The winds changed the day Aaliyah came. The first rain fell. The scent of the hot earth rose to meet the plummet, and made the air electric. The people smiled quietly in their hearts as they went about their business. The goats kicked the warm drops midair, trying to send them back to heaven. The rain pounded on the corrugated iron roof of the school house. In the classroom the electricity of the air made hair stand up on arms and backs of necks, pupils dilate, feet waggle under desks and fingers drum irreverent rhythms. Quickening hearts and ears pricked up for that promise splashing in with the waves from India.
Fatuma couldn’t hear a word Mrs. Mawji was saying over the pummeling on the roof and the bleating of the happy goats. She could see the steam rising off their backs outside the classroom window. So loud was the constant roar that Mrs. Mawji had to speak louder and louder, until she was shouting at the top of her lungs, about spiralling strands and chemical bases, losing the battle against the very elements she was trying to describe. No one could wait to get outside and splash in the puddles, – dance madly in the sunny rain, although they knew they shouldn’t. Fatuma was gripped with a sudden urge to run, run fast. Would they end the lesson early?
And then, all of a sudden, the door slammed open. A fresh wave of electrified air rushed into the room. There stood a stranger.
She had on the normal school uniform: white long socks, black shoes, white top, white hijab and navy blue skirt. But there was something wrong with all of it. The socks were down, the shoes were unpolished and looked old. The skirt was too short, – she stood a head taller than the rest of the girls. And the veil was only covering half her hair. She had the strangest eyes Fatuma had ever seen. They are not quite as eyes should be, one higher up than the other. They were brown, with dark lashes, that was right but there was… something there that shouldn’t be. A hint of gold, and a spark, too much spark.
“Rise to greet our new student,” Bellowed Mrs. Mawji over the rain.
The few who heard her rose, the rest just followed suit. They stood to attention at their desks as Mrs. Mawji approached the girl, who did not bow her head or lower her eyes in respect. Mrs. Mawji pulled up the girl’s socks, tugged and tightened her veil. She muttered something at the girl, pointing at her skirt. The girl shook her head, still meeting Mrs. Mawji’s eyes unwaveringly.
“She can’t afford a long enough skirt,” muttered Noor. Her gang, or followers more like it, laughed loudly and whispered amongst themselves. Fatuma did not laugh. Mrs. Mawji touched the girl’s shoulder lightly, and beckoned for her to squeeze in on the second bench row.
The new girl was called Aaliyah. No one knew where she had come from, but there were whispers that she came from a bad family and brought bad luck. Strange one this one, the girls purred to one another.
At recess the new girl stood alone in the courtyard, fiddling with some seashells she had dug out of her pocket. Fatuma was part of the ballgame, but she could not focus. Instead, she stood staring at the new, strange girl. It felt as if somehow, Fatuma had been waiting for her.
Fatuma did not have any real friends. Not that she was avoided. She knew a lot of other girls, some she was friendlier with than others. She was invited to play the ballgame, when they remembered she was there, no-one made fun of her or despised her family or anything. When they bumped into her at school in the morning, they would greet her politely enough. Occasionally a girl would remember to send greetings to her family in the afternoon.
But today something new was happening. Fatuma could feel it, her head and stomach were aglow with secret fireflies. Something was about to change. Maybe everything. Her name, Aaliyah. Aaliyah. Aaliyah. What a beautiful sound. What did it mean? The fireflies buzzed.
The day passed like a dream and suddenly it was time to go home. It turned out they had the same way home, her and the new girl, at least the first part. Fatuma found this out by following the girl, walking behind her and following her, quick and noiseless like a thief in the night, head down, heart pounding.
She did not think the girl had noticed her. Maybe she had.
Fatuma stole behind her down the path from school towards the village proper, past International Relations Teastop, where the fathers and uncles sat playing games and talking shop and politics. Across the marked, where the smell of telapia drying in the sun always overwhelmed her, where fishscales and insults flew through the wet air, as mothers and aunties haggled and bartered.
She followed Aaliyah over the rocks by the sea, the sunlight glittering on the afternoon waves, the sumpteous mangroves noisy as usual with all the life inside and underneath them. Colobus monkey hooted suddenly and made her jump. She could not see him, only flicks of red between the trees and the rustling of leaves. Aaliyah did not jump at the sudden noise. Ahead, she just carried on soldering, dreamlike, completely in her own world, only stopping occasionally to pick up seashells.
Fatuma followed her through the spicefields, where the strong smell of cinnamon, pilipili and pepper usually made her sneeze, but not today, today she was intent on not sneezing and risking discovery. She was so intent on not sneezing and following Aaliyah that she did not realize she almost missed the diverging path to home. Aaliyah’s path carried on for a while down towards the water again, – Auntie Miriam’s tiny hut. In the distance she could hear the famously sweet voice of Iman Karume over loudspeaker, calling in to afternoon prayer.
Fatuma stood in reverence and watched the new girl disappear completely in the trees before she turned and took her own way home. She felt a sadness in leaving her. Ridiculous. But she would see her again tomorrow she comforted herself internally. Pathetic. What strange newness was this?
The next day at recess the girl stood by herself in the courtyard again, fiddling with her shells. Fatuma had to talk to her. Whats wrong with me, Fatuma thought. Why should I talk to her, I’m not special. Fatuma could sow and embroider just fine, not notably well, but just fine. She kept up at school, she was alright at sums. She was no beauty, nor was she remarked upon for ugliness. She had a passable handle on the goats, chickens and small children, her cleaning was unobjectionable, her cooking satisfactory. Of her strength nothing could be said; she managed to carry adequate amounts of vegetables and trinkets to the market, she was a polite enough saleswoman. Fatuma was just…normal. No need to upset everything by talking to this new girl of whom people talked. But here she was, crossing the scraped earth schoolyard towards her.
And then the girl looked up. Aaliyah. They were standing in front of each other. Fatuma had walked over. Now, they were standing in front of each other. Her mind went white hot buzzing mosquito swarm. After way too long Fatuma became aware that she needed to say something. ‘Salaam’ she stuttered politely. Aaliyah laughed, a hoarse clicking, like crab claws at low tide.
“What’s your name?” said Aaliyah.
“Fatuma,” said Fatuma.
Aaliyah nodded, then kept nodding, taking a long time to look Fatuma up and down before she said: “Safi”.
It was an impossibly cool thing to say at that moment, though Fatuma. It seemed that Aaliyah had, with that single word, accepted not just that her name was Fatuma, but her entire being. The mosquitos fell dead on the ground around her.
That day they walked home together, side by side. The nosy fishmongers at the marked looked after them. They probably thought there is Baba Juma’s granddaughter with this new one… strange one this one. The rumors would be at Fatuma’s house before she got home, but she did not care. There were too many fireflies in her stomach.
“How many brothers and sisters do you have?” asked Fatuma as they walked. Aaliyah had picked up a stick and was whipping the straw along the path with it as they walked.
“Only me,” said Aaliyah.
“Oh,” said Fatuma. She felt heat in her cheeks. But Aaliyah smiled broadly so Fatuma could see she had a tooth missing on the side.
“I live with Auntie Miriam. She is very kind. But when I am grown I want to go back to the city,”.
“Kweli, you’ve been to Dar? Is it big?”.
“It’s okay” shrugged Aaliyah. “But I’m going to go to bigger cities. Nairobi, Lagos. Maybe even America and Europe. I’m going to be a big film star or a human rights lawyer. You?”
All this information was jarring. Fatuma knew these places existed in the real world, yet somehow they had been relegated in her mind to fairytale lands, fantasy. Not a place anyone she knew could go to. What did she want to be? The question had never entered her head. What a thought. She would be married in a few years, she would sell at the market. Not she, not anyone around her, had ever considered any other options.
“Yes me too,” she said hastily, nodding too much.
“Safi, safi”, said Aaliyah again, making Fatuma’s spine tingle once more. By the cloverfield of Babu Tumo, Aaliyah stooped to pick up a seashell. She collected them, she said, for good luck. She made bracelets and necklaces, she could make one for Fatuma.
Fatuma could not remember ever having felt so happy in her life. She would finally be able to tell her stupid younger siblings that she had made a friend, a real friend. So they could stop teasing her now. They stopped and stood around for a long time when it was time to say goodbye. Looking around for shells but not really. Finally Aaliyah said: “come to my house one night. I will show you something,”.
It wasn’t a question. Aaliyah gave her an impossibly cool clap and hug goodbye, like the boys did, as if they had known each other their whole lives. Then she ran down the dirtpath to Auntie Miriams hut, schoolbag bouncing, veil flying.
At home, as suspected, the rumors had reached before Fatuma. She was sitting in the courtyard after prayer when Bibi came out of nowhere and gave her a small hard prod on the middle of the head.
“Unafanya nini?” Bibi bellowed, spit flying. She was looking Fatuma squarely in the face, something she rarely did. “Rafiki yako mpya ni nani? Baba yake ni nani?”.
But Fatuma was prepared. She spoke softly, almost in a whisper. Eyes cast down, wringing her fingers, drawing out the last I in “Bibi” as she spoke. Experience and watching her older siblings had taught her this was the way; when Bibi went up, they must go down. That was the way to sweets and chocolate from the cornershop, to staying up a little longer, to keeping a novel or cartoon stuffed under mattresses and suddenly discovered, to retaining new playmates. She had been practicing all her life, so this demure and long-suffering mask was readily available to her.
Putting the mask firmly in place, she explained how Aaliyah was the name of the new girl. She was nothing but a poor orphan. Alone in the world. She had no father, poor thing, no people except Auntie Miriam. Poor soul. How she, Fatuma, had learnt in madrassa to be kind to the less fortunate, even Bibi had taught her that. Her own Bibi. Fatuma only wanted to be kind to this poor orphan, maybe be her friend, to help her fit in with them, it was the kind thing to do. Bibi’s face softened gradually as Fatuma went on and on. Finally Bibi interrupted the flow:
“Haya, watch yourself. People talk.”.
With that, Bibi wiped the sweat aggressively off of her upper lip, dropped a cascade of salty bananas in Fatuma’s lap to peel and cut, then waddled off majestically. Fatuma breathed out. First hirdle made.
The second were her sisters and cousins, who came as the sun set, for chai. The new girl was on everybody’s lips. Where had she come from? Who was her family? Fatuma sat with sharp ears, forgetting all about pouring the tea. From the fragments of conversation she could gather this: Aaliyah’s mother had left the village many years ago in disgrace, having brought shame on her family. She was never heard of again. And then, suddenly, out of nowhere Aaliyah had turned up, twelve years old with worn-out shoes, to live with Aunt Miriam, her mothers sister. Some said she came from Stone Town. Some said she came from the mainland. Some said her mother had died and left her alone in the world. Rashidi the beggar said she was a spirit-child and had just walked out of the seafoam one day, but everyone knew Rashidi’s brains had gone soft like cabbage many years ago.
