In this edition
Review: Wole Talabi –Reviewing The Problem
Alvin Kathembe: Cordycepys
Anne Dafeta: What if I fall
Toby Bennett: The Strange Case of Mary Carter
Prossy Bibangambah: I Do
Mame Bougouma Diene: Underworld 101
In this edition
Review: Wole Talabi –Reviewing The Problem
Alvin Kathembe: Cordycepys
Anne Dafeta: What if I fall
Toby Bennett: The Strange Case of Mary Carter
Prossy Bibangambah: I Do
Mame Bougouma Diene: Underworld 101
When Chinelo Onwualu and I founded the magazine, our major driving force was the need to provide a home for the varied stories of the speculative that were being written across the African continent. We hoped that by giving writers of the speculative a literary magazine, their fear of rejection would be conquered. They would be encouraged to freely explore their gifts and, hopefully, utilise the materials that we know abound in the continent for this.
Well, our wishes have been met and surpassed.
We can’t lay claim to the growing interest in speculative fiction in Africa. We can’t own the movement that is seeing more and more writers drop their shame of loving genre fiction and embrace the sassiness of being a writer of the speculative. We would like to, but we can’t. This is because this acceptance and resultant growth is owned by many people, and we are happy to be a part of the engine that keeps the wheel in motion.
However, Omenana cannot continue to improve in quality, or increase the payments to our contributors, without funding. For the last two years, we have been paying for the design, illustration and maintenance of the site out of our pockets, but this is no longer sustainable.
While the website version of the magazine will continue to be free, this edition will be the last to offer its downloadable PDF without charge. In July, we will be running a fundraising campaign to raise money to cover the costs of running the next two years of the magazine. We also plan to offer subscriptions to the magazine and will be installing a donate button on our site for ongoing funding. Stay tuned for more information.
In the spirit of changes, you might have heard of the buzz coming from the comic book industry in Nigeria? Three of the four works shortlisted for the African Speculative Fiction Society’s upcoming Nommo Awards are by Nigerians. Omenana will be giving you a feel of the industry’s talent by presenting one story in each edition in comic form. For this edition we selected Anne Dafeta’s beautiful coming-of-age story ‘What if I Fall’, with art and lettering by Revolution Media.
This edition also features stories by writers from across the continent. We are happy to see more female voices and more African writers exploring science fiction. We enjoyed working on this edition and hope you will enjoy reading the stories.
Omenana will be back in June 2017.
Thank you for staying with us.
‘Mazi’ Chiagozie Fred Nwonwu
By Alvin Kathembe
Thursday, 6.30 pm
‘Good evening sir, welcome to the Regal. How may I help you?’
Ciku beamed her sweetest smile at the squat man standing across the counter from her.
‘My name Jae-Mo Tochukaso, I make reservation two week ago for three night,’ the man said.
‘All right, Mr. Tochukaso, one minute please, as I look up your reservation.’
Ciku typed the name into her computer, and began to frown as it beamed the information she had summoned back at her. She glanced quickly up at the guest, then back to her screen again.
Shit. Another one.
‘Um…sir, there seems to be a problem with your reservation, please have a seat as I try to figure out what it is. Please sir, this won’t take more than a minute.’
He stared at Ciku belligerently, as if he had just been waiting for her to say the wrong thing.
His eyes flashed angrily, and his face began to redden.
‘What mean?’ he said, his voice rising. ‘I make booking two week ago. I just land at airport, long flight, very tired. I need room now.’
‘I understand sir, please, have a seat and I promise you I will sort this out as fast as I can.’ she said in her most diplomatic tone, flashing her most disarming smile.
Her niceness bounced right off him.
‘No, no, NO! I make booking two week ago –’ holding up two fingers ‘– two week! I make long flight from Congo, have early day tomorrow. I need room NOW! I make booking TWO WEEK–’
His voice kept rising with every sentence, and soon he was shouting; repeating the same sentences over and over again. In a few minutes the whole lobby knew that he had made a booking two week ago, had just come off a long flight from the Congo, and he wanted a room, NOW.
It took all of Ciku’s de-escalation skills, the promise of a complimentary glass of champagne, and the smiling, hulking presence of Elias the security guard to persuade him to calm down and take a seat at the lobby. Once he was safely out of earshot, Ciku picked up her phone and dialled her manager’s extension.
‘Hello Ciku, what’s up?’
‘We have a problem. He showed.’
‘The Korean guy, Tochu-something.’
‘Can you handle it?’
‘He’s causing a massive scene. You better get down here.’
Brenda hung up and buried her head in her hands, groaning. This was the worst part of her job, the absolute worst.
The hotel was overbooked. She rang Odhis down at Reservations and harangued him for a full five minutes. She hung up on him mid-sentence, and began to work through her list of contacts. This was the fourth guest today. She had called in every favour to get the first three rooms in other hotels, and knew that it was the longest of long shots trying to squeeze in a fourth. Still, she tried, but turned up nothing. There was a conference in Nairobi that week – a UN summit on something or the other – and there were simply no rooms to be had.
It was just a piece of bad luck – the wrong day, the wrong guest. Usually, when faced with a choice, Brenda would bump the Japanese businessman travelling alone: they were always so polite, so understanding, smiling and bowing. Not today. First of all, he was Korean, a researcher of some kind, a big shot; Dr. Prof. Jae-Mo Tochukaso. Shit!
She hurried out of her office and made for the reception. Ciku winked and nodded towards the professor. He was seated at the lobby with his arms crossed on his chest, his face flushed with anger, refusing to even acknowledge the glass of champagne bubbling beside him, looking like he could explode any minute.
Brenda glanced back at Ciku hesitantly, who shrugged and flashed her it’s-your-mess-now-deal-with-it grin.
‘Good evening Doctor Tochukaso, my name is Brenda Alusa, I’m the manager here –’
‘Professor Tochukaso,’ he cut in. Brenda flinched.
Something was off about him, way off. His eyes were strangely out of focus, he seemed unreasonably aggressive, and even in the Regal’s cool, air-conditioned lobby his forehead shone with beads of sweat. His face was beetroot red.
‘I make reservation two week ago. TWO WEEK. Now, I land from Congo, long flight, very tired, very angry. I want rest, early morning tomorrow, very early. No tell me, “Sit here Tochukaso, wait please,” no! I want room now! I make reservation TWO WEEK –’
‘All right sir, please, calm down!’
He seemed taken aback at the sudden steel in her voice; he paused for a second, just a second, which was all she needed.
‘I am very, very sorry for this inconvenience, please accept my profoundest apologies.’ She cut in, trying to sound as earnest as she could.
‘I’m going to find you a room sir, I promise. Please, just calm down and give me a minute; we’re doing everything we can.’
She almost ran back to the reception counter – there was no telling how long this lull in the storm would last.
‘Ciku, give me a room.’ she said, almost begging. Ciku typed furiously away, frowning and shaking her head.
‘Everything?’ Brenda asked, desperate, glancing back over her shoulder; the guest was staring right across at them, his jaw working furiously, his eyes flashing like lightning. The storm clouds were gathering again.
‘All we have left is the Mbingu Suite, Diamond’s people called to cancel an hour ago. Everything else is full till tomorrow.’
Brenda turned back to Prof. Tochukaso. He was dabbing with a handkerchief at his florid, shiny forehead. His hand was trembling, and he was muttering under his breath to himself. She walked over, a warm smile on her face, thinking to herself how she had a bad, bad feeling about this guest.
‘Professor Tochukaso, I have good news for you. The hotel offers its thanks for your patience and understanding, and in light of the delay you’ve unfortunately had to experience, we would like to offer you a complimentary upgrade to our Mbingu Suite, with a complimentary dinner. The Mbingu is our pride and joy, and was voted Best Suite in Africa by the Gulliver Magazine.’
She expected relief, thanks, or at least some sort of softening from him; besides, this was a hell of an offer. Nothing. He was as bellicose, as florid, as before. He didn’t seem to have heard or understood her.
‘I make reservation two week ago. TWO WEEK. I want room.’
Brenda signalled to the porter to carry the guest’s bags and lead him to his room. Tochukaso shot her, and then Ciku, one last look full of fury and loathing. Then he turned to follow, dabbing his forehead, muttering under his breath. As she watched them disappear into the lift, Brenda wondered what the hell was up with the guy.
There was silence in the lobby, finally. The security guard who had been hovering around watching the situation with mounting concern mimed wiping a stream of sweat off his brow.
‘What a jerk.’ Ciku said, from her desk.
Brenda checked her watch. 7pm.
To think the night was only just beginning.
Six hours later she was slumped over her desk, exhausted. Two more guests had turned up that evening. Miraculously, she had managed to get them rooms over at the Grand. She had had to make fantastic promises which she knew she could never keep, but that was a problem for another day. Her shift was up in two hours, and right then she was fantasizing about crawling into her bed and not leaving it for two months. Her reverie was interrupted by the sound of someone knocking.
‘Come in,’ she said wearily, sitting up. It was Elias, from Security. He looked worried.
‘What now?’ Brenda snapped.
‘Pole madam, but we might have an issue.’
‘What’s happened?’ she asked calmly, reminding herself that there was no need to take her frustration out on her co-workers.
‘Mwange – you know, the guy who monitors the CCTV? – he says he saw one of the guests on the penthouse floor go into one of the service doors.’
Brenda frowned. ‘It wasn’t locked?’
‘It should have been, we’re trying to find out from Maintenance.’
Brenda rubbed her temples, trying to think.
‘What time did this happen? Have you sent someone to check it out?’
‘An hour ago, Muli sent me to call you.’
Muli was Head of Security. Brenda sat up, alarmed.
‘Why does he want me?’
Elias shuffled uncomfortably.
‘The guest hasn’t come out yet. The service door leads to the roof.’
Brenda froze, stunned into silence momentarily.
Brenda and Elias rode the lift to the fifteenth floor, where they found Muli waiting for them.
‘I’ll go first,’ Brenda said, her voice filled with a confidence she did not feel. ‘Could be it’s only some guy who wants to smoke, or look at the stars or whatever. Elias, what did Mwange say the guy looked like? I need some idea of what I’m dealing with.’
Elias spoke into his walkie-talkie, and listened keenly to the reply.
‘He says it’s that guest, the one who made a scene earlier. Tochukaso.’
Brenda took a deep breath, steeling herself.
I knew it. I knew it, I knew it, I knew it. I knew that guy was trouble. I fucking knew it.
‘OK, Elias, you stay down here, be ready to call for help. Muli, with me. If nothing’s up, stay back, I’ll talk to the guest. It’s probably nothing,’ she added, in an attempt to lighten the mood. ‘You know how crazy some of these guys get. We’ll probably find him up there naked, howling at the moon.’
They all laughed, weakly.
Muli had told her on the way up that he had dispatched two guards to patrol the grounds around the hotel.
God, I hope it’s not a jumper, she prayed. Not today.
They walked down the brightly lit corridor between the numbered doors. Brenda kept thinking of The Shining. They turned the corner, and there it was; the service door, clearly marked ‘ENTRANCE RESTRICTED TO HOTEL STAFF ONLY’, slightly ajar.
She pushed open the door, it opened into darkness.
‘Hello?’ she called. ‘Is anyone up there?’
She fumbled along the wall for a light switch and flicked it – nothing. Muli handed her a torch and she shone it into the doorway, revealing a staircase that disappeared into the ceiling.
Fuck this, she thought, I quit.
She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and pushed the thought from her mind. Then she forced her legs to move, one step, two steps, then up the staircase warily, calling ‘Professor Tochukaso, are you up there?’, and taking comfort in the knowledge that Muli was close behind her.
Another flight of stairs. Brenda called again, her voice echoing up into the darkness. She listened keenly for a response, and heard nothing, only the frenzied beating of her heart. She swept the staircase with the flashlight and caught sight of something white.
It was a handkerchief, soiled and damp.
She looked back at Muli, who shook his head.
Up two more flights of stairs and they came to another door, also slightly ajar, through which a cool draught rushed, whistling. Brenda steeled herself, and pushed the door open.
It opened out into the roof. The first thing she noticed was that there were no stars tonight; a full moon shone all by herself in the grey sky. The wind was strong, and cold, biting right through her sweater like a thousand tiny needles. The roof was littered with satellite dishes and large black water tanks. She stepped uncertainly out into the night, shining her flashlight around, calling the professor’s name, gesturing to Muli to follow.
A few minutes later Elias, downstairs, heard the screams and began to dial for the police.
Friday, 8.00 am
‘Who was he?’ Inspector Kipng’eno asked.
‘Professor Jae-Mo Tochukaso, world renowned mycologist, from Seoul.’ Corporal Sinde answered, jogging to keep up with the Inspector’s long strides.
Inspector Kipng’eno liked his briefings on the go. They swept across the Regal’s lobby, ignoring the stares of the hotel staff and guests.
‘How long has he been in the country?’
‘Three days. Flew in from Congo-Brazza, was doing research in the jungle there for a couple of weeks.’ They got into the lift, and the Corporal punched the button for the fifteenth floor.
‘My God, Inspector,’ he added, in a low voice. ‘I’ve never seen anything like this before.’
‘If it’s anything like what you’ve described, nobody ever has. How many people have seen the body?’
‘Besides myself? The manager, the head of security, two other police officers. The head of security had the presence of mind to shut off the area once they discovered the body. The two officers were the first responders, they called me directly. They are all under strict instructions to keep this quiet.’
‘Good work,’ the Inspector said. The elevator doors opened. ‘All right, let’s have a look.’
They went up the stairs. Corporal Sinde pointed out the handkerchief on the staircase, and assured the Inspector that nobody had touched it. Soon they climbed out onto the roof.
Dawn was breaking; the first sunrays were just peeking over the horizon. The Regal was situated in a prime location, smack in the middle of Nairobi’s Central Business District, and the air was full of the sounds of the City Centre coming to life.
The body was propped up against one of the water tanks, half crouching, half sitting, with its back resting against the tank. The head was tilted back, facing upwards. A foot long, whitish object protruded from the victim’s face.
