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|So long, farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, goodnight|
|So long, farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, goodnight|
|There's fire in his music, too|
|Sadly, my version was not read by Alfred Molina.|
|It was the goat that grabbed me, officer|
|God is the ultimate voyeur...|
The greatest little hobbit of them all
|You put one foot in front of the other.|
Briga’s arms were numb from the cold and the climb, but still she continued. Her laboured breaths steamed in the frigid air. She reminded herself that it wasn’t much further to the top; the trees were growing sparse and the air felt thin. The sky was a pre-dawn indigo, and Briga prayed that it would bring some warmth when it crested the eastern horizon far below.
The wind picked up and powdery snow billowed across the face of the mountain. Briga shuddered and pulled her woollen scarf tighter across her face. Where it covered her mouth, the fabric was laced with crystals of ice. The edges flapped in the wind, along with the rabbit-tail tassels of her boots. The wind sucked warmth from the exposed skin around her eyes, but she gritted her teeth and continued to climb, relying on the wooden net-shoes lashed to her feet to stop her from falling into the drifts of snow that were deep enough to bury her.
Her large satchel felt heavier with every step. Only a day’s worth of food remained inside, but it also carried her offering to God, which was bulky and heavy enough on its own, and slapped against her back in the wind, making bruises along her ribs. Strapped to her back were her wooden skis and poles for the trip back down the mountain, and even the knife at her hip was beginning to feel heavy.
Briga took a short rest in the shelter of a copse of trees. She chewed on deer jerky to regain some energy, and washed it down with water from the bladder that was tucked underneath her jerkin. Her belly rumbled, demanding more, but she refused to indulge. She reminded herself that few made it this far up the mountain, and that she needed some food for the return journey in case she found no game.
After her rest, Briga refilled the bladder with snow and slid it back underneath her clothes so that the snow could melt into water, adjusted her meagre supplies, and continued up the mountain.
The wind died down suddenly and the snow settled. Briga stopped and shielded her eyes as the sun shot its first orange rays across the face of Hjunn, the Mountain of God.
The world lit up beneath her, brilliant and vast. The snow of Hjunn was bathed in a warm glow, and the light stretched across the landscape to reveal all of creation as Briga knew it. Far and away down the slopes of the mountain, the evergreens covered the land like a blanket. At the base of Hjunn, too far away for Briga to see, was her village, nestled in the valley. The river that ran from the Mountain of God through her village snaked out to the ocean far to the east, where the fishing clans lived. From Briga’s vantage point, the ocean was placid, indigo. She was so high up that she could see the Carpi mountains on the other side of the sea.
She breathed deeply and took it all in. Climbing Hjunn was as close as Briga would ever get to God while she still lived, and it wasn’t hard to see how His hands had built the world. From up above, hills were like mounds of clay; valleys and rivers were grooves made by fists and fingers.
The ocean was the sweat of God’s labour from building the world, and the tears that He wept for His wayward children, when they abandoned Him for lesser gods.
Up on His mountain, the water was pure, cold, unsalted. Only those strong enough to brave the climb could bask in the purity of His essence, in the temple of ice.
Briga shivered, not from the cold. She had trained her whole life for the pilgrimage, and the anticipation and thin air were making her dizzy. Only a few per generation could manage to scale the mountain alone, but Briga had been determined to be one of them, ever since she was old enough to look up and point at the peak. Only those who went alone could commune with God directly, and receive a holy quest.
Briga looked up at the peak of Hjunn and grinned. The temple of ice wasn’t far. It was on the other side of the peak, hidden from her view. She had reached the summit, and escaped the fate that befell the women of her clan. With renewed vigour, she resumed her climb.
As the slope became more severe, Briga loosened her leather straps and brought out her wooden poles. She was hugging the rock face of the mountain in places, and felt as though she was walking sideways across the powder as she wound her way around the peak.
The temple of ice came into view quite suddenly. Gleaming in the sunlight, it nearly blinded Briga as she rounded a corner of sheer limestone. It was just as her father had described it to her so many times when she was a child.
Over the centuries, snow would fall upon the peak and remain, too high up to melt fully and join the rivers far below. However, sometimes the sun would warm the peak just enough to melt the snow together into sheets of ice. As the years went on, the sheets of ice grew thicker, until most of the limestone peak was covered, double its original size.
