Read Part 1 here!
I parked beneath the ledge of a hoodoo and sipped tepid ginger tea from a copper flacon. The sky hung low, a pitch sheet shot through with pinprick lights, the primordial moon halved. These were the hours I loved most, between midnight and dawn, when if I opened my senses, I could feel waves of the ether pound against the shores of the perceivable world.
Isa met me here, dressed in black with a gun strapped to his hip and a rifle slung across his broad back. I pushed open the door for him.
Isa was the first person I met when I entered the hinterlands, self-exiled from Ajutine, fueled by ignorance, idealistic purpose, and shame. I quickly learned that one cannot eat dreams nor shelter beneath idealism.
Hungry and tired, I considered returning to Ajutine to continue my work. I had a duty to be among the leaders in the search for a cure to our people’s increasing infertility, I had reasoned. Shame as much as pride sent me to the hinterlands despite the fact that our increasing infertility was very much my fault.
When I met Isa wandering across the plains he was only twelve or thirteen. In those days he didn’t speak and was adrift of any settlement. But Isa was quick and smart. He knew how to find food, water, and shelter in caves and in the nooks and crevices of hoodoos. He called me Ummi, and I mothered him, as much as he would allow.
"I asked you to come because I do not want to do this alone and because I trust you with my life," I started. Isa speaks now, but I saw the questioning in his eyes.
"I don’t want Sule to know.” I started the engine and shifted into first gear.
“Where are we going?”
"There’s a clinic in Oberon, a large one. It was still pretty much intact, last time I was there.”
“How long ago was that?”
I shrugged. “Five, maybe six years.”
Isa’s teeth flashed as he laughed. “You expect there to be anything left after all this time, except vermin?”
“There’s a good chance. Few people out here would even know what to do with what I am after.”
I glanced in my rearview mirror. A peacock’s tail of red dust rose, up behind my jeep. For a moment I thought I spotted the points of yellow headlights in the distance.
"Look back there," I said to Isa, pointing over my shoulder with my thumb. "Do you see someone? We being followed?"
Isa twisted around in his seat. "I don’t see anyone."
"Good." I let out a breath and glanced in Isa’s direction. His dark lean face glowed, even in the pitch of the desert, green-gray eyes ethereal lamplights. A sudden sad longing came over me for the child this man used to be.
"I went to see Soraya today. She’s big with another child but something is wrong. We’re going to that clinic in Oberon for a piece of equipment called an ultrasound."
"What does it do?"
"It will help me see the baby in her belly."
"Can’t you already, like old Miriama?"
"Some, yes, but this is science."
Isa took the lead, handgun unholstered and hanging ready at his side. I followed him in the gloom. The blue light of my torch highlighted his shoulder and neck muscles. I guided his direction by tapping his right or left shoulder when it was time for us to turn down the next corridor. The building was quiet but for the high-pitched chirrup of rats in the walls and the sound of toms mewling in the distance.
I found the ultrasound machine in one of the smaller diagnostic rooms. An exam table stood in the center of the room, its stirrups extended as if waiting for a patient. It was covered in dust and rubble. Isa helped me liberate the portable unit from beneath a pile of bricks and plaster, creating a fog of grime in the process.
"If there was electricity, I could test it, see if it still works.”
Isa went to stand by the door.
“Isa?" My voice sounded muffled and weighted in the thick dark.
"We should leave,” he said, waving me over. "We can test it when we get back to the settlement."
"Give me a sec," I said as I rummaged through the cabinets.
"Ummi," whispered Isa, his voice edged with anxiety.
I looked over my shoulder at him. "Yeah?"
Even in the dark, I could see his wide eyes glisten, and his forehead wrinkle above his nose.
"You hear that?"
I hadn’t heard anything. I shook my head. In fact, I could no longer hear the mewling toms from the alley.
"Ummi, I don’t like it here. Let’s go. Now."
I took the case containing the ultrasound and followed him into the hall. I felt a sharp burning stab on my right shoulder.
Then I saw nothing.
"Dr. Bilqis Jihada Haq. I never thought in a million years that I would see you again." The voice was vaguely familiar.
I regained consciousness in a catcher trailer, cold and naked on a rusty necropsy table. It was slick with someone else’s jellied blood. My head, weighted with drugs, throbbed in nauseating waves. My mouth was dry and leathery and tasted like I’d been sucking on coins. I could not move.
I felt probing fingers along my neck, my shoulders, kneading my breasts and my abdomen, my thighs, between my thighs, my calves, my feet, between my toes. My eyes flew open and they stung and watered as I was momentarily blinded by a white light above me. Everything appeared fuzzy around the edges, as if I was looking through a periscope.
