It begins with her ambling down the stairs leading to the living room, the way a girl one year away from thirteen would, when told that the school bus was five minutes away. The so far-unnamed girl's headed for breakfast. She pulls out a chair, reels it back underneath her and noiselessly plants her behind. There’s a sleepy-eyed, hag-looking lady in old, frail pyjamas hunched over before an open fridge with no lights. The manufacturer is innocent; her and her husband aren’t. She yanks out two gray bottles, one in each hand and waddles to the girl’s side. The lady empties one bottle into an African calabash that’s sitting in front of her. The cereal box beside the calabash gasps, watches with suspense and frustration.
“Get munchy, baby” the woman says as she walks across the room to settle in a sofa.
The girl screams, teary-eyed. “Mum!”
“What, Salissa? What?" a hoarse voice punches out the lady’s throat, her eyes wide open. She lowers the bottle, her chapped lips appear. “What is it this time?” she waves.
“Dry gin, mum! This is dry gin!”
Her mother spits out some white liquid and examines the thing in her hand. “Oh! Wrong bottle then”
But before more can be said, a terrible baritone shoots out from beneath the dinning table. OOH LA LA!
“Dad!” Salissa jerks. The bone of contention is tossed from Mum to the man yawning and stretching beneath the table, body supine. “Alcohol? Again? You promised you’d stop, both of you” Salissa parries.
Beep! Beep!! Beep!!!
The bus arrives and she has eaten. She scuttles out the tiny parlor and exits the ever-open front door. Apparently, they’d left it that way the whole night –not the first time. And even at the backyard, Heineken bottles have dethroned gnomes. Two bats in particular –she calls them Rob and Juliet –they pass the night on a regular in an open corner of the roof.
NORMAL lacked a salvage value, and Salissa was tired.
“Morning, Salissa” the driver says, remotely shutting the door behind her as she enters. The girl doesn’t respond.
Forcados High School! She’s in a noisy classroom, and it’s mostly from the boys. In truth, even the quiet ones have been won over and are now shameless.
She’s in uniform and has her face buried in her tiny hands as she sinks into a female teacher’s embrace. She has the map of Africa travelling across her torso till it tapers into South Africa in between her knees. Who would do this to their own child she imagines, begging her to stop crying while she battles against her lacrimal glands. The noise in the class reaches a new world record –with just thirty students. The principal passes by the corridor but chooses to be oblivious because he knows why.
“Really? Really?” Salissa squeals, her face bright. She pulls out of the Geography teacher’s embrace and casts the focus in those watery eyes on her compassionate face.
Granitma had heard of her parents before, and even though she couldn’t bring Salissa to agreeing with it, it now made perfect sense that once the school fees, books and bus fare were paid for, the rest went to alcohol. Poor girl! She mustn’t wind up like them.
“You mean it? You’ll pay for me?” she inquires again, sniffing and wiping her face off with her tiny hand.
“Yes, yes, yes. You’re going to the Atlantika Mountains, Salissa” she reassures her.
“Jeez! Thanks Miss Granitma,” Salissa says, in a tight hug, dry tear streaks printed onto her face.
The class is on a hill top, with heir eyes rolled upwards.
“Ok, listen up,” the giant standing before them begins. “I will be called Burrock Osama, no relation. Granitma and I, and these men,” he points towards two policemen. “… will be guiding you as you roam these…mountains. I’m warning you, do not, I repeat, do not stray far from the group” he shouts.
Everyone stiffens, even Granitma.
“Now don’t be too happy, cos you may mess up. But you're allowed to be sad and moody, for it’ll keep you from danger” he adds.
Burrock glares past the morning sun, into their faces, perhaps searching for the one that rendered his goodwill speech as bullshit.
“Do you understand?” he thunders.
“Sir, yes Sir!” they exclaim, Granitma inclusive.
Miss Granitma motions to speak. A bit of nervousness crawls into her voice. Or could it be cold?
