Her white, spaghetti-strapped blouse is ripped in the middle, and a broken strap hangs off the shoulder of her body sprawled on the dirt ground: legs spread apart, jeans unbuckled and halfway down her thighs, hair glued to her face by blood. The moans from the women surrounding her are internally eternal: eh ya ohhhh…
She was in my dream last night and she is a still portrait in my thoughts when I wake up in coal country Virginia, to the morning rush of coal trucks on Edgewater Drive. I gaze at the opened windows and for a dazed moment, I wonder if the sound of trucks in the early morning has introduced the sound of army pickup trucks laden with men and guns.
I see her body and I hear the child-solider scream at the old man, “I will waste you one time if youn’t lick my shoes. Lickit now!” I see the man struggle to his weak knees, his silvery head bent, as he licks the boy’s shoe.
Those things didn’t happen at once, me seeing her body and hearing the child soldier, and yet I remember them simultaneously.
I must have been twelve or thirteen when I first viewed her body. There, beneath the huge oak tree that sat atop the dirt hill, next to the Congo Town compound where I and some war orphans had been transferred from our church compound Across The Bridge, I stood next to a woman carrying a baby on her back, and another woman who smelled like the dried fish they sold at the markets. The woman’s scent was distracting, the delicious smell of the delicious blackened fish sold in Liberian markets and used to add flavor to stews, like cassava leaf. The fish was smoked so that without electricity, its freshness could be retained for some time. The smoked smell now hovers in my bedroom.
That day, I glanced around me at the women chanting with their hands on their heads, “Eh-ya-ohhhh, my people…ohhhh….”—Bassa women known for their funereal chants. A leader began the chant slowly, and the others imitated. I saw no tears, just heard deep-throated, hollow, gut wrenching sounds of pain that made me weak in the knees. I stood and watched her emotionlessly, like I’d trained myself to do, as if she were a character in one of the many book worlds I’d concocted to help me cope.
I still hear the little bare-chested boy running around in circles at the edge of the group, pretending to be driving a truck. “Zoom….zoom…zoom…” he continued as he went around and around in circles, his hands on the wheels of his imaginary truck. Now I wonder if he knew what had happened and if this was how he too chose to cope, or if he was so preoccupied with driving his truck, that he didn’t notice the woman lying there.
I knew the dead woman. Sometimes she’d walked by when I sat at my favorite escape route: a brick strategically placed next to the gated compound, next to the tall, black gate that bolted. I didn’t know her name, but she had been my example of what I could look like some day. She modeled the prettiest jeans, shoes and purses, and unlike everybody else who went by with furrowed brows and bowed heads, she normally smiled as she sailed by. She was Liberian, but secretly, I called her my American sister. America was my dream world; it was where I wanted to be, where I knew I had to be, so everyone appeared within this framework.
At that moment though, America seemed further away. The thought that the smiling girl breathed no more and had something bad done to her down there, kept me rooted, even as I heard the familiar sounds coming my way, and saw the bright red dust form in the clouds down the path as the humming engine got louder. Boisterous laughter, clinking of bottles: the sounds of men and boys who terrorized passersby. Little girls ran towards me with frightened looks. A girl my age took the bucket of water off her head, hid it in the bushes, and kept running.
I ran too, back to the fenced-in compound with the heavy gates. I counted to three quickly, grunted, lifted, and pulled it shut. Heaved and pushed the bolts forward.
But not before I’d had a good look at the dead woman.
They’d moved her pretty jeans out of the way to do what they had to do. They’d probably done those things to her in public, and then left her there to rot, so everyone could see. I could tell something bad had transpired by the hole in the seat of her white panties and the bloodstains forming streaks down her hazelnut-brown thighs; I could tell by the smeared red fingerprints all over her belly and on the edge of her panties, smearing the line that read, ‘Hanes.’
Visualizing it now, a knot forms in my throat and dissolves into tiny pieces inside my body. Even while laying there helpless, hands outstretched, legs wide open, she still looked beautiful.
I thought I’d glanced at her and willed myself to feel nothing, except for the despair that remains in the innermost parts of me. I thought I hadn’t let it destroy my senses. But maybe it had.
