There are faces in the clouds. Grimacing mouths and wide eyes winking as they cross the sky. I have been watching for days, here on this rock with the box tucked beneath my legs.
Yaka awa, the clouds call, come here.
I can hear it in my heart, the liquid flow of Lingala, that old, dead language, bubbling up from the molten lava as it flows towards the lake. Like the lava, I want to flow over the land, effortless and elegant, across the sharp black rocks and up the side of that mountain without breaking sweat. Yet I know this is a dream. For as long as I am made of flesh and blood, and not of fire, the journey will exhaust me.
My body is covered in Maoplasty. There was a time, in the beginning, when they only provided boots. Then one day a white woman fell. She put out her arm to cushion the fall, and she never used that arm again. After that, we were all issued with body suits of seal grey, sticking like a second skin. They are beautiful in their way, brightly webbed patterns of turquoise and gold, glaring red at the hottest point. It’s hard to tell the heat of the land. Sometimes the charred earth looks cool when in fact it is less forgiving than lífelo. Our suits tell us when it is time to find another path.
I stroke the top of the Arcticase, feeling the smooth blue cover beneath my fingers. How absurd it seems to be carrying ice across fire like this. So disrespectful to deny nature her natural course, in order to restore her natural course.
Some days I wonder, as I look at Nyiragongo in the distance, whether we are best to forget. Then I remind myself that is what the religious people once thought, and their complacency destroyed half the planet.
Today feels like the day. I eat my breakfast: airtight dried fish and a sachet of rice which crunches as though raw. Then I relieve myself on the rocks. As I squat, my urine forms a pool, tipping over the edge and down towards the shrubs below. Before it reaches them, it hits a vein of heat and evaporates. My stream of water becomes a stream of steam.
Hoisting my bag onto my shoulder, I pick up the box and find its balance point. It hovers three and a half feet off the ground as I walk, my hand resting on top. With every step I take, I glance down at my feet to see the colour of my skin. Grey for ten steps, a flash of turquoise, then gold. Grey again, and then red. I step to the side and proceed.
It was so cold in the meeting that my skin rose like plucked feathers.
“Your great-grandmother, eh?” Colonal Batabe asked, standing in the centre of the room with his feet wide apart.
“Yes, sir. She was of the Hemba people.”
Batabe nodded as though he knew exactly where that was.
He did not.
When there had been borders, his own people had come from Botswana. It had been one of the last countries to relinquish its territory to the Free Movement of People Act of 2083. Botswana had been fiercely independent, guarding entry with an enthusiasm teetering on rude. Its last president, Seretse Makwala, had made a moving speech:
“Outsiders caused the heartache in Africa. Westerners came and they took what they wanted. They left us with nothing. For over two hundred years we have run their race, handicapped as a one-eyed horse. We raced as hard as we could to catch up. Now, just as we stand on the brink of equality for the descendants of Africa, they come and they take Africa away.”
His words rang loudly in the ears of every generation past, but he was overruled by the youth. The world had become one so quickly. In almost a hundred years, since the dawn of the internet and Berners-Lee’s valiant refusal to capitalise on his invention, people from every corner of the globe began to unite. In between a shared love of cuddly kittens and cult TV memes, humans started to meet with their own humanity. Rights atrocities that would once have gone unreported, now plastered the walls of social media. The European Union’s Maastricht Treaty of 1992 was followed by the African Passport, unveiled in 2016, allowing freedom of movement for citizens within those zones. It would be almost another seven decades before the Wall of Nations, as it had been dubbed, finally crumbled.
“You must be excited to return to the land of your ancestors,” Batabe said, a statement not a question.
“I know nothing of it,” I replied.
I was born believing the entire world to be my inheritance. Every river, mountain and canyon was my home. No one had the right to stop me from wandering at will, and none would ever try, for they were born as free as me. Yet, I had lied a tiny bit. My mother had no photographs or jewellery from her grandmother. Even in those days of the first digital cameras and infant iPhones, our kind were too poor to afford such technology, and too unobtrusive for Westerners to find us worthy of study.
Instead, my mother had three masks which hung on my wall as a child. Two looked as though they were smiling, but the middle one was thick-lipped and toothy. It scared me.