“Uhm, we are…we are standing in the land of the Koma people," she beams. "And do you know you're standing between Nigeria and Cameroon?” she heartily giggles. “Isn’t that exhilarating?”
No one joins her, they stare blankly. Burrock has uninstalled the spirit.
Her name is Salissa and she’s obviously the smallest in her class. It’s 6:30pm already and all she can say so far is that it’s been fun and laughter since morning, except for Burrock of course – until she finds that she’s lost the bracelet she’d inherited from the only sober family -grandma.
It’s late and she’s scared. They’re on their way back to the school bus to pass the night before they leave tomorrow. She whispers to her best friend, Msendoo to cover for her. The small girl agrees.
Now she's regressing, slowly, slowly and starts searching for it, miles of dancing meadow spread into the distance yet to be combed.
Now she’s far from the flock, from Burrock the good shepherd. She scans for red and blue. But the sun has rolled up its mat and is ready to go home to sleep, and visibility is three-quarters low. She lapses. She receeds. Until…
She lifts her head up and sees her. She drags a blink. Still there! A lady in a black ragged robe! Tall, skinny, blue eyes. She’s anchored to Earth by the tips of her big toes on top of a tiny hill that isn’t tiny. She’s still but not her clothes or the wind that makes them flutter. The blue glow in her eyes grows intense. Is she angry? Who is she?
“Jesus Christ!” Salissa screams. “Who are you? Helloooo!"
She’s quiet, doesn’t respond. Her scaly hands become balls of fists and her pointy nails are studded in them.
She dashes down the gentle slope. Her ragged gown flickers madly. Salissa looks around her. The terrain’s changed, the greens are gone, she’s in a canyon. The soil is super dry and the sun’s returned to the middle of the sky to watch. “What reality is this?” she voicelessly pines. The woman draws near and she’s dead stiff, overwhelmed with fear, as straight as a stick. Why can’t I run? Why can’t I speak? The humanoid figure grabs Salissa, whisks her head so that her long hair independently wraps her torso. The strange lady zigzags, slithers up a wall, dragging her along and climbs into a cave.
Burrock! Burrock!! Salissa’s mind echoes.
She’s in a cave, a bioluminescent kind. She lays on a giant sandstone slab like it’s her bed at home, save for the raffia straps across her legs, wrists and neck. There’s a pool meters away, reflecting the green glow back to the bacteria on the walls.
“Hello,” someone whispers in her ear . It sends recurring chills down her spine. The sandstone bed feels it. The strange lady appears, head arched above hers. The blue glow in her eyes persist, and they are not contact lenses.
“Please Ma’am. Please,” Salissa pleads. “ I don’t want any trouble. I need to…”
“Wait, wait, wait,” the strange lady begins, treading to a corner. “I’m not interested in harming you, Salissa. All I want is my son”
“How do you know my name?”
A string of paintings travel across a section of the walls. She wipes a section clean with her scaly hands. “It’s the prophecy. Salissa is born to save my son”
Salissa wriggles to look at her.
“What? I don’t know what you’re talking about. What’s that got to do with me? Please ma’am, I just want to go back to my teacher. I’ll forget about the…”
“Bracelet?” the lady interjects, pulling it out from her clothes and tossing the noose of red and blue beads onto Salissa’s chest. She wipes off one more painting. “I’m happy that the gods did not lie. Now my son will be back”
She crunches her way to Salissa’s side. Her big toes are very much vertical.
Salissa blows a frustrated sigh. “I don’t understand”
“There’s no time to explain. Look,” she points, out of Salissa's field of view. "The moment you've saved my son, I’ll have wiped those off also”
“I still don’t get why…” Salissa begins, but is cut short. Her forhead's been pinned down to the sandstone by the lady's index and middle fingers.
The girl’s thoughts are no longer her own, but hers. Salissa’s face stiffens expressionlessly. West Africa is zoomed upon, it’s plagued by the presence of prehensile-tailed humans – the Akanaki. Forest ground appears and a normal human boy slithers into the picture. He’s hiding, behind a giant ball of granite, blue-eyed, on his big toes, just like his mother. He’s scared.
