Another Day in the Desert
by Mame Bougouma Diene
“I’ll trip you first abba!”
Tagedouchet teased her father as she leaped over the long stick he swung at her ankles, raising a puff of sand with her sandals, the gritty substance drifting between her toes, and landed, folding her knees, narrowly dodging the swing of her father’s Takuba sabre.
She swung her stick at his knees. He parried with his own and hammered her with his curved sword. The old, wiry man was still strong. Her blade blocked his attacks, but her shoulder bent almost to dislocation. She used a break in his thrusts to roll over to the side and sweep him off his feet with a sharp spin of her long stick. He hit the ground without a word, rolled over, and leaped back to his feet.
“Told you!” she said, the thick turban wrapped around her face muffling her words in the evening sun, setting behind the dunes around them.
“It’s important for trainees to build up some confidence, and…”
The beating wings of a Han Industries helithopter cut his words short, leaving a shadow across the sand like a giant firefly.
They instinctively covered their eyes, closed their mouths and stopped breathing. Some people said it did little good — whatever radiation seeped from the uranium transported from the mines would trickle in — but they did anyway, perhaps more in disgust of the corporation than for protection.
Her father spit a gob of black phlegm into the sand at the thopter’s passage, traces left from his own years working the mines around Arlit.
“Let’s get going,” he said “the drones’ll start flying soon.”
Tagedouchet nodded, tying her sword and stick behind her back and wrapping her turban tighter across her face. She glanced nervously at the sky for the small, armed planes that hunted the rebels disrupting the Western Chinese Empire’s mining activities in the Sahara.
“I still beat you,” she said, as they walked towards their white Mehari camels. Her father threw her a glance, and she thought she saw pride twinkle in his old eyes.
Tagedouchet held her camel’s leash, following her father into the settlement. The exertion of training left her mind blank, quiet and peaceful — a quiet broken by the settlement’s habitual comedians, Ali and Issoudar, idly smoking khat in the sand.
“Ag-Hali, Mohamed!” Ali called out. “If you wanted a son so much, you should’ve had one!”
“Kala-kala, Ali!,” Issoudar said. “He’s getting old and feeble. Tagedouchet’s giving him sabre dancing lessons to keep him spry!”
Her father let go of his Mehari’s leash, unlashed his stick, and swung it at Ali and Issoudar’s legs so fast they barely had time to recoil.
“Still spry enough to kill you, Ali,” he said “And you, Issoudar, still unmarried at thirty-two… don’t even think about it. Tagedouchet is too pretty and strong for you.”
Tagedouchet smiled under her turban, tugging her camel along. They walked into one of the many small settlements around the abandoned city of Agadez. People often said she was pretty. Too pretty for the settlement. Too pretty for any of the nearby villages. Too pretty to be wasting her time riding camels into the desert and sabre fighting. She should be looking for a husband and a place to raise her own family.
“Don’t talk about marriage around me, abba,” she said fiercely.
Her father grunted. “You’re almost eighteen, your mother and I… well, I’ve always said it was your choice. But be as wise as you are witty. Time doesn’t wait, and one day you’ll find that the sand has scraped you as bare and thin as the Aïr Massif.”
She laughed. “The mountains’ stood millions of years.”
“Perhaps, but you’re no mountain.”
“…Azamane n tilyaden
The words drifted through the flaps in their tent, over the beating and twanging of the bindir and imzad played somewhere in the settlement. The lyrics fitted Tagedouchet’s mood: the time of young girls, young girls like herself, who wanted something different from their mothers, girls whose love worked in a different way.
Her mother noticed her daydreaming and smacked her upside the head.
“I bet you love this nonsense, don’t you? You think the words are for you? You’re wrong. They’re a warning for the men looking for young girls to marry. Like your father looked out for me.”
Her father grunted, sipping some eghajira out of his thin ladle, whistling along to the melody.
“And look what I’m stuck with now,” he said, grinning.
