The Satellite Charmer61 min read
“Can you see it?!”
Abdou was an idiot. Of course he could see it. Everybody within five hundred kilometers could see it. A beam of blood red violence, crashing from the sky, grinding into the soil with the force of a finger crushing an ant. Ibrahima had been told that ants were the strongest creatures in the world, capable of carrying a hundred times their weight, yet his pinky could kill them easily.
Standing on the cliffs overlooking the old natural preserve of Niokolo Koba, looking down at the lush expanse of grasslands spurred by the summer rains, Ibrahima could see the dust left behind by the stampeding animals eager for shelter before the deep dark grey clouds unleashed a torrent. He could taste the dampness on the air, his eyes watering with the wind. He could hear the rumble in the clouds, but above all he could feel the beam.
The static on the winds changed when it broke through the clouds, carrying it forward with the hungry anticipation of a carrion bird. Every muscle in his body contracted, and somewhere, deep in his mind, something opened up. Every time. Ibrahima had wanted to ask others if they felt the same, but for some reason he had never voiced it. Perhaps he didn’t want to sound like Abdou, pointing at the obvious, and everybody felt it too. Perhaps not, perhaps he feared the questions he would be asked if no one else did.
The beam was death, he knew that, but to him, in a way he couldn’t quite understand, the beam was life. His senses heightened when it dropped, turning the clouds a deep red, every action anticipated by just a fraction. The future not so much ahead of him, but there, ready for him to reach out and touch if only he could break out of his body. Sometimes it almost felt like he could, that if he took a step forward and over the cliff to certain death he wouldn’t fall. His body would stay behind but he would float ahead, a spirit on the charged air, one with his ancestors. One with the world. An infinity of possibilities. But he didn’t dare. Instead he said:
“Beautiful isn’t it?”
It was hard not to punch Abdou most of the time. The boy had no sense. He could stand in front of a charging lion and admire the beast’s run, commenting on the richness of its mane. Walk into a swarm of mosquitoes without a thought for malaria, drawn to the buzzing excitedly. He wasn’t exactly stupid, but he was an idiot.
“Sure,” Ibrahima responded. “Until you’re standing right under it.”
Abdou shrugged. “That’s not gonna happen,” he said “I asked my dad about it. The Caliph only allows ChinaCorp to mine the Faso Subdivision, and they get paid for it. A lot.”
Ibrahima looked at him, and then away, back at the beam. Perhaps the Caliphate did get paid in return, perhaps the Caliph was sitting on velvet cushions drinking water teased from honey and dew. Perhaps. But the same way the tingling in his veins felt like he owned the world, he knew something more sinister was at play.
“Your dad is a wise man, Abdou. But we’re citizens of the Massina Sokoto Caliphate too. Have you seen any of that money here? I haven’t.”
Abdou leaned back, drew in a thick gob of spit, and threw his body forward, launching it over the cliff and into the valley below.
“You know what your problem is, Ibrahima?”
“I have way more than one.”
“You think you always know better.”
“I don’t see how that’s a problem.”
“See? Right there. That’s what I’m talking about.”
“You talk too much, Abdou. Maybe you should try thinking more.”
“To hell with you,” Abdou retorted, throwing him a dark glance. “I’m heading home.”
Ibrahima looked at him. For an instant he saw his friend standing in front of him. Wearing different clothes, a look of surprised terror in his eyes, his body disintegrating into shreds of skin and bone, trying to scream for help. And then it was gone.
Abdou noticed. “What? Wanna say something, smart ass?”
Ibrahima did not. “No, man, no. Get home safe, ok? I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Right …” Abdou murmured, walking away.
Ibrahima turned back to the beam, the powerful force snapping shut with the thump of a bass line, pulling back into the sky, and tearing a little bit of his soul out with it. For a moment, he saw space. He saw stars, he saw an expanse so wide it swallowed him whole. Then the sky was dark again. Twilight vanished over the horizon.
The hut was damp and dark. The threads on the sheet had long lost their softness but it didn’t matter. Her skin held all the softness in the worlds, rustling with sweat that tasted of sugar cane around her neck.
He had laughed when his friends described what love was. The oneness of bodies, all the empty would-be poetry of minds too limp to truly flow. But he saw it now. The eye of the storm, where chaos and immortality met.
When he came to it was night again. The day lost, except it wasn’t …
Holy shit! Ibrahima thought. Bolting out of bed. I’m late!
“Where do you think you’re going?” Seynabou asked, rolling herself into the blankets.
The band was waiting for him. They had a performance soon. He should have been ready for rehearsal an hour ago.
“The guys are waiting.”
“Can’t they wait longer?” she asked, yawning.
“They could,” he said, pulling up his pants. “They could also find another bass player.”
“You’re the only reason they’re any good,” she said, stretching her arms, the sheet sliding off her shoulders. “And where would they find another bass player anyway?”
“Go tell them that,” he said walking towards the door. “I’ll see you later.”
“Eyo! Ibrahima Ndiaye! There you are!” Mame Fatou said with a melody for his name, as he entered their small hut. Her orange and green dress wrapped around straight old shoulders, a skip in her step unexpected for a ninety-six-year-old.
“Not for long, Grandma!’ he answered, reaching for his old worn-out bass and tiny amplifier.
“Tsk,” she said, her tongue slapping against her pallet like a whip on a water buffalo. “One day you’re going to have to do something for yourself. Of your own. That band won’t last forever.”
Of course it wouldn’t. But who cared? He had as much the right to dream as anybody else.
His parents’ picture hung from a wall in an old frame. His bed in a corner opposite from his grandmother’s, sticks of incense blowing thin strings of coconut into the walls, permeating the hut with a smell that would linger long after they had burned out and he was sent to the market for more.
“Well …” he started.
“Yes. I know,” she interrupted, rubbing his cheek with a wrinkled hand. “Go ahead and have your fun, but be here before nightfall, you hear? Or you’ll go to bed without supper.”
It won’t be the first time, he thought.
“Of course, Grandma,” he lied.
“Of course not,” she said. And he walked out of the hut.
Ibrahima twisted in his dreams, his hungry stomach feeling every absent morsel of his grandmother’s promise.
He tried to open his eyes but could not. It wasn’t a dream. It was the beam.
Somewhere it bore through the earth, mining out minerals from space, and whispered to him in a deep ululation.
“You’re mine, Ibrahim. You have always been.” It reverberated sensually, caressing him in his sleep. At times it sounded like his grandmother’s loving admonitions, other times like Seynabou’s lustful whisper.
“Leave me alone,” he tried to say, but he had no lips, no body. He looked down and saw himself standing, an empty shell looking up at the sky, standing in a valley of sand slowly turning to glass.
“You’re not alone.” The beam answered his silent question. “You are nothing.”
The beam appeared in full focus, crashing down on him, warmer, and warmer, and …
“Ibou!” his grandmother screamed, shaking him awake. “Wake up!”
He looked up to see her eyes filled with tears.
“I’m okay, Grandma. I’m okay. Sorry I scared you.”
She sighed deeply and sat down on his bed next to him, and offered a plate of cold rice and fish with vegetables and a glass of water.
“Eat,” she said kindly “Eat. It will keep the dreams away.”
He ate, drank the glass of water, and fell back asleep. The hunger pangs left, but it didn’t keep the dreams away.
Nabu let go of his hand, running ahead of him into the shade of a baobab. The tree was one of the oldest in the region, with a trunk wide enough to host a family inside, serpentine branches large and thick, near enough to the ground for people to pull themselves up and walk along them.
For as long as he could remember, the tree had been a place to rest in the shade from the heat of monsoon. A landmark for the weary traveler. A place of palaver for the elders, and a not-so-secret rendezvous spot where lovers would meet in the quiet of its branches.
He was not old enough to palaver. Neither of them were. But they were old enough to love.
“Are you gonna join me or daydream?” Nabu’s chiming voice called at him.
“Can’t be alone without me, can you?”
“No, I’m just worried the heat will get to you, weak as you are.”
Ibrahima laughed and strolled over to her, her grimace showing how easily frustrated she was at him.
How long had they known each other? They had been babies together, a couple of years apart. They had wrestled and played together when he was six and she had been four. They had always been inseparable but when had their play changed into something else? He had no idea, perhaps it had always been there, only the forms of love changing with their changing seasons.
He sat and rested his head in her lap. Her dress was dusty from the walk, smelling of churai and the indefinable scent that was her.
He almost fell asleep but she wouldn’t let him.
“Don’t fall asleep on me, deh!” she snapped, a peevish lilt in her laughter. “Let me guess, you’re having your dreams again?”
He pulled himself up. “Yup.”
“They’re just dreams, silly, really weird dreams granted, but they’re just dreams. You’re not the only one who is scared of the mining operations, you know? They get at me too sometimes.”
