by Steve Carr
What did Sandima know about the origins from where the water flowed? Its movement was so slow that he barely noticed it other than that he stood in it up to his thighs for as many as ten hours a day, often returning to the same place after a year or so, as the mounds of mud and islands in rivers and streams were reshaped by natural erosion and floods. He knew there were trees on the banks that surrounded the water, and birds in the trees that filled the air with their cries and song, but the trees and birds had become so commonplace to him that they were taken for granted, like the air he breathed.
Sandima was sixteen; originally from Freetown, Sierra Leone, but he hadn’t been in or near Freetown, or seen his parents and siblings since he was a boy of seven. Sandima would reply to anyone who asked, “What good is it to try to remember the ghosts that inhabited my past?”
How to search for diamonds amidst the mud, dirt and rocks he spread with his hands inside a large flat pan was all that he, or any of the Dig Down Boys, needed to remember.
Sandima had an advantage over the other Dig Down Boys. He had a lucky pan. None of the other boys made that claim about their pan. He found more diamonds in among the rock and stones in his pan after the mud was rinsed away than any of the Dig Down Boys.
“Some day, brother, you be a big boss because of that pan,” the other Dig Down Boys told him.
On the day before his seventeenth birthday, Sandima stood in the water as he dug into the mound of mud, shoveling handfuls of it into his pan. He wasn’t thinking about the mud, or what his hands were doing. The mud and digging into it was a symbiotic relationship, like that of the oxpecker and hippo. Finding the diamonds in the mounds and islands of the mud dredged up from the riverbed by the flowing river was his job. It had been his job for four years. His only job.
Before that he cleaned the huts where the bosses lived or washed their clothes or cooked their meat. He was like a wife, but not a wife, not in the sexual sense. They didn’t hit or beat him unless he tried to run away, something he only tried twice. The vastness of the jungle, and the dangers that lurked within it, was more frightening than the bosses, so he returned to the camps each time on his own and accepted his punishment as a rite of passage. He learned to live with the reality that the day he was snatched from the street while on his way home from school was the beginning of a new life.
At his right, his friend Ibrahim used his fingers to pluck bits of shiny rock from his pan, flinging them into the water. “What might look like a diamond, isn’t always a diamond,” was a phrase the Dig Down Boys had learned was an axiom that could be applied to both digging and life. Ibrahim hummed as he worked. He hummed from the moment he carried his pan into the water in the morning until he walked out of the water at twilight.
At his left, Hassana, held his pan close to his face as he dug in the wet soil. His poor eyesight was tolerated by the bosses, but just barely. He worked twice as hard and faster than the other Dig Down Boys, never finding as many diamonds as Sandima, but enough to keep him around. Kidnapping and training a new Dig Down Boy was riskier and took more time than the bosses liked. Like Sandima and Ibrahim, Hassana earned his keep – the right to be fed, clothed and given a hut – and was able to put enough aside from his monthly pay to save for the day when he would be freed by the bosses and could seek life in a village, return to a city, or become a boss himself.
The three of them – Sandima, Ibrahim and Hassana – had heard of the horrors of working in the diamond mines, and were happy that they had spent most of their young lives feeling sunlight on their skin, rain on their backs and the light of day in their eyes. It mattered little to them that the diamonds they found would never make them rich. They weren’t their diamonds anyway. What was found belonged to the company, with a few being given to the bosses.
Sandima stopped from digging in the mud long enough to glance from right to left, wondering what his friends had planned for his birthday. Hassana had arrived at the camp soon after Sandima, but as soon as Ibrahim had arrived the three of them became inseparable, like brothers. There were a half dozen other Dig Down Boys their age, and others had come and gone with regularity, but it was the three of them who had formed a lasting bond. He looked up and saw his boss, Boss Ousman, staring at him from the top of the mound, a scowl on his face, and quickly shoved his hands in the mud.
“Panther!” came the yell from another boss nearer to the trees on the border of the jungle.
In that instant as Sandima’s boss turned to look toward the jungle, Sandima pulled a hand from the mud and dropped in his pan the largest diamond he had ever sifted out of the mud. Without thinking, he grabbed it and shoved it in his mouth. He spat out the mud that had adhered to the diamond just before Boss Ousman turned back and glanced down at him.
“Panther, Boss?” Sandima mumbled.
“Probably the one that has been hanging around the camp for a few days now,” Boss Ousman said.