The ice was carved fresh every year by the high priest, around the entrance to the cave that Njal the Holy had dug into the side of the mountain. Briga gazed up in wonder at the frozen frescoes that bordered the icy maw. At the base on either side of the cavern entrance, the carvings depicted pilgrims climbing, carrying offerings to God. Some held gemstones and coins, others fine weapons or carved heirlooms. Above Briga’s head, a likeness of Hjunn had been carved into the ice, and the scene depicted pilgrims resting and eating, praying and meditating in the Pool of Purity. The high priest stood near the entrance and offered spirit water to a man whose icy eyes seemed to shine with refracted light.
Briga was startled out of reverie by a cold sensation on her cheek. She gazed up to see a little dagger of ice forming, spitting little droplets of water. She smiled. A warm day on the peak was a sign that God was pleased. Briga took one last look at the panoramic view, the sight of creation as God saw it. She wanted to remember it, in case the clouds rolled in beneath her while she was in the temple.
Briga turned and looked into the cave. The entrance was dark, but she knew from what her father had told her that there was a kind of glowing rock deep inside the mountain. She unstrapped her skis and left them propped up by the entrance, along with her net-shoes and poles.
Briga made her way carefully through the tunnel, into the temple of ice. The path was winding and steep, leading deep into the mountain, and she had to slide her feet slowly across the rocky ground to keep from slipping. Her hand trailed along the wall for balance, and soon the light from outside was completely gone. She went forward slowly, blindly. Every shuffling step echoed up and down the tunnel. It was so quiet that she could hear her heart beating in her chest, and every breath she took thrummed in her ears. The anticipation was making her mouth water; she wanted to slake her thirst on the essence of God, the most holy spirit water crafted by the high priest. She wanted her quest.
After a few minutes, Briga could see her hands again. The tunnel ahead was suffused in a soft cobalt glow. Her footsteps became quicker, more sure. Suddenly the tunnel opened into a vast cavern.
It was difficult for Briga to tell where the stalactites ended and the icicles began. Everything in the cavern was covered in ice, like panes of glass. Beneath the sheets, some of the rocks glowed blue, casting light about the chamber. Briga took off her gloves and rubbed her hands together. Her skin looked as white as snow in the soft blue light.
A voice echoed throughout the cavern. “Welcome, child of God,” it boomed deeply. Briga wheeled about but couldn’t identify the source.
Suddenly, he was there in front of her. He was stooped and old, wrinkled, with wispy white hair and a long flowing beard to match. Though he was much shorter than Briga, he had wide shoulders beneath his snow-white robe, and she could tell that he must have been a strong man in his youth. His hands were bare, but fleshy and pink. He did not appear to feel the cold at all.
The high priest clasped Briga’s arm warmly and smiled. Unlike the icy blue of the cavern, his eyes were warm like a summer sky.
Briga removed her woollen cap, and her white-blonde hair tumbled down her shoulders as she bowed to the high priest. “I am honoured to be in your presence, holy one.” She had rehearsed her words every day since childhood.
“How many set out on your pilgrimage?”
“And one I do see before me. Did you bring an offering?”
“I have brought an offering for God.”
“And what do you seek in return? A boon, a quest, or enlightenment?”
“I seek a quest.”
“Then rise and follow,” the high priest commanded. Despite his age, he moved swiftly, gliding across the icy floor on smooth, supple leather boots. He led Briga across the cavern to another tunnel, which led further down into the mountain.
The tunnel was long and sloping, but well-lit by the glowing rocks, and the floor was covered in pebbles to prevent slipping.
“How was your climb, Briga?” the high priest asked.
“C-climb?” Briga stammered. She hadn’t expected the high priest to know her name. “It was the greatest challenge of my life, holy one...but to be honest, I enjoyed every moment of it.”
The high priest chuckled. “Greatest challenge thus far, you mean. That was a test of your physical limitations. God has yet to test your faith.”
Gradually the ice on the walls seemed to recede, and the air grew warmer as Briga followed the priest down the passageway. Soon she was sweating underneath her furs, though the high priest seemed to remain unaffected by the change in temperature.