Her mother was still beautiful. In her blue dresses and made up face she looked twenty years younger. Her laugh still had the vibrancy of youth. Just as her slaps.
“They warned you against marrying a woman called Tanazart, Ag-Hali. But you went ahead anyway. Serves you right,” she said with an affectionate smile.
Her mother’s real name was Fatima, but people called her after how she behaved as a child. She’d been clever and adventurous, so they’d called her Tanazart: the defiant.
“Your daughter takes after you tamat-in,” he said, looking severely at Tagedouchet. “I hope you have a mind for heights, girl. Tomorrow you’re taking your first mechanical camel ride to the nearest oasis, I heard Ingall still had one…”
She almost yelped with joy but contained herself. Her father hated the machines that slowly replaced the dying Mehari. He hated having to use them, but it was getting harder to get water every year, farther, and the few oases left were where all the traders would be — and the freshest water supplies.
“…And no,” he finished, catching the look in her eye. “You cannot fly it yourself.”
“We’re landing. You thought lift-off wasn’t fun? Brace yourself.”
Lift-off had been hell. The sight of the ground rushing away from her faster than she had ever ridden her Mehari…it had her gut reaching past her throat to spew her mother’s millet over the world. She’d eaten a few bugs trying to breathe the air streaming past them against her father’s advice to cover her face. But landing was worse. The dusty blue tents of the Ingall settlement rushed towards her, as did the sparkling waters of the oasis by the landing grounds. A thousand parked, multi-colored, W-shaped vehicles looked like sharp teeth closing in on them. Birds flew in every direction from the network of small ponds connected by clusters of thick palm trees.
The vehicle settled on the ground in the middle of it all. It was beautiful. She’d forgotten how water had a smell of its own and radiated freshness, making the air thicker, almost a drink of itself.
She unwrapped her turban, letting the cool bathe her dusty face, wiping the sand that had slipped between the folds and found its way into her hair, to a few unexpected whistles.
“Hey! Guys! Check this out!” A group of young men yelled and waved at her from a distance.
She sneered at them, surprising them with a shake of her sabre, at which they laughed, thinking her one of the dancers who’d entertain the men at night, and blew her kisses until her father walked towards them, and they shied away in deference to his age.
“Ignore them,” he said, but even in the threating swings of her stick, she enjoyed their attention if only from afar.
“It’s alright, father, perhaps I’ll find myself a husband here.”
He missed a step and barked a laugh.
“Why is it so hard to find water?” she asked her father around the quiet fire, surrounded by men and merchants. Willowy women in skimpy pink robes danced with sabres in serpentine motions.
She had asked that question before. But no one had an answer, neither for the shortening rainy seasons. The monsoon clouds would appear in the sky and then thin to shreds after merely a few drops.
She had asked that question before, but no one had an answer, nor for the shortening rainy seasons. The monsoon clouds would appear in the sky and then thin to shreds after merely a few drops.
“Because even the water is abandoning us,” a burly, handsome man, with flowing curly hair answered, spitting into the crepitating flames.
Ané was his name. She’d caught it in passing over the last two days, haggling for water and medical supplies, tools and fabric, seeds, chemicals and electric appliances. Her father had meagre savings from his days working the mines. It was hard to imagine, but she had seen pictures of him when he was younger. He looked like he could have fought Ané and matched him blow for blow.
“I hear the Caliphate is entering agreements with Han Industries for the Reaches,” someone started.
“War-akoulagh! The Caliphate are assholes,” Ané interrupted. “They’d sell us off for a few years of freedom. There’s no dignity anywhere anymore.”
Tagedouchet wasn’t well versed in politics, but she liked his fighting spirit. So many of her people seemed resigned, watching their lives get worse every year, less water and less work, the only jobs left in the uranium mines or joining the bands of rebels that Han Industries fried out of the sky.
