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The Girl Waits


April 14, 1994, Mubaro, Rwanda

The girl waits. There are only the silver threads of a web swooping precariously over the top left corner of a splintered window frame. There are no rays of warm light seeping through mottled glass. There is no slight breeze, no swaying jacaranda branch heavy with purple blossoms her mother sometimes plucked before church and pinned to the brim of her straw hat. These simple luxuries disappeared hours, perhaps days, ago.

She is not sure how long she’s been curled up in the darkness, under the frame of a stepladder tented with a blue tarp. Long enough so that there is only the faintest odor of paint, turpentine, urine, and a piney cleanser. Long enough that her empty stomach no longer gurgles, and the certainty of a machete blade slitting her neck no longer brings up the sour taste of fear. For as long as she can remember, her family has lived with the threat of death—maybe today, maybe tomorrow—as if each day is a gift, so easily snatched away. It occurs to her that fear is what has given the Hutus their power all of these years. The boys who sometimes shove her into the dirt while walking to school and steal her lunch. The men who come to take her father’s crops or burn the fields if he refuses. It is some small comfort that they no longer have power over her.

The girl presses one eye against a ragged triangle of light, scraped open with a nail she pried loose from the window frame. It only distracts her mind for a few seconds at a time but that’s enough to suppress the urge to run from this place. There is nowhere to run, nothing to do but wait. Nose pressed to plastic, there is only the shimmering web; no screams, no church bells clanging, no shattering glass, no gunshots that pulse behind her eyes, no ache in her groin, no pieces of prayers.

There is barely enough room, even knees pulled to chest, between the steel rails of the ladder. Still, the girl rocks back and forth, back and forth. She pulls an oversized flannel shirt down over bare knees and hooks it under curled toes. She hums without making a sound, the force of her breath vibrating in her chest, a Kinyarwanda lullaby her mother used to sing at bedtime while stroking her hair. Umama sings to her, still, louder than the bass pumping from a boom box, primal and urgent, too loud to be mistaken for music.

She waits, watching the web until the shiny black insect with spindly golden legs floats back into sight. It’s a relief to see the spider fortifying her home, spinning away. As long as the spider is in view, there is a small hope that the soldier who wrapped his shirt around her and ordered her to wait, to make herself small and quiet and hide somewhere safe in her mind, might also return.

Jennifer Haupt

Jennifer Haupt went to Rwanda in 2006, as a journalist, to spent a month interviewing genocide survivors and humanitarian aid workers. She came home to Seattle with something unexpected: the stories of grace when there can be no forgiveness that would form the core of a novel. Haupt’s essays and articles have been published in O, The Oprah Magazine, Spirituality & Health, and many other publications. Haupt’s debut novel, In the Shadow of 10,000 Hills, will be published in April 2018 and is available for preorder.

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