Do not go out to the dunes, the Chief says to Isiuwa. You’d do well not to awaken the wrath of the whistling gods.
This does not stop Nata from trying to leave again.
Once the New Moon assembly is over, she slinks away to the community market. This early in the morning, the desert haze hangs heavy, and everything moves in stutters, like tortoises in the sand. The sun is out and warm, not hot because Isiuwa isn’t really in a desert; or at least, not like the deserts the Elders speak of when they tell us about the world before it was all dunes.
Isiuwa moves like a buzz, like sandflies in formation. The market is a manifestation of this, laid out in wide corridors of bamboo and cloth, a neat crisscross of pathways. Bodies scuttle along, dressed in cloth wrapped to battle every iteration of dust-laden wind. No one pays Nata any heed—no one ever does—as she drags a bag too big for her frame, folds of cloak falling over her arm multiple times so that she has to stop every now and then to wrap them again. Her hair is wild with fraying edges, and her eyes bloodshot from lack of sleep, but Isiuwa does not notice.
First, she goes to the moulder. The bulk of what she has available for barter here is household jars and utensils she will no longer need. The man takes everything without a word and pays her in sugarcane, which is just as well because quenching thirst is the number one priority out there. Next, she takes Mam’s big old metal box, the one with which she used to make those contraptions for the village. No one in Isiuwa has tools like these any longer; strange, archaic, from the time before sand. It was the only thing Nata could salvage after Mam’s disappearance. It still contains all her tools for carving and repairing artifacts no longer here. When she places it in front of Isiuwa’s prime fruit merchant, he stares at it for a long time.
“They will catch you,” he says. “Again.”
“Maybe,” Nata says. “Maybe not.”
He nods and gives her brown sugar and dried fruit for it.
She leaves her most valuable barter for last. She hefts her flatwood under her arm and visits the woodworker, the same woman who helped her find the bulk of old tree Mam carved for her into this sleek, flat thing polished with paraffin wax. Wood is so scarce now, unlike in the early days of sand, Mam used to say. This could literally be Nata’s most prized possession.
The woodworker isn’t there, but her apprentices are, and they offer her a good amount of water in an earthen jar. She haggles and gets some bread and roasted termites thrown in before she lets them have it, staring as they discuss butchering it to barter in bits.
She remembers how she cried and cried to Mam that she must, must have a flatwood. One just like those in the books the Elders keep in the archives of artefacts before dunes, which only they, the Chief, and their novitiates are allowed access to (though Mam somehow managed to have that one). She remembers having hopes that one day, even if for just a day, she would go out to the dunes with the flatwood and slide down the up-flow like the children did in the pictures in that book. But it’s too late for that. This dream will belong to someone else now.
Nata leaves them without saying goodbye. Goodbye would mean that she is bidding positive farewell to Isiuwa, but no, she really isn’t. She hopes that the minute she steps out of the bamboo fence, the sun will lean down and slap the settlement with fire, for everything they have done to her, to Mam. She hopes that all the dunes will whistle at once, a harmony of dooming dissonance, and the sand will flow and sweep over all of Isiuwa like a great ocean so that no one will ever need to know pain like hers again.
But first, she must get Tasénóguan.
* * *
Do not go out to the dunes, the Chief tells Isiuwa. The gods will whistle you to death.
Isiuwa listens to a dune whistle about once every moon-cycle. Each time, the sand advances on Isiuwa, moving with a morose, flutelike song, the only sound to plant tears in their chest that does not come from a living being. A shrill, underlined by wind rushing through a tube. The Chief calls it the whistle of the gods and says it is the sound of an errant person being taken. Every time an errant person dares venture beyond their allowance and ends up taken by the dunes—as they always are—the dunes move towards Isiuwa. The whistle is a warning, a warning that those of the world before it was punished with sand refused to heed. The Chief tells a story of a time before the old world, when it was once punished in the same way, but by the gods of water. It is Isiuwa’s duty to preserve this order and bring forth the next world.