Her father caught her looking at the man. “I don’t know where the water’s going,” he said. “But they’re right. There will be no help coming for us. All we have left is our pride.”
“Your daughter looks strong, tonton. There’s a fire in her eyes that I seldom see anymore. Missimnam, child?” Ané asked.
“Tagedouchet,” she answered. “And I am no child.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you, only to respect your father. Issimin tahar Ané. I work the mines in Arlit.”
“Are you sure you should be complaining about those who give you a paycheck?”
“Ha! Never claimed to be better than anyone. I want to save up some kuài and have something to offer my family, perhaps enough for a bride,” he said, looking her in the eye. “Or the woman who’ll have me, bride or not,” he added with a wink.
Tagedouchet blushed. No one had managed to make her do that, not with teasing, flattery, insults or mockery. This stranger had seen right through her somehow, and she felt as if she were made of glass, all that she was since childhood laid bare. Every mischief, every tear, every carnal desire out in the open for this man, this strong, handsome man to examine and make his.
Her father laid a hand on her shoulder.
“Come now,” he said, nodding at Ané. “We need a night’s rest. There’ll be another convoy tomorrow, from the Yoruba Heartland, and we’ll have a few hours flight home. I want you to help me bargain. We’ll see what you’ve learned these last few days.”
She stood up, her back straight and proud, and nodded good night at the gathered folks, all the while avoiding Ané’s gaze.
“He’s a charmer this one. I don’t like him,” Tagedouchet’s mother whispered as Ané stepped out of the tent.
“You’ll have to get used to him,” Tagedouchet answered, knowing she was lying. She watched him sit on his camel, his purple turban and boubou blowing in the dying storm and disappearing into the sky.
“He sure has gotten used to you.”
Tagedouchet looked into the clouds. They hadn’t spoken about love in the six months since they’d met, but he’d been back anytime Han Industries allowed him, which was only twice a month for a day’s leave.
It was a tough rhythm, and he always brought small gifts, sharing a little of his uranium allowance with her father, bringing utensils and tools her mother used to cultivate the cucumber and beans they struggled to grow.
They hadn’t spoken about love because it was unneccesary. There was an understanding that required no words. Perhaps she would marry after all.
She covered her mouth with her hand at the thought, as if somehow it had made its way past her lips to become reality.
“Thinking what I’m thinking?” Her mother winked at her as she walked into the tent.
Am I really that transparent, Tagedouchet thought, following her mother inside. I’m gonna have to learn to guard myself. Ané doesn’t need to see everything…
Her father’s wails hadn’t stopped for two days. It didn’t do for a man to show so much emotion, but something inside him had snapped upon finding Tanazart lying dead that dark morning, her body empty of the flame that had named her.
Tagedouchet had never thought that the powerful figure of her mother would disappear so quickly. She’d been fine all day, complaining about a pain in her stomach late at night, and in the morning….
It wasn’t uncommon, but yet. It would’ve been so simple if they’d had regular access to a doctor, to the scans that were available in the major cities of the Massina-Sokoto Caliphate. X-rays and tests so many in the Empire or the Eastern Chinese Republic took for granted. Here, people carried festering diseases without knowing, going about their day-to-day on the medicine they could barter for at the disappearing oases, then one day, suddenly….
Her silence made up for her father’s screams but revealed nothing of the grief she tried to bury inside, to stay strong for the two of them. There was a part of Ag-Hali that had been Tanazart. They had buried that part the previous day, and he would never be whole again.
It had always seemed so silly, this need for stoicism in the men, when she knew all too well they were only an inch away from breaking from the emotions they denied. But somehow she understood, seeing her father like this, Ag-Hali Mohamed, bent over and about to break.
“Father. I’m here. We’ll make it. Together. We will. I’m more like Mother than you can imagine. I’m strong too, I can…”
But could she? Could she even be her mother’s shadow? Her father had worked and flown and bartered and haggled. He was the hide that kept the tent from the wind. Her mother had been the armature that held it up, without which there would be no tent, just stitched-up hides blowing away to sandy whims.
