General Giap proclaimed a period of looting that was to last forty-eight hours.
Instantly I switched off the radio. I took the hurricane lamp and ran toward our little storage shed, to make sure the wheelbarrow was there and in working order. Yes, it was there, lying upside down. I spun its single wheel. The wheel turned smoothly but squeaked a little. I went to the kitchen to find the bit of palm oil we had left. I oiled the wheel and tested it again. It didn’t squeak anymore. Despite the rust that had begun to corrode the body, the barrow was in good repair and both of its handles were steady.
I returned to the house. I raised the pagne that served as a curtain between my room and Mama’s. She was still asleep. Wake her, or let her sleep awhile longer? I hesitated briefly, then decided to wake her only at the last minute. She’d had a very difficult night, unable to fall asleep until three a.m., when the two water-soluble aspirin I’d forced her to take had dulled the pain of her injured legs and allowed her to get some rest. I would leave her in peace for another half hour. I lowered the pagne and went over to Fofo, my little brother, who shared the room with me. He was still snoring, sprawled comfortably on his foam mattress, which lay on the floor next to my bed. I shook him roughly. He was almost twelve now, no longer a small child, old enough to help the family.
He awoke with a start. I told him that another round of looting would begin in a few hours and that we had to hurry—we mustn’t be taken by surprise, the way we had been last time. Panic in his eyes, he began to cry, his whole body trembling. He was terrified, I knew, because he was dreading a repeat of the day when members of the first militias—the men who, back then, were fighting against the troops gearing up for the looting today—had killed Papa right in front of him. It would be a disaster if he had another of his breakdowns now. So I had to shake him, had to impress on him the urgency of the situation in order to prevent him from dwelling on its gravity.
Raising my right hand in a threatening way, I told him to run and fetch two shovels from the shed where the wheelbarrow was stored, then wait for me behind the house. He understood right away that I wasn’t joking; he calmed down and went out into the darkness. I was afraid I’d woken Mama by speaking so loudly to Fofo. I raised the pagne once more; she lay undisturbed. It had been a long time since I’d seen such tranquillity in her face. She was sleeping so peacefully!
I followed Fofo outside. He was already waiting for me in our little garden behind the house. He had only one shovel with him; the handle of the other, he said, was broken. I told him to go fetch a hoe instead. When he came back, I handed him the shovel and took the hoe. I marked out a rectangle on the ground and we began to dig a large hole by the light of the moon. Since it was garden soil—lucky for us—it was easily worked. Imagine if we’d had to dig in sand or packed ground! After ten minutes or so, the hole was deep enough.
I looked at Fofo. He was sweating profusely. Poor child! I’d gotten him up at five in the morning, threatened him, made him work like a dog, and he hadn’t even had breakfast yet. A twelve-year-old doesn’t deserve that. I told him to go wash up and then have something to eat. “Remember to brush your teeth and comb your hair. And be quick about it! Don’t dawdle, or I’ll come looking for you.” He went without a word. How I wished I had a treat to give him, if only a piece of chocolate!
I picked up the shovel Fofo had been using and moved the heaped-up soil farther from the edge of the hole, so it wouldn’t fall back in. Now I had to attend to Mama.