The back of her hand glided under her red and yellow head wrap, wiping the beads of sweat receding into her midnight skin in the shade of the giant tree.
Wind rustled through the leaves and whistled through holes in the trunk, to the shrieking of bats buried in the crevices, bothered in their sleep.
Djoulde dipped her painted fingers in a wooden bowl, relishing the fresh feel of water. She sprinkled droplets on the roots digging deep into the cracked and dusty soil, sucking her fingers for a fleeting taste and repeated, singing a light melody under her breath.
She knew the tree could hear her, and know her love. At times it felt as the trunk pulsed like a wayward heart, that somewhere in the calcified bark the memory of sap bled pungent dreams.
…Goto e men fof yo aw lekki…
The behemoth rose above and around her, branches long as it was tall, like twenty men or more. Wide enough to dance and spin on, though Cheikh never wanted to.
Children and grownups, come with me…
There was so much it had seen. So many secrets through the centuries of patience and sheer will for life, so much she would share with it soon, that the whole village would share.
…May every one of us plant a tree…
“Still singing that old song?”
Cheikh’s gritty voice irked her sometimes.
“Why are you always so bitter?” she asked, dusting her hands on her dress and rising.
He looked into the large oval hole in the trunk, large enough for a tall man to step into its caves.
“It is old.” He snapped. “What does it mean now? What is there left to plant? Maybe it made sense to someone two thousand years ago… someone stupid…”
“It makes sense to me…”
“I didn’t mean you, I meant…”
Cheikh didn’t finish his thought, and Djoulde wasn’t sure she wanted to hear it.
He picked up her bowl and walked back towards the village together. She hadn’t seen time fly as she cared for the old bokki. Twilight was dying on the edge of the earth, the village lights blinking the stars out one at a time.
The call to prayer rang from the minarets. Djoulde saw other villagers hurrying home before the protective dome rose against the evening storms, green, blue and multicolored dots against the broken night, and sighed. Perhaps Cheikh would understand one day.
The combined blearing of her father’s call and the whooshing of the giant turbines blowing away the dunes delivered with tender fury by the storm, tore Djoulde out of her slumber.
The sun wouldn’t shine through the dusty vortex until the turbines had worked their magic but cattle always knew, the three cows in the yard bleating for water.
She pulled a rough blue dress over her head and tied her braids in a bun before leaving her room. She clapped her hands and the air conditioner went out, the whiplash of desert heat finishing the job of waking her. Her head was still cloudy with the flames of her dream.
She yawned as she walked into the kitchen.
“You took your time this morning.” He father said, gulping down a cold glass of bohe juice. “Grab yourself some breakfast; we’re taking the cows out soon as the dome is lifted.”
She sat at the large round table. Her mother handed her a plate of whitish-brown fried bohe bread and a glass of juice. The thick, sweet liquid clashed bitter cold against her teeth. She bit into the bread.
“Today? Isn’t it Hamady’s turn?” she said, spitting little bits of crumbs, and wiping her mouth.
Hamady laughed, sitting across from her. He stood up, wearing his light blue worker’s boubou.
“Not today, sis.” He said pointing at his uniform, “Working the Engines in case you can’t tell.”
“At least you’ll be nice and cool in the forest… Yerim, then?”
“He’s on maintenance duty at the solar plant today. He’s been gone for hours.” Her mother said, picking up her father’s glass. “You can’t sing to the trees every damned day. Gidelam,” she told her father, “I’m not your maid; you’ll find your plates waiting when you come back.”
Her father barked a laugh. Something both her brothers had picked up from him.
“Get married, they said. It’ll make your life that much better… Duly noted my love. Djoulde, you done?”
Djoulde finished her glass.
“If no one else will…”
The expanse of long, thin grass stretched ahead and around Djoulde. A green sea full of whimsical currents drawn by the winds. She couldn’t tell where the grasslands ended from where she stood now, the three thin, white cows grazing quietly, their long horns leaving furrows in the meadow. She had walked the length of the plain as a child, to the sands lost on the horizon, a desert so vast it swallowed the world whole.