He led her into a room carved out of limestone, decorated in the old runic script. The chamber was simple, but cozy. A cot lay in the corner, covered by a blanket. A rough wooden table and chairs were in the centre of the room, unadorned. There were three other passageways leading from the room, to places Briga could only guess at.
The high priest gestured to the table. “Sit and rest, Briga, daughter of Bjarl the Fearless.”
Before she could even thank him for the hospitality, the high priest had disappeared down one of the passageways. Briga unwound her scarf, removed her gloves, and set them on the table along with her cap. As she sat in the chair, her weariness hit her all at once. She was asleep in moments.
She dreamed she was back on the mountain, climbing. It wasn’t cold at all; it was bright and sunny and even the snow was warm. She was merely hungry. There were deer and rabbits and mountain goats all around, but she wasn’t allowed to eat them because they all belonged to God. Her stomach was growling at her like a bear and she had to make water. The trickling sound was reminding her.
She reached the temple of ice, finally. The carvings on the entrance had all melted into long icicles like swords. The water was trickling down the sides of the mountain in little rivulets that became waterfalls. She was trying to reach the tunnel through the deluge of water and slush.
“Swim against the current, Briga,” her father said. He was beside her, bracing himself and standing tall against the flow. “God’s tears will wash you away if you are not strong. The weight of our sins pin us to the ground. You must learn how to fly.”
“But I don’t have any wings,” she said in a child’s voice.
“Not that anyone can see.”
Then the water turned red and frothy, and Bjarl was swept away, down the mountain.
“Daddy, don’t go!” Briga screamed.
She awoke. Her furs were soaked in sweat and her back was aching. Upon the table, a simple meal of dark bread and raw onions was laid out on a plate. The high priest was pouring a steaming, dark red liquid into two stone mugs. As Briga heard the trickling sound, she sat up.
“My apologies, holy one. I must make water. Where do I...?”
He nodded and smiled, pointing to one of the passageways. Briga bowed and left as quickly as her legs would take her. The tunnel was a short one, and ended in a small hovel with a hole in the bottom. The wind whistled furiously past the hole. Briga danced from foot to foot as she pulled down her leggings, and glanced down.
She giggled despite herself. The hole was too small for a grown woman to fit through, but it was a sheer drop, at least a hundred metres to the rocky cliffs below. As Briga squatted and shivered from the feeling of the cold air on her bare flesh, she burst out laughing. The image of the high priest doing the very same thing, letting his refuse fall down the mountainside, was as funny as it was inappropriate to think about. Briga wondered if it was the thin air making her so giddy.
She laced up her leggings and returned to the priest’s room. He was leaning back in his chair, sipping the deep crimson beverage from his own mug.
“I laughed the first time, too,” he remarked.
Briga turned as red as the drink in front of her and could not find a reply.
The high priest gestured to the bread and onions. “Please, eat and drink. This is no place to be modest. God created us in his own image, with needs in our bellies, hearts and loins. One of those can be fulfilled here, and you need your strength if you are to commune with Him.”
Briga’s belly rumbled audibly. She was starving; on the journey up she’d eaten only enough to sustain herself. However, she didn’t want to appear rude in front of the high priest. She tore off a chunk of dark, seed-filled bread and forced herself to take small bites. She washed it down with a generous swig from the mug in front of her, and found the liquid to be hot, strong and well-spiced. It was so delicious that she took another deep sip, and her head began to buzz. Briga suspected that it was grutmedhu, and wondered how the high priest had managed to procure a barrel since it was produced outside of the lands belonging to the clans of Frullend.
He seemed to sense her thoughts. “Some bring offerings not just for God, but for me,” he said with a twinkle in his eyes. “The rest I gather when I come down the mountain in the spring.”
Briga nodded and grabbed a large yellow onion from the plate on the table. She took a big bite and her eyes watered, but she savoured the tangy-sweet juice.
“You must have questions about the communion,” he continued, “but those are buried under your weariness and hunger, I’m sure. We shall speak further after you have rested properly, Briga. You will need to be mentally and physically at your best before you face Him.”
“Of course, your holiness,” Briga said between bites of her onion. The remainder of the meal passed in a comfortable silence. It did not take long for Briga’s belly to fill; she had conditioned herself to eat conservatively. After she had drained the last of her mug, the high priest led her to another adjoining chamber, where a series of straw mats were arranged in a line against the bare rock wall. Wordlessly, Briga chose one and lay down without even removing her furs. A question formed in her mind about the warmth of the cavern and the ice in the chambers above, but it drifted away along the rest of her consciousness.
