Fatigue cleared from Clement’s mind as he pulled into the open veranda of the church compound hours later. Seeing the weather-beaten path that led to the sturdy oak double door brought back warm memories of his first few years as missionary pastor of Bichena Community Church. It was too early in the morning for the children to be outside, playing soccer or what other trending game they’d discovered. The sun had not yet peeked over the mountains in the horizon, and only the dim headlights of Dula’s truck lit the compound.
Crickets and birds chirped their welcome as Clement put the car in park and shut off the engine. Snoring halted, Dula shifted in his seat before letting out a great yawn.
With only a snort as his response, Clement climbed out of the car and shut the door. Dula’s followed and both men walked up the path, their footsteps crunching loose pebbles on their way to the oak door.
It swung open the moment they stepped onto the porch. A woman stepped out with a lit lantern. “Welcome Brother,” she greeted Clement with a genuine smile which he returned.
“Thank you,” he answered and watched her move to Dula’s side. This was Wubit, Dula’s wife and the cook for the orphanage situated a short walk behind the church building. She and Dula, along with Clement, lived within the church quarters.
Draping an arm around his wife’s slender shoulders, Dula tapped the kerosene lantern. “No light?”
“Windstorm knocked a tree on the generator,” Wubit answered, concern clear in her voice.
“How are the children?” Clement asked, leading the way inside the darkened church. Their footsteps echoed as they walked to the altar lit with candles.
“Rachel and Priscilla are with them. All is well.”
Clement clenched his teeth, having just remembered Priscilla had returned.
“Are you hungry?”
Both men turned to Wubit and she raised the lantern to study their expressions before laughing, the soft sound barely making echoes in the chapel. “Come, I made injera and kitcha fit-fit…” She turned toward one of the doors without saying another word.
Both men followed willingly, their empty stomachs leading the way.
Clement’s mouth watered as the sweet smell of sautéed onions, toasted bread, garlic and other exotic spices assailed his nostrils. He craved meat also, and knowing Wubit was the doting wife of a self-professed carnivore, there was no doubt she’d prepared seasoned beef as well.
His wish became a reality as Wubit set a plate with bread, spices and meat in front of him. He didn’t wait for Dula’s plate and bowed his head for a quick prayer before digging in. The couple chuckled in amusement as Clement ate with gusto.
“It seems someone missed my cooking,” Wubit said with a pleased smile.
“Among other things,” Dula said between bites and snuck a look at his wife who responded with an imperceptible nod. Shaking his head, he returned his focus onto the delicious meal before him.
Fifteen minutes later, Wubit handed glasses of water to both men and collected their empty plates. “The generator and anything else you have planned can wait. Rest first.”
Clement rubbed his stomach and smiled gratefully. “I think I’ll do just that.” Scooting out of the chair, he shuffled out of the kitchen toward his bedroom situated near the back stairs.
The back door swung open just then and Clement paused, his gaze colliding with that of a sleepy-eyed woman with her hair tousled and unbound about her shoulders. He steeled himself for the onslaught of emotions at seeing her again within arms’ reach.
“You’re back,” she said, stepping inside. Her lantern lit the corridor and her oval-shaped face.
Seeing her now, Clement marveled that he felt little but annoyance at being delayed from his much-needed rest. “Yes… excuse me,” he said stiffly, turning toward his bedroom door.
“We need to talk, Clement.”
He wanted to remind her of their last conversation. “Later,” he replied instead and opened the door.
“Priscilla?” Wubit’s voice sounded just before Clement stepped inside and shut the door. Her voice was now muffled, and so was Priscilla’s reply as they made their way to the kitchen.
Clement leaned his head back against the door frame and closed his eyes. So much for a peaceful night. Tamping a sigh, he stepped away from the door and shuffled to his double bed leaning against the wall. He couldn’t avoid her for too long, she was annoyingly-persistent when her mind was set on something. At one point, he was drawn to her strong-willed nature. Now, it was a sure way to incessant headaches.
Falling on his bed, Clement didn’t bother taking off his shoes and closed his eyes. Sleep came easily and the troubling thoughts of Eleazar and Priscilla faded.
Rough jostling jarred him from the shortest nap he’d ever had, and Clement groaned loudly in protest. “What—” he sputtered at the cotton towel shoved into his mouth. His eyes snapped open and he blinked at a toddler’s face hovering his own.
All annoyance eased away and a sleepy smile stirred his lips. Lifting a hand, he cupped the little boy’s head. “How’d you get in here–?”
The boy’s pudgy fingers smacked his mouth and gave Clement a toothy grin. Clement sat up and hoisted the boy up in his arms, causing him to giggle and squeal.
“What a perfect picture,” Dula remarked from the open door. “Meko and his godfather…”
Clement peered over the boy’s head, watching as Dula approached the bed.
“Dada!” the toddler greeted Dula and held out his arms to be picked up.
