Chapter 6: Hungry Ghosts
I wiped my face with a sweat drenched shirt, the cotton completely transparent and clinging to my skin like a pale mask. My eyes locked on the roundness of my stomach for a moment before squinting through the far trees at the other boys in white. I was too embarrassed to catch up to them in my transparent shirt and decided I’d walk back at my own pace. I even took a completely different path, a longer but less laborious route. This of course meant that I was skipping my next lesson, and that I would be stuck in prayer all evening. But what did I care? I’d rather kneel all day, pretending to pray, than try to run my fat body like a lunatic through that summer heat.
I found a walking stick and was slowly making my way up one of the largest hills in the area, when I saw a small grey lump in the middle of the dirt path. At first I assumed it was just a pile of debris from a storm the previous day, but as I got closer I realized it was moving rather peculiarly. It was shivering and flinching, two scrawny clawed feet reaching upward toward the sky. My heart sank as I approached, and I almost wanted to turn away or run by it blindly and never look back. Nevertheless, my eyes were drawn to its pathetic movements, the way it flinched as an iridescent blanket of flies bit into its living flesh. It was a bird of some kind, with dark, oddly silvery feathers and its eye squeezed closed like a purple bruise.
I stood above it, panting heavily and still dripping with sweat. What a horrible way to die. I should put it out of its misery. But for some strange reason I was terrified of the thing. A harmless bird lying on its back being eaten alive by flies posed no more threat to me than the dirt and trees around it, but I could barely stomach to look at it. I had to do something; there was no way to undo my having seen it’s suffering and the forced action made my hands tremble and my sweat run cold. I either had to leave it to its fate or kill it; I couldn’t imagine another option.
I pulled a little pocket knife out of my pack and even took it out of the case, but I quickly dismissed that kind of violence and put it away. There was no way I could marshal the force needed to kill it quickly, and its suffering would not only increase but likely cling to my hands. Next, I decided I was going to have to smash it. I searched for a large stone, brought it over to the bird, and held it over my head But the severity that it would take to smash the thing still wouldn’t come, and the rock ended up bouncing away rather feebly, nowhere near the target. I didn’t know what to do next, and the bird was still being eaten alive.
I put down my pack and dug for a solution until I came upon a small spade in the side pocket. I’d completely forgotten I had it and immediately decided it was the answer to my problem. First I thought I could smash the bird in the head with it; that’s what someone in a boy’s novel would do. But I already knew the violence necessary for such an action could never come out of me; it was no different from stabbing it. The only question left was if it would be better to be eaten or buried alive. I debated the idea as if I were the injured party, feeling unbelievably sick to my stomach.
I dug a small hole in a shady spot of the woods. The only thing that remained was getting the bird to the hole. When I very carefully tried to lift it with my shovel it let out a loud squawk and I dropped it, my heart immediately beating in terror. It fell into the shady grass, and I decided that there it would lie. I almost ceremoniously covered it with dirt, and the flies finally scattered away. It’s trembling seemed to have eased, and I wondered if I should cover its head with dirt as well. I looked at the wrinkles of its purple eye lid and decided rather calmly to bury it alive.
My sexual frustration seemed to have evaporated, and the new job Simon had found for me was much more agreeable than the last. I had become a cook at one of the little run down orphanages scattered along the edges of the village. I was undoubtedly the happiest I had ever been; everything in my life seemed to be falling into place.
The woman who managed the orphanage was named Magreeta, and I remember her being a very thick dark skinned woman with the largest breasts I’d ever seen in my life. Her black hair was short, and she always wore a swirling patchwork wrap over it. She was even taller than Simon and was a bit more masculine than most women without being obnoxious or pig headed like a man. I liked her a lot, and we’d actually met on several brief occasions before I started working for her.
Her wife Cheri also lived at the orphanage, but she worked with Simon and so she was often away from town. She was also tall but thinner and fairly obviously mixed race. She had blonde, tightly textured hair, blue eyes, and skin about the same light brownish color as my own. Originally from Laseine, Cheri talked about race often, especially with me. Apparently being of more than one race in Laseine made life quite difficult there, and she enjoyed telling me terrible stories about the place. I oddly enjoyed hearing her horror stories, perhaps giving us both a reason to revel in our current happiness. Though subtle and pervasive racial inequality was easily noticeable in the village, it was nothing like this Laseine place.
I hadn't been working there long when there was an unusually heavy snowfall well before winter, thankfully trapping Simon in the village a bit longer than planned. One day, he came along to the orphanage to help shovel snow and break up ice. I remember he worked at it for hours without a break, as if completely impervious to the cold.
When I finally went to call in the children for lunch they were all gathered around a frozen pool in the back. Simon was in the middle, his sword drawn, looking sternly ahead. And then he started to glide a little, moving the sword with him dramatically before he pushed forward and jumped, landing on the ice and sliding his back leg around until he was standing again. The children clapped, and he bowed for them jokingly.
“Hey,” I called over. Before I could get another word out the children all came running back to the house at once. Simon was left alone on the ice, swaying back and forth a little. “You’re going to stab yourself, idiot.” I laughed, and he just shrugged.
“I used to play on the ice a lot when I was little, when we traveled through the mountains." He spun himself around and playfully sheathed his sword. “I also took ballet lessons for awhile when I was still a girl. I was pretty good at it, but my teacher said I was too masculine; or how did she say it... my passions are too violent, too dominating." He mimicked a dramatic old woman, still gliding around and moving his arms gracefully. I also thought he would probably be very good at ballet, but definitely only in a masculine role. He held his hand out. "Want to dance with me?”
“Absolutely not. The ice will break.” I laughed, but he had already pulled me to him. It was surprisingly solid, but I was on the ice for perhaps thirty seconds before I slipped and pulled Simon down with me. I hit my elbow pretty hard, and Simon seemed to have hurt his knee, but we were both laughing as we crawled back to solid land.
“You’re so clumsy, Avery,” he sighed, holding himself above as he lightly touched my hair.
“You’re the crazy one trying to make me dance on ice. I can’t even dance on land.”
His cheeks and nose were bright red, and his hair stuck out amusingly from a dark green hat. Unable to resist, I grabbed a fistful of his jacket and kissed him on the mouth.
“You’re supposed to be working,” he laughed and tried to pull away.
“Food’s cooked; I’m done,” I growled, pulling him back to me and kissing his face. “Mmmm, I love you.” I pressed my face into the collar of his jacket, kissing his damp neck.
“You need to eat don’t you? You haven’t yet?” I continued kissing him, gently sucking his neck.
“I don’t care.”
“And people can see us.”
“I don’t care.” I pushed him toward the ground and rolled on top of him, holding his arms down beside his head.
“Avery, this looks really inappropriate,” he laughed and vaguely tried to get free.
“Why? It’s not like we’re naked,” I teased, easing into a sitting position on top of him.
He sat up on his elbows and looked at me, smiling widely as he prepared to say something. But then his eyes flicked behind me, smile melting immediately. And at that moment my whole world began melting to pieces with it. Unknowing, I just laughed at him and asked what was wrong.
“I think I saw something,” he said, sitting up completely and making me tumble off of him. He stood quickly and looked over at the high hills in the distance. “Avery, go inside.”