I’ll have to be. I’ll have to be the backbone, for him, for the family I’ll have with Ané one day. It’ll have to be me.
Her father had stopped crying, looking up at her as if seeing something he hadn’t seen before, and that scared her. In his eyes was so much reverence, so much pain, and the last of his pride, and she knew what he’d say before he did.
“No,” he said, wiping tears into his black and blue boubou. “No. You can’t fend for this old man, taliat-in. No.”
She helped him up, whispering soothing words into his ear, leading him to his sheets so he could lie down, leaving a cup of tea by his side. But he kept on muttering, either at what she’d said or the loss of his beloved, she couldn’t tell.
“Rest father. I’ll be here, looking over you. Rest.”
She stayed by his side until his old and haggard breath steadied and his chest rose and fell smoothly, like the young boy he’d once been.
When she woke up he was gone.
She rolled over expecting to see him but he was gone. In his place she found his sabre and a small note:
“Your mother carried me through the storms and monsoons. Healed me when the mines threatened to break every bone in my body. She was my flame, my water and flower in the sands. You’re too young to carry the weight of an old man like me, my precious, precious daughter. You’re too young to bear this dying burden. Go find Ané, or go find adventure. There’s a place in Jannah where I’ll be waiting for you with your mother. Where she’s waiting for me. Find life, my daughter, find love and happiness, with all the things we have both taught you.”
She ran out of the tent and found his mechanical camel still there but his Mehari gone. She looked around. Some of the neighbors stood there, their eyes heavy, their faces drawn, and answered her silent question with a shake of their heads and a shrug of their shoulders. He was gone and that was all. They were both gone, and she was alone.
Perhaps she could’ve stayed and let herself die of grief there, in that empty tent. Instead, she sealed her heart with determination, walked in and picked up his sabre, leaving her own in its place, cut the leash to her Mehari and shooed it away into the desert, walked up to the mechanical camel, turned on the engines, and flew north to find Ané.
“I can’t keep letting you do this, Tagedouchet, you’re my wife, you’ve been doing this for two years,” Ané said, coughing up bits of bloody phlegm into his turban.
“And you can?” She answered her husband.
The truth was she wished for some rest and time at home with Tantoun. Their daughter was growing, almost two now, and she had barely had a moment’s rest since delivering.
“I can still fly the amniss, just as well as you.” He snapped back.
She smiled, taking the bloody cloth out of his hands, just as a gust of wind blew some sand into their tent by the empty town of Tchintabaraden.
There was still strength in him. She’d loved that about him. She’d once thought nothing could break that backbone, or thin the thick thighs and arms he used to work his way into the future, except maybe her hips. Now it was all that kept her from resenting his weakness and constant illness. It was not his fault; she knew that. It was the Empire, them and their damned Han Industries, choking her people to death in the mines. Five years since her parents had passed, and he’d tried, he’d struggled with his ailments as she kept the two of them together, and now three. She was both her parents, one unbreakable rock, and she did love him yet, but….
“You can, I feel it when you hold me, oulh-in, and when you love me… and you will fly again!” she said cheerfully, not believing a word. “But you have to get better. Tend to our daughter. She needs someone’s love or she’ll never believe in it, and grow dry and bitter like me.”
Ané laughed and coughed up a little more blood.
“You’re as sweet as sugar cane and soft as the dunes, tarha-nin, and stubborn as the camels of old. You won’t budge an inch once your mind’s made up. Go find the oasis, but be swift about it. We’ll miss you here.”
She put her lips to Tantoun’s forehead. The golden-skinned baby giggled in her sleep, turning towards the sun outside the tent. She always turned towards the sun, even as she slept, as if her skin drank it to remain golden, and it burned within her with the warmth that told her mother she’d be a warrior one day, like Mano Dayak, or Tanest, in the old legends.