An Akanaki appears, leans over, straightens to a full twelve feet, his clawed hand in the boy’s neck, his pointy ears, staring away. The helpless kid moans, craves for air. Without notice, the Akanaki flings his tail upward and points it in his face. Poww! He shoots, the sound of a silenced pistol. The pointy end of his regenerative coccyx is impinged on the boy’s face, who drops dead on the mushy forest floor and the creature disappears to join the herd afar off. The boy’s mother arrives minutes later. Tears from her bleeding eyes trickle down her cheek and wash down the blood off her son’s disfigured face.
“What was that?” Salissa heaves, hyperventilating.
“There’s no time, Salissa”
A gourd, half as dark as her ragged clothing sits in-between her fingers.
“When you drink this, you’ll no longer be here. I mean, your mind, your consciousness”
“You should untie me first” Salissa demands.
“Nope. Nope. Nope. I’m sending you back to the past. That will keep you from acting out your…”
“Why me? Why? I don’t want to. Let me go!” she squirms.
“The prophecy, Salissa,” she says, addressing the wall paintings. “You’re the only one worthy enough. The past accepts only you. Save my son. You have to stop that from ever happening”
“Why always me!”
“Open your mouth, Salissa. I need you” the lady insists.
“Alright. Alright. At least tell me your name”
“Open your mouth, girl” she snaps. Time is of the essence.
“You’re in a hurry alright, but I won’t help you if you don’t, at least, TELL ME YOUR NAME”
Seconds pass, but she succumbs.
“Can’t hear you”
“Muthana, okay. Muthana”
“Like Hannah Montana? Or…”
“Huh? Who’s that? Mu…tha…na!”
“Alright Muthana,” Salissa’s says. “I’ll do it. But there’s a lot I still don’t understand”
Muthana smiles, unveiling her spiky teeth. “Girl! Once I've sent you there, I'll explain"
“What do you see, Salissa?” Muthana says, holding on to her tiny hand.
“Him. Your son” she responds, but her lips don’t move, just a voice in Muthana’s head.
Salissa opens her eyes and it’s 10,000 BC West Africa. She’s no longer small, nothing is. Not her pointy ears nor her furry legs, or the thick, long tail wiggling independently behind her.
“Whoa, Muthana,” she covers her mouth. “ I’m an Akanaki”
“Yes. There’s some Akanaki in the potion I gave you” Muthana replies, in her head.
“Because, if the soles of your feet touch the ground, they’ll find you”
Salissa nods in affirmation. “And unlike your boy and the humans of this time, I still haven’t learnt to do that yet”
“Exactly, now be careful. Make sure he doesn’t freak out. Those things can hear. Run as fast as you can with him to this cave we’re in. In that timeline, the cave hasn’t been formed yet so...”
“What, Muthana?” Salissa inquires.
“You’ll have to punch your way in. That’s all. Run away with him, climb, punch”
She inches closer right behind the scared lad. She’s slower the closer she gets. If he freaks out, the herd afar off will hear, or perhaps his killer would arrive sooner than he is supposed to.
Gosh! No wonder! A red streak abuts on his bloody toes. His legs are shaky; the soles of his feet are eager to kiss the ground one last time. The boy grips tightly on the rock in front of him. He pines. If only mum were here. She was stronger. She’d just lift me up so I can rest awhile, while she endured, like she’d always done since the invasion. If his soles touch the ground, he’s dead.
“Are you close to him? Hello! Hello!”
Salissa’s too focused to answer. This thing doesn’t work with firm lips. Her silent whisper can now be heard. She sights a raffia strap; quietly, she lowers, picks it up and leans forward.
