Heat. It was all around me, sticky and smelly. Suffocating and inescapable, it was, like having an overly thick duvet tucked in tightly on a balmy summer evening. I was used to it by now, though, after having lived with it for the last three years. But some days – like this one – it was just too much and was getting the better of me. Being a twelve year old boy, though, meant I didn’t really care and just wanted to have fun playing soccer under the hot Sudanese sun at midday with my friends. It was their idea and I didn’t want to miss out on all the action. After all, there wasn’t much to do where we lived, a quaint village with vegetable gardens, a well, a school and a little chapel. My parents came as missionaries, bringing me along for the ride. Sweat poured down my forehead and into my eyes, which stung and blurred my vision slightly. Due to the fact that I was the only white boy in the village meant that I was, in the other boys’ assumptions, less athletic and, therefore, was made to play goalie for virtually every game. This got on my nerves, as I fancied myself to be quite skilled at soccer back home.
“Come on, white boy. This is too easy! How am I supposed to be a soccer star in the Premier League without any decent goalie to compete against?” said Mbah after easily dodging my attempts to stop him and scoring a goal – the goal being the space between an empty chicken cage and a pile of t-shirts, which we’d all taken off due to the sweltering heat. My white skin, even though it was beautifully and evenly tanned, stood out a mile away.
“Didn’t you see it?” I said as I returned the dusty ball, “I let you get through. I’m just letting you get a lead so it’ll be more satisfying when my team wins.”
“Oh, I don’t think so. At this rate we’ll be up by—”
We were interrupted and I, as well as all the other boys and villagers, turned our heads to the church in unison. The bell was ringing, clanging from left to right violently, alerting the whole village to an unknown danger. We exchanged worried glances with each other, unsure of what was happening. That’s when my parents, Gerard and Wendy Hume, ran out yelling at the top of their voices in a panic, “It’s the militia! Everybody get inside the church, quickly!”
I dropped the soccer ball and the game was forgotten in an instant as the whole village – boys, girls, parents, husbands, wives, friends – struggled to find each other amidst the ensuing chaos. Mum quickly grabbed my hand and pulled me into the church, dodging dozens of fellow villagers. Just before I entered the church I turned my eyes to the distant hills. About ten jeeps were speeding over the barren hills and aiming in on our little village, creating a fog of dust as they came.
“Come on Arden, quickly, before anyone else gets here! I need to give you something,” she said in a panicked voice, still pulling me along so roughly that my skin was starting to burn. She brought me to the stage of the church and, just under the pulpit, lifted up a small ring, which revealed a space built for one person.
“Get in,” she said.
“But what about you, and Dad?”
“There’s no time to argue, Arden. Just do as I say.”
Scared, and young, I obeyed. Climbing down into the small space was claustrophobic, as there wasn’t space for anyone else – only me.
My mother crouched down and handed me a package. “In here are all of our passports. If we don’t make it, you’re to go to the nearest embassy and tell them everything that happened. They’ll arrange for you to get home.”
“If you don’t make it? What are you talking about?” I protested.
“We built this hideout for you, Arden. We didn’t want our twelve year old boy to be killed just because we chose to come here. Now, promise me that you won’t come out until the militia have left.”
“Good boy,” she said. “Lord God,” she added, this time closing her eyes and bowing her head slightly, “please protect my boy and guide him home. Cover him with Your wings, protect him from the arrows that fly by him and from the terrors of darkness. I leave him in Your care now. Amen.” It was a simple prayer, and the only one she had time for before the others came in. She opened her eyes again and turned her head to me saying, “Your father and I love you very much, and we’re so proud of you. Remember, don’t make a sound or come out for anything until they all leave.” I nodded my head and, just before it went dark, I saw a tear fall from my mother’s face.
