I count the things that matter.
Chop, twist, toss, check. Chop, twist, toss, check. Two more pods make twenty-five total.
Neither Seydou nor I have eaten anything since breakfast, but Moussa is working too close for us to be able to sneak one of the cacao pods out of the sack. I take a moment to wipe the sweat off my forehead. You’d think it would be cooler up here, but some days there isn’t a breeze even halfway up a tree.
I scrub at my face with my wrist and look out over our work area. Moussa is collecting pods off to our right, though he’ll leave in a second to make another sweep to be sure everyone’s still here. The other boys on crew with us today are just smudges of noise through the green. Directly below me, Seydou scrambles around as quickly as he can, picking up the pods I’ve cut and putting them in our sacks. They’re lying worryingly flat right now.
Only twenty-five pods. Our sacks need to be full, at least forty or forty-five each, so I can get Seydou out of a beating. Really full if I want to get out of one too. The bosses usually look the other way when I give Seydou lighter work since he’s only eight, but that kindness only goes so far. We still need to bring in about the same as the other boys.
I slide to the ground and push the sack onto my shoulder. The bunched bag digs in, pressing through the bruises there, but I don’t let Seydou carry things that are too heavy if I can avoid it. Instead, he carries the machetes.
“Moussa! We’re finding new trees!” I call out.
“Awó! ” he shouts, looking to see which direction we’re going. In a few minutes he’ll wander over to check on us. I try not to let it bother me.
Seydou and I walk past tree after tree. They taunt us with their clustered pods, all the wrong size, none of them ripe enough to cut. I don’t count how many trees we pass because I don’t count the things that don’t matter.
I don’t count unripe pods. I don’t count how many times I’ve been hit for being under quota. I don’t count how many days it’s been since I’ve given up hope of going home.
In the next grove I heave the sack onto the ground and shake out my arms. Seydou stumbles a little as he shuffles up behind me. His thin shoulders slump. I can see how tired he is and it makes me mad, because I can’t do anything about it. More than seventy pods to go and it’s already late morning.
“Give me my machete.”
He scowls at my tone, his thin eyebrows scrunching down in his round face, making him look like a cranky old man, but he hands it to me even so. Then he heads straight to the nearest tree with low pods and gets to work, a frown line still between his eyes.
I clench my machete between my teeth and pull myself up a smooth trunk with my bare feet and hands, counting the shiny pods that are the right size for cutting. When I get high enough to reach some purple-red ones, I knot my legs around the trunk, grab one in my left hand, and hack at the tough stem that holds it to the tree.
One strong chop and with a twist it comes off, surprisingly light in my hand for its size. Twenty-six.
I turn to toss it to the ground and check on Seydou. I notice that he’s still trying to saw through the stem of his first pod. His skinny little body is sagging from exhaustion and his blade keeps slipping. I want to scream at him to be more careful. In- stead, I slip down the tree and don’t add the pod to my sack.
“Come on,” I say, walking to him. “Let’s take a quick break before Moussa gets too close again. Then we’ll get to work. How does that sound?”
“I can keep working.” He straightens and glares at me as if
I’ve just called him a baby in front of the whole camp.
I grind my teeth in frustration but keep my face smooth. Tremors of exhaustion are making his blade wave slightly in the air as he argues with me.
“I need a break,” I lie, and sit deliberately in front of him. Balancing the pod I just cut in one hand, I aim the machete and swing. One, two hits, and it cracks. I wedge the pod open with the blade until the whole thing splits in two. Inside the thick rind, the seeds are packed together in a tube, each in a squishy skin. I drop my machete, scoop the seed-mess out with my fingers, and shove some of it in my mouth. Then I hold out the other half to Seydou.
“Okay,” he says, and slides down beside me, resting against the tree.
While I chew on the slimy, crunchy cacao seeds, I look for a place where the leaf litter is deep, to hide the empty husk. There’s no way I want Moussa catching us eating the crop, but all of us boys do it when we can. We don’t get fed much and chewing the seeds makes you feel better and gives you enough energy to keep working.
Seydou chews his handful, a little at a time. I’ll let him finish it before I make him get to work again, but I get up. I need a new twenty-sixth pod and the day is only getting shorter.
I’m halfway up the next tree, my hand already wrapped around it, when the unusual sound of a motor surprises me. Giving in to curiosity, I climb higher until I can see out over the treetops. The growing groves and the wild bush beyond them stretch like a green sea in every direction. There are little pock- marks of brown in it—the clearing where the bosses have their house, the clearing where we husk the pods, ferment and dry the seeds, eat and sleep—and a long tan-colored scar pulling across it: the track that the pisteurs use to come here and collect the seeds we’ve harvested.
And along that track, a plume of dust announces that a car is coming to the camp.
I slide down the tree as quickly as I can. Seydou looks up in alarm, his hand halfway to his mouth with the last few seeds.
“What is it?”
“A car. There’s someone coming.”
Seydou finishes and wipes his hands on his pants. He wrinkles his nose, thinking. “It’s too early for the pisteurs yet,” he says. “I thought Moussa said they’re not coming until next week.”
That’s what I had been thinking too. “More boys?”
Not many people come all the way out here to the middle of nowhere, Ivory Coast. There are the pisteurs, and every now and again someone else, someone delivering fertilizer or insecticide or food for the bosses. But usually, when a car comes by in the middle of the day, it’s because they’re delivering more boys to work.