Isiuwa knows the Chief is right because he bears a cross on Isiuwa’s behalf, along with the troupe of Elders, sentries, and novitiates: the cross of going beyond the fence and seeking solutions, praying to the gods and asking them to stop moving the dunes closer. The troupe sometimes returns with strange things they’ve salvaged from the sand, things that look like they belong to another time, and the Elders keep them in the archive. The Chief reminds us that this is not a privilege but a burden, for it is impossible to look upon the face of the gods and live; and every time the troupe returns home intact is a blessing from the whistling gods. Isiuwa nods and remains behind the fence; remains grateful.
Not Nata’s Mam, though.
Mam was born stubborn. She said so often herself, that it wasn’t wise to take things that came from the mouth of man, which confused Nata because those words came from her mouth. Mam lived by this practice too. Nata knows how many times Mam disregarded Isiuwa and slipped out of the fence (five). The dry bamboo barricade wasn’t really what kept Isiuwa in, Mam said. Bamboo was easy to slip through. Words planted in the mind, not so much.
Mam was an expert at that, the slipping; slipping through the fence, slipping through time and space, slipping in and out of proper reason, so that many times Isiuwa forgot she was even there, that Nata was even there. Many times, Isiuwa were surprised when they appeared, struggled to remember where they were from, wondered why they were still here and had not been offered to the gods already as appeasement.
It was easy for Nata and Mam to fade from the mind, being shunted to the edge, living in the outermost corner of the settlement where scorpions abound and only those deemed unworthy were offered land to build shelter. Nata blamed Mam in the beginning, believing it was her fault, that she could’ve just stopped arguing with the Elders, telling them that there were no whistling gods, that the civilization under the sand was just swallowed by an extreme ecological disaster. She insisted there were thriving civilizations out there and she was going to find them, that the whirlwind of time would take her there. She insisted she had seen it for herself.
So, when Mam kissed Nata on the forehead and said, “Let’s go,” she knew then that Isiuwa was right: Mam was a mad woman. A whirlwind that took people to a world where there was no sand? Going willingly into the dunes to be swallowed by the gods?
She refused to go, of course. Mam even tried to force her, after multiple arguments, them both screaming at the top of their voices in the shelter. Mam said she was just trying to save them, and Nata reminded her that Isiuwa was trying to save them, that was why they had rules. Mam saw then that Nata would never be ready, so she tied her wrists and ankles when she was asleep, gagged her mouth and put her in a cart, but she couldn’t even pull it from the shelter to the fence. She untied Nata, and Nata ran as fast as she could.
She went back to the shelter and waited for Mam to return because, of course, there was no whirlwind of time, there was no magical dust storm roaming the dunes, waiting for people to save. So, she waited.
Until the dunes whistled.
* * *
We mind our own business, the Chief says to Isiuwa. We stay alive because we do not seek beyond our means.
Nata finds Tasé just easy. The small boy, scrawny, elbows like the edge of a box, eyes so sunken they could hold seas: he would never be found with the courtyard troupe. He was always somewhere else (and even when he was, he wasn’t). He was the kind of son Isiuwa thought the Chief shouldn’t have; a sickling, eyes always to the sky in thought. It was probably best for everyone that he always took off, always went missing.
Nata finds him by the old, dead dwellings, the dump site of shelters of those from Isiuwa who have been taken by the dune song. Somewhere in there lies Mam’s best tools, implements, all the things she salvaged from the world before, which she refused to be allowed to be confiscated for the Elders’ archive. All these, alongside their shelter itself, which was hacked down to ensure it was never rebuilt (it would’ve been burnt if Isiuwa could, but fire is too dangerous a thing in these times), are mixed in here somewhere.
Tasé squats right in the middle of it, his feet ashy, perched on some hard debris with a slate, writing on the polished surface with a white rock. He is the Chief’s only child, and his role in becoming a novitiate was written before he was born; he was going to be given the chance to be the future of Isiuwa. He did a lot of spend time with the Elders, mostly to learn to scribble the shapes that represented Isiuwa’s language and their sounds, but he barely ever spent time with the sentry group or the courtyard troupe. Every other time, he was alone, practicing.
Nata approaches slowly. He looks up.
“Will you come with me?” Nata says.
The boy stops writing, his eyeballs dancing in their sockets. “Where?”
“I’m going to find Mam.”
He pauses, then writes something on the slate, slowly. “Your Mam?”
“Yes,” Nata says.
He thinks for another second. “And my Mam too?”