The lid to my little hideout was shut and covered with a nearby rug. It was completely black, save for the strips of light breaking through the gaps of the stage’s planks of wood. If I pushed my head close to a small gap and swept my long hair away from my eyes I had a decent view of the auditorium, where people had already started to pour into. They came in groups, mostly of families. One of my classmates walked in with his parents and baby sister. Another family came rushing in, and another, until the auditorium was so crowded it was nearly overflowing. The small church was abuzz with questions and rumors like, “What do they want?” and “I heard they’ve been travelling from village to village, killing everyone.” Fear gripped everyone in the small church, it was palpable. Then I saw Mbah with his parents and two older brothers enter, ushered in by his father. I desperately wanted to speak to Dad, but could tell from the worry in Mum’s voice that I’d better stay hidden if I was to be all right. I wished that Mbah could come and hide with me too, but there wasn’t enough room. I’d never felt so helpless in my life. My friends were awaiting a dangerous encounter while I stayed hidden. I wondered why my parents didn’t build a bigger hiding place so that the whole village could hide from the militia groups. The stage was quite high up and the hiding place was well above head level, so I had a view of everyone from the stage to the main door. I saw Mum whisper something in Dad’s ear. He was standing at the entrance to the church. He nodded and looked over at the stage with a knowing and concerned look. I looked back intently, a tear forming in my eye, wishing I could hug him and talk to him.
“They’re coming quickly, they’re only a few moments away,” said Dikembe, Mbah’s father. “What are we going to do?”
“We need everyone inside,” insisted Dad. “Everyone, get inside now! There’s no time to waste! We’ll be closing the church doors any moment now!” he shouted to those still outside, running around, frantically looking for a child or a wife or a friend.
“What are they going to do?”
That’s what I’m worried about,” Dad said to Dikembe.
“They must think we’re harboring anti-government rebels, otherwise they wouldn’t be here, would they?” asked another.
“I guess we’ll be finding out any minute now,” lamented Dad. The low hum of the jeeps was noticeably louder than before.
“That’s it,” said Dad with a determination in his voice, “We have to close the doors. Help me will you, Dikembe.” The two of them closed the thick, heavy doors and bolted them shut. By the looks of the lock, it was clear to anyone that they had built this place as a safe house, just incase something like the situation they were in were to happen.
“What about Ibaka? He’s still out there looking for his sister!” protested one of the villagers as the door was locked.
“And my grandfather, he’s still in bed sick,” piped in another. Clearly, everyone was in a panic. No one could blame them for being panicked, as all in Darfur, where our village was located, had heard the stories of the militia groups supported by the Sudanese government and their countless acts of torture, rape and murder. Some in the village had family or friends in neighboring villages who’d had their entire village burned down, while the soldiers took the women to satisfy themselves with, then to kill them afterward, with the same regard as one would use to throw rubbish in a bin.
“It’s too late now. If we don’t lock the door now we’ll—” The terrifying sound of automatic weapons being shot outside interrupted Dad’s conversation. The screams from those outside, scrambling for their lives, was chilling. I was trembled with terror at the sound of the guns. I’d never heard gunfire before, apart from on the television, and it was so much worse than I’d imagined it would be. I couldn’t see what was going on outside, which made it worse, as I was left to the mercy of my imagination. I could see, however, the fearful reaction of the villagers in the church, and that was enough to scare me out of my mind.
“Our Father,” one of the villages started saying.
“Who art in heaven,” the villager continued, joined by another.
“Hallowed be Your name,” they all said aloud. “Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
Crack! came the horrible sound of impending danger, and it shook the door violently. But stand firm, the door did. That’s why Dad was so keen to get Dikembe and the other village men to help him build the doors in all of the buildings in the village so thickly. I didn’t understand it at the time, and it was so hard to do, but now I understood — it was for moments like this.
“Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our sins,” they continued in unison, this time with increased fervor.
Crack! came the sound again. It was like a dragon was standing outside, whipping its tail in the air violently. After a few more hits the door began to show signs of weakness. Whatever the militia outside was using to break down the door, it was strong and it was effective.
“As we forgive those who have sinned against us.”