At first Inspector Kipng’eno thought that someone had stabbed the man, and left the knife in the wound, right in the eye. Surely that was the hilt protruding; this Sinde fellow must be exaggerating.
Then he got closer, and began to inspect the area around the body. It was strangely bloodless, just specks of membrane here and there. Then he saw it.
‘Sinde,’ he asked calmly, ‘is that an eye?’
It was, lying there on the concrete, staring at him sightlessly.
Kipng’eno turned his attention to the corpse itself. Sinde was right. That was no knife. It was…some kind of…some kind of plant, some sort of greenish-yellow stem poking out of the man’s eye socket. It seemed hollow; the tip of the plant – the thing – was ruptured, curling outward.
Kipng’eno looked back at Sinde, incredulous.
All around them the wind whipped, howling. Below them, three million people were scurrying to and fro, like termites scuttling from one nest into the other.
‘What do we do, sir?’ Sinde asked.
The Inspector didn’t answer. He had no idea.
Friday, 4.30 pm
Dr. Alice Okallo sat, shell-shocked, in her office at the Kenya Medical Research Institute. She couldn’t believe what she was hearing. If she hadn’t known it was Festus Babu, Director of Police Forensics on the other end of the line, she would’ve dismissed the whole thing as a prank.
‘That’s not possible.’
‘I’m telling you, it’s true. I’ve seen the pictures with my own eyes. Have you ever seen anything like it?’
‘Well, yes, but – in insects! In…in nothing larger than caterpillars, for God’s sake!’
‘Get me all the information you can,’ Festus said. ‘I’ve sent the samples over, I want a report ASAP.’
She rushed from her office and into the adjacent laboratory, just in time to see her intern, Nakhayo, walk in with a package.
‘Are those the samples from police forensics?’ she asked excitedly.
‘Yes,’ Nakhayo replied, surprised to see her boss so worked up.
Dr. Okallo snatched the package, opened it, and lined up the slides by the microscope. She put the first one onto the microscope stage and peered down at it, adjusting the lens.
‘Extraordinary. Absolutely extraordinary!’ she murmured to herself. ‘It doesn’t make any sense!’
Dr. Okallo removed the slide from the microscope stage, and mounted another, repeating the process until she had inspected all of them, all the while shaking her head in disbelief.
‘What’s up?’ Nakhayo asked.
‘Cordyceps.’ The doctor breathed. ‘But how?…’
Her words trailed away, and she crinkled her brow, thinking; thinking hard.
‘Cordyceps?’ Nakhayo repeated, ‘What’s that?’
Dr. Okallo squeezed her eyes shut, and rubbed her temples with trembling fingers. Then she got over the initial shock, and sprang into action.
‘Cordyceps is a genus of endoparasitoid fungus,’ she said, thinking aloud. ‘It targets insects…anthropods…’ She was talking very quickly now, pacing up and down. ‘Have you heard of Ophiocordyceps unilateralis? It’s a fungus that affects ants; they call it the zombie-ant fungus. This is crazy!’
She flew to the nearest computer – Nakhayo followed her, trying to keep up. She had never seen the doctor so excited.
“Look! It’s a parasitic fungus that manipulates the behaviour of its host in order to increase its chances of reproducing.’
Nakhayo stared at the image Dr. Okallo had summoned up. It was a grotesque picture of an ant clutching a stem, the stalk of a horrific fungus growing from its head.
‘Wow,’ Nakhayo gushed. ‘How does it do that?’
‘The – the spores – they enter the ant’s body through its spiracles. Fungal filaments – mycelia – grow through the ant’s body cavity, absorbing soft tissues but avoiding its vital organs–’
‘So this thing grows inside the ant?’ Nakhayo broke in, incredulous.
‘Yes, yes,’ the doctor answered impatiently, as if this were some minor detail, ‘but that’s not it! When the fungus is ready to sporulate, the fungus produces chemicals which act on the ant’s brain. Get this – it makes the ant climb to the top of a plant, then forces it to clamp down securely on the stem with its mandibles!
‘Then it devours the ant’s brain, and the fruiting body bursts up through its head, releasing clusters of spores into the air. Do you know why it makes the ant climb? It’s so that the sporules can spread over as large an area as possible, infecting the maximum number of ants, and the cycle begins again. It has decimated entire colonies!’
‘Sheesh,’ Nakhayo shuddered. ‘Nature cooks up some pretty creepy stuff.’
‘It’s nature’s way of population control,’ Dr. Okallo continued. ‘Making sure no species’ numbers grow beyond what the ecosystem can support. Different Cordyceps species target different organisms – grasshoppers, locusts, caterpillars…it’s a system of check and balance; once a species becomes too dominant, Cordyceps happens and limits its growth.’
‘Cool,’ Nakhayo said.
‘Nakhayo, you don’t understand!’ Dr. Okallo was almost jumping now; shouting, shaking Nakhayo’s shoulders in excitement. ‘This morning, they found a man in a hotel. Or rather, on a hotel. He had been acting strange all night, and finally climbed up onto the roof! He was a mycologist. He flew in from the Congo, where he was doing research in the field. The Congo forest is one of the places where this Cordyceps fungi is found.’
Suddenly, a thought struck her. Dr. Okallo raced back to the microscope and peered once more into the lens. What she saw must have confirmed her fears – she sank, horrified, into a chair.
‘What, Dr. Okallo, what is it?’ Nakhayo asked, alarmed.
‘The samples…they’re taken from part of the fungal ascocarp. My God! Oh God!’
‘Doctor, you’re scaring me. What is it?’
Dr. Okallo looked at her; it was a strange look, half of horror, half of pity.
‘The asci…they’ve ruptured.’
‘What does that even mean?’
‘The spores have been released.’
Speaking the fact aloud seemed to have sparked something in Dr. Okallo’s brain. She sprang up, and began making frantic phone calls.
Jeff, Brenda’s husband, was scared.
The hotel had called him at eight that morning, telling him his wife was not feeling well, could he come get her? He had been on his way to work, two minutes away from his office building. He made a U-turn and called his boss.
He had found the hotel lobby full of police officers. When he asked to see his wife, the receptionist had looked at him with pity in her eyes, and directed him to an office in the back.
He’d walked around to the office and found her surrounded by police officers, being questioned in a gruff voice by a senior cop, an Inspector or something.
She wouldn’t say one word.
One look at her, and Jeff knew that something was terribly wrong. She was sitting in her chair, staring vacantly into space, her face ashen.
The Inspector had taken him aside and explained in a low voice that Brenda had seen something – he wouldn’t say what – and it was important, once she came to her senses, that she record a statement, and speak of it to nobody else. Jeff just stood there, amazed to learn that his wife had gone through an extremely traumatic episode, and instead of calling an ambulance these men had been interrogating her all morning.
They’d been in and out of hospitals the rest of the day.
First they put her through triage, then they waited an hour to see a physician, who referred them to the resident psychologist, who, they were informed, only came in at 3.00 pm, for two hours, and whose appointment schedule was full for the next two months. The receptionist added helpfully that the psychologist had a private practice which he ran from 8.00 am to 2.30 pm, over at another hospital.
Jeff had driven there, cursing the mid-morning traffic that turned what should have been a ten minute drive into an hour-and-a-half ordeal. They then waited another hour to see the doctor; they were finally hustled into his office at 2.15 pm. The doctor checked his watch every five minutes during the consultation.
After a cursory examination, he announced that Brenda had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, prescribed some medicine and lots of bed rest, and gave them an appointment for first thing Monday. Then it was back into the gridlocked traffic for the drive to his brother’s house.
His brother Eddie lived in South B, a suburb much closer to the city centre than Rongai, where Jeff and Brenda lived. Eddie travelled a lot and was rarely in the country for more than a few weeks at a time. Now he was off in Norway, and since Jeff had a spare key to his house, he decided to go there instead of his own home so that they would be closer to the hospital. He shot Eddie a WhatsApp message explaining; he knew his brother wouldn’t mind, considering the circumstances.
Through all this Brenda had spoken less than three words to him, to anyone. She had followed instructions like a child – go here, sit there, lie down, breathe in, hold it, breathe out. Ordinarily she could never stand being told what to do. Jeff was very scared. When he dropped her off at the hotel at the start of her shift last night, she was buzzing, as full of life as ever. Now she was a zombie with a two word vocabulary.
‘Fresh air,’ she was all she would say, over and over again.
Jeff cranked up the A/C to the max. Brenda curled into a ball on the passenger seat and fell into a fitful sleep. When they got to Eddie’s, Jeff parked the car, and checked the time on his watch – 7.40 pm. He got out and went round to the passenger seat, where Brenda was fast asleep. He opened the door, carried her out and up the stairs into the bedroom and laid her on the bed.
‘What have they done to you?’ he asked her. ‘Don’t worry, B. I’m here. I’ll get you through this.’
‘Fresh air,’ she murmured. He opened all the windows.
He was massaging her head – she had such a fever! – when his phone rang. He went out into the kitchen to answer it, so as not to disturb her.
‘Hello, Mr. Jeffery Alusa?’
‘Yes, who is this?’
‘This is Sergeant Franklin Ogidi, police.’
‘Yes,’ Jeff said warily. ‘How can I help you?’
He thought he heard the front door creaking open, but it couldn’t be, surely, Brenda was fast asleep –
‘Mr. Alusa, where are you?’
This caught Jeff’s attention.
‘Why,’ he asked, growing suspicious.
‘Where is your wife?’
‘She’s here with me, why do you ask?’
The man on the other end of the line sighed deeply.
‘Mr. Alusa, we think your wife may have been exposed to a highly infectious disease this morning. We need to know where you are so we can send a team of medics to examine her and help contain this disease.’
‘What are you talking about? What disease? Is it – is it…Ebola?’ Jeff whispered the word, hardly daring to say it out loud. ‘Is that why there were police at the hotel this morning?’
‘No,’ Sgt. Ogidi said. ‘Something else, we don’t know what it is. That’s why we need to identify and contain it as fast as possible. Where are you? We need to send a team of medics to you ASAP.’
The whole thing seemed fishy to Jeff, now that he thought about it. A disease? No, Brenda had seen something. Who was this Ogidi fellow, and how could anyone be sure he really was a policeman? Maybe Brenda had witnessed a crime, or seen something she shouldn’t have…why was this guy, whoever he was, so insistent on finding them, on knowing where they were? Something was not right.
‘Who am I speaking to, again?’ Jeff asked, unable to keep the hostility out of his voice.
‘Sergeant Franklin Ogidi, I told you, I work with the police –’
‘And how do I know that? How can I know for sure? I want to speak to the Inspector.
Inspector Kip- er, Kip-’ dammit, what was his name?
‘Unfortunately, that won’t be possible. Inspector Kipng’eno was found half an hour ago. We are trying to reach everyone who was present at the scene. Mr. Alusa, if you would just tell us–’
‘What do you mean, found?’
‘Mr. Alusa.’ Sgt. Ogidi sighed deeply, fighting to keep the frustration out of his voice. ‘This is very serious. We have dispatched units to your house in Rongai, it is empty. Where are you?
Your wife’s life is in danger. Hello? Hello?’
Jeff flung the phone across the kitchen, burst out of the door and sprinted across the living room. The bedroom door was open. The bed was empty.
Friday, 7.55 pm
Fresh air, fresh air. Must have fresh air. No, not that itsy-bitsy draught from those tiny windows. Must have fresh air.
Must see the sky.
Brenda got up and glided across the room; opened the door, carefully, as noiselessly as she could. For some reason, it was important to be quiet. It was like a game, she wanted to see how quiet she could be. Besides, someone might hear and try to stop her from getting fresh air.
Somewhere nearby she could hear someone talking, in a room close by. The voice sounded vaguely familiar. How could he stand the stuffiness?
Fresh air, fresh air, it’s too close in here. Fresh air; I simply must have it.
She crept up to the living room door. There was a deadbolt; she slid it open noiselessly. Then she began to open the door, slowly…It creaked, loudly. These hinges need some oil, she thought, annoyed. She listened; the voice paused for a fraction of a second, then resumed speaking heatedly. All clear.
Up, up, up. Must go up.
She passed a number of people on the way; they all looked at her so strangely. One woman touched her on the shoulder and asked, ‘Are you all right?’
Brenda just shrugged off her hand and kept climbing.
Of course I’m all right, she thought. Everyone else – that’s who’s not ok. The stuffy air down here must be addling their brains. Anyone with any sense is after some fresh air.
Up, up, up.
Beautiful night. Look at that full moon! And the breeze! Lovely fresh breeze. Just the thing I want. I just need something to lean against, as I take in this view, this fresh air.
She walked toward a large satellite dish and sat with her back up against it.
Perfect. Fresh air, so refreshing. This is bliss.
She closed her eyes, smiling, and turned her face up to the sky. She felt like she could sit here, like this, forever.
She began to feel a slight headache.
By Rèlme Divingu
Translated from the French with the help of the Harrap’s Shorter Dictionary.
In the near future.
“Hello, dear viewers! Today, we are happy to welcome on our daily literary show, ‘Words of the Future,’ the Gabonese computer scientist Paul Urinda.
“Mr Urinda is a professor at the Libreville Institute of Technology (LIT) and creator of the much-debated software “TYPEWRITER”. As you know, the latter intends to help writers in their narrative creative process.
“Good evening, professor.”
“So, what is TYPEWRITER?”
“TYPEWRITER is a computer-aided writing package (CAWP).”
“What exactly do you mean?”
“That is to say it can write some parts of the story by itself. But don’t worry; TYPEWRITER cannot compose a tale on its own. TYPEWRITER is not able to build the storyline, it merely follows the instructions given by the author. Human beings remain at the control of the creative process. Actually, this software barely interferes with the writing process and style, in other words, the ways taken by the novelist to tell the story. In a way, TYPEWRITER is the 3D printer of the writer.”
“But don’t you think that we find the fine touch of the writer more in the ways used to tell the story than in its structure?”
“I think that the writer is everywhere. In the storyline, as well as in the style.”
“Then, can we say that when a writer uses your software he grants a part of his capacity to create to the technology?”