Nata is silent for a beat. Everyone knows the stories about Tasé’s mother, about the Chief’s first wife. Isiuwa says she too was errant, was a mad woman like Nata’s Mam, talking about getting away to someplace else. Isiuwa says the Chief was right to let Isiuwa offer her to the gods beneath the dunes, to the breath of their wrath.
“Maybe,” she says.
He scribbles some more, lays down his materials, rises, and dusts off his buttock.
“Okay,” he says.
Nata has always known it would be this easy when the time came. Tasé was never really here. He has always lived somewhere else, but Isiuwa just can’t see it. Once, she asked him why he was only learning to write, and he said he was going to need it when he got away from here. It was then she realised he was just like her Mam, like his Mam before him.
“You know where to meet me,” Nata says. “Come after dusk, when the sentries are drunk. And don’t tell anyone.”
“Dusk?” he says. “It’s moonday. There’ll be whistling today.”
“Yes,” Nata says. “Exactly.”
* * *
Anyone who leaves belongs to the gods, the Chief tells Isiuwa. They shall not be allowed to return.
The first time, Nata didn’t make it far. She found nothing but sand and sun in all directions, the shadows cast by the dunes falling over her when the day began to wane. She found a few skeletons of people and animals, dried out, and a few artefacts she had never seen before which she salvaged. Her water ran out. She did not find Mam, not even her dead body. She did not find a whirlwind to take her where Mam had gone.
The sentries found her when she returned to the fence. They swooped in, their foreheads shiny beneath their cloaks, faces long and lined and expressionless. They rounded her up without a word, because who needs words when the agreement is unspoken?
They did what needed to be done and paraded Nata through the settlement, carrying her in the carved ceremonial stretcher, offering her as a sacrifice, a warning, a performance of her chosen path to death, into the mouth of the gods. Isiuwa emerged from their shelters and flocked behind the sentries, shaking their heads sadly, whispering, pointing. They reached out to touch Nata, maybe in pity, maybe in solidarity, maybe asking, “Why?” The sentries whipped their hands off. They always returned.
The Chief’s shelter is in its own courtyard in the centre of the settlement, the largest and only one with an anteroom, where they set Nata before him. Isiuwa crowded around. The Chief is just like every other man in the settlement, only slightly plumper and with a permanent frown on his forehead. He doesn’t dress any differently from the others either, cloaked in the exact same cloth, except for the large woven headpiece made of fragile beads that Nata knows is passed down from chief to chief.
The decision was swift and simple. As custom, she could not be allowed back, lest she anger the gods and the dunes advance on Isiuwa. She would be sent back out with nothing, not even a cloak, to ensure her transition into the mouth of the dune gods was easy and hassle-free. This would ensure the many moons of carefully created community order were not put in jeopardy due to her self-indulgence. The gods would understand. Plus, it was a favour. It was her desire to leave, after all.
But, Tasé. He changed everything. Right in the middle of proceedings, with no regard for the court, he scuttled over to her, kneeling there in the centre of the anteroom with her found artefacts laid out on the floor before her. He was younger then, smaller. He touched her hair and smiled. He fondled her ear. He pulled a hand from behind himself and offered her a piece of bread. She took it and munched.
Isiuwa held their breath and waited. Tasé had never found purchase with anybody, no matter how much the Chief tried. Not even his nurses could get him to do anything. He was a person of his own, and the Chief had come to accept that he would exist in solitary and die. There was no hope for Tasé in the world that was to come forth from this, where the strength of community and order would be the sole decider for survival. People like Tasé would have no place in that world. But the Chief had not quite moved on in this acceptance, and Tasé still represented a glimmer of hope for him, a hope which had suddenly rekindled.
The Chief cleared his throat and asked her to be held in lockup. She was there until the next day, and that was how she knew she wasn’t going to be ejected
No deserter had ever been held. The punishment was always the same right after the courtyard declaration: the sentries would open the gate and prod, prod, prod until the person was several steps away from the bamboo fence. And even if they cried and cried, the gates would be shut against them. Then they would wander away, their cries for help sailing back to Isiuwa in the wind. When it came time for the dune gods to whistle, their wail would be cut mid-scream, and then there would be nothing but silence and safety for Isiuwa once again.