“These come from the region of your long-past,” she had told me. “From what was once the DRC, in the far south-east where it bordered Zambia. These belong to you now. Like our forefathers’ forefathers, we hold no sway with boundaries on a map, but we do hold sway with history. Their blood is our blood, it ties our stories together through one open mouth. The song of our lives rises with a single voice, which you were born to hear.”
I had always tried to sing my own song as clear and sweet as I could, but deep inside I felt as though I missed a drumbeat. Perhaps I might find it in the land of lakes and volcanos.
“It has been eight years since Kivu turned over, following the eruption,” Batabe said. “We concluded our preliminary expedition in May.”
“What were the findings?”
“In short? That it is a mess. Nobody expected the lake to explode. Rwanda in particular took huge steps to extract the methane, running two-thirds of their country’s electricity from it by the time of the disaster. Sadly, Rwanda is a small country, and Kivu is a very large lake. The DRC was neck-deep in conflicts of its own at the time. They had neither the stability nor the investment in infrastructure which would have allowed them to join in the venture. Boom went the lake.”
The volcanic eruption of Nyiragongo had triggered a limnic eruption of Lake Kivu. Almost three and a half million people died in their sleep as a thick blanket of white gas crept up the shoreline and out across the land, hugging the throats of those sleeping on ground mats and low-resting beds.
The levels of gas in the lake had been monitored carefully, yet the ancient volcanic crater belched so swiftly that the warning had not come soon enough. Before an exploration could be mounted, years had to pass. Firstly, the lethal levels of CO2 had to dissipate. Secondly, the insects needed time to repopulate.
When the lake turned over, it not only killed people but all living beings: mammals, birds, fish, lizards, insects alike. Without its fragile ecosystem of ants and grubs, the bodies remained, rotting in the midday sun.
The dead needed to decay before the living could look upon them.
As I walk, I start to see bones.
People lie exactly as they fell. Larvae has stripped some of their flesh, the rest have dried like paper, as though someone has pulled a crumpled cloak over them. No large animals have returned to the region. No wild dogs or big cats to chew over the corpses and move them from their resting places.
I stop when I hear a crunch. My foot has fractured a skull so thickly coated in dust that it is indistinguishable from its surroundings. I swallow my revulsion. I must. There will be many, many more crunches before I reach the shore.
I start to sing to myself as I walk: Shake it, shake it up now. Shake it, shake it up. It’s the latest smash hit by Kofi, but in this desolate place it feels almost like a taunt.
In silence, I continue.
Alpha Team flew me into Gisenyi International Airport six days ago. After the eruption, it was the only airstrip within a hundred miles that was still serviceable. Then it was a four mile walk across to Goma, at the northern tip of Lake Kivu.
The problem from there was the giant fissures and veins of liquid rock which had hardened to callouses. It took me longer to walk across Goma than it had to walk to Goma. The Arcticase doesn’t hover well over inclines, so I had to strap it to my back, its weight dragging me down.
My family live in a cool zone, in sector two-five-two-one. Before 2083 it had been a village in Canada, close to the American border. My parents were both scholars who had met in Ottawa, and the night we moved to the sectoral system they held a farewell dinner for the country that had taught them science and how to love.
It has taken me the past six days to acclimatise. My skin is black, but the sun burns. I suck constantly from the straw between my teeth, hooked to a Platypus hydration system on my back. So much extra water makes it necessary for me to relieve myself more often, all the while wiping sweat from my eyes with vintage Nike sweatbands, a gift from a friend at the academy.
When I finally crest a mound of black pumice to see water, its brilliance almost blinds me. During my harsh struggle across hot sand and sharp rock, I never considered such beauty might exist. It is not simply the vibrancy of cobalt against coal, but the wonder of what that water represents. Lake Kivu appears as a soothing Band-Aid across scorched earth.
It takes me a long time to remember that this soothing Band-Aid is as much a threat as a blessing. That those inviting waters once seeped such noxious fumes, suffocating infants and adults in their sleep.
An hour later, I am sitting in a patch of long grass by the water’s edge. I take my Scythe from my backbrace and cut a circle so that I can stare ahead. As the stems are severed, a sliver of smoke twists towards the sky and I apologise.
