For the first time in a long time I’m speechless. I’m aware that this fact doesn’t do well for my blogging career. So I’m going to add an oldie but goody. I’ve been working on a novel. But it isn’t quite right. So maybe you guys can read it and tell me what you think. How can I make it better etc. So here’s the first installment. Please let me know what you think!
The Martyrs Complex (c) Ovetta Sampson
Bloodstains don’t run on T-shirts. I don’t know, maybe it’s the cotton or something but that’s what I discovered when I looked down at my chest. The shrapnel pierced my breast but it only hit flesh. Blood was spurting everywhere, on my neck, my shoulders, the corner of my eye. When it landed it splattered, but not on my shirt. Nope, my shirt had perfect little red dots on the front like those colorful sprinkles the guy at the Dairy Queen drops on top of your sundae. Pretty dots.
“Just get me through this Lord,” I prayed. My mind didn’t even register the plea. It was too busy processing the symphony of chaos surrounding me. Moms grabbed babies. Men dragged old people. Shredded blue tarp flew in the air like confetti. Smoke replaced air and the sky rained bullets. The refugee camp had turned into the battle field and the 300 or so people who had made it their home were now fleeing.
Clink, clink, clink, clink. The bullets fell in rapid succession like hail hitting a tin roof. I had heard gunfire before – growing up on the south side of Chicago I couldn’t avoid it. But most of the time I knew the face behind the barrel and more often than not the name of his momma. This time, well, my violent suitors were strangers.
“Jesus girl,” I whispered. “You gotta’ get outta’ here.” I looked up and saw a mass of people running towards me. I was upwind. It struck me as odd that they ran single file in a straight line as if we were at the DMV. An hour before – geez was it really only an hour – I had trekked up the rocky hill, through the thick blanket of green banana trees to a small lean-to perched on a ridge. I was up here interviewing a couple who had arrived at the relief camp just three days ago. That was one day before their first child was born – right there in the relief camp. I’d miss the birth but was determined to get the first family on tape. The Virgin Mary, Joseph, Baby Jesus symbolism was too good to pass up.
The couple had made a new home out of cardboard and bamboo. It was barely a shack. Blue tarp for a roof, bamboo sticks for walls. Inside, a cardboard box marked in black type “Seeds for the Philippines: WFP,” was the back room. No more than 3 x 5 feet the dwelling wasn’t big enough for one person let alone daddy, mommy and baby makes three. Yet the couple had built the shelter in hours using dirt, boxes and hope. The baby – 2 days old with no name – lay sleeping on what was more dirt than floor.
Now he was crying, wailing, yelping like those animals in the forest that unwittingly get caught in bear traps. It was agonizing to hear. But not as frightening as the searing whir of the RPG. Another one was coming. You always heard them before you saw them. And if you were lucky you saw them after you heard them, wisps of white smoke trailer their trigger.
“You’ve gotta’ get out of here,” I yelled, staring straight into the mother’s eyes. The mother – damn, I forgot to make a slate book for her. Now she has no name.
She looked at me, her eyes straining to understand what I was screaming. But she didn’t. Her brown eyes were now red. Tears slipping down her face, made a curvy path down her jaw bone to her chin. She was about to erupt. But we didn’t have time for that. We had to go. I was standing just outside the shack, waving my arms like an air traffic controller.
“Let’s go girl,” I shouted, doing my best impression of American tourist in a foreign land. The louder you speak the more they understand. The mother was having none of it. Sitting there her legs crossed, her bare feet touching the blanket wrapped around her child she was frantically pointing to her left. Her “Hello Kitty,” T-shirt was covered in sweat and tears. She began screeching, whipping her head from side to side. Her black hair, matted with sweat stuck to her face. She was freaking out. A string of unintelligible sounds tipping from her lips unabated. She kept pointing but she wouldn’t move.
“No, no sweetheart,” I yelled. “You don’t understand. We’ve got to go.”
My Tangalong began and ended with “Halo halo.” I knew that no matter how many times I told her we had to go she would not understand me. And even if she did, panic translates into many different languages, she was too afraid to move.
At that moment I noticed that I could see her black shirt. This isn’t a revelation in itself except just minutes before the sky exploded I couldn’t see it because it was just too darn dark in the shack. I remember complaining about it – how the heck do I get the shot when my camera lens couldn’t see. And as I leaned more into the doorway of the small home I understood why mother was paralyzed with fear.
Bending over I hopped over mother and baby and was right next to father. He was off to the left, which is why I didn’t see him when I was outside. Father – damn, no slate book for him either, lay spread like an angel, his arms at full wing span. His legs in an upside down “V”. The shack which had recently been too dark to shoot inside was now bathed in light thanks to the gaping hole in the blue tarp courtesy of flying shrapnel. The bamboo that was once the couple’s back wall was now a patio. Father was laying both inside and outside.
It’s inadequate to say he was dead. People who suffer heart attacks and slump over they die. Father, was annihilated. His black matted hair was the only clue I had to where his head used to be. What was left of his skull was a perfect symmetrical mess, a red hallowed out cantaloupe with a thin line of light streaking right through the middle. At my feet lumps of red mass covered the cardboard obscuring the black text so it now read “Ss for the Phili: WFP.