“For Yours is the kingdom, the honor—”
Crack! The door was splitting open, and likely to give way with only one more hit.
“—and the glory forever more. Amen!” They all shouted together proudly, myself included. A young girl turned her head in my direction when I joined in. I think she heard praying with the group. Upon closer inspection, though, thought she must have misheard.
CRACK! The door burst open, letting a flood of bright sunlight into the church, creating a dozen silhouettes of uniformed soldiers armed with AK47s resting over their shoulders as they made their way into the villagers’ place of refuge uninvited. The soldiers assembled themselves in a semicircle at the front of the church, blocking the only way out. There were a mixture of men and, to my surprise, young boys. I’ve never seen a boy my age look so filled with anger and hatred, even to this day. It was seething out of him. Their guns were all pointed at the my friends and parents and I had no idea what to do except for hiding. A towering, lean man emerged from the soldiers’ formation. His skin was smooth and almost as dark as night. His bright white eyes scanned the room, surveying the villagers who were huddled up together. Everyone was looking around fearfully, afraid to break the silence. It seemed that the man relished the fear. Some of the women were crying, frightened out of their minds. Others were trembling. Underneath one of the teenage boys formed a pool of urine.
Lowering his AK47 to his waist, and grasping it with both hands, he pointed at the them. Pacing back and forth, he carefully looked down at each one of them, studying their faces and expressions. Then, in a slow, deep voice, he said, “I would like to speak to the man in charge. Who is that?” There was silence again. No one moved. There was no one man, or woman, in charge of this village anyway, I remembered. We were a small community, making joint decisions about everything. That’s what Dad taught us and that’s what everyone had embraced.
Sensing the apparent leader’s patience shrinking, I saw Dad take in a deep breath and step forward. Mum initially didn’t let go of his hand, so he had to pull harder to break free of her grip. “I am the man in charge,” he said, looking directly into the man’s eyes, standing between the villagers and the soldiers. He wasn’t particularly tall so he had to lift his head up quite high to keep eye contact with the towering figure.
“I am Dr Gerard Hume,” he said, “and we are a peaceful village, concerned only with growing our own fruit and vegetables and living a simple, quiet life. There’s no trouble to be found here, so why do you come here with guns? What are you doing here?”
A sly smile crept out of the soldier’s mouth. “Do you really think I believe that you are the man in charge here, hmm? I think not.” Dad didn’t seem to know what to say in response. The tall man continued, “Silly Americans, always wanting to – how to say – be the hero. Let me guess, Gerard, is it? You’re a missionary and you came here out of pity for these poor and ignorant villagers. So you built a school and a clinic and helped them plant food. Am I right?”
Dad didn’t say a word.
“Typical!” The tall man spitted out the word. “What makes you think we even want you here?”
“I didn’t come for you.”
“As far as I’m concerned, what you are doing is an insult to my people. You think we can’t do anything on our own, don’t you? You’ll have, no doubt, fed these pathetic people lies about Sudan’s government.”
“So that’s what you’re here about? You think we have anti-government rebels, in our village?”
“Not a soul here is anti anything. As I said, we are a peaceful people,” Dad stated calmly. I could tell he was nervous, though. He was clenching his fists so tightly that they were going pale.
“Let us find out, shall we?” The tall man paced over to one of the teenage boys and, grabbing him by the ear, pulled him out in front of everyone. His mother and father protested aggressively but stopped after two soldiers came in closer, pointing their weapons at their faces.
“On your knees!” shouted the tall man, placing the end of his AK47 to the forehead of the teenager. “Are you part of the rebellion?”
“No.” Fear was all over the his face, and his t-shirt was soaked with a mixture of tears and sweat. Everyone knew – even the militia – the young man wasn’t part of any rebellion or anti-government movement. How could it not be more obvious?
“Is that so?” asked the tall man, pressing some more.
The young man nodded his head. Pleading, he insisted, “You have to believe me. Please. I’m just a farmer. I look after some of the animals here.”