She was brought before Isiuwa the next morning. There was, after all, some use for this one, the Chief said. It would be a waste to discard of this one so uselessly because she wasn’t in her right mind, following in the footsteps of the bad example set by her Mam. The troupe would pray to the gods on her behalf on the next trip, while she would atone by serving the community. That service would take the form of becoming a serving companion to Tasé, helping him assimilate into the community and become stronger and better to take up his role in the coming future.
Isiuwa hummed and nodded and praised the Chief for his wisdom, forethought, and benevolence. And this was how Nata knew Mam was right after all: that the gods that did exist were not beneath the dunes at all, but words planted in the mind. This was how she knew she was going to leave again.
When they dispersed, the Elders confiscating her artefacts for their archive, Tasé knelt in the dust with her, leaning close, his nose almost touching hers, his young breath racy with excitement.
“Did you smell it, then?” he whispered. “Did you feel it, outside? Did it smell like power?”
* * *
They leave at dusk, hand-in-hand, hearts racing in sync. It is harder for the sentries to spot them in the sand when it’s dark, when shapes no longer exist and the dunes in the distance are the only shadows left. They leave without a light, navigating the darkness through Nata’s mental memory alone, lugging the food and water she has gathered. They wear thinner cloaks so they can move faster. In the cold of the night, Tasé’s teeth chatter.
In every direction conceivable is nothing but sand and dust and wind, with only the peaks and crests of dunes, small and big, for company. The largest dunes, under which the greatest ruins of the perished people before Isiuwa lie, form a shadow against the red glow of failing light in the distance. They avoid walking up the crest of any of the miniature dunes they come across, to stay out of long-range sight. The sand is cool against their feet and leaves many holes for tracks. Nata knows that come morning, they will be easily found if their pursuers ride Isiuwa’s one camel hard enough, or if the fastest sentries are set on their trail.
Tasé is silent, for the most part. For a boy only slightly younger than Nata, his silence speaks well beyond his years. Nata remembers telling him the same thing Mam used to tell her, which she didn’t believe then, but does now: You, alone, are a god. You are a dune too, and the dune will not swallow itself. Don’t let Isiuwa tell you otherwise.
Nata watches him clutch his cloak tight about himself and stare ahead, his eyes fixed on the undulating shapes in the horizon. The Chief didn’t know that when he punished her, he only gave her more light, see. She was meant to be Tasé’s companion because she was the only one who understood why he was the way he was, because the same questions that were asked of him roiled within her. They both grew up listening to the constant susurrus of Isiuwa, wondering if they were sane or just as mad as their mothers, and the questions have formed a knot within them that will be unknotted only by leaving. They had always known, in some way, that they were going to find the women who birthed them and breathed this fire of liberty that cannot be quenched. They were going to find home there.
They put more distance between themselves and Isiuwa, moving in a straight line, in the direction of the dunes. No one seems to be following them, a good sign. Nata hopes for them to reach a dune before dawn so they can rest in its shadow at high noon. But they can only stomp in the sand so long before their legs get tired. The undulating outlines still loom in the distance, and Nata cannot tell how close they are yet, but they are far enough from Isiuwa that it makes sense to rest.
They have some bread and the roasted termites. Nata lets Tasé have the allowable sip of water for today, while she settles for sugar-cane. She munches, wondering what she’ll say when she finds Mam. She has focused so much on leaving that she has forgotten she might not be happy to see Mam at all, that her chest might become tighter, that she might never forgive her for leaving, for not sacrificing everything and coming back for her. But she also isn’t ready for whatever answer Mam has to give. Maybe this is why she found a way to take Tasé with her, despite the odds. Maybe she is trying to do it over, how it should’ve been.
“We should move,” Tasé says.
Nata lies on her back in the sand. “We don’t need to. It will come to us.”
He frowns. She sees this and says. “It’s a roaming whirlwind. That’s what causes the whistle. My Mam used to call it the wind of opportunity, that it comes for you only if you present yourself.”
He lies on his back next to her, wrapped from head to toe and becoming one with the sand. Soon, they fall asleep, and Nata dreams of meeting Mam, but Mam no longer recognises her. She wakes once, and lies awake, remembering all Mam’s stories about the wind, about the five times she slipped beyond the fence and slipped back in, and what she saw. She called it the whirlwind of liberation, of return to a time when even though her tongue was just as tied, her body just as controlled, it was at least hers. It did not belong to Isiuwa.
