What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng
eldest among us—Dut Majok, our leader, for better and worse, no more than eighteen or twenty—rebuked them with quick ferocity. Calling out in the night was forbidden, for it brought unwanted attention to the group. Sometimes a message—this boy was injured, this boy has collapsed—could be sent up the line, whispered from one boy to another, until the message reached Dut. But this night, Deng and I assumed that everyone knew about the shuffling in the grass and had decided that this shuffling was common and not a threat.
    Soon the sounds in the grass grew louder. Sticks broke. Grass crashed and then went quiet as the creature sped and slowed, running up and down along the line of us. The sounds were with the group for some time. The moon was high when the movement in the grass began and the moon had begun to fall and dim when the shuffling finally stopped.
    The lion was a simple black silhouette, broad shoulders, its thick legs outstretched, its mouth open. It jumped from the grass, knocked a boy from his feet. I could not see this part, my vision obscured by the line of boys in front of me. I heard a brief wail. Then I saw the lion clearly again as it trotted to the other side of the path, the boy neatly in its jaws. The animal and its prey disappeared into the high grass and the wailing stopped in a moment. That first boy’s name was Ariath.
    —Sit down! Dut yelled.
    We sat as if the wind had knocked us all down, one by one, from the front of the line to the back. One boy, I remember his name as Angelo, he ran. He thought it was better to run from the lion than to sit, so he ran into the high grass. This is when I saw the lion again. The animal broke across the path once more, leaping, it caught Angelo quickly. In a few moments the lion carried the second boy in his mouth, his teeth settled into Angelo’s neck and clavicle. He brought this boy to where he had deposited Ariath.
    We heard whimpers but soon the grass was quiet.
    Dut Majok stood for some time. He could not decide if we should walk or sit. A tall boy, Kur Garang Kur, the oldest next to Dut, crawled down the line to Dut, and spoke into his ear. Dut nodded. It was decided that we should continue walking, and we did. It was then that Kur became the principal adviser to Dut Majok, and the leader of the line of boys when Dut would disappear for days at a time. Thank God for Kur; without him we would have lost many more boys, to lions and bombs and thirst.
    After the lions, we did not want to stop that night. We were not tired, we said, and could walk until dawn. But Dut said sleep was necessary. He sensed there were government army soldiers in the area; we needed to sleep and learn more in the morning about our whereabouts. We believed nothing Dut said because many of us blamed him for the deaths of Angelo and Ariath. Ignoring our complaints, he gathered us into a clearing and told us to sleep. But for some time, though we had walked since sunrise, no boy could close his eyes. Deng and I sat up, staring into the grass, watching for movement, listening for the pushing or breaking of sticks.
    No boy turned his back to the tall grasses. We sat spine to spine, in pairs, so we could warn each other of predators. Soon we were a circle, and those of us who slept, did so with our bodies radiating from the center. I found a place in the middle of the circle and made myself as comfortable as possible. Meanwhile, the boys on the outside of the circle were trying to move into the middle. No one wanted to be at the edge.
    I awoke in the night and found I was no longer at the center. I was cold, connected to no one. I looked around, only to find the circle had moved. As I had been sleeping, the boys outside were moving to the inside, so much that the circle had migrated twenty feet to my left, leaving me outside and alone. So I moved back into the middle, accidentally stepping on Deng’s hand. Deng slapped my ankle, shot me a look of disapproval, but then went back to

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