She dreamed again.
The high priest was talking to her, but she was trapped in a block of ice. For some reason, she could move her hands to try and communicate, but her lips were frozen shut.
“...rest here, and once you are awake I can bring you to the Pool of Purity.”
Briga attempted to form a reply, but her hands were clumsy, her fingers stiff as icicles. Why am I trapped here? She asked. Is this a part of the ritual? The high priest seemed to understand her fumbling attempts at communication, because he answered her, but his reply didn’t fit her silent questions.
“Not at the same time,” he said. “A communion with God is a solitary thing. She was the first to enter the temple, so she will make the first offering. However, I have a feeling that...no, never mind. That is for God to decide, not his servant. Still, this is a serendipitous occasion. I am glad that you have come, my friend. Now that you and Briga are here...”
But I am Briga, her mind screamed. Her fury resonated so loudly that the block of ice shattered, and the din drowned out the rest of the priest’s words. She fell to the ground as the temple melted around her. When she looked up, it was her father standing before her in the sunshine at the peak of the mountain.
“You screamed just as loud the last time you were here,” he said. “It’s your tenacity God wants to see, not your defiance. When are you going to learn to separate the two?”
“The last time I was here?”
A strange buzzing noise jolted Briga awake. She experienced a brief moment of disorientation, and pressed her hands firmly to the ground to make sure she wasn’t sliding down the mountain. She noticed the cavern walls around her and remembered where she was. She tried to remember what she was dreaming about, but all she could remember was her father telling her that she’d been to the temple before.
She heard the loud buzzing sound again and sat up straight, clutching the knife at her hip. Her eyes darted around the cavern to identify the source of the odd noise.
It was coming from a body, wrapped up in furs and sleeping in another cot. Briga heard the noise once more, and breathed a sigh of relief when she realized it was just a loud snore. The loudest snore she’d ever heard. Briga relaxed her grip on her knife and approached the sleeping form, which was buried under a mound of dark furs. She hadn’t expected to see another pilgrim at the temple; most clanspeople climbed the mountain in groups for safety’s sake, and feasted before their journey so that all the villages would hear of their bravery.
Briga had gone alone on purpose. Only her mother had known about the journey, and even she had tried to stop her. Briga wondered who the other pilgrim was. She circled around so that she could try and get a glimpse of the traveller’s face.
Her eyes widened in shock. It wasn’t a member of the clans at all. The sleeping face poking out from the furs had a broad, flat nose, a jutting jaw, a ruddy complexion and a sloped forehead.
The other pilgrim wasn’t even human. Briga couldn’t even begin to wonder how God felt about a hama visiting the top of His mountain.
Song: Around the Horn
Artist: A’Shan feat. Kayan T. & Fair-E
Album: Beats from the Barrel
Genre: Hama hip-hop
A’Shan: Hey you, mister doctor
Education paid for by the man
Pander to the master plan
You think you earned all this but let me tell you somethin’ son
Around the Horn the only power is the gun
Ain’t no fun
Sleepin’ with one eye open just to guard your cash
Or your stash
Pickin’ through the trash just to feed a kid who’s prolly gonna die before the age of five
Tell me does that make you feel alive?
Refrain: Around the Horn
Around the Horn
Ain’t no tomorrow and yesterday’s gone
Maybe today is the day you die
But only if you’re lucky
Kayan T.: Ah, you say that you was tougher than the streets
Droppin’ beats, but yo’ motha’ still makes sure you eat
Cruisin’ down the broadway in her minivan wit’ yo’ thugs
Pretendin’ you was firin’ slugs at all the haters and betrayers
And the fakers who don’t know yo’ shit
Well tell me, what is it? Ever had a bullet flyin’ in yo’ face?
Seen a tank shell blowin’ up yo’ neighbour’s place?
Well, shit, kid
Let me take you on a trip Around the Horn
Fair-E: Around the Horn!
Kayan T. : Trolls’d pop you just to get those sneakers you got on.