He hadn’t told her of the pull he felt whenever he saw the beam. The desire. He hadn’t told her that his dreams occurred only when ChinaCorp conducted operations. She would think he was crazy. She already did, but in the way that lovers did, she still thought of him as a daredevil of a young boy, he didn’t want to nail his own coffin and step across the thin line of raving lunacy.
“Do they?” he said, looking into the maze of branches. “Sometimes it feels like I’m the only one who cares.”
“You’re not, Ibou. The others just don’t want to admit it. Life isn’t easy for anybody, and sometimes it’s easier to ignore what you can’t control and deal with what you can.”
“We can’t control anything, Nabu. I’m not sure we ever could. I mean look at us, our rivers are polluted, our coasts are covered in junk from the Empire and the Republic. Both. We scrap what we can and survive on it.”
She chuckled. “You mean junk like that bass of yours?”
He glanced at her sideways. “Yeah, exactly. It’s like we’re children, Nabu. We play with the toys we make out of scrap, light our homes and cook our food with them. Treat the leftovers as if they were gifts, but they’re not. They’re trash, and they’re not even ours. And what does the Caliphate do? Give up even more, allow them to tear our wealth out of the ground. And what do we get in return? Empty promises and more junk. Have you seen what is left behind when the beam is done mining the soil?”
She nodded. They all had. Entire swathes of the continent seared and bleeding with lava, like open arteries on a suicidal forearm. Soil ripped of every mineral and plant, cracked and fissured and void of life, leaking fluids like burned flesh. Earthquakes and death lingering long after the mining satellites had their fill. Floods of displaced people fleeing the operations into already overcrowded areas and cities.
“We will find a way. We always have,” she said, her hand rubbing his thigh.
“That’ll be new. We’re no more than a playground for Han Industries and ChinaCorp to fuel their war machines. You saw what the Empire did to the Azawad Reaches? Sucked all the water out of the ground until the Imazighen were all gone and the uranium was theirs. What do you think will happen next?”
“Han Industries doesn’t have the technology ChinaCorp has, Ibou.”
“For how long? How long until they bribe someone and duplicate it? What then? More one-sided contracts? We should have stood our ground, not as the Massina Sokoto Caliphate. Not as the Yoruba Heartland. Not as the Congolese Brotherhood or the South African Confederacy. As Africa.”
She sighed. “You and your moods … Tell me more about your dreams,” she said. “Maybe that will help you find sleep sometimes.”
He nodded. “Maybe … I don’t know what else to say, I’ve told you everything. It’s like I can see the beam, like it talks to me, like it is looking for me. I know it’s crazy, but it’s always the same dream. The beam drops from the sky and warns me. Warns me that my days are numbered, that somehow it will find me. It’s silly really …”
“You think you’re special,” she said, shoving him gently. “Are you always alone? Do you ever see your parents in those dreams? I heard that orphans often find meaning in other things to help them with the loss.”
He shook his head. “No. I never dream of them. I can’t really remember them. They are the people in the picture over Mame Fatou’s bed, but they’re not real to me anymore. Sometimes I do wish I had a family like yours, but I don’t dream of it, or of them. I don’t think it’s one of those.”
“Then what is it?”
“A tug. Something pulling at the very core of me, Nabu. Something trying to rip me apart, to tear me from me, if that makes any sense.”
She laughed again. “It makes no sense at all.”
It was his turn to laugh. She was right, it made no sense. He was overthinking things, letting his creative mind run wild with the elements. And maybe he did think he was special. Who wouldn’t want to be, faced with the prospect of no prospects at all?
She was right about one thing. It did feel good to talk, even if he couldn’t tell her everything.
She landed a kiss on his cheek. A kiss that felt like the very first time she had put her lips to his face. He remembered that day clearly. They had been playing in the sand, an older boy had come and shoved her to the ground. He had punched him in the jaw and broken his tooth and earned a small scar between his knuckles. He had held his hand out to lift her up. She had kissed his cheek and run away.
She got up and held out her hand. He caught it and pulled himself up.
“It’s getting late,” she said. “Let’s go home.”
Ibou’s fingers slapped on the chords like gum-rubber mallets on a balafon.
The old instrument had been his first love, hitting the keys with the delusions of grandeur of the apprentice, hoping to recreate his favorite hits from the radio on the handmade device of wood and calabashes.
That was until he had seen a music video, some musician from the Congolese Brotherhood. He couldn’t remember her name or even the tune, it was the impression the bass made on him. The roundness of the sound, the sheer groove of it.
His father had found a broken old thing for him. More hull than instrument, but he had worked on it, acquired strings, learned to tune it himself, purchased a modest amplifier. He was getting good, still chasing that sound he’d heard years ago on the radio.
“Abdou! How many times do we have to do this? You’re off key! Again!”
Ibrahima stopped playing, and watched Mansour berate Abdou for the fifth time that day. Abdou was not a singer, by any stretch of the imagination but he was improving with every rehearsal, and that was something to respect.
“Easy, Mansour,” Ibrahima said. “Don’t think you could hit those notes either. None of us can. Let’s just change the key and drop a few tones. It might even sound better.”
Mansour rolled his eyes and put down his guitar.
“Look,” he said, “you wrote the song, so you can do whatever you want with it, but we can’t keep adjusting to Abdou. It’s not professional.”
“Hey!” Abdou said.
Ibrahima laughed. “You know how many times I had to adjust to you, Mansour? Anyway, the only steady member of this band is Balla, and everyone knows how to beat a djembe.” He finished with a wink at Balla.
“True!” Balla said. “But two djembes at once? Not that many.”
Every rehearsal went the same way. They would play, they would argue, sometimes they would fight, but they kept coming together no matter what. The simple truth was none of them had anything else, but Ibou liked to think there was something more to the band, and he liked to think the others did too.
They would probably never record anything meaningful, but he would be content playing with his friends way into their middle age and beyond. Performing locally, reminding people that behind the poverty and the pain they still had a soul, a culture, something ineffable that was theirs and would always be.
“Alright!” Ibrahima said. “Let’s take it from the top. One, two, three …”
Hair rose on the back of his neck. He almost dropped the bass.
“Guys!” Saliou, one of the younger boys, barged in screaming.
“What!” Mansour said, holding his guitar like a baseball bat aimed at the kid’s head. “This better be important …”
Saliou lifted a hand, panting, bent over at the waist. “It is … super important … please … you gotta come see this … it’s Han Industries …”
Ibou put down his bass, quickly followed by his band mates and followed the kid outside.
He ran into a stream of villagers moving diligently towards Pape Camara’s restaurant and the communal television. He had never herded, that was something the Fula still did, sticking to old ways. Standing outside the divide, not playing a part in either the Empire or the Republic’s sick games. Maybe they were suicidal and wanted to be the next to go. Unattached meant being vulnerable. Maybe they were too proud. Allah knew they always had been. Whatever their reason, Ibrahima was sure the Fulani dreamed of such orderly cattle.
What is happening?
It was rare to see so many villagers gathered together. A funeral maybe. A wedding or a baptism. The small things that keep humanity from exploding, but otherwise …
Ibrahim approached Pape’s restaurant, shoving his way through the silent crowd. He couldn’t quite see the screen yet, but the silence of his community and the buzzing from the television spoke louder than thunder.
He pushed the last person in front of him out of the way.
What you are seeing should be a mistake. It should only be a mistake. Mistakes happen. We are all but human after all, but this isn’t a mistake. This is Ouagadougou. This is real …
He dismissed the carefully manicured mandarin voice of the AfriTV host.
Ouagadougou, a city of three million. Peaceful, kind people the Burkinabese had always been. Now thousands were no more. Parts of the city of bicycles and small buildings, slowly evaporated into a red halo. People and houses indistinguishable from each other as limbs stretched to thin threads until they disappeared, as buildings seemed to crumble upwards, as melting faces blended into each other, voices lost in the ravenous ululation of the beam.
This is murder pure and simple, ChinaCorp CEO Malika Fahrani-Yakudo said, her face appearing in a small box in the corner of the screen. This is Han Industries’ work. This is what we are up against. All of us who stand for reason. Cruel, inhuman savagery on behalf of the Western Chinese Empire. A perversion of our satellite mining technology. We had warned our African partners. Begged them to heed our advice. What are warnings worth in the face of such barbary? From Dublin to Dubai, to Beijing and Sydney, the Eastern Chinese Republic mourns the dead in Ouagadougou.
Ibrahima trembled. I knew it, he thought. I knew it.
Is there something the ECR will do about this CEO? the AfriTV investigator asked.
The CEO looked at her, and shook his head.
What will you have us do? While this despicable, nigh genocidal act by Han Industries is clearly aimed at ChinaCorp, the Republic was not the target. This is for our African partners to consult and determine for yourselves. If you’ll please excuse me, our managing board will be meeting soon to discuss the significance of this event for our citizens. May the souls of Ouagadougou find peace in the afterlife.