Over two years ago it was Seydou and I who were part of that batch, leaving Moke and Auntie, thinking we’d be home after a season of work; Seydou and I who were about to get dumped at the cacao camp and learn that we now had to work all day, week after week, season after season, never getting paid. I rub my bruises and wonder what poor boys are currently peer- ing out the bug-spattered windshield for their first glimpse of their new work site.
“We’ll find out soon enough,” I say. But Seydou darts past me and shimmies up the tree I was just in to see for himself. I wait for him at the bottom, considering.
“I wish we could see them.” His whine filters through the leaves to me.
“Wishing doesn’t make it so,” I remind him, moving to the next tree. Moke used to say that to us all the time when we complained at home. And he’s right. I’ve wished for a lot of things: first, to make my family proud by earning a lot of money; then, that my family would come find us; finally, simply that my family would know what had happened to us before we died here. “Wishing doesn’t make it so,” I mumble to myself again, and start up the tree.
I’m cutting through the next stem when the shrill double blast of a whistle makes me jump. Moussa wants us. For a moment I sit there, straddling the branch, cradling my new twenty- sixth pod against my chest. A distraction is the last thing I need.
No, I correct myself. The last thing you need is to get Moussa angry.
I drop the pod to the ground and slither down the trunk until I’m standing at the base. I shove the pod into my sack. When I hear the swish of Seydou’s bare feet on the tree, I grab the sacks, and we trot to where Moussa is waiting for us.
We’re the first ones there. Curious, I walk to where Moussa is standing. Tall and broad, Moussa is the oldest of the three brothers who run the farm. His face is handsome, though he has deep lines on his forehead from worrying. At fifteen, I’m one of the oldest boys in the camp. Even so, I have to tilt my head to look him in the eye.
Seydou tucks himself behind me a bit as we stand there waiting for the other boys to join us. He won’t talk to the bosses if he can avoid it. Seydou is the youngest at the camp by far. I grimace as the old guilt twists in my stomach. It’s a number that matters, but in all the wrong ways.
I turn my attention back to Moussa. I look at his face carefully, gauging whether he might be angry. His stance is relaxed; there are no muscles bunched at the corners of his jaw; his hands hang loosely by his sides. I take a chance. “I didn’t know we were expecting new boys,” I say.
Moussa’s eyes cut to me. I try not to flinch. Then he looks away and shrugs.
“Neither did I.” He pulls a whistle from inside his shirt and blows it again. “Help me get my things.”
Seydou scrambles to get Moussa’s tools and I put the rest of his pods in his sack. Yussuf, Abdraman, and Konaté arrive just as we hear a blaring sound from the direction of the clearing, like someone is leaning on a horn, then two quick honks.
Moussa grabs his sack from me and leads the way.
I fall into line with Seydou and the other boys and follow Moussa. It’s not like he would trust us to work in the field alone while he took care of business. I grind my teeth in frustration at the thought of daylight slipping away.
“Aw ka kene?” says a voice beside us.
“Oh, we’re fine,” Seydou answers. “But, Yussuf ! We think there might be some new boys from Mali coming to the camp! What do you think?” My crazy cricket of a brother is bouncing on the balls of his feet as he walks, excited to be able to share a secret.
Yussuf smiles indulgently at Seydou, his thick eyebrows almost comical on his thin face. I’ve never been too friendly with the other boys. It just hurts too much to care, and all of my caring is used up with Seydou. If I had to, though, I would trust Yussuf above the others. He smiles a lot like he means it. In a place like this, that’s rare.
“Awó, ” Yussuf whispers. “You’re probably right. More mouths at the stew pot, hmm?”
We all go back to walking in silence. How little food we get is never something to laugh about.
When we get to the edge of the clearing where we live, Moussa walks straight to the Jeep to talk to the driver, a bulky man in khaki pants and a sweat-stained shirt. The five of us don’t really know what to do with ourselves, so we stop a little ways away. Always glad for a break, we sink to the ground and wait to be told what to do. Seydou stands on his tiptoes trying to see in the windshield, but there’s a glare. With a huff of frustration, he settles beside me.
Only a few moments behind us, the other two bosses and their crews trickle in, one after another from the areas they were harvesting, until pretty much everyone is here. The three bosses, Moussa, Ismail, and Salif, stand in a loose ring, talking with the man from the Jeep. The boys float over to join our crew.
I’m contemplating whether or not this would be a good chance to sneak in a nap, when the driver pulls a struggling kid out of the Jeep. Instantly, the thought of napping, along with all others, is jolted out of my head. I hear a low whistle of astonishment from Yussuf.
“Is that a girl ?” whispers Seydou.
I nod, still trying to wrap my head around this. First of all, girls never come to the farm. Second, I’ve never seen or heard of one kid being brought alone, ever. Seydou and I had to wait a while in the halfway house in Mali before we crossed the border because it was just too expensive to move us until the drivers had enough kids to make the trip worth it for them. What on earth are they doing, bringing only one kid, and a girl at that? None of the girls at the Sikasso halfway house came with us to the farms. They were all driven somewhere else.