Sandima went on piling a mound of mud in his pan, rinsed away the mud, and began spreading the remaining rocks and stones around looking for diamonds. He rolled the one in his mouth around on his tongue, feeling the weight and shape of it; the edges were very uneven and sharp. This one would be worth a lot. More than any boss or the company that paid the bosses would ever expect. The diamond on Sandima’s tongue would make him a very wealthy man. He had never given it thought before. To be wealthy. But he liked the taste of the idea.
“Tomorrow you of age to be on the path to being a boss, brother,” Ibrahim said.
Sandima nodded thoughtfully. The heat from the campfire was almost too much. The flames on the logs were intense, reaching high into the air. Specks of fiery red ash were spat upward into the night sky. He took a large drink from the packet he grasped tightly in one hand. The alcohol in the liquid delivered an immediate punch. He rocked backward on the log. “I not become a boss,” he said.
“Waaatttt!” Ibrahim and Hassana said in unison with equal surprise from the log they sat on. The fire separated them from their friend.
“You have enough money saved to do something else, brother?” Hassana said. Sandima was a blurry figure almost lost among the dancing shadows cast by the campfire. His eyesight was getting worse. One day he hoped he would be able to buy a pair of glasses. One day.
It was then that the cry of a panther echoed from the jungle beyond the ring of nine huts that made up the encampment. All three boys turned and looked the direction of the panther’s cry. Several bosses ran out of their huts, waited for a moment, and not hearing anything more, went back inside. Other Dig Down Boys playing cards while crouching on a piece of cardboard not far away the campfire were momentarily silent and then broke into nervous laughter.
Sandima took another drink from his packet. The world was spinning. Happily. “I no need lots of money. I have lucky pan, remember, brothers?” he said.
“Sorry to say this after all this time seeing you with that pan, but a pan is just a pan,” Ibrahim said. “Better to have plenty of money in your pockets like a boss. That is what luck is.”
Sandima stood and waited for the ground beneath his feet to stop moving. “Wait and see. I will buy myself, and you my brothers, everything we have ever wanted and take us wherever we choose to go.”
“You drunk,” Hassana said. He and Ibrahim broke out into loud laughter.
Sandima walked away. His head was pounding, both from the inside and out. Why were some birds and the monkeys so loud at night? He started on the trail leading to where they had been digging for diamonds. He wanted to dip his body in the water. He needed time to think and in the coolness of the water was an ideal place to do that. He would be strip-searched by a boss and a Dig Down Boy, acting as guards, before going into and coming out of the water, but he didn’t care. Packet alcohol did more than make the smile on his face feel permanent, it also acted as an anesthetic. Earlier it had made it possible to swallow the diamond, unseen, while sitting only a few feet from the others. At the water he removed his clothes as he was ordered to do by the boss standing guard.
“Why you take a bath so late at night, boy?” the boss said.
“To keep the panther from seeing me naked as a bushbuck, Boss,” Sandima said. “I no want to be lure the panther with my flesh.”
“Panther see you day or night,” the boss said. “They see things we don’t.”
Still feeling the effects of the alcohol, Sandima staggered into the water, lowered his body until he was immersed up to his chest, and remained perfectly still. He hadn’t given much thought to how it would feel having a diamond in his belly. As his stomach began to churn, it dawned on him that passing the jewel through the rest of his body and out of his anus could possibly be complicated. And painful.
Sandima rose from the straw mat on which he slept. The diamond had moved from his stomach to his intestines. Doubled-over with pain, he walked to the door of his hut and looked out. Moonlight shone through the canopies atop the kapok trees that surrounded the encampment. Hazy smoke drifted from the extinguished campfire into the air, and then carried off by a balmy breeze. Behind him, on their mats, Ibrahim and Hassana slept soundly. His pan, and theirs, were hung on the walls of the hut. In the ambient light they looked like tribal masks, other-worldly and frightening. He left the hut in search of water to drink. He thought, Maybe water would wash the diamond further down. Near Boss Ousman’s hut he found several jugs of water. He removed the cork from a jug and began to drink from it.
Boss Ousman came running out of the hut, a rifle in his hands. Seeing Sandima, he said, “Boy, I thought you were a wild animal.”
Fighting the cramping in his bowels, Sandima straightened up. “Sorry, Boss, but I had a terrible thirst.”
Boss Ousman walked over to Sandima and placed his hand on his shoulder. “I will give you your birthday present early,” he said. “At daylight you begin training as a boss.”
Sandima broke out into a sweat. “Thank you, Boss,” he said between clenched teeth as he bent over. The pain in his gut went straight to his head.