That is all from ChinaCorp. While we don’t know how this has happ … We now have Han Industries CEO Ednilson Aardhal on the line from their headquarters in Rio de Janeiro. CEO, there are no words. How do you justify this?
Justify? Ibrahima thought, his veins popping on his forearms.
This is an accident. A horrible, tragic mistake. The Western Chinese Empire had never wanted this, and begs the forgiveness of our African brothers and sisters. ChinaCorp’s accusations are baseless. Their contracts and rural mining operations are no different from this. How many people have they killed over the past decade? Our satellite misfired, we are prepared to compensate the people of the Massina Sokoto Caliphate in any way we can. We know that nothing will make up for the loss incurred, we are human just as you. But we will work together. We will send our best and brightest to draw up plans, and free labor to rebuild. We are in a position to offer better contracts than ChinaCorp. We will …
Do you mean that you will now both be competing over mining rights on the continent?
Haven’t we always?
What if we refuse? You had no contracts signed. You should never have been here.
Refuse? Please, do not be hasty in your conclusions. This is an accident. A horrible mistake, yes, but nonetheless. There have been oil spills in the past, mining accidents are inevitable. Africa still has a lot to gain in this partnership we …
Ibrahima backed into the crowd. The beam ripping through the air and into the city playing on a loop on the screen while the voices of the press and commercial greed drowned the voices of the departed.
“Ibou!” Seynabu’s voice rang in his ear behind him. “You’re on my foot!”
He turned and hugged her, weeping on her shoulder.
“Ibou. Ibou calm down. It’s gonna be okay. I’m here, Ibou,” she whispered.
But everything wouldn’t be okay. It never would again. He wasn’t crying for the dead. He wasn’t weeping for what may or may not happen in the future. He was weeping in shame.
Amidst all the sadness and chaos, the CEO’s callous, empty comments and barely veiled threats, he longed for the beam.
“Mame Fatou!” Ibrahima called walking into the hut. “Grandma, are you there?”
The hut was dark but smelled of burned tallow and incense. Mame Fatou sat in the corner in a reclining chair by her bed, asleep in a blue dress, her head wrapped and a small prayer book at her feet, her arm hanging over the armrest as she breathed gently.
She was a pillar, Mame Fatou, in spite of her waning frame. The one solid and steady thing in his life.
He picked up the prayer book and placed it on her bed before warming water for tea.
He waited until the water had boiled and poured some into a cup before waking her gently.
“Grandma,” he whispered, shaking her shoulder as her eyelids fluttered open like the wings of a butterfly on her dark blue eyes.
“Ibou?” she asked. Her eyes adjusted to the candle light of the hut. “Is that you?”
“Yes, Grandma, it’s me. You fell asleep in your chair again. Here, have some tea,” he answered, proffering the cup.
“Good boy,” she said, taking a slow sip. “It’s late, where have you been?”
“I was at Pape Camara’s restaurant with the rest of the village. Haven’t you heard?”
“Heard what? You know I don’t go there anymore.”
It was hard to believe how frail she had become. She had aged so slowly that he never truly noticed. While his parents were human-shaped holes in his memory, his grandmother was still a tree. But today he saw that the trunk had withered to a willow. One that bent to the storm and defied all odds, but a wispy willow nonetheless.
Now that he looked back, it had been months since she made it any further than the market, halfway to Pape’s restaurant and back. Only a couple of times a week, maybe three sometimes. She used to walk to the cliffs to get him when he was a boy, and sometimes she would sit next to him, both of their legs dangling over the edge and would tell him old Jollof folktales, of the spirits of the Lebou fishermen, and tease him about girls.
How long ago had that been? He couldn’t tell if they were memories or dreams.
“It’s all over the news. Han Industries found a way to mimic ChinaCorp’s satellite mining technology. They claim it’s a mistake, but …”
She sighed. “You don’t believe them?” she asked, putting the cup down.
“That’s not it, Grandma, it’s …” He hesitated again, he hadn’t been able to tell Seynabu, he definitely would never tell his friends, but she knew him. He knew that no matter what he told her she would listen, she wouldn’t mock him, she wouldn’t betray him, that she would find the words he needed to hear, whatever they were.
“… It’s me, Grandma. Something in me is … wrong …”
He told her everything. How he felt drawn to the beam in spite of all it was. How he felt it even in his sleep if it was close enough, and close enough meant half the Caliphate away. How it split him in half, drawing him out of his shell of a body, how it made him feel alive, feel like something more than himself, more than human, a power he feared but relished all the same. How ashamed he felt, how anxious and anticipating.
“… I don’t know, Grandma. I don’t want this. I don’t want to want this, but … One day I … I …”
He dropped to his knees beside her.
“My boy,” she said, rubbing his head. “My special little boy.”
“What is wrong with me, Grandma?”
“Nothing is wrong with you, boy. Nothing at all.” She took another deep breath and finished her tea. Wiped her lips and placed her cup on the small table by her chair. “Nothing is wrong with you. Do you remember what happened to you? Twelve years ago, maybe? After your parents left to work in Gao, a few weeks before they died in the bus accident?”
He looked up and shook his head. “What are you talking about?”
She closed her eyes for an instant, breathed in, and opened them again.
“I’m so tired today.” She yawned. “Haven’t been this tired in a while … Anyway, of course you can’t remember. You were young and considering … Well. Your parents had left you with me. That was a long time ago. You were so small, hanging to my dress all the time, asking where your parents were. When they would come back, why they hadn’t taken you with, and if they still loved you. They did love you, Ibrahima, they just had to go. They thought things would be better … Do you mind getting me some water? I’m still parched.”
He got up, dusting his hands and went for the blue plastic bucket in the corner, removed the lid protecting the water from mosquitoes, reached for the ladle floating inside, filled it, and poured some of the tepid water into a metal cup, handing it to Mame Fatou, who took a deep swig.
“Ahh. That’s better. Where was I? Yes … It was before the rainy season. We’d been having lightning showers for weeks. A few cattle had been killed, so nobody let their children out for days, but it was so hard keeping a rein on you. Ha! You were a handful, let me tell you. You were already glued to that girl Seynabu … I think I aged thirty years in the last twelve because of you.”
She took another sip.
“Tried all I could, but I couldn’t keep you from running out of this hut. That hasn’t changed much, has it?” she said laughing. “You bolted out like a goat on Eid, trying to dodge the knife. The lightning fascinated you. You sat there, your eyes glued to the sky, your hand opening and closing trying to hold the lightning. Well, you did, boy. That you did.”
Ibrahima raised an eyebrow.
“The wind picked up something fierce. I called out the window, but you didn’t move, so I started walking out and then a thunderclap sounded so loud the ground shook, and almost at the same time, a single bolt of lightning like Allah’s spear came down on you, hitting you on the head …”
“What?!” Ibrahima said, jumping up.
“Right on the head. I froze and closed my eyes and starting praying. You didn’t make a sound. I thought you were dead. I thought if I stopped praying and opened my eyes, I would find you lying there, a small burned body that I had failed. But instead, you glowed. The shine of the bolt, moving down from the crown of your bald little head down your neck and shoulders and your back, into your waist, your little legs and tiny feet, and into the ground.”
“I can’t … remember …” Ibrahima started.
“Of course not,” she snapped. “It must have done something to your brain. But I swear that I saw something surrounding you. Can’t tell what. It had the shape of you in a halo of light, but much larger, it tried to pull itself out of you, and then snapped back, and you came to, giggling like nothing had happened.”
She took some more water.
“I ran to pick you up, but I couldn’t get closer than a few feet so much heat was blowing away from you, and the electricity, I could feel it pricking my skin. I prayed. I prayed and thanked Allah so hard. You just sat there giggling. You said: ‘Grandma! Grandma! I was flying! I could see you! I could see me! I could see everything!’ I asked you what everything meant. You just kept saying: ‘Everything! Everything, Grandma! Everything!’ You were so excited. I had always thought you were a special boy, but what grandmother doesn’t? But then I knew. There was something truly special in you. ‘Everything! Everything, Grandma! The world! The sky! The stars! Everything! They were mine, Grandma! All of it! Everything! It was mine!’ I’ll never forget that day long as I breathe. The heat finally stopped billowing from you, so I picked you up and kissed you all over. I told you, I told you … ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Yes, they are, little boy, all of them, one day, they will all be yours …’”
She paused and yawned.
“So you see? There’s nothing wrong with you. You are one with the universe, my boy. You always have been. That’s all. I feel really tired now. I think I’ll sleep in the chair. Leave me alone.” She finished with a smile, and fell asleep.
Ibrahim pried the cup gently from her hand and finished it, unconsciously feeling the top of his skull for a scar.