I watch, fascinated. You can tell the kid is a girl because of the plain blue cotton dress she wears, but the thing that the big man pulls out of the Jeep is more like a wild animal than any girl I’ve ever met. She whips around in his hands, thrashing her head from side to side. Her arms are tied behind her, so when he drags her out, she hits the hard-packed ground with a thud. In a heartbeat, she’s on her feet and running for the trees.
Biting off a curse, the big man in khakis is after her. He catches her by her wrist and yanks her sideways. She loses her balance and falls, crying out. The big man sinks a knee into her spine. She lets loose a stream of curses that would curl a man’s hair and doesn’t even stop when he slaps the side of her head. He hauls her to her feet and pushes her before the bosses.
Moussa looks wary. I agree. This girl’s crazy.
I notice I’m standing and that I’ve taken a few steps toward them without realizing it. Moussa crosses his wiry arms, and the four of them begin a heated conversation.
I try to think like the bosses: Would I take her on? Given her height, she’s probably a little younger than me, maybe thirteen or fourteen, but she’s not as skinny as most of the girls I knew at home. Maybe the drought is over if people have food to spare on girls.
I pull my thoughts away from home and pretend I’m helping them decide to take her on or not. She looks healthy and strong enough to work, but I wouldn’t trust that wildcat.
Yussuf and Seydou and the others are whispering among themselves, wondering where she came from, why the middlemen in Sikasso would be willing to transport only one kid, and what it might mean to have a girl in the camp. I’m just about to sit, joining the other boys, when the girl’s eyes snap off the ground and lock into mine. I take a step away. Wide and dark in her oval face, her eyes are asking for help. But I have enough to worry about with Seydou and myself. I have no more help left to give. And so I look away. When I glance at her again, her eyes have turned hard.
There’s nothing I could do anyway, I remind myself.
As I sink into the rough circle we’ve formed, I’m distracted by the pity in Yussuf ’s eyes. I wonder whether he has sisters at home.
The thought takes me by surprise. After two years working with Yussuf, I have no idea who he left behind. I don’t usually wonder about people’s pasts. Thinking about someone else’s past only makes me remember mine, and that’s too much to bear.
“I wish we could get back to work,” I hear myself say. “Wishing doesn’t make it so,” Seydou parrots.
I’m annoyed to have him sass me like that in front of the other boys, but Yussuf laughs, so I let it drop.
Until the bosses give the word, we can’t do anything, so even though we’re all losing time on making quota, we sit together and wait.
Wait while the men finish their deal.
Wait while the big man in khakis drives his Jeep away. Wait while the girl screams curses after it.
Wait while Moussa and the other bosses beat her for the first time.
Finally, Moussa comes over to where we’re sitting, dragging the girl with him.
“Okay, enough lazing around,” he says, waving us all onto our feet. The other bosses round up their teams too, and we all head back to where we were working earlier this morning.
I trudge with my crew into the underbrush, sneaking glances sideways at the girl. Up close, she doesn’t look like a wildcat. Her cheekbones are high and fine in her oval face, and the lashes ringing her eyes are spiky from crying. Her hair is braided in slightly uneven lines and knotted at the base of her head. She looks pretty, and kind of soft around the edges. She’s clearly not a village kid like us. Her cheeks are round and her skin is dark and shiny. You can tell that she’s been eating well for years. Her family must have landed on hard times for a girl who could eat that well to be looking for work in a place like this.
I tell myself that it doesn’t matter where she came from; she’s here now. Her full lips are split open and her blue dress has blood on the front of it. Fresh bruises are swelling her almond eyes shut and her hands are tied in front of her. I shake my head to get rid of all this useless thinking and set myself to the task of counting things that matter. She’s not my problem. Quota is.
When we reach the area we were working before, I’m the first one up a tree.
Grab a hard red-orange pod, smooth and ribbed and as long as my forearm.
Chop with the machete raised, careful not to miss the stem, thin as my fingers.
Pull the pod off the tree and toss it at the bag. Twenty-seven.
Check on Seydou, make sure he’s all right. Begin again on the next pod.
Chop, twist, toss, check.
When I’ve taken all the ripe pods off that tree, I drop to the ground, expecting Seydou to have collected them. Instead, I find him harvesting his own pods in a way I told him never to do.
I stalk up behind him, watching him swing his machete in wide arcs. He knows better. Seydou is young and clumsy. When we’re harvesting, I make him hold the blunt side of the blade with two hands and saw it across the stem. I don’t let him use the machete any other way, and he’s not allowed to climb trees with it.
He turns and looks at me, his machete freezing in midair. “What do you think you’re doing?”
I see his grip tighten. “I’m working,” he says.
“You know better than to do it that way!” I point at his machete. He lowers it, still glaring at me.
“I’m trying to help us make quota!” he snaps. “Your way takes forever and we already lost an hour.”
I glance at the girl, who’s sitting in front of a tree, arms crossed, silently glaring at me. She’s no longer tied to Moussa’s waist. It must have been too difficult for him to move around. Instead, he tied her here. The knots are tight, complex, and out of her reach. Seydou’s right, of course. We did just lose valuable work time, and because they’re machetes, not saws, it does take him a while. But, even if it slows us down, I won’t see him get hurt.
“This isn’t a discussion,” I say. “Do it properly.” Seydou’s face gets hard and flat. He’s furious. “I’m helping,” he insists.