“Are you okay, boy?” Boss Ousman said. “You look sick.”
“I’m fine,” Sandima said, and then he passed out.
Two days later Sandima woke up in a strange hut. The lower half of his naked body was covered with a piece of cloth. His lips were parched and his throat was as dry as withered fruit. His anus ached. He started to scratch his nose and realized his hands had been placed on his chest and were bound together by hemp. He looked down and saw that his ankles had also been tied together. His thoughts immediately went to the diamond he had ingested. No one should swallow a diamond that jagged and size. There was no doubt that it had come out. He then thought about death. How had he escaped it? From the diamond? From being found out stealing from the company? From stealing from Boss Ousman?
From outside the hut came the sounds of shouting, rifle shots, and running footsteps. The word “panther” was repeated loudly and clearly.
Sandima sat up. Dizziness blurred his sight for a moment, and then his vision cleared. There he saw in front of him, leaning against a wall, his pan. He sighed with relief. It was like finding an old friend who he feared he would never see again. It had lost its luckiness. But it was still a friend.
The door to the hut opened and Boss Ousman walked in, his hand gripping the thin, bare shoulder of a a small boy, leading him in. The boy was trembling, his eyes wide open, an expression of abject fear on his face. “So, Sandima you are awake from the fever already. Swallowing a dirty diamond that cut up your insides was not a wise decision. ”
Sandima cleared his throat and ran his tongue over his lips, trying to bring moisture to them that didn’t exist. “Why am I not dead, Boss Ousman?”
“When you shit out that diamond I think I strangle you with my own hands, but you have been a good and faithful Dig Down Boy all these years, so I keep you alive. For Now. But you will not be a boss and you have forfeited everything you have earned until now. I will not mention your attempted theft to the company.”
The boy struggled to free himself from the pain of the boss’ grip.
Boss Ousman tightened his grip on the boy even more. “This is Amadu who was to be yours, just as you have been mine, but now I must give him to someone else to serve and be trained by.” He then shoved the boy onto the ground next to where Sandima lay. “Amadu has much fear, but potential as a Dig Down Boy.”
Sandima exchanged glances with Amadu. Tears had welled up in the little boy’s eyes.
“From you he can still learn,” Boss Ousman said. “That stealing could cost him his life.” Laughing sardonically, he turned and left the hut.
Sandima then asked Amadu the first question asked any new boy to be groomed as a Dig Down Boy. “Where do you come from?”
“Freetown,” Amadu said.
“That is a far distance,” Sandima said.
“Not so far,” Amadu sniffled. “They drove and walked in circles before bringing me here to confuse me, but Amadu not easily confused.”
“Tell me more,” Sandima said.
It was nightfall by the time that Amadu and Sandima shared their stories. Both were from Freetown and both had been kidnapped while walking home. Amadu – like Sandima when he had been kidnapped – was seven years old.
“I prefer to die,” Amadu said when Sandima finished telling of his life as a Dig Down Boy.
It was quiet and still outside the hut when Ibrahim and Hassana entered, signaling to Sandima to speak in whispers.
“What is your boss going to do to you, brother?” Ibrahim asked as he and Hassana knelt down beside him.
“He keep my savings. I back to day one as a Dig Down Boy.” He glanced over at Amadu and then back at them. “This boy maybe know the way back to Freetown. It is too late for me to rejoin my family but he will need my help to get back to his.”
“How would you do that, brother?” Hassana said.
“In doing what I ask, you too may lose your savings, if what you do is discovered ” Sandima said.
“I can wait a while longer for eyeglasses,” Hassana said. “Tell us.”
“First, untie me,” Sandima said.
In the middle of the night, as the rays of a waning moon shone through the spaces in the hut’s hay and bamboo roof, the shouts of “panther” erupted from the opposite side of the encampment where Ibrahim and Hassana had hidden themselves in the bushes to be kept from being seen as the ones shouting. As bosses ran from their huts in haste and confusion, carrying their rifles, Sandima grabbed Amadu’s hand, and his only possession, the pan, and ran from the hut and across the encampment, leading the boy into the jungle. They ran until Sandima thought they were a safe distance from the encampment. As they stopped to catch their breath, the guttural growl of the panther came from the nearby bushes. Just as it leapt out, Sandima raised his pan into the air, and with a single arch-like splice he severed the panther’s head from its body with the edge of the pan.
“Still a lucky pan,” Sandima said, grabbing the boy’s hand again and running the direction of Freetown.