For his first thirty-five years,Joseph Saleeby's mother makes his bed and each of his meals; every morning she makes him read a column of the English dictionary, selected at random, before he is allowed to set foot outside. They live in a small, collapsing house in the hills outside Monrovia in Liberia, West Africa. Joseph is tall and quiet and often sick; behind the lenses of his oversized eyeglasses, the whites of his eyes are a pale yellow. His mother is tiny and vigorous; twice a week she stacks two baskets of vegetables on her head and hikes six miles to sell them in her stall at the market in Mazien Town. When the neighbors come to compliment her garden, she smiles and offers them Coca-Cola.
“Joseph is resting,” she tells them, and they sip their Cokes and gaze over her shoulder at the dark, shuttered windows of the house, behind which, they imagine, the boy lies sweating and delirious on his cot.
Joseph clerks for the Liberian National Cement Company, transcribing invoices and purchase orders into a thick, leather bound ledger. Every few months he pays one more invoice than he should, and writes the check to himself. He tells his mother the extra money is part of his salary, a lie he grows comfortable making. She stops by the office every noon to bring him rice-the cayenne she heaps onto it will keep illness at bay, she reminds him-and watches him eat at his desk.
“You' re doing so well,” she tells him. “You' re helping make Liberia strong.” In 1989 Liberia descends into a civil war that will last seven years. The cement plant is sabotaged, then transformed into a guerilla armory, and Joseph finds himself out of a job.
He begins to traffic in goods-sneakers, radios, calculators, calendars-stolen from downtown businesses. It is harmless, he tells himself, everybody is looting. We need the money.
He keeps the stolen goods in the cellar, tells his mother he's storing boxes for a friend. While his mother is at the market, a truck comes and carries the merchandise away. At nights he pays a pair of boys to roam the townships, bending window bars, unhinging doors, depositing what they steal in the yard behind Joseph's house.
He spends most of his time squatting on the front step watching his mother tend her garden. Her fingers pry weeds from the soil or cull spent vines or harvest snap beans, the beans plunking regularly into a metal bowl, and he listens to her diatribes on the hardships of war, the importance of maintaining a structured lifestyle. “We cannot stop living because of conflict, Joseph,” she says. “We must persevere.”
Spurts of gunfire flash on the hills; airplanes roar over the roof of the house. The neighbors stop coming by; the hills are bombed, and bombed again. Trees burn in the night like warnings of worse evil to come. Policemen splash past the house in stolen vans, the barrels of their guns resting on the sills, their eyes hidden behind mirrored sunglasses. Come and get me,Joseph wants to yell at them, at their tinted windows and chrome tailpipes. Just you try. But he does not; he keeps his head down, pretends to busy himself among the rosebushes.
In October of 1994 Joseph's mother goes to the market in the morning with two baskets of sweet potatoes and does not return. He paces the rows of her garden, listening to the far-off thump thump of artillery, the keening of sirens, the interminable silences between. When finally the last hem of light drops behind the hills, he goes to the neighbors. They peer at him through the rape gate across their doorway and issue warnings: “The police have been killed. Taylor's guerillas will be here any minute.”
“My mother…” “Save yourself,” they say and slam the door. Joseph hears chains clatter, a bolt slide home. He leaves their house and stands in the dusty street. At the horizon, columns of smoke rise into a red sky. After a moment he walks to the end of the paved road and turns up a muddy track, the way to Mazien Town, the way his mother traveled that morning.
At the market he sees what he expected: fires, a smoldering truck, crates hacked open, teenagers plundering stalls. On a cart he finds three corpses; none is his mother, none is familiar.
No one he sees will speak to him. When he collars a girl running past, cassettes spill from her pockets; she looks away and will not answer his questions. Where his mother's stall stood there is only a pile of charred plywood, neatly stacked, as if someone had already begun to rebuild. It is light before he returns home.
The next night-his mother does not return-he goes out again. He sifts through remains of market stalls; he shouts his mother's name down the abandoned aisles. In a place where the market sign once hung between two iron posts, a man has been suspended upside down. His insides, torn out of him, swing beneath his arms like black, infernal ropes, marionette strings cut free.
In the days to come Joseph wanders farther. He sees men leading girls by chains; he stands aside so a dumptruck heaped with corpses can pass. Twenty times he is stopped and harassed; at makeshift checkpoints soldiers press the muzzles of rifles into his chest and ask if he is Liberian, if he is a Krahn, why he is not helping them fight the Krahns. Before they let him go they spit on his shirt. He hears that a band of guerillas wearing Donald Duck masks has begun eating the organs of its enemies; he hears about terrorists in football cleats trampling the bellies of pregnant women.
Nowhere does anyone claim to know his mother's whereabouts.
From the front step he watches the neighbors raid the garden. They are hungry; he does not stop them. The boys he paid to loot stores no longer come by. On the radio a man named Charles Taylor brags of killing fifty Nigerian peacekeepers with forty-two bullets. “They die so easily,” he boasts. “It is like sprinkling salt onto the backs of slugs.”