“What? Why? What did you see?” A hard pit settled in my stomach.
“Go inside. And tell Cheri I need to see her immediately.”
“Go!” he demanded harshly, and I complied as fast as I could. Cheri was sitting at the table with Magreeta and the children, and when she saw my stricken face she stood at once.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, and before I’d even finished the word ‘outside’ she was out the door and standing next to Simon. Some of the children and I hurried to the window to see what was happening. Simon and Cheri exchanged only a few words before he took off down the hill, very quickly making his way not toward town but toward an alarm shelter.
Magreeta was trying to gather the children and calm them down, and when Simon finally disappeared from my sight I followed her example. We pushed the children into a smaller basement room and instructed the oldest girl to bolt the door and not open for anything. I really didn't know what was going on, and the full weight of what could be happening still hadn’t entered my mind, even as Magreeta and I strapped on our swords.
Cheri stood at the window that faced the hills, sword already drawn.
“What’s coming, Cheri?” Magreeta asked.
“There are soldiers in the hills,” she answered plainly. My blood ran cold, and my legs suddenly felt soft and ready to run.
“How many? How far?” Magreeta asked.
“A lot. Twenty minutes perhaps.”
“Simon won’t be back,” I gasped. “He’ll be alone.”
Cheri looked at me with hard, yet oddly desperate eyes. “Avery…” The alarm bell started ringing so loudly it was almost deafening, and I could hear the children in the basement beginning to cry. Other bells throughout the village began echoing the warning, and the faces of both women became even graver.
“They must be everywhere,” Magreeta gasped.
“Then they’ll die everywhere,” Cheri growled, gripping her sword tighter. I didn’t feel quite as brave, but I unsheathed my sword, desperately trying to undo the moment when Simon looked behind me and saw them coming. Where did he go? Why wasn’t he coming back? Good god, all the time I’d wasted; I was going to die and my life was filled with so much wasted time.
What I remember most from the battle are the sounds. Metal smashing into metal, blasts from bombs and desperate gun fire, screaming as the civilians of the town tried to rush to safety, screaming as the warriors ran forward to a long awaited, valiant death. And the land was laughing at all of us, chuckling so lowly that we could just barely feel its mirth grumbling below our feet as the gears of fate churned up our inevitable destruction. These gears had been turning in this direction since we’d started our vain attempt at individual peace; there could be no such thing in the human world. Because why should we strive for heaven if we can build our own Eden? But the people of our village still took up arms against this power, and died screaming like lost worlds as metal from an existence apart invaded their most intimate workings. All to protect the idea of freedom and equality that we had cherished together.
There wasn’t time for Simon to come back to us, and like ravenous ghosts the pale beige arms of soldiers were pounding on the outside of our flimsy building. Perhaps our Eden could have used thicker walls? Magreeta and I stood back to back, and Cheri stayed to the front. The first breech came from the window, an arm feeling for a way to enter. Cheri quickly hacked off the arm as if she were just trying to crack open a melon for a summer picnic. Only once before had I seen so much blood, and I almost felt like I was going to faint again just at the sight of the dead limb oozing on the orphanage floor. The soldier, as if it had enjoyed the maiming, put in the other arm with the same simple, gory result.
“They’re morons,” I whispered. “What’s wrong with them?”
“They’re strong morons,” Magreeta replied. “They don’t die the same way we do. They don’t need their blood.”
“Then why do they have it?” She didn’t have an answer for me. The blood in my own veins ached as if it had gone hard, and I looked at the hands feeling for a way in and then at the dead one on the ground. And I realized that, perhaps, they were already dead? “Simon… he won’t be able to come back.”
“If anyone in this village is fine, Avery, it’s Simon," Cheri laughed dryly.
The soldiers had abandoned the windows and were now pushing at the door, hacking at the wood with their swords. The shear strength of their blows terrified me, and I tried not to imagine what it was going to be like when those swords hacked through my flesh, so much softer than wood. Cheri attacked them before they got the door down completely, and in a panic I followed her to what felt like certain death.
The first soldier I cut into was surprisingly solid, and it took an immense amount of strength to pull my sword out of the large wound I’d created in it's stomach.
“In the hearts!” I heard Magreeta yelling, and a blade suddenly thrust through the chest of the soldier I’d wounded. She pushed it off the blade with it's own weight and turned to fight the others coming through the door. We’d killed nearly six of them by the time they stopped coming and we could gather ourselves for a plan. It all really felt like it was in my imagination, a war fiction I was reading perhaps, even the blood pitter-pattering from my drenched arms to the floor. And I distinctly remember that despite my decision that they were already dead; their blood was so hot that the puddles of it were steaming in the frozen air.
“If we stay here, we can hold them off as they try to come through the openings. We’ll last the longest that way. If we go out we’ll be too exposed,” Cheri decided.
We stood on top of the children, and I could hear them whimpering again. I really wished they would be quiet, but there was no way to tell them so without giving away my own fear. Two more soldiers tried to enter, and Cheri brutally and quickly killed both of them. I thought she fought a lot like Simon, very fast and so confidently. She came back to us with her hair dripping in so much blood that she could barely see, and Magreeta had to use her bandanna to wipe her face. All of Cheri’s own clothes were drenched completely. She seemed tired, heaving heavily as she knelt in front of Magreeta, one hand on her sword as it pointed into the floor. I’d seen paintings of men kneeling before the vassals of the Lord in this way… and it frightened me but also gave me strange, inexplicable courage.
“I will kill the next one,” I volunteered, and Cheri smiled at me and squeezed my shoulder. Another soldier spotted us as he marched near, and before he’d even made it through the door he had to block my blow. But he did not seem to care whether he lived or died, and it wasn’t long before I was stabbing all the way through the heart, copying Magreeta's technique of using his own dead weight to get my sword out of him. I came back into the house again, gripping the sticky, blood covered sword that Simon had given me. Simon… where are you? I looked out at the village for a moment, and my spirits started to sink. There were corpses everywhere, a lot of them soldiers but many of them not, and fires burning, screams, death and the metallic, burnt taste of war burning my lungs.
“Oh god no,” I heard Magreeta gasp and turned to look. A fire had started on one side of the building. "We have to get them out of here.”
Cheri put her hands on my shoulders and looked me very sternly in the eyes.
“Avery. I am going to draw them away from here. You take the children to the caves by the river. Do you know where that is?” I just nodded.
“Cheri,” Magreeta cried and held on to her. “You can’t! I won't leave you behind.”
“Ah, I already told you before. I will die for you. All of you, but especially you.” Cheri laughed, and they kissed for a moment. Then we were all opening the door we’d been standing on. “All right, it’s plan B! The bigger ones take care of the little ones. We’re making a run for it!”
The children were all crying, but amazingly obedient, the older ones, like all the people of that village, following their duty flawlessly and carrying or calming the littlest ones. I’d never really felt like an adult until all those great big, truly innocent eyes stared at me all at once, begging to be led to shelter. I was to go in front because I was generally better with a sword than Magreeta and a faster runner. I prayed that I knew where I was going, and Cheri and I rushed out of the house at the soldiers. I had to battle two of them before it was clear enough to run the children through.