She had seen it burn and turn to glass in her dream. The flames crackling through the grass until they licked away at the millennial trees. The bokki’s branches flaying in panic, the defiant roar of bark about to split and burst. She slept in its bosom, reveling in the warmth until her hair caught fire…
Her father’s cane slapping the cows’ buttocks brought reality back, and the softness of the grass on her sandaled toes.
“Do you think there’s anybody else out there?”
Her father cleared his throat and spit in the grass.
“You’ve asked me that five times now. Today, when you were six, nine, eleven and fourteen. Took you almost four years this time.”
“But you never gave me a real answer.”
He shrugged in his black boubou, looking up at the sun settling at noon.
“The last recorded newcomers go back almost five or six hundred years, not quite sure. You can check the archives if you want but… I don’t know, somewhere on the other side of the oceans maybe, or the other side of the universe. Maybe they’re asking themselves the same thing, maybe they’re all dead… Happy?”
It was her turn to shrug.
Other herders were scheduled for grazing this morning. All with the same emaciated cows. Goats had gone extinct with good riddance. Goats were a plague on the grass.
She turned towards the forest. The Soul Engines, installed inside the bokki, vibrating and rumbling in the distance.
“It doesn’t matter, I guess. We’re all going back to the earth anyway.”
“I guess so.” Her father replied.
“Then why bother with the cows everyday if that’s how you feel? We get our food from the trees, our water from the roots. We hardly eat any meat at all, we barely use the milk for ceremonies. We won’t be here much longer. But you get up every morning, you wash them, walk them all the way out here every day. What’s the point of dancing by yourself?”
Her father smiled.
“You and your mother… It’s who we are Djoulde. We herded cattle before the world knew we existed. When other people flew, some of us herded cattle. When the world crumbled, and the towers fell we herded cattle. Two thousand years later we herd cattle. It doesn’t matter where we’re going. It doesn’t matter where we came from, it doesn’t matter if we’re here or on the moon Djoulde. We herd cattle, it’s our traditions…And that’s why I take you all in turn with me in the morning. To remind you of that… Speaking of tradition, how are things going with Cheikh? You getting along?”
“It’s alright.” She said, she didn’t know how she felt about Cheikh. She had expected to feel differently. “He’s just always so cynical. He doesn’t believe in anything, I don’t know…”
“Can you blame him?”
She took off her sandals and dug her feet in the ground. It felt so firm, so real, but it wasn’t. It was a dream. When the generators crashed it would wither, dry, and fade to the sands. The dome would never rise again and the trees and the village would disappear. Perhaps that was why her father really kept the cows, to forget that none of it was real.
She shook her head.
“Good. Then maybe you should spend some time together this afternoon. If you’re gonna be married you need to know each other.”
“But baaba, I was…”
“You heard your mother. Someone else will daydream in the trees for you today.” He handed her his stick. “Round up the herd. I could use some lunch.”
“How can you say that?”
“Say what Djoulde? That a halfcocked plan to transfer people into the roots of monstrous trees and live on like that is crazy? You wanna know what I think? I think Chief Tenguela, the Council of Elders, the whole lot of them, want to kill us. Or a lot of us. There’s too many of us, we’re all freaking related. Even our marriage is based on an algorithm. How long do you think we can last like this? Do you even think at all?”
There it was again, that spite for the sake of jabbing her. Couldn’t they just talk? Just once?
He reached across the bed and caught her hand, but she pulled back. Sitting on his bed, his parents’ prayers making their way through the door, she wanted to grab Cheikh by the braids and throw him into the desert.
“Do you have faith in anything? Don’t you want anything better than this?”
‘I don’t mean it like that…”
“You never do… What if it works? What if we could live on? One with the earth?”
“What if we could?”
“We’d be a planet with a conscience. A planet that could guide life instead of suffering from it. When a new people are born to this world they won’t be blind like us humans were. Ravenous like we were. They will learn. From us.”
“Yeah because we’re such a sensible bunch. Look, what happens if it doesn’t work and you die? You wouldn’t even know. I was with the crew that removed Oumar Bayal’s body from the pod and buried it. Remember the test run?”
“Of course I do. The Elders said it worked.”
“Maybe. Maybe his soul is really in the roots. Maybe he’s just dead. Worse than dead. I’ve seen dead people. This guy wasn’t dead, he was just an empty sheet of skin, the wind could have blown it away. Look. I get it, you want it to be true. But I haven’t heard the old man since, have you? Didn’t think so.”
