When I was five, my grandmother’s hut burned down. It was only an accident. Some boys were playing with a box of matches they found and the brush was so dry a spark turned into a blazing storm of crackling destruction.
My mother wailed as the ash and droplets of fire rained and swirled, saying that to lose our home was the worst thing that could happen. But my grandmother shook her head and said my mother was wrong. It was only a house. There are far worse things that can be taken from you.
* * *
My boyhood was one of empty bellies and parched tongues. Babies should not have faces with sharp cheekbones, wrinkles around their mouths instead of dimples, and ribs sticking out of their chests like hollow musical instruments. That is for western catwalk models to dream of. But that is what babies looked like in my village.
Famine is just a word until your bile starts to digest your own intestine for the nutrients it holds. Drought is unthinkable if you live in a country where you curse the rain. Disease, thriving in filth, with no cheap, simple medicines to stop the broadcast.
And as if God’s acts were not enough, our kind pour in the guns.
And when the prey is weakened, come the reapers. Inverted-skinned upside-down-minded foreigners offering help with one hand while picking your pocket with the other. Gifts with strings that strangle you in your sleep, and by the time you wake up, all you can do is watch yourself choke.
On a patch of land brought to its knees, there is only so much the human animal can withstand. So village turns on village, brother on brother, sister on sister.
After the lions have eaten their fill, finally come the scavengers. The lions watch with one lazy eye, then lay their heads down and doze.
The Hyenas saw a ripe opportunity to claim a flag for their faith. Where we were in chaos, they were organised. When we wished for nothing more than survival, they rallied to seize power. As we cut off our own noses, they had their own enemy clear in their sights.
Village after village the Hyenas rolled over, then town after town, and finally city after city, until they took the capital, Malao. After clinging on with teeth and nails against the hatred of each other, the force of the Hyenas cracked our bones, inside and out. My people poured from the racked land—termites from a mountain flooded with boiling water.
I stayed with my mother for as long as I could, even though she begged me to move somewhere safer. But the Hyenas spread their fingers like wild flames through parched forest.
They set up checkpoints on all roads, and if you were young and able and believed in the right God, they ordered you to fight with them. They said that if you did not, you betrayed Him.
Some people thought to wriggle from their hooks by claiming allegiance to the ghost God. A bullet through the shell of their skull relieved them of all duty forevermore.
I don’t remember my God saying this was what He wanted.
I did not want to fight for the Hyenas.
But I did not want to die.
So I left my mother, who said she was too old to leave her home, and crossed the border into Jamhuri, our neighbour country who still had a president and where tourists were not afraid to come and bring their money.
There were so many people from my country there, the place where I live, they called it “Little Malao.”
I made a small life there. I even went to college.
But Jamhuri keeps us only reluctantly; they do not embrace us. This can never be home. It is just somewhere to stay until I can find a way to somewhere better. There is no dream of going home—home does not exist anymore.
Instead, I dreamed of escaping to Canada. I would be a lawyer. I would be the best lawyer. I would be so good they would beg me to come to Canada and practise law. So went my daydreams.
On one day I was at the Internet café talking to my mother, telling her that I was top of my class for the latest test, and I saw the American Green Card competition. Of course I had heard of it before. The only person who had not heard of it—maybe—was the baby that was born today.
I thought—what the hell?—and I clicked to enter.
And I won.
Of course, I did not believe it. It must be a mistake. I had gone to the wrong website where someone was tricking me to get my money—more fool them, I have no money to take—but I kept checking and checking and clicking and clicking, and no, it was the truth.
The dream had come true for me.
America is almost the same as Canada.
I would find a piece of land where I could make a new home. No more running.
But life is not so easy as all that, and the lines drawn on paper by men who hold flags are not so simple to step over, even if they are only ink.
America does not simply send you a Green Card straightaway in the post, did you know that? No. You must write forms and find documents and even go to an interview. If you have a dot on every “I” and a cross on every “T,” then after many months, you can come to the land of the free, as they keep repeating.
After I won the competition, even though it was not for certain, I became a very desirable man. Normally girls do not come to your house in my culture, but now they would queue up at my door. There was one I liked, and she became my girlfriend. I am not a fool. I knew she would not be with me if I did not have my golden ticket. I do not even have to suspect. She told me it straight. I like that she is a very honest girl.
But I have not told her I will take her with me if I get my visa. Even though the person I am now loves her, I do not know the person I will be in my new life. I am not sure taking her is the right thing to do for him, so I do not make promises I cannot keep.
The date of my interview for my Green Card is three months away—91 days to be precise—at the American Embassy in the capital of Jamhuri, so now is a game of waiting, making sure I have everything on their lists of papers.
But then disaster attacks.
The Hyenas strike a shopping mall in Jamhuri and kill 67 innocent people. And what does the government do? It blames us—all of us people who fled because we did not want to fight for the Hyenas. It makes the opposite of sense. But the attackers were from my country and so are we, and that is all they see.
After the shopping mall, life becomes much more difficult in Little Malao. The police come all the time and check your papers. Of course the papers from the government do not really help. It is those little bits of paper that go in their wallets that they really want. Anyone who cannot pay is taken to the camps.
