“How Could I Not”

Flash Fiction by Nancy Golden

Photo Credit: Image by Wendy Corniquet from Pixabay

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The sweat dripped off Mugwaneza’s forehead and into his eyes as he lugged the jerry can filled with water behind his back. His spindly arms used to shake when he first started his daily four-mile journey, but he had grown stronger this past year. Now, only in the last mile, did his arms start to tremble. He tried to force his tired legs to move faster so he would have time to study. The sun was already low in the sky, and if he didn’t reach his family’s home in time, it would be too dark to see his schoolbook.

He crushed the thought in the back of his mind that he might run into Nzobatinya today. It didn’t happen very often, but when it did, it was terrible. He couldn’t understand the hatred in the other boy’s expression. The sorrow from the genocide that happened before Mugwaneza was born never seemed to completely disappear from his mother’s eyes, but this boy didn’t even know him. Why did he hate him so much?

As if reading his thoughts, Nzobatinya emerged from a stand of brush and, putting down his water container, picked up a rock from the ground. Giving an angry yell, he hurled it at Mugwaneza, catching him completely off guard and causing him to drop his own container. The stone struck Mugwaneza’s forehead, and the beads of sweat now mingled with blood oozing from the gash. He watched in shock as the precious water leaked out of his jerry can. He touched his forehead with his hand and looked down to see the blood splayed across his fingers. Instinct took over, and he dived for the container and set it upright. A quick examination revealed that about a quarter of the water had leaked out. He was still a mile away from home and the sun was rapidly descending—no time to safely return to the watering hole before the evening predators emerged. He looked around and sighed. Nzobatinya was gone, and Mugwaneza’s family would have to be extra careful about rationing their water today.

The following day, Mugwaneza began his usual afternoon trek for water. He dreamed of going to university someday, and that dream occupied his thoughts as he trudged along. The watering hole was a few hundred yards away, and as he approached a particularly brushy spot on his route, a high-pitched scream abruptly brought him back to reality. Still carrying his empty jerry can, all of his senses went on high alert as he peered into the brush, trying to determine the source of the cry.

Creeping forward, Mugwaneza could see Nzobatinya on his hands and knees about ten yards away, frozen in fear. He followed the other boy’s gaze and could barely discern the shape of a lion crouching, its tawny coat blending in with the brush. The lion’s fierce stare was intent on Nzobatinya, its body taut, ready to pounce.

Mugwaneza started sweating profusely. The foul taste of fear soured his lips, and his stomach spasmed as his throat closed. He had heard his parents talking about the government reintroducing lions in Rwanda, but this was the first one he had encountered. He tried to swallow as he considered his next move. Fear was trying to freeze him. It was gaining ground. He reached up and touched the scab where his forehead was still healing from the stone Nzobatinya had thrown. He heard a low growl and watched as the lion, eyes riveted on Nzobatinya, started to slink forward.

The oxygen was sucked out of the air, and Mugwaneza couldn’t hear anything except the rushing wind in his ears. He grasped his jerry can tightly and leapt forward, running toward Nzobatinya and the lion, waving the container like a lunatic. He shouted as loudly as his lungs would permit and glared at the lion with a rage he had no idea he possessed.

The lion stopped and returned Mugwaneza’s glare. From a predator’s point of view, the two-legged creature’s actions were incomprehensible. Prey should either be frozen in fear or should run, including lesser predators who qualified as prey. The audacity of Mugwaneza’s efforts made the lion pause, but not for long. Turning away from his original target, the lion pinpointed his new victim and roared. He dashed forward and met Mugwaneza head-on—knocking him to the ground. The lion bared his monstrous incisors and extended his claws to savagely maul Mugwaneza’s helpless body, but was flung off-balance. Nzobatinya, forgotten when the lion attacked Mugwaneza, jumped onto the lion’s back, screaming and pounding the fierce predator with his small fists. The lion whipped his head around in a frenzy, throwing Nzobatinya off and biting at both boys, inflicting painful gashes with his sharp teeth. The boys continued their noisy attack. Mugwaneza used his jerry can to deflect the lethal teeth as much as possible, and Nzobatinya found a piece of deadwood on the ground and began beating the lion with it. Suddenly, the lion stepped back from the fray, shaking its great head. It gave one final roar and then turned, disappearing into the brush.

Mugwaneza fell back on the ground, exhausted. Their wounds were deep, but amazingly none were life-threatening. Both boys were covered with them, and the amount of blood seeping from their injuries was unsettling. Trying to calm his breathing, Mugwaneza stared up at the sky when as a blood-soaked hand came into view. He reached up and grasped the hand of Nzobatinya, who helped him to his feet. Nzobatinya didn’t release his grip. Instead, he stared at their intermingling blood with a somber fascination. Finally, he looked directly at Mugwaneza.

“Why did you save me?”

“How could I not?”

Nzobatinya stood a long time, not letting go. He suddenly pressed Mugwaneza’s bloodied hand to his own face. Tears began to mix with blood. Staggering into each other, they embraced. Tears mingled with tears and blood mingled with blood, falling to the ground as one.

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