Looking down, and with disdain in voice, he said, “I’ve killed rebels who were farmers – and they were younger than you! I don’t believe you. You’re a rebel, I know it!”
The man leader shifted his AK47 closer to his shoulder and tightened up his arm. Death was only a moment away for this dear friend of mine.
“Wait!” shouted the young man’s father, running out to defend his son. “It’s me – I’m the rebel. Kill me. Leave the boy alone. Can’t you see his scared out of his mind?”
“He should be – and so should you all.” The tall man turned to address the group. “Harbouring a rebel of the government is punishable by death.”
Dad’s face stiffened, realising that the leader’s mind was set on murder from the very beginning. He looked back in my direction, scared. I’d never seen him look so worried in my entire life, and that sent fear through my soul. They weren’t looking for rebels – not really. They just needed an excuse to take this small village, most likely for the crops, clean water and medicine they had. I saw Dad take Mum’s hand and grasp it tightly as he mouthed, “I’m sorry, Arden,” in my direction.
The church was silent. They all knew their fate and had begun to accept it. Accepting it was the only thing they could do. The rumors of the militia groups had travelled all over the region. Anyone trying to escape would be killed last, after torture. Accepting death would be easier, quicker and far less painful. This village, whose numbers were just under one hundred, stood motionless with their heads held high, facing their killers. They were going out on their own terms, leaving this world with dignity and pride.
I was paralyzed with fear and I couldn’t see anything due to only being able to look only through the gaps between the planks of the stage. All I could see were a few of the soldiers on the left of the church pointing their guns at the young man and his father – the so called ‘rebel’. My heart raced and I was trying desperately to control my breathing, but it felt so loud around me in the little hiding place. I thought it was only a matter of time before they noticed I was there, especially considering how quiet the room had become.
An explosion of gunfire erupted, unceasing in its brutality. It was like a thundercloud had just burst open right inside the church. I squashed my eyes closed and curled myself up – as best I could – covering my head, with my arms covering up my ears. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t breathe and, to my utter sadness, I couldn’t do anything to help my friends and parents. The only thing that I could do was wait for the needless killing to stop.
The killing did stop eventually, with the sound of empty shells dancing around on the wooden floorboards of the auditorium. Next came the sound of the soldiers’ walking out of the church. Lastly, the sound of the pack scuffling around outside, gathering various supplies and food from the village and then driving away in their dust-covered jeeps.
I waited for my trembling to subside. I’m guessing it took about ten minutes or so for the fear to leave me, but I honestly can’t say how long I stayed hidden after they left. I think I was waiting for someone to get up and move around a bit, just so I wouldn’t be the only one left. But there was no sign of life. I quickly realized that I was the only one in entire village who was alive, and I had never felt so alone in my life – my parents and friends were gone, their life force draining out, soaking into the wooden floors. When I was able to finally open my eyes I looked again to the gaps of light and saw a huge bullet hole where my head was only a few moments ago. If I hadn’t tucked myself in like a baby I would be dead. After gathering myself a bit – satisfied that he wasn’t hurt or bleeding anywhere – I slowly and carefully opened the lid of the little hiding place. It creaked much louder than I wanted it to (it actually gave me a fright at first) and I was still very nervous, but I knew that the immediate danger to me had driven away a while ago.
When I eventually stood up and looked from the stage down on the church my jaw dropped at the horror I saw. Everyone I loved and cared for, whom I’d played and learned with everyday, whom I’d hunted and eaten with, was dead, lying a massive pool of blood. Their bodies were stuffed with bullets and massive wounds were all over them. As I walked through the church I was careful not to step on anyone or any of the fingers that had been blown off a hand from the force of a militia’s bullets. Blood covered my bare feet and – due to its thickness and stickiness – began to squish between my toes. The worst part was it getting under my toenails. Although I was distraught to see so many of my friends and loved ones dead, there were really only two people on my mind: Mum and Dad.