“I hate you…”
“Then don’t marry me. What bloody difference does it make?”
She didn’t answer. Cheikh smiled.
“Let me guess, your mom gave you the talk too, huh?” he asked, poking her waist with his elbow.
Djoulde shook her head and laughed. He wasn’t always bad.
“Was my dad…”
Cheikh laughed in turn and took her hand.
“What are we without tradition, right?”
Djoulde rolled Cheikh’s heavy arm from her shoulder as she opened her eyes to the call to prayer, the sheets still humid with sweat. She couldn’t sleep, who could have? The only way she’d found to exhaust herself was…The one thing they seemed to get along doing.
A nervous shudder rocked her body. Delirious excitement clashed with sheer terror. Cheikh snored. The Soul Engine trials were today. They were still of two minds on that. Three months into their marriage.
Cheikh stretched and yawned.
“We’re not scheduled until noon. It’s barely fadjar. Go back to sleep.”
“I’ll make some breakfast.” Djoulde answered, rising.
She reached for the towel sitting on the chair by the bed, and wrapped it around her waist.
She wasn’t going back to bed, the trees called her, they would be one soon.
They would all be one.
The overlapping waves of light drew sly rictus on the trees, grinning deep shadows where there were none, while dizzied steps carried her closer to the heart of the forest.
It was the first time she had wandered this deep. The pulsing glow of the engines, overwhelming now was invisible outside. In the daytime, the sun drowned it out and at night, the storms blinded everything. She wasn’t alone, guided with Cheikh and the hundred more scheduled for the day’s trials by a tall dark woman in a white dress stained at the ankles with dust and dirt, but to her it felt like they weren’t really there. That she was marching amongst ghosts.
Djoulde wondered if the others felt the same, that they had crossed a threshold into the forest that connected all worlds, that in an infinity they were none, that a step into the shadows was a step into oblivion. Maybe they didn’t feel anything at all.
Her eyes adjusted to the light just as her body shivered from mechanic rumbling.
“We’re here.” the tall woman said as they all stopped.
“Where else could we be?” Cheikh mumbled.
The trees before them and beyond glowed with a reflective light, trunks and branches laced with slick metal, connected across the soil by slithering black cables to large grey cubes vibrating with a collective hum like the voices of a million bugs calling to be born.
A flurry of scientists in white dresses and boubou busied around them. Maintenance workers in blue tended to individual trees and power sources. Perhaps Hamady was one of them, but there were so many trees so far ahead she wouldn’t see him even if he was.
Cheikh spat on the ground beside her.
“Look at all this wasted energy. I’m telling you th…”
“Men, follow Oulay here.” The woman said pointing at a colleague settling next to her. “Women come with me, I’m Ayida Boucoum.”
Djoulde exhaled relief at not having to answer Cheikh.
“See you later.” She said. “Don’t make a fool of yourself.”
Cheikh grunted and followed the others.
Ayida led them deeper into the woods. Chrome reflected on chrome, projecting their reflection flowing from trunk to trunk and back. She caught herself facing herself and walking away in two directions all at once.
She stumbled and rested her hand against the nearest trunk.
“It’s ok.” Ayida said, helping her straighten. “I thought I would lose my mind after weeks in here. You’ll be fine, we’ve arrived.”
Two women slid between the trunks to meet them.
“Thanks Ayida. We’ll take it from here. Ladies. Welcome to the Soul Engines. We will brief you on the procedure and have you take the trials. We know this is overwhelming, believe me. I’m Sokhna Boiro, some of you know me, some of you don’t. And this is Khady Ndione.”
“Same story.” Khady said.
Djoulde caught a glimpse inside the hollowed trunks, lined with open pods, of the same shiny metal that coated the trees, tall enough to fit a person, with what looked like red cushioning inside.
“Intriguing isn’t it?” Sokhna asked catching her glance. “I know they say a lot of things in the village many of them scary, most of them untrue. Let us explain. Khady?”
