Yesterday, Fatima birthed twins. Ma and Rafat played midwife. Umaru, Baba and I stood outside the large tent with the sheep and jittery camels as her screams filled the cool star-struck savannah. After many sweaty hours, just as the dawn rose pink like insides, Hussain and Hassan were born. Baba killed a large brown ewe and roasted her over an open fire with pungent leaves and peppered spices. Ma poured out some sour fura de nunu to cool our tongues as we watched Fatima and Baba blush over the velvet skinned babes in the crackling morning fire. Fatima glowed in her pale blue kaftan. Rafat sulked and angrily wove a fine basket for baby. Umaru tried to console her with a rare orange, fat and sweet-looking as it bounced in his palm. He was the eldest and often sat with Baba on the soft furs we used to welcome guests with back home as they drank, chewed, spat and talked in rumbly man tones. Rafat, Fatima and Ma run whatever open spaces we settle in and are either salting meat, plucking herbs or weaving smooth jute blankets all the time. I often stargaze in trees or on warm rocks as predators slink through the surrounding night. Sometimes, Umaru finds and lies beside me, and we chew salted meat in silence after a few brotherly questions. Then he vanishes into the yellow heat of the coming desert to look for oases. We are in our sixth month of seeking a new home away from the sudden flame and endless smoke of the North.
Pale grass fields have given way to baobab-studded stretches of red earth, the sheep have become steadily slimmer and Ma and Rafat’s warm honeyglow from the city has given way to dry smoothness. Baba and Umaru look the same; tall and long-limbed and dark like old wood. Baba won’t age, they say he’s sixty years old but he looks thirty. My hair now grows slower. Umaru says Baba didn’t run away from the bombs alone, he’s chasing something moving in the heat ahead. In the fullest moons of her belly, while she was pregnant, Fatima was a constant source of bliss and smiles- even on the coldest nights she glowed. Now, she has fear and fatigue in her eyes as her baby boys suckle loudly every morning.
At the edge of the Sahel, Umaru finds a grove of orange trees with white flowers that scent the hot air. They are the only vegetation in sight – ahead, the desert sprawls. Their green branches embrace the worn sides of the tent and hold juicy oranges the size of Hassan’s head. We spend the night eating them, passing the babbling citrus-scented babies around and talking about the city. The wind whispers and howls around our ears. Fatima is flanked by Ma in her always white shawls, and Rafat, whose sleek head nods as her nose ring glints and her light voice rises passionate. They miss their friends and sharing new laali and recipes. The constant movement exhausts them, they hope we can stay here for a while. Baba is talking about water to Umaru and me. If we can find clean water and stay close to it, protect it, use it well, we could stay alive forever. Baba has had too much wine but Umaru agrees. I keep staring at the streaking indigo sky, feeling the chill night wind sweep in from the Sahel over my shoulders and lift the edge of my father’s dark blood turban again and again. The desert sand barely glows as it rises in dust skirts over dunes and ridges, and into the cold clear air. The sand is finely scalloped where the wind runs over it. There is a freedom here unlike I have ever felt.
That last day in the city, when Rafat had come to pull me away from Badamasi’s sooty hyena puppies, saying Baba was suddenly travelling with the whole clan and there was no time to waste, I had no friend come bid me goodbye. Only a gaggle of young mournful women in shifting gowns came to aid Magistrate Sanusi, Sakinah and heavily pregnant Fatima on their sudden self-exile, their tapered fingers curled with henna flora stroking shoulders in overt sisterhood. Here, I am not my father’s too-thin runt- I conquer trees and quicksand and hop over snakes, and when I run barefoot across the hot sand and look up, the sky falls open.
The babies sleep, then Fatima and Rafat take them in and don’t come out anymore. Ma yawns last and strokes Baba’s left shoulder before going in to curl on her bed of silken pillows. I lie back and look onto star-studded velvet, listening to Umaru now talk about water. “We barely have a drum full. There are rumours of thirsty bandits hunting for water with rabid dogs. We can’t stay in this grove beyond tomorrow.” Baba sighs melodiously and I hear him gulp more wine.
Our throats are dry and our tongues no longer faintly orange-sweet when we suckle on them. Umaru leads the line, Ma and Rafat flank Fatima and the twins on camel, draping them in muslin. The wind sends sand into every nook of our bodies. Our eyelashes are encrusted with rejected sand. I am behind them, Baba is behind me, his turban pulled up to his eyes. We all walk slowly. Our sheep have been let go and only the three camels remain. The sun is high and bleeds violent orange heat across the sky and onto our backs. It peppers and burns the exposed skin of our arms. Baba covertly hands me some wine and I lap at the near-empty hide bottle for a moment of cool tanginess that doesn’t come.
My handstitched vest has drunken up my sweat, in turn soaked up by the sun. My tongue is beginning to crack, my lips rough with little sores, my burnt caramel skin peeling in places. My eyes dance in my head, my limbs are filled with a hot sludge and my belly is shrunken and groaning with heated acid. I stop walking and fall to my knees – the sun burning melting yellow, the hazy blue sky and the undulating hills of fine gold spinning. I hear Baba shout “Sanusi!” as I fall into the hot desert floor that burns my elbows and back, heat coming off the sand in dizzying waves. Then I see the white ghosts taller than everything around, rising like light from the sand surrounding us, staring parched from dried skulls, surrounding us, glinting in the ruthless sun.
Dare Segun Falowo is a psychologist-in-training and occasional writer of fantasy and speculative fiction. A somewhat avid enthusiast of music and cinema, his work has appeared on The Naked Convos (especially in the sci-fi serial – FIST 2). His stories are collected at (www.dragonsinlagos.wordpress.com. Sometimes he stops walking to look for the sky.
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