There were easy to locate – being the only other white people in the village. I melted to my knees and elbows, screaming aloud when I got close enough to see them clearly. Mum’s eyes were wide open, with a dazed expression and her mouth hung open, letting out a single line of bloody saliva. A massive, ugly bullet hole was dug its way through the center of her forehead. The stark sunlight coming through the window made her green eyes glow, as though there was still life left in her. Her wavy blonde hair was now a dull pink, after soaking in the blood on the floor. Next to her lay Dad. His tidy dark beard, which defined his usually suave face, was tinted blood red. His hand was still holding onto Mum’s firmly. I’m glad they had each other to hold in the end. I can’t remember how long I just looked at them, stunned at the sight. I just kept expecting them to simply wake up and was sure that their chests were moving up and down, if only in miniscule amounts, like some kind of mental momentum was tricking my eyes. I was almost convinced that if I shook them hard enough they would snap back to consciousness – almost.
I was crouching down, hugging my limp-bodied parents, not wanting to let go. I kept telling them to wake up, to make a move but they didn’t. I couldn’t let go – letting go would mean I truly was alone in this God-forsaken village, full of danger and no hope of finding rescue. Guilt racked my mind in this moment as the scene played over and over in my mind. Why didn’t I do anything to help them? How could I let my parents die like this, when they took the time to make a hiding place for me? How could I justify my survival when everyone else didn’t get an opportunity? My clothes were soaked in blood, I was scared and I was alone in the middle of the desert, with no town or city within twenty miles. All I had was the passports Mum gave me in my pocket.
A thought that had been forgotten since the soldiers broke into the church jumped out from hiding: “GET OUT!” I turned my head sharply, as I was sure I heard a whisper next to my ear, but I saw nothing except the villagers spread out in awkward and uncomfortable positions, covered in a cocktail of each other’s blood. The fact that I got startled by hearing a voice – real or imagined – seemed to bring me out of the state of shock and disbelief I was in and I was filled with a sense of purpose and urgency. I quickly shook myself, wiping my face clean of the blood. I felt around in his dad’s pockets and found his wallet, as well as taking his watch. I then looked at my mother – I couldn’t bear the sight of her dead body anymore – so decided that I couldn’t stay, dwelling on their deaths – not if I wanted to survive. I straightened them out as neatly as I could, deeply regretting that I wasn’t able to stay and give them a proper burial. There was just no time to lose.
When I ran outside the bright midday sun blinded me me momentarily and the heat was immediately thick and sticky, making me have to work harder just to run to our little cottage Dad built. I eventually found my rhythm and my mind was clear and resolute at last, with a definite plan in mind: I had to get the blood off my body. If I didn’t I would attract all sorts of wild animals. I had to pack a bag with food, water and extra clothing, and lastly, find a map. I just tried to ignore the dead bodies on the ground outside the church and randomly spread across the village as I cleaned and readied myself. Time was running out and if I didn’t move quickly my window of opportunity would be lost.
After completing these steps in about half an hour I was ready to make the trip across the desert in order to find help and safety. If I stayed at the village I would surely die. Looking over at the church I decided not to see my parents one last time. It would be too hard to leave otherwise, so I took the first step, and then the next. After that it became a bit easier with each step.
Vast, flat desert encompassed me in all directions, with nothing in sight but more vastness. If it weren’t for my incredibly dangerous predicament, perhaps I would have enjoyed my surroundings but, even with nothing to panic about, the desert is a menacing and unforgiving place. Only the strong survive – no mercy for the weak. Out in the open plains the wind was fierce and at some times almost blistering. Water was scarce so I had to be sure not to have it all in one go, tempting as it was under the massive fireball in the sky. My lips were already beginning to split open – from dehydration, high winds and the cruel sun – and my skin was sunburnt all over. I began to think this wasn’t a good idea, but it was the only one I had and I was already too far into the desert to turn back. As my always father used to say to me: ‘Make a plan and stick to it’.
