First, the egusi seeds were roasted and ground in a paste. Gherek worked slivers of onions sliced into half moons and pepper seeds into the paste then pounded it some more. The dried white hibiscus flowers boiled in water with a little bit of salt, were draining in wait. The nutty aroma of the soon to be made soup infused the air in the kitchen and had carried over to the closest neighbours who lived slightly uphill.
“Gherek! When will you stop torturing us with your aromas?” Agata had yelled, poking her face out her bedroom window.
“After nightfall!” Gherek had replied.
That was four hours ago. The best soups always took time, Dugu taught her that forty-eight years ago. She remembered Dugu’s eyes teary from the burning firewood. She remembered the other ingredients; smoked fish, dried shrimps, fermented locust beans, potash and palm oil. Gherek was not entirely sure Dugu would approve of the person she was cooking this soup for, but the cook was long dead.
The past two hundred and forty years were categorised by location in her memories, each one bringing a new dish. She could never stay too long anywhere and much preferred the intrigues and secrets behind the walled cities to the mundane life of the farming and nomadic communities. Here in Saleh—the new city the likes of which had never existed before—Gherek had settled into normalcy with Na’yi. Na’yi of the gazelle-like legs and dimpled smile, who was due back home tonight after three weeks working on a floating pilar. In the early hours of the morning Na’yi would drag her weary feet through the door and first enjoy the taste of a lovingly made soup.
In the heavy bottomed clay pot, Gherek heated a splash of palm oil till she saw tendrils of smoke and added even more onions to fry. Her concentration was jarred by a solid bang. Gherek felt it in her bones before she heard it, so it seemed like two loud bangs instead of one. She had spent such a long time running away that she immediately looked for a way out. There was none, the open-roofed kitchen was enclosed on three sides, the fourth being the hard rock of the hills that surrounded southern Saleh. Behind her was the open door that lead deeper into the house, but the intruders were already there. Two of them crowded into the kitchen, cornering Gherek.
“Where is she?” one of them asked. Their faces were veiled and their eyes shielded with dark glasses, tall limbs draped in midnight-blue clothes.
They were human and they had weapons. On each of their right arms, three raised parallel lines inlaid with three half circles ran vertically from elbow to wrist. There was no one who lived in Gats that did not know Le’daj: Gherek recognised the symbol of his criminal empire. If one didn’t live or make do in a neighbourhood that paid direct homage to him, they lived in one where thugs modelled themselves after Le’daj.
She put her hands up in front of her and interlaced her index fingers—the universal sign for truth.
“I am alone in this house.”
The other intruder silently lifted his gun. The long mouth of the weapon was trained at her head. Gherek frowned.
“Where is the girl?” the one who had first spoken asked again.
“I said I don’t know,” Gherek repeated, calmly gesturing with her outstretched hands. “I am telling you the truth. I am alone.”
“We don’t have time,” the one holding the gun whispered.
There was another loud bang. Gherek fell to the floor as the bullet tore through her. She heard their voices.
“I don’t think she knew anything.”
“It doesn’t matter, let’s find the girl.”
The onions were burning. Laying there, Gherek thought about Na’yi returning home to this. It was enough of the act. She sat up on the kitchen floor and rose to her feet. The intruders drew back in surprise. Another bullet hit her, but this time Gherek did not give them the benefit of thinking they had killed her.
“Get out,” she ordered, water dripping down her hairline and from the holes they’d put in her.
“Devil woman!” one of them called as they fled her hut.
No doubt her neighbours heard the gunshots. The city police hardly came to Hez Valley, but the local vigilantes would soon be at her doorstep. Questions that she was not ready to answer would be asked.
Khoci claimed her, freezing Gherek to the spot and throwing her mind back to the past. She was once again a young woman leaving her clan’s nest behind in the cover of the night. Poro pressed a smooth stone into her forehead. Flesh and bone gave way as it entered Gherek’s skin, as the rain splashed down heavily around them.
“Call on me whenever you need to,” Poro whispered hurriedly.
Gherek came back to the present, knowing that precious moments had been wasted. At least, her wounds had healed over now.
In the room she and Na’yi shared, she tore open shelves and drawers in search of the items that she cherished and held dear. There had been days when she kept her most precious items in a small brass calabash, always ready to flee. That the calabash was no longer packed and within reach was testament to how comfortable Gherek had become in Saleh. She dragged the large wooden trunk from under the bed and flipped it open. Lying there, curled next to her calabash, was a small girl looking at her with widened eyes.
“How?” Gherek said, dropping to her knees before the trunk.
“Please help me.”
So this was the one they had been looking for. Gherek had not even heard her enter the house.
