Savannah Lions

Above the rim is where Bor lived best.

When he was on a court – whether it was a ‘real’ one at the Auburn Basketball Centre or by the cheap Kmart hoop nailed to the electricity pole by his cousin’s driveway – and he leapt above all the other dark black faces or arms, Bor was happy.

Getting up higher than the others. Grbbing the rebound with a slap of hands or getting the tip in off his fingertips. Being airborne. Having hang time.

At least, it’s what Bor thought that’s where happy was and what it felt like. But he wasn’t really sure. Maybe, happy really meant clear. Having your head clear of people wanting things.

Clear of his father, Salva, and the ceaseless soundtrack about “responsibility, community, church and family is our four point shot that beats basketball”. And, “not squandering everything this new country has given us”. Somehow, it seemed to Bor, that his Dad didn’t really mean that part because track 2 that followed was usually about “God saved the best for last and made the Dinka and their land” and “the demons of the White Army who stole our cattle but could never take our prayers”. For Bor, his father seemed blind to his own contradictions.

His father who thanked his God every day for the pay cheque from picking dead cats and leaky batteries off the conveyor belt at the recycling plant.

And, clear of Mr Sanderson, the principal at Granville Boys, and his bullshit lectures about “racism hates positivity and hope, and that’s how you beat it”. And then sent you to a week of detention, and missing club basketball practice, for not backing down to the Mussie who smeared “nigga” in texta on your locker. Fucking white man with a sailboat on Sydney Harbour. Another hypocrite in the Lucky Country.

Clear of his own head. No Bor – the town his family ran from as the Whites, their tribal child soldiers’ faces smeared with campfire ash, shelled and attacked it. No Christmas Island – and being the 6 year old his mother about the Arab men with the stitched up lips. No Fairfield Hospital five years later – and choking on the priest’s incense as his mother, as frail as the dried twigs she used to herd cattle with as a savannah girl, stopped breathing from the cancer in her stomach.

He just wanted to be blank like he was when he was ballin. The squelch of his size 13 Nikes on the wooden court when he stopped hard to set a pick at the top of the key. The coils his fingers made when he wrapped his huge hand around the ball. The righteousness of showing no emotion and slowly jogging back to the defensive court after having jammed on some private school white boy. Chest bumps with his point guard, Sokiri, who was always laying it off to him and smilin. It’s where he could just be.

It was the opposite of where he had to be now. The start-of-year, weekend church getaway that his father, “garbo by day and God’s man all the time”, had organised for the community. Being off the court for three days at some retreat place west of Lithgow was gonna suck. Dorms for males and females. No drinking. No ballin.

And it wasn’t that far from Christmas when he’d had to spend what felt like a week at church services in the hall the South Sudanese rented from the Ukrainians in Lidcombe. The faded pink plastic bucket chairs were still the originals from when the hall had been built in the 60s. There was a small stage at the front where the priest and lay people like his father preached from and tired portraits of tired-looking Ukrainian poets on either side. There was no air conditioning and the western Sydney blowtorch made South Sudan seem temperate. Bor thought the place had ghosts with garlic breath. He kept going outside to just get air, and kept getting busted to go back in by some Deacon or some Lead Chorister or some other self-righteous relative who had a title to enforce God’s will. Or just give him a hard time cos they missed the old clan ways.

Three full buses of African freaks going back to the bush, Bor thought to himself. He knew that the adult men born in Dinkaland would talk about every friggin cow at the side of the road as if it was the first cow or last cow they were to ever see. And, how these weren’t really cows – just lame facsimiles of the real cattle back in Jonglei State. He was smart enough to know it didn’t really matter to them that much, and they were mostly bullshitting. It was their version of hip hop or something. Background. A way to relate. Knowing all that didn’t annoy him any less.

And, the women would play the ‘success sweepstakes’ and try to top the accomplishments of each other’s kids. Whereas Bor knew most of the guys were actually popping pingas they’d buy from the Lebo’s at Parramatta Square after school – if they weren’t ballin and being sports tested. That their high-breasted, shiny skinned daughters mostly walked around Westfield with all their sista sass going and looking for mythical white boys to get them outta the ghetto. At least that’s where they thought it was somehow. The truth was that the ‘hood in their heads like the Bronx – not Bor Town or Berala – but there was not telling them that.

“All aboard the Jesus Express, everyone,” Salva yelled out from the steps of the first bus which was parked outside the Auburn train station. His big white teeth beamed against his ‘two-minutes past midnight’ skin. Bor and three friends from his regular club team wanted to hide from the looks of the Chinese shopkeepers and hijab ladies with their caravan-like prams who bought colanders and rice makers at the dollar stores, but that’s hard to do when you’re nearly 7 feet tall and the only dark faces on the street.