The sun was noticeably lower in the cloudless sky than before, which meant that I was running out of time to make it to safety by nightfall and the countless stories of villagers – experienced, African villagers – getting lost in the dark and never returning were commonplace where I lived. I consulted my map, sure that I should have been close by now, but being thirteen-years-old meant I had little experience due to a heavy reliance on adult supervision, especially when it came to travelling into the desert. I didn’t even recognize anything around me, which filled me with a sense of panic, and then, as I was pulling back my long hair from my face, a massive surge of wind swept past me, pulling the map from my hand. It spiraled away from me quickly, thrown from left to right and tumbling and turning, not even hitting the ground until it was out of sight. I was stunned. my only hope at navigating my way through the huge desert was now gone and all I could do was just stand in one spot, frozen with disbelief and fear – fear of what I knew the desert would bring during nighttime. If there were any doubt I had over this plan, there was no doubt that I would now have to think about finding a place to sleep, and hide.
The sun, which was so bright and hot during the day, had disappeared behind the horizon, tucking itself in for the night. In its place it left the innumerable stars and the moon watching over me. However bright and beautiful they were on this cloudless night, though, they couldn’t provide me with what I needed: heat and light. With no means to warm myself – except a jersey I’d grabbed at the village in a rush – I shivered uncontrollably. I searched my bag for any food and found a small snack, but it wouldn’t be able to satisfy my hunger, which had begun to gnaw at my stomach hours ago, not even a bit. Just before deciding there was nothing more useful to be found in the bag, my hand caught something. I instantly knew what it was and couldn’t believe that I’d forgotten about it. In all the panic of losing my map and frantically searching for any signs or landmarks I could recognize that might point him, I’d let a little box of matches slip out of his mind.
The little moonlight there was available was barely enough for me to rummage around, but after about ten minutes of searching and gathering I had enough to sticks and dry plants to start a small fire. I was so excited to get it going that, after I’d set it up, I kept on breaking the matches when trying to set it alight. I figured it out though, hearing the hiss of the flame come to life, and set the match underneath the dry, grassy plant. Success! It caught, and so did the dry sticks. I stretched both of my hands out closer to the fire to feel its warmth. This was the happiest I’d been all day – to feel the sharp cold of the desert night quickly begin to shrink away.
A calm came over Arden. Every moment of the day so far had been about survival – surviving from the armed soldiers, surviving the heat of the day, and then surviving the cold of night – but now that the small fire I had going was providing some much needed relief from the constant strain of surviving the elements, my mind was able to simply pull back and rest. The muscles in my body uncoiled as I sat cross-legged in front of the flickering flames, which seemed to be licking the cold air excitedly. My mind wandered back to my parents a lot. The pain I felt from their absence was an icy cold stream running through my veins that no flame could melt away. Memories flooded in, bringing floods of tears. I remembered the day that Dad came home earlier than usual from the hospital so vividly. He and Mum told me that they felt God was asking them to go to Sudan, to become missionaries, setting up schools and clinics and churches and little vegetable gardens so people could sustain themselves. Their faces were alight with excitement and their eyes bright with passion as they told me this. Being only ten-years-old at the time, there was no question that I would be going with them, leaving behind my friends. I made new ones, though, but the image of Mbah’s bloody body lying dead on the ground assaulted my mind. For me, my reality had forever changed. Just hours ago I was in the middle of a soccer game with my friends. Hours ago I had two loving and dedicated parents. Hours ago I wasn’t alone. All of that was different now. I was alone. I was an orphan. I was friendless.
Hopelessness filled my heart and the sense of his impending death was creeping in all around me. I felt it poisoning my body, but there was nothing I could do to stop it. There was no logical reasoning to fight it with, no faith rising up inside me to combat it with. No, it was just me and me little fire, sitting in the middle of a vast and angry desert. Come daytime, I would search for safety again, but in vain.