Most of the soldiers were too preoccupied destroying buildings and such to bother about the children, and we kept moving fast enough that I did not have to engage in a battle for nearly half of the journey. Four of them came at our rear, and Magreeta ran two of them through before I was able to gather the children to a stop and get to her. She’d already been stabbed in the side and was battling the third before I killed it.
“You have to leave me,” she said after we’d killed the last. Our stillness was already noted and two more were on their way. I looked at the oldest of the children and she just nodded and started them back to running. “I know it hurts, but you have to keep going. I don’t know what to do once we get there.”
“Make your way to the city.”
“I don’t know how to get there. I’ve never been outside the village.” The thought was almost more terrifying than death.
“It’s west. Just go west…” She stood up and looked at the approaching soldiers. “Go. I know you’re young, but the children need an adult with them. Go.”
I didn’t know what to do, but she was hurt more badly than I’d imagined, and her idea that the children needed me to get out of the village was logical. Or perhaps she just didn't want me to die as well?
“You are a brave soul,” was all I could think to say before I ran after the group of children.
I managed to get them to the river with only a few more skirmishes with half dead soldiers. We went to the caves and thankfully found a lot of other people also making their way to the city.
“Alana,” I said to the oldest girl. “I have to go back.”
“You can’t go back! You’re a man. You'll be taken!”
“I have to find Simon."
“He’s dead already, Avery!” She burst into tears and clung to me as I tried to leave.
“Then so shall I be!” I growled at her, but then tried to calm myself. I was not ready to be the adult they needed, and despite their pitiful stares I could only think about Simon. “The others here will help you. Look, that woman there owns the other orphanage. Take the children to her.”
“Avery, don’t go back there just to die! Or worse!”
“I am going back for Simon!” I couldn’t stand her tearful pleas any longer, and I ran out of the caves. I was exhausted but beyond any comprehension of pain or fear. If this is how I’m going to die then so be it. I’d wanted to die in an adventurous way, hadn’t I? Wasn’t that why I kept walking on that bridge? Cheri would die for love; I would die for Simon. Without him I will die anyway.
There were very few of our people left in the village that were not dead or fleeing rapidly, and I searched through the bodies and carnage desperately. I could vaguely recognize so many of the dead faces, but I just imagined they were not real and kept searching through them.
“Simon!” I called out, but there was no reply. There was only the sound of burning, and that mechanical squeaking of soldiers coming closer. I faced a hoard of them, stabbing through two before losing my sword. Then, there was a bash to my head, and I was in complete, death like blackness.
I woke up a lifetime later to an oddly familiar face, and I stared at it, wondering why it was rocking back and forth so rhythmically.
“Ah, you’re alive then,” the dark face said.
“You, I know you.” I tried to sit up quickly, head rushing with pain. My eyes started to clear, and I looked down at my heavy wrists to find them bound in jangling shackles.
“No use in fighting now.” The familiar person said and held up his own shackles. It was Lerato, the man from Laseine who had made Simon’s sword.
“You, did you see Simon? Do you know if he’s alive?” I gasped desperately.
He just shook his head and solemnly looked around at all the other groaning prisoners in the truck. It was an enormous vehicle, an open bed, and I could see an extremely dry, unfamiliar landscape rushing by.
“How long was I passed out?”
“Probably a day. Thought you were dead.”
“I should be dead.”
“Don't say that. Despite the stories, there is a possibility we’ll escape, slim as it may be.” He swallowed hard and also looked out at the land.
“If Simon is dead, I am already dead,” I replied, and he put his hand on my head with an odd smile.
“He’s not dead. Simon is one difficult sucker to kill. Trust me, I’ve tried it. Several times.”
I wanted to believe him, and his calm, mature eyes almost allowed me to. I at least forced myself to sit up and looked out at the dessert. Miles and miles away was a strange brown shape almost like the outline of a fortress, billowing smoke and yet as a whole seemingly completely dead.
“Is that where we’re going?”
“That? That’s just the City of Bei,” Lerato half laughed. “Paradise compared our destination.” He pointed to a dessert that seemed to go on forever to the north east of Bei.
“That’s a city? It’s enormous and… it looks dead, and so filthy.”
“That’s what a city is.” He seemed lost in thought for a moment. “Welcome to the Outer Rim, Avery.”
I had a hard time adjusting to misery, and if it weren’t for Lerato's strength and protection I likely would have died before we even reached our imprisonment. I had no motivation in one sense, and in the other I was not among many friends or fellow villagers. Most of the men I was lumped with were merchants from Laseine who had surrendered, and they did not like the mixed color of my skin. Still, partially through Lerato’s influence, I seemed to quickly be taken in my the dark skinned men, though some of them still disliked and mistrusted me.
It took many days to reach the soldiers detention camp, and what I remember most about the journey was that the water and food they gave us was almost worse than hunger, almost. Most of us ate it anyway, covering ourselves and each other in our own sick.
The place that they brought us to was strangely very plain, a scattering of small brick buildings and a few dilapidated warehouses made from odd metallic stone. There were steel rails and broken paved roads running throughout, the whole scene splattered with a few insect like shapes following the wax figures of white.
They stripped us completely upon arrival, and a soldier with a sharp blade stood in front of a chair while we all lined up along the wall. One prisoner at a time sat in the chair, and the soldier roughly shaved the hair off our heads and faces, slicing right through any cuts or sores. He didn’t even wipe the blood off the blade when he started the next person, as if the faceless mask could see no such abomination as blood.
After our heads were shaved they marched us to a little stone house and hosed us off with hot, medicine tinged water. The cuts burned horribly, and we all groaned and gasped, some of us screaming. I don’t remember if I screamed, or if I even made a sound at all.
As we waited in the dark to be assigned a wooden bunk house, I ran a shaking hand over my bald head, looking at the dry, gray ground. Tears threatened to crawl into my eyes, but I swallowed them into my stomach and burned them alive. I’d never felt so ugly in my life; my body covered in insect bites, bruises, and cuts, so strangely soft and small. I looked at Lerato; he seemed odd without his dreadlocks and beard, almost like another person altogether. He was looking straight ahead, jaw clenched against the cold, hands cupped over his genitals. He put the hands under his arms to warm them, and then put them back on his genitals.
I looked up at the sky, surprised by the calm, white fluffy clouds that floated by. They looked warm, like the stuffing from my blankets when I was a child. I wanted to lay on them, wiggle my tired body inside until I was suspended amongst them with nothing to see or feel but clean, bleached cotton. I felt over my head again; they used to cut my hair short when I was in school too. Maybe because, like Simon had said, my hair was pretty? Only my father really seemed to hate it.
But he wasn’t my real father anyway. He said he wasn’t, and I’d decided a long time ago that I no longer wanted him to be. A man like him couldn’t even imagine what was happening to me at that moment. His petty concerns buried his blue eyes like flies milling over feces, and he would not look at anything but their germ infested exoskeletons. And I wanted to stab him in those eyes with long white picks made of salt, all the flies scattering away as I push the melting sticks into the puddles of his unrelated blood, the red overflowing and pouring down his face and back into the brown earth.