“Yes, so to speak. The novelist and the software are sharing the narrative creative process together.”
“Software proposing to help us in our intellectual tasks are becoming more and more numerous. Should we be worried about that?”
“No, I don’t think so. Since the invention of the calculator to the computer, and nowadays to Bio-Integrated Software, human beings have always sought the means to improve and facilitate their cognitive processes. That seems to be a feature of human nature.”
“Do you think that the mention ‘written with the help of TYPEWRITER’ needs to be affixed on books written with your software?”
“Not necessarily. But, perhaps soon we will attend live writing sessions like we attend music concerts. It will completely change our manner of consuming literature!”
“Thank you, professor, for agreeing to our interview.”
“Thanks to you for inviting me.”
“Dear viewers, your literary show “Words of the Future” has now ended. Please do not forget that you can get TYPEWRITER by connecting your cerebral implant into one of the numerous downloading terminals of our sponsor, the Next Read Library.
“See you tomorrow!”
By Toby Bennett
Blood tickled the edge of Mary’s lip; rough wood prickled against her back, snagging on the fabric of her school uniform. Her thin skin was already burning with the sun – a blazing ball of ultra-violet that sparked off the jagged rocks in the valley around her and brought an emerald brilliance from the silver grey of the low bushes and shrubs that clung to the boulder-strewn hills.
It always hurt to stare at the granite. At midday the rock was a mottled mirror, pulsing and burning her sensitive eyes. Only the sharp shadows, trickling from the time-hewn giants into the deep cut of the valley, offered any respite.
Mary closed her eyes against the brilliance, but that only sharpened her other senses. Not too far away, the excited buzz of bees whispered of honey and greed, a song she knew well and one that made more sense to her than the twittering of nervous birds. The dull smell of turned earth rose from beneath her heel; the dust they had stirred was settling on her skin and worst of all, the heat of Anton Swanepoel’s breath against her neck – a force as palpable as his weight holding her up against the barn wall.
At her worst moments, when the brightness and the stink of the mountains became too much, she would focus on her hazy memories of another sky. The people who called the valley home always said their land was beautiful. They thanked God for it every Sunday, but when the thin songs rang out and the creaky old organ played, Mary took herself to another place. A place with grey clouds running to pink and yellow in the mellow evening; no burning blues or shrill greens; no white light to make your eyes water and head pound.
Her pa always told her she couldn’t possibly remember these things – that everything in those fragmented scenes was just a dream, best forgotten, but Mary never quite believed him. There had to be somewhere better than this, where the sun didn’t hurt so much.
“You still here, rooinek?” Anton’s voice was heavy and his breath was coming quickly, a cloying warm sweetness that mixed with the dust and heat and coiled in her gut. Nausea oozed through her. “Or you got your head in the clouds again?”
“Look at her, Anton, skin that white she might as well be a cloud,” one of Anton’s friends said. The voice belonged to Piet Snyman. Her gut twisted just a little more. She’d always liked Piet, at least from a distance. No one wanted to get too close to the tall albino girl, but Piet had always seemed to have kind eyes. Mary was glad she was too dazzled to see them. Losing the illusion of that kindness would have hurt almost as much as the rusty bolt that pressed into the small of her back as Anton ground against her.
Mary tried to speak, but it was hard to get anything from her constricted lungs. Anton was big, only a head shorter than her, and his mother’s indulgence had ensured that he’d packed a lot of meat onto his growing body. Anton was always eating something, and he had a notoriously sweet tooth. Sugar was a rare thing in the valley, but Anton was spoilt enough that he got more than was good for him; his lack of dental hygiene didn’t make for a good situation.
Anton shifted. His weight intensified. Mary tried to press farther back, but the wall left her nowhere to go. The scent of soured honey wafted past Anton’s moist lips and the sweet he was sucking clicked close to her ear.
Anton gripped her jaw and let his thumb slowly trace the line of her cheekbone. The dust that had been trapped in the pads of his sticky fingers rasped against her skin.
“Feels like paper.” He laughed and his friends were quick to join him. “Looks like it too.” His other hand dropped into his pocket. Mary screwed up her eyes tighter – he kept a knife there.
They couldn’t mean to really hurt her! Could they?
The others didn’t like Mary, but her pa had always said that no boy would bother a lady if he knew what was good for him. Her pa was usually right, but there was a hunger in the boys’ eyes that hadn’t been there when Mary and her father had arrived three years ago. The others had always had an instinctive wariness of outsiders, even though they themselves had not been in the valley long. It was inexplicable to Mary how people, who knew what it was to run from bullies, could so easily become bullies themselves.
It was not a question she had ever been able to ask anyone, since she had no real friends. The community needed a blacksmith, and as long as her father fixed kettles, fabricated plough-blades or made shoes for horses, her family would be tolerated. Tolerated was not the same as being accepted. Most of the children knew they could only go so far; if they caused any real damage, there would be repercussions from the adults, who valued her father’s skills. Anton was different, though, he didn’t care. His father was important too, and any wariness he might have had had long ago transformed into meanness and contempt.
Instinct told Mary it wasn’t affection that motivated Anton’s interest in her. He pressed close, but she had no doubt that of all her tormenters, he was the most repulsed by her. It was the same as when someone couldn’t stop worrying bad tooth. She was different, disconcerting; for some people the urge to control came hard on the heels of not understanding something.
Anton rummaged around in his trousers as if he couldn’t find the knife. His belly bulged at the pressure from beneath and he offered her a yellowed grin. “Perhaps I should write my name,” he murmured. “What do you think, albino girl? You want me to write my name?”
Bile burned at the back of her throat. The cruelty of the sun was suddenly welcome; perhaps it would burn away the filth on her cheek. She opened her eyes and stared down at the fat boy in front of her. It was Anton who looked away. For an instant defiance flared, but her father had been clear – no fighting, no trouble at all costs.
Mary closed her eyes again and Anton pushed in harder, eager to avenge his small defeat.
“Sies, man, don’t get so close. She could have something catching!” Jacques chimed in from behind Anton. “Besides, her pa might be coming home soon.”
Anton laughed. “The Uitlander isn’t coming home for a while. Got important business with my pa this afternoon, I heard.” Anton turned his attention back to Mary. “We both know your father isn’t going to say no to a little something from the still, once they’ve talked business nê?”
Mary all but choked on her disappointment. She wanted to believe her father would come back and save her, but Anton was right. Her father’s taste for liquor had intensified over the years and it was unlikely he would be back anytime soon.
“What do you say, hemel besem, want to go somewhere out of the sun?” Anton’s meaty hand closed on her wrist and he began to drag her before she had time to answer. “Hey chaps, you coming?” he asked.
There was nervous murmuring from the other boys. Everyone but Jacques took a step back. Piet looked around at her father’s sheds and the low house beyond. “Na, it’s creepy around here, weird just like her.”
Anton snorted. “Bangbroek! Besides, she’s not so bad.” Anton looked at Mary as if she should be grateful for the meagre acknowledgement; all she could register was gratitude that Piet had chosen to leave. The boys melted away like shadows into the heat of the afternoon.
“Just the three of us, then.” Anton smiled and offered her his arm.
Mary didn’t take it, but she was feeling the effects of being out in the sun for so long – she used the wall for support. Jacques stepped in behind her and Anton fell into step alongside. They were ready for her to bolt, but they needn’t have worried. Mary didn’t have the strength to run. All she could think of was getting inside.
Mary allowed herself to be taken to the door of the barn. Each step was an effort and her throat was so tight she didn’t dare speak. Even so, she had to try when Anton made to open the door.
“Please…” The word came out high pitched and rasping, “Please you mustn’t go in there.”
Anton made a sour face. “But why not? Everyone wants to know what happens in the smith’s workshop.” Anton reached for the handle, Mary closed her eyes in anticipation of what must follow – her father guarded his secrets and…
To her surprise and horror, the door gave way. A year ago her father would never have left the workshop open. Even Mary only saw the inside of the barn because her father brought her here to take her medication.
The door creaked and swung open. If she had not felt so sick, Mary might have used the momentary distraction to try run for the house. She could even have gotten away; at the very least she might have made them forget the idea of looking into the barn. But, in the end, the momentary safety offered by the barn’s gloomy interior proved too alluring. She broke from the two boys with a sudden burst of speed and scurried into her father’s workshop. Her instant relief as she slipped into the coolness of the room faded as she remembered where she was.
The workshop had been a normal barn when her father had taken it over, but it had changed significantly since then. Metal surfaces gleamed and small devices ticked and turned on shelves. Her senses sharpened almost as soon as she stepped through the door. The hisses and pops of the hundred little projects that her father was working on were loud. The whirling fan blades and extractors couldn’t quite remove the smell of her father’s work.
As her mind cleared in the gloom, Mary understood the gravity of her mistake. She spun around and tried to force the door closed.
Too late, Anton was already stepping through, using his weight to keep the door open.
“What’s all this, eh?” Anton was peering, struggling to make out anything in the relative darkness.
“You have to go.” There was new stress in Mary’s voice. If she had been worried for herself before, she was past panic now. Her father had said that none of the villagers must ever see his work. It wasn’t exactly her fault, but he’d say that she’d led the boys here.
“Go?” Anton asked. “But we only just arrived.”
“She’s right; we shouldn’t be here, Anton.” Jacques sounded nervous.
Anton laughed. “You wait outside if you like, Jacques. Miss Carter and I have things to do.”
Anton made a sudden grab for Mary, but she avoided it easily. She was slow and clumsy in the sunshine, but in the cool dimness of the workshop, she was faster than the fat boy could ever hope to be.
Anton was left standing in the doorway, holding her shawl as she fled farther into the workshop.
Anton took her escape with good humour. “And where are you going to go, meisie?” He chuckled. “There’s no other way out of here.”
“Go away, Anton!” Mary shouted. What could she do to make them leave? It wouldn’t matter to her father that it was his fault the workshop had been left open, and it didn’t seem to matter to the two boys that she wanted them to go. She had only the vaguest notion of Anton’s intent. Come to that, she doubted the boy had much idea of what he was doing either. It wasn’t something they discussed in the books her father gave her to read or that Mrs Venter might mention during their arithmetic lessons.
There has to be something he wants!
Metal clanged and clattered behind her, punctuated by the shattering of glass. Anton must have knocked some of her father’s engines to the floor. There would be no hiding that the boys had been here now, but perhaps she could persuade them to go before more damage was done. Before Anton hurt her.
“You make sure she doesn’t get out through the door,” Anton shouted to his friend.
The walls closed in, stirring a dreadful claustrophobia, as time narrowed to an inevitable point. Anton was getting closer, and the bully was right – there was nowhere to go. He was going to hurt her. She could still feel the stickiness he had left on her cheek; she could not bear the thought of him touching her again.
The idea hit her as she reached the end of the barn – where her father’s forge stood. It wasn’t a forge as most people would understand it; rather it was a large, battered metal box with a sliding panel on the front. Mary’s father had made a habit of calling the box his ‘forge’, since he didn’t want the other inhabitants of the valley guessing what it actually was.
The outside of the box was stained and blackened, as if it had been in a fire. A casual observer might take it to have no value, but the forge was the most valuable thing in her father’s entire workshop. If you fed the right details into the dials next to the sliding door, the forge could make anything.
Her father would no doubt call what she planned madness, but with Anton bearing down on her, she felt she had no choice. There was only one thing Anton liked more than scaring people and that was sweets.
Anton’s footfalls sounded close behind her. There was no time to think it through.
“If you leave me alone, I will give you sweets!” she shouted.
Anton stopped, she had his attention at least. “What are you talking about?”
The back of the barn had no lighting. Mary didn’t have any problems with the lack of illumination, but she could hear Anton shuffling around behind her, groping for her in the dark. His breathing was ragged with excitement.
“If you promise to go away and not tell anyone, I will give you all the sweets you could ever want,” she repeated. “You and your friend.”
“Jy jok, there are no sweets.” Mary turned in time to see a nasty smile spread over his face. “And we can take them anyway if there are.”
“No! No you can’t, because I still have to make them.” Mary hurried over to the panel on the side of the forge and spun the dials as her father had shown her. She turned the dial that controlled the amount of the substance produced all the way up, and began the process.
Anton opened his mouth to speak, but no sound came. Light blazed as the forge’s door slid open and candies began to hit the wooden floor. Spun sugar shattered like stained glass as it spilled onto the ground in a wave of blinding confectionary. Mary had no idea where her father’s machine had learned about so many types of candy, but every permutation of the sweetmakers art seemed to be flowing from the forge in a ceaseless wave, lit by the white brilliance burning within the battered old box.
Anton’s eyes bulged and he snatched a treat from the dusty floor.
Mary wasn’t sure if she should be worried or relieved if the whole batch turned out to be poison.
“Anton? Wat gaan aan?” Jacques had come half way into the barn, a moth drawn by the light pouring from the forge, but he dared go no further. “Wat is dit?” He stared at the abating tide of candy with obvious distrust.
Anton swirled the sweet in his mouth and beamed. “It’s good.” The candy crunched. Anton was too impatient to suck.
“But how do you know it’s safe?” Jacques blurted.
“It’s safe. Right, Mary?” Anton started to fill his pockets. “Mary and I are friends.”
Anton smiled at her. He kept looking at her, even as he scooped up the sweets from the floor. His unwavering attention told Mary her gamble had not paid off. nton meant to take his sweets then finish what he had started.
Jacques clearly lacked his companion’s determination. He opened his mouth to say more, when the forge began to shudder violently and the illumination spilling from it intensified. This was part of the shutdown process, but Mary decided to make the most of it.
“There’s something wrong, we have to get out!” she shouted.
Jacques turned and fled. “Anton come on, boet, let’s get out of here!” he shouted as he ran.
Anton’s eyes narrowed as he looked from the shaking metal box to Mary.
Mary pretended to ignore him and turned to the dials as if trying to bring the device back under control. A slight adjustment sent a cloud of sweet-smelling smoke coiling out into the air. That was enough for Anton, who went thundering after his friend. Sweets clattered to the floor as they spilled from his overstuffed pockets.