“Sure. The Engines are very complicated but quite simple. The world is a network, everything is interconnected. We all evolved from the same original organism. Billions of years ago. Down to our DNA. We are one with the earth. One with the wind. And yes, one with the cows we herd in the morning.” We laughed as she caught her breath. “The trees and plants around us too. And they communicate. Organically. They know who we are and fear us when we wish them harm, and love us when we give them love and they let the others know, through their roots, through their spores and sap. We have mapped these networks and now, we can connect to them more directly through the Soul Engines. These engines parse out our human consciousnesses and pulse them into the network, mimicking the bokki’s own bio-chemical signals, those signals are transmitted into the roots of the trees and conducted into the earth where they become one with the planet. Growing with new saplings, spreading through open spores. Our way of life is no longer sustainable, if we want to survive we have to adjust to the world, adapt and embrace it. For thousands of years humanity has tried to shape the world in its image. We failed and did so much damage to the world in the process. Now, we pay it back.”
Djoulde could barely breathe. They worked on the engines when she was a child. When her parents were children. She hadn’t thought she would see the day. But it was here. Almost here.
“You’ll be scanned and fitted into a transmission pod for testing. Today and on the day of. Don’t worry, it’s painless. We just need to verify a few things. Many of you are married women, we need to check that you are not with child before we can try the machines. We must also ensure that your own brainwaves are compatible with the bio-chemical network matrix. Is everybody with me?”
They all nodded agreement, some slower than others. Djoulde pictured Cheikh snickering in the manner of men.
“You are brave, and strong. You will do the earth honor. We all will, I’m sure. Alright, the following come with me, the others with Sokhna. Nani Sow. Djoulde Diallo…”
Djoulde came to in midafternoon warmth, the forest a few hundred feet behind her, Cheikh shaking her by the shoulders.
How she got there was as clear as his lips moving soundlessly to droplets of spit.
It was real. All of it.
The pods had slid shut, and the red cushion squeezed her warmly into darkness. Not sleep, not quite sleep, fully at rest yet aware of herself, and she heard him. Late Oumar Bayal calling her name, unsure she could hear him. Djoulde. He had asked. Djoulde, are you there?
She hadn’t said a word but she felt his relief at her presence, a smile and mischief.
“Watch…” he whispered.
She’d sunk deeper into the darkness, her head bursting through the soil into sunlight. A city gleaming in the distance where the desert stood now, a river streaming through it to a sky of deep blue abysses. In a flash she stood fifty feet above in another a hundred, and as she grew the city shrunk, her arms impossibly long and stiff, until there was nothing but dust swirling wooly death to the horizon.
And all the while a murmur, soft with radiant energy calling her into its roots…
“Djoulde! Djoulde dammit wake up!”
“Cheikh!” she screamed throwing her arms around him, her head on his chest. “Did you hear? Did you see? Don’t you see now? It’s real, all of it!”
Cheikh pushed her back and turned around.
“I didn’t hear anything… I’m not going…”
Cheikh downed a glass and poured himself another. His fifth today. Takussan, afternoon prayer, was still hours away.
“The pitcher’s empty.” He snapped, waving it at her.
Fode Dem had walked into the desert this morning. Fatima Kane, Ibrahim Dia and Pape Mor Sylla yesterday. Twelve-year-old Adama Ba two days ago and Friday had seen a record of thirty that she knew of. They had finished praying and wandered off into the desert.
A week since the trials ended, two more before they left.
Djoulde grabbed the pitcher from his hand. Cheikh was meaner drunk than usual, but at least he was still here.
She filled the pitcher from a bottle of fermented bohe and handed it to him reaching for his shoulder. He grabbed her hand and pulled her.
“Is that what you want for me? Leaving me to die with the others?”
Someone else would walk into the desert and never come back before nightfall. Thousands more would follow.
He was mean. Bitter and mean but wouldn’t she if she’d been told she couldn’t go? If her mother and father were left behind too? In spite of all the spite, deep down, he’d wanted to go.
She pulled her arm away, grabbed his face and kissed him. Could she leave her husband behind? Should she?
Yes, she would.
Until then they could do the one thing they were good at together, and kissed him deeper.
Djoulde’s dress slipped from Cheikh’s hand, but stayed caught in the door sliding shut behind her.
There was nothing to it. Between Cheikh crying, screaming and begging, and the excited buzz of the throngs of people she hadn’t had thought of what to wear.