I suddenly felt myself smile uncontrollably, and Simon’s ghost whispered in my ear as I also said aloud, “The clouds are pretty today.”
Lerato looked at me, then up at the sky. He smiled bitterly too. “They are, aren’t they?”
Every day the soldiers marched us into caves underground, out of which came a steady stream of men pulling carts of sludge. When we first arrived I remember the men pulling the carts looking at us with eyes so worn and tired they almost didn’t seem real to me at all. There was no sympathy, no empathy, almost like a crowd of animals in human skins were staring at us in ravenous jealousy. We were going to die immediately, I suddenly understood, and they were going to use our skins, filled with horses and pigs, to haul the filth out of the earth. We had gone to hell.
But they just set us to work alongside these animals, still inside of our own skins, using picks and shovels to mine and clear away salty debris from the underground. There were massive, very old machines under the salt, much like the bridge that brought me to the Outer Rim. It was our endless task to keep the gears turning, the troops of prisoners moving from clogged site to clogged site. Sometimes the debris wasn’t salt, but more a putrid mesh of plants and strange things that were either crawfish or bugs. We’d pull away the filth no matter what it was, filling small rail carts that we had to pull above ground. The carts filled mostly with salt would be taken in one direction, the dirtier carts in another.
Sometimes it’s hard for me to remember what each day was like, but when I think back on those times I often straighten my back anxiously. They disciplined us by hitting our backs with thin sticks, and my weakness and lethargy meant I was punished often.
Thankfully I was always with Lerato, but throughout the work day we didn’t talk much, and most of my clearer memories are from the few moments we had between sleeping and labor. I thought about Simon so often that it was almost like he was there, an imaginary image sitting on the ropes of my hammock, whispering crazy things to me as I worked and worked and sweated and starved. At night when we were lying in our net like hammocks, trying to sleep, I would often start talking to Lerato about Simon, including the imaginary Simon I saw walking around and talking to me.
“Maybe it’s his ghost,” I said randomly one night.
“Simon is not dead. He’s fine. He’s probably looking for you right now,” Lerato reassured me, though we both knew the probability of his death was not low. This was just what he always said to me, but I remember it seemed even more unbelievable that night. “It’s the full moon right? Nomakhaya will have had the new baby by now,” he said, and I turned to look down at him.
“Your second child already?” I asked after a long moment of silence. “How old are you?”
“I’m thirty five. You know, I think the new one is a girl too,” he said, trying to pick the crust of salt from his hands. “I want another girl.”
“What if it’s a boy?”
“I’ll raise him to be a girl. I don’t need a son; they just cause trouble.” Lerato laughed lightly and also turned to look at me. “When we’re out of here, I’ll bring you to see them. My wife will like you. I bet the new baby’s beautiful. Looks just like her mother and her sister.”
Lerato had the strangest way of saying pleasant things that left a sadness so deep within I had to hold my chest and wonder if the world would not be pulled into the void inside of me. I smiled at him, though it was mostly too dark to see each other’s faces, and tried to sleep.
The day I truly lost hope was in the spring. I was feeling over my fuzzy head, over the scabs and wounds where the hair hadn’t grown back at all. Lerato was digging below me, and I was staring at a loose, rusted gear that was barely holding up between two larger ones. There was a steady stream of salt water leaking out, and I was sure that if I hit the little gear even slightly it would crumble to pieces.
“Lerato,” I said, patting him on the shoulder.
“What?” he asked, standing up and looking at what I was pointing to. “I guess we should tell them that a gear needs replaced,” he sighed, and I looked at his exhausted, oddly hollow face and then back to the gear.
“I wonder what would happen if we broke it?” I said, and he shook his head.
“Probably just a flood of water. It’s leaking already.”
“Aren’t you curious though?” A soldier passed and we hurried back to work, ignoring the gear. When the soldier was out of sight again we slowed. “Where does all this water come from?”
“Underground springs and stuff I guess.”
“But what do these machines do?”
“I don’t know. I think maybe they mine the salt?”
“I told you; I don’t know.”
“It's so strange, this world we've made." And then I had a sudden and profound urge to just drown myself. I had no family. No God. No home. Simon was the only one that ever really loved me; my family, my home, and when I was with him I even thought I could feel god. Or at least I could believe that there is some kind of comforting force that will not let me fall into misery so long as I am good, I don’t hurt anyone, or steal, or lie. But now I am here, forever digging in the grime beneath the surface of the earth. I would have been sure it was hell if they didn’t bring us back up again into the light, to sleep under the same old sky.
“What?” Lerato’s voice sounded very tired. He would be the only one to mourn my death, I thought, but I could not imagine that he would not be following me soon after.
“If you go tell the supervisor about the gear, I’ll finish this section.”
“Alright.” Lerato looked at me strangely but went out of the little section we were working on. A few seconds after he was gone I took the largest, hardest chunk of salt I could find and held it over my head triumphantly. And with my heart beating in wild aggression like when I’d smashed the soldier in the back to save Simon so long ago, and my arms stretched with the intent of death that I'd needed but could not muster to save that weak little bird, I smashed the rusted gear to pieces.
There was a deep groan, and then half the gears started spinning out of control, water and sludge showering over my head harder and harder every second. Finally, there was a sudden break and warm, greenish water poured down so hard that it knocked me to the ground. I was sure that death would be near, but before my lungs even began to burn the water slowed immensely and then stopped. I looked around in amazement, watching strange little creatures scurrying across the draining ground, fish flopping around as they suddenly found themselves in a new land and unjustly murdered. I named the little silver fish Mora, and the large brown one was Guy. A tall white man had stuck a metal pipe into the gears to stop the water; he and Lerato were staring at me in shock.
I stood, smiling at them and picking up one of the tiny bug like creatures. They had pinchers almost as big as their shell like body, and spindly legs that desperately tried to get away from me. They were a bit like the crawfish I used to find in the river, but rounder and faster. Its little black eyes were on top of long thin sticks in the middle of its head, staring at me angrily.
“Water bugs?” I said, and the man ripped it out of my hands.
“Go confess immediately. I'm not getting punished because you've lost it boy,” he growled. Soldiers had already come to investigate, and after my confession I followed them above ground. However, on my way out I pocketed a small pink star that was stuck on a gear. I named the little thing Avery. Lerato didn’t seem to know what to make of my sudden outburst, and he was assigned to clean up the mess. It was probably better work for him than hauling sludge, but he was still distressed. He knew what waited for me above ground.
Most of my physical scars are the result of this ridiculous suicide attempt, deep lashes across my back and shoulders. Afterward two soldiers put me in a small jail cell, where I was to stay for several days.
When they first put me in the small cell I remember just standing there, still in shock and perhaps full of adrenaline from the pain in my back. I looked at the figures slumped in the other cages around me; vaguely feeling the blood trickling down into my pants. The lumps in the cages barely looked human, just brown shapes and shadows and strong smells.
The next thing I remember I was opening my eyes and looking beyond the dirt floor and at a plate of food crawling with ants. It was too hard to sit up, and I pulled the plate to me, ravenously eating the brown mush, living ants and all. I used to think that the school I lived in was harsh and often cried myself to sleep thinking about the bruises bullies had left on me. It almost seemed laughable now; what was I thinking, walking over that bridge?