I roll my eyes. “I don’t care. Pay attention, and do it right.” I turn away to collect the nine pods I got off the last tree and shove them in my sack.
“You never let me help!” Seydou yells at my back. I can hear the tears clogging his voice. I’m sick of arguing with him, sick of telling him he’s too young, too small. Sick of it always having to be my job to keep him from getting hurt. I grab my sack and look sideways at him.
“If I see you being reckless with your machete again just to impress a stupid girl, I’ll beat you myself.”
Then, to make sure that Seydou doesn’t follow me while I’m still mad, I carry my sack to where Moussa is working, and climb the tree next to his. I know Seydou won’t get closer to the bosses even to have the satisfaction of yelling at me.
As I hack at the next pod, I hear a low laugh from the greenery off to my right.
“Always on the lookout, aren’t you?”
Hidden by the leaves, Moussa’s voice sounds oddly friendly. For a moment I think about how nice it would be if he actually were. But without being able to see what the rest of him is doing, I don’t feel entirely safe.
“Awó, ” I mumble.
Moussa’s low laugh rolls over me again and, with a pang, I wish for Moke. My grandfather didn’t laugh very often, but when he did, his laugh was like warm honey.
In the early days here I used to think all the time: How can I run away? What is my family doing right now? Is Moke worried about us? Are they searching? How much longer will we have to work before we pay off our debt and the bosses let us go home? The questions would seethe through me, twisting on themselves in new shapes again and again like an injured snake. I soon learned the price of thinking. It slowed me down, and I didn’t make quota. Now I count instead of thinking and I’m able to get through most of my waking hours in a daze. It’s better this way.
Chop, twist, toss, check.
I don’t say anything else to Moussa and I refuse to think of anything other than the rise and fall of my machete. After a while, I manage to enter my empty place: that strange state of mind I get to when I’m working, where the burn in my muscles is the only way to track the passing of time. It’s like being half-asleep or feverish. I move without having to think about it. Without having to think about anything.
The sun has sunk about a hand lower in the sky when I’m finally not angry with Seydou anymore and I decide to go back and try to talk to him again. Numbly, I’ve followed Moussa for the past few hours and we’ve wandered well away from where I last saw Seydou. I heft my comfortably full sack (sixty) high on my shoulder to avoid the old bruises as I walk. It hurts to carry, but its weight feels good. Between what I’ve got and whatever Seydou managed on his own, we might actually have a chance of making quota today, even with the delay the girl caused by her arrival.
I’m still a little ways off when I hear a soft sobbing filtering through the trees. My heart pounds as I break into a run. It was stupid to leave Seydou working alone just because I was mad. If he’s gotten hurt when I wasn’t there to help him, I’m never going to forgive myself.
I break through the last bit of underbrush and rush to Seydou. At first I can’t tell what’s wrong. A quick glance around the nearby trees shows me a chest-high ring of sloppily cut stems. In the near-flat sack at his feet there are maybe a dozen pods. I can’t see his machete, or any obvious injuries. I drop my sack and grab his arms, turning him this way and that.
“What’s wrong?” I shout. His eyes are terrified. Set in his round face, they make him look very young and breakable.
Sobbing, snot and tears running down his face, Seydou points behind me. I turn, and for a brief second I don’t really know what I’m looking for. Then I see the rope dangling from the tree, empty. It feels like the world stops. I face Seydou again, my eyes as wide as his.
“What did you do?” I manage, my voice barely a whisper. “I—I—” Seydou gasps.
I’m shaking my head because, no, no, this day did not just get worse. We had the chance to make quota. Everything was going to be all right. Now there’s no way we’re going to be okay. If we helped a kid escape, Moussa’s going to destroy us.
“She . . . asked me to cut her free . . . as soon as you . . . and Moussa . . . were out of sight. I said . . . I said no . . . but she . . . she tricked me.” Seydou is beyond panic. “She asked me to come over when we were talking . . . and then . . . she knocked me to the ground and took my machete . . . and she . . . and she . . .” He trails off, pointing at a spot in the bush to his right where the branches are bent at odd angles, then starts sobbing again. “A-A-Amadou, I’m sorry! I’m so, so sorry!”
I wave my hand at him to shut him up so I can think. Of course he’s sorry. I’m always the one bailing him out when he makes mistakes. I bet he knew, the minute this happened, that I’d figure out a way to take care of this. I try to think over the panic churning in my belly.
I can’t believe that she would put Seydou in this situation. Already I’m right: the girl’s not worth the trouble she’s causing. That little snake. I’m so angry at her I feel I’d like to kill her myself. But my terror quickly overrides my anger. Any minute now, Moussa is going to come here to check on all of us. I look at Seydou, curled on his nearly empty sack, his breath wheezing in and out of his skinny little ribs as he sobs. I imagine Moussa’s rage at losing the girl. The kind of beating that’s likely to follow this disaster could kill Seydou.
Not every boy survives here. Some have fallen sick and died of their diarrhea; some have been bitten by poisonous snakes or spiders while they worked in the bush. And one, a stringy boy named Yacouba, got beaten and went unconscious and never came out of it.
I think of the scars that already crisscross Seydou’s back and I make up my mind. I reach over and smack him hard across the face.
He reels, surprise cutting off his crying. I never hit Seydou. “You were an idiot to trust her,” I snarl, low and fierce. “Now pull yourself together and shut up.”