"There are those lovely eyes I remember so well." The voice was male, soft, and lilting.
Gloved fingers pushed past my lips, pried open my jaw and ran along my gums and teeth.
"Not often I get someone as healthy as you out here in the hinterlands. Or as bountiful." He winked. "If I could find twenty women like you, I could be a very wealthy man."
The edges started to clear and my limbs tingled, like a million hot tiny needles pricking me.
Damp brown curls sprouted from the edges of his blue surgical cap. His brown eyes were flecked with yellow and green. He tugged down his mask.
Dorian Lin had changed much since I’d last seen him. His cheeks were gaunt and pockmarked and the bags beneath his eyes were bruise-purple. His mouth, a tight cyanotic gash in his face, told the tale of his unfortunate vice. He was dying. He was once a very beautiful man.
Horror must’ve shown in my eyes. He chuckled lightly and patted my shoulder. "No worries, love. I hold no grudges."
Dorian Lin had been expelled from medical for abusing pain medications. He was known not only for using, but for creating his own very dangerous anesthetic concoctions and selling them in the fifth ward. I was the one who reported him. He was ejected into the hinterlands, made an exile.
"Besides, how could I be angry with the only person whose fall from glory rivals my own?" His eyes traveled slowly down the length of my body and then back to my eyes. "You killed all the babies, you and your vaccine."
He unbound my plait and fingered my curls. "You’re better than I expected."
He turned away then I heard the electric hum of machinery. When he turned back he held an ultrasound probe in his hand.
"This ultrasound will be useful as will your healthy liver, kidneys, lungs. . . ." He ticked off my body parts on the fingers of his other hand. "I have so much to thank you for, Dr. Haq."
We were both startled by banging on the side of the metal trailer. "You finished yet?" called a husky female voice from outside the trailer.
"This is a very delicate procedure. It takes time."
"You can pretend you’re a mighty metro surgeon as much as you want, as long as you’re ready to meet the grocer in two hours." Her voice was closer this time, perhaps at the mouth of the trailer.
A shudder coursed through me, from my toes up to my shoulders. The wind blew just then, carrying in the salty musk of the desert. I felt the tiny hairs on my arms stiffen. I breathed deeply. My fingertips twitched.
"I think he won’t mind a little delay."
Dorian pressed the ultrasound probe to my belly and rolled it back and forth until he found what he was looking for. A sound like galloping hooves and the messy swish of fast moving air filled the trailer, echoing off the metal walls.
His catcher partner came into view, her face a sun-cured tapestry of lines and divots framed by a tangle of silver hair. Her blue eyes and lips formed perfect ohs.
"A real live baby," she said breathily. "Well, damn."
He held up two fingers. "Two for the price of one."
The Kato-Haq cancer vaccine was celebrated as a medical marvel. I wasn’t the leading researcher, but with Professor Kato, my mentor, suffering from worsening vascular dementia, most of the work and calculations were my own. And of course, my name was on it.
The premise was simple. The vaccine was infused with nanites to seek out cells in the process of over-proliferating, cells that would cause tumors. Within the first year the diagnosis of all cancers dropped by 53%. The vaccine was a success.
Dorian stared at the monitor. "About eighteen weeks. Looks like a strong healthy boy." He smiled at me.
The feeling in my arms and legs had returned and they twitched involuntarily.
"Shall I assume that you weren’t vaccinated?"
"Of course I was. I believed in my work.” My voice was barely above a whisper.
Dorian raised an eyebrow. "So do I."
"A bit long in the tooth to be having a baby, aren’t you?" Dorian chuckled. "What are you? Forty-three, forty-four?"
I stared at the frozen image of my child on the monitor. There had been other pregnancies. Once my belly had grown large only to give birth to a lump of flesh and hair in place of a child. A clot of blood imbued only with the hope of life. Once I had a daughter. I held her tiny limbless body against me and put her to my breast where she suckled weakly, her eyes locked onto mine. She went to sleep at my breast and never woke again.
But I knew from the start that this child was different, stronger, real. Yet part of me still wished he would die in my womb. That I would pass him out of me like all the others, as so much dead tissue.
Dorian’s partner came into view grinning broadly enough that I could see the dark rotten teeth in the back of her mouth. "I talked to the grocer." She glanced down at me and her smile faltered. She looked away.
"He says he has a potential buyer. He just needs to negotiate the price." The catcher looked down at me again, her eyes focused on my belly instead of my eyes.