I tried to touch my back but was too stiff. It seemed like there were only a few deep lashes, but the pain was very intense and they were definitely deep enough to bleed down my back. Fearing infection, I did not try to touch them again.
The wounds seemed to close surprisingly well on their own as I lay in the cage for many days, but the moment I was sent back to work they reopened in places. I did not get a second chance to heal, and had to work through the pain lest they strike me on the back and make things worse. Lerato helped me keep the open areas as clean as possible, and it seemed to take forever for them to mostly close again. He was an invaluable pillar of hope for me. However, when sickness came around our bunk house, Lerato was just as human as any other, and he caught pneumonia.
With my back not completely healed, we moved our cart so slowly that a long line of others started regularly forming behind us. This of course caught attention, and to my horror the soldiers took Lerato off the line and replaced him with someone I did not know. I wanted to follow him, find out what they were going to do with him, but my new partner, an empty eyed boy even younger than myself, was already hopelessly trying to pull the cart. My heart twisted as I looked at him, his skinny dark arms unable to move the cart even an inch. I put the rope over my shoulder, looked in the direction they’d taken Lerato one more time, and then pulled the cart with more power than I ever thought myself capable of. I could feel my wounds bursting open, but when I looked at the surprised, tearful eyes of the little boy next to me, I couldn’t really think about the pain any longer.
“What’s your name?” I asked him as we started moving. He didn’t say anything. “Do you want to hear a story?” I groaned as we pulled. I started telling him stories about the Buddha, and I even got a smile out of him when I accidentally told a story about living in the Middle. He probably thought that I was insane, and he wouldn’t have been far off. It was the worst time of my life, and I worked on and on, sure that the only connection I had to normalcy was gone forever.
A few days later, the boy also passed out during work, and Lerato was back in the bunk house when the group returned. I never saw the boy again. Lerato seemed only half healed, and no one would go near him, aside from myself.
“Where did they take you?”
“A bunkhouse with a bunch of other sick people. I, I thought for sure I was going to die in there. Some of them… I think already were. It was horrible; like a pile of corpses.” That’s all he would tell me about what happened, and I didn’t ask him again.
“Come on. Lay down while you still have the chance."
“How’s you back?” he asked and sat in the lower hammock.
“Eh, has been better. Check it out for me will you?” I slowly, painfully, pulled my shirt off, a bit of the fabric sticking to the wounds, then sat on the floor in front of him.
“Holy hell,” he gasped and went into a fit of coughing. “They’re pretty beat up.” He took the cloth we’d been using to clean them and dampened it a little with my water. I generally didn’t mind if a bit of my blood was in the water, or giving up a few sips to possibly save my life.
“Are they infected?” I grunted as he wiped them down.
“A little bit,” he said softly. “I think you’ll be okay through. Maybe you should sleep on your stomach tonight if you can.”
“That’s a good idea.” I sighed as he fanned them dry with his hands.
It was when we were doing this that a white man walked very close to us and muttered, not very quietly, “Faggots.” Another black man in the bunk next to us heard him and got up quickly.
“What did you just say?” he challenged the white man. Lerato and I just stared in shock, both too sick to do anything, and generally not mortally offended by the word. It certainly wasn’t the first time someone had called me a faggot, and Lerato didn’t seem like the type to care about a person’s childish teasing. This quarrel really had nothing to do with us, or sexuality. Like everything for these men from Laseine, this was about race.
“What’s it to you?” the white man shot back, hands on his hips and feet wide apart. Before we could move they were brawling, all of our hammocks ripped to the floor, my back burning as we pressed ourselves against the wall, trying not to get in the middle. I remember feeling strangely apart from myself at that moment, my head turned to the side, and looking out the window at the dark blue sky rushing beyond. I took in a deep breath, down into my belly, trying to fill my aching body with cool, clean air. But there was dust everywhere, and a vague, metallic smell coming from my back, my own sweat, Lerato’s sweat as he was pushed on top of me. He was coughing terribly, and I almost wanted to pat his back like his mother might have done when he was a baby. But he was no child, and when his coughing ceased he violently got to his feet and swung himself into the battle.
Lerato was a surprisingly good fighter, and I wondered why he had learned to fight that way if he was only a metal smith. What did he used to do, that Simon worried when I’d been exploring his tent? And he had worked with Simon but doing what exactly? I managed to stay out of the brawl for the most part, but the wounds in my back had reopened completely and there was fresh blood all over the wall behind me, mixed with the stains of the other cowards who had been pressed there before me. And I was still looking out the window desperately, wishing I could sprout wings and just fly out of there, riding away home on the clouds.
There had been some kind of accident in the mines, so instead they had us in a clearing, sorting through big wooden crates of salt and debris. It was an excessively hot day for the season, and the gold colored dust was blowing all over, caking onto our sweat drenched bodies. I remember being half naked and working away, talking to Lerato a bit, when something sharp cut my hand. I instantly put the small wound in my mouth and looked down at the pile. It was a piece of orange tinted ceramic perhaps the size of two of my hands, and when I looked at it closer I could vaguely make out the shape of a fish on it.
“What’s wrong, Avery?” Lerato asked and looked at my pile.
“I cut myself.”
“What is that?”
“I don’t know.” I wiped off the piece without lifting it so no one else could see. “But these things, these strange looking fish with the ridges under their belly… Simon.”
Lerato looked at the ceramic, then at me, then around us, then to me. “Put it under your shirt. No one’s looking.” I did as I was told, and we continued working, almost more diligently than we had before the discovery. “What do you think something like that is doing in the salt?” he whispered.
“Forgotten down there? Maybe it’s very old?”
“Avery, have you ever wondered, how old is this world exactly?”
“How long is an eon?”
“I haven’t the slightest idea.” I laughed a little and so did he.
I was actually in a very good mood, enjoying thinking about the mystery and magic of the object we’d just discovered.
It reminded me of the feeling I had the first day I got my job at archives. A lawyer was the one taking me to my new home, and he decided we should stop at the archives before we got to my apartment. My sister had hired him, and he was actually nicer to me than any adult I could remember, perhaps because it was not his responsibility to make me a man. All he had to do was take me on the train to a new sector, but I remember he was smiling kindly as he watched me run my fingers over the spines of the thick, dust covered books. The building was bigger than anything in my sector, with large white columns on the outside, and dark and quiet and still like nothing I’d ever experienced. The first book I pulled out of the shelf was about ancient birds, and the bright photographs of long lost species made me take in a sharp, shaking breath of surprise. I looked at the man and he had his white eyebrows raised a little in pity as I slid the book back on the shelf.
A man’s voice was suddenly very close to me, spit filled mouth growling, “What do you have under your shirt, boy?” I ignored the voice, and a pink hand reached over and wrapped around my forearm. I looked over at him slowly; it was another prisoner. He had very blue eyes and even his tiny eyelashes were a frighteningly white blonde. His beard was darker, a filthy yellow color, and his cracked, thin red lips were smiling just a little. Lerato had thrown away his work the moment the man touched me, posturing himself for a fight.