As soon as he was through the workshop door, Mary ran after them. She slammed the door shut and locked it. Anton began hammering on the door almost as soon as he realized that he had been tricked, but the barn was impregnable. The forge powered down with a series of flashes and shudders. Mary sat drawing in the cool gloom of the workshop, when the banging on the door finally stopped she got up and started to clear the debris from the floor.
She did a good enough job that her father didn’t notice when he got home, though Anton’s father’s brandy could be given some of the credit.
Her father was still bleary-eyed when they came for him.
Mary always had trouble sleeping at night; she almost heard the mob approaching in time, but her father was a heavy sleeper and the house was surrounded before she could rouse him.
The people called her father’s name and he went to meet them. He told Mary not to worry, that it was all some misunderstanding, but Mary knew it was already too late and that, when the worst happened, it would be her fault.
All it took was a thrown rock to show that her father bled blue – bluer than the royal families of Europe one of the mob later commented. The men said they had come about sorcery; the strange blood was all they needed to confirm that there was a demon in their midst.
“I am sorry to have made you wait so long, my dear,” Mr. Swanepoel said. The lantern light pierced Mary’s eyes. After nearly a week, she had become accustomed to the darkness of the cellar; she had even begun to like it. She was unsure if it was the lack of her father’s medicines or the long isolation, but light intruded on her senses now. They’d let her keep her bonnet, and she adjusted it to make sure the light didn’t blind her.
The grey haired preacher frowned. “You truly are a pathetic creature, aren’t you? I only hope that prayer and being part of a solid family can undo the damage that monster has inflicted.”
“What are you talking about, Mr.Swanepoel? Why are you holding me here? When can I leave?” Mary’s jaw felt stiff from lack of use.
The pastor’s hand blurred and pain exploded in the side of her head. “I told you already! You are not going anywhere,” Swanepoel snarled. “Bad enough that we have to–” He visibly forced himself to calm down. “You are lucky to have my protection. Many whisper that you’re as strange as your father. How long do you think you would last if I just let you walk away?”
Mary reached up to touch her burning face. “We didn’t hurt anyone. If you let me go, I swear to leave. No one would ever have to see me again.”
“No point dwelling on that, girl. You need to accept that things have changed. Best to do as I say.” He leaned in closer, lifting his lantern right into her eyes. “Lord, you’re not even crying, are you?”
“I don’t,” Mary said simply. Why would he want her to cry?
“To think that my youngest son might want to be bonded to such a –” Swanepoel reached into a pocket and drew out a handful of colourful sweets. “My son says you made this with your father’s cursed device. Is it true?”
Mary hesitated. Her father had been killed for merely owning the forge. Should she admit to any knowledge of it?
“Well?” the pastor asked impatiently. “Is my son a liar? I do not trust his word for much, but I must know.”
Mary remained silent.
Swanepoel blew out his ample cheeks. “Before he passed, your father confessed that this ‘forge’ of yours was what he used to produce all his metal. Is that true? We wondered how he always seemed to have a supply, but this infernal device would explain much.”
Mary stared at the pastor. She hadn’t realized that he’d spoken to her father before he died. It was possible that Anton’s father shared the outrage of his flock and that he was merely trying to trick her into admitting that she knew of her father’s ‘infernal device’. However, Mary read something different in the man’s eyes – a greed that echoed his son’s.
“Yes,” she confessed.
“He used the forge to get his materials.”
The pastor’s grim expression shifted slightly. “And you know how to do this too?”
Mary could hear a tension in his voice. It would go badly for her if she said the wrong thing.
“I do. I can make you anything you want, if you’ll just–”
The pastor slapped the table, his mood visibly improved. “Then it’s settled.”
“I don’t understand.”
“There’s nothing for you to understand, girl. Your father is dead and you need a home. My boy has expressed an interest in you, so you shall be married and spared the indignity and danger you might otherwise face.”
Mary stared at him. She understood the words, but what she was hearing made so little sense.
The pastor plunged on. “Of course you will need a dowry and, while the rest of your father’s estate is forfeit, I shall make sure that his forge is brought here, where you can begin to repay your debt.”
Mary opened then closed her mouth. What was there to say that wouldn’t simply earn her another slap or worse? What would the pastor do when he realised she only had the most basic understanding of the forge?
Pastor Swanepoel took her silence as agreement and rose. “It will take a few days to smooth things over. People’s fears must be allayed. In the meantime, I think it best that you stay here.”
Mary looked around. How many more days would she have to stay in the cellar? He’d have to let her out for the wedding.
Swanepoel’s nose wrinkled as he caught sight of the bucket in one corner of the room. “I’ll leave the lantern and send Anton down to remove that,” he said and looked at her as if she should be grateful for his concession. “He’ll also bring some water. You should do your best to make yourself presentable. You will not be down here much longer.”
With that, the pastor swept from the room.
As soon as he was gone, Mary put out the light.
Darkness returned, bringing with it the dreams her father had warned her of. Another day without the injections her father used to give her only made them more intense.
Her skin was tight and itchy… Burning.
In her dreams she saw flames – the same flames that had engulfed her father’s forge before he’d pulled it from the conflagration. There was the sour smell of flesh on that smoke. She saw infants, just like herself, sizzling in their green tubes. Her father had not been quick enough to reach anyone else. A new generation, destroyed.
The darkness was a cloak that hid and comforted her. Pain abated and the sickness that had overflowed the bucket they had left her, receded. When she was awake, she felt as if her body were covered in tiny insects that tickled and nipped. She plucked out her fingernails one by one with her sharp teeth. As she ran her exposed fingers over the rough plaster on the walls, it was as though she were feeling things for the first time.
The bright colours that had once only tinged her vision bloomed, edging every shape and highlighting the furthest corners of her dark domain. The sound of heartbeats from the floors above became like thunder. Her mouth watered when that sound came close, but the maids only left food and drink at the top of the cellar stairs. None of them felt the need to come further into her lair, and Mary was happy to be left alone to sleep.
“Wake up, Mary.” Anton’s voice was heavy. He held a single candle and was dressed in his church clothes.
Mary’s instincts told her it was morning, probably past time for his father’s sermon. Why was he here now?
“We’re to be married, Mary,” Anton said.
Mary started to get to her feet, but before she could rise, Anton crossed the room quickly and stood before her. “My father has said so.” He put the candle on the table next to him and stared at her. Mary didn’t look back. “I want to be sure you’re worth it.” His breath smelled worse in the confines of the cellar. That or her senses had indeed become sharper in the dark. “My brother said that you might be just like your pa. Said I should check you were a woman before I married you.”
He ignored her and his hand went to his belt. “Shut up.”
There was a dull clack as a well-sucked candy hit the back of his teeth.
“You can lie there or you can do something, but I want to know…”
He yanked clumsily at her stained skirts. Despite his promises, the pastor had not even sent a change of clothes. The fabric was stiff with the fluids that had leaked from her during her slumber.
Fear gripped Mary. What would Anton do when he saw her body? Her father’s medicines were wearing off quickly now; there would be no hiding how different she had become. Her father had been killed for having blue blood. What would they do to her?
She slapped his hand aside and tried to escape past him, but it was a mistake. His weight bore her down and they rolled across the cellar floor. Her dress tore and he pawed at her, his breath fast with unfamiliar exertion. His fumbling assault knocked the candle from the table. The last light sputtered for a moment then died.
“Anton, no! Leave me alone!”
The boy ignored her pleas and forced himself forward, tearing fabric aside until they were pressed together, skin on skin. Had he known more of what he was about, Anton might have noticed something was wrong, but the darkness and the boy’s lack of experience kept Mary’s secret.
Her transformation was almost complete.
The legs that Anton parted and the wrists he held were not her only limbs.
The tiny vestigial arms below her ribs had flourished without her father’s therapies to stunt them. The long elegant arms arched out, their chitin points quivering over her oblivious attacker.
Her thrashing dislodged her bonnet, and she looked up at him from unblinking compound eyes. Eyes that saw in the darkness as Anton’s could not.
There was pain as he entered her, but that was almost nothing to the sensation of her face splitting vertically from her chin to her nose. Three years of gene therapy had done much to curb her nature, but once roused, the mating instinct could not be resisted.
Earth had not been their intended destination, but Mary’s race was nothing if not adaptable. Her father’s serums had begun the process, but her body quickly shifted gears to accommodate her mate’s genome. Anton gurgled as fine spines pierced his groin, hunting the precious genetic material Mary required. His anguished moans stopped as her mandibles clamped over his head.
Her jaw shifted back and forth, mimicking the action of a saw. Without warning, the vertebrae gave way. Mary gagged on the hot spurt of blood that filled her throat. It seemed sweeter than any candy that she had ever tasted. Anton was warm, plump and full of juices; she kept sucking until she had all she needed.
When it was all over, she could feel Anton coming to life inside her, her body changing still further to welcome him. She scurried towards the cellar door, revelling in the freedom of using her new limbs. There was no fear now. Whatever concerns she might have had in her old life were gone – there was new life to protect.
A new generation, on a new planet…
Par Rèlme Divingu
Dans un futur proche.
Bonjour chers téléspectateurs. Aujourd’hui, nous sommes ravis d’accueillir dans notre émission littéraire quotidienne, « Mots du futur », l’informaticien gabonais Paul Urinda.
Monsieur Urinda est professeur à l’Institut de Technologie de Libreville (I.T.L) et créateur du très controversé logiciel « TYPEWRITER ». Comme vous le savez, ce dernier a pour intention d’aider les écrivains dans leur processus de création narrative.
― Bonsoir, professeur.
― Alors, qu’est-ce que “TYPEWRITER” ?
― TYPEWRITER” est un Logiciel d’Aide à la Création Narrative (L.A.C.N)
― Qu’entendez-vous exactement par là ?
― C’est-à-dire qu’il peut écrire de lui-même certaines parties du récit. Mais ne vous inquiétez pas, TYPEWRITER n’est pas en mesure d’écrire une histoire tout seul. TYPEWRITER est incapable de construire une trame, il suit simplement les instructions données par l’auteur. L’être humain reste aux contrôles du processus créatif. En fait, ce logiciel interfère à peine en ce qui concerne les procédés d’écriture et de style. D’une certaine façon, TYPEWRITER est l’imprimante 3D de l’écrivain.
― Mais ne pensez vous pas que la fine touche de l’auteur se retrouve plus dans les moyens littéraires utilisés pour dire l’histoire que dans son intrigue ?
― Je crois que l’écrivain est partout ; aussi bien dans la structure que le style.
― Aussi, peut-on dire que quand un écrivain fait usage de votre logiciel il cède une partie de sa capacité créative à la technologie ?
― Oui, pour ainsi dire. Le romancier et le logiciel partage ensemble le processus de création narratif.
― Les logiciels proposant de nous aider dans nos tâches intellectuelles sont de plus en plus nombreux. Doit-on s’en inquiéter ?
― Non, je ne crois pas. Depuis l’invention de la calculatrice jusqu’à l’ordinateur et aujourd’hui les logiciels Bio-Intégrés, les êtres humains ont toujours cherché à améliorer et faciliter leur processus cognitifs. Cela semble être un trait de la nature humaine.
― Pensez-vous que la mention “écrit avec l’aide de TYPEWRITER” doit être apposée sur les livres élaborés avec l’aide de votre logiciel ?
― Pas nécessairement. Mais, peut-être, assisterons nous bientôt à des sessions d’écriture en direct comme c’est le cas pour les concerts de musique. Cela changera complètement notre façon de consommer la littérature !
― Merci professeur d’avoir accepté cet entretien.
― Merci à vous de m’avoir invité.
Chers téléspectateurs, votre émission littéraire “Mots du futur” touche à sa fin. N’oubliez-pas que vous pouvez vous procurer le logiciel TYPEWRITER en connectant votre implant cérébral à l’une des nombreuses bornes de téléchargement de notre sponsor la librairie « Next Read ».
Title: Will This Be A Problem? The Anthology: Issue 3
Publication Date: January 11, 2017
Reviewer: Wole Talabi
I was very pleased when I found out about the Will this be a Problem? anthology. As Chinelo Onwualu notes in her essay Emerging Trends in African Speculative Fiction, the numbers seem to indicate that the African speculative fiction scene at present is dominated by South Africans and Nigerians. I may be Nigerian, but I don’t like this state of affairs, and I have been actively seeking speculative short fiction from outside Nigeria and South Africa.
Will this be a Problem? Issue 3 is a collection of seven speculative stories by African writers (six male, one female) from Kenya, Malawi and Nigeria (again). With a title like that, the anthology seems designed to invite a response. But while I was tempted to respond positively, that would have been dishonest.
In his review, Brainstorm’s Michael Onsando does this. He felt that time, magic and power were the fragmented, but unifying themes of the anthology. I see his point, but I found his analysis a bit loose and don’t quite agree with it.
To my reading, the collection offers a wide range of speculative stories about death, revolution, loneliness, power, and responsibility that never quite cohere into a whole, but has no real connective tissue. This almost appears intentional since the anthology does not contain an editor’s introduction to frame it. So in this review I will focus on the anthology’s individual stories.
First, however, I must praise the beautiful cover art by Kenyan digital artist, animator and illustrator, Peter Marco, which illustrates Andrew Dakalira’s “Rise of the Akafula” perfectly. His art is sharp, well-composed and lovely to look at. I hope to see more of his work illustrating the African speculative in the future.
Now, the Stories…
The anthology opens with its best foot forward, presenting the story “Rise of the Akafula” by Andrew Charles Dakalira of Malawi. In the story, the earth is largely uninhabitable following years of havoc due to climate change, except to the Akafula who are a race of short people native to the Chikangawa area of Malawi. The other tall, technologically advanced people called the Chintali have fled to bases on the moon and bunkers underground. From the safety of these locations, they enslave the Akafula, using them as a domestic, maintenance and foraging labour force on the barren surface, which is now overrun by wild mutant dogs. The enslaved Akafula however, are silently and patiently plotting their liberation.
