What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng
own, with the plastic still wrapped tightly around it. I would be sure not to tear the plastic anywhere.
    A shadow grew over the land of my giraffes.
    —Hello! my father said in the sky above.
    The greeting in return was not warm. I looked up to see three men, one of whom carried a rifle tied to his back with a white string. I recognized the man. He was the grinning man from the night at the fire. The young man who had raised the question of the What with my father.
    —We need sugar, the smallest of the men said. He was unarmed but it was clear he was the leader of the three. He was the only one who spoke.
    —Of course, my father said. —How much?
    —All of it, uncle. Everything you have.
    —That will cost a good deal of money, friend.
    —Is this everything you have?
    The small man picked up the twenty-pound sisal bag resting in the corner.
    —That’s everything I have.
    —Good, we’ll take it.
    The small man picked up the sugar and turned to leave. His companions were already outside.
    —Wait, my father asked. —You mean you don’t intend to pay for it?
    The small man was at the door, his eyes already adjusting to the light of the midmorning sun. —We need to feed the movement. You should be happy to contribute.
    —Deng, you were wrong, the smiling man said.
    My father came out from behind the counter and met the man at the doorway.
    —I can give you some sugar, of course. Of course I will. I remember the struggle. I know the struggle needs to be fed, yes. But I can’t give you the entire bag. That would cripple my business—you know this. We all have to do our part, yes, but let’s make this fair for both of us. I’ll give you as much as I can.
    My father reached for a smaller bag.
    —No! No, stupid man! the small one yelled. The volume startled me to my feet. —We’ll take this bag and you’ll be grateful we don’t take more.
    Now the grinning man and his companion, the man with the gun tied with a string, were back, standing behind the small man. Their eyes held on my father. He stared back at the men, one by one.
    —Please. How will we live if you steal from us?
    The smiling man wheeled around, almost stepping on me.
    —Steal? You’re calling us thieves?
    —What can I call you? This is the way you—
    The smiling man threw a great sweeping punch and my father crumpled to the ground, landing next to me.
    —Bring him outside, the man said. —I want everyone to see this.
    The men pulled my father out of the shop and into the bright marketplace. Already a crowd had gathered.
    —What’s going on? said Tong Tong, whose shop was next door.
    —You watch and learn from this, the grinning man said.
    The three men turned my father onto his stomach, and quickly tied his hands and feet with rope from his own shop. My mother appeared.
    —Stop this! she screamed. —You maniacs!
    The man with the rifle pointed it at my mother. The small man turned to her with a look of deepest contempt.
    —You’ll be next, woman.
    I turned and ran into the darkness of the shop. I was sure my father would be killed, perhaps my mother, too. I hid under the sacks of grain in the corner and pictured myself living without my mother. Would I be sent to live with my grandmother? I decided it would be my father’s mother, Madit, who would take me in. But that was two days’ walk away, and I would never see William K and Moses again. I rose from the bags of grain and peered around the corner, into the market. My mother was standing between my father and the three men.
    —Please don’t kill him, my mother wailed. —Killing him won’t help you.
    She was a head taller than the small one but the man with the gun had it directed at my mother and I could not breathe. My head rang and rang and I blinked to keep my eyes open.
    —You’ll have to kill me, too, she said.
    The small man’s tone was suddenly softer. I looked through the doorway and saw that the man had lowered his gun. And with that, without any sort of passion,

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