“I don’t have anything, old man,” I laughed a little and pulled my arm away violently. It was a strange feeling, to actually be able to get my arm away from someone who is bullying me. But even my body reacted to my constant labors, my slow metabolism actually a blessing made for these times of starvation, and I was perfectly fit to fight this man completely on my own.
“Oh, what’s this then?” he mocked the way I say my vowels and tried to touch my stomach where the ceramic was lying. But before he could get to it I pushed his hand and then his shoulder, making his whole body fall away from me and land in the dirt, spirals of gold lifting up around him as he coughed. He didn’t seem to have had any kind of combat training, and he’d been quite surprised that I’d been able to push him away so easily. It undoubtedly wounded his pride to have a short, nineteen year old boy best him in a matter of seconds, so he played it off as if he hadn’t been serious, noting to his white friends how violent blacks were, no matter how pale they might come.
“Come say that a little closer! And find out exactly how true it might be.” Lerato growled back, but we all just went back to work for awhile. I began daydreaming about the large fish, and Simon, for some reason that day particularly remembering the feeling of his chest and stomach. I thought about falling to my knees and wrapping my arms around him obsessively as I kissed and scraped my teeth across his scarred, heaving, beautiful flesh. Perhaps it was the soft feeling of the ceramic plate pressing against my own stomach, the weight of it reminding me of lying beneath Simon, of reaching up and touching his soft red hair.
“Avery!” I heard Lerato yell and pull me to the side. There was some laughter and pale men walking by, quickly hiding their hands in their pockets again. “What the hell Avery? What are you daydreaming about?”
“God, the same thing I’m always dreaming about,” I sighed and pressed my hand to my belly.
“Well stop it. You have all night to dream. Besides, something weird is going on over that way. See all that smoke? A bunch of soldiers went running that way too.” Almost everyone had stopped working and was looking in the direction of a high tower of dark gray smoke. I thought the gray was actually kind of beautiful against the bright blue of the hot autumn sky, like the clouds of winter were rushing from the ground. They say most people don’t survive two winters; we’d already been there for one and another was approaching quickly. A loud sound of multiple voices began rising, coming closer and closer to us exactly like an approaching storm.
“Avery!” Lerato grabbed my arm and pulled me closer to him as he rasped quietly, “I think this is going to be our chance!”
“What? What are you talking about?”
“It’s a riot,” he said loudly and then the others started saying the same thing. The guards almost seemed to shift nervously, and then as if in response to this marginal show of weakness, complete chaos ensued, all of us suddenly running toward the wall of smoke and screams. I had no idea where we were going, but Lerato insisted that it didn’t matter so long as it was north west. I don’t know how he knew so easily which way was north west, but I'd already learned that Lerato was not a man to question, and he could definitely be trusted with a directional decision.
We ran for a long time, even stopping amongst the mob for a quick rest or to join the others raiding the water storage. But we didn’t stay long, and Lerato just grabbed two jugs and kept running toward the sun.
We weren’t the only prisoners running away, and there were soldiers cutting through the mob, but not everyone could be stopped. When Lerato and I found ourselves running into the path of a soldier he stopped suddenly, waiting for it to approach us. It tried to kill him first and he ducked out of the way, giving me enough time to grab the soldier’s sword arm. It was far too strong for me to wrestle away the sword, but Lerato suddenly came from behind it, digging his hands into the surprisingly soft layer that hid its eyes from our view. His fingers just sort of melted into its face like it was made of soft wax, and the soldier flinched so humanly I almost wanted to throw up. And as its hand loosened on the sword, I thought for a moment, just barely, I could hear a small voice inside of it crying out in pain. Lerato didn’t wait for me to get over my shock and took the sword, stabbing it in the chest, the sound ceasing immediately. He pulled me to my feet, and I looked at him, not knowing what to say.
“They want to die Avery,” was all he said before we were running again.
I didn’t understand what he meant, but it reminded me of when Simon had killed that soldier on the first day we’d met. I was so sure that he’d looked at me with tears in his eye. But soldiers weren’t really human. They couldn’t be; I'd killed so many of them. And now armed with a sword, Lerato was ripping through them violently; he also fought so much like Simon, and Cheri. But he was from Laseine; they don’t use swords there; that’s why he had to come to our village to sell them. Soldiers don't attack cities.
There were a lot of others running in the same direction as ourselves, but when I dropped the piece of ceramic I stopped to go back and look for it. Lerato yelled at me, but I ignored him like a fool, searching on the ground, seeing it for a moment, and then watching as it was crushed to pieces under a barrage of desperate feet. I was about to start running again when I saw the blonde man from earlier approaching me with a long, sharp piece of wood. Lerato was too far ahead in the stampede of people to come back for me, and all I could do in time was put my arm in front of myself to block to blow. It sliced into me, but thankfully the wood shattered and he couldn’t strike me with it twice. Instead he roared and tackled me to the ground, the others flying past as if we weren’t there, stepping on our limbs as we struggled.
I couldn’t understand why he would rather fight me than fight for his freedom, and as I realized that he was also ruining my own chances for escape, I filled with an intense hatred and panic, a rage that extended to every man, everything capable of his selfish, disgusting pride and ignorance. What possesses him to desire my pain? What have I ever done to any of them? And I wanted more than anything to just extinguish them all; this man trying to hold me on the ground, the ones running around us and stepping on our legs and hands, the bullies from my childhood, my teachers, the man meant to be my father, my mother, my real father. And this rage built itself up in my arms like ammunition, and I suddenly pushed the man off of me, punching and punching and ripping at him more violently than anything I’d ever done. I clenched my teeth so hard I was sure they would crack and crumble to pieces, but they endured, even endured the hit to my face when he finally managed to land one. He was pushing against me, after awhile not even fighting back, just trying to shelter his face with his arms.
“Avery!” I could hear Simon screaming at me, but it was Lerato’s hand that kept my fist from landing into the man’s already bloody face. “Enough!” he yelled and pulled me to my feet again. I looked down at the shaking, bloody face of the man I’d been beating, and his blue eyes stared at me with horror so intense that even now it terrifies me to know that it was real. “Let’s go.” Lerato started pulling me along with the crowd. The others kept walking on top of the wounded man, and I could still hear him crying out as we left him there to die. I remember I had wanted my heart to thunder triumphantly in my chest, but it only fluttered weakly like a tiny bird’s, and I felt like I was going to faint.
At first everything was gold and brown and blue, and the sky had never felt heavier than in that intense emptiness. It wasn’t a smooth desert like I’d seen in books, but filled with jutting, towering rocks and small lizards and tough, brown plants. When the sun fell below the rocks everything was black and white and blue, lit up only by a half moon.
The first two days of travel were nothing but desert. I had no idea how we were going to make it through the whole thing, and we were not traveling in the same direction as most of the escapees. Lerato had us going north, and no one dared follow us that way, as according to any map in the Outer Rim there was nothing but more desert. Lerato had given one of our jugs of water to a group of men that had none, so we were already extremely low on water and far, far north of where the others had gone.
“Where are we going,” I finally asked him at the beginning of the second day.
“It's nearly impossible to make it out of here just by going south. They'll either hit an old stretch of wall or burn up in the desert."
“But isn’t Laseine in the south?”