I cannot be taken to the camps. If that happens I will never be able to come for my interview and America will be snatched away from me.
It is 63 days to my interview.
Soon all my money has gone to police bribes and half of Little Malao is deserted. Everyone is leaving. There are rumours that the police punish violently those they take, for the deaths caused by the Hyenas. People say they will go back to the danger of real Malao before they will be penned into the camps like cattle, surrounded by armed cowboys. At least the Hyenas will kill you like a man, not an animal.
But the road back to our country is very dangerous. There are many land pirates waiting in ambush. They will take anything you have, and not only your possessions.
My neighbours, two women and their two young children, a boy and a girl, say they are leaving. I ask them, are they not worried about being attacked? Being raped? They look at me in the eye and say, what God wills will be. We have no control. We have no choice. Their voices are cold and tired. The little girl takes her mother’s hand and I want to beg them not to go, not to risk it. But what else can they do? It is not safer here.
It is 45 days to my interview.
I am at college when I get a text from my girlfriend saying that everyone in her house is being taken away. She says she will text me again when she knows where they are being taken. I never hear from her again.
It is 37 days to my interview.
Now I am the only person in many blocks. I sit in the dark living on bread and Lucozade. I no longer go to college, it is too much risk that I will be seen.
Just me and my laptop—it is a strange reality that we have nothing, and yet still there is Internet.
It is 34 days until my interview and I get some bad news. The Jamhuri government will not give me my security clearance paper. I phone them to ask why, my heart beating for talking to them while at the same time I am hiding from them. They say I must come to the office in person.
I am too terrified to go. They will arrest me as soon as I walk into the door for hiding from the camps. But if I do not have this paper, my interview will be cancelled before it has begun.
It is 14 days to my interview.
I summon the courage to go to the police station, but when I am on the bus, a woman gets on and she points and me and says, “Terrorist! He has a bomb in his bag!”
I am so surprised at first I cannot speak. I tell her I am not a terrorist and all I have in my bag are books. But the driver stops the bus and says I must get out so I do not cause a danger for people. I am forced to open my bag and show everyone on the bus that I have no bomb, only books. It is humiliating. Only then does the bus driver let me stay on.
At the police station my heart is pounding. I am sure they will pounce on me and arrest me. I explain at the desk why I am there and they tell me to wait on the orange plastic chairs with cigarette burns. I sit and wait. I think I am going to smoulder into nothing from the anxiety. Then they come back and they say, okay. You can have your paper.
I am so happy! I have never been so happy in my whole life! I am sure now, I have a good feeling. I am going to America! I have all my papers, every dot, every cross. I have walked across scorched coals and soon I will walk over water.
Nothing can bring me down!
It is three days to the interview.
Now I wait, like a mouse in a hole surrounded by snakes. I hear the police coming and I hide under the bed in the dark until they go away.
It is the day of the interview.
I have waited my whole life for this day. I go to the embassy and it is a black American lady. I am very happy. I put my hand on her book and promised to tell the truth and I did. I answered all the questions.
Then she said, “What about this certificate, from your high school? There is a signature missing.”
I looked at it. It did not have a signature. I told her that it was not my fault. That it was not for me to sign. She did not care. She said I was not accepted. She picked up her microphone and she called the next number.
“Better luck next time,” she said.
* * *
I went back to my dark apartment, surrounded by soot in my head. When they police came knocking this time I went to the door and opened it. They were surprised.
Then they laughed at me. Living there in my own solitary confinement.
They said they could not have dangerous people like me living in their country. They said I must leave. Go home.
I laughed loudly and startled them.
“What are you laughing at?” they shouted.
“Home,” I said.
* * *
When I went back, my mother was so sad to see me. Nobody should have to see disappointment in the eyes of their mother, even if the sadness is born from a root of love.
I understood then what my grandmother meant. It doesn’t matter what walls stand around you or what is in your pockets when you are scraped out inside.
The next time I went to a checkpoint, the Hyenas told me again that I should fight.
I did not want to fight, but I did not want to die.
They told me that they loved me but everybody else hated me and would see me dead. The Americans, the Jamhuri, my own people and everyone else between. Who had come to help me? they demanded to know. I had no answer.
They said that now I could take revenge for the suffering I had experienced my whole life. They would help me.
I had suffered.
I wanted help so much.
I was so tired.
When they handed me the gun and I slung the strap over my shoulder, I felt like I held power in my hands.
For the first time since I held that box of matches.
Katja L Kaine lives in a hippyish commune in Yorkshire with her partner, two cats, dog, singing toddler, a chess genius and a guitar hero. She writes novels and short stories and runs a writing critique group where the feedback varies from harsh to brutal. You can read more of her work and rantings at www.katjalkaine.com .
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “Pray on the Weak”
Through the eyes of her unnamed narrator and main character, author Katja Kaine lets us experience the harsh and chilling reality in a part of the world where hope is fragile and the chance of escape from it is slim.
It’s a powerful piece of writing that we felt compelled to publish.