Seeing father drained the glib right out of me. As a missionary journalist I had been in hostile situations before. But nothing like this. Right then the security training we received before we decided to come to Mindanao rushed into my mind. I was back in my office conference room looking at Carl, the former FBI agent who was head of our ministry security. Dressed in a white shirt and black tie Carl was saying, “If the bullets start flying duck and cover.” We had all laughed then. Now I couldn’t even muster a smile.
Duck and cover. Knowing I couldn’t help father I turned to mother and baby. Mother was still screaming, slapping her head up and down like a bobble head pointing at father and screaming gibberish. I ignored her and grabbed the baby. Like a startled dog she sprung to attention, grabbing my arm and screaming what I could only hope was, “Give me back my child.” With mom hanging onto my forearm and baby in my left arm I trudged through the dimly lit doorway shattering the bamboo wall. I was scrambling up the rocky hill mom in tow. Dead bodies like grim guardrails kept us on the path.
There was a pause in the gunfire now. It sounded like target practice. The rebels were closer. Below I could hear their gruff Tangalong. We had to hurry. There was just three kilometers from the relief camp to the Philippine army barracks. That’s why the camp was built there because it was close to safety. Not close enough for father and about a dozen others who lay dead on the thick green Philippine mountainside.
By now Banguaray captain Leylah had called Lt. Col., Andres on his cell phone. The army was surely on its way. But three kilometers was a long way to traipse through the jungle. There was no guarantee that momma, baby and me were going to make it.
I vaguely remembered my interview with Leylah when she told me of the evacuation plan. Leylah was like the manager of the refugee camp, voted into her position by the camps inhabitants if you can believe that. She used the same tenacity that got her elected as the first female council member from her village to devise plans to keep the camp safe. She created the warning system.
Two shots means rebels are coming. Pack your bags
Three shots mean the rebels are here. Forget your bags.
The siren, the one that was going off right now, meant the rebels are in the camp. Run for the hills.
“Run up the hill and take a right,” she had said to me during our interview. “You can’t get lost.” She was smiling as she said it, as if she was telling me what to wear to avoid sunburn. That’s the way it was on Mindanao – war was normal and peace was hell.
Stopping to help mother and baby had slowed me down but I could still see the people scrambling up the hill. The right turn was just ahead and I was moving as fast as I could with a baby in one arm and a petite Filipino woman clinging to my left. Rocks dug into our heels. Branches slapped us in the face. The thick smoke choked us and the large banana leaves once so inviting since they protected us from the hot Philippine sun were now firebombs floating to earth and burning everything they touched.
Just gotta’ get to that turn, I thought. I was a big girl but I could do three kilometers in my sleep, thanks to my triathlon days. We really didn’t have to do the entire three just get close enough so that we see the army brigade coming toward us. Get behind them and we’re home free.
Lost in my thoughts it was a few minutes before I noticed my right arm was flailing. I looked down and the baby, eerily quiet, was tucked snugly next to my breast. The unbloody one. It was just baby and me. Mother was gone.
This is about the time that I usually begin the “What if…,” game. What if I had kept going? What if I had dropped the baby? (Not possible). What if I had noticed my flailing arm sooner? Perhaps this story would have turned out differently. But as my mom says, “The Lord let’s things happen for a reason and who are we to ask for a do over?”
As it were I did stop. I turned around looking desperately for mother. I saw her just a few yards away. She was laying on a bed of jungle face up, her eyes open as if she was playing the cloud game.
“Look,” she was probably saying. “That cloud looks like a mango.”
“And that one over there looks like a banana tree.”
“Ooohhh and that, well that one looks like Paradise Island.”
But she wasn’t playing the cloud game. Mother could no longer see the clouds. A small hole was in her left temple and blood, like her tears before, was now sliding down her face curving around her jaw bone and dripping onto her “Hello Kitty,” shirt.
I was marveling at how perfect the blood drops were when I heard him.
“You should be running.”
The man speaking perfect English was holding an M60 machine gun, the kind they usually mount on Hummers in the desert. His biceps were curvy and dirt-strewn. His head was completely wrapped in a black cloth that rested under his chin. Only his eyes, nose and mouth were visible. He had on military fatigues but I knew he was not in the Philippine Army. He was MI all the way. “If you knew who I was,” he continued, “You’d be running.”
I don’t remember stepping back or even recoiling from his words. I just stood there and then I did what was most people would say was the most ridiculous thing you could do to a guerrilla fighter.
I held out my hand and I said, “Hello, my name is Angela. It’s nice to meet you.”
As if highlighting my stupidity baby began to cry. That’s what you do when you come face to face with the Devil, the little guy was saying, you cry.
The man shifted his weight, handing the monster gun to another man that suddenly appeared right next to him. His mysterious companion buckled his knees under the weight and the gun ended up in the dirt. Arms free English-speaking guy leaned toward me. The smile on his face reached all the way to his eyes. Just then another instant militant appeared someone I hadn’t seen. He lifted his gun, a black 9 mm, turned the barrel on himself and then smashed the butt of the gun it into my head.