“You are brave plants,” I say, aloud. “The first to grow after so long. Then here I come, cutting you down. I’m sorry, sorry, sorry.”
As the sun sets, it dresses the surface of the lake in crimson and gold. A gentle breeze blows shifting shapes across it, a million tiny ripples chasing from one clump of reeds to the next.
I cannot resist.
Touching the button at the back of my neck, I shed Maoplasty like snakeskin.
There is no finer feeling in the world than to stand naked in the face of nature. To feel the last of the evening light warm your womb, the breeze brush against your breast like a sensuous lover.
I take a deep breath and put my toe in the water. It feels cool. Cautiously, I allow my foot to sink in the silt.
Water winds through me, between my thighs and over my face. Turning onto my back, I float for a while, looking up at approaching Night. Although I know those waters to be safe, I cannot help glancing about for slippery wet knots of muscle – nyóka, the serpent.
The silence of the lake disturbs me. At this time there should be a thousand cicadas chorusing, singing to the Ibis and the piebald Kingfishers as they fly home to roost. It saddens me greatly to think that I am perhaps the only creature breathing in this barren, beautiful land.
“It’s not that I don’t want children,” I lied. “I told you, I’m perfectly happy for you to take a sample down to the gesterium.”
“Lisanga.” Owen pronounced my name with a sigh. “You know how I feel about that. I know we’re a modern family, but some things it’s good to keep traditional.”
I couldn’t take that conversation one more time, so I pretended to pack. I studied Women’s History at college, and I knew this struggle to be never-ending. Whether women have the right to vote, to work, to terminate a pregnancy, and today’s topic of choice: to have a child without giving birth. I have loved Owen since first grade, but every time he opens his mouth on this topic, I just want to put my fist through him.
“Look, all I’m saying is think about it whilst you’re away. Then, when you get back, perhaps we could start trying?”
“If you take a sample to the gesterium, we don’t have to try. We’re guaranteed a healthy, bubbly baby.”
“And what are you going to tell our child when it grows up? ‘I’m sorry sweetie, mummy was too busy carrying her project to carry you as well?’”
“Owen, for a modern man, you can be a fucking Neanderthal sometimes. What I am going to give our child is a role model. A mother who travelled the world, helped save that world, and came home to read bedtime stories. I’m going to show them that wonderful things are possible.”
“Our kid is going to be nothing if not independent,” came his retort.
“You say that as though it’s a bad thing?”
We stared at one another, that flash of anger eventually soothed by love.
As my mind clears, I realise that I can hardly see the shore. Nightfall comes on fast near the equator, six o’clock every day of the year without fail.
Arm over arm, I pull myself back to dry land.
I press my ear to the side of the Arcticase. I don’t know why, but I always expect to hear a heartbeat. A hundred thousand heartbeats. I feel more comfortable with my face against this case than I would with Owen’s face against my belly, though we’re listening for the same sound.
“Good night, little ones,” I say, curling up in the tall grass to float upon a darker lake.
The morning light wakes me, devoid of dawn chorus. Bright gold glitters across the surface of Kivu, calling me back for an early dip. The water holds a chill that was not present the night before.
“Forty-two hours,” I say to myself, dragging the Arcticase to the water’s edge.
I pull the lever which releases the C-shaped clamp. This holds the case to the land, to prevent it floating off or sinking to the depths. Once I can feel that it’s secure, I glance at the thermostrip on the side and record the temperature in the mud with my finger.
“Forty-two hours,” I repeat, wondering what I am going to do with that time.
I’ve brought a Folio with me, onto which I’ve transferred the entirety of Paul Akabeya’s Master of Heaven series. I’m halfway through the first book. It’s enthralling, a sweeping drama set against the space race and man’s natural desire to build empires which inevitably must fall.
Yet I have a lifetime to read Akabeya, and only a short time to explore this strange landscape, more remote to humanity than any distant galaxy.
My eyes are drawn to Nyiragongo.
When I was a child, I used to watch adults blowing smoke rings with their aetherisers. I was convinced that they were creating clouds. That the breath leaving their bodies floated up to the sky, and that is why the clouds have faces, reflecting the features of the people who birthed them.