I snapped my head to the right quickly, thinking I’d heard something. Squinting my eyes, trying to see further than the light of the fire would let me, I hoped there was nothing there. The rush of survival kicked in again as I saw the shape of a large animal approaching slowly, but unwavering, in a direct line for the fire. I thought about putting out the fire, but then it would be myself, not the animal, at a disadvantage, so I abandoned that idea in a hurry. I was standing, holding a stick out in a pose awkwardly representative of a swordsman with my runty arms, unsure of what to do. My feet, it felt, were chained to the ground. The black shape came closer, become larger with every smooth stride. Details became clearer as it closed in on my. From what I could tell, it was hairy, and large and probably very powerful, with deep, guttural breathing. Closer it came, until it stepped out of the black of night into the small sphere of light created by the fire. My whole body tensed up with an indescribable fear as I looked upon a huge, muscular male lion. Its mane was long, thick and surprisingly tidy, almost as though it had just been combed with a brush.
The lion was now standing still, only a few meters from me. Its rippling muscles were accentuated by the shadows created by the fire on its body. I wouldn’t take his eyes off the lion and the lion didn’t take its eyes off me – we were locked in on each other. There was no competition between the two of us, as the lion was a hulking mass of power and speed, and I was just a boy with little to no muscle to my frame. There was movement from the lion. My eyes darted to the lion’s front foot, which was making a small step toward me. The other feet followed and, slowly and carefully, the lion approached me. I wanted to run but I knew I wouldn’t win a foot race with a lion. The lion had so far shown no signs of aggression yet either, which meant that I had become more curious as to what this lion’s behavior would be when it got close enough to touch me. The lion passed by the fire, now just more than arms reach away. Amazingly, I thought to myself, it did not show its teeth or growl, or display any aggression whatsoever.
Close up, the lion was even more powerful than before. It brushed up against my arm, purring deeply. I couldn’t believe what was happening. The lion then gracefully sat down on the ground in front of the fire, still looking at me. Its eyes glistened with the light of the small fire, which seemed to be slightly larger now, and every time the lion breathed in and out it swayed and back and forth, growing and shrinking in size. Slowly – and still keeping my distance – I sat down too, realizing that the lion wasn’t interested in attacking or eating me. Maybe he was just interested in the fire, or taking some relief from the cold, and would attack when the fire went out – I couldn’t rule it out as a possible outcome. I repositioned myself on my back and looked up at the stars. Out in the desert where there was no man made light, they truly were innumerable, and beautifully so. Without a moment’s notice, or even a yawn, my eyes closed themselves and I drifted into a dreamless and peaceful sleep. If anyone ever needed a sleep like that it was me.
The morning sun had a smooth warmth that took the chill of the overnight sleep away. I opened my eyes – I had to squint them, due to the brightness of the Sudanese sun – wondering how much sleep I’d had. I was only wondering because it was the best sleep I’d ever had in my whole life. I woke up feeling fresh, ready to go and full of purpose to find help. So excited, I was, that he didn’t even notice the slow, heavy breathing of the lion sleeping right next to me. While I was asleep, it had curled itself up next to me, keeping me warm. All that remained of the little fire was black and crumbly wood with a thin trail of smoke still lingering.
I quietly got up, trying not to wake the lion, as I couldn’t be sure that the lion would treat me so kindly as during the night. It might want a spot of breakfast, I feared. Gathering my belongings – I only had food for another day’s walking and my water bottle was one third full, and I no longer had my map – I began to walk in the direction I felt was the way to get to safety. I’d only walked about fifteen meters when I heard the lion rousing from its sleep. I turned back, hiding behind a short but bushy tree, to see the lion, hoping it had forgotten about me and would go on its own way. Instead, the lion looked directly at me through the bush. It roared at me, barring its perfectly shaped teeth, designed for killing, and ran for me with a single purpose. I turned to run as fast as he could, but I was no match for the lion’s speed. It dug its claws into my right thigh while I was running, tripping me up and I fell on my head hard. I was in a daze, and searing pain burned in my leg as blood trickled down to the ground. I struggled to gather myself and found that the lion was circling me, growling deeply, and looking me directly in the eye the entire time. The lion then stopped and stood in the path of where I was going, blocking me from moving forward. I stood up, wincing at the pain as the lion came towards me again, only this time walking slowly. It pushed its head into my belly, moving me in the other direction. Even though the lion didn’t seem to be making a big effort to push me, I nearly tripped over myself turning around. Pain shot from my leg and went up through my back as I walked. The lion then followed me, its deep breathing reminding me that it was close behind.