He stepped out into the night sky and looked up at the clouds, hoping for lightning to strike twice. But maybe it already had, he could have been alone but instead he had two amazing women in his life, one that loved him unconditionally, and another whom he would strive to love forever. He had friends and a community, he was different but not alone. Blessed by lightning. Blessed by life.
He walked back into the hut, feeling lighter and calmer than he had ever been, pulled his grandmother’s sheets off her bed and wrapped her shoulders in them, tucking the sides in between her arms and the chair. Then he went to grab his own, and rolled himself on the floor by her feet and slept soundlessly.
He woke up the following morning and looked up at Mame Fatou. She was dead.
“Ibou!” Seynabu’s voice rang from the window of the hut, followed by the wailing of their son, shrill but demanding and full of strength.
He turned off his plasma cutter and lifted his welding helmet and wiped his forehead. Things had changed in the three years since Mame Fatou had passed.
Her body had been buried in the cemetery they shared with the neighboring villages, by the empty tombs that had been dug symbolically for his parents. The men had carried her bier followed by almost all the residents.
She had been his grandmother but, in many ways, she was also the community’s. Everyone had known her in some way or another, had been raised by her in some way or another. She was Mame, an elder, and with her it wasn’t just a person who passed, but the memories of the village, harkening back to a time before the Caliphate had taken over the entire region from Chad to Senegal. She had known the Sahelian War and survived it. She had been a little girl too, hard as it was to believe, a young beautiful woman in love, a strict but caring parent, and to him a mother, a father, a sister, a friend.
She was a hole in his heart and a hole in his mind. Now that she was gone some things would be lost forever. It was true with every generation, history is in the mouth of the elders. It is not perfect, time and experience and pain and healing color things in different shades. It is not perfect but it is human, and in the end, when all else fails, when the power cuts, when the circuits fall silent, it’s all that’s left. It’s the storyteller that binds people together, that tells you where the truth lies regardless of what is written.
“I’ll be right there!” he said. “You hear that, Demba?!” he said for his son. “Daddy’s right there for you!”
As usual the crying stopped at the sound of his voice.
He would finish building the door tomorrow. No point in rushing things, and he’d discovered himself a new skill, one that never outran its usefulness. The small hut he’d shared with Mame Fatou and now with his own family barely looked the same anymore. The roof was laced with a layer of protective metal under the straw. He’d smashed down half the wall to enlarge it and build a small room for his son when he’d be old enough to want his own, which seemed closer every day. One layer of rock, one layer of metal, and another layer of rock. The sturdiest hut in the village. It was expensive work, and he was no carpenter. Furniture came at an extra cost, but his welding jobs paid for it easily.
“When are you gonna get to my room?” Nabu asked as he walked in. “Here, hold the boy for a moment, I’m starting to tire.”
He took their child from her hands, lifting him up in the air to a giggle, as Nabu turned to their small cooking unit, the smell of rice, chicken, and peanut sauce drifting out of the hut through the ventilating unit he’d built for her.
“Soon enough, shape of my heart. Are you getting tired of being so close to me?”
She turned her head from the stove and smiled at him. “Sometimes,” she said. “But who doesn’t? We all need a piece of our own. Let’s have dinner and talk, okay?”
He nodded his head. “Of course. Any time. Let me put Demba to bed first.”
He carried his son to bed, the tempest of confused emotions and first breaths now sleeping in his arms, and put him in the cradle by their bed.
He favored his grandfather’s weight, judging by the picture, but he had Ibrahima’s mother’s eyes, and Seynabu’s mother’s face, as she loved to point out. He would be a beautiful boy, tall and strong, taking after Nabu’s Bambara roots, but he will be Wolof anyway, dark and handsome, from the Senegalese province of the Caliphate.
Looking at him sleep, Ibrahima remembered being a child, felt the child within himself, free of the burdens that made him him, a lightness in his bones that he had left behind without a thought, eager to grow, to live, to love and learn. With now so much to unlearn.
He sat on the floor just as Seynabu put down the bowl of mafé.
“Are your hands clean?” she asked.
He looked down at his dusty fingers, licked one clean, and grinned at her.
She shook her head. “You take after your son more and more every day,” she said. “Go clean those rusty fingers before you poison us all.”
He laughed. “My fingers are poison and magic wrapped in one.”
She smiled but said nothing. That had been their reality of late. The youthful lustfulness was still there, but where it had been an end in itself, it didn’t suffice to hold them together any more. He knew what she would say, but would listen all the same.
He sat back across from her, legs crossed on the floor as she cut the chicken sitting in the middle of the rice in the bowl with her fingers and dropped some pieces of white breast on his side.
“Thank you,” he said, waiting for her to speak.
“Let’s leave, Ibrahima.”
It felt like the hundredth time she’d said this. It was probably the thousandth, but every time the longing in her voice was the same, an ounce of hunger sprinkled with fear and passion. That had always been her, always on the verge of something and ready to do it regardless of what may come.
“I thought you wanted me to finish your room.”
“They’re not mutually exclusive,” she said, shrugging, putting a handful of rice, sauce, and chicken into her mouth. “I mean it, Ibou. Maybe not now …”
While Demba is young, he heard himself saying in his mind.
“… while Demba is young, but we can’t stay here forever. You gotta want better for him than we had.”
“He already has. He has both of us,” he replied.
She smiled at him and grabbed his clean hand in hers, rubbing it gently.
“I know, and we will never fail him, but the two of us are not enough. He needs to go to school, to find himself a job working for the Caliphate. He is a bright child. You would know if you didn’t spend so much time working.”
This was a first.
“You think I’m a bad father?”
“No,” she said, shaking her head. “You’re a great father. You love that kid more than you love your own self, but we owe him more.”
“It wasn’t so long we were stealing kisses from each other by the baobab. It seemed enough at the time.”
“A lot of things were enough back then. I could find a teaching job, there’s nothing here. Nothing for you either. We were young, we still are, but it’s no longer all about us, Ibou.”
He looked at his bass and small amplifier, discarded in a corner of the room.
He hadn’t played since his son was born. No fault of the child but things happened that way. Balla had left without a word or trace. Abdou had moved to St. Louis, claiming the ocean air would make him immortal. The others were around but somehow they kept pushing rehearsals and shows back. Tomorrow. Next week. Next month. It was going on two years now.
It had taken a thousand and one times but perhaps Nabi was right. Their child needed more. Nabu deserved more. He had to stop daydreaming. It was time to move on.
He held her hand tightly in his grip. The taste of her food carrying a lilt of the sweat she had put into making it.
“We’re getting out of here, love. I promise.”
And with that Demba started crying.
He had become better at hiding his dreams from her.
It was easier now that in the wake of Ouagadougou, the Republic and the Empire had discontinued all their mining operations, scrambling to rebuild trust and contracts with the African states. He didn’t feel the tugging, his soul continuously pulled apart and reconstructed, his self thinning to bare atoms, but in many ways it was worse.
Now there was a hole. An abyss he stared into every night, on the fringes of consciousness that opened before falling asleep. He would feel Nabu’s warmth and breath, hear his son’s light breathing in the cradle by their bed, and yet he was alone, looking down into a crater stretching through strata of rock to the world’s heart, and there he would see eyes, eerily like his own, staring back at him, before exploding in magma. The ultra-heated rock climbing up the hole as he struggled to move, the heat slowly turning his flesh to tallow, the ashes of his body covering his home and family in a dusty grey, and he found himself at the bottom of the hole, hearing them choke to death, looking up into a world he had just destroyed.
Ibrahima held Demba’s hand, standing on a mailbox. The tide of passerby and demonstrators flowing through the streets of downtown IKapa, the white buildings bright with sunlight, glowing with a life that had amazed him at first but now seemed mundane.
Anywhere else the crowds would turn into riots. Here the waves of UDC supporters in yellow and green, dancing behind painted trucks of the same colors, laden with loud speakers blasting melodious and rhythmic Zulu songs, opened up to make way for the smaller crowds of Ubuntu protestors. Singing their own songs, stomping their feet to a different beat, the overwhelming yellow and green broken by white and red blotches that dissolved into yet another crowd.
It was hard to keep Demba quiet, jumping up and down on the mailbox, eager to join the demonstrators, ignorant of the politics, but drawn to the liveliness of their humanity, and still too foolish to know danger.
“Calm down, boy,” Ibrahima said, “or you’ll fall and get trampled in there.”
“No.” Ibou answered firmly. “Believe you me, if I had my way, I would have gotten rid of you a long time ago, but your mother now, she would never forgive me. So be careful.”
Demba looked at his father slyly. Ibou would have to keep an eye on him, he had all his mother’s mischief. If he let go of his hand, the little puppy would dash and bolt away and make his life miserable.
It was hard to believe he was almost seven. Three years since they had left the Caliphate for the Southern African Confederacy. Four years to finally show Nabu that he was a man of his word, saving scrap after scrap, finding a job and a modest place for them to stay.