“I miss you, even here,” she said, fearing the day that would be true, “but I’ll be back soon, with medicine and more. I promise.”
She wrapped a light blue turban around her head, walked up to her father’s mechanical camel — a relic now — activated the levers for lift-off, and sped north into the desert.
The wind collided with her face, blowing away the little pearls of sweat on her cheeks, leaving a faint trail of crystal behind her camel.
It was an odd thing, the desert. Never the same from day to day — a huge dune, disappeared to the storms that covered the sky to each horizon, turning the dry air orange, but two larger ones appearing in its place. Random mountainous plateaux where temperatures would drop to almost 0 degrees Celsius, and small saps that froze while barely two hundred meters below the heat would melt the skin off a lizard.
Hardly anyone ventured to find the Imazighen since all the water had gone, and they had to hunt the only oasis left for survival.
If she were lucky she’d make it to Tamanraset before the oasis disappeared into the sands only to reappear somewhere unknown and for very little time. It wasn’t much of a life, and she had Tantoun to worry about too. Ané tried his best, but the man remained a man, and he wouldn’t know his head from his tail without her, let alone the baby’s, although as he’d put it once: “Sure I can: the head cries, the tail stinks.” She’d laughed, but it didn’t seem as funny anymore.
She wished against all hope that she wasn’t too late but knew better by now.
There would be a stream of other hunters if the oasis were still in Tamanraset, but she was the only one leaving a broken shadow on the sand. Better she completed the trek than not and caught any stragglers for information if it were gone. But she couldn’t leave home for too long.
The water was almost gone when she arrived. The trees had begun retracting into the ground, and there was no green left at all. There would’ve been palm trees and all the creatures that lived in the desert, who hid so well from the heat they’d have you believe the place was empty. It never was.
“You’ll never die alone in the desert,” her mother told her once. “There’s always a beetle clawing its way beneath you, to guide you wherever we go next.”
There were no creatures now. The dunes were reclaiming their own.
She pulled the brakes on her camel near an itinerant tent-store she knew all too well. The clunky vehicle slowed and hovered, the engines blowing more sand into the muddy water.
“Taghlassad Tini! Still here, huh?”
“Salam, Tagedouchet,” Tini responded, tying his tagelmoust turban tight around his head and stepping out of his dusty tent-store. His reddish eyes peered through the slit in the cloth. “Still trying to do a man’s work?”
“Ha! There’s no such thing as a man or woman’s job, only a person who’s good at it. Plus…”
“Ané still has those dizzying spells?” he interrupted.
She nodded. It hurt to speak about it, but it was always good to find a friendly face in the immensity.
“Yes. He’s at home with Tantoun. She’s getting older, his episodes are getting worse, and all he ever talks about is leaving for the Congolese Brotherhood nowadays.”
He was still the man she married in so many ways, and yet so different. A pride was gone that she had to carry for the both of them.
“Maybe you should,” Tini said.
“I hear they pay for water with years of their lives there, and ChinaCorp drains everything from the ground and ships it off to the Republic. This is our home and our freedom.” She shook her head. “Looks like it’s time for you to move on.”
“Indeed, but I’ll get people here for weeks. This is still a hub, or maybe I’m the hub. Plus, who knows where the oasis will come out next? In Dirkou? In Kidal? I’m old; I can’t chase the oasis forever.”
“So you’ll make your final stand here?”
“Yes,” he answered, coughing. “The sand is soft, the dunes have mellow curves, and there is shade in the Tassili N’Ajjer…I even saw a camel once.” He glanced at Tagedouchet’s machine. “A real one, I mean. A Mehari. Shinning like a pebble in the sunset. What will you need from me?”
“Hmm. Yes, that rusty old beast of yours must deplete it within hours.”
“I’m gonna have to spend the night…any news or signs of the oasis?”