“Looks like that tranq is wearing off. You’ll either need to dose her or tie her down,” said the catcher as she retreated.
"Where are you going?"
"Keep guard. What else? We’ve got some precious cargo here."
Dorian looped a rope across my body and beneath the table and knotted it at my knees.
I tried to remember what Miriama had taught me, to pin prey with my eyes and use the coil of strength in my gut to draw out their consciousness. Most of my lessons had been for the purposes of healing and diagnostics. But I wanted to live. And if my child was going to die, I didn’t want it to be at the hands of a catcher.
"Hmm." He glanced up and I managed somehow to hold him there.
The twine of power I pulled on was not yellow, like the one I’d used to view Soraya’s baby. This one was the blue-black of the midnight sky, the cold of the lowest levels of the ocean.
Dorian’s shiver mirrored my own.
Miriama had once explained, "All hearts begin clean and shiny like polished gold. It is sin and rancor that darkens them. Leaves spots sticky black like tar and rust." It is this corruption that I tapped into, that I pushed out through my pores, creating a translucent black cloud in the trailer.
The miasma coalesced around Dorian. He coughed, and then he was doubled over choking. He was easy, already weakened by the drugs and his own corruption. All I had to do was call on my own darkness. There was so much more than I realized.
"To work the ether, you need intention. If you wish to see, it will give you sight. If you wish to heal, that is what you will do. And if it is destruction you wish, you will have that too,” Miriama had once advised. “Know what you wish. Know your own truth.”
"What truth?" I had asked.
"The truth about you, little sister. Not one of us is as good as we wish to believe.”
My truth was that I wanted to live and I wanted my boy to live. So I poured that desire into the black cloud around Dorian. I imbued it with the bitter pride that made me an exile, regret for not standing firm in belief, my anger for up to this moment not being honest with myself and with Sule.
I imagined Dorian lifting the blood-encrusted scalpel from the table and slicing the thin brightly veined skin of his throat, creating a bloody bib. Dorian jabbing the scalpel into his abdomen over and over again. Me wearing his ribcage as armor, his metacarpals and phalanges as a crown.
When I heard my name, faded and far away, my black cloud wavered and thinned. I heard a plea, not the words, but the intent. I felt hands on my shoulders, my forehead, my cheeks. I felt tears fall upon my face like hail. My vision cleared.
I heard a loud crack, felt a hot spray on my face, smelled the acrid scent of gun smoke. Then I didn’t see the yellow-and green-flecked eyes anymore. Isa’s face hovered above mine, his mouth pulled back in a wail.
"Ummi, stop." He scrabbled at the rope across my body and when he became frustrated with the knots he pulled a hunting knife from his boot and cut them.
"The catcher?" My throat was hoarse. I didn’t sound like myself.
"I’ve dealt with her." He pulled me into a sitting position and into his arms.
"Dorian?" I said glancing back, but Isa held me tight to prevent me from seeing.
"I shot him and it was a mercy,” he said, avoiding my eyes. Isa helped me to my feet and wrapped a dirty blanket around my shoulders. "I need to get you home. Cleaned up."
I awoke just before noon, tangled in sweat-dampened sheets, the sun slanting through the window onto my face. My head ached, and when I rolled onto my side it felt like an ocean had shifted within my skull. I managed to climb out of bed and get to the bathroom before heaving into the sink.
I heard voices, a heated conversation in low tones. Sule would be angry and would try to blame Isa. Isa would probably let him.
I washed my face and dressed, then joined them in the kitchen. Sule rose when he saw me, anger and adoration an alternating mask. My magnet did not reach for me, but he leaned forward, hands turned out as if he wished to. As much as he fought the urge, I felt his fire tugging at me, longing for me. I avoided his eyes.
Isa wore a bloodstained bandage on his left shoulder. I offered a half smile, a silent apology. He nodded back.
I retrieved three of the pain pills that Miriama had packed in the leather pouch and handed two to Isa. I swallowed the other dry and sat in the chair that Sule had vacated.
"Do you think you can rig a battery for this thing?" I said, nodding toward the ultrasound. It sat on the floor in a corner.
Isa nodded. "When do you need it?"
Isa rose and headed for the door. "Give me thirty minutes and it’ll be ready." The door smacked in the frame when he left.
"Why?" Sule asked a million questions at once, his face fractured by warring emotions. What could I say to placate his fear and anger, when I couldn’t placate my own? There were no lies that would sound like truth.
I went to where Sule stood against the counter. I wrapped my arms around him. He curved around me like a cocoon, my magnet. "I was so worried about Soraya's baby, and Manuel was afraid," I said.