And you ain’t tough until you seen a troll plead for his life
Tellin’ you he got a wife and kids, but you can’t let a troll play you
Betray you, or it’s yo’ sorry ass they’ll be wastin’
His screams and dyin’ dreams fill the air
You shoot and everywhere, the blood is there, lets you know yo’ still alive
You at the Horn
Fair-E: I was born in a smokin’ crater
Five years later
I’m runnin’ devilgrass and witchweed for my cousin Loe
Three years later and I’m pimpin’ his hoes
Guess it only shows
This is the life I know
Twenty bullet scars, one for every year
And one more from when I shot myself in fear
That I would have a kid that grew up just like me
Half-human freak, weak, life so bleak
Runnin’ drugs and wastin’ cops and fuckin’ every monkey bitch
Around the Horn
All: Around the Horn!
A’Shan: You say you know my shit
But until you live it
You’re just another pretender
Of a system keepin’ trolls and fairies
Livin’ in poverty and fear
Around this place we call
(Refrain X 2)
I step off the plane and the first thing I notice is the smell.
It’s not a reeking, overpowering stench like Faxton – here there is no river of filth and industrial sludge that undercuts the scent of human corruption. No, the smell is subtle. The hot breeze sends the moisture of the ocean to mask it, like a perfume over musk. Although I cannot see the heaps of garbage baking in the sun between shanty-houses of hot tin and reclaimed refuse, my nose does not lie. They are there in the city beyond, waiting to assail me with the sight and smell of concentrated, urbanized poverty.
The airport doesn’t have proper gates, so I mill around with the other passengers as we wait to claim our luggage right from the plane. Nobody is in a rush to grab a bag and leave for the city. Nobody wants to be here. The Horn is not a destination, it’s a trap. Anybody who stepped off that plane is a hama who didn’t manage to escape the guilt of leaving everybody else in squalor, or a journalist hoping to make a name for themselves dodging bullets and earning exclusive interviews with crime bosses. I should have told them to start with the two well-dressed hama on the flight. In the Provinces, businessmen wear gold watches. Around the Horn, arms dealers wear them.
I grab my worn and patched tweed suitcase and mill about. I’m afraid to face the city, but nobody here will sympathize. I am not hama and I am no journalist. Either would laugh and tell me to go home before I get raped or killed, or both.
Home. I close my eyes and picture the farm.
The baking tarmac and shuffling and humming recede and I’m six years old again, surrounded by the clucking of chickens.
“Why are they in cages, daddy?” I follow his legs, the only part of him that I can see unless I look up. The whole room reeks of chicken feces, but I’m used to it by now.
“So they don’t escape.” He tosses feed at the cages and the chickens go mad with clucking. The cages are stacked three high, and the grains land on the wooden bases of each cage. Their meals seem paltry, careless. Their cells are small, and they cannot spread their wings. I imagine myself freeing the birds from their cages. They fly off into the sunlight, though even at six I know the mental image is silly. Chickens cannot fly.
“Why would they escape?”
“Would you want to be in a cage, your whole life?”
The question makes me pause. If being in a cage is undesirable, why would my father deliberately do such a thing to these innocent animals?
“I’m smarter than a chicken.”
“Are you? Your mother thought so, too. She took her freedom and died for it, but these chickens are still alive.”
The thought of mother makes me sad. A hen tilts her head and clucks at me and I wonder what she’s thinking. I wonder what all these birds are thinking about. Do they resent their slavery? Are they content to simply live out their lives providing eggs and pacing back and forth in a cage that won’t even let them stand tall?
I watch my father gather the eggs from the cages. The hens are scared of him. They don’t peck at him, don’t fight for their eggs. Growing up on a farm, I understand reproduction somewhat, and I’ve seen chicks being born so I make the connection with the eggs. Father makes me eat them even though I protest.
One night I sneak into the warehouse, carrying a wooden stool. The chickens are clucking madly, and I tell them to be quiet, but they don’t listen. The cages on the floor are easy for me to open, but I clamber onto the stool for the taller cells. Soon the warehouse is filled with chickens pacing about the floor, gabbing madly at each other.
“Go, be free!” I urge them. I motion to the warehouse door, which I’ve left open for them, but they don’t seem too interested in it. They just mill about and cluck. I begin to gather up the eggs, hoping to bring them to my room and have my own private litter of chicks, but suddenly there is a shadow in the doorway of the warehouse.