They could have stayed in the Caliphate, moved to Bamako or Jos or any of the coastal cities and found work there, but why move to live the same life as in the village? Seynabu had wanted more for Demba, and she had gotten it.
“Do we have the same thing back home?” his son asked.
Ibou nodded. He would have to bring him back to the village soon.
“Yes, of course. Taking to the streets and complaining is the most human thing there is, along with finding an excuse not to go to work.”
Demba laughed. The boy was smart, and kind, and strong, another thing he inherited from his mother. He was already much bigger than the other children in his class, he looked like he was twelve and would look down on his father any day now.
“It’s getting late, boy; your mother will be home soon.”
“Why did she have to work and not you?”
Smart and observant, too.
“Because your father is lazy, because your mother is not, and the world is unforgiving to teachers while it is kind to construction workers.”
And, of course, working for ChinaCorp had its benefits. The corporation supported the demonstrations, trying to get the government to give in to its demands, and allow mining to resume in earnest. Han Industries had already signed contracts with the Congolese Brotherhood although authorities in Kigali had not let them test their satellites yet. It was only a matter of time, but in the meantime, there were weekly demonstrations and ChinaCorp paid its employees double not to work.
That wasn’t true for government employees. Nabu would remind him of that. She reminded him of a lot of things these days. That he had to move up in the world. That she couldn’t carry the three of them forever, that he wasn’t a boy anymore, that he was not the man he used to be … He missed his village in those moments: he missed Mame Fatou’s comforting arms, he missed his friends, he missed his band, but more than anything he missed how carefree Nabu used to be.
“Jump off!” he told the kid, opening his arms to catch him.
Demba shook his head and climbed down the mailbox himself.
Any day now, he thought, any day.
“Think we were right to leave him home alone?”
“He’s twelve,” she said, picking up her glass of wine, her full lips wrapping the glass gently, leaving a faint imprint along the edge when she put it down. “He’s gonna have to learn to handle the house. Plus, how much damage can he do?” she finished, smirking.
“Are you serious?” he asked, waving at the waiter. “A lot, that’s how much. A lot.”
“You gotta give him more credit than that.”
“You give him too much.”
She laughed. “Is that what our life has come down to? Bickering over a preteen? You’re starting to sound like Mame Fatou …”
Nabu laughed harder. It was that laugh that had opened up his heart all those years ago, the glimmer in her eyes hadn’t changed either, there was so much mischief there, so much wit and intelligence, and something hard, the toughness of steel wrapped in silk. And all for show.
What had happened to them? They used to be so good together.
The band played in the corner of the dining room, the rhythms of the Congolese Brotherhood. He couldn’t speak Lingala but the music spoke for itself, of good times and cheerful evenings, interrupted by the sirens outside.
“A dust storm is moving through IKapa,” an androgynous voice booked through the loudspeakers. “I repeat, a dust storm is moving through IKapa. All customers are requested to remain indoors. This is a minor storm. ETA in fifteen minutes. Estimated duration: twenty minutes. Expect some disruptions in the electric system.”
“Aren’t you glad we moved?” he asked sarcastically.
Nabu raised an eyebrow.
“Why do you have to be cynical? We would have had to move anyway. They’re mining everywhere in the Caliphate nowadays.” She paused to dip some lobster into the butter by her plate, and continued with her mouthful. “You are co-director of a company you were working construction for five years ago. Where else would that have happened? Where else would we have found as good a school for Demba? I’m the Dean at my high school. It’s all worth a little dirt.”
Ibrahima didn’t answer. She was right of course, at least the Confederacy only allowed limited operations. The dust storms were a byproduct but nowhere near as bad as other parts of the continent.
He looked out the window as the blinds lowered against the incoming storm.
He hadn’t felt the calling of the beam in years. He barely felt anything at all anymore. He should have been happy, but he felt empty, like the husk of a beetle eaten from the inside by hundreds of ants, tearing little parts of himself out, morsel by morsel. So he’d sought other thrills.
The lights started to flicker. Nabu put her glass down with a frown.
“Who is she, Ibou?” she asked flatly, looking him straight in the eye, all the mirth gone from her tones.
There it is.
“What?” he asked.
“Don’t be coy with me. Of all the things you can do, don’t insult me more than you already have.”
He should have known she would find out. She had always been too smart for him. How long had she had known and said nothing?
He didn’t answer, staring into his glass of wine. There had been more than one over the years, more as he and Nabu grew further apart.
“Does it matter who she is?” he asked.
Nabu paused to think.
“No. No, I suppose it doesn’t.”
“Look,” he started, reaching for a hand that she pulled away, his fingers landing on the tablecloth as hers slipped passed, an abyss of mere inches.
“Nabu,” he tried desperately, as the building rattled with the strength of the flash storm. “She doesn’t matter to me, I …”
Nabu smiled. “Hmmm,” she said, shaking her head. “I should have asked who this one was.”
“Years Ibou. Years. First I tried to ignore it. Then I decided it was just a phase. That you would come clean and we could move on. Years. But it’s too late now. It never stopped. It never will.”
“Nabu …” but she cut him short again, her voice shaking.
“We have a child, Ibou. We had a good life. Not a great life but a good one. How could you do this?”
How could he tell her? What could he say that would make any sense? That he felt hollow? That he had some bizarre connection to ChinaCorp’s technology that even he couldn’t explain? That Mame Fatou told him he was special? That he hadn’t felt close to her in years? That he missed his home, doing everything she wanted while all he wanted was a simple life in a village now destroyed by mining operations in the Caliphate? That I just won’t grow up? There was nothing to say, but he tried anyway.
She waved a hand dismissively and downed the last gulp in her glass just as the androgynous voice announced the storm had passed and the metallic blinds were slowly raised.
“Save it,” she said, standing up. “I’ve lost my appetite. Time to go home.”
Ibrahima lay in bed next to Seynabu, shivering to the cool breeze blowing from the sea into the room through the window. Shivering at his own shame.
He breathed in deeply and let himself fall asleep, woken up what felt a few minutes later but could have been hours. Standing in the middle of a desert, the ground shaking beneath his feet. The sunny sky a dusty beige under a cloud of dust and the soul-rattling vibration of the beam pouring from the clouds like a waterfall of blood from a wounded giant, boring relentlessly into the ground.
“Where …” he started.
A million voices cut him off.
Silence, young one. You know where you are.
Ibou looked around at the lacerated ground around him.
This wasn’t a desert. It was now, but jutting from the ground, crusted with dirt and rock he recognized the towers of what used to be IKapa, the dome of the courthouse and looming in the distance the blasted anvil of what had once been called Table Mountain. Gone was the green of gardens, the scent of iodine blowing from the bay, the chatter of seagulls.
He looked up at the beam, towering over him, the ochre brown vortex of death and dust swirling around them, enveloping him and the ray.
Do not rest yet, the beam spoke again in its legion of voices. We are not done with you yet. With every syllable the voices gained clarity, spinning around him with the storm, faces flashing in the vortex.
Ibrahima breathed in deep despite the grit burning his throat and lungs, slowly turning his insides to sand.
“Who are you?” he screamed, although his voice came out torn, exhaling dirt back into the air.
We are the bedrock, the voices answered, now only a few.
We are the buried. Now only two, the beam closing down only a few feet away from him, the radiating heat burning the flesh from his body and blowing it into the storm.
We are the bones.
The last voice concluded, the spinning sands shifting, slowly taking form in swirling static, and growing into a face. Ibrahima knew that last voice all too well. His eyes were running, liquefied along his flayed cheeks, stinging what was left of his nerves. He couldn’t see the face but knew the look its eyes would hold.
The last of his flesh peeled off, leaving a statue of sand, eaten away by the beam. The beam that sounded like Mame Fatou.
Ibrahima woke up hours later. Turning around to wrap Nabu into him, he found his bed empty. He stepped out of his room and down the hall to Demba’s room, his heart collapsing, the house void of morning scents and found his room empty as well.
The sun dropped behind the mountains, biting dark teeth into the sky, the last ray of sunlight pulling back from the tiny tornadoes of sand drifting across the hundred square mile plain the South African Confederacy had authorized ChinaCorp to mine.
Ibrahima stared outside the window of the small sheebeen connecting three worker’s camps, his phone glued to his ear, looking at what had been a month’s work. A month’s work of mowing and cutting down trees, rounding up animals and shipping them off to preserves, digging out remains from traditional burial grounds. Displacing villagers. That was always the hardest part. No one wanted to leave, despite anything they were offered. They were proud. They would resist. They would die.
A month’s worth of work and death to make way for more destruction.
“Pick up, pick up, pick up …” Ibrahima whispered into the phone. It was his third call. No one had picked up yet.
“Hey, Westaf!” Felicien, a dark and large man from Bujumbura, bellowed at him. “You done with the phone yet?”
