We watched from the other side of the river as our cabin burned. The timbers that had sheltered us through years of unrest lit up the horizon, a jagged mockery of a sunrise still hours away. Broken reeds cut into my feet and legs as we hurried on through the darkness, following the whispered prayers from the tall grass ahead.
I didn’t pray – life had knocked the prayers out of me, even by that tender age. Instead, I fancied my mind rising above me like a vapour, looking down on us as we scrabbled through the mud, heads low, hair whipped and torn by the reeds. Dark hunched shapes like frogs, only not half as accustomed to the sucking dirt, not yet at least. We were people of dust, not mud. I was born on the plain, like my mother before me, and our people’s footprints went way back, if only you followed them close enough. But my mind had no time to dwell on those known things – it had new ground to go over.
It soared over us and looked back at the place I’d been planted and grown, bathed not only in fire but in new and terrible significance. I would never see another sunrise here, or another night under that endless sky. The holes through which the cabin breathed were no more, and the floorboards that yawned and cradled our footsteps were ash, mourned only by the self I left floating above the space they once occupied. Like a mother mouse whose young are threatened, my senseless, grieving mind gobbled up what it could, not knowing that what it ate were shadows.
The history books tell about the uprisings, about how we were driven from our homes, how the next few weeks were a turning point in the war. What they don’t recount is the light and shade that hid in the grasses around our homestead, or the rhythm of the hot summer winds that pelted dust at the washing on the line. They don’t recall how I would throw myself down a hundred feet from the cabin, looking up at the pitiless sky with a longing I did not yet understand.
There are maps and illustrations showing the hundreds of miles we covered those nights down in the dirt, but none see as clearly as the eye I cast down as a child, watching us crawl, no dignity, no home; just a hope of some safety, somewhere. And I know now: there is no place like home, least of all those internal shadowlands we build to try and fool our shaken roots.
I felt no coming back to myself that night. While my lullaby now is the hum of traffic and the bone-deep whale song of a sleepless city, I feel myself tethered there, drifting above the charred grass and greedy river mud. And as I fall backwards, unwilling, into sleep, I feel the cord that holds me sway, stretch, but hold fast.
Lorrie Hartshorn is a contemporary literary fiction writer, whose work has been featured in a number of journals, including Compose, Paraxis, 1000 Words, The Pygmy Giant and Anthem. She is also a busy mother of one, a creative coach, and the founder of Halo Literary Magazine, a new journal of short fiction by women.
Photo credit: Eunice Chung