“It's too far. We’re going to an underground passage. You’ll see when we get there.”
“What? What do you mean? How do you know about that?”
He was silent for a little while and then replied quietly,“Simon showed it to me.”
“Was it a military thing for the village?”
“No. It’s for smuggling. You really never figured out that Simon is a smuggler?”
“No I thought he worked for the village, in the army.”
“Yeah, as a smuggler,” Lerato laughed just a little. “Let’s stop talking for now. It wastes water. Breathe through your nose.” It was almost the end of the day when he finally stopped. I thought for a moment he was just taking a break and kept walking. “We’re here,” he said lethargically. “ It’s here. We have to start digging. It’s deep.”
“What? How do you know? This looks exactly like the rest of the whole damn desert.” I was so tired and hungry and thirsty that digging almost seemed like an abomination.
“It’s something you learn not to forget when you’re a smuggler.” He laughed and started digging in the sand. I debated for a moment whether or not I’d followed a madman to my death, but I just sighed and started digging into the softish sand. It became tougher as we dug deeper, and it was a good thing we had extremely callused hands because we had to dig through a thick layer of rock and mud. We slept for two short shifts, and it wasn’t until long after morning that I pressed my hand onto smooth, thick metal.
“That’s it! Thank god!” Lerato laughed and quickly started uncovering it. “I thought for a minute you were right, and I’d forgotten where it was. Come on, get up; you’re sitting on it.” I did as he said and just watched as he uncovered a fairly large door in the ground. “Hopefully I remember the passcode.” He nervously wiped off the flat metal plate, and I just stared in amazement as he pressed in small electronic buttons. “Shit, that’s not the right one.” He tried again and failed. Then he took a small break and just stared at me with wild eyes. “After three failed attempts it locks you out forever, so…”
“So if you fail this next time, we die?” I asked, completely monotone.
“All right then. Lucky guessing to you.”
“Simon set the code. Let’s see. At that time, all right. Here I go, pray to any God you might believe in.” He typed in a code one more time and a loud, creaking sound followed it. He was perfectly still, and I was sure that he’d just sent us to our deaths. But then he looked up to the sky with his hands held out high and laughed from deep inside his chest. “Thank You!” he yelled. “You crazy fucking drunk!" I had no idea who he was talking to, but then he gleefully swung open the door and said, “It was the coordinates for Laseine, well to be exact a bar in Laseine.”
We both peered inside the hole. “Come on, we’re not clear yet.” He felt around for a ladder, and then went down feet first. It made me nervous climbing into that blackness, but I heard him jump down from the ladder and land quite far at the bottom. I braced myself and also jumped, but it was further down than I expected and my fear made me fall on my side.
“Are you alright?” Lerato asked.
“Yes,” I groaned and pushed myself up, my hands and face completely covered in sand, and a sharp rock lodging itself into the heel of my hand. I pulled it out and flung it to the side, brushing myself off.
“Ah, found one,” Lerato burst and a few seconds later a small flame lit up around him. It was from an old, dust covered oil lamp, and he held it above his head so we could see what was around us. The first thing he did was walk to the far left corner and point to a wall of water jugs with a huge smile on his face. Then he turned to the other side and showed me some metal boxes stacked there. “Hold this.” He said and gave me the lamp. I held it for him as he pulled down a box, opening the lid to show me bars and bars of food packs.
“See, it’s worth an extra day’s journey, no?”
“Lerato… shouldn’t we have brought the others this way too?”
“I couldn’t. I’m sworn to secrecy about these places. On my life, and trust me if Simon is alive he would find me and kill me for telling them. They would lead the soldiers here, and then they would find all of us.”
“But you showed me.”
“I doubt he’ll be mad that I brought you here to save your life.” He laughed and tossed me a bar of food. “Do you have any idea how much that fool was in love with you?”
I didn’t say anything and just started to eat. It was probably the most delicious thing I’d ever eaten in my life, and even Lerato moaned a little as the prepackaged protein crunched between our teeth.
“I used to despise these damn things,” he laughed again, almost like he was going to cry.
“They’re fucking delicious,” I laughed too and took another one. He took a jug of water down from the wall and ripped off the top, practically dumping it on his face as he drank it. I did the same, washing down the bits of food like I was a king drenching his meat with wine.
“We’re just going to have to make a rock slide to fall on top of it. Should take until nightfall. Just imagine; we are only days away from home.”
There was a horrible stabbing feeling in my chest, as I realized not for the first time that Lerato was headed for home, and that I had no idea where I was going. He must have known what I was thinking because he said, “If she managed to keep the place, Nomakhaya and I have a small room you can stay in, until Simon comes to get you.”
“Thanks I, I owe you a lot you know.”
He laughed jovially again. “Hey, I consider it taking out of the debt I owe Simon. I mean literally a financial debt. Saving your life has to be worth at least what, ten thousand?”
“You’re so rude, I was trying to be serious,” I laughed and splashed him with water.
“And I’m planning on using you as a baby sitter because, well, I’m telling you the first thing I’m going to do when I get back is make love to my wife. For about three days straight.”
“I’m not very good with children,” I lied, and he just laughed at me. We spent the rest of the day building a trap of sand and stones held up with a tarp and rope. When we pulled away the rope we shut the door quickly and the debris pounded down on top of the hole. It was actually a very frightening feeling, and I hoped desperately that the passage was complete all the way to the end.
After that we rested for a bit, cleaned and bandaged our wounds, and explored the main cavern. The best find was an old motorbike that Lerato managed to wire to a start, and a cart that we connected to the back of it.
“We’ll run out of gas for it,” I said.
“Not for a long time on this bike,” he laughed. “It’s not exactly bottom of the line.”
“It looks normal.”
“Of course, otherwise you wouldn’t be able to drive it anywhere above ground. Do you know how to drive?” I shook my head bashfully, and he made me sit on the back behind him. We had filled the cart full of water and food and connected it to the bike already, and Lerato was about to take off before he seemed to remember something and stopped.
“It’s going to be cold by the time we get to Laseine,” he said. We were both only in a pair of shabby patchwork pants. “There might be some clothes.” He managed to find a few articles of clothing in the piles, some pants that were huge on me and jackets, but no shirts or shoes.
It took over a week until we reached the end of the passage, and we had to walk the last two days because the bike had died.
The end of the passage looked so much like the beginning that I almost wondered if we’d gone in a circle. The ladder was too high to reach; but we made a rather unstable mountain of containers and managed to grab on to it. The same pass code worked to get out of the hole, and I can still clearly remember the feeling of cool wind blowing through my hair as we cracked open the earth. It seemed to be raining just a little, speckles of cold water covering my face as I looked up at a black sky.
“Why isn’t this half buried?” I asked as we climbed to the dark.
“Incase the others don’t make it back to unbury you. One side remains escapable from the bottom so you can’t get buried alive. Plus allows some air in. No one would find it here anyway.”
“Where are we?” Lerato was already out, and I was quickly following. The night sky I thought I’d seen was actually the top of a cave, and bright cream colored sunlight was shining at a far away opening. “I thought it was night.”
“Time gets strange without the sun,” Lerato laughed. “Come on, not much longer now.” He was growing extraordinarily excited, and while I was glad to be free, it hurt immensely to think about the difference in our situation.