The story is crisp, clever and enjoyable, with great world-building and descriptions. Dakalira, who previously appeared in AfroSFv2 with the novella “VIII” is no amateur and there are small touches of cleverness and SFnal extrapolation that are used to buttress the story’s environmental and social message. For instance, the Akafula are described as being from ‘Chikangawa desert.’ Chikangawa is actually a forest in the northern region of Malawi which is currently being decimated by excessive logging. I also think Tilinde, the main character especially shines – he has a quiet resolve that comes across within a few passages – and the story concludes with a satisfying end.
The only weakness I found was in the level of Chintali technology presented. If the Chintali have technology advanced enough to allow them make the hopelessly barren moon habitable, why can’t they make the damaged earth habitable again? Also, for a society with such advanced technology, using the Akafula as slaves makes little sense since robots would surely be able to do more and survive longer. It seems inconsistent. Still, it is a very good read and I recommend it.
The plot of “The Mortuary Man” by Mark Lekan Lalude of Nigeria is simple enough: a young, sexually frustrated mortuary attendant sees a ghost one night and is allowed to keep seeing and interacting with the other ghosts in return for his silence. Soon after, he resorts to necrophilia, and eventually loses his mind when, at the height of his passion, he promises his heart to the ghost of a young woman whose corpse he violated. The plot works overall but there are two main issues I had with this story.
One, the language is excessively flowery. Take for example this passage describing Tao’s love-life:
“Away from the morgue, Tao’s life was a loveless mess. His scandals of young girls who were about to step into the trap of his squalid den of a room littered from time to time with cigarette stubs and small bottles of locally brewed gin and the morbidness of being a mortuary man was enough to make the young women that he liked to ogle often tell him no, and hiss when he promised them love. The women who wiggled buttocks so large they trembled in fleshy deliciousness despite the stretch-marked thighs, from bum shorts to raunchy music at the seedy blue-lit hotel around the corner were quite expensive to keep. And so Tao went around containing the rise of his longing, he bore the rock-hardness of the insistence of his maleness.”
The language works in a few places but more often than not, it’s just too much, distractingly overwritten. This story needed an editor to tame it before it was published.
Two, Tao is an unlikeable character who does despicable things with no real motivation for doing them beyond being horny and ignored by women. Because of this, the character and the main plot elements – his sexual frustrations, the apparitions, his necrophilia, and his eventual madness – never come together to make a bigger statement. At least not to me. They are just a series of unsettling events. This is a pity because I think the piece has the skeleton for a much better story.
The third story, “The Last History” by Kevin Rigathi of Kenya, is conceptually grand. When humans find one day that they are unable to die, Amina Amaru rises to the head of the East African Republic by finding a way to bring death back to humanity, at least for children. But it seems she is being manipulated by a powerful force and her actions are only part of a larger war between the living and the dead that may eventually lead to war between the gods themselves.
This story has an epic scope and I was impressed by the sheer scale of the concept. But the actual execution is weak. Major plot points are unexplained or make no sense: for example there is no explanation for why the dead think the living attacked them. Also, once we get past the halfway point of the story, no character has any clear motivation for what they are doing anymore, and things just seem to occur.
It also doesn’t help that there is almost no dialogue or physical description, so it is difficult to picture things. Except for the interjected ‘excerpts’, the whole story comes across as one large infodump (or detailed background and context with no story).
To its credit, the story does invite some considerations on the importance of death and its purpose to society and humanity. But while I found some of its philosophical digressions interesting, they were not enough to elevate the story beyond its structural weaknesses. This is a story with a lot of brilliant ideas, but which I feel was ultimately unable to string them all together cohesively.
Now this one, “The Real Deal” by James Kariuki, also of Kenya, is a fun story about magic. The story follows Juma, a witchdoctor who may or may not have supernatural powers, as he is arrested by the police and forced to help them find a missing politician. There are moments of seriousness followed by straight comedy, all leading up to a great, hilarious, open-ended punchline at the end.
Despite the humour, the story is paced pretty much perfectly, with the tension is always kept high, and just the right amount of information presented in context to allow the reader to figure out the dynamics of what’s going on.
I particularly enjoyed this story because of its ambiguity regarding Juma’s powers – sometimes he is simply being practical, and other times he seems to genuinely have otherworldly abilities. Take for example this conversation where he describes his approach to keep straying husbands at home with their complaining wives.
“I gave them a potion to keep their husbands at home over the weekends. That was the problem they wanted me to solve.”
“So it was a love potion?”
“It was something to give them diarrhoea.”
In the end, it is left for the reader to decide if Juma is the real deal or not. While some readers may not care for this open-endedness, I personally think it all works very well, given the style and subject matter, and I happily recommend this story.
In “Future Long Since Passed” by Lausdeus Otito Chiegboka of Nigeria, life in Nigeria has improved through a pragmatic combination of infrastructure development, smart tax policy and good governance focused on improving technological capacity. Dr Izima, the co-founder of a medi-tech startup which is solving some of medicine’s larger problems, has an accident and is confronted by the spirits of his ancestors in the place between life and death.
There are some very interesting ideas here about the technology, politics and history of this potential Nigeria, as well as the doctor’s own past. However, I struggled when reading the story because there were many places where the author just stops the story cold to build the world. The world-building should have been merged with the narrative, in context.
This is sometimes unavoidable with speculative fiction. The real sin here is that the story goes nowhere. Nothing really happens. We meet Dr. Izima in his office, we are told of his world, then he has an accident, meets his ancestors who call him to the traditional role of priesthood, and then… Nothing. He just wakes up. The doctor does not decide anything or do anything.
By placing Dr. Izima at the nexus of life and death, the story seems to want to say something about the relationship between past traditions and future developments, but whatever it is remains unclear. This makes the story seem incomplete and I felt unsatisfied at the end of it.
At the start of “The World is Mine” by Kris Kabiru of Kenya, we meet Stan, who seems to be the last person left after everyone else on the planet mysteriously disappears. He wanders the suburbs of Nairobi, foraging in supermarkets and exploring his neighbours’ vacant homes to satisfy his curiosity about their lives as well as to maintain a connection to other humans, however tenuous. On one of his explorations he meets another left-behind person, a girl, they have a tense exchange but come to a sort of understanding. Even though she robs him while he sleeps and runs off, he looks forward to meeting her again.
While all the previous stories in the anthology are noticeably African, either in description of setting or characters, this one is the first story which could easily have been set anywhere or featured anyone of any background. Even the dialogue is free of any local stylings and the character’s name, Stan, is non-specific. Now, this is not necessarily a bad thing, but since the story presents a post-apocalyptic narrative, this failure to take advantage of the setting cripples it somewhat in my eyes.
The best post-apocalyptic stories use setting and atmosphere to buttress the narrative, usually to great effect (for movies, think Mad Max’s signature dusty, red Australian heat, or the grey bleakness of England in Children Of Men; for literature, think of the dilapidated and decayed landscape of the American south in Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 The Road or the crumbling, lonely Los Angeles cityscape of Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend or even, for a lesser example, the ruined Lagos of my own short story The Last Lagosian).
Still, I found Stan a mostly interesting character. His need to search houses for some kind of human contact is understandable, and works with his humorous outlook to give the story some nice character moments that illustrate Stan’s humanity despite his dire situation. I did find it unbelievable that the girl would rob him, considering the fact that the situation only seems to have been ongoing for three months and food and supplies are not presented as being scarce. There seemed to be no point to her theft.
The story is passable but ultimately too derivative of typical post-apocalyptic fare. Not tapping into the atmosphere of its post-apocalyptic Nairobi, or having anything new, or even uniquely Kenyan (or African) to say, renders it inert.
Full of wonderful, fantastical imagery, “What Happens When It Rains” by Michelle Angwenyi of Kenya, follows a young girl who one day, when she is caught in the rain, learns from the spirit of her mother that she is not fully human. She is part of a spirit world that exists in parallel with our own and has a responsibility to defend our world from the evil ‘elementals’ ensuring the connection between the two worlds is not lost.
The vivid imagery and description is demonstrated in sections such as:
My mother, the two male and the female elementals had begun to violently scratch their skin. Giant flakes of dry, burnt skin fell onto the ground and vanished in a hiss of mist as soon as they touched the ground. Their bodies began to mist and hiss as well. And then they were gone, in a flash of colour and black light.
However, the imagery is the only thing I found enjoyable about this story. The narrative is needlessly complicated for what is an essentially simple plot, and the dialogue and exposition are so clunky, they took me out of the story a few times.
Perhaps even worse, is that the characters do not seem real. For example, there is no sense of the emotional connection between the girl and her mother – even when her dead mother materializes in front of her to deliver a large chunk of exposition, they do not hug, or express surprise or joy or any other recognizable emotion. They just talk as strange things continue to happen around them. Some readers may not see as this as a problem and consider the lack of human emotion to add to the supernatural, dreamlike sequence, making it more effective, but for me, it didn’t work. The story ends on a hopeful note though, which I think is a good way to end the anthology.
Having read all the individual stories in this collection, I feel that ultimately, Will this be a Problem? Issue 3 is both an interesting and frustrating new member of the African speculative canon. Interesting for the range, cleverness and comfort with the coexistence of conflicting ideas that I see in much of African speculative fiction. Frustrating, because most of the stories possessed at least one great element but lacked several others – they are bursts of raw speculative thought. I wonder if a clearer, narrower theme would have helped the anthology since it’s even its weak individual parts could have seen as supporting the overall impact and purpose of the work. Either way, I’m glad I read the anthology, I enjoyed parts of it and I commend the efforts of the authors, editors and publishers. I look forward to seeing more work from all of them in the future because while there may be things lacking in this collection, talent is definitely not one of them.
By Mame Bougouma Diene
I can’t remember graduating from high school, I can’t remember applying to Sheikh Anta Diop University either, all I ever wanted was to get my ass to Zim and its space harvesting programs. Not that it’s the oddest thing here. I should remember though, the tassels and silly hats, borrowed from America when it still counted for something. Senegal changed along with the rest of the world, then the world changed with Africa. Then we messed up too. Some miscalculation in the atmospheric weather drones. It’s all desert now, everywhere… Anyway I need to get my ass out of bed, class starts at 7:45 am sharp, couldn’t tell you which class though. Must be forgetting something again…
Not a damn thing. Let me tell you about my name. Mame Bougouma Diene, literally translates into Grandpa doesn’t want fish. And this is Dakar, who doesn’t want fish? Or didn’t. When you could still get any. My parents really pulled a number on me. Tradition, man…
“I’m good Ablaye. Na’nga def?”
Ablaye isn’t much of a brain. He’s a hell of a wrestler though. Bare knuckle fighting will do that, plus seven feet and three hundred pounds of muscle. We grew up together, that’s to say he grew and kept growing long after I stopped.
“Mangi fi sama rak. Ran into your baby brother again today.”
Another oddity. Everybody runs into Djibril except me. The stupid kid gets his ass everywhere, and knows better than getting in my way.
“Next time, whoop his butt for me.”
Ablaye laughs the laugh of someone strong enough to halt a Chadian tank with one punch.
“Wouldn’t dream of it.” He says ramming an elbow into my ribs. “Elder bro’s privilege.”
What I mean is carbonated battery acid.
Another odd thing, but in a Harry Potter kinda way so I guess it’s alright, like Diagon Alley and the hearth, except it’s to the classrooms and through the shitter. Imagine having to fall backwards when you flush into the exact same place where you shit. I mean…. You get used to it, but then people got used to so many people you can’t walk down a city block in less than an hour, to eating people because we have nothing left.
So you get used to it. There’s no smell. It’s the sensation that’s weird, as if your body was stretched and snapped like a rubber band and then disintegrated. I mean that last bit exactly as I said it, and I know it’s true because of the consciousness. One moment there’s only me, one voice in my head and then upwards of a million, each one rehashing some random memory, and I can feel them all, or they can all feel me, or we can all feel each other or each self. Actually what’s truly bizarre is why waste such brilliant technology on a bunch of college students?
The Virtual College simulators we used in high school hadn’t mentioned that…
Anyway, whatever the reason, it only lasts a few milliseconds, multiplied by the millions of you, and you’re suddenly reconnected, stretched out again and dropped from the ceiling right into your chair for class.
Maybe it’s all for nothing. The likelihood of finding a job when I graduate are close to zero, but poor kids don’t get the opportunity for higher learning very often. Too little space, too many people. It’s a rich man’s privilege, so I’m gonna get my diploma. Then who knows? Maybe lightning will strike twice.
My butt hits my chair softly, and I’m staring out the window at the throngs of people trying to make it to the food banks and back in less than a day, streaming like sewage between seven-hundred story buildings. One hundred and forty million people crammed into a space that barely accommodated two a hundred years ago…
Apparently it still beats living outside the cities where the population densities are lower, but no food banks. Perhaps they recycle their own dead.
“Someone’s about to get zapped.” Sokhna whispers next to me. I hadn’t even noticed her, fascinated by the human anthill.
She leans over, smelling of synthetic coconut oil, and points at a group of people fighting over rations. Her eyes are good and a beautiful dark blue.
There’re always people too lazy to make it to the food banks. How many times my mother made it there and back is a miracle. Must’ve been hard for her, losing her husband to the Underworld Project, and raising two little knuckleheads.
“You have a hawk’s eyes.”
“What’s a hawk?”
“Never played Virtual Nature?”
“Never saw the point.”
She had one there.
The fighting party are causing a commotion, other people are hungry and in a hurry. It will turn into riot any moment.
A police helithopter drops between the buildings, green starred over red, yellow and green, contrasting with the bleakness of the buildings, and zeroes in on the fighters.
“They won’t zap them, girl. Why waste the protein?”
Sokhna grunts, but I’m right. The helithopter drops an antigravity beam on the crowd, glowing pale orange, and buzzing like a thousand angry flies, drawing the offenders into its hull.
“More food for the bank.”
The classroom filled up. Everybody busying on their lesson pads, hands over their eyes, mouths moving silently in last minute cramming.
“What’s all the fuss about?”
Now Sokhna laughs.
“Idiot. Forgot about the test didn’t you?”
