I will climb my mother to Heaven, he said to himself, tittering, mumbling, unafraid to walk the dusty streets of Gbarnga day or night even during the riots because his mother, the woman who loved him, the woman he found years ago after coming home from the market with no chicken but the head of a cassava fish a merchant had thrown to the dogs and found boys no older than himself, six or seven, Charles Taylor’s boys singing, dirty, ransacking their house for food and clothing, chanting He Kill My Ma, He Kill My Pa, I Vote For Him, so small, so tiny boys, and his mother had said how can you do this to your mothers and fathers and the smallest and weakest boy shot her and shouted bitch bitch bitch while his mother, she sang so beautifully and blood gushed from her side under the thatched roof he helped his father repair in the dry season before the winds swept in from the north and the rains hammered from the south but the rains give us life, so we must endure my son, his father told him a year before in this very spot when the creaking and groaning of giant trees frightened him during a storm and he had cried out in recognition not terror, precognition of the secret language of trees whispering in sharp sudden awareness of the great limb suspended above their tiny home, resisting, bending, staying aloft for them, for them, for love, knowing one day vines thick as a man’s leg would entwine his mother as she dug her toes into the red clay earth and stretched her branches into the sky and if he her son, climbed his mother like the boy who climbed the tree in the old days, climbed because his friends bet he could not, ascended past perils and cold until he arrived at the home of the gods and found them freezing and eating their meat raw and asked why mighty gods do you have no fire and the gods replied what is fire so the boy returned to Earth and brought fire to the gods, he her son, rewarded, would peer down from the heavens and watch freighters unload cargo in Monrovia and sink any ship loaded with weapons, because even the smallest child knew the war had not ended, and find the family of the woman he had killed on a bet, not his mother, but another woman, pretty, she might have been his mother, but no his mother was a tree and he shot his mother he didn’t cut out her baby to lose the boy-girl bet with General Saddam Hussein and he saw his mother, there, at the end of the street in front of H.A. Fawaz’ shop feeding the entire town with her lovely hanging fruits and the people rejoiced in her shade and blessed her and twined her pink flowers in the hair of young girls until he felt a trickle of happiness seep from the bullet he carried next to his heart made non-lethal by daily doses of herbs mixed with gunpowder, getting harder to find but only the bullet saves you from the gun so he followed the children, the little ones know everything and everyone and one of them might lead him to an old papay with some bullets left in his rifle but they played stupidly and ate his mother until foreign peacekeepers beat the children with the butts of their rifles and stabbed her with bayonets whispering haram and he knew falseness, his mother saved her best fruit just for him, his mother bled white sap covered in red termites, soft, warm, and he wanted to do forbidden things but thought how can you do this to your mothers and fathers until the reek of wet smoke led him to his wife lying naked in the trash heap like a dead fish on a coal pot before its eyes were poked out, his wife a general’s whore until the commander killed the general and then a commander’s girlfriend until the sergeant killed the commander and then a sergeant’s fiancé until he killed the sergeant in a dispute over a case of Fanta soft drinks found forgotten in a shop burned and replaced by the trash heap smoking under his feet, his feet, vomit, his feet digging into heaps of old plastic and coconut husks while he wife displayed and he was nothing like his mother and nothing like his mother and nothing like the boy who climbed to Heaven as he looked uphill at Fawaz’ shop where soldiers celebrated a job well done while his mother shed layers of bark as she shrank into the earth with her willowy hand wrapped around the ankle of a gena witch expelled from Heaven for shitting in the gods’ outhouse who spotted him and asked through teeth of blood rubies what, boy and even though his mother’s not now floated along bits of hair and flower petals carried by the thick harmattan winds he said I will climb my mother to heaven and ran as he had never run during the war, ran frothing at the mouth, uphill, upwind, leaving a faint trail of soot in the gasping air of Broad Street and crested the hill just in time to watch the gena witch draw fire from his wife and burn his mother to ash.
The Boy Who Climbed His Mother Into Heaven is an excerpt from my thesis novel, The Covenant of Salt. The novel explores Liberia as a mythic space created by American fantasies and African truths. The Flying Africans arrive with a slave ship stuck to their heads. An elderly griot rescues an abandoned genii, and American college students fight a war over Africa-shaped leather medallions. The Covenant of Salt also speaks to the profound dislocation I felt as an American in a poor and dysfunctional country.
Andy Johnson left graduate school to teach at Cuttington University in Liberia, as part of post-conflict reconstruction efforts. After returning to the States, he finished his MFA program and now teaches literature, writing, and spoken word at The University of Alabama. His writing has been published in Lunch Ticket, Echolocation, and African American Review. Andy performs his work regularly, most recently at the Southern Writers, Southern Writing Conference, the Spoken Secrets Poetry Jam, and the Panoply Arts Festival. Andy has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, the Sundress Prize, and received The President’s Volunteer Service Award for a sustained commitment to volunteering. He lives in Tuscaloosa, but often visits friends and family in Austin, TX.