The five parentless, teenage boys lived in the house behind mine. One of their uncles, Alusine’s I think, was a member of the University’s Senior Staff. He had been detailed to Fourah Bay College in Freetown for the academic year, so he let Alusine and his friends move in.
These boys (young men, actually) were lounging under the old mango tree when the September storm kicked up. They were playing checkers and listening to the BBC. I could hear them bickering amongst themselves, almost like brothers. For a while now, they had been trying to decide if they should pool their wad of wrinkled 20-Leone notes together to buy a single pair of Air Jordans. After a good deal of discussion, it was determined that they would purchase a pair big enough to fit the largest of them, so they could all take turns wearing the shoes around the village.
These boys were black in a way I wasn’t used to yet. They weren’t “Yella”; all watered down with American plantation owner and Portuguese slave trader seed. They weren’t even “Fair”, which I had learned was what West Africans call the color that is about as dark as American blacks usually get. No, these boys were BLACK; that Sherbro Island–polished onyx–midnight black, and I loved each of them like a brother.
Or, maybe I was more like a step-brother. I’m guessing I felt the way that a red-headed and regularly ignored stepchild feels towards the family they find themselves lost within. As I listened to the boys, I wished that I could experience the intimate and smothering closeness that they had between them. But I was a pale-skinned Peace Corps Volunteer, sitting alone on my porch drinking palm wine.
The wine was especially strong that day, as I sat waiting for the afternoon thunderstorm to come wash the humidity out of the air. Just like clockwork, the rain started to come down in big fat drops at 3:15, and I turned back to my Michener novel. I was getting an early start on my daily “chak” by swilling down the palm wine dregs from my used anti-freeze container. The fermented tree sap didn’t really get better with age or heat, but this is what I did when I was frustrated and bored and didn’t feel like I had anything else to do. Mr. Prestone and I spent a lot of time together.
I was sitting with my back to the boys when the lightning tore down through the sheets of rain. It ripped between the airborne waves of water like a radar-guided missile, diving straight towards the mango tree that shielded my friends from most of the rain. The burst of light was what I imagined a nuclear explosion would be like. It washed out the world around me, bathing me in some sort of primal halo that danced through my vision. The clap of thunder that chased after it shoved me out of my straight-backed wooden chair. I was so startled and scared that I was nearly dancing with the taste of it.
When my eyes cleared and I could hear again, I remembered my friends. I rushed to the edge of my veranda and saw that the ancient mango tree had been split almost in two. The gnarled branches and thick waxy leaves that had given fruit and shade were shattered and lying strewn upon the ground.
“Are you okay?” I called out in English, forgetting where I was for a moment. As soon as the words escaped me, I knew what they had done.
“We’re fine, sir, thank you,” Alusine responded formally, speaking back to me in the warm and beautiful lilt of West African flavored English.
And there it was. I had placed the last board in the invisible and impenetrable fence between us. In that moment of forgetting myself… by calling out in my native tongue instead of theirs… I had firmly cemented our initial separation into a solid wall of difference.
Over time, we became good friends. But it was never the way that I had hoped. While we spent many days’ worth of hours debating everything from local politics to the proper tapping techniques of palm wine, I knew that I wasn’t one of them. Not because of the color of my skin, or because of my poorly accented Mende. It wasn’t even that I was American, and they were Sierra Leonean. No. I would never be one of them because I wasn’t there with them, beneath the lightning tree, to feel my life flash in front of my eyes as well.
Thane Thompson writes literary prose and poetry, as well as fantasy, and science fiction. His work has appeared at The Writer’s Eye Magazine, Six Sentences, MicroHorror, Tiny Lights: “Flash in the Pan”, and is forthcoming in Scifaikuest. He served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Sierra Leone, West Africa from 1992 to 1994. He now lives in Ohio with his wife, their daughter, and two highly opinionated cats. He lovingly recalls the sweet taste of early morning palm wine, dried fish and cassava leaf plasas, and steamy tropical nights filled with the cloying and poignant perfume of jasmine flowers.