Auntie Miriam was an inoffensive old woman who took in washing and ran a little corner shop, peanuts and soda. She went to the mosque and was on good terms with all of her neighbours, no more, no less. Nobody had ever really thought about Auntie Miriam. Whether she had had a family at some point, what she thought or did or felt. Auntie Miriam was just there.
And now all of sudden Auntie Miriam was at the centre of all town-gossip, receiving all the eyes. The eyes could burn like the sun but Auntie Miriam was showing surprising resilience to them so far, a cousin said. Bibi’s frown deepened as the cousins and sisters talked. Over colourful kin-shoulders, she stared daggers at Fatuma. That look was never a good sign.
The next day was friday, Mosque day. There was no school, and so Fatuma did not see Aaliyah at all. She wasn’t in Madrassa. Then came the weekend. Two torturous days of freedom, preparing food and going for endless visits. To women and girls with no news, whom they knew like the back of their hands. Yet they all sat chatting for hours and hours and hours, who knew what about.
Finally monday came around. She breathed a sigh of relief as Aaliyah walked into school, late and wet from the rain, again. They did not talk during the school day. Even at recess, Aaliyah stood in her corner and Fatuma played with the others. But they would throw electric looks at one another. Like they had some grand secret.
After school they silently gravitated together and began on the hallowed way home. They exchanged pleasantries, politely. Then Fatuma told her about the tongue-waggeling of her cousins and sisters, a revised version so as to not hurt Aaliyah’s feelings. Aaliyah said: “I had chicken pox once. All over my arms. But it left no scars. You want to see?”
She shoved both her forearms into Fatuma’s face. Indeed, they were smooth as coconut-milk.
Fatuma had so many questions burning inside her. Especially about Aaliyah’s past, her mother. But she was afraid to ask. Instead she went round about and said: “People love to talk in Chambani you know. People have nothing else to do.”.. Aaliyah said nothing. “When they don’t know they will make stuff up. Like with you and your mother living in Dar, or even Nairobi, Lagos, all that. Or that your family is cursed or whatever,” Aaliyah said nothing. “Or that your mother will come pick you one day-”
“She won’t. She’s dead.” said Aaliyah abruptly. Then suddenly shouted: “Hey, what did you catch?!”
Fatuma looked up, completely taken aback. Aaliyah was not speaking to her, she was looking past her. Fatuma wheeled around. Down on the beach behind the last hut of the village proper was a group of boys. They were in the middle of heaving nets and dragging a dhow up the beach. But all five or six of them had stopped in their tracks at Aaliyah’s words. Dumb fish faces all around. None of them were relatives, to either Fatuma or Aaliyah.
Before Fatuma knew what was happening Aaliyah had set of down towards the boys on the beach, veering off the way home. Once she gathered her wits about her Fatuma followed, hissing: “Aaliyah, Aaliyah, don’t!”.
“What did you catch?” Aaliyah said again, coming closer to the boys. None of them dared say anything, except the tallest boy. His name Ipyana, Fatuma knew.
“Nothing but ngisi, dada.”
Aaliyah laughed. A round, low-key laugh that sent a warm shiver down Fatuma’s spine and made all the boys perk up and smell the air.
“Let’s see, basi” asked Aaliyah.
“You want to see? Have you people never seen calamari before?”
Another spine-tingling laugh. Fatuma suddenly felt overwhelmed by the sun and the smells. The saltiness of the sea wafting in towards them, the strong reek of fishiness from the boats. But the boys had their own smell too. It was a different smell to that of her father and brothers when they came in from the sea. Young sweat and strength, their naked torsos glistened in the sun. A forbidden smell. Fatuma wiped her upper lip.
“Aaliyah, come. They are not relatives, they…” Fatuma’s whisper trailed off. Her cheeks felt like they were blazing with embarrassment.
“We just want to check that you are doing your jobs properly. We were sent by all your mothers.”
Aaliyah said it loudly, raising her eyebrows and shooting out her chin with pretend-strictness. Now all the boys laughed. Some relaxed, shook their heads and went on with their work, but most stayed watching the chat between Aaliyah and Ipyana. There was much uprorious laughter. Like somehow Aaliyah had opened a door and now set everybody free, it was exhilarating. The two of them did all of the talking, everyone else basked in the glow. At some point Ipyana produced a long white translucent squid and shook it in Aaliyah’s face. Aaliyah squealed in mock-disgust.
But in the back of her head, from up in the village, Fatuma could feel the eyes burning. How she would explain this to Bibi, she had no idea.
The weeks went by. Aaliyah easily rose to the top of the class, especially in English and science. When she recited Shakespeare flawlessly by heart, or wrote a complex formula on the black-board, Noor and her girls would giggle and Mrs. Mawji would scowl. As if Aaliyah had broken the rules.
“I don’t know what to do with you,” she heard Mrs. Mawji whisper worriedly to Aaliyah after class one day, as she handed over yet another book from her private collection for Aaliyah to devour at home.
Fatuma and Aaliyah started hanging out at recess as well. The other girls talked, but Fatuma found she cared less than she used to about their thick lips. Aaliyah showed her a complex game she knew involving seashells of different colours. It gave Fatuma a headache and Aaliyah beat her every time, but she played anyway.
Some days after school they would go by the boys on the beach, eagerly waiting for their daily female-interaction, some days they would go straight home. All according to how Aaliyah was feeling that day. At night, Fatuma would dream confusing, messy dreams, about the beach, the smell of the boys, Aaliyah’s laugh. She would wake up panting and sweating.
Fatuma had also deemed it necessary to tell Bibi a lie, a real one, for the first time in her life. She had told her that Aaliyah was distantly related to Ipyana, and that accounted for the chats, much talked about in the marketplace. Terrible was how she felt about telling this lie, but she could not see any other way. She had promised to stay back when Aaliyah went to talk to the boys, Bibi had held her by the neck and impressed upon her what was at stake. Fatuma already knew what was at stake. The family name. A good marriage. This refrain had been repeated to her and all her sisters at every possible moment since they could understand language. Finish your food or you won’t get fat, you won’t get a good marriage and ruin our family name. Don’t answer back, nobody wants a rude wife, no one will marry you and you’ll ruin our family name.
Though she had heard it so many times the threat still scared her. She knew what happened to women who could not get a good marriage. But talking to the boys on the beach… people were talking and for the first time in her life, she did not care. For she had learned something. Which made the threat less ominous. She was amazed at how… normal they were. How friendly. Just human, like her, like her sisters. They smelled, but then they were out fishing all day. With all Bibi’s threatening, boys had become small gods. But now she saw, the boys around their age, one of whom she was destined to marry, were not gods. They were just boys. Just stupid boys. Like she remembered playing with when she was really young. They laughed loudly, teased each other. Listened to Bongo-flava on a small radio on the beach, played football. Where were these otherworldly creatures, who placed judgement on the purity and value of all womankind? Where were the cruel angels whom she had been honed all her life to serve and please and pamper? They were not in Chambani, that was for sure.
She felt betrayed by her family. If Bibi and her sisters and cousins had been lying about this, what else hadn’t they told her about the world?
“Its so hot, lets go swimming!” said Aaliyah after school one day.
Fatuma laughed. “You are a crazy woman, Aaliyah! Kweli. I need to tie you up.”
“Basi, swimming is for children. And boys, stupid boys.”
“Why? Why can’t we go swimming? Is it such a terrible thing to cool down on a hot day?” said Aaliyah. Her face made Fatuma realize she was serious. She frowned.
“What if someone sees us?”
“Don’t worry, we can go in our clothes. And I know a place where no one goes,”.
With that she skipped off of the path home and was gone through the mangroves. “Wait, Aaliyah!”
Fatuma thought for a second then tore after Aaliyah. She would at least see that this crazy girl did not come to any harm, killing herself on the jagged rocks. “Come!” Aaliyah beckoned from the trees, “ I’ll show you a secret!”
With difficulty they made their way through the trees and out on the other side. They walked along the limestone cliffs on a beach. Over a rocky parting they climbed and down on the other side. Fatuma tore her hand, but said nothing. She didn’t want Aaliyah to think she was a baby who cried at everything. On the other side of the parting was a beautiful, pearly beach. Only a few crooked palms stood there, bent with coconuts. forgotten by the world and by the pickers. It was low tide so they could hear the eerily noisy clicking of a hundred crabs and others sea-creatures. The retreated water revealed an eerie landscape, showing something that somehow was not meant to be shown. Small ripples in the sand that the wind had made, weeds and sea poppers, a few seacucumbers and starfish. There was wet slimy life all around.
They left their shoes and socks on the beach and raced each other out towards the waves. The intense heat and salt everywhere made it all so dreamlike. Was she in a dream? Aaliyah was laughing and laughing, it was as if the waves themselves and the breeze in the palmtrees were laughing with her. Finally reaching the water Fatuma stopped abruptly. But Aaliyah kept running until finally the water reached her thighs and she sat down, splash, on her bum. Fatuma laughed so hard she snorted. A wave knocked her over, the sheer power of them. She had never felt so free before. She took a few steps into the water. It felt heavenly. What was Bibi going to say though? Who cares, said a voice in her head. She remembered the muddy feeling of betrayal from earlier. Holding her breath, she ran out to where Aaliyah sat and splashed down beside her, school-uniform and all.
They had a great time splashing each other and diving inexpertly for a while. Fatuma kept turning around and looking up the beach to see if anyone was watching them. There was no one. Only, in the distance, Baba Kafil’s long row of red-painted sticks standing out of place in the middle of an adjacent beach. Once five years, usually right after the rains, Baba Kafil would go down to the beach and measure, and put down a new stick at the highest high tide. His father had done the same before him. There were at least thirty sticks now, a little way apart, forming a long row, creeping closer and closer to the jungle like attacking warriors. Sometimes, Baba Kafil would turn up at International Relations Teastop. There, he would thunder about the government, the worsening storms, the rising sea, the white man, the black man, the british, the german, the chinese and the coming of the endtimes, to anyone and everyone who would listen. People would mmmm and aaaah, shake and nod their heads accordingly. But then Baba Kafil forgot his outrage. So did anyone who had listened. There was too much to do.
After a long rest Aaliyah got up.
“Come on. You’re going to love it” she said.
“Isn’t this it?”
“No, there is a different thing. Come!”.
Fatuma followed obediently. Aaliyah led her a good way along the hidden beach. Then Fatuma saw something massive. She gasped.
A gargantuan stone claw stuck out of the sea. It was as tall as the cliff, at least 40 feet tall. It really looked like a claw, sharp edges, four fingers and a knife-edge thumb in hard rock. Fatuma had never seen anything like it.
Aaliyah had obviously seen it before, she did not even look up. She just waded around it, Fatuma close at her heels. And there was the opening to a large cave.
As the shadow of the cavemouth fell over them something changed in the air. Fatuma was filled with reverence and solemnity, like when entering the big Mosque in Stone Town she had been to with Bibi once. The mouth of the cave stuck out a little and swallowed them up in the mouth of benevolent toothless giant. They lifted up their skirts and waded through the knee-high water, into the cave. The water was crystal clear. She could see every detail of the limestone underneath, white and bubble-like, like sheep’s wool. It was in fact a little like walking into sheep’s wool. She touched the stone. It was unexpectedly soft, not rugged at all.