“Exactly… You’re growing senile grandpa… The test Pr. Diop mentioned last week? If you pass you don’t take the final?”
Fuck! I knew I’d forgotten something.
“It’s cool, I’m good at this econometric stuff.”
Sokhna smiles. She really does have a beautiful smile, pearly white teeth, lips a mellow red, her straight hair in a ponytail and a nose that balances the symmetry of her cheekbones perfectly.
“You better.” She puts her hand on mine. “I’d hate it if you didn’t come back next year.”
“Alaikum Salam, Pr. Diop.”
“Take out your tablets, I hope you’ve studied hard.”
“Djibril, kai fi!”
“Wow, kai! Five more minutes!”
“Put that simulator down and come here now!”
“Why mom?! It worked for Mame didn’t it?”
“Your brother always had big headed dreams he couldn’t achieve. College and then what? He’ll end up in the Underworld Project just like your father, just like everybody else. A head full of garbage that won’t help swinging a hammer. Now get over here!”
Unless he makes management, Djibril thought, removing his Virtual College simulator, If only he’d write more often…
“Well, that was relatively painless.”
Truth is, I probably fluked the stupid test, but it’s better to fail because I hadn’t tried, than to try and fail anyway.
“You know you’ve messed up.” Sokhna snaps back. “You better kill that final.”
In a world of a hundred fifty billion people, you’d think the odds were higher of finding someone who cared for you. But it’s the exact opposite. The more people, the more selfish we get. So I’m lucky. The luckiest man alive. Perhaps she just wants someone caring for her and is playing her cards right, but she’s playing them with me, nobody else, me. And that counts for something. It counts for everything.
“Easy for you to say. Your father was an official.” I tell her, stating the obvious, “General Sankare. You’ve nothing to worry about.”
I’m a fuckin idiot. Acting tougher than I feel, despite needing her more than I’ll ever care to admit, just to keep her guessing.
“Was being the operative word. No one remembers the Sahelien War anymore. Competition’s hard at the top too, Bougouma.”
She’s right. Upper middle classes play assassination games to stay ahead, at least us poor folk don’t, but then we’re busy fighting each other for food bank scraps so we don’t end up food ourselves.
“Saw your little brother today by the way.”
“Don’t you all? Ablaye said the same thing yesterday.”
“Ha! He’s sneaky your brother, was in the cafeteria chatting up some girl. Family thing, huh?”
Hate to say, but I love the kid. Different planet, different time and he could have had the world.
“He’s better off out of my way.”
“Keep telling yourself that.” She heads down the hallway, “See you at the wrestling training bouts tonight?”
“Any chance of seeing you elsewhere?” I ask, grinning.
She caresses my cheek.
“I’ll try.” She answers with a smile and disappears into a wave of students.
But she won’t. That’s odd too. I still haven’t found the girl’s dorms. I can always snatch a kiss in the hallway, but she never makes it to my room. The toilets get us to the cafeteria at any time, but the moment I step away from the academic buildings, I can’t find my way anywhere. All I see is a pixelated maze, and lights that must be buildings that never get closer. I’m tired of jacking off let me tell you…
“So!” Ablaye says, slapping my back, jamming my kidneys into my lungs. “You actually passed? You need to quit all this thinking, and start punching.” He finishes, grinding his fists.
“Meatheads punch their way. I’ve got my eyes on the prize.”
He laughs again.
“Let me guess. Sokhna, huh? A clever one that one… Too good for you, look at me, I get all the girls I want.”
That’s true, wrestlers have their pick, maybe he can tell me how he finds their dorms or how they find him…
“You mean you’re not good enough for her, ox brain… Anyway, glad I still have friends around this year…”
The hall has filled up. I can’t tell half the faces. Sometimes it felt like they’d admit just about anyone, but where do they all go? There is no way the school can handle this many students…
“You’re back!” Sokhna screams, her arms around my neck, assaulting me by the yard between buildings. The heat blasts my face, but her smell, and the pressure of her chest against mine make me forget everything else.
“Told you I would…”
“And you know better than disappointing me, dé!”
Maybe I do. Had I forgotten how beautiful she was over the summer? Or maybe she just got prettier every day…
“How was your break?” I ask, taking her by the hand and away from the dusty heat.
She goes off on a litany of things she’s done, her family, her brother working on the Underworld Project, her friends who’d never left what was left of Yoff…
“What about you?” She asks, all pearly smiled enthusiasm.
“Good. Everybody’s good…”
And then blank.
She misinterprets my silence.
“Miss’em already, huh?”
I nod. I do miss them, I really do, but I also can’t remember the past two months. Nothing at all. I should remember my mother’s cooking at least. Who forgets that? And I must’ve kicked Djibril’s ass at least once. But nothing, not a single thing…
“Yeah. Yeah I do.”
She holds on to my arm tighter.
“It’s ok. I miss them too, and your little brother’s bound to be around somewhere…Come on, or we’ll be late for class.”
“I hate this stupid class.”
“It’s the first time we take it.” Sokhna whispers back.
“That’s great, but if I wanted to train for the Underworld Project, I would’ve played Virtual Underworld in high school.”
“You know what they say: All the roads lead to Underworld.”
And they probably do. Twice the available space of the surface dug underground. A giant terrarium to relocate two thirds of the surface population. Fifty billion here, fifty billion there, enough space to spread your legs, grow plants and vegetal proteins. No need to recycle corpses anymore.
“Bullshit. It’s a plot to resettle people then drown us all.”
“You don’t really believe that.”
Maybe I don’t, but too many people do, and what does she know? She’d never lost anybody in there. Somewhere so deep they never got to see the sun again. She hadn’t heard that her father was dead before getting a week’s worth of free food rations. Maybe it had even been him. Nice and spiced up. It had tasted awful. Her dad had died a hero. Mine an afterthought in Underworld.
“Doesn’t matter what I believe.”
“That’s right. What matters is that you try your hardest.”
“Oh I do…”
“Underworld’s a vital part of our future.” Professor Diop’s drowsy monotone goes on, “In fact, it’s our only future, who knows why?”
“Because we only have one planet.” Someone answers eagerly.
That’s what everyone says, only this planet. Having one planet never stopped us from ruining it in the first place, why would Underworld be any different? Someone’s bound to screw up, wanting more of something, more sunlight, fresher air or misses the taste of human flesh for whatever reason, and try to tear the roof down and have the whole thing collapse. An unsatisfiable species convinced that we’re special, that’s what we are, without the guts to look extinction in the face and say fuck it… But then I’m here, right? Trying to get laid and get ahead so who says I’m better?
Focus, one more punch and I’m beating this level…
Inside the Virtual College: Athletics simulation, Djibril’s punch slipped passed his opponent’s nose, and he tossed the helmet off in disgust.
Why does she always do that?
She had a sixth sense his mother, and then a seventh and an eighth. Every time he would make progress she would call him. He couldn’t blame her, his brother hadn’t been back all summer. Maybe she thought he wouldn’t come back again. Who would stand to lose her husband to mining operations and then a son to college? She didn’t want to lose him either, but what did she think was gonna happen?
I gotta make something of myself too…
“Laamb lou reyna!”
Being friends with the Mighty Ablaye Gueye really has its benefits.
You can draw the humanity out of people until they’re nothing but shadows of their former shell and yet. It’s the vibrancy of the crowd. The electric tingling of static bouncing from every hair, even if it’s only to watch two giants bashing each other’s heads in. The staccato of sticks on drums and the wrestlers in their colored robes dancing a choreography, leg stomping right, arms flowing left, heads bobbing and grigris wound tightly around their biceps. Ready to fight, even ready to kill.
I’m not looking and don’t care, been seeing this since I was a kid, and the only thing I can focus on is Sokhna’s hand caught in my palm, her pulse beating fast, and trying to get to our front row seats before the fights start.
“You’re gonna tear my arm off.” She says.
If only it could be your clothes…
“Better me than those gorillas out there.” I answer, nodding at the arena.
I’m not, though I would be if she ever paid them any mind. Everybody else is jealous though. Most guys that is, who doesn’t wanna be so big you never have to worry about anyone or practically anything? Getting extra food rations and the adoration of all the ladies on campus and every competing campus? There’s a catch though: if you lose your bout you’re out. And then your strength might get you a bodyguard gig and keep you fed, but there’s a lot of hungry people out there, and enough of them will take you down and save themselves a few trips to the food banks. Still, some would try their luck, because who doesn’t believe they’re invincible?
Ablaye sees me sitting down with Sokhna, and waves and winks without losing his hundred-mile stare of pure focus.
Sokhna is sweating a little, the drops running down her temples glowing brown with her skin but she’s excited. You can’t help but let the tension work its way into you. Even I’m starting to feel it, my left leg beating uncontrollably. Sokhna rests a hand on my knee and stops it.
“Easy now.” She says, “Hasn’t even started yet.”
A classmate, Youssou, recognizes us.
“Sokhna! Naka soube si? Bougouma! Dafa nice? Just saw your little brother, man. Can’t have been more than a minute ago…”
I face palm while Sokhna pats me on the back. Damned kid. He should be in school or training on some virtual sim of his choice instead of running around campus.
Some people believe they’re invincible, but perhaps Ablaye truly is.
Sokhna has fallen asleep, her head on my damp shoulder, wisps of her hair tickling my ear.
Ablaye is on his fourth and final fight, the final as it turns out, and he’s barely broken a sweat. I nudge Sokhna awake gently.
“Hey, it’s almost over, I’ll never get front row seats again if Ablaye catches you sleeping.”
She raises her head grumpily.
“I’m only here because you insisted.”
“Exactly, make me proud.”
Ablaye and his opponent, a Guinean named Alpha Diallo, only a couple of inches shorter than him, are testing each other, slapping each other’s hands away as they try to lunge for a grab or a punch to the face.
Ablaye seems nervous, he usually moves in much quicker, but Diallo keeps him easily at bay, grinning confidently.
“Ablaye should’ve landed a few already…” Sokhna notices as well.
“Yeah that guy’s good.”
Both fighters interlock, twisting sideways, trying to force the other to his knees, and failing. Backing off, Diallo lands a sucker punch on Ablaye’s nose.
Blood gushes to cheers from the Guinean’s team that soar over the silent ring.
Ablaye wipes his nose staring at the blood. His nervousness turns to anger. He grabs Diallo at the waist and throws him to the ground. The arena roars.
“That’s more like it.” Sokhna says, but I’m not convinced, Diallo doesn’t seem phased at all, as if he’d let that happen to give Ablaye a false sense of confidence.
And it’s working, Ablaye flexes his muscles at the audience, his smile already spelling victory while the Guinean gets in position and the dance begins again.
Ablaye’s showing frustration, his attacks getting stronger but less targeted. The Guinean slips, losing his footing, Ablaye aims for his nose, but Diallo was faking and dodges his overpowered blow, grabbing him at the waist, lifting him off the sand, Ablaye’s face twisted in disbelief, slamming him to the ground with the resounding crack of his spine echoing across the wrestling grounds.
Sokhna leaps up and screams.
Have you ever been to college? There’s something fun about Freshman year. A sense of novelty I guess. But as a Junior it’s all played out. It’s like high school again, like probably everything afterward. Maybe for the better. Creatures of habit need just that. Growing in your shoes is the only place to grow, but fuck, don’t you wish there were other spaces to grow, and maybe other plains?
Sokhna’s arms around my neck, making me forget everything as the wind blasts from the yard. The wind that is our oxygen, the wind that is our death. I don’t care, and why should I; they are softer than silk…
“I am always…” I try to muster a little cheerfulness, but Ablaye’s death is a lump in my throat. The big lummox had it coming. We all lose eventually, but I’d expected it to be much later. As a champion, with enough credits to look into whatever future with confidence. The crack resounds in my head like thunder trapped in a cave, making it hard to hear anything, feel anything…
“Hey! Hey!” Sokhna’s shaking my arm, trying to kick me out of my daymare. “Are you ok?”
“Yeah, yeah. I guess. Ablaye you know?”
The thunder stops rumbling. Sokhna’s looking up at me, her beautiful eyes puzzled.
“Come on girl, that’s not funny.”
She just shakes her head.
“Ablaye?” I insist. “Gigantic guy? Wrestler? You screamed when he died?!”
Sokhna’s face freezes and blurs… It’s gotta be the wind, her usually soft features wrinkle and change, her nose grows a little, her lips twist, her right side smiling the left frowning, dark blue eyes glowing yellow, and then it’s gone. Barely a second but…
She’s suddenly contrite, her hand caressing my arm.
“Of course I remember. How can I forget?”
Her tone is off, her face is nothing but honest, but she sounds like she’s reading from a script.
“Anyway!” She exclaims, back to her cheerful self. “How was your break?”
I never knew Sokhna to be bipolar… Must be the grief. Funny how we deal with it in different ways.
Take me for instance, can’t remember a thing again, only my childhood friend getting smashed into the ground on a loop.
“Alright.” I answer shrugging, trying to keep my cool. “Yours?”
She starts talking, not a care in the world. I can barely hear her, but something is off again. I get this sense of déjà vu, which makes perfect sense, we’re basically having the same conversation we had last year but it feels like her words are exactly the same. The same inflections, the same giggles, the same pensive pauses. Damn, my head is really fucking with me.
“Miss’em already, huh?”
“Yeah. Yeah I do.”
“It’s ok. I miss them too, and your little brother is bound to be around somewhere… Come on, or we’ll be late for class…”
“Does Diop teach everything?”
“He’s the best. What more can you ask for?”
“The best at Econometrics, Underworld, Applied Physics, Climate History, and Arts and Crafts? I mean please.”
“Can’t you ever be happy?”
“I haven’t been happy in months.”
She points at the mobs of students marauding the hallway.
“Well this oughta cheer you up. Isn’t that Djibril over there?”
I lean forward over the clutter of undergrads, trying to recognize my sibling’s features.
Not a chance… But in a flash he appears leaning against a locker, whispering into a little freshman girl’s ear.
No way! When did he get so big?
The kid is taller. Taller than me and much wider, solid muscle too. What the fuck? I guess whopping season is over.