The journey to wherever I was going was slow and I was walking with a strong limp. I had to stop regularly and tend to the wound on my leg. It seemed to me as though the lion was leading me somewhere, but where exactly I had no idea. If ever I deviated from the path the lion would growl and come closer, threatening to take another swipe at me. All sorts of thoughts ran through my mind during this time, like if I was going to bleed out in the desert and no one would be able to help me, or if this lion forcing me to go this way was leading me to danger or safety, and even if would be able to manage an escape from the lion, but that seemed a mere impossibility given the current state of things.
I wondered if the lion even knew where we were going – the landscape was so barren and dusty and the bigness of the desert hadn’t ceased to stagger me. All I could see was small plants scattered across the dry, beige earth, which stretched to the horizon. But the lion pressed me on and I was in a trancelike state from the unending pain in my leg, which now throbbed viscously with every step. The morning became noon, the noon became afternoon and not once did we stop, which meant I had to be extremely cautious to drink my water cautiously as we continued or, in my case, limped across the desert.
By late afternoon the sun’s heat had cooled and I thought I saw something moving only a few hundred meters away. I dismissed it, though, thinking that I was beginning to see things, which was entirely possible. Earlier in the day I’d mistaken a small bush for a backpack full of ice cold watermelons and before that I was sure that I saw a black creature flying in the air but when I looked closer it was just a plastic bag that was floating around. We kept on walking, and, as we went further, I saw something protruding from the ground. Then I saw what he had dismissed as a hallucination previously – a young girl. She was walking with a large bucket and heading to the thing sticking out of the ground. I knew what it was immediately: a well.
“Help me!” I called out, but my voice was so weak that I could barely hear my cry myself. So I resorted to waving my arms frantically and, when I could muster up the strength, make a few more efforts to cry out for help.
The girl eventually saw me from afar and ran away – probably after seeing the lion close behind me – taking away my last bit of hope with her. She was gone and I didn’t know if she’d come back or leave me for dead. I fell to the ground, weakened more from heartbreak than anything else. My head ached and burned from the heat of the day, my feet were numb from walking all day and my leg was now, I feared, permanently damaged. I’d also run out of water around midday, so the thirst I was now experiencing was beyond anything I could bear.
A part of me wanted to just lie on the ground and not move, welcoming a relieving death, where I hoped a great ocean wave would crash over me. But there was a drive inside me, though, and it wouldn’t let me give up. I had to keep fighting. I had to keep moving or it was all for nothing. If I died now my parents died for nothing. I pulled himself along the dry, hard ground, with the breeze blowing dust in my eyes. I wouldn’t give up, especially when there was a well in sight. Whatever reserves of strength I had in me, they were being used up on this last push for survival and if I failed I would have nothing left.
“Get away! Go, get out of here!” said a deep, heavily accented voice from above. I had not the strength to lift my head to see who said it. I wondered how someone could say that to a person in such obvious need as myself.
“It’s alright,” the man said, reassuring me, “we’ve got you. The others are chasing away the lion now.” The man and another lifted me with their strong arms, handing me a bowl of water. I drank it without stopping once, mumbling something afterward.
“What’s that?” they asked.
“More,” I repeated, “I need more.” Even saying that was a struggle, using all of my will.
After drinking a second helping of water, I looked to the distance, where the lion was after being chased away by the other men.
“Thank you,” I said to the lion in a whisper.
The lion turned at that very moment, looked back at me, and let out a long, powerful roar.