They went through a passage, then Fatuma stepped after Aaliyah into the cave proper.
“Bless me,” she murmured.
It was the most extraordinary, magical place she had ever seen. The room was the size of the entire fishmarket, oval shaped, with enticing passages leading off from it in every direction. The air felt fantastically cold and fresh, after the hot afternoon outside. Too high was the cave-ceiling, too high. Every sound, every drip-drop of water echoed a million times around the room with crystal correctness. The colours relaxed and unclenched every muscle in her body. The oker-yellow of the limestone, the diamantè-turqouise of the water.There were red-brown earthly patches, and brilliant, halo-patches of white light where the sun came through cracks in the ceiling.
With hushed voice Fatuma said: “Wow. It is so beautiful Aaliyah. It’s like…”
“Our very own palace. That no one but us knows about,”
“A limestone Palace”.
Had she, Fatuma, lived in Chambani all her life and never known about this place? It was so beautiful she wanted to cry. She felt so queer, no, she wanted to shout to tell the world about this place: “ALLOOOOOOOO!” she shouted.
Ahead of her, Aaliyah’s crab-claw laugh filled the whole hall, and echoed, shimmered all around with a purple sort of haze, vibrating the droplets running down the walls of the cave. Fatuma sniffed the air. The scent of jasmine perfume was emanating… straight out of the walls. It was… just like her sister’s perfume, her favorite sister’s perfume. How was the smell of her sister’s perfume coming out of the walls of this cave? It was probably just in her head, she was probably getting tiered. Or is this not a normal cave? She thought and frowned. But it was like frowning wasn’t allowed in here. It was hard to think in the hypnotic scent, unearthly space and echoes.
“I AM HEEEERE!”Shouted Aaliyah. “ALLOOOO!”
“ALLLOOOO! I AM HERE!” Fatuma repeated, forgetting all about thought.
“We are here!”
“We are here!”
“WE ARE HERE!”
They played tag among the rock formations for a while. But it was getting late. Less light came through the cracks in the ceiling and danced on the water. Finally Aaliyah said: “The water is rising. We have to go,”. Fatuma had not even noticed that the water was all of a sudden up to her thighs. How could it have risen that quickly?
That night Fatuma dreamt she was back in the cave. The reflection of the rocks shimmered in the crystal-clear water. But the water also reflected on the rocks. Then everything was shimmering reflections, like she had the sun in her eyes on a hot day. The only thing she could see clearly was Aaliyah’s face. Laughing and laughing, and beckoning her to follow.
All day at school Fatuma thought about the cave. It was like it was calling to her.
“Come to my house tonight,” said Aaliyah at recess. “Tell them you are visiting me, pretend I’m sick. I want to show you something.”
“Nini? More caves?”
“You’ll see.”smiled Aaliyah, eyes shining and goatskin-eyebrows flying up into her veil. The space underneath her eyebrows seemed to be bubbling. Impossible to say no to. They really did share a secret now.
So it was that Fatuma was making her way through the jungle after sunset. She did not like going out after dark, no one did. Except the teenagers from bad families in the next village over, who drank beer and played pool and touched each other before marriage. People talked about those kids. After dark all kinds of badness came out.
She moved slowly, fighting her fear with every step. Wearing long sleeves and a long skirt against the night and the jungle. But now she was hot. The air was so humid it was like breathing water. The mangroves seemed much taller than in daytime, their black shadows silhouetted against a greyer sky.
She should never have taken the short cut. It went past the Pujini ruins and the tomb, a tourist attraction, but forbidden ground for all Muslims. As she approached the imposing overgrown cylinders she took deeper and deeper breaths. She was trying to give the ruins a wide berth but the jungle was so thick on the other side of the path.
She did not want to loose the path. Come on, you are not a baby anymore, she told herself inwardly. She took a few steps on. In the dark the contours of weird stone formations rose up. On some she could just make out ancient inscriptions in different languages. Overgrown steps lead down to a forbidding low door.
Suddenly two silver lights flashed at her. She gasped and stumbled back into a slimy vine wrapped around the tree. Squelch! Said her shoe as her left foot sank into seawater and mud at the roots of the tree. Panicking she yelled and tried to untangle herself, but her foot was sucked stuck, the lights were moving now, facing her.
Then it hit her what they were and she gave a cry of relief. Mlinzi. Giant fruit bats, flying foxes, like shaggy street dogs with impossibly leathery wings. She had seen many dead ones, skinned and layed out for sale at the edge of the market. She had only seen one live one before, with her little brother. It had been the the size of her brother as he was then, hanging upside down from a tree wrapped in its black cloak with its street-dog face alert. Like something from the spirit world, something that should not be, especially in broad daylight.
Walinzi liked to hang around the old tombs because nobody went there, they could live in peace from the poachers. So people called them Walinzi, protectors.
She stood still for a while, breathing, waiting for her rabbit heart to settle. The jungle reduces us to who we really are, Bibi Kubwa had said in her last fever. Before she had passed on, Bibi Kubwa lay fighting dengue fever for weeks. Fatuma had been set to nurse her night and day. They would talk, or rather, Bibi Kubwa would talk at her. Don’t listen to her, its nonsense, the ravings of a mad woman, Bibi had said. But Fatuma hadn’t thought it was nonsense.
She got back on the path, gave a quick courtesy to Mlinzi, just in case, and hurried on. The trees cast long shadows. All the familiar sounds were changed, even the constant, soothing sound of the waves lapping against the beach in the distance seemed somehow eerie. The hooting of the colobus sounded like the wailing of unhappy ghouls from the stories she had been told as a child. The clicking of the crabs was almost deafening now there were no human sounds to drown them out, and menacing. Her foot squelched with every step. All the bad things would know exactly where she was.
She seemed to catch glimpses of the bad things in the corner of her eye. Following her in the shadows by the side of the path. Maybe creatures of the jungle, maybe jinns. Jinns from the stories, stretching out their shady tentacles, trying to possess her, to make her a bad girl.
But every time she whipped her head around to see them clearly they were gone. Solidified into rocks and stones and trees once more. Every time she looked she would move faster onwards. Faster and faster until she was straight out running, faster and faster, the tentacles of jinns just missing her, pulling at her skirt and the corner of her veil.
“But child, you are wet!” These were Auntie Miriams first words to her ever. Fatuma had been pounding on her door in absolute panic. Auntie was a roundfaced woman who smiled with her eyes, who filled the whole breadth of the doorframe. She was not wearing a veil at home and her hair was nearly all grey, pulled back in a lumpy bun at her neck. Fatuma had never really looked at Auntie Miriam before, she realized. Auntie Miriam was just there. From the hut came the gorgeous smell of freshly baked chapati.
Fatuma looked down at her feet and began: “Shikamo Aunite-”
“Marhaba, now take of that shoe and sock and give them to me. ”
The shivering Fatuma was bustled through the door, onto a stool and under a blanket. Aaliyah had appeared over Auntie’s shoulder, beaming. She was easily a head taller than Auntie already.
After a change of footwear and a heavenly evening meal of chapati and rice, and Auntie Miriams own recipe for hot spicy tea, Fatuma could not for the world imagine what she had been so afraid of in the jungle. She felt a little embarrassed to have arrived in such palpable dishevelment.
Auntie Miriam had sat herself on a stool outside the hut and busied herself with cleaning Fatuma’s shoes. Her steady brushing mixed with the song of the crickets, like a soothing evening orchestra.
“Come, let me show you,” chirped Aaliyah, waving her over to a corner of the one-room hut. The hut was small but extremely clean. There was a table and three stools, cooking utensils, a big pot. Two mattresses on the floor in opposite corners of the room. Fatuma suddenly felt ashamed of the bedframe that her and her sister shared.
It was clear who’s was who’s mattress. One was made, tidied and neat, with a bottle of water and a copy of the quran placed carefully next to it. The other was unmade and in wild disarray, chips packets, cheap jewlery, sweet-wrappers and books, so many books, were strewn all over it. Most of the books were in english, she could recognize some of the ones Mrs. Mawji had given her: “The legal foundation of the union” by Issa Shivji, “Woman, Land and Custom in Tanzania,” by Helen Dancer, “We should all be feminists” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and many more that Fatuma had never heard about. Over the bed there were hung newspaper clippings of different magazine-stars and rappers, one of future-looking young girl with weapons called “Aja-AdannaShuri”. Fatuma had never heard about her. Was she real?
Fatuma stared and stared. All of her and her sisters’ newspaper clippings were hidden well away. Auntie Miriam must be very kind, or else, not know what any of the titles of the books were or what the newspaper-clippings represented.
The hut smelled of fishsauce, oil, sweat and other body-smells, intensely female. Fatuma wiped her upper lip. The little hut suddenly felt hot, even though it was cool enough outside in the night air. Aaliyah was rummaging around under her mattress.
“Have you read all those books?” asked Fatuma. Aaliyah ignored her question.
“Here it is! Come, look. We can only use it for 30 minutes, Auntie said.”
Fatuma went over and plunked down on the messy bed next to Aaliyah. From the depths of the mattress Aaliyah had pulled a sleak blue-silver thing with a chord attached. It gleamed in the oil lamp, reminding Fatuma of a Blue Trevalley fish, before it is properly killed. Aaliyah pressed a button. Fatuma blinked at the brightness as the screen turned on.
“Wooooow. Uliiba wapi?” asked Fatuma. Aaliyah chuckled happily.
“I’m a good girl, I don’t steal. Auntie had it the whole time, to call mom while she was alive.”
Very few people in Chambani had smart-phones. Most of the fishermen had older, screen-less phones to call their clients, that was about it. And here was poor Auntie Miriam, the peanut-lady who lived in a one-roomed hut and took in washing, with a sleek Blue-trevalley-smartphone hidden in her mattress all along.
“We charge it with the solar panel on the roof,” continued Aaliyah. “And never show it so no one will break in and steal it.”
Fatuma felt honored that Auntie Miriam and Aaliyah were showing her this great family secret, this treasure. She could not take her eyes away from the little people on the screen.
“Who are they?” she asked, nodding towards the phone. Two women were seated at a tiny table there. They had short, colourful, fashionable dresses, painted faces and mighty wigs.
“NanaYaa and I don’t know the other one,” said Aaliyah. “I downloaded this new series. You want to see??”
“Um..” said Fatuma, wiping her upper lip again, Bibi’s disapproving face looming in front of her eyes. This was definitely in Bibi’s category of ‘corrupting nonsense’. But Aaliyah pressed play without waiting.
I could swear the housegirl is stealing my bras, said the girl on the screen.
From then on all thoughts of Bibi were gone, Fatume fell headfirst into the action on the screen. She could feel her lips parting and jaw slacking but she did not care, nothing mattered but the girls on the screen. Mostly, they seemed to be having cocktails and chatting to each other in a drawling english. Aaliyah translated some of the difficult words. Aaliyah laughed when the girls on the screen laughed. And shook her head and tut-tutted and sucked her teeth when the girls on the screen did.