What did it matter? They were almost there.
Her parents and brothers waited for her outside, catching her stumble as her dress ripped in the doorframe.
“Took long enough!” Hamady laughed as he helped her stand.
Her mother hugged her.
“How are you?” she asked.
She had no idea.
“And how is Cheikh?”
“Who cares?” Yerim said. “Guy’s a goat.”
“Be quiet.” Her father said. “Think of all those who wandered off to die. They weren’t all bad people. Leave it all behind son, don’t carry that anger where we are going.”
They melted into the crowd. She couldn’t feel her legs, somehow, she moved forward, the crowd singing a deep joyful yet almost weeping melody.
Lekki ki do lekki,
Aadi nafore waalii ngourdam
Tree. This tree so useful, has changed our life...
It was the perfect rhyme for the time. She should have felt happy, excited, nauseous even, instead she floated numb into immortality.
Would Cheikh live? If he died would they find him in the roots? Soon they would be everywhere, surely they would find everyone. Everyone and everything that had ever died. Strata through strata of long-gone life but persistent memory.
Did she leave him to die? Could she forgive herself? Carrying that weight forever? She only had a few minutes to figure it out, the sky already darkened by branches.
Her heart pounded so fiercely the world around her turned to blinding light, her head spun and she retched on her sandals.
Her brothers laughed.
“You had to leave your mark didn’t you?”
She wiped her mouth on her sleeve as her mother handed her a sip of water and smiled.
“It’s gonna be alright. We’re all gonna be alright.”
They reached the engines and hugged each other. They all did. Family and friends, and people who’d hated each other deeply. She expected to hear sobs but didn’t.
“We’ll see each other soon.” Her father said, beaming as he hugged her last. “Look out for your mother. She might run off.”
“Anything but an eternity with you gidelam. One life was entirely enough…” she kissed his forehead. “I will see you soon…”
They walked off as Djoulde and her mother lined up with the other women. Singing the song, scanners flashing a soft blue as they walked towards their pods, reflections of thousands melting into each other on the trunks of the giant bokki.
Her mother turned to her and smiled as she passed through the scanner. Every wrinkle on her face smoothing, a glimpse of who she had been, of who she saw in the mirror, as she still saw herself. She held out her hand as Djoulde followed her, and the scanner flashed red.
Her mother’s smile dropped, her face aging in a frown, their fingers brushed each other as two women in white approached them and turned to her.
“Salaam Aleikum. Don’t worry. We just need to run a quick test. Please follow us.”
“Wait! That’s my daughter! That’s…”
Two more women approached her mother, smiling.
“It’s fine. She’ll be back in no time. Please. There are other women waiting.”
“I’ll be fine Nene.” Djoulde said, “Just go, ok? We’ll be alright. I’ll see you soon.” She smiled. “On the other side.”
The flood of women didn’t abate, the scanner flashing blue, blue, blue, her mother dissolving in the flow.
“I’m Reyhanna.” One of them asked as they reached the last of the shinning trees. “What’s your name?”
“Djoulde. Djoulde Diallo.”
They stopped and the two women stepped back, arms folded under their breasts.
“We’re sorry, Djoulde. We are very sorry. You are pregnant. You can’t go.”
Djoulde sat on her bed, the air conditioning unit roaring behind her. She had never noticed how loud it was, but in the silence of the empty village it was all she could hear.
Cheikh slept in the kitchen, passed out on the table.
She should have been cold, but the hilt of the knife pressed against her stomach slipped in her sweaty palms.
The tip slid through the threads in her dress, grating against her skin. Just a push. Not even that hard, just a small push.
The life she carried had cost her hers. Had cost her her dream. Her only dream. Her family. How could she ever carry it? Birth it? Love it?! It would be so simple, just a small…
A droplet of blood pearled around the blade and the knife clanged on the floor to a single sob.
She couldn’t do it.
Three children played in the grass as Djoulde and Arsike walked passed them towards the forest. They had tied strings to a small post and ran around it until the string tensed, and light as they were, they bounced off their feet and took off spinning to delighted giggles.
Something had changed. The children were inconsolable at first. Their friends gone. Their parents gone. Everyone engrossed in their own misery and no one to guide them. Beside the wailing wind the only sound the village knew for months was infant sorrow. But not for the past few weeks.
