When Changes Come
In one split second, I hear screams. Vendor tables loaded with produce and merchandise fly, then people run. Dust engulfs the once vibrant marketplace. Puff clouds billow from panicked feet. The fine particles of earth grip air in a chokehold, grip everyone’s fears. I whirl around in the passenger seat of our rusty, blue Datsun pickup. Where is daddy, I think, using the rear window as my telescope. Through a veil of brown, men hoist machetes high towards the sky, then down again, the way daddy does, cutting grass. Bodies slam against the metal I’m now trapped in, rocking me back and forth. My heart lodges in the throat. Too scared to swallow, I let my heart sit and swell there. I want to scream, I can’t. The driver’s door flings open, and my father slips behind the wheel with fierce speed. I watch his fingers fumble for keys, his shaky hands turn the ignition. We peel out of the chaos, tires screeching, like our own father-daughter heist. He doesn’t say a word. We drive home in silence, his narrowed eyes set on the outstretched, unfamiliar road ahead.
A year earlier, two months after my sixth birthday, it’s mango season. When neighborhood trees, including ours, connected by the lonesome hammock swaying in the stiff breeze over miniature fire ant hills, blossoms and droops, full and ripe with dense, fragrant fruit. Mangoes occupy front and back yards, some rotting untouched at the bottom of trunks and rolling into streets or country roads. Overwhelmed vendors, incapable of selling this late harvest invasion, bargain off cheap bundles to passersby. From the pouch she’s created with her Lappa cloth, my mother dumps her own collection on the wooden table. She tests each mango with a quick, light squeeze, running her fingers along the selection like she does in the market. I scope out the magical palette of yellow, orange, red, and green. Sometimes there’s a hint of bubbly pink or bruised purple that I like. But mother never fusses over the colors like I do. It’s all about touch and smell for her. I watch as she cleans the leathery skin in a serving bowl, adding a droplet of dish soap to wash trails of honeydew and sap left from leaves. From the fruit in her palm, her tropical crystal ball, she slowly unwraps the peel with a knife. She cuts far away from the pit to save enough flesh for me. She peels one for herself, kicks off her flip-flops, squats on her kitchen stool, and eats right off the blade, giving me a knowing wink. We sit in silence, except for the smacking of our lips around the juicy oblong shape, our fingertips sticky, our teeth filled with sweet fibers we pick at all day.
At this moment, having seen the future before us, my mother will tell me of the changes to come: One day soon, I’ll have to leave and she’ll go missing, running somewhere through the bullet rain; One day I’ll stand under a plum tree in America and wonder where she is, wonder why she didn’t warn me that in America they don’t call mangoes plums. Why America had room for me, and not her? I’ll bite my way to the core of that mango and listen to the sound of her voice. I’ll try to rewrite these changes, pretend they’re just stories I can twist and turn to my will. Nevermind the part about leaving and going to America. I want to be here with you forever, I’ll say, pinning the sides of the slimy fruit between my fingers; then, eventually wrapping my hands around it to tame its slippery body from jumping out of my grasp like a squirming fish. Just as we so often do to wrangle time. She’ll laugh, then warn that I’ll have some growing up to do, mangoes or plums.
Three months earlier, on Christmas Eve, Mount Nimba stands like a towering green giant, the highest peak of the Guinea Highlands. At the foothills of the Nimba Range, right along the Ivorian border, a coup under the command of their warlord leader slips through. Over 200 miles away in the city, festive hymns echo from my father’s church. Tamborine chimes and cowrie shell-shakers slice through repetitive choruses. I’m an angel in our nativity program, standing with pride in front of the booming congregation. I hover over baby Jesus swaddled in the manger, the only way I think the actual angels might have done it. And as villages in Nimba burn, and the choir belts “Hark The Herald Angels Sing”, I imagine I have wings and can fly. That night, my mother harbors her unsettledness. She tucks her fears away while tucking me into bed, wondering what time has in store, what time will tell us.
Four years before civil war erupts, there’s a jailbreak in Plymouth, Massachusetts. In the dead of night, five men escape through the window of a dormitory room. They climb knotted bedsheets several stories down, hop a fence, and vanish into the nearby woods of Standish State Forest. Authorities later apprehend four, while one escapes, disappearing into a getaway car headed for Staten Island. That mystery inmate will resurface in Libya, train a handful of rag-tag soldiers as commander, and wait for the perfect opportunity to attack his country.
In June of ‘85, months earlier, my parents will dream of returning home. Soon we will all fly back to Liberia, West Africa. We’ll step off the plane, sicking in hot air, and hauling our luggage full of American goods. We’ll greet enthusiastic relatives I’ve never met nor heard of. They’ll grab at us, shouting in their tribal tongue, laughing from their gut, big loud hearty laughs that carry our rich history. They’ll hold my parents and me in tight, sweaty embraces they’ve longed for. I won’t remember any other place more. Time there will always stand still. Time stamped on memory.
Wendy Newbury is a writer and educator. Her work has appeared in The New York Times – Tiny Love Stories, Roi Fainéant Press, JMWW Journal, Gastropoda, Complete Sentence, Red Fez, and Emerge Journal. Her work has been nominated for Best of the Net and a Pushcart. Find her at www.newburywrites.com or Twitter: @newburywrites.
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