The Human Rights Warrior

Jennifer Prestholdt

Jennifer Prestholdt
Minneapolis, Minnesota,
February 25
Human rights lawyer, wife, and mother of three. (Not necessarily in that order.) I write about my experiences in fighting for human rights and how I am trying to bring those lessons home to my kids. Join our journey at, Humanrightswarrior on facebook and @JPrestholdt on Twitter. All material on this blog is © Jennifer Prestholdt, 2011, 2012


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JANUARY 6, 2012 9:51AM

WHY? - OS Weekend Fiction

Rate: 6 Flag
boy in Sierra Leone 
The first day of the year was cold and rainy.  At home, the new year was celebrated at seed-sowing time.  Here, they started a new year right in the middle of winter.  It made no sense.  Maybe she would ask Henry why.
He was a good man, a volunteer with the resettlement agency.  He drove her to her doctor appointments and to the Asian grocery store across town, the only place where she could get palm butter.  They sat across from each other now, drinking tea at her kitchen table.  Henry had helped her find this table at a secondhand store.  He had showed her how to use the gas stove.  He had brought her this teapot and these mugs. The teapot was butter yellow, a color she liked.  It was not the hot, white-yellow of the sun back home.  On cold days like this, she missed the African sun, that bright, blazing blanket across the sky.
Henry was retired from his job as an electrical engineer.  He was doing his best to help her understand America.   Today he was teaching her American jokes.  “This one's a classic, " he said. "Why did the chicken cross the road? Ever heard that one before?” 

But those words…chicken ….road…brought her back to her village, back to that day.  She looked down at her hands, folded politely in front of her.  It was as if the months, the miles had evaporated, like steam from a pot of boiling rice. She saw it so clearly. Her little son and the chicken, in the road. 
Blessing loved that chicken.  She was a small white hen, feisty and independent.  Little Blessing loved that chicken and he worried about her, following her around much of the day as she scrabbled in the dirt.  People in the village thought it was odd. They laughed at the thought of treating an animal like it was more than just something to eat.  That was one of the things she had noticed that was different in America.  

That day, when they heard the trucks, they had all run inside to hide.  The rebels had passed on the road many times before without stopping, but it was best to hide, to do nothing to draw their attention. That day in her village, she was on her knees on the dirt floor.  It was the rainy season and there was water on the road. When it rained at home during rainy season, it came down hard. Curtains of rain, as if God were throwing out his washing water.
She heard the squeal of the brakes, the flat splash of water when the truck stopped.  She squeezed her eyes shut and prayed harder.  But Blessing, her little Blessing, saw his chicken crossing the road. He watched the truck stop. When one of the rebels grabbed his chicken, Blessing ran out of the house. 

It was a boy who did it.  He was carrying a gun almost as big as himself.  He could not have been more than a few years older than Blessing.  In different times, he may have kicked a ball to him and laughed when Blessing ran after it on his chubby little legs.   But this was a bad time. Everything had changed when the fighting began.  The rebels took what they wanted, hurt who they wanted. And it was the young ones who were the most dangerous because they were unpredictable.  

She remembered everything else that had happened that day.  The bullets that blazed her temple, her leg, her arm as she ran to Blessing.  She remembered the women from her village who were raped, the men who were killed, the children who were taken to be porters and fighters.  The rebels took all their animals, all their food; they burned all their buildings.  She remembered her months in the refugee camp, her long journey to this strange, cold country.  But she had built a wall inside around that part of herself since the moment when her little Blessing had crumpled to the ground.  Until this moment, this unexpected American joke about the chicken and the road. 

She saw that her hands, balled into fists now, were glistening with wet.  Another teardrop fell, rolling slowly down over her her knuckle. This was how the rain fell in her new home - slowly, softly, silently. 
She looked up and saw that he, too, had tears in his eyes.
“I’m sorry,” she said quietly.  “Please tell me.  Why did the chicken cross the road?”
Copyright @  Jennifer Prestholdt, 2012 

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This is simply WONDERFUL! I want more.
Thank you, Firechick! This is kind of my first foray into fiction and the OS Weekend Fiction Club. I wrote this short story last winter at a hockey rink in a Twin Cities suburb called New Hope. On the way to my son's game, I had to drive in the middle of the snowy road to avoid the African refugees walking, not on the sidewalks, but in the road (on both sides) just like I have seen so many people do on roads in West Africa. This story WHY? sprang into my head. This week's OS Fiction prompt is the first sentence, so the first paragraph is new. I think I like the story better with it, too.
I think the first paragraph really works well. It's great that you were able to incorporate that sentence into something you'd already written. Nicely done. It took me back to my travel in Ethiopia.
This fiction is too close to the truth. Well written JP. Nice use of the prompt. Hope you'll contribute again. :)
Wow. I'm still getting chills. So powerful. Unforgettable.
R and Facebook linked
@blinddream and ASH... Hello and thank you for your comments! I appreciate your encouragement.

I was hoping with this story to show that plenty of normal-seeming people are walking around with hidden scars, pain that is kept at bay, but only just and that might be suddenly triggered and result in a full-blown flashback. This story is fiction, but I have been in situations where something I said sent a human rights victim back into a bad time and place. It's scary when someone suddenly begins to disassociate. And like the guy in this story, you feel guilty when something you do triggers it. Really, all you can do is be there for them until they come back. That human connection is so important. I wish more people were aware of how many of us (not just refugees) are carrying a heavy burden of memories from a painful time. I wish more of us were on the lookout for how we can make that human connection. It wouldn't change the world, but it might just help make it a little bit better.

Thanks again and best wishes!
Chilling and so sad. Wonderful story telling.
This was so powerful and so moving! You took a topic that could have been written about in a melodramatic way, and made it something that feels true and immediate and affects readers so strongly. Absolutely brilliant! Thank you for participating in Fiction Weekend, and I hope to read many more stories from you in the future!
phyllis and Alysa - thanks so much for your kind comments. You are giving me the confidence to try this fiction thing again!
I thought this rang true. Then I read the coments and I was right. Very well integrated
Beautifully told - a flashback burst in a bubble of connection. I like your narrative skill very much.

Thanks, Fusun! I really appreciate your positive energy - I can feel it popping right out of my computer screen.