The oil she’d poured into the pot on the stove was burning. The once sweet smell turned bitter as Gherek lifted the child out of the trunk. The child held on, wrapping thin arms around Gherek's neck.
It was only a short debate within her, whether to help this child or not.
Gherek had come of age among a clan that would never turn back anyone who needed help, even if it came at the expense of their own comfort or safety. She was knowingly adding to her growing list of enemies, but from what she had seen whoever was looking for this girl were ordinary humans.
“Of course, but help me first by getting that.” She rose to her feet and immediately started ordering the child about. “No, the other one.”
The gold bracelet Na’yi had bought for her at the nomad’s festival. The seeds sealed in cloudy glass jars of multiple shades of green, brown, and blue. The shawl from the old man in Sosso. Beaded necklaces from Kanem that were now a faded blue, riddled with holes. The palm oil because that was hard to find here.
Bit by bit, they hurriedly filled up her calabash. Before placing it on her head, Gherek wrapped it in a light blanket, the same one she had used the last couple of times she needed to disappear.
By the Eastern Gutters, Blessed Men hawked freshly made foods day and night. Settled in a dingy guesthouse room, Gherek could see the fire she’d started from this side of the city. Through the open window she heard voices and hammering. Men crowded in front of the shuttered door on the opposite street. The arm that pounded on the door bore the same insignia as the ones that had stormed into her home. She heard shouting about unpaid rent due to Le’daj. They were everywhere. Gherek pulled back into the shadows until the commotion died away.
She glanced at the girl. What would Le’daj’s men want with a child?
Gherek watched the distant fire, aching for Na’yi and the meal she would never eat. Under any normal circumstance, Gherek would have lingered, taking her time to savour her home, to say goodbye to every single object. But the child had stood next to her, waiting and watching. There had only been a minute spared to look over her home before she set it to flames.
“I won’t hurt you,” Gherek had promised. Now, she imagined the child must be hungry. She called out to one of the Blessed Men.
“What would you like to eat?” she asked the child.
“Millet porridge!” she replied immediately.
One steaming bowl of porridge passed through the windowsill. It had tamarind and hanzi syrup for sweetness. Gherek could smell it as easily as she could hear the blood rushing through the child’s veins.
The child did not seem at all affected by their surroundings and that told Gherek a lot. She ate slowly, spooning the porridge and blowing on it before eating it. She chewed for much longer than was necessary considering how little she lifted off the bowl. The porridge seller would have a long wait to get his bowl back.
“What is your name, child?” Gherek asked.
“Mame calls me Shu,” she replied, blowing on a spoonful of porridge.
Shushuyya was a patron associated with the dancers, mesmerists, and magicians, most of them from Rang.
“So that’s how you got in,” Gherek mused out loud. She could guess the child was between seven and nine years old from the short curls on her head. Not too young to learn how to walk like a shadow and bend oneself into impossible shapes in tight spaces. The children of Rang were capable of that and much more.
“You didn’t tell me your name,” Shu said.
“I am Gherek,” she replied. “Where is your mother now?”
“They shot Mame like they shot you,” Shu said as she ate. “But she didn’t get up … how come you did?”
Gherek glanced around the darkened room, even though it was empty. She drew close to where Shu sat and whispered in the child’s ear.
“You must not tell anyone,” she said. “I am one of those that cannot die, the Bakirshi.”
It had been so long since she last honestly announced that. Possibly centuries, in the capital this city was named after, before Wagadou fell.
“Baba spoke of you.” Shu said, her eyes large.
“Your father?” Gherek had to ask because in this place, children referred to anyone that was old enough to be their father by that term. That was one norm that was yet to change.
Shu nodded and then looked down at bowl in front of her. Gherek did not miss the way Shu’s eyes became downcast at the mention of the person that had fathered her. Still, Gherek had to know.
“Would you like to go see your father?”
Shu shook her head no.
“Do you want to stay with me?” Gherek asked. Her tongue pressed against the roof of her mouth as she waited for an answer. It was almost surprising the way relief flooded her when Shu replied in the affirmative. For most of her years outside the nest, Gherek had stayed with at least one human. This would mark the first time that companion would be a child.
When Shu was done with the meal, Gherek passed the bowl back with extra coins. Her hand brushed against the folded piece of parchment she had tucked in the pocket of her billowing shift. It was from a newspaper Na’yi had gifted her several weeks ago. She knew Gherek did not miss any opportunity to practice reading.
A family travelling South on their annual migration needed a short-hire private cook. Gherek had kept it because it was going on thirteen years with Na’yi and her teasing about Gherek’s youthful appearance had grown an edge. Experience had taught Gherek never to overstay her welcome. Even though she would have preferred not to leave Na’yi this way, Gherek had been preparing. It was time now to get back to the Jurido family and tell them she couldn’t leave behind the daughter she’d failed to mention during their first interview.
