“Happy birthday, darling,” she whispers into my ear. Her heavy breaths tickle the hairs on the nape of my neck, sending a shiver down the back of my spine. “Now blow out your candles.”
In five short puffs, the amber flames licking at the wax fingers vanish into thin air, leaving behind silky wisps of smoke that billow up into the atmosphere. Looking up, I beam at the couple knelt in front of me. His arm snakes around her neck and her head gently rests on his shoulder, her chocolate curls cascading down her cheeks. He reaches out with his free arm to take my hand, squeezing it softly, whispering in a comforting voice,
“We love you, Naomi. Mama and Papa love you so very much.”
Falling into their arms, I wrap one arm around each of their necks, my fingertips brushing against each other when they meet in the middle. Pressing my lips against his cheek and then her cheek, I say to them,
“I love you too.”
We remain in a tight embrace for a moment or two, just the three of us, entwined together like three strands of hair tied into a braid. When we break apart, Mama pulls the plate over and gives me a wobbly smile. Her trembling hand grasps the knife and it shakily slices through the honey sponge, dissecting it into three small, oddly shaped pieces. Our ravenous appetites soon devour them. Tiny crumbs strewn over the wooden floorboards serve as a reminder of this morning’s events, implanting a lasting memory into my mind. One that I hoped to treasure forever.
“We have something for you, darling.”
Looking up at them, I notice a crumpled, brown paper parcel clutched in their hands, a ragged piece of string bandaged around it to keep the paper in place. Gently, I take it from their grasp and place it down on the floor in front of me. My eyes wander over it, intrigued by its peculiar shape. Something I have never seen before. I grin.
Tentatively, my fingers ease the string out of its knot. The strand falls limply to the ground and I pull the layers of brown paper off the packaged item, unwinding it like a roll of tape. My eyes widen in amazement. On the ground before me, glinting in the rays of early morning sunlight, is a silver oval pendant affixed to a silver chain. Sliding two fingers underneath the chain, I raise it into the air and admire its beauty.
“Look inside,” Mama encourages softly.
Resting the pendant in the palm of my hand, I unhook the hasp and let half of the oval swing back on its diminutive hinge. Neatly squeezed into the two miniature frames are two tiny pictures: one of her and one of him. My face lights up. I glance up to them, my eyes shining.
“Happy birthday, Naomi,” she whispers for the second time today. For the last time today.
Bang. Bang. Bang. At the door.
“We know you’re in there. Open up!” an angry voice shouts. I whimper.
Papa scrambles to his feet and dashes off towards the back door. He pauses, his hand wavering beside the doorknob. Turning around briefly, he mouths something to Mama that causes a tear to slip down her cheek. Flinging the door open, he steals away into the morning darkness shrouding the outside. I look up to her.
“Why are you sad?”
Bang. Bang. Bang.
She smiles at me, brushing the tears out of her eyes. “I’m not sad.”
“Then why are you crying?” I ask, puzzled.
Suddenly, a thunderous bang ricochets off the hollow walls. Spinning around in a blind panic, my eyes are overwhelmed with a throng of angry men storming into the room. Large rifles are slung over their shoulders and black helmets painted with white numbers are strapped over their heads. Their faces are red with rage.
The last man to enter the room is the largest, striding pompously towards her, his muscular arms swinging rhythmically by his sides. His huge hands grab Mama’s shoulders, shaking her with his tenacious grip.
“Where is he?” the man snarls viciously, droplets of saliva spraying across her pale face.
“I... I don’t know.” She starts to cry.
He slaps her. Hard. The sound resembles a cracking of a whip, a master controlling his horse. “Don’t lie to me, bitch, where is he?” the man thunders, a storm clouding over his face.
Mama continues to cry, tears sliding down her cheeks like water trickling down a stream. The man grumbles, letting go of her shoulder. Her knees buckle and she collapses into a heap on the floor, a sobbing mess.
“Stupid whore.” The man grunts then jabs a finger in my direction. “Grab the kid. Take her where she needs to go. I’ll deal with her and we’ll find him shortly. There’s nowhere for him to hide.” He cackles somewhat triumphantly and spits on her again, saliva drooling down in between her curls.
I stay frozen to the spot, frightened. Suddenly, two giants fill my view. They growl at me like feral animals, baring sets of jagged, white teeth. Their fingers lock around my wrists and they begin to drag me towards the door. I scream, my voice raw with panic.
All of a sudden, Mama looks up and her eyes meet mine. She scrambles to her feet and runs towards me. Her hands grab my shoulders and she holds me close against her, whispering soothingly into my ear,
“Don’t cry, Naomi. Don’t cry. Brave warriors don’t cry. True warriors never cry.”
“I’m scared,” I whimper, bewildered and frightened.
“Don’t be scared, darling. There’s nothing to be scared of.”
Just then, two men seize hold of her, trying to wrench her away from me. I scream again. She looks into my eyes and smiles at me. She kisses my forehead.
“Mama loves you, Naomi. Papa loves you. We both love you. Never forget that.”
“I love you, Mama.” I fight back the urge to cry. True warriors never cry.