“Hi,” she quickly hauls the boy up into the air and wraps her hand tightly over his mouth. The little thing struggles to break free. She tries to explain in whispers. How do you explain to a normal kid that you’re a good Akanaki. “Hey! Hey!! Hey!!! Your mother sent me. Your mother sent me. I’m not one of them. I’m not…”
He doesn’t understand a single word she says. Ooooh! Silly me. The British haven’t colonized us yet. She thumps his head, he’s not moving; he’s unconscious. The raffia does a good job in keeping him straddled to her back. She runs.
She’d been told by Muthana to clap ten times when she reached the part of the meadow where she’d been abducted for the cause. All greens in front of her begin to disappear. Now she’s running at thirty-five miles per hour, the speed of an average Akanaki. Jets of wet forest sand are transformed into dry canyon sand as they shoot behind her, into the faces of the hundreds like her trailing behind in hurt pursuit. There’s deadly zeal in their eyes. Why betray us?
Pieces of long pointy coccyx bones begin piercing the air. One traverses her scapula. One severs the raffia strap, but she catches him with one hand and continues taking strides with the other.
“What now, Muthana?” Salissa barks. Sweat bathes her face. Grime clings to her body as the chase gets even more violent. She’s been shot twice on her spine. Her tail arches backward and she retaliates as well.
Her focus on the canyon walls vacillates. Finally. She spots it, slides along the sand to a great halt.
“Jeez, Muthana. The entrance hasn’t been formed yet”
“Well punch a whole in it. Do it, fast!”
At least its erodible sandstone. Salissa musters her strength, jaws firm, face stern – Burrock should’ve been here to learn. She begins the climb. Outcrops of frail sandstone outcrops shatter under her sturdy, keratinized feet. Her left hand is occupied with holding the child. She’s halfway up already, stabbing the surface with the tip of her fingers, embedding her feet into the crevices her kicks create. Scores of Akanaki are catching up with her. One gets hold of her legs.
Thump! Thump!! Thump!!! She punches.
A cavity appears and she pulls herself in. She plummets down. Humid air blows past her long Akanaki body; her back slams on the cave’s uneven floor and Muthana’s boy lands safely on her chest.
“Muthana!” she cries. “ I’m in”
“Oh Salissa, thanks,” Muthana says, ripping the straps off of the little girl’s body with her nails. “You’ve made me the happiest mother…still alive”
Salissa squirms, lowers her head to the ground, pukes. Since she’d said YES to her, she’d been wondering how the boy was ever going to make it to the present. But it’s happened anyway, hasn’t it?
“Jesus Christ! You yanked him, OUT OF MY MOUTH, WHILE THEY EAT MY BODY!" she gags.
The boy clings tightly to his mother’s little finger. He mutters an unknown tongue.
“He says ‘thank you’” Muthana beams.
One week’s passed. She ambles down the stairs leading to the living room and the school bus is five minutes away. She picks the least-wobbly chair, reels it underneath her and noiselessly plants her behind. Mum is not in front of the light-deficient fridge, pulling out two bottles. The uniformed girl throws a kick beneath the dinning table, but Dad isn’t there. The breeze flooding in the ever-open front door informs her that there’s some bubble gum and a note on the door of the fridge. Salissa kicks backwards, the chair squeals. She holds it still, examines it. The words are written in crayon and the owner of the handwriting is to be pitied. She reads:
Look Salissa, I and your father are gone to Lagos for a wine convention.
“Wine Convention? What does that mean?” Her brow furrows.
I know we’ve talked about this, but just in case there’s an excursion before we get back, you’re NOT allowed to go. Lost, and stuck in quicksand - how?
There’s a crate of Sardines in the fridge and some itsy bitsy mouldy bread right beside it. You'll be alive until we’re back on a Saturday. Have fun. Love ya!
Salissa rises and mounts the table. A harmless tantrum is about to be birthed. She’s a year away from thirteen but does she care? She has to do this. A pair of Mary Janes are planted on the table surface and her head is inches away from the ceiling fan working really hard, but in slow-motion. She screams.
“This…is… my worst…nightmare!”