by Hannah Mikul Landon
We were in the truck, bouncing through dusty brush, the road barely more than a trail. With shaky fingers I checked my pack, made sure I’d remembered my water and supplies, and took a deep breath as I tried not to imagine what we might find when we arrived. The truck stopped, and our dust cloud caught up to envelope us in a gauzy red-brown curtain. When it parted, my feet hit the baked red earth and carried me through a surreal world toward you.
Dead brown grass.
Thatched huts made from mud and sticks.
A skinny goat bleating in a creaking pen.
And then I stood over your shrunken body while the hot sun pressed into my back and burnt into arms, my shadow looming across you like a prophecy.
Hardbaked earth pressed into you from beneath the tattered reed mat; dirt dyed rusty red with the blood of your mothers and grandmothers, cracked but unyielding. Your big eyes stared into that darkness that crouches around us, rarely visible but always present.
Ribs rattling together like broken dry bones, you fought the darkness back. One agonized breath in, every muscle straining. One railing breath back out. Then again. Each exhale threatened to sweep you away into the dusty wind, but you didn’t quit.
Your mother sat next to you on the dirt, mouth smiling politely and eyes shadowed with desperation. Her left hand clutched at her skirt, still hoping.
Your father shook our hands, then sat with his back against the gnarled tree, staring fixedly into the distance. His loose shirt flapped around his still, thin body.
Another deep breath, and your lungs pulled your paper skin tight to betray every rib and bone and desperate muscle. But you didn’t care. You had known morning for six days, and you fought to know her for a seventh. “LIVE!” screamed every cell in your tiny body. The prayer echoed around in my hollow head.
My blue eyes fixed on your black ones, but you didn’t see me because you were looking someplace else while fighting to stay here.
Let her live, I tried to pray. But my eyes made me look, made me see your sunken skull and your skinny arms, made me see the way you panted for air. And my heart was afraid to follow the prayer and believe it. “This happens all the time,” it whispered.
Let her live, I tried again. Maybe He would give you holy breath, maybe He would fill you and keep you strong. Keep you here.
“This happens all the time,” my heart muttered again.
Weren’t we supposed to go peacefully after a long life? Fall asleep, content to never wake up? The desperation in your fight tightened my chest with panic, and I began to look around you but not at you. Still, I couldn’t block out the sound of your jagged breath, and couldn’t seem to stop my lungs from synchronizing with yours.
Baby formula, purified water and careful instructions were given to your mother and grandmother. Meager remedies, but all we could access in your country, even with the medical supplies we’d carefully packed in our suitcases. We prayed for you, our fingers grazing you like butterfly wings.
When we left your mother tried to smile, her hand clutching the formula.
Your father didn’t leave the tree. He didn’t say goodbye. Didn’t move.
With a diesel growl the truck came to life and we bumped back down the road. Behind us, the dust colored the air like faded blood, blocking your home from view.
The sun burnt through the sky and the shadows crept in, tiptoeing toward you on your mat.
After a final, fiery protest the sun sank and left the sky bruised black; that’s when the darkness caught you--despite your fight, despite your will, despite the prayers. The shadows caught you and carried you away.
The fight was over; you didn’t see your seventh morning.
Your mother clutched her hoe and hacked into the red earth of your mothers and grandmothers to bury you alongside generations of sisters and brothers. She wailed.
Your father sat like a stone beneath the tree. In his world, six days is too young for a daughter to be considered a person yet, and he wasn’t allowed to grieve you.
When I heard that you were gone I was seated on a log bench in the morning sun, swatting at biting ants. The news wasn’t surprising. Hadn’t I known you would leave? You were just one tiny girl in an impossible world. This happens all the time.
So, I stood up and got on with my day. Staying busy helped me ignore the dull ache behind my eyes. Besides, I had lost other people. Much closer people. Death waits for us all, and it never gives us the answers we want.
A week later I flew away from your red earth and dusty skies. At home, folks asked about our trip, and we shared stories, but I couldn’t find a way to talk about you, so I stopped trying. How could I explain the harsh, hopeless situation you were born into? How could I explain what it felt like to watch you fight, only to have you die?
Three years passed and, one night across the ocean and in the depths of a prairie winter, the harshness of the world confronted me again. I sat sleepless at my window and found that you were still with me. Instead of snowflakes and snowdrifts, I saw your face framed by goats and brown grass.
The cold disappeared and the sun burnt into my arms.
Ancient red earth colored my vision.
But mostly, I saw you.
Fighting to live, fighting the shadows as they crept closer. Unrelenting. Your will as strong as iron and as hard as the earth beneath you. A bright soul wrapped in a tiny frail body. Six days old, with the power to change me.
“Live.” Your silent cry echoed through me. Not a supplication, but a command.
Shadows loom and threaten to steal, kill and destroy. We don’t have to let them. Corruption, exploitation and disaster whisper, “This happens all the time. There’s nothing you can do.” But it’s not true. The command for life is crafted into every cell of our bodies, stronger than pain or fear.
So is the command for us to do something with the time we have, something that gives life to others. We just don’t always listen to it.
Far away, in a tiny Mozambican village, you fought for every breath. You weren’t just one small baby girl; you matter. Not because you changed me, but because you are an eternal soul, meant for everything good, even if your circumstances trapped you and gave you something else.
Life well-lived is life that we fight for, whether it’s easy, painful, good or hard--regardless of whether it stretches for six days, or a hundred years.