With a short laugh, Dula obliged his son and lifted him from the bed into his arms. Placing a kiss on the boy’s head, he looked down at Clement who’d propped himself by his elbows. “Told him not to wake you.”
“Yeah, I’m sure he understood none of that…” Groaning, he lowered his head back onto the pillow. “What time is it?” He could’ve sworn he’d just fallen asleep before being awakened by Dula’s six-month-old Mekonnen.
“Half-past seven,” Dula answered, nuzzling his son’s cheek. “The kids are up and asking for you. Only Meko had permission to come in here. But I don’t think we can hold back the others for too long.”
“It’s alright, I’m up.” Clement groaned again as he rolled to one side and watched as Meko played with his father’s beard. Absentmindedly, he rubbed his clean-shaven face. “You think they’ll recognize me?”
Dula glanced down at him and then laughed outright. “Thought you said it won’t be a problem.” He lowered Meko back onto the mattress and watched with a smirk as his son crawled over to Clement.
Clement gave his godson a smile as Meko patted his cheek. “Well, Meko recognizes me, right little guy?”
Responding with a toothy grin, Meko continued smacking his face.
“Ow,” Clement half-protested with a laugh and smoothed down Meko’s downy curls.
Dula folded his arms and chuckled. “You’d make a great father, y’know?”
Clement paused and glanced up at his friend. “…okay?”
“Just saying.” Dula lifted his shoulders. “I know of a certain female doctor willing—”
“Alright, chill…” Clement shook his head and made a face at Meko who frowned slightly at him. The toddler’s frown eased away, replaced with another toothy smile.
“But in all seriousness, why you think she’s back?”
“Your guess is good as mine,” Clement said, allowing Meko to play with his face. “But I suppose it’ll be good to have her around… y’know to care for the children’s health.”
“Even if it’ll be awkward between you two?” Dula arched a bushy brow. “You know she’s not gonna leave you alone.”
Clement stifled a groan. “I—we’ve—got no time for distractions.” His stern gaze fixed on Dula’s face. “Did you tell Wubit yet?”
Dula’s pained expression already answered the question before he released a sigh. “She refuses to hear me out. Thinks we’re crazy.”
“Well if crazy keeps our children safe, then so be it.” Clement softened the harshness in his tone with a smile when Meko’s big brown eyes flitted to his. “Any word yet?” he asked, adjusting the toddler’s sleepshirt.
“Not yet,” Dula muttered, a frown marring his forehead. “And that worries me.”
“Silence is never good.” Clement tamped a sigh. “Give it one more day and I’ll drive over.”
“But you just got here.”
“And I’ve got work to do.”
“What if the parish hears—?”
“Who will tell them? You?” Clement lifted a stare to challenge the worried church custodian and orphanage director.
The two men stared at each other in silence; friends and comrades in this secret mission that only a few like them knew about. Even Dula’s wife knew very little, and that was because she believed her knowledge would mean support for this dangerous fight against the kidnapping of orphan children. Even Priscilla fought against Clement’s heavy involvement, and was the main reason she broke off their long-term relationship.
“You’re fighting with fire, Clem,” Priscilla said adamantly. “I won’t sit back and let you get burned.”
“I’m going, Priscilla, and nothing or no one is going to stop me.”
“Are you that selfish not to see what you’re asking me to do? What you’re asking of Wubit, the other wives and the children? What do we say if their husbands or fathers don’t come back?”
“These men made the same decision I made to save the children kidnapped every day, get sold to slavery or become child soldiers. There’s nothing to think about. We fight for them any day.”
“See to reason. We can talk to the government, get them to under—“
“Every letter we’ve written for years goes unanswered. We do this ourselves and have saved hundreds of kids. I don’t see why I’ve gotta go back to writing stupid letters that will be ignored. No. We fight.”
“But it’s illegal, Clement. If you’re lucky, you’ll be deported or imprisoned for a long time. If not, dead! What good are you to anyone if you’re not here?”
“Priscilla, I’ve made up my mind.”
“And I’ve made mine. It’s either me or this foolish mission.”
“Are you kidding me? An ultimatum? That’s childish.”
“I guarantee you this isn’t a joke. I won’t watch you jeopardize all we’ve worked for. Make your choice.”
“I already made it, and I’ll make that choice every day. I won’t sit back and watch another child die. Keep your ultimatum.”
“Then we’re done. You and I are done.”
“Bro,” Dula’s voice pervaded Clement’s thoughts and his expression was wary. “Where did you go?”
Clement shook his head and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. “Somewhere I shouldn’t.” Memory lane was best left untraveled. He looked back to Dula. “What were you saying?”
“I was saying—“
“Mama wait!” The door slammed open with such force, it gave Meko such a fright. The boy jerked in surprise and then began crying. Both men turned to see a crying woman chased by Wubit and Priscilla into Clement’s chamber.