Years later, my body shuts down as soon as I remember her. Vaginismus is what we call it, my gynecologist says. She suggests physical therapy, where after designed exercises, a therapist inserts her fingers and watches as a machine rates my vaginal muscle strength. Insertion is painful, yes, but what the therapist finds surprising is how she struggles to get in, as if she’s been walled off. She glances at the screen. I’ve never seen anything like this, she says. She cautions me to breathe and relax, as I scream each time her finger makes a movement. I see pictorial images of the girl and my inside tightens and mentally sews itself shut, as if her body is mine. I know that somehow, I’ve managed to isolate myself within my body, just as I’d done as a little girl during war. But no one in the physical therapy facility asks how this has happened, and I don’t know how to share the information.
My husband Kendall is the only one who knows the stories, so this makes him helpful and patient, mostly saddened. When the dreams resurfaced for the first time during our five-year marriage and I’d emerged psychologically damaged, I thought he’d leave too. I knew I wouldn’t have the strength to stop him. Now I think that his staying is all a hoax, one big dream, because no man is supposed to be this caring.
Weeks later, the muscles in my back also stop functioning for no logical reason, and unable to move around without screaming from pain, I’m in bed for days, thinking. Kendall comes home from work, walks the dog, cooks us dinner, and sits on the bed with me to watch TV. He massages Icy Hot liquid into my hardened back muscles, walks from work to check-in on me, finds silly movies on Netflix, and at night, when I start to kick and scream, he gets up slowly, backs up, turns on the light, and softly calls my name so I follow his voice back to my peaceful reality.
When I’d been secluded in the church compound with hundreds of displaced war refugees, where we shared beds, floor mats, food and toilet cans, I often left my chaotic present to visit the dream America I’d constructed. Now I am in America, in 2012, and traveling back to the chaos of Liberia in the 1990s. As I lay there, on my sore back, I try to comprehend the irony.
The first girl I saw, she too, had lain on her back.
It was before I’d turned twelve, before I went to live at the Congo Town house. On that cloudy day, a few of us girls headed to the market in a group. It was a quieter than usual day, because though fragmented warfare surrounded us, the gunfire had ceased and we were supposed to hurry to the market and back, grabbing what was still left for sale.
We were walking when we noticed a foul odor, the kind of stench that hovers in the air around you, the smell of something rotted. The oldest girl immediately headed to the front and we all formed a line behind her, taking slow deliberate steps.
This is when we saw her: a young girl, naked, on her back, with a black-green rope hanging from her stomach. There was a long sear to her stomach, which revealed a hole of what seemed to be gunk. Her breasts were small and rounded and her large nipples seemed to cover her chest. Her legs were spread open.
Her head was turned to the right and I was on her left, so I couldn’t see her face, but she seemed helpless. Her hands were outstretched: one palm turned upwards as if reaching out for help, another palm seemed to be gripping the dirt for support. It didn’t register that the person I was looking at didn’t exist anymore, so I tried to reach for her hand, when someone from the group pulled me away. We left. Leaving her there like that didn’t feel right and my burning stomach made me aware of this. But when you saw something like that, you had to keep moving, the older girls explained. I stayed on the commode for hours after that. Even when I was done, I just sat there. There were knocks on the bathroom door, but I just sat there. My body told me that something was wrong, but my mind was motionless.
When I did fall asleep, I woke up shivering and sweaty. He was chasing me! He who? Each time he laid me on my back and raised his cutlass, I woke up.
Every night, weeks after, the younger girls in our group all had nightmares. We talked in our sleep but we never talked to each other.
Even now, I’ve tried to obliterate the memory, but the past has a way of breaking through barriers, because with each breath, I inhale the guilt of their deaths, as if somehow I should feel responsible for living, when they died. As if somehow, their intention is that I talk about it.
Cheryl Collins Isaac has been a business columnist for Forbes Woman and Entrepreneur Woman. She has a MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Tampa. A survivor of the First Liberian Civil War, her work on Liberia has been published with South Writ Large and mentioned in Time magazine online, where she was a Time Techland 2012 Awardee. She teaches College Writing at Bainbridge State College.