncle Siafa took me home. He’s never left since.
The phone rings. It’s Amadou. “Hello?”
“Got a package coming to the house. You need to open the door for delivery,” Amadou says.
“Uncle Siafa’s here. He’ll get it.” As a precaution, I don’t open the door to strangers or delivery.
“Uncle—” There is a pause. “I marry Uncle Siafa or I marry you? You get the package! Don’t want that man knowing my business.” Even beneath the anger, I hear his fear.
Uncle Siafa concentrates on his food. I know he hears the conversation because I have the volume on the phone turned to the loudest.
“What’s the package for, Amadou?” I ask.
“Computer I need for work, if you have to know. Had to order it that way.” For a few seconds, there is awkward silence. I do not ask the question I should be asking. I feel my insides flutter.
“Uncle Siafa is here. He says he’ll get it,” I hear myself say. I hang up before Amadou gets the chance to protest.
Uncle Siafa watches me, his face a steely glare. “Whetin this time?” he asks.
“You know what he’s doing right? Using your money so he can buy things for that thief woman’s house!”
I nod. Amadou has control of the life insurance money my mother left me, and the payments from her work annuity. The bills are few because the condo and car are paid off, but he sponsors his mistress with the rest of my money and he drives my mother’s car to work every day. A month after my mother’s death, I quit medical school and my part-time job. Now he tells everyone, the banker, the insurance company, the grocer, the pastor, that I’m mentally unstable and he has to take care of me.
Uncle mumbles. “Tell the no-good rascal I’ll be right here waiting for his pickup.”
I don’t know what Uncle plans to do with the package and I don’t ask.
When I married Amadou, I didn’t know then that his brother was a member of Jammeh’s assassination squad. When we fell in love, he had been a kind-hearted medical student who followed me around campus. We found kinship in the fact that we were the only West Africans in the program. He drove me to campus each day in his beat-up Ford Escort and on Interstate 75 we recited formulas loudly, trying to drown the vibrations of the old engine. On our wedding day, our families gifted us with the same medical books, pairs of ten expensive books we needed for the year. My mother called him her son because she believed he was an orphan who had been raised by his extended family—a lie he and his family told everyone. His brother did not show up for our wedding, in fact, I had no idea he had a brother. We were happy and ambitious then.
Until the day I came home from evening classes and found Amadou sitting quietly in our dark living room. It was the day before my mother’s funeral. Amadou had been pulled from school that day, for failure to pay tuition. When I flipped the light switch, his face was a dark growl. “I know what your wicked old ma did!” He shouted. The letter from my mother to me was in his hand. Behind him, the bedroom door was open. All my drawers had been emptied, the safe my mother left me broken, the mattress slit, the mirrors shattered. He read her letter mockingly:
“I was a secretary for the resistance. My job was to send fundraising letters secretly to Gambians in America and Europe. We begged for money to support the resistance in Gambia and to offer underground shelters to families. Innocent people were dying at the hands of their own government: women and children, even journalists who dared cover the truth. We needed to organize.
Aryana, I know I told you before that your father was Gambian, but what you didn’t know was that he was not dead. He had been alive and imprisoned for twenty years. They killed him recently, before the resistance could free him. He was executed simply for being a fiction writer whose stories showed the struggle. After his execution, they found the letters I wrote to him in jail. Now I’m certain they’ll be coming for me. I joined the resistance for him, Aryana, and for you. So you could be proud of who you are. People will be free soon, because of the resistance. But you must cut off all ties from me now. You must live, my love. I did this for you, so you can live without breathing through the sand.
My love with you always,
“Did it for youuu?” Amadou screeched. “I was rich. My family was rich! Now I have to quit school and work menial labor. I could have been a doctor! Who said those simple people needed rights?” He spat the words like bile. “Is it my fault some people too stupid to get to the top? Did I put a gun to anybody’s head? You ruined my life! Now my brother is losing all his money and he can’t help me…”
“Your brother is that Sonko?” I asked in a whisper. Amadou’s last name, our last name, was Soley. What else was false, I wondered.
Amadou looked through me and continued talking. “Lies, lies, all lies! How they prove anything? There will always be government. Always somebody at the top. So we not allowed to take advantage of that? How dare they call us corrupt! Who gave these resistance people the right to tell me what I can or cannot do?”
“Amad, they killed people just for disagreeing. Just for being different. No trials. Innocent men, women, children, they just killed them…” The words formed softly, slowly, outside of my body. I could hear myself speak, but I could not believe that I had to even utter the words.
He came closer and his bloodshot gaze pierced my sockets. His words were measured.
“Just like this,” he said as he snapped his fingers, “I can have them wring your neck too.”