His father, who coached the under 12’s at their club and actually knew the game, hustled over to Bor and his mates. He was all elbows and clipboards. “No hoops and no alley-oops this weekend, my sons. Just halleluiah’s,” he said with his formal accent that made him sound like the airport customs officer he was back in the homeland.

Salva shook Sokiri’s bony hand, and said he was sorry his mum had to stay home with her little ones and couldn’t make it. Sokiri’s dad had died of sepsis in a UN tent hospital in Egypt. He’d gotten Sokiri, his mum, and Sokiri’s little brother and sister out of South Sudan, and then his body had given up to the dirty machete wound on his leg.

“Fuckin hell,” Bor thought to himself but mumbled “last bus, lads” to his crew, Yokwe, Adel, and Sokiri. His YAS-Bee Crew. They were sicknasty. They were hardbroiled. Taller than everybody else in the school playground since Year 3. The Dinka Boys. Not different – distilled and stronger.

They piled on to the bus and headed straight to the back seats, behind some invisible barrier from their church-going uncles and aunts and the laughing little kids. Bor took the long bench seat at the very end, and each of his mates took up a double seat close to him. Their long legs spilled out in a tangle of angles in the bus’s aisle. Like sinewy Sydney gumtree branches blown to the ground during a summer southerly.

Yokwe was their DJ of consensus. He bluetoothed a JBL and started to pump out drill hip hop. Manu Crooks and One Four. Bor thought Yokwe did a good job of setting the volume at exactly the right level to piss off everyone else on the bus. They would feign shock when somebody eventually told them to turn it down.

The buses pulled out and made their way to Parramatta Road and toward the M4. The road was sclerosis with wheels. Abandoned Chinese teak furniture warehouses. Second hand white goods dealers with dinged-up fridges. Kebab stands that opened at five and served the Bangladeshi Uber drivers through the night. Each place had the same cheap “OPEN” sign in red LED lights. Islander families in Toyota Tarago vans arm-wrestled for lane space with tradies’ utes weighted down with welded-on tool boxes.

Bor was used to looking down at stuff. Now, he looked through the side window of the bus into the back seat of banged-up maroon Mitsubishi Magna in the next lane, trying to get into the turn-off lane for the Costco. There were two kids in the back, maybe 7 or 8 each, a brother and a sister. Hazaras like he’d kicked footballs with in detention. The siblings leaned inwards and touched shoulder to shoulder while watching Frozen on a smudgy iPad.

He remembered his mother taking him to Costco to load up their cart with cheap packaged meat and the walnuts and pistachios that his dad loved. Afterwards, in the food court with its cement slabs and benches that looked like a prison cafeteria, she would sometimes treat Bor to a chocolate churros. “Look, Bor, all the condiments here are for free,” she said with delight.

Their caravan went up the Silverwater Road ramp to the highway that would take them through the Blue Mountains to the old Department of Sport and Youth camp they were renting. These people just can’t get enough of barracks, Bor thought to himself. It struck him that his father and friends were always sitting around in cheap cafes in 70s style suburban arcades and talking about freedom. And, then they chose not to have it. “Community cohesion,” his father said with pride at learning a new expression at the multicultural centre’s lecture on leadership training. Safety in numbers, herdsmen, Bor thought.

One Four played on Yokwe’s speaker:

See, I grew up in church
But I had devils in my ears saying, fuck it
Controlling my young mind like a puppet

They were going through Katoomba which Bor remembered from a Year 6 school trip. Three Sisters. He’d had a daydream there about leaping from Sister One to Sister Two to Sister Three. Him starring in a commercial for Air Jordans. He stuck his mobile in the pocket of his Bulls shorts and put his legs up on the seat in front of him. He pulsed them back and forth to strengthen his jumping muscles.

Yokwe had his eyes closed and surrendered to the music. Adel was checking What’s App on his phone; he didn’t tell the other boys in the crew, but Bor knew it was the study group that he was part of.

Sokiri was half standing and half dancing in his seat in front of Bor’s. With his smile set on maximum volume like always, he’d snap a hand out and then bounce it back toward his chest to the beat.  The guy was always positive and always moving. His feet were never still and that’s partly why he was probably the best ‘pound for pound’ player of all of them. American college scouts with logos on their rayon sports shirts and little video cameras on tripods to set up court-side had already been out to their games a couple of times.

One of the aunts in the front heard the music and Bor saw her getting up out of her seat to walk back toward them. She’d spotted Sokiri doing his thing. Her wide hips touching the seats on either side of the aisle. The big bow of her dhuku head rap was covered in a bright yellow pattern. She was Adel’s mum’s sister and she looked like a sunflower on steroids to Bor. Adel didn’t need to look up to see her coming; he scrunched down in this seat and kept locked on his phone. Just beyond her shoulders through the bus’s front windscreen, Bor could see the other two buses going around a bend in the highway just by an Ugg boots wholesaler.

