A narrow shaft of sunlight broke through the thick canopy of leaves above Joseph Komboli’s short frame and pierced through to the layers of vines that crawled along the forest floor. He trudged past a spiny tree trunk — one of hundreds whose flat crowns reached toward the heavens before disappearing into the cloudless African sky — and smiled as the familiar hum of the forest welcomed him home.
A trickle of moisture dripped down the back of his neck, and he reached up to brush it away, then flicked at a mosquito. The musty smell of rotting leaves and sweet flowers encircled him, a sharp contrast to the stale exhaust fumes of the capital’s countless taxis or the stench of hundreds of humans pressed together on the dilapidated cargo boat he’d left at the edge of the river this morning.
Another flying insect buzzed in his ears, its insistent drone drowned out only by the birds chattering in the treetops. He slapped the insect away and dug into the pocket of his worn trousers for a handful of fire-roasted peanuts, still managing to balance the bag that rested atop his head. His mother’s sister had packed it for him, ensuring that the journey — by taxi, boat, and now foot — wouldn’t leave his belly empty. Once, not too long ago, he had believed no one living in the mountain forests surrounding his village, or perhaps even in all of Africa, could cook goza and fish sauce like his mother. But now, having ventured from the dense and sheltering rainforest, he knew she was only one of thousands of women who tirelessly pounded cassava and prepared the thick stew for their families day after day.
Still, his mouth watered at the thought of his mother’s cooking. The capital of Bogama might offer running water and electricity for those willing to forfeit a percentage of their minimal salaries, but even the new shirt and camera his uncle had given him as parting gifts weren’t enough to lessen his longings for home.
He wrapped the string of the camera around his wrist and felt his heart swell with pride. No other boy in his village owned such a stunning piece. Not that the camera was a frivolous gift. Not at all. His uncle called it an investment in the future. In the city lived a never-ending line of men and women willing to pay a few cents for a color photo. When he returned to Bogama for school, he planned to make enough money to send some home to his family — something that guaranteed plenty of meat and cassava for the evening meal.
Anxious to give his little sister, Aina, one of the sweets tucked safely in his pocket and his mother the bag of sugar he carried, Joseph quickened his steps across the red soil, careful to avoid a low limb swaying under the weight of a monkey.
A cry shattered the relative calm of the forest.
Joseph slowed as the familiar noises of the forest faded into the shouts of human voices. More than likely the village children had finished collecting water from the river and now played a game of chase or soccer with a homemade ball.
The wind blew across his face, sending a chill down his spine as he neared the thinning trees at the edge of the forest. Another scream split the afternoon like a sharpened machete.
Joseph stopped. These were not the sounds of laughter.
Dropping behind the dense covering of the large leaves, Joseph approached the outskirts of the small village, straining his eyes in an effort to decipher the commotion before him. At first glance everything appeared familiar. Two dozen mud huts with thatched roofs greeted him like an old friend. Tendrils of smoke rose from fires beneath rounded cooking pots that held sauce for evening meals. Brightly colored pieces of fabric fluttered in the breeze as freshly laundered clothes soaked up the warmth of the afternoon sun.
His gaze flickered to a figure emerging from behind one of the grass-thatched huts. Black uniform . . . rifle pressed against his shoulder . . . Joseph felt his lungs constrict. Another soldier emerged, then another, until there were half a dozen shouting orders at the confused villagers who stumbled onto the open area in front of them. Joseph watched as his best friend Mbona tried to fight back, but his hoe was no match against the rifle butt that struck his head. Mbona fell to the ground.
A wave of panic, strong as the mighty Congo River rushing through its narrow tributaries, ripped through Joseph’s chest. He gasped for breath, his chest heaving as air refused to fill his lungs. The green forest spun. Gripping the sturdy branch of a tree, he managed to suck in a shallow breath.
He’d heard his uncle speak of the rumored Ghost Soldiers — mercenaries who appeared from nowhere and kidnapped human laborers to work as slaves for the mines. Inhabitants of isolated villages could disappear without a trace and no one would ever know.
Except he’d thought such myths weren’t true.
The sight of his little sister told him otherwise. His mind fought to grasp what was happening. Blood trickled down the seven-year-old’s forehead as she faltered in front of the soldiers with her hands tied behind her.
Unable to restrain himself, Joseph lunged forward but tripped over a knotty vine and fell. A twig snapped, startling a bird into flight above him.
The soldier turned from his sister and stared into the dense foliage. Joseph lay flat against the ground, his hand clasped over the groan escaping his throat. The soldier hesitated a moment longer, then grabbed his sister’s arm and pulled her to join the others.
Choking back a sob, Joseph rose to his knees and dug his fingers into the hard earth. What could he do? Nothing. He was no match for these men. If he didn’t remain secluded behind the cover of the forest, he too would vanish along with his family.
The haunting sounds of screams mingled with gunshots. His grandfather fell to the ground and Joseph squeezed his eyes shut, blackness enveloping him. It was then, as he pressed his hand against his pounding chest, that he felt the camera swinging against his wrist.
He stared at the silver case. Slowly, he pressed the On button.
This time, the world would know.
With a trembling arm Joseph lifted the camera. Careful to stay within the concealing shade of the forest, he snapped a picture without bothering to aim as his uncle had taught him. He took another photo, and another, and another . . . until the cries of his people dissipated on the north side of the clearing as the soldiers led those strong enough to work toward the mountains. The rest — those like his grandfather, too old or too weak to work in the mines — lay motionless against the now bloodstained African soil.
In the remaining silence, the voices of two men drifted across the breeze. English words were foreign to his own people’s uneducated ears but had become familiar to Joseph. What he heard now brought a second wave of terror . . .
“Only four more days until we are in power . . . There is no need to worry . . . The president will be taken care of . . . I can personally guarantee the support of this district . . .”
Joseph zoomed in and took a picture of the two men.
A monkey jumped to the tree above him and started chattering. One of the beefy soldiers jerked around, his attention drawn to the edge of the clearing. Joseph froze as his gaze locked with the man’s.
If they caught him now, no one would ever know what had happened to his family.
Joseph scrambled to his feet as the soldier ran toward him, but the man was faster. The butt of a rifle struck Joseph’s head. He faltered, but as a trickle of blood dripped into his eye, he pictured Aina being led away . . . his grandfather murdered in cold blood . . .
Ignoring the searing pain, Joseph fought to pull loose from his attacker’s grip, kicked at the man’s shins. The soldier faltered on the uneven terrain. Clambering to his feet, Joseph ran into the cover of the forest. A rifle fired, and the bullet whizzed past his ear, but he kept moving. With the Ghost Soldier in pursuit, Joseph sprinted as fast as he could through the tangled foliage and prayed that the thick jungle would swallow him.
Want more? Be sure to stop by The Borrowed Book on Friday for your chance to win a copy of Blood Ransom by Lisa Harris.