Arsike tugged at her arm, eager to join them. Her small hand almost slipped through Djoulde’s fingers.
She looked just like her grandmother. She had told her that herself.
“I look like grandma!”
“Who told you that?” Djoulde had asked.
She was a bright child, so alive. So happy. She had no fear, an imagination that changed her world with each passing thought. This world was new to her. She didn’t know pain. She didn’t know loss. Not yet.
“You’ll play later. Your father doesn’t like to wait.”
She nodded hard and pulled closer to her mother.
For two years Djoulde hadn’t come near the forest. The thought of leaving the village, of feeling the cool shade on her face froze her very soul. She couldn’t walk. Will them though she might, her legs wouldn’t move. Her mind would go blank. She would faint. Neighbors would drag her in and she’d wake up in bed, Cheikh looming over her, yelling about embarrassing him.
When Arsike turned three she started asking about the trees. The trees called her she said. She had to see the trees. And so she had. She was exactly like Djoulde’d been as a child.
“Let’s sing, nene!”
She knelt by her daughter and let her start. Hearing her shrill voice she felt the knife against her stomach and shuddered, picking up the melody.
How could she have thought of killing her? She loved her so much.
Arsike giggled, pushing her lips to the trunk as evening prayer rang in the distance. They’d been there for hours.
Hours. Months. Years. It made no difference. She opened herself with all her heart, sang to rip out her throat, every day, and yet, she didn’t hear her family or the others. Four years. Four years now.
Cheikh was right.
They had all walked singing to their death.
The door slid open slowly and Djoulde tiptoed inside. Arsike breathing softly on the back of her neck, sleeping as the storm blasted the dome behind them. Cheikh would be out cold, he’d been restless for weeks but too much noise and…
“Sneaking in?” he asked sitting at the kitchen table in the dark. The thin glow breaking in lighting bloodshot, angry eyes over his dark face. He stood up, knocking a glass to the floor, rounding the table towards her. She circled away, the sourness of fermented drink on his breath, wafting vomitous into her nose.
He wouldn’t touch Arsike. He never had.
“Think you can keep my daughter from me, do you?” he asked, reaching to grab her and missing. “You try to leave me and now you want to steal my daughter!”
She slipped and almost fell, barely avoiding another lurch.
“Nene?” Arsike asked, yawning against her back. “Nene, where…” she saw her father closing in over her mother’s shoulder. “…Baaba? Baaba, no! Not again!”
Her mother hugged her in a field of crops. Cattle by the thousands drifted on the horizon invisible but for the cloud of dust surrounding them.
Her father and brothers conversed with a man of light skin, sharp eyes and strange, shiny, smooth green and gold clothing, throwing their head back and laughing.
The village was nowhere in sight, the forest neither, but crowds of people congregated throughout the field, some sitting and eating, children playing games and rolling in the grass. They weren’t all her people, most weren’t but she distinguished a known face in every group she saw.
“My daughter. My first-born. We didn’t want to leave you. I didn’t know. But we are here. We will help you.”
The bruises on Djoulde’s cheeks stung at her mother’s words.
She pointed to her face.
“This is what you left me to! This is how you help me? You left. You left me. But I don’t need your help. I am not a child anymore. I have one of my own. I won’t let this happen again. She will…”
Her mother’s face hardened.
“What are you whispering to me?”
Djoulde froze; her mother grabbed her by the shoulders, digging nails into her skin.
“Stop whispering to me!”
The field went silent. The thousands of people sitting and talking stood and closed in on her, arms out clawing at her hair and face.
“Stop whispering to me!!”
Djoulde awoke to Cheikh shaking her furiously, screaming at her face while Arsike cried in her bed.
“I won’t walk into the desert! I won’t!” he ran naked out of the bed, climbing over her and into the kitchen his hands on his ears. “Stop whispering to me!”
Djoulde ran to cradle her daughter’s head. The warm wetness of her cheeks slipping against her breast.
“Why is daddy like this?” she asked, words setting Djoulde’s bruised body aflame. “What have we done wrong?”
“You’ve done nothing wrong.” She said; her curly hair caught between her fingers. “We’ve done nothing wrong.”