Then I throw my machete at him, whirl on my heel, and race back the way I’ve just come. “Moussa!” I yell at the top of my lungs. “Moussa!”
I nearly ram into him. I was right; he was on his way to check on us.
“What?” he says, “What is it?”
I try to catch the breath my fear has knocked out of me. “The wildcat escaped,” I manage.
“What? ” he roars. “How?” My mind races.
“When I went to check on Seydou, she tricked me into coming over to her. She knocked me off my feet and stole my machete. She cut herself loose.”
“She knocked you over? A girl, a girl who was tied up, knocked you over and stole your machete?”
Maybe that wasn’t the best way to put it.
Moussa’s meaty hand slams into the side of my head.
“You make me sick.” He grabs me by the ear and drags me to Seydou. Since I’m almost as tall as him, his grip on my ear makes me bend nearly double. Head still spinning from being hit, I have a hard time keeping my footing. But I’m still here, still standing, and even if he believes an embarrassing story, at least he doesn’t know the truth.
When we burst through the bushes, Seydou jumps, holding my machete out in front of him. Tears are streaming down his face and his lower lip is trembling, but he’s stopped sobbing and I hope that Moussa will assume his distress is from being generally afraid and not from being responsible.
Moussa lets go of my ear and examines the tree with its dangling rope. Reaching up, he slices through it near the knot and winds it into loops. My ear throbs but I know that I have to keep up my side of the story.
“She ran that way.” I point.
Moussa scowls, looks at the afternoon sun, and lets loose a tight curse. He takes a moment, fingers fisted in his hair, and then seems to come to a decision.
“You.” He points at Seydou. “Keep working. Harvest as much as you can. We’re going to lose a lot of time chasing her and it will be your fault if we don’t bring in enough. Do you understand?”
Seydou darts a glance to me, frightened, and I take a step forward, my mouth open to argue for him even though I don’t know what I’m going to say, but Moussa shoves an open hand in my direction, stopping me in my tracks.
“I said, do you understand? ” he repeats, softly.
“Awó, ” says Seydou, hearing that softness for the danger it is. Moussa looks at me and holds out the rope. “You, you’re coming with me.”
My heart drops into my stomach. We’ll never make quota now. With one last look at Seydou, I take the rope from Moussa and follow him into the trees.
Moussa wastes only a moment looking at the place where she disappeared and then he’s off at a lope, following the direction the girl has gone. I feel vulnerable running through the bush without a blade. Not only is la brosse full of pythons, vipers, and poisonous spiders, there are also leopards, panthers, and vicious wild pigs that will rip you to pieces with their tusks as soon as look at you. Even if no animal bothers us, I’m sick of branches slapping me in the face. But the wildcat took Seydou’s machete, and the only way to get it is to capture her.
Also, I need to get back to Seydou. A hundred terrible im- ages flash through my mind. What if he falls? What if he cuts his thigh open and bleeds to death? What if he steps on a snake? I shake my head and run faster. What’s more likely is that he’ll sit on the ground crying, too scared to move, until we return. And then, when neither of us make quota . . . I run faster still.
Moussa doesn’t break his pace, checking her trail as he runs. As I jog after him, jumping over low plants and dodging be- tween trees, I try to figure out what he’s tracking in the ground that I’m missing. It’s not an easy task and soon I find myself drawn in by the challenge. Even when we were still at home, I never really went hunting; I just set snares around Moke’s fields for rabbits. In front of me, Moussa takes a quick left and I slow. What made him turn? At first I see nothing. Then, as I’m passing the bush, I notice where a sandaled foot has pushed the leaves aside.
I follow Moussa, eyes on the ground, scanning for telltale signs. Little by little, it gets easier. The ground tells a story: feet trod here quickly, here slowly. She’s getting tired: look, a line from a dragged machete tip. I have entered my empty place and the ground seems to shout its secrets. Pretty much every time Moussa turns I know why: a footprint in the soft loam, a smashed fern. Abruptly, Moussa veers off to the left again, but I see a track to the right. I’m so wrapped up in the task that I don’t even consider that he might not want my opinion, that he might not want my noise. I blurt out, “Moussa!”
He turns around and glares, and his hand cuffs me on the ear.
“Shush!” he says in a heavy whisper. “We’re getting close to her now, you idiot! Do you want to go shouting where we are, helping her escape?”
“I . . .” I trail off, remembering what we’re tracking. I had forgotten, for a few moments there, that it’s a person we’re after: the difficult girl. That this isn’t just one more job, one more thing to count, but another kid. The rest of the words come out shaky, unsure. “I think that’s a false trail. Look.”
For a moment Moussa is quiet as his eyes follow my pointing finger, taking in the slight scuffing of moss that shows careful steps leading away from the trail of broken branches. A slow smile creeps across his face.
“Good work,” he says, and rubs his hand on my head as we turn to follow the real trail. Inside, my heart soars at the praise. It’s been so long since someone told me I did a good job at anything. I always have to be the one in charge with Seydou, always the one telling him it’s all right, that he did well. I’d al- most forgotten how nice it is to be the one to hear those words.
It’s not long before my new trail shows its worth. We are turning around a tree when I see a glint in the bushes. I act purely on instinct, calling Moussa’s name and pointing, and then the girl is exploding out of the bushes and sprinting away. For a brief moment I think she might make it, but then Moussa is after her and I know that the chase is over.
