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.