We tell our own tales with happy endings because it’s easier. And when we tell the horror stories of others, we often simplify the drama into black and white.
From the tiny fat-bellied plane, I could see there were no roads across this jungle. How would I build anything?
On the back of a dirt bike, I followed muddy paths in search of flowing springs. I ducked overhanging branches. I was whipped by grass and vines. I got off to walk across rotting bridges in heavy gumboots and tracked creeks up to their sources above the fields.
Then skinny men with bicycles and flip-flops carried sacks of cement, sacks of bricks, and sacks of sand deep into the green overgrowth and up the dark humus hillsides for construction.
The old man
It made no difference to the old man what white men called the jungle—Congo or Zaire; he said it was Katanga. He never really learned the language of boss Leopold, except to haggle about the price of river fish. He cast his lines and sometimes broke them fighting bottom feeders or mbenga tigerfish.
Even he could not recall when the savagery began. The rebels pushed out from every side of poisoned lakes, creeping up escarpments like crocodiles who'd been taught to climb, feeding boys to the volcanoes. All the old man knew was that the violence never ended.
"In burnt-out houses they cannot smell your fire." The cook paused while the short-haired dog licked her hand. "The walls are charred and stink of smoke. No need to hide your traces, even when they're chasing."
She survived the war with a dull knife and the dog. They gnawed at smoked porcupine, sucked palm oil from fallen nuts, and stole small black tubers left for dead in pillaged fields. Still hungry, she slipped back between the jungle's fat vines and thorny trees, avoiding open rusty bridges and rutted roads where men and children crept, blurry-eyed and out of step.
The boy remembered only that his mother got away before rebels lit the fire. "She took the dog instead of you," they whispered. He became silent, hunched, hungry, and ashamed. He became thankful for a chicken foot and fermented yam. He became numb-drunk on stank palm wine, and then he marched again.
They cut off the feet of villagers and forced the boy upon a girl as his reward. He became a bandit: now he whispered to marching boys, drunk with guns, widening jungle paths to roads, burning roofs and bridges. And when he fell, he was not remembered.
The raiders found the girl hiding amongst the manioc above the spring. They stuffed their bags with dirty roots and then forced her face into the black tilled hill as the boy destroyed her from behind.
The girl was still thirteen and frightened when she bore a son. She met a woman who was a cook, who had given birth before and who helped her to push and breathe. The dog licked her salty face while her tight belly rose again. And when the babe looked up from her breast, she smiled but recalled the color of dark soil.
The old man took white men to the rusting bridge and leaned on his machete. "There." He waved his two-foot blade, indicating the far side of the river. "Many people. Cut off feet. And women." He didn't know the word for rape.
He wished the offensive landmark would slump into the river, even if it meant he couldn't cross. He twisted his knife to gouge out flaky metal shards and pushed each piece down between the rotting railroad ties.
One hundred feet below, two women and a dog leached cyanide from peeled cassava roots, staining the river eddies white.