For the first time in two years I let go of Sokhna’s hand and start rushing down the hallway, shoving students out of the way.
Truth is, I’m really happy to see him. Ecstatic actually, if only because I was starting to doubt my sanity with everybody else seeing him on an almost daily basis.
“Djibril!” I yell again but he doesn’t seem to hear me, moving swiftly down the hall with the girl while students cram the way, making it harder for me to get to him.
He turns around a corner towards the cafeteria, but by the time I get there he’s gone.
Djibril drops his sim mask and rushes to find his mother.
She’s never sounded this panicked…
“Yes mama!” He screams barging into her room.
She looks up surprised.
“Well that’s a first!” She says smiling. “You have me on your mind don’t you, now?”
“You mean you didn’t call me?”
“Afraid not.” She says. “But while you’re here…”
“You sure you’re alright?” Sokhna asks me before I shoot myself back to the dorms.
“Of course.” I say, going for nonchalant, but I can hear it in my voice and so can she. Her no-nonsense look says it all. Not quite seeing Djibril has shaken me more than I can say. It’s normal I suppose. Coupled with Ablaye passing and Sokhna being oddly flippant about it, it would’ve been good to see family.
“I’ll be alright. Promised. I just need rest. I’ll be fine tomorrow. You’ll see.” I insist, forcing a smile.
She nods wearily, grabs my face, pulls it down and kisses my lips.
“Ok, I believe you. You’ve never lied to me…So I’ll see you tomorrow?”
She nods and walks away towards wherever the girl’s dorms were.
The trip back to the dorms is not through the shitter again. I’d asked why once, something about it being public restrooms, and insalubrious. I mean shit for shit…
Anyway, it’s kinda like a cannon. There are several docking ports, you lay on your stomach, and once you’ve crawled all the way in: snap! There goes the rubber band and the disintegration and the million, million Yous again, until you land in your bed…
A million other Mes echo back the same thing. The tunnel shoot is open but I can’t cross it. I can see my body on my bed, shaking in one giant epileptic seizure, my eyes flipped backwards, foam dripping from my mouth and urine slowly staining my pants.
One of the million egos takes over:
It’s high school graduation. The entire graduating body of Dakar is gathered outside the city. It’s impossible to count us all. I know my family’s somewhere out there, probably cheering me but more likely wondering where the hell I am in the formlessness of late teenage hood waiting to be sorted for college.
I turn to find them but the sea of students never ends, stretching ahead, behind, east and west to every horizon. The sky is uncommonly cloudy, dark with what should be storm clouds. There used to be a name for them but it doesn’t matter, the atmospheric weather drones have taken care of that, what little humidity’s in there will evaporate into the atmosphere and slowly dissolve. The air is heavy with the acrid smell of nervous sweat. This isn’t what I’d expected. Not at all what the intro to Virtual College looked like. No robes, no hats, no tassels, nothing. This feels more like triage.
“Congratulations graduating class of 2178! You can be proud of yourselves! You’ll be given indications on which route to follow to retrieve your diplomas, and shipped directly to your assigned institutes of Higher Learning. You are the pride of our nation. Un Peuple, Un But, Une Foi!”
The slice of me carrying that memory melts and reintegrates my shell. Another takes over…
It’s hard to remember where I am. It’s even harder to remember who I am. My nights are foggy with vivid dreams, more vivid than the moments of half-life between them. Maybe it’s daytime, I don’t know. The last dream was something about class. A pretty girl I never met. Or maybe I have. I don’t know anymore. She’s really pretty, and she looks like she really likes me. Beautiful eyes, dark blue and sharp as a knife. I must know her, she feels more real than my memories, if that’s what they are at all. And I keep thinking I’ve lost a close friend for some reason, a hulking dude. That can’t be real either but the grief feels real.
The helmet is uncomfortable but at least the restraints tying me to the bed are off. Apparently I shake a lot in my sleep, but that’s because I’m not sleeping. It’s the dreams, it’s like they’re trying to switch me for them.
The door is open on the hallway, a dark grey thing with a series of doors probably for other students. Not that I’ve met anybody since being shipped here. No one I can remember anyway. But it’s not the gloom that hits me it’s the smell: warm and metallic, with an aftertaste of liquid shit, like a decomposing body, and the sound, the heavy motion of a grinder.
Where is everybody and why did they let me out? Maybe I’m still dreaming.
The smell and the noise get worse as I walk down the hall. The stink makes my eyes water, and the grinding makes it hard to think, but there’s a light, more light than I can remember in weeks.
There are things dropping into the light from a chute above. Elongated, heavy things by the whooshing sounds they make against the opening before the grinding takes over and the smell explodes in redolent bursts down the hall. Bowels. Guts. Blood. Those words flash in my languid brain and I miss a step, my hand landing on the wall, and someone catches me.
“No need to go there Bougouma. Not yet at any rate.”
“What is that noise? What is that smell?”
“Nothing to worry about. A few more days and you’ll be ready to graduate!”
I want answers but I’m too tired to understand. They’re doing something to me, to all of us, but I won’t let them have all of me. I won’t forget it all…
All the Mes coalesce into one, and I’m lying on my bed all my memories one again. The shaking should stop. But it doesn’t.
I’m sitting next to Sokhna who’s holding my hand, and resting her head on my shoulder. Good god, she’s not, maybe in that dark meat grinder she’s dreaming that she is, maybe we’re all dreaming that we’re sitting here ready to collect our diplomas…
I can’t remember Senior year at all. One moment I’m convulsing in bed and the next I’m sitting here with my entire graduating class. Someone must have caught the glitch and fast forwarded me here…
I know it isn’t real, but I don’t wanna think about reality, not after what I’ve seen. Maybe I’m still alive waiting to be processed for the food banks, maybe I’ve been dead for years and am just an algorithm in Virtual College.
Maybe they’re gonna delete me. I don’t care, I won’t feel a thing anymore and that might be best. If they recycle the program, I hope I don’t remember because this isn’t about me anymore, it’s about who is playing my sim right now. Sitting at home, this close from graduating high school…
“Hey! Stop looking so glum, check out the stage, it’s your brother handing out the diplomas!”
By Prossy Bibangambah
It was not often that a groom burst into flames right after saying his wedding vows before all men, God, and of course, the dear bride. Karen Ainomugisha found herself the unfortunate and rare bride in this case as she watched her dearest Malcolm Iguru burn right before her eyes, his shrill screams cutting through the stunned silence in the church.
The silence lasted only until Malcolm’s ashy remains lay on the floor before pandemonium broke out. The reverend, having never before witnessed such a rude interruption of a blessed occasion, fainted.
The choir and congregation, however, scrambled for the closest exit, calling out to any deity who would listen, even pleading for their ancestors to save them. Shoes were discarded, folks were trampled, and though multiple injuries occurred, no one hesitated to inspect said injuries.
Vaguely aware of the flight for the doors, poor Karen stood in a daze as she stared down at Malcom’s remains. She dropped her bouquet and tried to gather her beloved’s ashes as a treacherous wind swept through the church and scattered them.
“N-No…” she whispered, trying to understand what had just happened.
She closed her eyes, hoping that this was all some bizarre nightmare that would end soon but the feel of the last of the ashes being torn from her hand by the wind forced her to open her eyes and face this strange reality.
The voice, sounding both irritated and amused, broke through Karen’s grief and she glanced at the reverend thinking that it was he who had spoken. The reverend, however, remained motionless. A pair of strong hands grabbed Karen and pulled her to her feet.
Karen continued to stare at the reverend, wondering how he could be speaking while lying so still. Two quick slaps to her right cheek sent pain coursing through her and she yelped, roused from the haze clouding her mind. Holding her stinging cheek, she finally faced her assailant.
It was Rowena, her matron, best friend and Malcolm’s twin sister. It took Karen a while to focus on what Rowena was saying.
“I need to get you out of this place.”
Karen blinked, glanced down at the empty spot where Malcolm had once stood then looked back at Rowena and shook her head.
“Never mind,” Rowena cut in firmly, “I promise to explain everything but we need to leave before some fool returns to record this. Come!”
Without awaiting a response, Rowena took Karen’s arm and dragged her towards the nearest church doors, hoping to escape the chaotic crowd that was outside. Karen stumbled over an abandoned stiletto and struggled to lift the long beaded skirt of her gown while Rowena swiftly guided her out of the church and to one of the cars parked a short distance away.
Their escape, however, was soon intruded upon as some people saw them and hastened after the bride, their voices raised in concern, curiosity and anger. Karen shrank from the onslaught, barely recognizing friends and family in the midst of the mob that hounded them while Rowena continued to push on towards the car. It all came to a head when a large sweaty hand reached out and yanked Karen back just as they made it to the car door.
Rowena stopped, turned, and with a frightening snarl, punched the owner of the offending hand. Her actions left the mob startled and she took the opportunity to hurriedly shove Karen into the car and follow in after her.
Ignoring the bewildered crowd, Rowena started the car and drove off, the squeal of the car tires warning any other intruders from stepping into her path.
Karen sat huddled in the passenger seat, staring at the dashboard in disbelief. The one day she had been anticipating for the past eleven months had ended up in shambles. She did not know or understand what had happened to Malcolm, she was certain that her father had been on the receiving end of Rowena’s punch, and now they were driving off to who knows where.
The entire thing appeared so absurd that she started laughing hysterically till she gave in to sobs and slumped against the door.
“Cry quickly and get it over with,” Rowena muttered as she shifted gears and swerved to overtake a car, before making it onto the main road to join the midmorning Saturday traffic.
“Make certain that you buckle your seatbelt first.”
Karen’s body shook and she turned to glare at Rowena, barely making out her friend’s form through the tears streaming from her eyes. As Malcolm’s twin, Rowena ought to have shown more of a reaction towards her brother’s bizarre death; this was the same Rowena who had gone tearing through several pharmacies in panic when Malcolm had gotten a simple cold a year ago.
Seeing her friend driving with that icy cool façade, not a single hair out of place and no hint of tears, made Karen seethe even more. She needed answers, she needed to grieve, and she needed to make sense of what had occurred at the church.
“Stop the car,” Karen whispered in a thick voice.
“No,” Rowena replied.
“I said,” Karen gritted her teeth, “stop the stupid car.”
In response, Rowena pressed down hard on the accelerator and overtook another car, hitting a large pothole as she did so. Before Karen could react to Rowena’s blatant rejection of her demand, Rowena’s phone rang and Rowena grabbed it from her purse, giving Karen an odd look while she answered it.
“Where are you?” Rowena asked, speaking into the phone.
“You’re an idiot,” Rowena went on, addressing the caller. “I am on my way with Karen. Make sure you are decent.” She hung up and tossed the phone aside. “Karen, listen-”
“STOP THE CAR!”
Karen’s shriek caught Rowena by surprise, a shock that only increased when the teary bride leaned over and started hitting her with her fists.
“Malcolm just burned in the church and here you are being normal!” Karen cried and tried to grab the steering wheel. “I want to know what happened! I want-”
She gave a startled screech when Rowena slammed the brakes and the car came to an abrupt halt, sending Karen crashing head first into the dashboard. Karen fell back against her seat, her head pounding as Rowena glared at her.
“Are you trying to get both of us killed?” Rowena asked and revved up the car once more. “I told you to buckle your seatbelt.”
Chastised, Karen reached for her seatbelt with trembling hands and buckled it in.
“W-Where are you taking me?” she asked.
“Our home,” Rowena answered and said nothing further.
Karen sniffed and stared down at her hands. She thought over her interactions with the twins since the moment they had met at university three years before. Karen had been at one of the loneliest points of her life as most of her few friends had gone to a different institution after secondary school. It was Rowena who had approached her first, sitting down beside her in the university library.
As they bonded over a shared difficult assignment, Rowena had shown an insatiable curiosity for Karen’s choice in clothes, music and wardrobe, and had appeared quite fascinated by the things Karen ate during their lunch together. When discussing their families, Karen had answered most of Rowena’s queries about her parents and siblings but had been forced into silence after learning that Rowena was an orphan and her only living relative a twin brother whom Karen met a day later.
Karen had fallen for Malcolm from the moment she laid eyes on him. She loved the softening of his eyes whenever he smiled at her, the way in which he always saw to her comfort whenever they were together, his patience with his more exuberant sibling, and his silly and lame jokes.
The night he had proposed to her, Malcolm had pointed to the sky:
“How many stars do you see up there?” he had asked.
Karen peered at the cloudy night sky which held the promise of heavy rain. She tugged at the thin jacket she wore as a cold wind blew.
“There are no stars, Malcolm. Why did you bring me out here?”
Malcolm ignored her question and asked another. “What if I could show you the stars?”
“Karen,” Malcolm cut in, “if you say yes, I promise to show you whichever star you wish to see.”
It took Karen several moments to realize that there was a ring in the hand that Malcolm held out to her.
Karen hiccupped then burst into tears once more at the memory.
A gentle breeze tickled her cheek, causing her to glance outside the window. The weather was perfect – not too hot, not too cold; the reception would have gone well in the lush gardens of the fancy hotel they had booked for the day. She had imagined her and Malcolm sharing their wedding dance in those gardens, the same gardens in which he had proposed.
Karen wiped her face as Rowena brought the car to a halt before the apartment complex in which the twins resided. Karen eyed the building warily before turning to Rowena who nudged her out of the car.
Hesitating, she opened the door and stepped out, hoping that no one was peeking out to witness the sight of a bride with ruined make-up, puffy red eyes and, to her own surprise, a missing left shoe.
Rowena left the car and headed towards one side of the complex, leaving Karen with no option but to follow her. She gathered her bridal gown about her, discarded her remaining shoe and followed, determined to drop all association with her friend once she received the promised explanation.
On the second floor where their apartment was located, Rowena stopped and turned to face Karen.
“I want to apologise because I was not clear about everything, and I reacted terribly when you demanded an answer.”
Karen simply glared at her.
With a sigh, Rowena moved on, surprising Karen when she bypassed the door to the twins’ apartment and approached the opposite door. She opened it, stepped aside and motioned for Karen to enter. Karen walked towards the door, glancing cautiously from it to Rowena till she finally entered the apartment and gasped.