Very aware of the fact that I am still the only one without a machete, I hang back and let him catch her. She lashes out wildly with the machete. A cold, distant part of my mind criticizes her swing. It wobbles with her exhaustion. It is poorly aimed. A few months working in the field would cure that, I think, and a small part of me smirks that that’s exactly what she’s about to get. Another part of me is ashamed of the thought. A third part of me, one that has slept dormant for months until this crazy girl showed up, wonders quietly how my work-trained swing would do if I were the one trying to escape. I brush the thought away like a bug near my ear, but a tiny echo of its buzz remains.
Moussa leaps sideways, avoiding the blade, and then rushes forward. He uses his machete to beat hers aside and then grabs her other arm with his free hand. He’s shouting at her, shaking her, but I don’t look, don’t listen. Instead, I walk around them to where Seydou’s machete has fallen into the undergrowth and pick it up. I’m glad to have it again. But I can’t help noticing, as I take the loop of rope off my shoulder and help Moussa bind the struggling girl, that the handle is still warm from her hand.
We arrive at the grove hot, tired, and cranky. I’ve worked all day and then chased a wildcat on nothing but the thin soup of breakfast and I’m starting to feel weak. I want to lapse into a deep, colorless sleep, but instead Moussa blows a double blast on his whistle and, one by one, Yussuf, Abdraman, and Konaté join us with their bags.
Seydou arrives last, dragging both of our sacks. He runs over and throws his arms around me. He doesn’t need to say anything: I know he was scared. Scared to work alone in la brosse full of animals, large and small, that could kill him. Scared I wouldn’t come back, and he’d have to do this every day. It’s a terrible thing to be here. It would be worse to be here alone. I often think of what it would be like if I hadn’t taken Seydou’s side and convinced Moke to let him come with me into the Ivory Coast. I feel awful about it every day, but if I’m honest with myself, I know that I wouldn’t have made it this far if I didn’t have him. Without Seydou to protect, and to make me laugh, I’d have given up a long time ago.
I squeeze him gently.
“Let’s go!” Moussa’s in no mood to be trifled with and sets a punishing pace, dragging the offending girl behind him. We follow along, the others baffled as to the change in mood, and there is nothing I can do but put one foot in front of the other, and dread what’s coming next.
In the two years I’ve been here, only a handful of boys have tried to run. The punishments have always been terrible. Unbidden, memories flood through me of my one and only attempt at escape. I cringe away from them and try to count the steps it takes us to get back to camp, pretending it’s a number that matters.
It doesn’t work.
We trundle into the clearing, Moussa and the girl in the lead. Ahead of us is the long, low sleeping hut, with the water pump off to its side. To our right is the large, clear area with the drying platforms for the seeds. To our left are the toolshed and the storage lean-to. Because we’re all carrying bags that need to be stacked against it, we turn and walk there. I feel damp and chilled across my neck and on my upper arms. My skin prickles with waiting.
When it’s my turn, I hand my sack to Ismail, the youngest of the brothers, who hefts it in his hands for a moment and scrunches up his long, skinny face, considering. Ismail is the one who decides every day whether or not we’ve made quota. He makes his decision based on how much he thinks the bag weighs and a quick look inside. It really bothers me that he never counts the pods, because even on days I come in high, I’m still never sure if I’ll have enough.
“Ayi, ” he tells me, no. Not a surprise since I handed him a near-empty sack. I’m in trouble anyway and making quota wouldn’t have helped me out of it, so I poured most of my sack into Seydou’s while we waited in line.
I go to stand in the middle of the clearing near the fire pit with the one other boy who didn’t reach quota today. Everyone else begins to make dinner. Moussa is talking with his brothers, still holding on to the tied girl. My only comfort is seeing Seydou join the group of boys who made quota. But knowing that I have to take his punishment for him, again, makes it a small victory, laced with resentment.
“How close were you?” asks a voice at my elbow.
I turn in surprise, then shrug. The other boy who didn’t make quota is Modibo, a skinny boy with a big head but not nearly enough brains to fill it. He hasn’t been here very long, and he’s not learning quickly enough what he has to do to sur- vive. He’s sloppy with a machete and reckless with pesticides. He gets hit nearly every day, though he’s too stupid to do anything big enough to get beaten very badly. He needs to learn fast, though, or the bosses will get frustrated with him. Then, who knows how much he’ll be hurt.
“Not close,” I say in a tone that I hope ends the conversation. Waiting for a beating is almost as bad as the beating itself. Having to stand still and see it coming nearly drives me insane every time it happens. I think the bosses do it on purpose. It’s twice the punishment and it gives all the other boys time to look at us sideways and decide to work harder tomorrow.
The bosses finally finish talking. Moussa hands the girl to Ismail, and picks up a large stick. He walks toward us, holding it loosely in his hand. Beside me, Modibo has started to whim- per. I don’t let myself shrink away. For all my bravery around Seydou, though, I hate to get beaten.
Stay strong! I tell myself. But it’s no good. Once he lays into me with the stick, and fear turns into pain, I lose my resolve. He’s going out of his way to show the girl how bad it will be. By the time he’s finished I’m sobbing and begging him to stop, cowering on the ground. I hate that the others can hear me, can see me, but I can’t help myself.