After a month, with no more information about his mother than he had the night she disappeared, Joseph takes her dictionary under his arm, stuffs his shirt, pants and shoes with money, locks the cellar-stocked with stolen notepads, cold medicine, boom boxes, an air compressor-and leaves the house for good. He travels a while with four Christians fleeing to the Ivory Coast; he falls in with a band of machetetoting kids roving from village to village. The things he seesdecapitated children, drugged boys tearing open a pregnant girl, a man hung over a balcony with his severed hands in his mouth-do not bear elaboration. He sees enough in three weeks to provide ten lifetimes of nightmares. In Liberia, in that war, everything is left unburied, and anything once buried is now dredged up: corpses lie in stacks in pit latrines, wailing children drag the bodies of their parents through the streets. Krahns kill Manos; Gios kill Mandingoes; half the travelers on the highway are armed; half the crossroads smell of death.
Joseph sleeps where he can: in leaves, under bushes, on the floorboards of abandoned houses. A pain blooms inside his skull. Every seventy-two hours he is rocked with fever-he burns, then freezes. On the days when he is not feverish, it hurts to breathe; it takes all his energy to continue walking.
Eventually he comes to a checkpoint where a pair of jaundiced soldiers will not let him pass. He recites his story as well as he can-the disappearance of his mother, his attempts to gather information about her whereabouts. He is not a Krahn or a Mandingo, he tells them; he shows them the dictionary, which they confiscate. His head throbs steadily; he wonders if they plan to kill him. “I have money,” he says.
He unbuttons his collar, shows them the bills in his shirt.
One of the soldiers talks on a radio for a few minutes, then returns. He orders Joseph into the back of a Toyota and takes him up a long, gated drive. Rubber trees run out in seemingly endless rows below a plantation house with a tiled roof. The soldier leads him behind the house and through a gate onto a tennis court. On it are a dozen boys, perhaps sixteen years old, lounging on lawn furniture with assault rifles in their laps. White sunlight reflects off the concrete. They sit, and Joseph stands, and the sun bears down upon them. No one speaks.
After several minutes, a sweating captain hauls a man from the back door of the house, down the breezeway to the tennis court, and throws him onto the centerline. The man wears a blue beret; his hands are tied behind his back. When they turn him over, Joseph sees his cheekbones have been broken; the face sags inward. “This parasite,” the captain says, toeing the man's ribs, “piloted an airplane that bombed towns east of Monrovia for a month.”
The man tries to sit up. His eyes drift obscenely in their sockets. “I am a cook,” he says. “I am traveling from Yekepa.
They tell me to go by road to Monrovia. So I try to go. But then I am arrested. Please. I cook steaks. I have bombed nobody.”
The boys in the lawn furniture groan. The captain takes the beret from the man's head and flings it over the fence.
The pain in Joseph's head sharpens; he wants to crumple; he wants to lie down in the shade and go to sleep.
“You are a killer,” the captain says to the prisoner. “Why not come clean? Why not own up to what you have done? There are dead mothers, dead girls in those towns. You think you had no hand in their deaths?”
“Please! I am a cook! I grill steaks in the Stillwater Restaurant in Yekepa! I have been traveling to see my fiancee!”
“You have been bombing the countryside.”
The man tries to say more but the captain presses his sneaker over his mouth. There is a faraway grinding sound like pebbles knocking together inside a rag. “You,” the captain says, pointing at Joseph. “You are the one whose mother has been killed?”
Joseph blinks. “She sold vegetables in the market at Mazien Town,” he says. “I have not seen her for three months.”
The captain takes the gun from the holster on his hip and holds it out to Joseph. “This parasite has killed probably one thousand people,” the captain says. “Mothers and daughters.
It makes me sick to look at him.” The captain's hands are on Joseph's hips; he draws Joseph forward as if they are dancing. The light reflecting off the tennis court is dazzling.
The boys in the chairs watch, whisper. The soldier who brought Joseph leans against the fence and lights a cigarette.
The captain's lips are in Joseph's ear. “You do your mother a favor,” he murmurs. “You do the whole country a favor.”
The gun is in Joseph's hand-its handle is warm and slick with sweat. The pain in his head quickens. Everything before him-the dusty and still rows of trees, the captain breathing in his ear, the man on the asphalt, crawling now, feebly, like a sick child-stretches and blurs; it is as though the lenses of his glasses have liquefied. He thinks of his mother making that final walk to the market, the sun and shadow of the long trail, the wind muscling through the leaves. He should have been with her; he should have gone in her stead. He should have been the one who felt the ground open beneath him, the one who disappeared. They bombed her into vapor, Joseph thjnks. They bombed her into smoke. Because she thought we needed the money.
“He is not worth the blood in his body,” the captain whispers.
“He is not worth the air in his lungs.”
Joseph lifts the pistol and shoots the man through the head. The sound of the shot is quickly swallowed, dissipated by the thick air, the heavy trees. Joseph slumps to his knees; glittering rockets of light detonate behind his eyes. Everything reels in white. He collapses onto his chest, and faints.