Then, everything scrambled and shattered. Sunflower got bent at the waist and sucked down the aisle and through the bus’s exploding windscreen. Other black bodies were ripped from their seats and ricocheted off the top of the bus, and then its sides as it flipped. Bor, somehow jammed in place by his locked legs, saw Sokiri fly forward and hit the plastic emergency exit in the roof panel with his face. It broken open with a stamp of crimson on its rubber seal. Sokiri had then somehow sunk into a scrum of screaming near the bus’s front.

The bus flipped again, but with less pace. Bor was now upside down and he saw aunts and nephews falling from the sky and smashing ribs into armrests and skulls against skulls. A baby, wrapped to her mother chest, disappeared beneath the aunt’s prone body. Bor felt warm liquid on his face and noticed there was now blood on the windows that hadn’t blown off in the crash.

There was last roll and then movement ceased and sound took over. Bor was on his side and heard the low groans that people make when they no longer care if anyone else is listening. When there’s only a thin line between their now and their forever. Muted under something, Manu was on the JBL speaker. You know that shit can get hectic, you know that shit can get hectic.

Bor was again in the roadside drainage ditch just beyond the village. The main shooting had stopped and, about 50 metres away, he could see one of the White soldiers, maybe 12, trotting up the bitumen toward the ditch. His sandals were too-large and made of tyres. He was smacking his palm against the banana magazine of his clunky and scratched-up AK-47. It wouldn’t dislodge to let him re-load another 30 rounds.

His father, Salva, rose to a squat beside them and whispered “Crawl to the trees!” to his mother and him. She dug her carefully painted nails in Bor’s forearm and kneed them both toward the tree line. Bor’s shins dragged through semi-dried pats of cow dung. He looked back to see Salva, his hand-ironed uniform shirt still tucked into his work slacks, running straight at the small ash-covered White, who was now bent over and wrestling to unjam his weapon.

Bor released his legs, firing with cramps, crumpled into a commando crawl position, and pulled himself with arms toward the exit portal. He felt the sharp edges of the cubes of shattered safety glass press on his palms and it made him lose traction. At the small opening, he angled his way through, all sharp elbows and knees, like a praying mantis unfolding. Like trying to squeeze through a hoop that’d fallen down. Instinctively, he padded his shorts to check his phone was there.

“Odetta! Bor! Show yourself,” his father yelled and they pulled apart the tangled vines of the forest scrub his mother had dove them into. An assault rifle hung on a frayed canvas strap over his father’s shoulder; there was a clean clip with blue tape around it loaded into the firing chamber. There was spittle drying on Salva’s face and his uniform was patterned with sooty strings. “Now we must act,” Salva said without looking at them.

He was on the road now and on his hands and knees now. Before him, there was a bashed ball of warped metal, splintered glass, plastic shards and prone people that was the first bus and a ute that must have crossed over from the other lane. A mangled meteor – and starting to toss flames from its very centre where the two engines must have collided at speed.

The second bus had somehow dodged the collision and end up going through a hedge and abutting a roadside house. Bor’s bus had slammed into the ball, bounced off and rolled to stop in the opposite lane where it had been glanced and spun round by on-coming traffic.

Muscle memory kicked in and he took it all in like a court. Where the basket was, where the defenders were, where the open channels to the hoop were. He spotted a red fire extinguisher that had somehow come loose from a bus slowing rolling off the road. Bor pushed to his feet and sprinted for it. He scooped it in one hand, kept moving, pulled the seal pin, and shook the canister.

Bor hit the flames and started to spray. First at any people – not knowing if they were conscious, knocked out or dead – who were on fire. An aunt on her backside with legs spread, blood streaming from her neck onto the wrap-around orange and black fabric of her traditional tob, screaming and slapping at the fire on her thighs. The white mist of the extinguisher covered her and Bor froze as a sick smoke from her body. She shook her burnt hands in pain and it swirled the smoke.

His father grabbed their hands and they began to run up the dusty road, the rifle banging at Salva’s side. They ran past a boy’s twisted body, its legs bent double underneath it, a blood stain spreading across the swoosh symbol of a Nike t-shirt he had on. His eyes were open and faced back toward the village, where a light grey plume was rising from the site of the communal hall. The Whites had ordered everyone to report there.

But a purple shoot in Bor’s peripheral vision snapped him back and he turned 90 degrees to start spraying at the blazing source. With one foot atop a loose bus bench, which was shielding some of the heat, he poured all the extinguisher’s content at the moving fire. For every flame that died, another appeared and threatened to spread to the whole scene.