Finally, he’s done.
“Let that be a lesson to you,” says Moussa, and he turns to deal with Modibo, hitting more softly now that most of his frustration is out. He leaves the girl till last. When it’s her turn, she shrieks and lurches, but Ismail holds his end of the rope, and she can’t get away.
The beating she gets is bad, but not as bad as the one when we tried to escape. I gingerly pull myself into a sitting position. He must be going easy on her because she’s a girl. I wonder again how she ended up here. Her family must have sold her against her will for her to be fighting this hard to get away so quickly. But then my curiosity leaks out of me. It hurts to think.
I draw my knees to my chest and tuck my head, moving slowly, trying not to pull at the long, open welts across my back and shoulders. I let myself cry because I can’t help it. Besides, tears are like pus in a wound: either you get them out quickly or they fester and make you sick and weak. My tears dribble across my bare knees, leaving tracks in the dirt that has caked on me from scrabbling on the ground.
Let it out. Tomorrow you’ll need to be strong again. I tell this to myself over and over, like a lullaby. I give myself until Moussa’s finished with the others to be weak, then I make myself stop. I lift my face and rub the wet off, then I gingerly brush the dirt off my clothes and hair. Then, even though it hurts like dying, I straighten and look up.
I’m surprised to see that my team from today is coming over. I wonder why. Yussuf leads the way. Abdraman and Konaté look frightened, but they come anyway, and that’s worth something. Seydou is pale and shaking.
“Amadou, I’m sorry! So, so sorry!”
Annoyance seeps into me through the pain. I’m sick of taking his beatings for him. Tired of taking care of him all the time. It hurts so much, and once, just once, I’d like for someone to take care of me. But that’s never going to happen here. I try to pretend that wish doesn’t exist.
Usually I tell him it’s okay. But right now I’m in too much real pain to care if Seydou’s feelings get hurt or not.
“Next time, don’t be so stupid,” I manage. Seydou snivels, but Yussuf barks a laugh.
“Well, I see that another beating didn’t improve your personality,” he jokes. “Come on.” He slides his arm under mine and across my chest, where he grabs hands with Abdraman, who has come around on my other side. Bracing off each other, careful not to touch my cuts, they help lift me to my feet and bring me to the circle of boys sitting around the fire.
I’m shocked by the help. Usually no one helps, for fear of making the bosses angry. My beating today really must have been worse than usual. Then again, today I’m being punished for two things, not only for coming in under quota.
I guess I got my wish. For once, others are looking out for me.
“I ni cé, ” I murmur. The thanks feel strange in my mouth. Out of the corner of my eye I see Modibo’s team help him to the fire too. The girl is still tied to Ismail, so no one goes near her. When Ismail comes to sit at the fire, he drags her along with him. She curls into a ball, her back to us. Moussa drops his heavy stick by the water pump to wash off.
“Are you going to be okay?” Seydou asks. “That was bad.” I nod. It was. And I will be. There is no other choice.
“That stupid Khadija!” Seydou mutters. “I can’t believe I let her trick me!”
Khadija? I’m doubly surprised. First that this wild thing has a name and second that Seydou knows what it is. How long had they been talking this morning before she betrayed him?
I start to shrug, then think better of it when my back screams from the tiny movement. Moussa, finished washing up, joins the far edge of the circle. The reflection of the flames dances in his cold stare. I shudder and look away.
When the soup is ready and the bosses have eaten, the boys surge in to grab bowls.
“No food for the three who got beaten tonight,” Moussa says, as Seydou is about to hand me one.
I try to hide my disappointment. Eating always helps me forget, just for a moment, about everything else. Plus, after a long day I’m always really, really hungry.
“Water?” I ask.
Moussa shakes his head.
Seydou sits beside me, putting his soup to one side.
I slant a glare at him. I want him to suffer like I’m having to suffer for his stupid mistake. I want him to learn, want him to stop doing things that get me in trouble. From beside me I hear his stomach whine.
“Eat,” I order.
He looks at me. He shakes his head.
“No.” He sniffs. “I’m not going to eat when you can’t.” “Eat.”
Finally, used to being the younger brother, he does as I tell him.
I lean forward, trying to find an angle where everything doesn’t hurt. I don’t find one. I look at the ground between my feet and try to pretend I can’t hear Seydou slurping guiltily beside me.
When they’re finished, the bosses sit by the fire, talking and laughing together in low tones, and the boys clean up and pre- pare everything for the morning. I try to stand but, again, my work crew covers for me. Sometimes the bosses let us help each other out, sometimes they don’t. Tonight no one tells them not to, so when Abdraman says, “We’ve got it,” I sit.
It’s worse to sit than to work, really, because then I have nothing to take my mind off the things I don’t want to think about. How badly everything hurts. The bosses relaxed and content across the fire. The blue-dressed back curled beside them. The yawning black shadow of tomorrow and all the days after it stretching over me.
Finally, it’s time to go to bed. I let Seydou pull me to my feet, sucking in a breath when the movement causes a fresh wave of agony to wash through me. I sway a little, and Seydou keeps me upright while I wait for it to pass. I have no idea how I’m going to work tomorrow. Just the thought of climbing a tree makes me wince.