My heart sank to my feet. At that moment, it was clear to me why I studied science. I respect life more than I do anything else. Ma always said I couldn’t kill a bug when I was younger. You were born a survivor, she told me a few days before she left.
I thought about this as Amadou screamed obscenities and jeers into the night. I sank to the ground, my face buried into the carpet, and I wept. I wept for my dead mother. I wept because of the cruelty of fate. I wept because I knew I would do whatever it took to stay alive. I stayed on the carpet that night and in some ways, I think I’ve been there since.
Uncle Siafa is saying something serious but the motions of the espresso machine I’ve started drowns his words. It is my fifth cup of the day, yet my muscles crave the warm flow of caffeine.
“Aryana, you hear? We got a plan…” Uncle is saying. When Uncle Siafa found out about Amadou at my mother’s funeral, his knees buckled and he fell to the ground in a bow, only a few feet from her casket. The brothers tried to console him, even as they planned a meeting. How to handle the situation, they pondered? “I know these people. I know how they operate. We have to be smart,” Uncle Siafa repeated. His voice was a wail that haunts my dreams at night.
Uncle Siafa blames himself, I can tell. But deceit can be so swift in its destruction that the one deceived is left to decipher the broken pieces. Why Amadou chose me, I’ll never know, and yet the irony of it is not lost on us. I, the daughter of a resistance leader. The niece of a former peacekeeping soldier.
I watch the steam settle around the canister, watch the white and black swirls as I pour the milk, and suddenly everything around me exists clearly. The black and white bulb forms a pretty brown flower. When I bring the mug to my lips, boldness flows down my throat and through my veins. “Get him, Uncle,” I hear myself say.
“What?” Uncle looks uncertain.
“You heard me. Do what you have to do. I want to live.”
Uncle Siafa nods firmly. “Leave before he returns then.”
He gets up and digs beneath the floorboards and hands me a money container and a container with the letters of introduction my mother wrote to several officials of the resistance. Then he heads off to make calls and schedule transport. Later that night, he waits with me as Amadou makes the nightly call to the landline phone in the house. Everything ok? he asks. I am well, I answer—the formalities, so he makes sure I am home. After the phone call, Uncle Siafa drives me to the bus station. I will take several buses before I get to my destination, but at each station, one of my Uncles, my mother’s many brothers, will be there to escort me to the next stop. Uncle Siafa has it all planned. Once I get to the ship, I will be alone, but ready to set sail on a new voyage, a new life, Uncle Siafa tells me with tears in his eyes. He shows me the pictures of a small, simple house and the blue ocean in the distance. By the time I get there, he tells me, enrollment into a major in Marine Life Biology will have been set into motion at the local university, my classes scheduled and paid for with the emergency fund my mother initiated for me before her death, a fund I knew nothing about until now.
When we arrive at the bus station, the smell of recent rain fills the air. We avoid the pavement and walk across the wet grass to head to the bus line. As we walk, Uncle Siafa tells me the story of his grandpa, a wise farmer in Liberia’s Grand Cape Mount County, who always cautioned to walk across the grass if one wants good luck in the next season. The soil beneath our feet is moist and moveable. The grass is a bright green. The scent of soil and freshly laid flowers lingers. I search for hibiscus but I see none. Instead, around the buildings and shrubs, I see an array of buds: orange and red buds of azaleas and aegonias.
At the bus, Uncle Siafa hugs me tightly. He smells of Old Spice and coconut oil.
When the bus pulls away, he waves profusely. His form remains in the distance for a while, and then it grows smaller and smaller, until he is merely a tiny speck in my conscious.
~ ~ ~
Cheryl Collins Isaac is a Liberian-American and a survivor of the First Liberian Civil War. A former business columnist for Forbes, her fiction and creative nonfiction have appeared in Ocean State Review, South Writ Large and Cosmosnauts Avenue. She has a M.F.A. from the University of Tampa and is a Disquiet International and Tin House Workshop alumnus.
This non-autobiographical story was inspired by a news headline. I come from a family of political refugees and am aware that even at a certain remove, physical and emotional landscapes of the past crystallize with current events. I wanted to capture those often-unexplored spaces of refugee torment.
What is your favorite dietary pleasure?
Good French Roast Coffee because the aroma and taste brightens the morning. I can exist without breakfast in the morning, but never without a cup of coffee.
You’ve just discovered a new planet. What are you going to name it?
I’ll name my Planet Peace, for this is my impossible dream, to live in a world free of chaos and strife.
Which is your favorite season: Winter, Spring, Summer or Fall?
Spring feels like possibilities and the colors remind me of the rainbow.