Standing in the corridor just beyond the door, clad in nothing but a short towel, was Malcolm.
“Karen,” he called out to her. He took a step towards her, his eyes full of apprehension.
Karen remained where she was, shaking her head in disbelief. She opened and closed her mouth several times, trying to give voice to her thoughts but her mind and body refused to comply and she continued to stare at him. He was whole, with not a blemish on him, not a single mark of the flames that had engulfed him earlier.
Karen lifted a hand and covered her mouth, feeling another onset of tears. Seeing this, Malcolm took another step towards her with a gentle smile as Karen’s own feet carried her forward.
“Karen,” he called out again and opened his arms to embrace her.
Karen punched him.
Letting out a startled yelp, Malcolm staggered back, holding his bruised face. He tried to look at Karen but she struck him again, sending him crashing to the floor.
“What is going on?!” Karen screamed as she kicked him. “What on earth are you? What happened in the church?” She kicked him again. “How can you be here? Do you know what I have gone through? Why are you in a towel?”
Karen spun around to glare at Rowena who had also entered the apartment and closed the door.
“Do not interfere,” she hissed and pointed a shaking finger at her matron. “You knew he was here, didn’t you? This was some trick of yours, eh? Some foolish prank you fools decided to play on me, eh? How did you do it? How did you make him burn in the church? You people think you are so clever, ruining my wedding day like that. I hate you!”
She kicked Malcolm two more times where it would hurt him most before collapsing on the floor, her energy spent as grief claimed her once again.
“Karen,” Malcolm’s voice sounded pained and she felt more than a smidgen of satisfaction at this.
“Karen, let me explain, please,” he begged.
He froze at the murderous look she sent him.
“Oh for mercy’s sake,” Rowena grumbled as she made her way towards the pair on the floor and forced Karen to her feet. “Malcolm and I are not from this planet.”
“Rowena!” Malcolm cried.
Karen stared at Rowena in befuddlement. Then she burst into laughter.
“Oh, this is priceless,” she gasped in between laughs, “first a groom who burns in a church but turns out to be alive, then aliens…what next? You guys must think that I am an idiot. Just leave me alone and don’t ever bother me again.”
She made to pry Rowena’s fingers off her but froze: an eerie yellow light covered Rowena’s entire form. Her eyes appeared more slanted and her forehead longer, with streaks of white running through her black hair.
Karen struggled out of Rowena’s hold and scrambled backwards till she hit the wall, staring at her friend in disbelief. Her gaze shifted to Malcolm and she saw the same changes in him that had come over his sister.
“Karen,” Malcolm whispered.
Karen pressed up against the wall in fright, shaken even further by how his voice seemed deeper with an unfamiliar lilt in the way he pronounced her name.
“N-No,” she muttered, looking from one to the other.
“I warned you to tell her sooner,” Rowena said to Malcolm before facing Karen. “Look, our father thought it would be good to send us on a study tour of a distant planet so we picked earth. However, time on our planet is different from earth time so while you have known us for three years, we have only known you for three weeks. Our father was not pleased that his foolish son was getting married in such a hurry. So our father decided to punish,” she gestured at Malcolm and went on, “or should I say prank, Malcolm with that little display in the church. He was never in any danger, believe me. I cannot wait to explain to you how father did that little trick. It involves regeneration and-”
“Aliens don’t come to Uganda,” Karen cut in.
“Aliens do not come to Uganda,” Karen insisted firmly, looking from Rowena to Malcolm, her eyes wild. “Evil spirits, perhaps? Yes, that is what you are. I just need to remember how to pray.”
“Karen, please listen,” Malcolm said. “My father’s trick failed to stop our vows-”
“No!” Karen screamed, “No! I didn’t marry an alien…” She froze and stared at Malcolm in horror. “I am married to an alien.”
Then her eyes rolled back and she slumped to the floor. Malcolm shouted her name and ran to her.
“That went well,” Rowena observed in amusement.
Malcolm glared at her as he gently cradled Karen in his arms.
“We have to leave, by the way,” Rowena added as an afterthought. “You have your bride, father is angry, and I do not believe that spectacle at the church shall be forgotten any time soon.”
“I am not leaving her behind,” Malcolm snapped.
“Of course not,” Rowena retorted. “You two are wed; those vows are recognized in any part of the galaxy.”
“He’s being stubborn and hypocritical,” Rowena went on with a dismissive air, “mother will put father at ease. Besides, she will be glad to have a fellow earthling for company. Now hurry up. We must prepare the ship for our departure.”
By Anne Dafeta
The wind howled tonight.
It howled on every choosing ceremony night, reminding the pledges of the stories of others who had come before them: Idogani, the chosen. The ones tasked with protecting Igo land from evil spirits.
Under the glare of the full moon, Udeme could see the fear on their faces, worn in silence because pledges did not refuse their calling. Pledges did not protest, even though they knew there could only be one chosen.
Twelve of them stood on the edge of the cliff looking forward, hoping that the wind would carry them the moment they stepped off. It had happened before. In the last generation, twenty five years ago, Unaidike Onnuli had picked the white stone and therefore had been the first to step off. She had walked forward and continued to walk until she looked down to find that her feet had left the cliff behind. These, and other miraculous events like it, were the stories they clung onto.
These were the stories Udeme clung to. She had spent the past nine years praying to live past the age of seventeen. If she survived this day, she would finally be free of the triangle on her palm that marked her as a pledge, free to live without the fear of death. The thought lit a ray of hope in her chest, yet it was dimmed quickly by another: whether she was dead or alive, the mark would disappear from her only to reappear on the palm of another unfortunate soul who would share this same fate twenty or even thirty years from now.
The mark would appear on its new host only after the Idogani from her generation had blown the dreaded Horn of Calling, used to announce that he or she had seen their death, and their time on the earth was drawing to a close. The Horn would be blown ten years from the year the Idogani was to pass. But the mark didn’t always appear immediately. No, it was rarely ever fair that way. Her own mark had come when she turned eight, almost a full year after the sound of the Horn. At least she had gotten nine years to prepare. There were stories of others receiving their marks mere months before.
She hoped that whoever took up her mark would at least receive it on time. She looked at the others around her, feet bare, their white chiffon shorts and shirts billowing ghostlike around them; fitting attire, since many of them would not survive the night. With any luck, whoever was the Idogani would be the one to go first this year, that way and she and everyone else would be spared.
For most of the families, the night was thick with apprehension. A gloomy silence spread over them like a dark blanket. They waited away from the edge of the cliff. For some, sure of ancestral lineages that had borne many of the chosen, there was a tense but certain air of awaited success.
“Nwa ikuku – she is a child of the wind,” Udeme had heard a chief say of his daughter, Ebube, who was standing a few feet away from her. He was not wrong. Throughout the history of their people, whenever the Onnuli family had a pledge, their pledge had always been the chosen.
Her own family history had only Kakichukwu. Kaki who liked to sit on the thinnest weight-bearing branches in the tallest trees. Kaki who could take her swing higher than any of her mates. Kaki who was most joyous when the rain winds were strongest, slapping and slamming doors against their posts; she had actually gone out in the rain once, much to her father’s chagrin, but her mother had soothed him saying, “Can’t you see she is a child of the wind?”
It was Kaki who had chosen the white stone that year. Kaki who had stepped off the cliff, unafraid and sure. Kaki, whose mother never spoke again after her child’s broken body was retrieved and buried.
“Children of the air, step forward.” Elder Nnomi’s voice echoed in the pale night. “If the air does not carry you, go, and if it brings you come back.”
Udeme scanned the crowd for Oke’s towering form but could not find him. If Oke was here, then Grandmamma was here, and if Grandmamma was here, then-
Then what? she thought, fighting back her tears.
“Let me go, let me run away,” she had cried to Grandmamma many times in the days before, but Grandmamma had simply stated, “You cannot go, you are chosen. Chosen do not run.”
“But what if I fall? Surely I will fall.”
To which Grandmamma always replied gently, “What if you fly?”
Oke had tried to make Grandmamma feel guilty by reminding her that if their parents were alive, they would have run away with Udeme the moment the dreaded mark appeared on her palm.
But Grandmamma simply stared, muttering under her breath, “The wind does not embrace its own only to cast it away.”
And so the conversation had always ended. And then the elders had come for her, and now she was standing on the cliff a few minutes away from sure death.
More tears began to fall down her cheeks, through them, Udeme saw Ebube step forward, tentatively, and place her hand in the bag.
The crowd held its collective breath.
Ebube picked a black stone.
A shout of indignation went up. Udeme looked back to find hands in the air and people crying out in grief. Everyone who took a black stone had to follow whoever chose the white stone, in the order of their selection. Since Ebube would now go second, at least one child was doomed.
After Ebube, a smallish boy Udeme didn’t know, who looked like the rushing wind would lift him up and hurl him off the cliff, stepped forward and put his hand in the bag. He picked a black stone as well. Another boy stepped forward and placed his hand in the bag. This one Udeme knew. Jisike was of the Onuoha family. Next to the Onnuli, the Onuoha had produced the second highest number of Idogani.
Udeme silently wished he would pick the white stone.
He picked a black one.
She was the fourth in line. It was her turn to step forward, to choose a stone.
Udeme could not tell the exact moment she knew, or how she knew. Only that when she took her hand out of the bag the shiny white marble would be in it.
“We have Nke izizi – the first one,” Elder Nnomi proclaimed. “Udeme Iloka.”
There was a general sigh of relief from most of the crowd; the odds of their children’s survival had gone up at the plummeting of hers. Her breath became short, and a panic seized her as she took in the mournful faces that shaking their heads at her plight. The other eight, now surer of their survival, hurried forward, one after the other to pick their black stones.
When they were all done, Elder Nnomi moved from child to child, chanting over their heads: “If the wind takes you, go, and if the wind brings you back, come.”
He turned away from the pledges and walked to the very edge, and then he screamed, “Nke izizi, step forward.”
Udeme’s limbs were heavy, paralysed from fear. She had heard stories of the first pledge being thrown off the cliff when they refused to go. She did not want to be thrown. She looked back, but her tears blurred the people into a brown mass. Her eyes settled on the figure in a wheelchair at the front of the crowd, with a taller one standing behind it. Grandmamma and Oke!
She wiped her tears so she could see them more clearly. She tried to take them in, Oke’s thin, tall form was still the awkward frame of a boy becoming a man, but to her, he had always been tall Oke, strong Oke.
One day she had come home crying after some bullies had told her she would soon die because of the pledge mark on her palm. Oke had simply said, “Don’t worry, I will protect you. That is what big brothers do.” He had been ten. A few weeks ago, he had tried to make good on that promise and attempted to sneak her out of the village. Apparently, the Idogani knew when a pledge was about to flee. They had not even made it to the village boundary before the flying form swooped down and whipped them till they pleaded to go back. She had gotten a few lashes, but Oke had used himself as a shield to bear the worst of it. His back now bore scars for that action. His bright eyes were sad, though he was smiling, or trying hard to.
Grandmamma, on the other hand, did not smile, not that Udeme had ever seen her do so. Oke had said that she had worn that stoic look since the day the trailer driver had taken her ability to walk, along with their parents’ lives. She gave Udeme a slight nod: Go.
Udeme turned away from them and completed her short journey to Elder Nnomi.
She didn’t want to see the ground coming at her when she died, so she turned her back to the edge, facing the people, and stepped off the cliff.
The day her parents died, they were going to Onitsha for the new yam festival. Oke, who was too restless for such long journeys, chose to stay with a neighbour instead. Grandmamma said Udeme had cried from the moment they got on the road, stopping only when the car stopped her wailing protest resuming each time the car’s engine started again.
“I told them,” Grandmamma said to her once, “I told them you were trying to tell us something, but your father told me you were just a baby, and that the rain was upsetting you. But I knew better. The weather was as angry as you were, only slowing when you stopped your crying, as if it was listening to you.”
In her stories, the rain pelted violently from above, increasing intensity with each new octave of Udeme’s cries. The rain and her cries reached a joint crescendo right before the screech of tires and the impact that sent their car tumbling off the road. In some versions of the story, Grandmamma said she didn’t know how they survived, only that she held Udeme to her breast and closed her eyes, opening them to find herself lying with her several feet away from where the car had exploded in a fiery heap. In other versions, she added that they had been ripped out the back window by the wind as the car rolled forward.
Udeme had believed that she had lived because of luck. But, with the ground rushing up at her, and her body rushing down to greet it in what would be a resplendent display of guts and gore, she offered up the prayer that had been stuck as a ball of tears in her throat: “I don’t want to die. Please hear me if you’ve ever heard me before. I don’t want to die. Please save me.”
But she was still falling, gaining speed with every second, and then she remembered Grandmamma words to her: “The wind does not embrace its own only to cast it away.”
Udeme spoke the words over and over, though she could not hear her voice above the rush.
The ground was getting closer.
She was not stopping.
She stiffened her limbs.
She shut her eyes.
The pull jarred Udeme so violently it knocked the breath out of her, and her scream along with it. Another pull and she cried out, “Whoa!”
She opened her eyes to find herself tossing around like a leaf.
She cried out again as she realised she was facing the ground, mere inches above it. Relief washed over her like a bucket of cold water. She laughed, and continued to laugh for several minutes as she was bounced about. The movements were terrible, but she was alive!
Embrace the wind. She finally heard her thoughts in Grandmama’s voice.
Udeme raised her head and thrust her shoulders forward. As soon as she made the change in her posture, she steadied, and the breeze curled itself around her entire body, wrapping her in a secure shell of air, ready to shift her from a mere thought. Her limbs were no longer their own, but an extension of the wind.
She had cried a thousand times, lamented how she knew would fall, but each time Grandmamma had countered with, “What if you fly?”
No longer afraid of falling, she sped upward, and laughed again. Now she could set out to end the choosing of Idogani this way, but first, she would make sure the next generation had a chance at more than the few miserable years that had been accorded her and her fellow pledges.
She would blow the horn tonight.