“Okay, let’s go,” I say to Seydou. I hate that he has to help me instead of the other way around, but even leaning most of my weight on him I can barely walk, so I don’t tell him to go away.
Seydou freezes. Slowly I shuffle my feet around and face
“You sleep in there tonight.” He points at the toolshed.
I shake my head wearily, not wanting to go. It’s common for them to put kids in there overnight for punishment: it’s small and cramped, full of bad-smelling chemicals, and there are ants that nest between the cracks of the wooden beams.
Moussa walks over and takes my upper arm in his hand and pulls me away from Seydou. My back screams at the jolt, but I don’t pull away from him either.
“But . . .” manages Seydou, before he’s silenced by a glare from Moussa.
“Get in the sleeping hut,” Moussa says to Seydou, then he half drags me into the toolshed and lets go of my arm. Without his support, I crumple to the ground with a groan, still not able to fully support my own weight. I land next to something soft that yanks away from me with a hiss and I realize that they’ve put the girl and Modibo in here too.
Moussa stands there for a moment, framed in the doorway by the purpling light of evening, his face in shadow.
“You allowed her to escape today,” he says, “so you’re being punished. Since I don’t think you’ll be able to keep harvesting tomorrow, I’m putting you on shelling duty until you’re better.” My brain struggles to process why this is a punishment. I
know the reason is there somewhere, but I can’t quite find it. “Also,” Moussa goes on, “you won’t be allowed in the sleeping hut with the other boys until you’re on your work crew again. Until then, you sleep here.”
Moussa waits. He wants to make sure I really understand. I force my sluggish brain to work. Why is this all so bad? Then it hits me. If I’m locked in here, I won’t be able to look after— “Seydou . . .” I manage, trying desperately to force my brain to cobble together a sentence.
“Exactly,” says Moussa, and locks the door behind him.
Seydou! In all the time we’ve been here, I’ve rarely slept apart from him, never left him for more than an hour or so as we worked. He’ll never survive a day without me. I want to get up, want to pace and yell, but even the slightest movement hurts and I feel light-headed from not eating.
Gritting my teeth against the pain, I scoot until I’m able to lean sideways against a wall. A sigh of relief escapes me. That’s better. At least now I don’t have the impossible task of holding up my own head.
Weak threads of moonlight struggle through the tiny cracks around the door. Even so, it’s almost completely dark in the toolshed. As my eyes adjust, I become aware again of the other forms hunched against the wall. Modibo and . . . what did Seydou say her name was again?
“Modibo. Khadija?” I try aloud, more to see if I was right in my guess than to really start a conversation.
Modibo is sniffling, clearly not in a mood to talk.
“Go away,” comes the retort from the girl. Her voice slurs as she tries to talk through swollen lips.
For a moment I feel a pang—we’re all locked in here, all hurt. Then I remember that all of this is her fault and my pity turns to rage.
“Go away? Go away? ” I snarl. “You’ve pretty much made that impossible, haven’t you? I just got one of the worst beatings of my life and I’m stuck in this stupid, stinking shed instead of being able to sleep comfortably with the other boys, all because of you. You were certainly happy enough to go away this morning.” I choke out a bitter laugh at my joke. “Just trick a little kid and run, huh? Did you even think about the price other people would have to pay for what you did? Well, now you see what that gets you. I hope you’re happy.”
I want to say more, but even that small rant has exhausted me. I turn my face from both of them, each too stupid to see what they’ve done wrong, and try to fall asleep.
I jerk awake in the middle of the night, gasping. My quick movement dislodges some of the ants that were crawling on me as I slept. I brush off the rest of them, then swipe the ground in arcs, checking for snakes, spiders, or anything else that might be within reach of biting me, but there’s nothing. I settle back and wonder what it was that woke me.
I lie there for what feels like a long time, on high alert without knowing why. My noise and movement caused a sudden silence to fall around the toolshed. Slowly the sounds of the bugs in the trees and the machine-gun roaring of the tree frogs picks up where it left off. I feel another ant crawl across my arm, but I ignore it, straining for the sound that woke me. Then I hear it. A faint scratching sound, too rhythmic to be natural. I strain my ears to hear.
Scritch. Scritch. Scritch. Scritch.
Praise for The Bitter Side of Sweet:
An ALA Notable Children’s Book – 2017
“A gripping and painful portrait of modern-day child slavery in the cacao plantations of the Ivory Coast.”—The Wall Street Journal
★ “A tender, harrowing story of family, friendship, and the pursuit of freedom.”—Kirkus Reviews, starred review
★ “In crisp, accessible prose, Sullivan draws readers into a most compelling story of survival under unspeakable hardship, bravery, and teamwork… Absorbing and important.”—Booklist, starred review
★ “[A] heart-wrenching survival tale.”—Publishers Weekly, starred review
★ “An engaging story that will engender empathy in readers.”—School Library Journal, starred review
★ “Curriculum connections abound and even reluctant readers will be drawn to the suspenseful plot and distinctive characters.”—SLC, starred review
“First-world readers will learn much about how their pleasures are underwritten by the labor of their third- world peers… The resolution...is an as-good-as-it-gets kind of compromise that leaves much room for the activism advocated for in the author’s note that follows.”—The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books
“This beautiful story of love triumphing over cruelty and profit stands out as an excellent book discussion choice or classroom study.”—VOYA