She smiles, her eyes glassy. “That’s my girl.” With that, she allows herself to be yanked away, disappearing into the house. Then I realise that I’m outside.
Glancing up to the sky, bright sunlight beats down on my forehead, forming a tiara of perspiration beads just below my hairline. Flashes of green, brown, orange, red, yellow, blue cloud my vision, as the colours become blurs and the blurs become shapes.
A narrow grey track slices through two rows of tall poplars, spiralling up to the sky like the giant beanstalks in that story. Beside the poplars, grey terraced houses stretch from one end to the other, each complete with a withering garden choked with weeds and a misshapen wooden fence with half the posts either missing or collapsed on the grass. The majority of the windows are deficient of several panes, the void left behind patched up with slats of wood whilst the fragments of shattered glass line the sills. Smoke from various chimneys drifts upwards into the sky amongst a swarm of pearly white clouds. But it’s eerily quiet. Not even a morning trill of birdsong or a blustery gale disturbs the tranquillity of the place. I smile at the beauty. Seconds later, my expression changes.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see him. Hands tied behind his back. One eye shut, the other struggling to remain open. His face is black and blue with bruises, dried blood staining his cheeks, narrow cuts blemishing the convivial expression I saw only a few minutes ago. One of the gunmen forces him down onto his knees. Another stands a few metres in front of him, gripping something in his hand. It takes me a moment to figure out what is going on. By then, it’s too late.
His lifeless body crashes against the ground, fumes of dust concealing his demise. I scream. My voice is a piercing shriek that resounds throughout the silence suffocating the cluster of houses.
Suddenly, a smooth, cold metal is pressed against my temple. My scream dries up inside my mouth. My eyes glance over to the right. One of the men presses the muzzle of his rifle into my head.
“Move,” he snarls, jabbing the rifle in the direction of a large, black van.
Obeying his command, I shuffle over to the van, with the man close behind me. I can feel the muzzle’s presence tingling the hairs on the back of my neck. I clench the pendant tighter. Two other men step forward and each grips one handle adjoined to a door at the back of the van. They pull the doors open to reveal a wall of darkness, gaping open like a mouth ready to devour its next victim. I take a step back, only to crash into the man behind me. He shoves me forward and I stumble into the nothingness.
All of a sudden, a pair of strong hands grabs me from behind and hauls me up into the van. My feet find the floor, and just as I regain my sense of balance, the doors slam shut. Immediately, an ocean of the blackest hue engulfs me.
I freeze. “Who… who’s there?”
As my eyes adjust to the darkness, they begin to widen in shock. Ahead of me, stretch four or five long, wooden benches. But there are children. Like me. Warriors, like me. Several girls and several boys are crammed onto each bench, their eyes wide and blinking, their faces blank and curious and confused. Just like me.
“Hello?” The voice speaks out again. A girl at the back stands up. Two dark plaits slide down her shoulders and her eyes are framed with square-shaped spectacles. “Who are you?”
“Naomi.” I pause, and eye the huddle of children suspiciously. “Who are you?”
Fifty different names screech out at me at once. Not a single one do I recognise. The girl at the back steps forward and stops in front of me.
Without warning, the van lurches forward and I fall backwards against the floor, landing with a loud thud. Tyres squeal to life and a sudden chorus of frantic birdsong erupts from outside. Panic-stricken, I shrink back against the wall of the van.
“Where are we going?”
The girl with the plaits kneels down beside me. “The Sanctuary,” she says confidently. “We’re going to the Sanctuary.”
“What’s that? Why are we going there? Why can’t I stay with my Mama?”
“They said that we’re ill,” one of the boys pipes us.
“They said they’ll give us medicine,” someone else speaks out.
“We’re going there to get better.”
“It’s meant to be really nice.”
“The doctors will stop our sickness.”
“But I’m not sick,” I say bluntly. “Mama never said I was sick.”
“You are sick,” the girl says again. “We all are. We wouldn’t be here if we weren’t.” She narrows her eyes. “You’re different.”
She looks me up and down, frowning, then pushes her glasses further up her nose. “You look different.”
“I don’t know how you can see-“
“You’re not an Ebony. But you’re not an Ivory.” The girl’s frown deepens and her eyebrows furrow in perplexity. “What are you?”
“I… I don’t know?” I shake my head. “What are you talking about?”
“If you’re not an Ebony, you shouldn’t be here.”
“Only Ebonies are ill,” a boy near us states. “If you’re not an Ebony, you’re not ill.”
“Well, I must be then,” I conclude firmly. “If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t be here… would I?”
The girl shrugs and stands back up. “I don’t know. You’ll find out soon enough.” She takes a seat at the back again and stares into space.
Heaving myself off the floor, I perch on the end of the nearest bench and look to the doors. Between the two, there is the narrowest of slits, and it glows dimly with the morning rays of sunlight. It directs a slim shaft of light onto my hands. A sudden sparkle of metal catches my eye. Uncurling my fist, I stare at the pendant. I unclip the clasp and throw the chain over my head. Clipping it back together, I tuck it out of sight and bring my knees to my chest, hugging them tightly.
The Sanctuary awaits.