I’m not upset about the thrashing I’ve received, even though I won’t be able to sit down properly for at least a week. I’m upset because I freed the chickens and they betrayed me. What was worse, the next day they were all back in their cages. None of them even really tried to escape.
The memory fades and I’m in a filthy taxi, being driven down a dirt road toward a grey mass of city that looks like a colourless tumour spreading into the countryside. Here and there are sparse trees, but the desert from the south is beginning to overtake even the once-fertile Horn. The ocean is a border to the horizon, sparkling and pure. From this distance I can forget that even the beautiful blue sea is being despoiled by humanity.
I thought that travel had immunized me to culture shock, but the taxi driver takes me into downtown Mohabi and I am shocked afresh.
The streets are filled with junk of all kinds – cardboard with faded corporate logos (the cherry cola box is faded enough to look like lemon soda), rusted cars on cinder blocks take up most of the free spaces on the edges of the road (there is no real sidewalk, just a less-beaten-down strip of dirt on either side of the street) and broken shards of glass and metal everywhere, though nobody wears shoes. Nobody can afford shoes.
A legless hama child sits in a rusted toy wagon and paddles up and down the sidewalk, occasionally cupping his hands at passers-by. He is largely ignored. The scariest part about starvation is that the belly becomes distended – the child doesn’t look like he’s starving, but his eyes are hungry for anything, even simple human contact.
Human contact. Even our language subversively treats them as lesser beings. The sight of the child in the wagon makes me sick to my stomach and I almost signal to the silent hama driver to stop the car, but by the time I find my tongue we are at least two streets away. He catches my eyes in the rear-view mirror but quickly looks away. He, like any hama here, will naturally assume that I don’t know the language...and hama rarely speak when their hands are occupied. His are squeezing the steering wheel tightly as he watches a quartet of hama with bandoleers and assault rifles strut down the street.
I don’t blame my driver his silence. Not only does my appearance scream ‘human’ – tall forehead, flat face, small teeth – there is also the fact that few humans can struggle over the steep learning curve of any of the hama languages. It is a combination of vocalization, gesture and tone like no other language – music and movement and intent all rolled into one. I’ve been studying the local dialect, Haumi, for most of my life, and still I speak less eloquently than a five-year-old hama.
Not to mention the fact that humans aren’t well-liked in these parts. I shut my eyes so I don’t have to see any more helpless orphans and remember where I was on the day the old puppet regime fell. The day the Tungo League sent troops into The Horn. I was ten years old.
My hand has been up for a full minute, but Mrs. Khoso ignores me, as usual. She’s afraid that I’ll ask a question she can’t answer. I’m afraid that she’ll fabricate a lie, but she’s my only source of semi-reliable information. My parents don’t follow politics and we don’t even own a television. I remind myself to put on the radio when I get home.
Mrs. Khoso sighs. “Yes, Alia, what is it?” I can feel the eyes of the other students falling on me, judging me. Nobody cares about some hama in another country, just like nobody cares about some caged chickens.
“Why are they fighting though? You didn’t explain that part.”
“The republic fell, and other factions are fighting for control of the country.”
“So why are we sending troops in?”
Another sigh. “To stop the fighting.”
“How does more fighting stop the fighting?”
“Because hama can’t govern themselves, Alia. The Tungo League is cleaning up their mess, because if we don’t do something then they’ll never stop bickering with each other. Their whole society is built on conflict – brutal, barbarian conflict – and they don’t know how to resolve a problem without resorting to violence. So we’re helping them re-establish a government.”
I put my hand down and wonder if an invisible border can be a kind of cage.
When I get home that evening, I ask my father about the conflict.
“Trolls and humans don’t mix,” he says. “We shouldn’t be sending our boys to die in the Devil’s Horn. Let them kill each other and leave the rest of us alone.”
I put on the radio in my room later and listen to the news until it starts to sound repetitive. Troops moving into Mohabi. A militant faction has seized control of the media and the central government complex. Hama using children as both soldiers and hostages.
Eventually the news reports depress me and I fiddle with the dial, looking for music. Instead I stumble upon a talk radio station. I never used to be interested in it, but for some reason it doesn’t seem so boring anymore. I fine-tune the dial for good reception and sink into my bed, listening to the rough-hewn voice of an old left-winger.