Now, looking at this conical mound with its gaping O, I realise how misguided I was. There is no doubt in my mind that Nyiragongo is a god. Like his sister, Karisimbi, these are the Titans of old. The giants who hold up the sky, feet rooted in the underworld, heads resting in the heavens. These are the true cloud factories, whose breath girdles the globe.
It is well into the afternoon by the time I reach the foot of this stratovolcano. The height of it terrifies me. I can feel its sulphurous breath against my skin like a panting beast. I reach into my backbrace to remove a meal pack, crunching away on rice, washed down with tepid water.
“Do I get to climb you?” I ask. “Am I welcome, or would you rather I went away?”
I place my hand upon the rocks before me. The web of my fingers glow gold for a moment, fluttering to grey. Believing this to be my answer, I climb.
I am barely a thousand feet off the ground when the sun begins to set. I have less than an hour of light left and I need to decide whether to descend or bury myself against Nyiragongo’s breast for the night.
As I am wondering this, I reach a natural ledge. Beneath, petrified larva rolls down the side of the mountain in thick globules, as though the entire volcano were a melting candle. Those globules are the size of heads, one or two screaming as they fall.
This is the edge of the world, I think to myself. This is Earth a million years from now, when humans cease to walk, and Nature reasserts her rights.
With all the trees reduced to saplings, I have a good view of Kivu from here. Once upon a time, this land bathed in blood. Two-legged hooligans haunted the forests, raping and slaughtering, for what?
Whatever the reason, it doesn’t matter now.
Victims and perpetrators alike have been purged from this sector.
I feel a soft purr from the earth, as though Nyiragongo approves of my thoughts.
The moon is full and I wake on the ledge. It takes me a moment to realise what has woken me. The night is no longer silent. Crickets and cicadoidea rub their hind legs up and down the scale. I hear Congo Owl hoot, his heart-shaped face hovering no more than a moment before me, gliding back into darkness to search for prey.
Saplings have grown to Maasai warriors overnight, tall and stately. It seems impossible to hide in the jungle, as though a thousand eyes watch my every move.
Thinking there is someone at my back, I turn.
There, where the sheer rock guarded my blindside, is a cave.
I stand and take a step towards it, before remembering to glance down. My Maoplasty has peeled away, and I find myself naked. There is no way to tell how hot the rock is, and no protective layer between the heat of the earth and my vulnerable flesh. If I am to continue, I continue on trust.
As I cross the threshold, I feel that warmth again, as though I step inside the mouth of a yawning lion.
Yaka awa, the darkness whispers.
Foot before foot, I do as I am bid.
Yaka awa, many voices whisper.
Here in the heart of the volcano, I return to the beginning of my being. A tarn of molten lava casts myself in shadow against the wall. My shadow-self is tall as the trees, my hair tangled in the blackness above.
Women appear from that blackness, climbing down the sides of the cave like spiders. Old women, their breasts drooping beneath thin cloth, their necks and wrists bound in beads. Even straight, they are crooked.
“Mwana mwasi,” they call softly.
Cloistered within these rocks, their voices reverberate until the very air thrums with words. My skin tingles with the weight of what they have to say, as ancient syllables slip from drooling lips, pooling in my mind.
“I do not understand,” I reply, in the language of my world.
“You understand, daughter,” one of the women speaks.
She comes towards me, straighter than the others. White hair piled high above a face of furrowed leather. Her skin is blacker than my own, so dark I can barely see her features in this light.
“My blood is your blood, my voice, your voice. I opened my mouth and I sang you into being. You were born to hear my song, and it will continue, on and on, until there is no one left to hear.”
In that darkness, everything about her seems familiar, from the touch of her calloused hand to the faint scent-stain of smokehouse eucalyptus.
I discover that I cannot remember the name of my great-grandmother.
Searching my mind, I realise that I never knew it.
Sweat-drenched, I open my eyes to a new day.
The trees have shrunk to saplings once again. I can still smell that sweet smoke, as though I have slept the night by a campfire. Collecting my thoughts, I begin my descent. Dreams and delusions, the patterned fabric of this world.
Between the base of the volcano and the ridges of rock which led to the lake, is an open plain. This is truly nobody’s land, where nothing dares grow. Every second step turns red, and I make my way in zigzag fashion, afraid to melt.