As his canister emptied, from somewhere, Adel came running like a hunchback. One arm was demolished, bloody and limply hanging at his slumped side. In his other hand, he palmed another fire extinguisher and jumped behind their barrier. With his teeth, he pulled its pin and started to spray by balancing it against the hip on his good side. He shouted “pick and roll” and pointed with his chin to people moaning.  Some were still stuck in the smashed structures, some were dragging themselves randomly on the road.

The extinguisher clanged as Bor dropped it and scooted to a punched out window on part of the first bus that somehow still looked like an actual bus. It was like falling into a vat of offal at an abattoir. If only not to drown, he started to grab at the limbs of uncles and aunts, the small waists of mangled nephews and nieces.  As Adel yelled that the fire was growing, Bor pulled and pushed, forcing their slippery bodies, some responding with moans and some stone silent, out of the bus and into the road. Red and black on black until he could find nothing else to wrestle.

Out of extinguisher, Adel started to check out the people from bus one and, using one arm, he began to pull the more stable ones by their shirt and dress collars to the grassy road verge. Walking wounded from bus two, several calling for help on their phones, began to assist Adel and others. Pain and purpose blended together as sheer struggle to survive.

Bor trotted back around to his bus. Adel’s aunt’s big body lay twisted, like laundry in a dryer, in the way a big body shouldn’t twist. Around her, there was a ring of shattered window glass. Her eyes were open, but she was still and silent. Further down from her was Sokiri.

There was only one shoulder of his Golden State Warriors jersey left, as most of the uniform had somehow been ripped away. He was bleeding from different places, like somebody had left a nail gun lying around on a building site and it had fired rapidly and randomly at him. But Sokiri’s left side down by his thin flat gut was the worst. In his left hand, which was sliced through at the light-skinned palm, there was part of a wooden paling from the fence that he must have landed on. Bor noticed it was painted light green to match the exterior of the timber cabin they had crashed in front of. Sokiri had his head tilted back with his jaw and mouth clenched.

Bor dropped to his knees, and unzipped and pulled off his Lions tracksuit jacket. He balled the jacket up with one hand and used the other hand to pull the bits of timber and refuse he could see in Sokiri’s gaping wound. When it seemed cleaner, using what he knew from first aid, Bor applied the jacket with pressure to where he saw the blood coming out. He leaned down over and toward Sokiri’s left ear. “With you cuz,” he whispered. Sokiri nodded and showed his teeth in a forced smile.

From PE at school, Bor knew to look for an artery where he could also push down to stop bleeding. But there was none easily found between Sokiri’s gut and his heart. The jacket filled up with blood and it was squishing through Bor’s fingers. A white collared shirt speckled with blood drops dangled in front of him and his father’s voice said: “Take it.” Bor grabbed it with his free hand and put it on top of the wound as well. He put his ear to Sokiri’s chest. Salva, bare chested, was on his knees on the other side of Sokiri, and had placed one hand between the boy’s head and the gravel and pine needles he lay on. The boy had stopped smiling and his breathing was coming in bursts.

Bor pressed harder, somehow wishing he could just plug Sokiri up, and pulled his mobile out. He yelled “Triple O” at Siri and then yelled at operators until he was with a live paramedic on FaceTime. Bor showed her the wound through the Internet.

“My name is Karen. Tell your father to shift over and put as much pressure as he can on the wound and I’m going to talk you through starting CPR on your friend. You’re doing fine. You are going to compress his chest 30 times and then put two breaths of air into his lungs. Now find his breastbone and press, 1, 2, 3…,” Karen said. Bor had the phone further up on Sokiri’s chest and noticed she had half-a-dozen piercings in her right ear.

Bor pushed his arms straight and kept focussed on the downward compressions. “11, 12, 13.” Just concentrate, he told himself. Like free throws. He closed his eyes.

Salva kept pushing on the wound, now oozing dark brown, while turning his frame to be closer to Sokiri’s face. “Have mercy on me, God, in your kindness. In your compassion blot out my offence,” he whispered. “Oh purify me, then I shall be clean. O wash me, I shall be whiter than snow.”

“24, 25, 26,” Karen counted down over the phone. Bor opened his eyes and his vision was blocked over with his tears. A ray of sun shifted from behind the tall pine they had been shaded by. Bright circles was all he could see. Salva touched him on the forearm and said: “He is still breathing.”

“29, 30.” As Bor finished the compression count, and moved to seal Sokiri’s nose with his fingers and puff in his mouth, he found the boy’s mobile in his shorts. He pressed 1 for the speed dial for Sokiri’s mother.







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