The Juridos were an elderly couple, among the first families to settle in Saleh. They had already hired someone but he was let go when Gherek showed up at their gate with Shu. They remembered the vegetables Gherek had prepared: icacina roots soaked in water, dried and drizzled in oil before being roasted. She served the roots sliced thin with a bit of gum vine syrup so it had a sweet and sour flavour. Madam Jurido praised the taste endlessly.
Surrounded by walls of clay topped with living thorns, their villa rested in the valley, a clear sign of prestige. People like Gherek who had arrived at Saleh late had to make do with building their homes on any flat surface on the hills. A wealthy family did not need trips to the markets. Instead, the market came to them. People selling a variety of products toured the neighbourhood calling out their wares by name.
Gherek haggled from within the confines of the mansion, the solid wooden gate between her and the merchants. It felt safe here but still Gherek kept a veil drawn low over her face. Goods and money were exchanged through a small opening in the gate. There were smoked meats, wild grains, packed spices, three different kinds of oils, the freshest vegetables and flowers. Some of it would go to the store for the journey but the rest was for a farewell dinner.
The villa had its own private well that pumped water through the building. The running water kept Gherek grounded as she cooked with Shu by her side. The child had a talent for sitting silently in corners. Sometimes, Shu disappeared like the deity she was named after but Gherek always knew she was there. A lot of water flowed within humans and it never lied.
When the dinner arrived, Gherek listened to the conversation sailing in from the salon where the Juridos sat with their guests directly on the floor, four to five people eating from the same plate. As they feasted on deep fried pockets of aizen dough filled with onions, smoked mackerel, and tree grapes she had pickled herself, a griot sang about Saleh.
“Do you want to know the story of this place?” Gherek asked Shu, handing her a pastry.
Shu nodded, biting into the hot pocket then blowing.
“I was in a small village on the outskirts of Kanem when I heard that a mysterious city had appeared with diabolical implements.”
“What does diabolical mean?” Shu asked.
“It means something no one has ever seen before,” Gherek explained. “Like the pilar. People were frightened.”
“There is nothing scary about a pilar.” Shu shook her head. She must have seen the mechanical beasts moving around Saleh since she was old enough to walk.
Next, Gherek presented a four grain mix fried in her precious palm oil and garnished with flowers of the aduwa tree and okra. This was served with gazelle rubbed with pepper and roasted over an open fire.
“Have you heard the Bakirshi are back?” one of the guests asked.
Gherek stilled, wiped away the sudden wetness from her palms on her shift.
“Impossible,” someone replied.
“One was spotted a few weeks back. They say they shot her and she just kept walking. It was in the dailies.”
“I heard she fell off one of those hills.” This sounded like Sir Jurido. “Why do they keep crowding the Hez Valley?”
Water ran from Gherek's hairline down her back.
“Continue the story!” Shu said, drawing Gherek out of her eavesdropping.
“Shu, can you do me a favour?” Gherek asked. “Can you get the dailies for me from Sir’s study? Don’t let anyone see you, you understand?”
The child returned with a thick leather folder secured with a gold coin. Under the glow from the oil lamp, Gherek flicked through till she saw it. There, in the back corner of the daily from two weeks ago.
Bakirshi arise? Beware of a deceptive looking woman. Appears of Fula extraction. Silver nose ring. Eyes the colour of desert dates.
Gherek folded the daily four times and placed it in her pocket. She recalled what she saw when khoci claimed her that time: Poro and the stone.
Gherek had crossed the desert multiple times and found no community as loving as her clan. What she remembered of home was impossible, even by the standards of what existed today. Buried underground yet they still saw the sky. The earth was dark as blood and vegetation covered everything. The mounds where they lived covered in vines of the same green as blanched vegetables quickly dipped in cold water. Gherek grew up seeing women summon rain with their hands, clapping thunder and lightning with the soles of their feet. They woke each other up with water to the face, soft as a drizzle.
When she was still home and a sister who had left years ago would return, there was always a feast. In preparation, the entire area would be covered in a low fog. The sister would return and it would often be someone that Gherek had never met before. Those were the best returns, for they always had countless stories to tell. This way, even before she left home, Gherek was always connected to the outside world. Once she stepped into that world, she saw it all. Gherek had seen empires rise and collapse, had stayed on even when the humans had turned against the Bakirshi after learning to harness their gifts.
Khoci grabbed Bakirshi suddenly and without reason, leaving an image behind. Gherek knew now that what she had seen was telling her that it was time to go home, but she still was not ready to show her face to her clan. Centuries ago, when Poro had helped her leave, without the blessings of the elders, in pursuit of her selfish desire to see the world, Gherek had sworn never to return. She had been too hungry to see the outside world. She could not have waited politely for a thousand years until the elders granted her leave in her turn.
