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