Whatever time that was, Nata was sure Mam had somehow returned to it but was unable to return as promised. Now she was going to find that whistle, and she was going to blow it herself.
* * *
People will kill what they do not understand, Mam used to say. They will flay it with their tongues if their hands are tied.
It takes longer than the last time for the sentries to catch up with Nata. But this time, it is too late: the dune song has already begun.
It is almost the end of night when the whirlwind first starts to appear. Its coming is announced by a faraway lament, a deep-throated complaint, serving as the right augury for the arrival of feet and torches at the exact place where Nata and Tasé have succumbed to fatigue and made camp.
The Chief has come along with the sentries. The light of the torch and shadow of his cloak darken his face in a manner that is representative of his heaving chest and his thoughts so clear they could’ve been bellowed: There will be no mercy this time.
“Take them,” is all he says.
There is a spat, sand flying in all directions, torches wavering in the wind of coming dawn, but all is soon settled. Nata is at one end, subdued; Tasé restrained at the other.
The Chief faces him first, stooping to his height. Then he raises his hand and deals Tasé a big slap in the middle of his face. There’s a snap of cartilage.
“Just offer me,” Tasé says, his voice loud for the first time, his speech bubbling with blood and snot and spittle. “Offer me, so this nightmare can end for the two of us.”
The silence that passes is filled only by the picking up of sand into dust, the whirlwind now visible in the distance, gathering force, a storm within a storm. Against the backdrop of the orange horizon of the rising sun, it is a roaring ghoul of black wind.
“No,” the Chief says, looking at the cloud as it approaches. “No.”
And in the midst of all this, with no one paying attention to Nata at all, she finds her opening.
She darts, moves too quickly, out of reach of the sentries’ arms, too quickly for their legs to find purchase in the silty sand. She flits with smaller feet, one step, five steps, and soon she is too far. The shouts behind her curse, yell, call her crazy, mad girl, selfish, putting Isiuwa in jeopardy, but she is deaf to them because her eyes are fixed on the glorious, glorious light ahead.
For the first time, she sees the whirlwind through her own eyes, and not through the eyes of Mam’s stories. The Chief is right in calling it the breath of the gods, because it holds within in a crackle, light, and lightning, embraced by wind roiling within itself, gloved in sand and dust and debris. It moves like a cloud would if it were angry. It roars mightily now, up close, as if made of mouth alone. Sand hisses in its wake, an unending flute, an orchestra of whistles, a posse of snakes.
She halts then, right in its path, and turns, the wall of light and sound and dust right behind her. The Chief and the sentries have stopped chasing, standing well out of the path of the wind, Tasé held down between two sentries. This far out she cannot see their faces, but by the light of their angled flames, their postures say it all: that she is a waste of existence, that she has ruined all the good work Isiuwa has done.
Yes, she thinks. Yes.
She takes a step forward, two, hoping he understands it. She takes another step. The wind comes behind her, but she steps forward again, buying time, reminding herself she can do better, be better. Her Mam tried, but she can try harder.
Please, please, she thinks, watching him, static between the two sentries. Please.
And as if he hears her, at the very instant she starts to feel the hairs on the back of her neck stand in response to the crackle of the wind, Tasé moves. He slips, lithe, darting, the sentries too shocked by everything to react properly. He ditches his top cloak as he speeds across the sand, his skin black and melding with the night. His father, the Chief, follows, lumbering along, screaming his name, the fires of the sentries bobbing alongside him.
Yes, Nata thinks. Yes.
The whirlwind of time, of gods, of opportunity, of liberation, leans down right then and embraces her. Sand fills her eyes, her mouth, her nose, her ears. Her skin tingles softly, and she feels her feet leaving the sand.
But she sticks out an arm all the same.
It feels like ages, and like a faraway thing, when a sandy hand grasps hers. She pulls—to herself, to the Mams who dared to leave before, to the future, to power.
They rise, together. She knows it is together because she knows the weight of defiance. She offers herself to the wind and they slip, slip, losing all sense of time and space. They become nothing and everything, and all is possible in the breath of the gods, a breath that is now theirs to breathe. Wherever it would take them, they do not know, but at least one thing is sure: that their tongues and their bodies and their hearts will belong to them.