“Tena!” squeaked Fatuma as soon as the second episode was over. But Aaliyah was already shaking her head: “Only ten minutes left. We will have to charge it tomorrow,”
“That was awesome, guuuurl!” said Fatuma, enthralled, imitating the little screen-women and poking Aaliyah in the side. A tickling-match ensued, while they talked to each other in random quotes from the series in a nonsense conversation:
The sex is just a perk!
Oh, you mean daddies driver…
I was a single, independent woman in New York, you know!
Boss, can I get a coke with no ice please, just lemon… and make it fresh.
Fatuma laughed so much her stomach cramped. They fooled around some more, playing with filters on the phone camera, even though the thing was almost out of battery. One where they both suddenly were wearing witches hats, one where they had beards. Aaliyah threw her head back and gave an unladylike snort at a filter which made them both bald. And that’s when it happened.
The image of them, Fatuma and Aaliyah, began twinkling in a purple sort of way. But it didn’t stop there, the twinkling was suddenly all around the hut. Purple and second hand. Like light reflected in a clear pool of water, reflected on a cave wall. The smell of Jasmine-perfume filled the air…
“How are you doing that, Aaliyah!?”
Aaliyah had recovered from her laughing fit. Looking around the room her smile vanished. She stared at Fatuma.
“I am not doing anything. The phone can’t do that.”
Fatuma’s insides suddenly turned icy. They both squinted into the screen again. In the phone-mirror Fatuma noticed that her and Aaliyah’s images began to blur. They blurred together, until they were one. One bright-eyed highbrowed face. Laughing, laughing cruelly, even though neither one of them were laughing any longer in real life. A firework of happy expectations, golden and red, exploded inside Fatuma’s chest. But she knew they were not her own. They were Aaliyah’s.
SLAM! Both girls screamed. It was Auntie Miriam coming through the door of the hut. Fatuma had to hold her face and breathe, Aaliyah tucked the phone away under the mattress again.
“Such giggly, jumpy girls I have never heard of!” smiled Auntie Miriam, brushing off her hands. In a sudden fear Fatuma looked up and around the room. But the purple cave-light was gone. She took a couple of deep steadying breaths.
“It’s getting late. I think it is time for you to go home, Fatuma or I won’t be able to look your grandmother in the face,” said Auntie Miriam.
Aaliyah gave her a long hug and a bracing smile at the door. “Send my very best greetings to your parents,” said Auntie Miriam, sticking a small bag of fresh chapati into her hand, “tell them I will bring their washing tomorrow”. Fatuma had had no idea Auntie Miriam was washing clothes for her own family. Where was she getting fresh water? People like Auntie Miriam always made it work. Made it work on the quiet like, on the downlow, without any fuss, just keeping their heads down and getting on with it, until ends met, untill she could buy a real-life smartphone.
As the door closed Fatuma stood alone in the noisy jungle darkness, feeling wretched. Something was definitely going on. What had that purple light been? Were they being punished? Had they released some sort of jinn from that Limestone Palace and now it was possessing them? She blinked hard, biting back tears. She felt so deathly frightened and yet so curious, and she knew her curiosity, about Aaliyah, the cave, the boys, the phone, everything, could not be fought. It was too strong in her.
And why should I, she said loudly to the crickets: “why should I?” . Why should anyone do anything in this horrid world. As an answer, her grandmother loomed large in front of her internal eyes again. What happens if we don’t do what we’re supposed to, it asked silently. Jinns and shame, jinns and shame, it sang in answer to itself. But perhaps that is better, thought Fatuma. Better than joining the forgotten endless nothingness that was everyday life. If this was her, Fatuma’s, fate, she must follow it, she thought. At least then, she might become a good story that people would remember. She swallowed. Then she took up a sprinters start position, took a deep breath and sprinted down the path, sprinted all the way past the ancient ruins, past the Mlinzi with its watchful eyes.
The following weeks things became stranger and stranger. Fatuma began to change. She was seldom at home to help. Either playing with the phone at Auntie Miriam’s hut, chatting to the boys (she had begun actually talking now) or down at the palace. She knew sisters and cousins were whispering. The whole village was whispering. But she did not care.
The cave had become like a second home. It always gave them something new and exciting to explore. Fatuma contentedly followed Aaliyah through passage after passage, from hall to hall, then another. One more beautiful than the next. One was shimmery pink, rocks and water the colour of bubble gum. The water was warm like in a bath and smelled soapy. Bubbles spurted out of a fountain-shaped stalagmite. They splashed around in the warm water and tried to catch them.
In another hall, a moss of some kind had taken over and everything shimmered light green like spring-grass. There, Fatuma reached out and stroked a stone formation. It stuck right up from the cavefloor like a twisted coconut palm. All around them the stone stretched out in formations that almost resembled something but not quite. Looking at them was confusing to the mind. They resembled dancing women, growing trees, cattle, flying saucers, skyscrapers even. But not quite, like they were statues, never finished. Like they were waiting for something, someone, to finish creating them. In some places the rock was rugged and hung down in knifesharp points, or stuck right up from the floor. Scary, yet enticing. Some places it was soft and stuck up in round cylinders, catching rays of sun on top. Like a pedestal for a long-forgotten crown. There were cobwebs and scuttling creatures in the light shadows, and once something blind and milky-white brushed Fatuma’s naked foot.
In one of the halls, Aaliyah and Fatuma found drawings on the cave wall in some blood red paint stuff. “People did this, long ago,” said Aaliyah.
“What is it?” Fatuma asked.
She had never seen anything like it before. It looked like the drawings of a small-child. There was a fat stick figure, and two thin ones, and then drawings of cows, fish, monkeys and what seemed to be a leopard.
“My little brother can draw better,” Fatuma said, trying to sound cool and unphased, “And look at this one. There are no leopards in Zanzibar.”
“There used to be,” said Aaliyah matter-of-factly, “Come on, rub it for luck,”. They both stretched out their hands and rubbed the drawing for luck. As they did all the water-reflections around them turned jungle-green. The seemed to hear the far off echo of a jungle-cat roar resounding through the halls. We are part of the flow of finite energy in the universe, Bibi Kubwa had said in her last fever. Fatuma could not trust her senses in here.
“This place…” Fatuma whispered hoarsely.
“Isn’t it amazing?”
“Yes Aaliyah, it is beautiful. But… there is some kind of… uchawi here.”
There really was. She could feel it in the walls, it was the same tingling feeling like at the house of a medium she had visited with Bibi once when one of her small brothers was sick. There was something here. What would Bibi say if she knew where she, Fatuma, was spending her afternoons. What would they say at Madrassa? It was definitely outside the teachings, and Bibi had told them all to stay away from all kinds of black magic. Despite the fact that she herself always took them to the medium first and the hospital 50 kilometers away second, any time there was something wrong with any of the family.
“You can go if you like?” said Aaliyah shrugging her shoulders.
Fatuma’s cheeks turned red. She shook her head violently. She was not a baby.
Suddenly one day, Aaliyah was done with the boys. “Let’s not go down and chat with them today, lets go straight to the cave. Boys are stupid. ”
“You didn’t seem to think so yesterday,” scoffed Fatuma.
“They are stupid, but it’s fun to talk to them sometimes, and they all fall in love with me,”.
Fatuma giggled. “But you will marry one some day whether you like it or not.”
“Me I never want to marry,” said Aaliyah non-chalantly. Fatuma’s eyes grew wide. She could feel the blood draining from her face.
“How can you say that Aaliyah? You have to marry.”
“No I don’t,” she said resolutely, “it’s a free country. I am not going to marry anyone,”
Fatuma glanced around them. Thankfully no one was within earshot, but you never knew for sure in the village.
“But how will you support yourself Aaliyah? Who will do the fishing?”
Now it was Aaliyah’s turn to scoff. “Ha! Fishing. I am going to be a lawyer. For women, to help women. In the big city. And live by myself, and no one will support me but me. I leave the fishing to idiots like Ipyana.”
Fatuma was so shocked she could not speak. Never, in her life, had she considered that not getting married was an option. Not in this way. Not being chosen to be married was, a terrible option, a disgrace. For fallen women and the like. Her mind could not process how it was possible for Aaliyah to want to be unmarried. Before she could said any of this Aaliyah was skipping down the dirtpath towards the secret beach.
In the cave they found another new hall that day. There was a large cylinder sticking up from the floor and in the middle of it a depression. Water dripped down from stalagmites in the roof into the basin.
“Can I offer the lady a cocktail?”
Aaliyah cupped her hands and dipped them into the basin.
“A-…A drink,” smiled Aaliyah.
“What are you doing Aaliyah?!” shouted Fatuma. For Aaliyah had lifted her cupped hands to her lips and was drinking greedily. Everyone knew saltwater was not to be drunk. But Aaliyah just giggled happily.
“It’s fresh, don’t worry. Come, taste. Have a cocktail with me,”
Fatuma began to wade forward. Then something weird happened. Her wading slowed down, like she was carrying a heavy weight around her foot. And around her the hall itself began to change. Fatuma gave a gasp as the surroundings changed before her eyes. The mossy rock formations stretched and grew. They become what they not-quite-were and she could almost hear them sighing with pleasure at the transformation. Some stretched high up and became giant skyscrapers. Some flew off the wall and became flying… things. They looked like tiny spacecrafts for one person. And little people were inside! Zooming unconcernedly across the sky, some talking on mobiles, some staring boredly ahead. And the sky, where had the sky come from? And the water she was walking in had dried up, suddenly she was standing on a pavement, busy people in business-suits were walking past her in all directions at a brisk pace, talking into wireless headphones, some straight out running. There was so much noise and bustle, Fatuma instinctively cupped her ears. She tried to scream, but nothing came out.
“Come,” said Aaliyah’s voice. Fatuma looked up ahead and found Aaliyah standing at a table, at a little corner bar. Only… she did not look like Aaliyah. Or, she looked like a new, and even better version of Aaliyah. She seemed older. Her veil was silk and colour bright orange. She had big hooped earrings. She was wearing a business-suit, complete with glossy high-heels and trousers. Trousers!
Fatuma hurried over, pushing her way through the throng of people. “Aaliyah, what is happening!”
Aaliyah looked around. She did not seem as shocked and distraught as Fatuma. “Oh this happens sometimes. It is the palace. It let’s us play.”
“Where are we? Are we still in the cave?”
“I think so. Kind of. Maybe it’s the future? I like these trousers…”
“The future??” Tears of horror began to run down Fatuma’s cheeks. “I don’t understand! Anything! This place is bad! How will we get home?”
“Oh no, don’t cry Fatuma,” said Aaliyah sympathetically. She wiped Fatuma’s tears from her face with the palms of her hand. Fatuma’s breathing eased up a little. “Better? Here, have some of this.”
Aaliyah shoved a waterglass across the table. Fatuma had a shaky sip. It tasted fantastic. Sweet, minerally water. No salt. She took another sip. Then she emptied the whole glass. She felt much better.