He stiffened, even as he wrapped his arms around me.
“But that can’t be the only reason.” He placed his hands on either side of my face and gazed down at me. For a long time I did not speak, but he waited.
“I wanted to use the machine to see our son,” I said. Sule closed his eyes, let out a long breath. “I’ve been dreaming about him since I conceived. I already know his face, his voice, the smell of him. I wanted to know that he was real.”
I felt Sule’s anger ebb, the tension in his muscles ease. Then I told him about the future I saw in my dreams of our son, the future that did not include him.
"Forgive me," I said against his chest.
He nodded, his chin against the top of my head.
"Forgive me," I said again.
"Will my daughter live?" is all that Soraya wanted to know.
"I don’t see why not." I sat on a small stool next to the bed. I handed the ultrasound probe to Neenah and nodded for her to turn the machine off.
"But this is dangerous, yes?"
I nodded, "It can be, but it’s a small separation. Your job is to rest until she is ready to meet the world.” I patted Soraya’s hand.
Soraya frowned and turned her face away from me.
"I just gave you good news. What’s wrong?"
"Who will deliver my baby when you leave?"
"I will," said Neenah. "I’ll do my very best for you, Soraya. Try not to worry."
Soraya smiled and wiped away tears with the back of her hand.
I made salat in the dark hour before dawn beneath an outcropping of rock. The only sounds were the thump of my heart. The journey to Ajutine had been long and heavy with guilt, but I had no regrets and no desire to go back.
I slipped off my hijab, my favorite, made of sheer copper fabric. I wore it the day that Sule and I wed. I used it to secure the holy book written in ancient curling script, the tasbeh of pearls on which I counted and expiated my sins, and the rectangle of carpet on which I knelt to recite my prayers. These had been my wedding gift from Sule, and now, I would leave them behind.
I filled the hole with sand and marked the spot with a large black stone shaped like a fan. None of the artifacts could pass entry inspection.
I pulled the yellow flier from my pocket to read one last time. The paper was now worn and faded, folded and refolded. My heart hitched as I turned toward the city of my birth, the home to which I never thought I would return.
The familiar angles of the skyscrapers rose above the wall surrounding the city, like fingers grasping for the clouds. Lighted looping train tracks hovered in midair, twisting around the skyscrapers like ribbons on the wind. From this distance I even caught the scent of Ajutine, exhaust and filth mixed with spice and humanity. Something in me shuddered. Until that moment I didn’t realize how much I had hungered for home.
“I don’t want you to go,” said Isa as I held his head against my chest. He had been my first friend in the hinterlands, my first child.
I watched the jeep until it disappeared in a cloud of dust on the horizon then set off to cover the remaining distance to Ajutine on foot.
Sule managed to make my last days with him the happiest and the most hateful of my life. He couldn't get enough of my flowering form, hands always resting on the curved plane of my hip, the sensitive small of my back, telling me and showing me in countless ways how much he loved me. I joined him one night when he took to the plains to hunt.
I will never forget the way the stars look through a veil of tears, brighter and smeared across the sky, or the sound of Sule crying when he thought I was asleep.
I never had to tell him that I was leaving. He always knew.
On our last night together we ate cactus fruit and rabbit. I drank ginger tea and he drank water in which I'd sprinkled a bit of hrery powder. He slept dreamlessly, fitted around me like a shell.
No amount of time was long enough to be with a man like him.
I took my place at the end of a long line of the hungry and hopeful. Several hours passed before it was my turn, the sun giving way to a yellow crescent and stars. The guard searched my bag, removed then replaced the outdated medical texts, the certificates and licenses proving my education and training. He held the faded hospital picture identification up to shoulder height.
I self-consciously smoothed my hair, knowing that I scarcely resembled my younger self smiling in the photo. He appraised me, his gaze lingering on the scar on my chin, the streak of henna-reddened silver hair near my right temple.
His eyes settled on mine. "A doctor like you would be an asset here in Ajutine. Are you willing to make the required concessions?"
I thought of Allah, of the symbols of my religion buried in the sands of the hinterlands. I thought of my mother whose love of Allah was unimpeachable but who resolutely refused to leave Ajutine, the city of her forefathers.
"You only fail if you walk away," she had once said, and those words looped in my head like a mantra. I was returning to right wrongs and to give my son a better life, but in doing so I was walking away again, from Sule, from certain love and hardship.
I looked up toward the sky through the glass of my tears.
"I am willing to make concessions," I told him. I met his gaze so he would know and see it in my eyes.
It wasn’t until he nodded me through the gates that I realized that I’d been holding my breath.