“I’ll trade you a drink for it,” Ibou slurred back at him, walking towards the bar and dropping the phone in Feli’s lap.
The Congolese Brother picked it up, scrubbed it with his shirt and shook his head.
“You need a drink like a diabetic needs a soda transfusion. You can’t keep doing this to yourself every day, man,” he said. “I’ll tell you what, I’ll drive you back into the city tomorrow, but you get some rest, Caliphate Boy, you don’t want to sleep through the mining tomorrow. You won’t wake up.”
“… I’ll go … when they … pick up!” he screamed at Feli, who rolled his eyes, shook his head again and walked away.
“Hey love! We’re done here. I’ll be home soon …” he said, whispering to his wife in the phone.
Ibrahima dropped on a stool and rested his head in his arms on the bar.
“Another shot?” the bartender asked, a young Xhosa girl named Philasande.
No! he thought, but murmured yes anyway.
Satellite Hounds, they called them here. Or China Rats. Neither of them preferable. There were probably different names in other parts of the continent. Doing the Republic’s dirty work against their own land, their own people. Felicien was lucky he had a wife. Probably selling herself at another sheebeen at another site somewhere, but such was this world, this tiny, filthy excuse of a community.
You came here to forget where you came from. Then you started drinking to forget you came here. Neither of them worked.
“Neither of them work!” he yelled, slamming his fist against the bar between three empty shot glasses.
Three more? he thought.
Felicien walked back to the table.
“Jesus, Ibou!” he said. “What has the world done to you …”
“Just hand me the phone, Feli,” Ibou answered, snatching it out of Felicien’s hands and walking back to the window dialing the number in.
“Pick up, pick up, pick up …” he whispered again as the ring tone started.
“Hello?” a male teenage voice answered.
“Demba!” Ibrahima screamed.
“Dad?!” the voice responded. “Dad? Is that you?”
“Son! It’s me! I …”
“Fuck you, Dad! Who the hell do you think you are calling here!?”
“Demba, look …”
“It’s been three years. Three years since you bothered to call.”
“You both left me!”
“And? What did you think was gonna happen? Mom told me everything. How could you do that to her? How could you do that to us? You’re a piece of shit, Dad.”
“Don’t talk to me like that! I’m still your father!”
“Demba! Demba, who is that?” Ibrahima heard Nabu’s voice on the other end of the line, every sensual memory of her plunging into the liquor in his stomach, building to a pressure point and lurching out of the window.
“It’s Dad!” he heard his son answer, a slimmer of excitement in his voice in spite of everything.
“Hang up!” Nabu yelled. “Hang up now!”
And the line went dark.
“Let me go!” Ibrahima screamed, trying to pull himself free of Felicien’s gargantuan grip, and failing miserably.
He had slept only a couple of hours on the floor of the sheebeen, his legs laying in his vomit, his shirt crusty with it, his breath drifting into his nose in redolent bursts of guts and bile. He wouldn’t have touched himself. He wouldn’t even have looked at himself if he’d walked past himself on the street. Yet Feli seemed intent on saving his smelly life. Probably because the Bible told him so.
“No!” Felicien yelled back at him. “No matter how bad things are, you … will live … Caliphate Boy!”
Ibrahima could feel his grip weaken, perhaps Feli realized that all wretches couldn’t be saved.
“There is a place for you, Ibrahima! God says …”
Knew it, Ibrahima thought.
“Fuck your God!” he screamed, spitting in Felicien’s eyes, kicking him in the stomach, and falling back to the ground as Feli released his grip on him. “Fuck! Your! God!”
Feli looked down at him, seeing him in all his filth for the first time and spit on the ground.
“To hell with you, Caliphate Boy! You want to die here?! Then die! You’ll find out what afterlife there is for you then!” He picked up his bag and stomped out of the sheebeen, hopping into the last taxicab waiting for the last workers to flee the area before ChinaCorp blasted the ground with radiation.
Ibrahima heard the engine start, and the faint smell of gasoline seeped through the open door and into his nose, covering his own stench for a blissful second.
He pushed himself up, hesitating to chase after the car. Nabu popped in his mind. Naked and sweating in the arms of another man. Demba … He couldn’t even picture his son now. He remembered him as a child, as a teenager, but he didn’t know the man he was becoming. Most of all he felt his anger surge amidst his desperation. His son’s cursing. Nabu’s eagerness at hanging up on him.
Where was their forgiveness? After all he had done for them? Had his dreams ever mattered? His pain?
He pushed himself off the ground and to his legs. Wobbling towards the bar for some hair of the dog.
He found a half-empty bottle of Castle Beer, sitting warm and flat behind the counter and drained it in a few gulps. His stomach lurched in his throat again, struggling against the punishment it was taking. Ibrahima rested a hand on it.
“Don’t worry,” he said out loud. “It’s almost over.”
He had loved her so much. He had never stopped loving her, even with other women, he still loved only her. Even now. He’d just … Her and their son. He would be a foot taller than his father now. The little boy who loved to dance and pull pranks on his parents and neighbors. In his experience it was always the more troublesome ones who became the best adults.
The beer bottle dropped to the ground with a clunk and rolled away as his skin covered with goosebumps and the hair on his arms rose with the change of static in the air.
You’re coming, he thought, pushing the door of the sheebeen open onto the barren waste left behind for ChinaCorp.
He looked up. The cloudy sky should have been grey with rain clouds. Instead, deep in the cycling mass, a red glow laced the sky, mingling with the charcoal clouds, layers upon layers high in the altitude, slowly making way for the one thing that he could rely on, the one feeling that connected his waning soul with his body and the world around him.
The wind began to rise around him, the tiny maelstroms of dust spinning and merging into each other. The air went damp. Then dry. Then damp again until his skin raged to crawl off his bones, rippling with the wind and the electric charges, the clouds growing bloodier, the smell of the air thickening, his tongue growing pasty and numb.
Somewhere deep in the clouds there was a thump, as if a thousand elephants pounded the ground with one foot all at once, and then silence.
A second’s worth of silence was all it was, but in the shifting elements it lasted a lifetime. Long enough for him to want to run, and stay, and change his mind again a dozen times until the silence cracked with the deep rumble of bass. The clouds burst open, and the beam crashed down with the anger of an avalanche of rocks and glass, his eardrums exploding with the pressure in the air, the influx of pain searing through his brain as he screamed but couldn’t hear himself, and never would again.
The earth shook beneath his feet, rising and settling in waves, trying desperately to resist the onslaught of energy pouring down from space to rape it over and again.
He was a shell drifting at sea, a shredded bird blown senseless by the gales. And yet. Through the blood leaking from his ears, through the air searing his lungs with grit, he felt whole. Whole and waiting to die.
Would they care? Would they even know he had passed? There wouldn’t be anything left of him, not even a shadow imprinted on a rock. Nothing. They would never know and never find out.
Somehow the thought comforted him. They would never have to grieve. Their lives would go on. thinking he had given up on them. They would never have to question leaving him, feel any remorse for pushing him over the edge. It was easier to work through hatred than through pain, he knew that now.
He thought back to that morning. The house empty. His heart empty.
He had gone back to bed. Numb, yet cold. So cold. He had curled up in the sheets that smelled of Nabu’s sweat and churai, and fallen asleep, waking up shaking, a fever running through his blood, cold sweat dampening the sheets and his forehead burning.
He screamed for them. He dreamt of them in the midst of the furnace that was his skull, each dream worse than the other. He saw Nabu crying while he was away on one of his trysts. Demba consoling his mother, too young to understand. Not knowing which words to use to comfort her.
He should have seen it. The relief in Demba’s eyes when he walked through the door, covered in cologne to cover his current mistress’s perfume, and running to the shower. Nabu’s eyes avoiding his for only the slightest instant before putting on a mask of strength that she wore for so long he didn’t know the mask from his wife anymore, and convinced himself that she didn’t know. That his marriage was healthy. That his family was alright.
The sky over him glowed red from horizon to horizon, the air around him glowed red, the swirling sand burned red, grating relentlessly against his exposed flesh, his threadbare clothes caked with vomit and sweat slowly torn off his body.
The beam was out there, closing in on him coming to finally claim him and take him out of his misery. His own, Ibrahima-made misery. Mame Fatou would have laughed. Not mockingly but in that delicate and lighthearted way that she had.
And he heard her now, like a whisper on the wind. He shouldn’t be able to. He couldn’t hear the wind or the storm, but riding ahead of the beam, surfing waves of immense heat battering his now naked body, were voices. A carillon of millions of voices, trillions of them, drawing back to the edge of time where the first voice rang alone in the void and cried at its own loneliness, when love and longing were born, when fear and emptiness were so real there was no room for hate, only room for desire, only room for life.
Ibrahima felt one with the voices, one with their finite eternity, and for a moment, felt peace. For the tiniest fraction of a moment, all his pain was alleviated, he was the voices too, the laughter of his ancestors.