Aaliyah was smiling at her. “Here, look at me! All grown up! Look at my outfit!”
Fatuma smiled weakly. “You look ridiculous,” she said. Then, for the first time since they had known each other, Aaliyah looked a little hurt.
“Sorry,” said Fatuma, “It’s just… Trousers are for men. Or bad women.”
“I wear what I want to wear,” barked Aaliyah.
An Arab waiter appeared at their shoulder and put down two new glasses of the sweet minerally-water. Fatuma gathered her courage and glanced out of the bar and down the street. There were thousands of busy people walking along it, flying transport vehicles landing and taking off, massive screens mounted on building advertising coca cola and Woolworths, miles and miles of concrete jungle. She withdrew her gaze quickly breathing hard. It was easier to focus on what was inside the bar. Women with giant afros and men in strange green suits, all laughing and talking, enjoying afternoon drinks in the city. Were they spirits, she wondered. Was she a spirit too here?
“Let’s play like now I’m a lawyer just done from work,” said Aaliyah, who had apparently recovered her good mood, “And we are friends meeting for cocktails in the big city. Ask me how my day was, babe.” The last sentence Aaliyah spoke in perfect english.
“So…this is like…your future dream we are in or something?”
“How was your day.” Fatuma echoed in her broken english.
“You have to say “babe””
“How was your day, babe.”
“Oh-my-God, so crazy,” drawled Aaliyah in an accent Fatuma had never heard her use before. “I had to be in court in the morning then two new clients came in during the afternoon. I took them both pro bono, they were rape victims. It’s going to be a long fight but you know me babe, tough as nails on those bastards!”
Fatuma blinked several times, stunned by all this new English vocabulary flowing seamlessly out of Aaliyah’s mouth.
“Ask me how its going with that new guy babe,” said Aaliyah.
“Me how it’s going with that guy new babe,” mimed Fatuma.
“I’m going to need another drink to tell you that hon! K-K-K-K!” Aaliyah laughed a high pitched, fake laugh. Aaliyah turned around and beckoned to the Arab waiter. That instant Fatuma felt a mighty cold around her waist. The sensation bobbing upwards and downwards. Water.
“Let’s go home,” she said to Aaliyah in Kiswahili. This was not right, she could feel it in her bones.
“Why? Do you have an early start tomorrow babe?” Aaliyah replied in english.
“Stop it Aaliyah, I mean it. This is stupid, we got to get out of here!”
“Who are you calling stupid? I’m staying, you can go,”
“It’s not real Aaliyah,” as she spoke the world around them began to dissolve. The buildings shrank, the people blurred into patterns on rock, “We are in a limestone cave. On Pemba. This is not real. And we need to go home”. As she spoke she grabbed Aaliyah by the arm and yanked her from the table and out of the bar.
They both fell forward, splashing into waist high water.
They were back in the cave. “I hate you!” Cried Aaliyah, “I hate this stupid village!”
Fatuma ignored her. The water was waist deep, they needed to find the way out quickly. After a few false starts, dragging Aaliyah behind her through the myriads of passages and halls with a pounding heart, she finally got them out. They had to swim as they came out of the cavemouth, back to the hidden beach.
They lay panting for a while. The sun was setting. Fatuma would get the hiding of her life when she came home, she knew. “Sorry for what I said,” Aaliyah muttered after a while.
“No worries.” said Fatuma. Her head was spinning. “I don’t think we should go back to the palace for a while,”.
They walked together to the parting in the road. Then, with a weak shamefaced smile, Aaliyah dragged herself down the dirtroad towards Auntie Miriam’s hut. She seemed somehow smaller.
Something had to give. Fatuma could no longer ignore the looks she and Aaliyah were recieving as they walked through the fishmarked, nor the comments. Mrs. Mawji was sighing a lot and had bags under her eyes. Fatuma knew she had looked at other schools for Aaliyah, better schools. But there were no spaces and hard competition, and besides, those schools asked for stiff tuition fees. Even if they sold the smartphone, Fatuma thought, it would not cover half a year in one of those places.
Something had to give. But Fatuma never imagined the reckoning would come like it did.
It was a tuesday before school. Above, a pregnant yellow sky shook herself menacingly. She was more than irritated, she huffed and grumbled, but as yet it only drizzled. Fatuma hoped she would wait with the real rain until they were safe inside the classroom. The smells in the air and unexpected bursts of cold air from the ocean told her it would not be long.
On the little recess under the classroom window, porous concrete, Fatuma sat alone. The other girls, the almost-friends, had long since stopped talking to her. But she hadn’t seemed to have noticed before today. They stood around the schoolyard in clumps of four or five. Whispering, yawning a little, chattering aimlessly. Just another tuesday.
Fatuma returned her attention to the scab on her arm, bringing it right up to her face to pick. Little brother had gleefully bitten her as she was changing his diaper a few days ago, it hadn’t drawn much blood but healed and now turned into a painful scab. Impossible to leave alone. Today it was itchy, the salt from the sea and the humidity, skin was never properly dry.
With a shaky thumb and forefinger she picked off a miniscule fold of dead skin. Quickly threw it into her mouth and bit it to pieces. Strange satisfaction. Began on the next, careful to not rip the new skin. If it didn’t heal properly perhaps she would ask Auntie Miriam for some of that plant from the jungle that healed cuts and wounds overnight.
Did not see Aaliyah coming, too busy with her scab. It was the noise, or lack thereof, that finally made her look up. Every fresh face was turned towards the school gate. All the cliques had fallen silent. She swivelled her neck to see just as mother sky gave a nasty bellow.
Aaliyah was walking towards the school, her face in a book. Fatuma had never understood how Aaliyah could read and walk at the same time, but there it was. Some of the girls giggled nervously, Noor, the boldest, spat quietly on the ground and made an open mouthed face to her friend standing next to her. Fatuma gasped when she finally saw what everyone was gawking at.
Aaliyah stopped to put her book away in her bag. Then she sauntered towards Fatuma, smiling, ignoring the stares and whispers, with all the time in the world. -Kahaba, snarled Noor audibly, and spat again. As Aaliyah came closer Fatuma felt cornered, a dik-dik caught in a trap, nowhere to run. Her rabbit-heart took off, she could feel her wet and shiny face filling with hot pounding blood.
Aaliyah sat down next to her.
Fatuma stared ahead, wide-eyed. Untill normal-tempoed talk and whispers and pointing ensued around the schoolyard.
-Why are you wearing… that, she asked finally, so quietly it was barely audible.
-Nini? Aaliyah cooed in her playful tones.
Fatuma only shot her an infuriated glance as reply.
-Oh the jeans?, said Aaliyah in english, – I asked Miriam to get me some from town. She did the last time she went, aren’t they just gorgeous?
To add insult to injury Aaliyah had only used Auntie Miriam’s given name. Like they were friends, like they were equals. Fatuma allowed herself to cast a terrified look down. The jeans were a light blue, like the sea at sunrise on clear days. It hugged Aaliyah’s body tight, her thin calves, her thighs and buttock. Right up on the hip there was sown on a tiny bright red emblem. It looked like a child’s drawing of a spaceship. Before she could stop herself Fatuma had reached out her scabbed arm and felt the material. Rough, like unvarnished wood. She looked up into Aaliyah’s beaming face. Aaliyah gave a little laugh, an inviting kind of laugh, inviting Fatuma to share in the joke. But Fatuma could not laugh. She could not speak, even. She just shook her head slowly, looking at Aaliyah hard with her terrified corned dik-dik-eyes. Aaliyah’s smile faded. Suddenly, Fatuma felt her heart breaking a little for this girl, for her friend. Mrs. Mawji rang the bell.
Mrs. Mawji was busy with papers when they came in and sat down, so she did not notice the sensational garment. She only noticed that there was a decided atmosphere in the classroom as she began the lesson. And Noor, that bloodthirsty hyena, could not keep quiet. As soon as the lesson began her hand shot straight into the air.
-Mrs. Mawji, I think you should be informed please.
-What should I be informed of Noor?
– You probably did not notice but one student is not wearing correct school uniform, miss.
There was nodding and mumbling around the room.
– Alright, said Mrs. Mawji, – Is it you, Noor? Do you need to go home and change?
The girl went red in the face at once.
-No, miss, of course not! Miss… Aaliyah is wearing jeans!
The damning words had been blurted out in a rush. Now a pin-drop silence fell around the room. 20 round pairs of eyes shone up at Mrs. Mawji, expectantly.
– Aaliyah, she said finally, -Would you please stand up?
Aaliyah rose at once, chin in the air. She was a tall girl, thought Mrs. Mawji, she stood quite as tall as Mrs. Mawji herself. Mrs. Mawji glanced at the jeans. She had to actively fight back a smile. She was going to reprimand the girl when she caught the look in her eye. It was not defiant, as she had expected. The girls eyes flickered with gold-leaf, a warmth which invited her in rather than shut her out. Like sunbeams in a pool of water, reflected on a cave wall. Mrs. Mawji was suddenly transported back to her own youth, a mad sense of freedom, a forbidden trip to the cinema….
-The school regulations stipulate that students should wear blue bottoms. These look blue to me, Noor. Please don’t interrupt my class with irrelevancies again, I am trying to teach you some things that actually matter.
Mrs. Mawji turned away from the dumbstruck gazes, and Noor’s now tomato-coloured face. She resumed her lesson, a secret smile in her heart.
The delicious news that the new girl had come to school wearing jeans like a common prostitute spread around the village like wildfire. Over pots of chai tongues waggled so hard they threatened to fall off. All gossip was good gossip in Chambani, the markedwomen gulped down every little crumb they got. This was better than who had worn what and visited whom for Id-al-fitr, better than the best stories of fishermen surviving against all odds on stormy seas. A possessed girl in their very own village. Poisoning the youth with sex and immorality.
People were not trying to speak quietly anymore.
Dirty blood, bad family, no better than city-whores.
As she and Aaliyah stopped by the marked on the way home, Fatuma noticed the change in the winds. The coconut-man was still friendly, but the mango-Auntie had plainly refused to sell to them, saying she ran a respectable business for respectable people. On the other side of the oval market-space, on of the fattest, most permanently furious marketwoman, Mama Ibrahim, had actually clambered onto a crate and was holding an impromptu appeal.
– Jini amechukua! Mabinti wetu wako hatarini, she yelled to the rowdy crowd. -Mungu mkuu mbinguni anatujaribu. Lazima tuifukuze nje!
Aaliyah and Fatuma were trying to skirt around the edges of the market but the builderman whos name Fatuma did not know saw them and shouted:
-She is there! MCHAWI!
Fatuma froze, rabbit-heart leaping, gripping Aaliyah by the arm, several others joined in the chant: MCHAWI! MCHAWI! MCHAWI!
A tomato whizzed through the air, it did not hit them but landed at Aaliyah’s feet. Surprisingly, the tomato had not broken or splattered, or so Fatuma thought at first. But then a single drop of red juice began to trickle from it, meandering and leaving a bloodred path through the grey dust.
