It started with a nightmare …
* * *
“We still cannot get out,” my terrified father told me. His eyes were stunned and twitchy. He was underground. We were in the cellar of the Root, the family home. Everyone was. Covered in dust, coughing from the smoke. But only my father was looking at me. I could hear my little sister Peraa nearby asking in a terrified voice between coughs, “What’s wrong with Papa? Why’s he doing that with his hands?”
My perspective pulled back and now I was just looking at it happening. My family was trapped in there. My father, two of my uncles, one of my aunts, three of my sisters, two of my brothers. I saw several of my neighbors in there too. Why was everyone in there in the first place? All huddled in the center of the room, grasping each other, wrapping themselves with their veils trying to hide, crying, tears running through otjize, praying, trying to call for help with their astrolabes. Bunches of water grass, piles of yams, sacks of pumpkin seeds, dried dates, containers of spices sat in corners. Smoke was coming through the fibrous ceiling and walls of the cellar. The old security drone that had stopped working before I was born still sat in the corner covered with its woven mat.
“Where is Mama?” I asked. Then more demandingly, I said, “Where is MAMA?! I don’t see her, Papa.”
“But the walls will protect us,” my father said.
I felt the pressure of his strong hands as he grasped me. They didn’t feel arthritic at all. “The Root is the root,” he said. “We will be okay. Stay where you are.” He brought his face close to mine, then the words appeared before my eyes. Red as blood. “Because they are looking for you.”
“Where is Mama?” I asked again, this time waving my hands in my nightmare, as I clumsily used the zinariya, the activated alien technology in my DNA.
But I was suddenly in the dark, alone with my words, as they floated before me like red desert spirits. Where is Mama? Instead, the sound of hundreds of Meduse thrumming filled my head and the vibration traveled deep into my flesh. Laughter. Angry laughter. I sensed anticipation, too. “Binti, we will make them pay,” a voice rumbled in Meduse. But it wasn’t Okwu. Where was Okwu…?
* * *
I awoke to the universe. Out here in the desert, the night sky was so bright with stars. It was almost as clear as the sky when I’d been on the Third Fish traveling to and from Earth. I stared up, hearing, seeing, and balanced equations whispered around me like smoke. I’d been treeing in my sleep. It was that bad. I hadn’t even done this while in the Third Fish after the Meduse killed everyone but me. I was having so much trouble adjusting to the zinariya. That wasn’t a just dream about my family, it was also a message sent using the zinariya from my father. I couldn’t awaken fully before receiving it and so my mind protected me from the stress of it by treeing.
Mwinyi and I had left the village on camelback hours ago and then we’d stopped to rest. I’d lain in the tent Mwinyi set up, while he’d gone off for a walk. I was so exhausted, scared for my family, and overwhelmed. Everything around me felt off. Trying to get some sleep had not been a good idea.
“Home,” I whispered, rubbing my face. “Need to get…” I stared at the sky. “What is that?”
One of the stars was falling toward me. The zinariya, again. “Please stop,” I said. “Enough.” But it didn’t stop. No. It kept coming. It had more to tell me, whether I was ready or not. Its golden light expanded as it descended and I was so mesmerized by its smooth approach that I didn’t tree. When it was mere yards above, it exploded into showers of brilliance. It fell on me like the golden legs of a giant spider and then the zinairya made me remember things that had never happened to me.
* * *
I remembered when …
Kande was washing the dishes. She was exhausted and she had more studying to do, but her younger twin brothers had wanted a late night snack of roasted corn and groundnuts and they’d left their stupid dishes. How they’d managed to eat something so heavy this late at night was beyond her, but she knew her parents wouldn’t complain. This was why at the age of six they were so plump. Her parents never complained about her brothers. Still, if Kande left the dishes for the morning, the ants would come. It was a humid night, so she knew other things would come too. She shuddered; Kande detested any type of beetle.
She finished the dishes and looked at the empty sink for a moment. She dried her hands and picked up her mobile phone. It was already eleven o’clock. If she focused, she could get a good hour of studying in and still manage five hours of sleep. In her final year in high school, she was ranked number six in her class. She wasn’t sure if this was good enough to be accepted into the University of Ibadan, but she certainly planned to find out.
She put her phone in her skirt pocket and switched off the light. Then she stepped into the hallway and listened for a moment. Her parents were watching TV in their room and the light in her brothers’ room was off. Good. She turned and tiptoed to the front of the house, quietly unlocked the door, and sneaked outside. It was a cool night and she could see the open desert just beyond the last few homes in the village.
Kande leaned against the side of the house as she brought out a pack of cigarettes from her skirt pocket. She shook one out, placed it between her lips, and brought out a match. Striking the match with her thumbnail, she used it to light her cigarette. She inhaled the smoke and when she exhaled it, she felt as if all her problems floated away with it—the ugly face of the man her parents said she was now betrothed to, the money she needed to buy her uniform for her school dance group, whether Tanko still loved her now that he knew she was betrothed.
She took another pull from her cigarette and smiled as she exhaled. Her father would be furious and beat her if he knew she had such a filthy habit. Her mother would wail and say no man would want her if she didn’t start behaving, that she was too old for rebellion. Kande was looking toward the desert as she thought about all this and when she first saw them, she was sure that her brain was trying to distract her from her own dark thoughts.
They were a house away before she even moved. And by then, she was sure they’d seen her. Tall, like human palm trees and not human at all. And even in the moonlight, she saw that they were gold. Pure shiny gold. Not human at all. But with legs. Arms. Bodies. Long and thin like trees. Walking slowly toward her in the night. There wasn’t another soul silly enough to be outside at this time of night. Just her.