We are the bedrock.
We are there buried.
We are the bones.
His dreams finally made sense. The void that had reflected itself upon his soul was an all-embracing light. Welcoming him, calling him with the softness of his grandmother’s loving tones.
Sirius exploded at your birth. Mame Fatou’s voice whispered softly in his mind. The Bandiagara cliffs collapsed into powder that day. An earthquake buried the pyramids. Space itself will be YOURS. The voices joined Mame Fatou’s whisper.
The beam was on him. Drowning him in radiation, cracking open his cells and remolding them, his inner organs boiling to stew, pulling at his mind, trying to make Ibou one with it, or to become one with him.
But it couldn’t.
Somehow, where the ground had burned, where thousands had died, he still stood. Blind and deaf, his eyeballs running melted down his cheeks, but he stood.
There were other voices on the beam. Voices he couldn’t recognize but understood. The cry of animals caught up in the force, and strongest among them, a mandrill. More self-aware than man. An old mandrill, probably the leader of his clan, powerful enough to retain his consciousness, his knowledge of self where so many millions of others hadn’t.
There was a will there. A will to dominate the beam, to own it, to tear it limb from limb in revenge, and bite.
Rage. In the midst of the soothing ancestors, it was rage. A single and pure focus of rage.
It fed into his. Read his pain. Knew his heart.
The mandrill’s eye opened onto the universe, folded it into the shape of Ibou’s heart, and took a bite.
In that bite it tasted love, but also anger to match his own, a longing to match his own, and two faces. Faces that awoke the pain inside him.
Nabu, his wife.
Demba, his son.
In the onslaught of the beam the mandrill’s face appeared, a powerful jaw and all too human eyes, looking at him in suffering, wanting to help him the only way it knew how …
The spell lost its power on Ibou, as the beam moved away from him, leaving him a shivering burnt and purulent mass of brown and red-welted flesh, and turned south, moving with the slowness of a distant tidal wave towards IKapa.
The universe is light.
It seems dark as night, but it’s an illusion.
The universe is light.
It seems empty as a pit, but it’s an illusion.
The universe is a web.
The universe is light.
The hunt continues for the conspirators who commandeered the gruesome attack on IKapa three years ago.
The city remains empty, a broken ossuary, where millions were buried and burned in a flash of light.
The billions of yuan poured and still pouring out of Beijing made no difference, and how would they? You can always rebuild buildings. Stone and steel are always plentiful, but what about soul? What do you do when that is gone?
What soul would want to live in this city, built on embers and blood, staring into the split carcass of Table Mountain cracked open to the clamor of millions?
ChinaCorp and Han Industries are not without their detractors, not with the shadow of Ouagadougou still stretching over their every move, but the data is unanimous. Someone, somehow managed to deviate the beam.
Suspicion first pointed at Han Industries, but this is not the misguided act of a competitor, it’s the murderous game of the coward, the callousness of wanton politicized violence. This is an act of terror.
As three years close on the destruction of IKapa, the search continues, and will not stop until the cowards are brought to justice.
On the anniversary of the tragedy that struck IKapa, we remember the buried.
Masha Villiers for the eThekwini Gazette.
The universe is soul.
It seems cold as a shallow grave, but it’s an illusion.
The universe is soul.
It seems dead as a rotting corpse, but it’s an illusion.
The universe is life.
The universe is soul.
IKapa was far from empty. There is always someone to hear the tree fall in the forest, there is always someone to pick the pockets of the dead.
“This place stinks, girl.”
“You mean you can smell something beyond that breath of yours?”
“Remember that time I banged your mom? Close enough.”
“We have the same mother … Of course it stinks, Greekson. It’s a fucking graveyard. They don’t call it Pompeii Black for no reason.”
It was wrong to say that IKapa had been destroyed. Abandoned, yes, but the beam had not destroyed the city. It had sliced through the Hottentot Mountain chain like an industrial saw through unlucky fingers. The mountains had split open, bursting tons of rock and ash into the atmosphere, some of it swallowed by the beam, the rest settling around it, covering neighborhoods in thick dust and debris, trapping hundreds of thousands in homes running out of air, on the top floors of buildings watching their neighbors die and waiting their turn.
It created an opportunity for all manners of scavengers. People who had been left behind even as the Confederacy had expanded. Farmers from the old homelands who’d never seen a city. Rebel groups from the old nations of the Republic and the Empire, hoping to weaponize debris against the corporations. Religious fanatics for whichever reasons were their own. A fortune in valuables, materials, and anything that could be salvaged.
Most scavengers had left after a year. The city baked in decomposing bodies. The money wasn’t worth it, their hair and nails would fall out in clumps, anything out of IKapa was a tough sale. Very few would touch it. Except Greekson and Charity who, through some luck in the gene pool, were less affected than the others. At least early on.
“You can’t smell anymore,” Greek snapped back. “You think I can’t tell, but I’ve been letting them rip for months and you never complained. You always complained before, ever since we were kids.”
“Doing what we do, I call that a blessing,” she said.
“Yeah, but we can’t do this forever,” he said, coughing a few speckles of blood into his fist. “And no more tasting food for you either.”
Charity was getting used to that. She had never been a big eater anyway.
“I can handle that. A few more months, and we should be able to pay off Big Caffer and get Grandma her meds and our asses to the Republic.”
“You said that a few months ago.”
“Can’t help it if water prices keep going up.” She handed Greek a dusty handkerchief with brown traces of dried blood. “Here, wipe that off your hand.”
Clean water was easy enough to come by if you had the yuan. The shantytowns surrounding IKapa had developed an economy of their own, reliant on water Wallas, and a host of bottom feeders with more courage than scruples.
It was a beautiful day. It happens in disaster zones too; already flowers and vines made their way through the dust and the cracked concrete, up the sides of the houses and buildings, wrapping old buses in cocoons of giant green thorns. Beautiful, fairy-tale things, all of them deadly.
“We’re heading inside the crater.”
Greekson spit out the little water in his mouth.
“What!?” he yelled. “Are you out of your mind?”
“There hasn’t been a flare up in months,” she said, looking towards the vaporized bay and the giant hole full of broken buildings and who knew what, that was known as the crater. “Plus, I have a feeling about that place, I think that’s where the guys who stuck it to ChinaCorp are hiding.”
Greek shook his head. He loved his sister. She’s the only reason he was still alive and, beyond all belief, prospering, but sometimes …
“Are. You. Out. Of. Your. MIND?!” he yelled again. “That’s where the radiation is the strongest. That’s why there’s the flare-ups. We’ve been lucky so far, but … damn it, you’ve lost your sense of smell already, sis! There’s nothing there but radioactive slag!”
Charity shook her head.
“Think about it,” she said, spinning around and grabbing him by the shoulders. “There has to be something there. What is with the flare-ups? It would make perfect sense, something had to control the satellite and it stopped there. Right there, Greek. We don’t even have to catch them, just confirm that they’re hiding there.”
“The hell if I know. But what do we have to lose?”
“Come on. In and out. A quick recon mission. If we find something, we’ll be rich. I mean Republic rich. We won’t have to work another day. Ever. And if we don’t find anybody … well we’re back on the daily grind.”
Greek wanted to argue but knew it was pointless. Once Charity had her mind made up that was that. It had always been. She’d been getting him in trouble since they were toddlers, including their current predicament with Big Caffer.
“Okay,” he said. “Okay. But no more than an hour. In and out like you said.”
The universe is love.
It seems heartless as a snake, but it’s an illusion.
The universe is love.
It seems lonely as an owl’s song, but it’s an illusion.
The universe is everyone.
The universe is love.
What was left of Ibrahima’s shell sat on the floor of an old building, buried deep inside what others called the crater.
Bits of his skin stayed stuck to the stone when he moved, peeling off of him, leaving pus-filled holes in his flesh. Most of the skin on his eyeless face and skull was gone, exposing the nerve and bone beneath. His right arm had fallen off years ago, the bones laying discarded in a corner of the den. The wound had never healed and occasionally leaked fluids onto the floor. The legs folded under him looked closer to chicken wings than a man’s legs, but then he didn’t need them, never crawling further from his seat of meditation than the small crack in the ceiling that dripped rain water when the skies were clement. Every inch of his body was covered in bubbling sores, bursting open and closing whimsically.
No one would have recognized him. Not even himself.
Inside his mind Ibrahima could see the universe unfold, travelling far into space where wormholes bloomed and faded out of existence in a blink. The explosion of distant stars showering the galaxy with gamma rays, destroying life on one planet and creating life on another.
Sometimes his thoughts would surf on a comet until it crashed into a moon and shattered it into orbital rings.
All of it. All of life. The nigh infinity of it. Right within his grasp, and utterly out of reach.
Somewhere in that void Demba and Nabu danced with the stars, their shapes elusive, oft times whole, and oft times just a string of elements scattered on the immortal canvas.