Then: EH-EH! The sweet-voiced Imam Karume came out of nowhere, he was running, actually running across the marketplace, his Abaya flying and thin hairy calves visible underneath. Fatuma had never seen an Imam run before. They could not hear what he shouted at the crowd, but his face was purple. The crowd immediately quieted. Vegetables were lowered and necks were scratched.
“Come on, lets go” whispered Fatuma and gripped Aaliyah’s arm a little too hard. Aaliyah wrenched herself loose and began to run, Fatuma close at her heels. They ran, as one, all the way home.
It was getting late. The kiddies were in bed, Babu was snoring. The cirisses ss-ss-ss’ed for dear life, something howled from the jungle. The concrete floor of the courtyard was cold under Fatuma’s hips and hands. She had managed to get herself up into a half seated position. Her side ached from where Babu’s belt had hit her, but her face was the worst. It burned like hot coals where the back of Bibi’s hand had connected with it. She wondered if it would leave a mark. Would the other girls see it at school?
Bibi’s figure was veiled in shadow where it stood towering over Fatuma. Fatuma could only manage to look at the bottom of her Kanga and sandals.
“Mmm.” she murmured weakly.
The shame she felt seemed to have paralysed her throat.
“Ngoja nikusikie ukisema.” demanded Bibi, for some reason her voice was shaking.
Fatuma opened her mouth to obey. But had to swallow down bile a few times before she managed: “I will not see the strange new witch-girl again. I will not be friends with her. If I do I will no longer be a daughter of this family.”
Without another word Bibi turned and waddled through the door into her bedroom. Fatuma dragged herself on to a free mat in the courtyard. The mat was almost as cold as the concrete floor. There she lay, looking up at the star-dome. Gulping down the shame. She could hear little brother crying on the other side of the courtyard. She hoped he wasn’t too frightened. She had to think of something else to keep away the tears. Stars. She knew every single star was a sun. If every star was a sun, there must be just an impossible number of other planets out there. It was so unfathomably endless. Just space and silence, one could sail forever and ever through the nothingness. There could be anything out there. Even other life, other gods, other girls, like her, other Aaliyah’s. Like travelling across the ocean, always longing, jumping endlessly between havens under different suns.
“I can’t be your friend anymore” screeched Fatuma.
A ciriss had lodged in her voice since last night and made everything that came out a screechy screech. Today it was Aaliyah’s sandals and the bottom of her new jeans Fatuma was staring at. She could not move her eyes an inch or she would burst into flame, she just knew it.
Around them the school courtyard buzzed with clattering feet, laughter and squeals. Bibi’s hand had not made a visible mark as she had feared. But her face was slightly swollen and her left eye a little contracted. A trained eye, and there were many of them around in this schoolyard, would see what had happened to Fatuma last night. The shame burned her insides like acid.
“That’s fine,” said Aaliyah, “Don’t worry about it. I don’t need friends like you anyway”.
With that, Aaliyah’s sandal turned on it’s heel and she was gone. She was gone.
My rage is the color of grief today, but it feels safe for it to roam and it is very beautiful, Bibi Kubwa had said in her last fever.
When Mrs. Mawji rang the bell for the next period, Aaliyah wasn’t there. She stopped coming to school from that day on.
The days went by, like waves, like they should. But it was as if they had been drained of all colour. Without Aaliyah, food tasted like cardboard, the jasmine and cloves smelt sweet and sickly, the sun was dull and the birdsong menacing.
Bibi tried to cheer her up one night by telling her, with a flourish and a dish with meat in it, that they had found a boy her age from a good family in a neighbouring village, a distant cousin. Negotiations were ongoing and the prospects were good. The families had settled that they would be intended to be intended, talks would ensue again in a few years when Fatuma finished school. Bibi would even take her to visit the family. Fatuma tried to smile as she thanked her grandmother in an endless flow of words without meaning. But she could see that Bibi could see that the smile did not include her eyes. Next time she must try to narrow them as well, lips curved upwards and narrow the eyes so it looked like they were a part of the smile.
The boy was nice enough. Half a year younger than her. She peeped through a crack in the door, having been sent to the other room, as Bibi, her aunties and two of her sisters met with his people, and with him. He yawned and looked around a few times, then occupied himself with a chewing gum wrapper he pulled out of his pocket. Seemed nice enough. Yet she couldn’t seem to muster up much enthusiasm for the proceedings. In fact, she could not seem to muster up much enthusiasm for anything these days. All she could think about was: where was Aaliyah? Was she at home with Auntie Miriam? Or was she spending all her time in the palace? This worried Fatuma, she was unsure exactly why.
Time passed like a slug across the jungle-path. Grey days counting seconds at her desk at school, drawing tiny lines for each second to pass the time, a group of five lines done twelve times was a minute. Endless visits, a ghostlike existence, flitting between the patterned kangas-bottoms of grown-up women.
Time passed by like a slug. She knew she was growing pale and thin, she did not like to eat anymore. After a few bites she divided her portion between little brother and little sister and surreptitiously shovled the rest of her portions onto their plates, where they were hoovered up without question. She started to go down to the beach and sit long hours just staring out at the waves. Their droning calmed her. It never ended. It would never end as long as she lived. When she was gone, the waves would drone on, when her children and her children’s children had been and gone, the waves would drone on and on and on.
Endless hours stretching out across the jungle-path like the slime of a passing slug. The girls at school had on a few occasions graciously condescended to ask Fatuma to play the ballgame with them. But she had said no. No thank you. She wasn’t feeling well. She was busy with schoolwork. Now she just sat by herself during recess. Staring down towards the droning waves, dreaming of being dead and feelingless like them.
She was a slug sliding her slow way across the jungle-path. That was all she was, a slow spiritless slug trying to get to the other side, to the silent dark, away from all the incessant noise that was this life on earth. She lay awake night after night and sweated the sheets soaking wet. Bibi bellowed and bellowed for her to get up in the morning, to stop worrying her and the aunties and her sisters, to behave herself. Fatuma could not see any point in opening her mouth to answer, slugs do not need to express. Then Bibi changed her tune. She cried and wailed and bellowed some more. The wailing was almost like music. Sometimes nothing moves in me but the music, Bibi Kubwa had said in her last fever: In the end, the music is all that there is. Why could she, Fatuma, hear Bibi Kubwa so clearly? Was this her own last fever?
Family members came, stared down at her and went, talking in undertones in the other room. The doctor came and went, then the other, special, doctor came and went. Her blood-pressure taken, they forced her to chew roots and pills, drink broth and brew. Only Fatuma knew what was really wrong with her. A simple punishment, for abandoning a comrade. For leaving a friend in need. The only real friend she had ever had. The only person who really meant anything. For what? For sliding along the jungle-path. She deserved every last feverchill.
The paper bird sat on the windowsill. The whole female-family was out on a visit, only a Dada had been left in the house to look after her, Fatuma. And Dada had taken off to see her boyfriend the second Dada had seen the family of. One of the countless remedies must be working, for Fatuma was sitting up in bed, reading a book. Suddenly the paper bird was just there. Perched on the windowsill. The breeze took it quick and blew it inside, onto the floor. Fatuma flew out of bed so fast, the whole room reared and spun, she had to lie back down on the bed and breath heavily for it to stop. But she had the paper bird clenched in her hand. It burned like hot coals.
She lay very still for a long time. She could feel her heart, that little rabbit, bouncing wildly through the underbrush. The note could only have come from one person after all. Be still, little rabbit, she thought. Be still so I can read, and know for sure.
At last, little rabbit slowed its pace. Fatuma took a few deep breaths, wiped the sweat from her eyes. Then she opened her hand. The note had been delicately shaped like a small bird, a golden weaver. Mrs. Mawji had tried to teach them how to shape birds out of paper in class one day. Most of the pieces of paper, including Fatuma’s, had turned into deformed swampmonsters. Only one pupil had managed to make a row of perfect mnana weaver birds in paper.
Like this one, sitting on her windowsill. But now, it was crushed, murdered, mutilated, by her Fatuma. It deserved to fly free.
Concentrate woman, she said aloud to herself. The fever made it really hard to keep her mind from meandering out onto all kinds of slippery piers. Nonsense, talking about murdered weaver birds and whatnot. She had a note and she must read it. That was what was happening, in reality, right now.
She carefully unwrapped the bird. Just one short sentence:
Girl! Meet me in the third hall of the palace:)
Girl. Girl. What those tiny women from Lagos called each other on Auntie Miriam smartphone screen. With an exclamation point. High pitch, with a neck jerk and eyebrows, they had practiced. Girl!
Nothing had changed, yet everything had changed. The deep pink bougainvilla still bobbed easy on the salty breeze outside her window. And now, the scent of the flowers, chicken-feed cooking-spices could suddenly be detected on the air again. The cattle bells, their soft mooing, the rustle of the chickens, the unearthly hoots and elaborate melodies from the jungle, it all streamed through her window like a favorite song, suddenly remembered.
The afternoon sun shone down on the world, a friendly golden light, a warm light, she longed for it. Yet she dressed without hurry. Layed out her best dress, as if this was a feastday or she was going to the Mosque. The black one with little silver and gold foe-diamonds all down the front. She bathed herself in the water basin, it felt unbelievably good to get clean from all the sweat and stench of disease. Ruby-red bangles and anklets, a ruby-red hijab to match. Under a loose brick behind big-sister’s wardrobe, a cherry flavored lipgloss. Finally, a little too much of sister’s jasmine-perfume and a glance in the broken sliver of mirror. She looked like she had never been sick at all.
Then, Fatuma sprang familiarly through her bedroom window. She knew the Dada was with her boyfriend, but just in case Dada or one of her sisters came back just then to collect something she went through the window. She avoided all the main paths where she could meet people on the way down to the beach, taking long side-routes through the forest.
Several times she had to stop to catch her breath. Yet she felt much better being outside. The sun stroked her cheek every time she emerged from the shadow of the trees. She longed for the water. And the wind, the real wind, the healthy wind that gave fresh heart.
She tried not to think too much. Wondering what Aaliyah would say, if she was still angry, what she, Fatuma, would say when she got there, all these thoughts would send her mind out on the slippery piers again. All her focus had to be on walking, on putting one foot in front of the other, on choosing paths. Yet something churned in her stomach, a big painful what-if, churning around and biting itself in the tail.
Through the trees she could see the big white open space of the beach at last. She quickened her pace and literally burst onto the sand. Somehow she was on her knees, the wind, the real, hearty wind took its que at once and rushed up to meet her from the wide expanse of the ocean. She could feel herself laughing now, laughing like a madwoman, kneeling, gripping the sand, letting the wind blow beads of sweat from her brow and tears from her eyes. The ruby red veil rushed up and around her in a mad dance. She threw handfuls of sand in the air, watched the solid corn rush away. If she could, she would throw herself in the air too, rush away with the wind, far away, burst into another realm where she could be only movement and freedom.