Would they welcome her back? Could she bring herself to ask? Gherek shied away from the question. At least she knew there’d be a place for the child sleeping soundly on the low bed. Gherek had called on Poro’s help before, in Sosso when that family accused her of dark magic. The entire village had put her on trial. Of course, Gherek had failed. They couldn’t drown her. Poro had saved her, entreated her to return. But Gherek had not burned out her wanderlust and she knew the elders still hadn’t forgiven her. The undying Bakirshi could carry a grudge for eons. They had few other things to do.
Now Gherek laid down on the earthen floor. She closed her eyes and let herself be overwhelmed by the waters that made her. Slowly her heart stilled and then began tapping out a message in its beat.
The floating pilar was still one of the most impressive machines to emerge from Saleh. It looked like a giant double-headed axe, the great blades rotated to their sharp tip—their many colours shining like a barbet in flight, its yellow-breast incandescent. As they boarded through the western wing, Gherek spared a thought to Na’yi working on a vessel like this. Every single thing was weighed before it was boarded, to balance the equilibrium between eastern and western compartments. From the long window of the Juridos’ suite, Gherek could easily spot the control room and the crackling ball of lightning fire that propelled this flying axe.
They would get to their destination in the early hours of the next morning. Gherek laid down fried millet flour and dried black plums for the Juridos to snack on while she and Shu wandered.
“Tell me, Shu, are you not scared?” Gherek asked, looking out one of the small windows. The earth was thousands of feet below.
Shu gave a small laugh, “Baba and Mame brought me up one of these before.”
This time, it was Shu’s turn to tell a story.
“My Baba sells things and Mame helps him,” Shu pouted. “But they didn’t let me learn the family trade. All my friends are already learning but Mame just says soon enough.”
“You’ll need a trade to survive,” Gherek said. “Why not cooking?”
“The kitchen gets too hot,” Shu groaned. “Come and see my best place!”
Shu ran ahead of Gherek and she followed her to a reading room. It was empty save for the leather bound books that lined one wall. The other had a large window that gave a better view of the savanna below them.
“You know there are animals down there?” Shu said, pointing downwards.
Gherek nodded, slightly distracted. Someone had entered the room. She glanced over her left shoulder and saw the midnight blue veils, the dark glasses. The person was mostly covered leaving only the right arm exposed showing off an elaborate scarification of three parallel lines and three half circles. Gherek’s hand immediately reached for Shu, tightening on her shoulder.
“Kindly cooperate with us,” the one said, as three more veiled men came into the room. “We come from Le’daj …”
The name hung in the air.
“What does Le’daj want with me?” Gherek spun, her hand still on Shu. There were four of them this time and even though she couldn’t see their eyes, Gherek felt them focusing on her.
“He wants to know why you kidnapped his daughter.”
Gherek glanced down at Shu and saw that she was no longer there. She blinked hard then tightened her grip. Shu was there, they just couldn’t see her.
“That has nothing to do with me,” Gherek said. She tried to be subtle as she pushed Shu away. Somewhere deep within her, a rhythm changed, tapping out a furious beat.
“Just come quietly,” one of them said. They were closing in on her.
“Please,” Gherek lifted her arms like she had done weeks ago, hoping that Shu had managed to escape.
They were closer now. One of them grabbed her arm and then jumped back screaming, holding a charred hand.
Gherek knew they would not risk shooting a firearm here. She flicked her fingers and a blade of water arced through the air. It pushed the men back, wrapped around their bodies, worked itself into their nostrils and gasping open mouths. When they were unconscious, Gherek rushed out of the reading room, shutting the door behind her. She found Shu standing quietly in front of the Juridos’ private room.
Gherek took the child’s small hand in hers and left the suite after a quick excuse to the Juridos. They hid out in a dark maintenance closet for the rest of the tip and were the first to leave the pilar when it landed the next morning. The men did not reappear.
Under the shea nut tree in the outskirts of Alura, Gherek laid down in pretence of sleep.
In the still of the night, the air shifted and her heartbeat accelerated with a message.
“Come home. We are south of Veven, a night’s journey by pilar, seven weeks on foot. We will prepare for the child.”
No mention of facing the elders for the rash decision Gherek took centuries ago. Not a word on her homecoming. They only made reference to the child. Of course they would love Shu—it had been a very long time since the clan had seen a child. Gherek imagined her sisters spoiling her. She couldn’t picture was how much home might have changed. Her clan was loving, but it could be stern when needed, just like a mother.
Still, she had Poro. One ally against the elders. Even if they were still angry, even if her sisters had not yet forgiven her, there would be one person who would welcome her home.