When the beam had released him, a blind and quivering wreck seared to perfection, he had screamed after it. In his mind. His vocal chords were shredded by the air and radiation. He did not know that he was mute. He didn’t know he was blind. He didn’t know he was deaf. Despite being erased from his body, his senses were somehow heightened. He could see clearer, hear louder, smell stronger, and suffer. Suffer infinitely more.
Every fiber of his being yearned for his family. He had pushed himself up and desperately tried to follow the beam who, guided by the primal rage that he had shared with the force, had zeroed in on his loved ones.
He had screamed after it, pleaded with it, begged for it to stop as he stumbled to the ground, that it wasn’t them. It was his own selfishness. His self-pity. Not them.
The beam had ignored him, marauding further. Relentless.
He picked himself up and repeated. For days. Days after the destruction was wrought, the city covered in ash and the last living residents fled in a slow river of molasses passing him, pushing away this bleeding lumpy creature crazy enough to march into IKapa.
He heard them scream when they died. He had shared their panic at the incoming slaughter, the brief moment of disbelief when pain fades and death strikes, just a nanosecond between life and oblivion.
There had been something else there. Something that had taken him the last two years to accomplish. Acceptance. At the very last moment they had accepted their fate. Embraced it. His strong and beautiful childhood friend who had become his wife. His son. He felt so proud of him. Young yet tough enough to stare death in the face with a smile.
Would he have had that courage? He who had taken the coward’s route, tried to end it and failed? He couldn’t even kill himself. All he could do was hurt others. He had wanted the beam, yearned for it since he was a child and he had killed, and enjoyed it.
Two years, sitting in this den, his body decaying as he breathed, racked by guilt, by a lifetime of emotions held at bay, never more than a heartbeat away, hammering him, over and again until his soul cracked open and he couldn’t take it anymore and let go.
It flew off his bony, raw and uneven shoulders leaving a calm breeze. Where every living thought had been a nightmare of the past, there was now nothing left between him and the universe, except him. Sitting in his den, contemplating the realm of myriad possibilities but too scared to take that step.
He was running out of time. He had to act now.
“And I thought outside was bad,” Greek said, holding the bloody handkerchief to his nose.
“Let me guess,” Charity said. “It stinks. Am I right?”
Greek grunted and moved on ahead.
The climb down had taken more than an hour yet. Not because they were deep, but the crater was a mess of old rubble and torn down buildings, unlikely hallways and rooms that somehow had been preserved intact, walls covered in the pictures of the people buried somewhere deep below.
Crawling ahead of him through a tiny hole between slabs, Charity called out to him, flashing her torchlight in his direction.
“Almost there, baby bro!” she yelled before throwing a raspy fit of coughing and spitting a gob of phlegm her brother knew was thick with blood.
The radiation alone wasn’t getting worse. They were.
“I don’t like this, sis!” he yelled back. “This is bad. It’s been over an hour! We should go back!”
“Don’t be a pussy!” she yelled at him. “I can see something!”
The tunnel was dark, the floor uneven and he couldn’t see his sister but as he moved slowly forward his visibility came back gradually, the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, a tiny red glow.
He crawled out behind her.
“I’m telling you …”
“Shhhh,” she said, a finger to her lips, nodding ahead.
A man sat on the floor, in the middle of rubble and waste. It must have been a man, what was left of a man. It had the general shape but bits were missing, limbs, and you could see through him in places. The room was dark but that was definitely the wall on the other side of his stomach.
There should have been blood everywhere but it was worse, the man basked in his red glow, bathing in fluids leaking from the holes and missing limbs. There were no feces. The room should have reeked of sweat, piss, and shit, the musky smell of a lion’s den. But there was nothing. Not a sound, not a smell. Just a man meditating, his skin bubbling and bursting pus.
“I told you …” Charity whispered.
He almost yelled in shock.
“What? This thing? It doesn’t have enough fingers to wipe its ass. There are holes on him, sis. Holes!”
If he heard them, he gave no sign.
“Okay,” Charity said. “Maybe not the guy.” She coughed, rubbing her eyeball. “But I was right. There was something.”
“He’s glowing harder, sis!”
She turned toward him, her right eye bouncing against her cheek, holding by a nerve to its socket.
There were two intruders in his lair. A boy and a girl. Young. Foolish. Brave enough to have made their way down to him, but foolish, unbelievably so.
He hadn’t felt his body in a year, but for the first time in his life, he felt his soul. The tiniest of places where it connected with his body, wrapped around his tendons, biting into a neuron in his brain, buried inside his liver, still thinking with his body, still denying its own potential, terrified of breaking free and rising.
It was up to him, not Ibrahima Ndiaye the man, but Ibrahima the god.
He could see them. Their bodies dying so slowly they could see each other falling apart. There was love there, not lust, these two were family, there was a bond and a purpose to them. They were foolish, yes, but for a reason.
He didn’t want them to die, but they had made their choice. It was too late for them to turn back.
He only had little time left himself. The time was now.
He bundled the little energy he had left. His heart empty of pain, his mind free of thought, and his body empty of his soul.
He let himself float, like the young boy who’d been hit by lightning had let himself go, young enough to not know fear, fearless enough to embrace change.
“I’m sorry,” he murmured to the two siblings, but he had no tongue to speak.
It was time to go.
“Fuck.” Greek said, gesturing towards his cheek. “Your eye, it, it … oh, sis …”
She reached to her cheek, holding her eyeball in the palm of her hand.
“Sis … I told you … Sis …”
She pressed her hand against his cheek, removing it covered in blood leaking from his ears and nose.
She shook her head, pointing to the man in the middle of the room.
“I don’t think it matters anymore,” she whispered.
He had not moved, perhaps he couldn’t anymore, but glowed stronger. The faint red light now blazed a violent crimson, radiating heat, burning hotter second after second, the skin on his bones melting off, bursting completely open. Something seemed to stretch out of his body, an aura vaguely shaped like him but translucid, as if his shadow had seized the life he had left and taken one of its own.
Her eyes fell out of her skull, his ear drums exploded, the man glowed harder yet, the red tide washing over them, the raging heat barely registering against their frayed nerves. They grabbed each other’s hands, pulled each other close, their flesh melting into each other, and a voice rang in their heads.
“I’m sorry,” it said.
The man glowed with the strength of a dying star, and exploded one final burst of radiation, leaving his shell intact, but taking them away with it.
Ibrahima floated in the immensity of space. Struggling to keep himself together, a ball of blue green and brown shone in the distance, and glowing all around like diamonds, hundreds of mining satellites, so small from where he swam in the void, they were mere pinpricks, but each of them deadlier than an army.
He felt himself dissolving, losing the solidity he had felt in his flesh and then his soul. There had to be something he could hold on to. Anchor himself in. He had one last thing to do.
The mandrill. He remembered that jaw etched in energy. That primal rage, barely held under his paw. He couldn’t let go of himself, not with all that rage, ready to bite and tear apart friend or foe alike. The beast had let the beam consume him after all.
But he didn’t have to.
There was a beauty in retaining part of yourself. Who he once was sat there abandoned in the rubble, amid thirty-four million square kilometers of broken earth, of ancient knowledge, the bones buried in the bedrock, an empty husk he couldn’t recognize as the young boy he’d been.
The boy who’d been content with the simplest things.
He would have to let go of himself, but not just yet.
He let himself expand, feeling his self grow thin, almost dissolving into the void, and called out.
The tiniest of particles, fragments of fragments of possibilities, worlds that had flirted with existence gathered around him, drawn from the very edges of his immortality.
He snapped his fingers and the pieces came together, the one last thing he still held on to, and his middle finger struck a chord.
A polyharmony in B minor rang from a bass of space dust, drawing an undulating ♫ on the void from a tense string.
The sun shone inside his iris, a nebula tickled his inner ear, and each satellite mining Africa from space sparkled around the blue pebble where he had abandoned his body.
He poured a planet’s energy into the instrument, the sound box expanding, his fingers drumming the thick chords with the fury of a mad pianist. The satellites winked out as giant ♬♫♩♪ hammered them in waves, destroying cities across the planet. Somewhere his body died. His fingers merged with the chords till he and the bull fiddle were one vibration, and he was everywhere at once, bouncing between satellites until the drifting debris circled the earth in a ring. He inhaled, or rather somewhere in the vastness of space a galaxy exploded. He let his fingers rest. Lightyears away the bass line birthed a star.
He reached out a hand and grabbed the strange world, and smiled, rolling it between his fingers. His grin lingered as he dangled the insignificant planet, tempted to crush it, when through a black hole somewhere in infinity, something glowed, something new, and he turned his eye away from Earth forever.
But wait, there's more to read!
when I was fifteen my younger brother slapped me hard in the face to prove to us both that he was the stronger faster meaner