Finally, the wind set her gently back down in her body, still kneeling on the warm sand. Blinking her eyes open, she saw a figure down by the ocean. It was that boy Ipyana. In his left hand, a dripping translucent calamari, twitching feebly. Though he faced her, he was too far away for her to read his expression. She doubted she could read it anyhow, his face often said many things at the same time.
They stared in each other’s direction for a few minutes. Then Ipyana slung the squid over his shoulders and sauntered away at a deliberate, unhurried pace. She watched him as he made his way diagonally across the beach and into the bush, towards the village proper.
Only then did Fatuma rise and brush herself off. A trickle of shame made its way in to her. The salt stung inside her nostrils. The sun was already lower than she thought. She wrapped her red shawl tightly around her head and shoulders as she hurried across the expanse of sand, in the opposite direction of Ipyana.
It was increasingly hard to keep focus now, her mind slipped in and out and she had had to stop many times on the way down to catch her belaboured breath. A massive colony of seagulls were tumbling around in the air by the cliff that housed the limestone palace. She didn’t think she had ever seen so many before. They were Kjaahing and kicking and biting at each other with knife-edge beaks. A bad omen, she thought, rats of the air Babu called them. Bright light was coming from the mouth of the palace. It rippled across the waves, like the light of the moon. The palace must be on fire tonight. Tonight? Tonight. The sun was already setting. Bibi might be back by now. They must hurry, she thought.
She threw of her shoes and waded into the water. Coming around a claw-shaped rock formation she was immediately blinded by the light coming from the cave. It formerly exploded in blinding-white yellows and purples. She gasped. But no time, with big, long grown-up steps she waded into the mouth of the cave: “Aaliyaaaah!”
Fatuma knew the way. Through the first two halls she kept her eyes shielded and averted from the blinding light. But at the entrance to the third she had formerly collapsed against the wall, sweating, gasping for breath. It was exhausting wading through the water. Leaning, she could feel the wall of the palace vibrating. It felt like that time she had put her hand on the generator house near the village when she was younger. A lapis-blue imprint had formed around the five fingers of her hand on the wall. Handprint-shaped forms of the blue were pulsating outwards from her hand. The blue bled into a kind of blood red and made the roof purple. She retracted her hand and recoiled in horror. But there was no turning back now. She had to watch the unfolding of whatever was going to happen.
The purple she somehow had created was moving across the walls and ceiling like rolling mist. It twinkled and bubbled and morphed into different shades: violet, grape, indigo…
In the middle of the roof the indigo seemed to thicken, bubbling fiercely like a boiling pot. In the massive bubbles she caught glimpses of a busy marketplace, larger than Fatuma had ever seen in her life. Women haggling, tall Arabs striding, fruits, cloth and spices, she caught a whiff of pilipili and tamarind, then POP! The bubble burst. She started back. The stuff in the ceiling began to drip, thick drops of indigo. The splashed into a clear pool at Fatuma’s feet which began to swirl. She leaned forward and peered into it. There was a massive savannah, parched grass and acacia trees, the smell of dung and hot still dust, the deafening circades, a herd of zebra and buffalo grassing nonchalantly nearby. She leaned even closer to get a better look at the beautiful animals, tails whipping flies, and caught her own reflection. But it wasn’t her, Fatuma. Or, it was, but a different version of her. The reflection was topless, she recognized her own mosquito-bite breasts and asymmetrical nipples. A strutting jaw, a longer forehead, her hair cut scalp-short, row upon row of glassbeads around her neck, she could feel the weight of them, pulling her forward, down, down, down….
“Mwanamke, si utakuja kunisalimia?”
Fatuma yelped and fell backwards, splashing onto her bum in the water. The confident familiar voice echoed impossibly around the hall: Mwanamke mwanamke mwanamke mwanamke…
Fatuma splashed some more sweet unsalty water in her face, rubbing her eyes, rubbing away the heat of the savannah. Then she looked around.
“Aaliyah? Is that you?”
A strange laugh echoed around the hall: “Of course it’s me, girlfriend! Who else? K-K-K-K!”
Fatuma got to her feet. In the middle of the hall, there she was. Atop a platform of limestone, sitting on what looked like some sort of throne. It pulsated gold dust into the air.
Aaliyah was… different. She was too far away for Fatuma to make out her expression. But she was wearing her jeans and a shimmering top Fatuma had never seen before. Her hair was out, in a beautiful halo around her head. Across her forehead was a band with a stone, the same golden colour as the throne.
For a few minutes Fatuma just looked in silence. Then she spluttered: “Are you… has it… made you some sort of queen?”
That eerie echoing laugh again: “What a stupid question! I’ve been a queen since day one! K-K-K-K!”
Something bad is going on, thought Fatuma. Nonetheless she began wading laboriously towards her friend. Her only friend. From the ceiling strings of giant sea shells emerged. Pearly white and conch-pink. As if the room was preparing itself for a celebration of some sort.
As she moved closer, the throne on which Aaliyah perched seemed to elongate. By the time she at last got to the center of the hall, it was a large bed, with a massive throne-like headrest with spikes at least 10 feet high. Fatuma struggled up the limestone platform and sat down next to Aaliyah. The bed was so soft, though it was made of stone, she immediately felt like lying down on it to rest. Fighting the urge she sat a few minutes catching her breath before she looked up at Aaliyah. The reflections from the pool played across her skin, played all over her body and almost gave Aaliyah a shine of her own. She was definitely different. Above them the indigo mass swirled and meandered.
“ They are really cool jeans. Kweli.” she said.
Fatuma stared down at their hands. Under Aaliyah’s new shimmering top she could see the snout of the red spaceship sown on to Aaliyah’s new jeans. Fatuma reached out, pulled the top up and began tracing the outline of the spaceship with a damp finger.
Aaliyah gave a little laugh. Fatuma looked up into her friend’s face. Though they were seated close together, just as usual, Aaliyah seemed so far away. There was that shiny rock on her forehead as well. It gave Fatuma a bad feeling.
“I found them in the seventh hall” said Aaliyah, indicating her top and the shiny rock band.
The seventh hall?! Thought Fatuma, they had only been as far as the fourth together. How much time had Aaliyah been spending in here?
“Please take it off,” said Fatuma. Her words and the authority in them took her by surprise. Even more unexpected; Aaliyah immediately did as she said. It was almost as if she had been waiting for this. She pulled at the stone and it came off with a small tearing noise, a noise Fatuma never ever wanted to find out why it made. For good measure, Aaliyah wriggled out of her shimmering top as well and threw it down, off of the platform. It landed outside the reach of the swirling light that came from above. Fatuma cast her eye around the cave, its myriad of optical illusions, the weird colours and ever-moving rock formations.
“Mahali hii inajaza mawazo yako,” she said confidently, again taking herself by surprise.
“No, Fatuma. Those people out there are filling your head with ideas,” countered Aaliyah.
“Maybe”, said the strangely-confident Fatuma, “But in the end it is out there that we have to live our lives. Umesikilia?”
Aaliyah said nothing. Just sniffed a few times. Now Fatuma knew it was time. Her rabbit heart immediately began rushing around again. Shuffling herself cross-legged on the weirdly soft stone bed, she took both Aailyah’s hands in hers. The what-if creature in her stomach had woke up again and began to churn. Fatuma swallowed.
“Aaliyah listen,” she said in a swollen voice. She spoke to the hands and the red, comforting spaceship. “Listen, I am so sorry,”
“-No, listen, listen properly. I never should have listened to Bibi and all the people and stopped hanging out with you. I was… I was a bad friend. I was wrong.”
Finally Fatuma forced her eyes up. Aaliyah was now only sat in cheap linen cloth wrapped around her breasts, attached with a pin. Her soft ebony skin contrasted with the off-white linen. Her eyes were cast down and her full lips were drawn to one side of her face, shivering slightly. She looked even more beautiful now, Fatuma thought.
“Wewe,” Fatuma reached up and tugged playfully at Aaliyah’s ear, “You. I am sorry, ok? Do you forgive me?”
Finally Aaliyah’s eyes met hers. They were wet and shiny, but as they looked at each other a smile dawned in them.
“No,” Aaliyah smiled and shook her head in mock-haughtiness.
“You are sure?”
Aaliayh gave a little snort-laugh. This one did not echo eerily around the room. This one was theirs. In Fatuma’s ears it was a heavenly snort.
“Lakini me I will never forgive you, I will kill you with my own hands first then you are forgiven!”
The tackle came suddenly and knocked the wind out of Fatuma, though she landed soft. In a minute she was up again though and fleeing down the platform with a whine. The ceiling turned a gleeful octarine with happy golden bubbles bursting all around as they chased each other round and around the massive hall. It was no longer laborious to move in water, it was easy to run, to jump like a goat. Yet Fatuma could not escape the long legs of Aaliyah. When Aaliyah caught her much wrestling and splashing and laughing would ensue, they would fall but always land soft and then be bounced right back up by the palace. Discovering the floor had turned trampoline they began bouncing and bouncing, higher and higher for a while, almost touching the roof, and then Fatuma broke off a long thin shard of stone and challenged her emissary to a swordfight, Aaliyah immediately found one too. They bounced around the hall, off the walls, off the ceiling, and epic duel, lasting for hours or so it seemed, until both play-swords were cut down to stubs, until both girls collapsed exhausted on the throne-bed once more.
They lay breathing heavily, laughing and shoving one another languidly for a while.
“You.” said Aaliyah, and clasped a palm across Fatuma’s cheek, nose and mouth. Fatuma could taste the water-wrinkled skin and sweet water on Aaliyah’s palm. Aaliyah patted her face a few times. All of a sudden Fatuma knew she would never again be as happy as she was right now.
“Look what I have!” shouted Aaliyah. She rolled over on her side and out of her back pocket she pulled Auntie Miriam’s smartphone. “Should we watch an episode of our show?”
Fatuma wiped her face a few times. “But we should go back to the village. The water-”
“Oh please, let’s not go back yet. Not just yet.” pleaded Aaliyah. “Just one. Just one quick episode and then we will go.”
Fatuma smiled, “alright, but then tunaondoka”.
They leaned back on the soft stone pillows and Aaliyah fired up the little screen. Mindblowing highrises, gilded mansions, funky restaurants and nightclubs appeared as if by magic on the screen. Soon they discovered that the swirling indigo above was showing the same as the phone. Aaliyah threw the whole smartphone up into the swirling indigo. It sank up into it with a ploop. Immediately a million beautiful 3D worlds seemed to explode all over the ceiling and walls: beautiful dresses, wigs, cappuccino’s in fancy cups, women driving fast cars and singing along to loud music, women giving speeches on podiums, women in white coats stirring test-tubes in laboratories-
“Wewe,” muttered Fatuma meekly, not taking her eyes from the ceiling. She felt like she was drooling. “What about Auntie Miriam’s phone?”
“Don’t worry,” drawled Aaliyah, equally hypnotized next to her, “You worry too much about now. We have to think about the future.”