Halfway, I feel the ground tremble. It is such a definite sensation, more deliberate than reality gives weight to. As soon as it comes, it is gone.
I take another few steps and the earth judders.
Falling to my knees, my hands glow tamarillo and I roll until they return to ash.
Glancing up at Nyiragongo, I fancy I see a flood of wet rock slide down its gaping jaws, yet when I blink all is solid.
“Oh, hell no.”
My legs sway beneath me as I stand.
Then it happens.
Eight, nine, maybe ten.
Tiny holes appear in the ground, jets of white steam the height of a pawpaw tree.
I begin to run towards the lake, yet each footfall slows the next.
Yaka awa, I hear them hiss. Yaka awa.
“What?” I call back, turning.
More jets plume to either side of me, and in those broiling mists I see faces form. Women, men, children. They look at me and laugh. Some scream. Others twist as though dancing.
“Who are you?”
Though I know who, with every hard thump of my heart.
Those are the people of this land. The souls who sleep forever beneath its mantle. Boundaries which man built, tore down and drew again, mean nothing to the dead.
Only one line defines us.
I do not sleep tonight.
Kneeling beside Kivu’s shore, I stare across the depths of space reflected in her waters. The sky kisses the earth and all the stars birth twins upon her surface.
It has been more than forty-two hours and the thermostrip glows blue, but I do not care. I do not want to open the case at night. Partly, I want to wait for daylight so that I can watch my babies venture into their new world. Watch their ichthyoid features gulp as they inherit an estate spread over a thousand square miles. Though the greater reason is that I do not want them entering that new world in darkness. How scared they might be; how alone.
As the speckles of light fade, the tail of a shooting star draws a line across both heavens.
I take this as a good omen and make a wish, the words of which I cannot tell you.
“It is time,” I whisper to my children, releasing the catch on the case.
With a hush of air, laced in coils of smoke which hover for a moment before vanishing, I reach in and remove the first tub. Oreochromis Macrochir the label reads: Longfin Tilapia. My mother’s people would once have caught these in abundance, though the gas in the lake meant they grew stunted, unlike those imported from Uganda to the north.
I submerge the tub and wrench the lid as though cutting an umbilical cord.
A hundred tiny fish rise in stunned uncertainty.
Each one is smaller than my little finger, but that does not matter. There is nothing here to eat them. These are the lucky few. The first generation. Who will never know a predator. Who, bar sickness or injury, will live to adulthood. A long, happy life with friends of childhood beside them.
I smile as they collect by the shore, reluctant to venture into deeper water. Like me and my snakes, their minds conjure danger from shadows, even when there is none.
Next come the Redbreast Tilapia, the Ripon Barbel and the Clarias Catfish. There were once twenty-eight recorded species in this lake, but we begin with six, to see what will happen. Another repopulation program has worked well at Lake Nyos, in what was once Cameroon.
I remain, staring at my own reflection, long after the fry have floated away.
The pit of my stomach is a cherry stone. I feel bereft. For three years I have worked towards this moment. My days were an endless cycle of training, talking and exercise. Now it is over, and all I have left to contemplate is what comes next. There was a madness in this land once, and I start to feel as though it has infected me like snail fever.
I should never have swum in those waters. I should never have climbed Nyiragongo.
Now that I have, it feels as though I can never go home.
Home to what?
My mission is finished, my pensionable imbursement awaits, as does my husband, eager to plant a seed in my belly.
How can I tell him that I do not want to be a mother? I never have.
My children are here, in this lake.
Slowly, I remove my knife from its sheath.
It feels heavy in my hand, its edge serrated like tilapia teeth.
I am an only child. If I die, who will be left to hear my ancestors’ song?
Sliding into the water, I roll onto my back and kick away from the shore. I live in a world where the land is like the sky – borderless. Yet still I know that Africa rests beneath me. These were the waters my people drank from, bathed in, defecated and bled into. This is the amniotic fluid of my birth.
A thick ache weighs my arms as warmth reddens the cool waters.
“Come my children, feed.”
My song returns to the land that first gave it life, and will continue forever in every fish in Lake Kivu. Part of me will remain, immortal. I fill the bellies of my babies, who will fill the bellies of birds, and reptiles, and eventually people.
I will feed this nameless land with myself, and it will nourish eternity.