“Why isn’t Grandma helping us? She promised.”
Djoulde held her at arm’s length.
“Grandma mommy, grandma. She was telling me she would help us. Just before daddy started screaming again.”
Cheikh’s voice boomed from the kitchen.
“Stop talking to me!”
Djoulde put Arsike down.
“You stay here. I’ll be right back.”
Cheikh sat in the kitchen, holding his head and banging it on the table in turn.
“Leave me alone!” he screamed and saw Djoulde standing across the table from him. “You.” He snarled, rising slowly. “You. It’s you!”
He charged, but Djoulde didn’t move. She bent down, picked up a shard of broken glass and walked towards him.
“You won’t touch me again.” She slashed the air before her, missing his nose by a breath. “You’ll never.” She sliced again, blood running across his cheek. “Touch me. Again!”
She lunged forward, Cheikh fell back, crawling towards the kitchen door.
“Leave me alone! All of you leave me alone!”
The door slid open and Cheikh bolted out.
Djoulde stumbled after him. She had never spent much time outside at night. But the dome’s faint orange glow, lacerated with gritty static at the onslaught of sand and debris, felt like a reflection of her fractured soul.
“Nene!” Arsike called from a crack in the door. Djoulde picked her up and ran.
Cheikh sped on ahead screaming, lights appearing in windows as he passed.
He didn’t slow or stop. Djoulde doubted he could see anything at all.
His head slammed into the dome.
He fell back. Djoulde put her daughter down and reached for him.
He got back up and ran head first into the dome again. And again. All the while screaming to be left alone, for the whispers to stop. Again. And again, and…
Something cracked. He fell back, wrecked with spasms and stopped, the imprint of his face in blood sliding down the dome like raindrops on a window.
Djoulde didn’t move. The buzz of bystanders fading. He was gone. She felt no shame at the lightness in her shoulders. At the strength she felt in her legs.
“Thank you grandma.” Arsike said, hugging her thigh.
The wind carried hints of a rain that would never fall. Instead a thin sheen of wet air sprinkled Djoulde and Arsike’s faces, as they sat in the shade of the baobab, Arsike sprinkling the roots to soft giggles.
She hadn’t let the villagers bury Cheikh in the forest. His body left in the desert for the night’s storm to shred to dust.
Arsike didn’t seem to care. She sprinkled the roots and listened to something before nodding her head.
“How long have you heard your Grandma?”
Arsike shrugged and lay her head on her lap.
“Since I was in your belly?”
Djoulde’s eyes filled with tears.
“Are you talking to her now?”
“I talk to grandpa too sometimes.”
“Can I ask her something?”
“She says you can ask anything you want. Just ask me and she’ll hear you.”
“She says she’s sorry. That she should have waited. She never wanted to leave you.”
Djoulde waved her hand.
“She doesn’t need to.” She said “There was nothing she could have done. It wasn’t her fault.”
“Do you love me mommy?”
“Do you forgive me too?”
She pulled her daughter closer.
“There is nothing to forgive, bingelam, nothing…. Can the other children hear her too?”
“Why can’t I?” Even Cheikh had.
“It’s too late for the adults. If you did you would go crazy like daddy.”
“But in the dream I saw all these people and…”
“It was just a dream, mommy.”
Djoulde’s breath stayed stuck in her throat, there was something she needed to know but didn’t want to.
“And will… will I ever see you again?”
Arsike looked up at her mother.
“No? Not even when I…”
Tears ringed Djoulde’s eyelids like pearls.
“Grandma, grandpa, my uncles, none of them will be there forever either, mommy. That’s not how life works. I’ll walk into the engines one day too, and others after me. We were always one with nature” she giggled, “It’s our tradition! Grandpa says.” She laughed some more.
The tears bubbling in her eyes streamed down her cheeks. Arsike wiped one off with her finger.
“Don’t cry, mommy. Grandma says that’s the lesson. The mistake we made all those thousands of years ago. The world cried and we couldn’t hear it, but just because you can’t hear, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t listen…”
Djoulde cleaned her tears, breathing in the dry scent of the trees and nodded.
Arsike caught her hand.
“Come mommy. Let’s sing now.”
Sukaabe e mawbe ngare niehen,
Goto e men fof yo aw lekki…