Once we made our way out of the cave, we stood at the entrance, gasping at the beautiful, and yet hideous view of Laseine. It was below us, perhaps a day’s journey, with huge buildings and factories that kept billowing smoke and steam even in the fading sunlight. The massive river was to the right of us, and beyond I could see some large green fields and hills that must have been farms because there was very little built on it. I could also see small patches of green in the city, unlike the monstrosity of Bei, and Lerato later explained to me that a lot of people in Laseine had gardens on top of their roofs.
The journey down the mountain took more than a day, and then almost another was spent trying to get across the city. The first normal person we saw startled both of us; but he paid no mind, which was perhaps the source of our fear. To him, I suppose, we were just common beggars. I got many more stares than Lerato, which, as I was soon to understand, was only because my race is not easily definable. Like beggars we had no money, and I remember the most torturous thing in the world was the smell of the delicious, real, human food.
Lerato finally said we were close to where he lived, and then he suddenly stopped dead in his tracks, listening closely.
“What is it?” I asked, and he hushed me. I tried to hear what he could be listening for, but all I could make out were the people around us and perhaps one woman’s voice yelling above the others. She seemed to be arguing with someone. Lerato smiled and grabbed my arm, pulling me along quickly, rudely pushing through the others. And then he stopped again, in a bit more clear of a space in front of some closely nestled apartments.
There was a very dark woman with her hair wrapped up standing outside of the building at a stall, yelling and arguing with a man. But then she stopped suddenly and pushed the man away, staring right at us. No sound came out of her again as she ran straight for Lerato, and he opened his arms for her. She grabbed onto him with so much force that her feet completely left the ground, her arms wrapped around his neck as she squeezed him. Then she started kissing his face madly, tears pouring out of her as he laughed and laughed and laughed. It was an extraordinarily intimate and beautiful thing to watch, and I almost didn’t notice the tiny girl following after the woman. The girl just stared at all of us, until the woman finally let go of Lerato, and took the tiny girls hand. She was only about two years old.
“Ana, this is daddy. Do you remember?” the woman wiped her tears away, and Lerato got down on his knees for the little girl to see him.
“Daddy?” she asked and approached him tentatively. She touched his beard, and Lerato wiggled his chin, making her smile. Then he hugged her to him, kissing her on the cheek.
“The other baby?” he asked, touching his daughter’s hair and face.
“With my mother,” the woman said, and Lerato stood.
“A boy or a girl?”
“A girl or course,” she laughed and kissed him again.
“Good. What’s her name?”
“That’s a good name.” Lerato took a step away from her and put his hand on my shoulder, almost making me jump as I realized that I was still a part of the world. “This is Avery, a very good friend to me. Avery, this is my wife, Nomakhaya.”
“Nice to meet you,” I said with a slight nod, possibly even blushing a bit. She really was a very beautiful woman, and so confident that I immediately feared any kind of rejection she had in store for me would be final.
“How old are you?” she said, large dark eyes glistening with moisture.
“I’m nineteen,” I answered and they opened wider.
“You were in the camp then?” she said and touched my jacket, pulling it closed a bit. It was such a motherly thing to do that it almost made me cry. “Are you from that village then?”
“No, not really,” I said, and she looked confused.
“He lived with Simon,” Lerato told her quietly.
“Simon? As in Simon, Simon,” she asked.
“Yes, that Simon.”
“Oh, really,” she looked at me again curiously. “Where are you from then?” I was about to answer, but instead Lerato pulled her closer and whispered it in her ear. “Oh, really.” Her eyes were the widest yet. “Let’s get you boys something to eat. Ana, come on. Follow.” Lerato picked up the little girl, and we all started walking into the streets again. I saw the man that had been arguing with Nomakhaya, but just a glance from Lerato sent him sulking away.
We went to a dark little restaurant, and after a bit of arguing about our appearance and my pale skin, we got seated in a corner booth. It felt a bit weird at first to sit at a table for food, and I even forgot for a moment how to use the sticks to eat. Ana actually noticed my trouble and took my sticks and fixed them for me.
“Mommy says like this,” she said simply, and I smiled at her.
“Thank you, Ana,” I practically gasped.
“Ya talk funny, ya know.” She spoke amazingly well for her age, which startled me at first. Nomakhaya and Lerato were talking to each other closely, and he was telling her about how much he missed them, how horrible it was there, and how we’d escaped. I said very little, but Ana seemed to enjoy talking to me and kept showing me the proper way to eat every item we were served. Then, she suddenly got very close to me, huge dark eyes blinking at me with odd shyness as her entire tiny body pressed against the length of my arm. Bodily contact with such a soft, innocent being was enough to make me take in a quick gasp of surprise. Then she laughed and said, “Ya eyes are pretty, ya know." I just blinked them at her, and she squealed with delight.
“Stop crowding him, you little flirt,” Nomakhaya laughed, and Lerato moved her away from me.
“I’m nooot,” she whined, and Lerato just kissed and tickled her until she was in a good mood again.
After eating we went back to the flat they lived in, and Lerato picked some clothes for us. There were showers in the building, and the feeling of the clean water running over my skin was almost better than orgasm. We both shaved, and then put on Lerato’s clothes; they were a bit big on me, but really not too bad. I felt like I was wearing silk from head to toe.
When we came back to the flat, Nomakhaya clapped her hands with happiness and kissed Lerato again and again, touching his smooth, clean face. Then she looked at me, taking my chin in her hand and making me look at her face. We were about the same height, but I still felt like I was looking up at her. “Ah now, you look like you’re nineteen years old.” She put her hand on my head, and I looked down at the wooden floor. “Are you tired? I’ve made up a bed for you. It’s not a real bed yet but probably better than netting.”
“I, I’d like to go for a walk.”
“I’ll go with you,” Lerato said immediately, and put Ana in Nomakhaya’s arms.
“It’s all right. I want to go by myself.”
“Avery, are you all right?”
“Oh, I’m definitely fine. I just, just for a few minutes.” I really just wanted to cry, but I didn’t want to do it in front of them.
“I don’t want you to get lost.”
“I won’t go far. I promise. Don’t worry, stay here, I’ll be right back.” I was pressed up against the door, fiddling with the locks to get it open.
“No, not alone.”
“I want to be alone. Just for a few minutes.” I could feel the tears already starting by the time I got the door open. The last thing I saw was Lerato taking another step towards me, but Nomakhaya had a hand on his arm, holding him back.
I was thankful that she’d grabbed him, as the tears in my eyes blinded me before I could even make my way out of their building. I ran out into the street, moving along with the constantly flowing mob of people outside, but then I realized I was going too far and broke free, entering a narrow, empty ally and curling into myself.
There was a shining piece of metal on the building in front of me, and when I finally looked up I could see myself in it surprisingly clearly. But it wasn’t the self I remembered; I was looking at some strange, grown man crying like a child alone in a public street. God if Simon saw me now, would he even recognize me? I sniffled and wiped away the snot on my face with the back of my hand. Then I stood up on shaking legs, and slowly made my way back to Lerato’s flat, heart beating so weakly and slowly I was sure I was about to be smothered into death.