Our Ready Made Backyard Friend
We went to bed without eating the first night we moved into our grand green home. The only food in the house was a twenty-five-pound bag of rice on the kitchen floor and a live chicken someone had brought as a housewarming gift. Mommy planned to make a meal of rice and sardines using an electric skillet she pulled out of her suitcase, but as soon as she plugged the cord into the kitchen socket, the electricity went out. So we went to bed hungry.
The smell of food wafted through our bedroom window and made our tummies rumble.
My stomach pinched, and I couldn’t sleep. Bertie and I lay in bed tossing and turning for what seemed like hours until—the smell of food wafted through our bedroom window and made our tummies rumble. We got out of bed and peeked through the shady screen. I gasped. There in our backyard, three dark figures hovered over an open fire. A lantern hung above the flames, and steam rose from a pot. The tantalizing smell of smoky meat created a mouth-watering fragrance infused with hints of burning fat and spices. The aroma drifted through the air and beckoned us. But we were afraid.
I looked at Bertie. “Who’s in our backyard? I’m scared. What if it’s the Heartman.”
Rosy and Becky warned us about the Heartman. “Don't go outside after dark. You never know when the Heartman is out. He doesn’t play favors and will take out the heart of anyone he finds roaming in the dark,” they said.
"Those people live in the yard. Go back to bed."
Bertie and I ran into Rosy and Becky’s room and jumped into their bed. “People are cooking in the backyard. We’re scared,” I said.
Becky lifted her head. “Those people live in the yard. Go back to bed.”
Bertie and I studied the scene outside the open window the following morning. A man, a woman, and a small child sat under the lean-to of the shed as if they never moved all night. Bertie screamed. “Look, a little girl. Let’s go play with her.”
We ran past moving boxes and scattered furniture and started out the front door when Mommy stopped us. “Where are you going?”
“We’re going to see the girl who lives in the yard.”
Mommy couldn’t keep us from our mission. Before she could say anything more, we ran out the door, down the long steps, around the carport, and to the back of our house.
The man stood from his seat and greeted us. “Moin."
We didn’t answer, so he tried again, this time, in English.
I said, "Mornin," and then looked over at the little girl.
She said, “Moin,” and pointed to herself.
Bertie quickly deduced that Moin meant "good morning" or "hello," so she answered "Moin," and poked her chest with her thumb. “Bertie.”
I followed suit. “Moin—Georgie.”
Matta kicked her feet in the air, clapped her hands, and grabbed ours. She spoke to us in Bassa, and although we didn't fully understand, we tried to guess what she said and responded in English.
“Let’s play Knock-foot.”
“Knock-foot? What’s that?”
Matta shuffled about like a dancing orangutan. I thought she looked ridiculous, but soon Bertie started imitating her. Together they knocked their feet outward, clapped their hands, and laughed hysterically. I didn’t want to be left out, so I joined the fun.
We couldn't believe our luck. Our first Liberian friend came ready-made, conveniently available night or day in our own backyard.
It didn't matter that she spoke Bassa, and we spoke English. The innocence of our bond and the thrill of having a buddy superseded our language barrier.
We played Knock-Foot and Kol— another hand-and-foot game—with Matta for a solid week. Both games required too much coordination for us to master, but we romped around the yard every day until dark. Sometimes we walked the fence, made castles in the sand, and ate peanuts together that Matta’s mom roasted in their outdoor kitchen.
But our friendship didn’t last.
Our landlord had hired Matta’s dad to keep strangers off the property when the house was vacant, but now that we lived there, his services were no longer needed. Daddy told us he hadn't bargained for an extra family living within our premises, and besides, we needed the extra space to store our goods once the Port Authorities released them. So Matta's family got evicted from our yard.
Our hearts sank on the day they left. Weighted with a knapsack full of her belongings, Matta drudged behind her parents through our iron gate, never to return. Bertie darted after her and caressed her arm while I stood silently from afar. Tears ran down her cheeks.
We never saw Matta again, and the pain stuck with me for a long while. My heart ached from her absence, and being denied the joy of friendship once I experienced it, consumed my every thought...
~ a short excerpt from a WIP
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