Dula hoisted a wailing Meko in his arms and Clement quickly stood from his bed, meeting the woman whose eyes were red from crying. Her head-tie and clothes was in disarray, and one bare shoulder was bleeding openly.
Alarm shot through Clement and he jerked his eyes to Priscilla. “What’s going on?”
Wubit reached for her crying son and took him out of the room, worry in her eyes as she glanced over her shoulder at the three she left behind.
The woman was inconsolable, her knees so weak she sagged against Priscilla holding her by her arms. She was led to sit on the edge of Clement’s bed and he crouched in front of her.
“Mama, what happened?” he asked, not sure if she could hear him above her wailing.
“Her son,” Priscilla spoke up as she too perched on Clement’s bed. When Clement lifted his eyes to her face, there was regret in hers. “He was taken from their home along with five others from the compound.”
Both Clement and Dula stiffened. The woman wept bitterly, clutching her head as if she would go mad from the grief.
The woman began talking, her words barely comprehensible as she stumbled over the account.
Her son and five of his classmate friends were playing soccer in the compound while she and the other mothers prepared dinner together. One of their own was graduating from primary school and they wanted to celebrate. Except there would be no celebration that night as a series of cries pierced through the air. She and another woman scrambled to the compound just in time to see two brawny men dragging two children at a time toward an open truck. The other mothers arrived to their children’s rescue, throwing themselves at the men and the truck. Some were badly injured, kicked or thrown off the truck. All were unsuccessful in saving their young children and watched in growing despair and horror as the truck carrying their children faded in the distance.
“What village?” Clement gritted through clenched teeth, his body trembling with mounting fury.
“It’s close to Motta Air Market,” Priscilla answered with a pained expression.
Dula swore under his breath. Clement abruptly rose to his feet, meeting Dula’s stare with a glare. His jaw tightened and he bunched a fist. “They’re moving inward.”
“It’s only a matter of time before they get to our turf,” Dula said, concern etched in his face.
Anger surged through Clement in waves. “Not on my watch. We move now.”
Dula nodded, of the same mind. Then he crouched in front of the bereft mother, asking her to provide any information about the children. She weepily described each of the six children with their names.
As much as their names matter, Clement wanted details on the kidnappers. After fighting against one particular group for years now, he needed to know if they were behind this latest attack and get the permission he needed to begin this next phase.
Nudging Dula aside, Clement crouched in his place and met the woman’s teary eyes. “Did the truck have any markings? Did the men have uniforms?”
Confusion filled the woman’s eyes and she lifted her eyes to Priscilla. Clement belatedly realized in his urgency that he’d spoken in English, his native tongue.
Priscilla translated the urgent query and the woman nodded adamantly, returning her eyes to Clement. “Black and red,” she said in Amharic, fear and indignation in her eyes. “Marking here,” she sneered in disgust, tapping both cheekbones.
“Kutfi,” Dula whispered fiercely.
Clement bunched his fists. The Kutfi was an extremist group in the Northeast, infamous for raiding villages and terrorizing citizens and road travelers. They’d expanded their despicable acts to kidnapping children from these villages; either selling them to the highest bidder or training them as child soldiers. They were ruthless and dangerous, killing their enemies upon sight in the most treacherous way.
The average person hoped to never cross paths with the Kutfi. Clement prayed he’d meet them face to face. Especially now armed with the right weapons this time around.
The distraught mother succumbed to a fresh wave of sorrow and Priscilla drew her into her arms, although her gaze searched Clement’s.
Evading Priscilla’s stare, he rose once more and met Dula’s worried expression. “We must go.”
Dula flinched. Something had changed since Wubit gave birth to their only child six months ago. The man who fearlessly defended the orphan kids with him from road robbers was now hesitating to enter a dangerous fight. Clement didn’t blame him.
“I’ll go by myself.”
“Clement!” both Priscilla and Dula protested in unison.
Clement’s stare was steely as his resolve. “You stay here with the church, I’ll go and come back.”
Conflicting emotions played in Dula’s features, both men knowing a solo mission was beyond dangerous. But a new father like Dula couldn’t risk going or he’d never return.
“Maybe we should wait until Ejigu—“
Clement shook his head. “We can’t afford to wait. A day’s delay means any of these six children can’t come home…” he paused as the woman wept against Priscilla’s shoulder. He tamped a sigh and met Dula’s searching gaze. “I’ll need the keys to the jeep.”
“It’s alright,” he assured his friend and brother. “God is with me.”
Both Priscilla and Dula didn’t look convinced. “Do you have a plan?”
Clement nodded, one forming in his mind. He extended a hand. “Keys.”
“Clement, this is insane,” Priscilla protested as Dula reluctantly handed him the keys to his jeep.
Ignoring her, Clement crouched back down to the weepy woman. “I’ll bring your boys back. Trust in me.”