He paints a different picture of the conflict. I don’t really understand a lot of what he’s saying, not yet, but as he jabbers on about puppet governments and Tungo oil interests, misplaced feelings of racial superiority and a tug-of-war for resource and religious control between the South and the Eye, I start thinking about the farm.
They’re just caught in the middle, caged. Herded and used.
I make a stand that day and stop eating meat. I stop eating eggs, too. Five years later I’m holding up a sign at a protest. My father backhands me when I get home – somehow he knew that I was there. His wrath still scares me more than teargas.
My eyes pop open. There are things worse than teargas where I am, and I should keep my wits about me. There are car bombs and forgotten minefields and frequent shootings in the streets.
I realize that I never told my driver where to go...all I said to him was ‘Mohabi’.
“Excuse me,” I say in Haumi, “I actually need to go south of the city, to the International Aid Centre.” Although I doubt he is watching my hands, I make the gestures, regardless.
The driver raises an eyebrow at me in the rear-view mirror. I don’t think he expected me to speak his language. He doesn’t reply other than to nod, and we continue down the dirty street.
We pass a group of triaum children with sticks in their hands as they chase a rat down the street. The wide-eyed, bright-haired youths whoop and laugh as they tear after the frightened critter. I marvel at the fact that the triaum have managed to survive here for so long amongst the hama. Outcasts among outcasts, the Great Diaspora saw many triaum shipped to The Horn against their will, to become the hama’s problem. Yet they persevere, despite famine and war, and many have aligned themselves with local political factions.
The rat darts into an alleyway and the children follow. I feel sorry for the poor creature, but at least I know it probably won’t be caught, and certainly won’t be eaten. My abstinence from meat is a choice, but for the triaum it is an absolute dietary restriction. As I watch the last mop of tangled yellow hair round the corner, a voice I haven’t heard in years fills my head.
“We are always learning, changing, absorbing.” His voice is soft, calm, patient. His hair is like a billowy wheat field. His eyes, like oases. “That is life, Alia. We take in what the world shows us, convert it using the lens of our paradigm, and then we change and grow. Even plants do this. What we give to the soil goes into the plants, changes the way they grow. It’s why a coffee or a wine from Naxia tastes different than one from Titania.”
We are holding hands, sharing energy. He believes in it more than I do, but he’s my teacher and I am there to listen.
Actually, I am supposed to be the teacher. I’m the one with the degree, but Villus seems to be the one teaching me. The whole thing isn’t much of a use of my degree, but it’s an escape. I joined the International Aid Group to help fight an outbreak of Moth disease amongst a native group of triaum who live in the rockiest part of the Lashes (those mountainous isles south of the Eye). It’s as close as I dare to get to the Horn. Those fears instilled in me by my father and teachers and the media have clutched onto my very soul and refuse to let go.
Even so, I am free, and I am still learning. Villus teaches me about his language and his culture, and more importantly, he teaches me to let go of all those preconceptions I picked up as a child.
Most importantly, I’m helping others, and I am far away from my father.
The aid mission ends, however, and I am sent back home, no matter how badly I want to remain. My work visa has expired, and the IAG has pulled out of the Lashes. Moth disease has come and gone. I go home and try to find work in my field.
Instead I get married.
I snap back to reality and look out the cab window. I have no idea where we are, but it doesn’t seem like we’re heading to the IAG building south of Mohabi.
“Excuse me. We are heading to the aid centre, aren’t we?”
The cab driver doesn’t answer me as he turns down another side street. I feel my heartbeat pick up and wonder, not for the first time, if I’ve made a huge mistake in coming to the Horn. It might be my last mistake, for all I know. I can hear my father’s voice, yelling at me over the phone. He would never beg, but he certainly tried to browbeat me into staying home. He hadn’t spoken to me since before the wedding, and the first words out of his mouth were curses. I gave him all the stubbornness I could muster and...
The explosion rips through the air, and I can feel the heat even through the glass window of the taxi. We are flying through the air, flipping, and everything seems to happen in slow motion. I can hear bullets ricocheting off metal and concrete. The cab driver is screaming. Outside I can hear more shouts and screaming, and I swear there is the faintest sound of wings rattling against a cage...