As the words were drawn from her lips the images on the ceiling and walls changed: An impossible skybridge emerging from the atmosphere, crafts circling and landing by the hundreds, inferno-fires and evil-eyed tornadoes, row upon row of corpses laid out in cheap colourless linen cloths, people in suits shaking hands on podiums, entire cities in caves, like this one, like the limestone palace, a small girl with skin like coffee, pointing excitedly out of a window of some vessel, an impossible number of stars twinkling, and closer, a tiny, blue dot…
Fatuma awoke with a start. Where was she? It took her a while to calibrate. The palace. Aaliyah. The space next to her on the throne-bed was empty. When had she fallen asleep?
“Aaliyah? Aaliyah!” She sprang up and looked all around the darkened hall. Aaliyah had disappeared. She had a vague memory of waking up and seeing Aaliyah on the throne-bed next to her. When had Aaliyah left, and how had Fatuma not noticed? Gone too were the images on the walls and ceiling. Only a bland brown and a faint glow came from below in the water. The water…
Her insides seem to freeze. The little rabbit began bouncing uncontrollably All around the raised platform was sloshing, murky sea water. It was higher than the entrance they had come through, but had not yet reached the platform on which she was sitting. They had stayed too long. How had she fallen asleep? How could this have happened?
She pinched herself furiously on the forehead. Ok, think. Think! Aaliyah had probably gone out ahead for some reason. She was probably waiting for her, Fatuma, on the beach. Yes, that was it. Then why didn’t Aaliyah wake me up, too? said a voice in her head, Why has she left me behind? Her best friend…
Aaliyah had not thought about the tides, how high they would get. That was it. That had to be it. Aaliyah was outside on the beach.
Perhaps Fatuma could just stay here until the tide went out again. But she knewthat would not do. Like any child of the village, she had the tides in her bones. She knew it was only halfway in right now. And by the time it had come all the way in, it would have filled the whole chamber in which she was sitting, platform, throne-bed and all.
There was only one thing to do. She would have to swim. She was a good swimmer. Babu had taught little brother, who had taught her in secret when they were younger. She just did not like swimming under the water, it felt like choking she thought. When the others would dive for shells, fish and pretty corals she would stay on the surface, float around on the salt and dreamaway.
Focus, she said aloud to herself. She would have to dive. Now. The water level would only get higher. One… two….
She plunged into the water and then immediately scrambled back on to the throne-bed. There she sat panting. Her clothes had dragged her down in the water like some evil spirit, down down down.
“Aaliyaaah!” she sob-yelled desperately.
Come on. Her rabbit heart was bouncing wildly all over the place. You can do it.
In a flash she had stripped off her veil, her dress and her shoes. Down to her breast-wrapper and her underwear she eased, this time more carefully, into the water. It was surprisingly cold. She could not find the bottom with her foot.
Don’t panic, she said to herself. Just don’t panic. She was in the third chamber. Two till the exit. She swam over to above where she thought the passage between the third and second chamber was. There she took a whole lot of steadying breaths. Then she dived. Under the water it was pitch dark. She could only make out jagged rockfaces when she got right up to them. She searched with her hands, all over the jagged rock wall. Nothing.
She had to come up for air. Down again. Desperate pawing on rock. Nothing.
Damned cave, she thought to herself, one second you are full of juju, the next nothing, why can’t you help me now?
Finally, on the fifth attempt, she found the opening. She came up for air one last time, and then dived down and propelled herself into it. She kicked frantically. She could not remember it being this long, nor this jagged. The water pushed her up towards the roof of the thing and she fought against, downwards onwards. Finally, she burst into the second chamber and let herself be lifted up towards the surface. Gasping and spluttering, she broke through. But the air here was not really air. Had the air always been this rotten and putrid in the limestone palace? What was even real in here, if anything?
She had lost a clear sense of time, but she thought she must have spent an hour looking for the passage, at least. She tried to cross the hall, hanging on to whatever her arms and legs made painful contact with. Her arms ached and her legs were tired from kicking. She had to take many breaks hanging onto rock crevices and breathing, though the putrid air made her dizzy. Bismillahil-lazee la ya-dur-ru ma’as-mihi shai’un fil-ardi wa la fis-sama’i, wa Hu-was-Sami’ul-‘Alim, she muttered to herself as she kicked and pushed and dragged herself to where she thought the last passage was.
Then she took a deep breath and dived. Through the passage she went, kicking and fighting the updrift. Crashing into rocks, kicking wildly. Below her, a faint glow emanated from two translucent fish, blind and whitish. Completely oblivious to her plight above them.
This passage was mercifully short. She burst into the first chamber, like she had done before and let herself be lifted, desperate for air.
Only, there was no air.
Her head just hit the roof of the cave with a painful bump. The airpocket was gone. The chamber was completely submerged.
Now it was impossible to not panic. Fatuma gave a small yelp and immediately regretted it, her lungs began to pound painfully. Now that she had been expecting air her desperation for it was worse than ever, even the poison-air of the previous hall.
She scrambled back down, she would have to look for the exit to the palace. But were had she come from? Which direction was out and which was further in? It was all pitch black, she had a hard enough time finding the walls, pawing, clawing, desperately for passage.
I will die here, she thought, this is the end. Her head began to fill with a white mist. The horror was subsiding and the mist filling everything. At least I had a peaceful life, she thought. At least I met Aaliyah. She closed her eyes. It was not much different to the pitch dark of the cave.
No, she said to herself inside, Not yet.
Her eyes burst open to more blackness. She felt her way along the wall in what she hoped was the right height; It felt as if she had gone around the entire perimeter of the chamber. Her eyes were wide open and burning, her lungs felt like they were bleeding turning her limbs sour. Then, at last, her hand met a place of less resistance. She did not wait to feel if it was a crevice or a passage, Grasping the slippery sides, she just pulled her whole body into it, head first.
The underwater-current that met her in the passage was massive, like a head-on stormwind. It kept pushing her back, back, back towards the cave and the darkness. Though she fought with all her might, the current was too strong. She could not swim. Instead, she jetted of rocks and edges, hanging on to whatever she would get a hold of, crawling up the passage like some sort of weird crustacean. Push, push, push, push, though every fiber of her being ached, though some of her was already in some other place. Still: push.
And there, finally. The faintest light in the dark. The stars outside. It must be. It had to be. Three more pushes, two, one…
She burst into the cave entrance and broke the surface. Lying with her face up. Floating. Breathing the blessed fresh air. She did not know how long she lay. She might have fainted for a while. Until a big wave smashed her into the rock-face above the entrance, like it was flicking away a piece of seaweed. When she came too, she realized she would have to swim around to the beach.
Later, Fatuma had no memory of dragging herself onto the shore, naked and shivering like a stranded dolphin. Rushing around, looking for Aaliyah on the beach. The horrible realization: Aaliyah must still be in the cave.
Neither had she any memory of rushing through the jungle, cutting her side badly on a thorny branch, or bursting screaming into the village proper. Later she was told the people had at first stayed in their huts, praying furiously, thinking she was a jinn of some kind.
She could not remember people lighting lanterns and torches, the mad rushing around, doors being hammered on, Baba Kafil speeding away on his motorcycle to fetch police in the city an hours drive away, or every dingi, dhow and motorboat hurriedly casting off, lanterns swinging. No recollection had she of insisting to join Babu on his boat, shrieking like a wounded animal, the terrified faces of her younger siblings as she screamed and tore into the old man who stood spluttering, the unbelievably strong arms of Bibi scooping her up in a blanket and clambering on board with her, no words uttered, no questions asked. Bibi throwing Babu a look that made him scramble to cast off no further ado about nothing.
She did, however, remember well the sudden calm of the sea that night. The crystals ornamenting the dome of heaven. The waves, quiet. Golden circles of lanterns swinging on boats far and close, – the whole village out looking for Aaliyah. The salt crusting with her tears. Head on Bibi’s massive, solid bosom. Babu shining his torch on the black water. Listening for a sudden splash. Looking for a floating back.
She could hear them shouting Aaliyah’s name, though the shouts grew less and less frequent as the hours passed. Finally, the shouts subsided. The search-party went quiet. Men whispered to each other on nearby boats:
Perhaps they could look inside the cave, when the tide went back out in the morning.
Perhaps the girl had made it onto dry land, and was lying in the jungle somewhere.
Remember when Mama Idris went missing as a child in ‘76-
Nonsense. Everyone knew it was already too late…
Fatuma, ears on stilks, gave a sob. Then suddenly, she saw it. Their dingi was gliding over the entrance to the cave. Out of it flared a bright light, white and indigo, blinding. Aaliyah! She yelled. In a swoosh she threw off the blanket, scrambled to her feet and threw herself overboard.
Yet midflight, hanging in the air, she was caught. Bibi’s tree-trunk arms did not let go, though she struggled and screamed and screamed.
-There is nothing there, mtoto yangu. There is nothing there.
Bibi wrapped her tightly in the blanket and cradled her, cradled her like she had not done since Fatuma was a baby. Hummed and hushed. Said the monsters were only in her head.
Fatuma screamed and screamed. The horrible realization: Aaliyah was gone. That devilish cave. Her brilliant friend. Dead and gone. She would never get to grow up. Never get to see the big city, the big world, not outside the distorted mirrors of the cave. Fatuma hated the cave. It was all her fault.
-Sio makosa yako Mtoto, whispered Bibi as if reading her mind.
Bibi began rocking her back and forth, and in a low raspy voice, began to sing. Fatuma immediately settled and her exhausted eyelids fell heavily, she couldn’t help it, it was a reflex to Bibi’s singing from deep before she could remember. Bibi sang a sad song, sometimes sung at funerals, a song of mourning for a lost lamb. A lost lamb, and the failure of the shepherd.
The fishermen joined in the song, close and far out on the open sea, harmonizing, embellishing. The warm golden spots of light on the beach and on the boats, it was like the light itself was singing. The jungle hissed a beat, the waves kept time, the stars of the galaxy hummed above. Listen Aaliyah, thought Fatuma as she finally gave into sleep, your people are singing for you.
As the years rolled by, that song never quite left the village. In times of great celebration and success, in times of strife and sorrow, the song was always there in the undertones. The song about the lost lamb and the failure of the shepherd.
As Fatuma grew up, and finally, grew old, she would return to the Limestone Palace. Although, she never went in and she forbade all her children and her children’s children from going anywhere near it. But she herself would go up to the claw rock at the entrance sometimes. Just once in a while.
There she would kneel on the sand and look out over the ocean. Hear the seagulls, feel the breeze. And sometimes, she would sing. For her brilliant Aaliyah. For the piece of herself she had left behind in the cave. For the village, for the dwindling fish. For the ocean that rose and fell with no thought for the mortals. For the clouds, for the rain that came and went. For the oxen in the fields, for the children who were born and the old ones that passed, for all those who cry and all those who pray. For the island, for the lands across the sea. For the sparkle in eyes gazing up at the dome, reflecting the jewelbox-constellations moving across, ever-changing. Change tectonic, massive, combustive, – she could not perceive it.
*This story is a Zanzibari re-imagining of the novella “Is-slottet” by Norwegian Tarjei Vesaas (1963).