The car hits the pavement and my vision goes black.
I dream I’m back in the hospital. Mufi’s hand is on my shoulder, comforting me, but I don’t want his comfort. All I want is my baby, but he’s gone, and the fertility treatments aren’t working. If the doctor explains it all one more time I’m going to get up out of my chair and scream in his face. He tells me that the risks are greater with a cross-species conception and Mufi is the one who loses it.
He got deported for assaulting the doctor. Sent back to the Horn. Where I’m going, so I can be with him...even though he got remarried so he could have kids, the asshole. Wait, no, I’m not going for Mufi. I’m going to teach. Or am I there already? I can’t remember.
I open my eyes and I’m in the hospital again, only this time I know it’s not a memory. It’s the aid centre, I bet. No other facility in Mohabi would be this clean. I look down at myself and my sheets are clean, too. No serious injuries, just a throbbing skull and a bunch of bruises and scrapes on my arms that I can see. There are probably more of them elsewhere on my body. I wonder if the cab driver survived. As I shed a silent tear for him, I wonder what the fighting was even about, who the factions were, who won, and if it led anywhere. The Horn has been a mess for fifteen years, and it doesn’t seem like it’s going to get cleaned up anytime soon. Why am I here?
“What were you thinking, taking a taxi through downtown Mohabi?” His voice is restrained, but his arms are gesturing wildly. He’s talking so quickly that it’s hard for me to understand him, but his tone is clear enough.
“You could have been killed. You almost were killed. Why didn’t you call me from the airport?”
My arms move much more slowly as I reply. My gestures are clumsy, my voice hoarse. I feel like I’m a child again, stammering an excuse in front of my father.
“I didn’t want to bother you. I figured you were with her...”
“So instead you decided to go alone into Mohabi? God, it’s a wonder worse things didn’t happen to you.”
I sit up. “Stop trying to protect me. I’m not your wife anymore.”
“That wasn’t my choice.”
“Right. I chose for you to get remarried.”
“I meant the deportation. You could have come here earlier. Things would have been different.”
“Well I’m here now.” I fold my arms. I don’t want to cry, I hate crying in front of him, but the tears come anyway. I almost died and all he can do is yell at me and bring up the past, a past that I want to forget. Why am I here, again? This place just reminds me of failure. Failed missions, failed policies, failed degrees, failed marriages, failed conception, failed love...
“Shhh.” His arms are around me. His big, long, strong hama arms, and his scent is there, and his deep musical voice, humming out a hama lullaby and suddenly I remember why I fell in love with him. I cry anew, this time because I’m still in love with him; that was never gone. But it hurts now. It’s just all the good parts that are gone. He’s not mine anymore. He has children and a wife that I’ve never met and never want to.
I want my own children.
I look down at my legs beneath the hospital sheets and remember the time when blood was pooling there. I close my eyes and see blood on the chopping block, veal on the table. I throw up and Mufi yells for a nurse.
We’re walking to the schoolhouse. I’ve fully recovered from the accident, and things with Mufi are fairly patched up. His wife doesn’t know about us, but she doesn’t really need to. I’m not the one who gets the family and the kids. It’s the one time I’ve ever allowed myself to be truly selfish, and I wouldn’t give it up for anything.
I’ve been told to stay out of Mohabi, and I do. I have a little home near the school, and Mufi brings me groceries and other things that I need. My only other visitor is the rep from IAG. She thinks I’m crazy for taking the job, but I think she’s crazy to want to do paperwork all day. We meet for tea once a week.
The farmland south of Mohabi is dry, unyielding. Even during the monsoon season, the soil is too saline, too sandy to be truly fertile. The hama children are so scrawny they almost look like triaum. I am the richest person for miles.
As we approach the schoolhouse, Mufi slips his hand into mine. His is warm and tender, but his wedding ring is cold. I remind myself that I’m still getting the best of him.
The schoolhouse is a small wooden building, one storey. It is as paltry as the charity that the rest of the world shows for the Horn. Outside, parents mingle as the children run around playing simple games. They are so alive, so free. They do not yet see the cage.
I stand before the children, blocking their view of Mohabi beyond. If I take them under my wing, perhaps one day they will learn to fly away from this place.