“Not that I’ve heard. The Imuhagh Reaches are vast, and the oasis is small, but it will reappear somewhere. Follow me. I still have Areva-Grade slag. I smuggle some out to the coastal areas sometimes. It should hold you a couple of days.”
She folded up her carbon-fiber tent the following morning, wrapped her turban, and got back on her camel.
The sky was bright in the 40° morning. Drafts of sand laced the horizon like a veil. Tini was right; there were still real camel out there, their white hides glowing. Perhaps someone would’ve followed them to water. Just a few years ago someone still might have, but what use were they now?
A beep registered on her screen, another hunter heading down across her path. She pulled out her goggles and saw his shape floating towards her. You had to be wary of attacks. Misfortune bred companionship, just as it turned good people into monsters, but brigands seldom rode alone.
The hunter and his black and blue camel paused mid-flight as he approached her.
“On the prowl too?” he asked, his voice amplified over the wind and his green turban.
Tagedouchet nodded. “Yeah, looks like I’m gonna have to double back in a couple of days if I don’t catch a sign. My husband and daughter you know….” Double back and wait until she heard about the oasis and then borrow money for more uranium, though there wouldn’t be enough left for Ané’s medicine or Tantoun’s supplements.
“Look, taliat-in,” the man said, “I’ve been at this five years now. Used to keep it a secret, pretended to follow the Mehari. Now I wonder why I bothered. Never made much of a difference, but,” he pointed firmly south. “You can’t see it now, but at night…”
Tagedouchet stared into the empty blue sky.
“It’s a satellite, girl,” he said, lighting a tiny mint cigar that must’ve cost a fortune. “As good as Amanar for finding the oasis. It’s Han Industries. They control the oasis and the weather with it, I’m certain. I hear they’re going to war with ChinaCorp. They want us broken and gone, to drain the desert of all its resources.”
Old news now… she thought.
“The Arabs couldn’t break us,” she said. “The Europeans couldn’t break us. The Western Chinese Empire won’t break us either. The dunes move. The desert remains.”
“Yes, as long as there is one. Well, I have to be on my way. Keep your coordinates roughly around that point, you’ll find something there. Good luck.”
He tucked the cigar into the folds of his turban and sped off.
The old man hadn’t lied. As Tagedouchet headed south, hunters began converging on a distant point like arms in a spiral. Now they trailed each other in caravans over the sands.
She’d teach Tantoun about this one day, as her father had taught her, and the essentials too — how to maintain a home, grow a garden, the way her mother had.
A young boy on an electric green camel, wearing a pink boubou and turban, rode up to her slowly, shaking her out of her daydream, swinging in his seat, his skin dry and dusty.
“Sorry, auntie, but I ran out of water, afoudagh. It’s been two days, I know we’re close, but….”
Tagedouchet remembered being young. The furry stench of her long dead Mehari. Her father’s look of disgust when she’d nagged him for water. The old man had shoved his gourd into her chest so hard she’d fallen and chugged a lump of sand for it.
“There! Have your drink,” he’d spat. A few hours later they’d reached a well. She’d learned to wait since.
But this boy wasn’t a boy anymore, and they still had half a day’s ride.
Tagedouchet handed over her gourd.
“War-tachiwachad. One sip,” she said. “You’ll have to learn to plan better next time.”
The teen nodded and drew deeply.
“Where are you from anyway?”
“Gougaram. I thought it would take a day or two, followed some people east. One of them ran out of fuel and is probably dead. The other stole my water.”
“Sorry to hear that. How’d you find your way back?”
“This hunter lady. Said she was heading south-west. To an oasis in Tchintabaraden.”
Tagedouchet almost dropped her gourd five hundred meters to the sand.
“I’m from Tchintabaraden!”
The kid whistled.
“Auntie, you must’ve done something good. This water you gave me, it’s a blessing onto you.”
An oasis at Tchinta… She wouldn’t have to leave for weeks. They’d have everything they needed. Proper treatment for Ané for two maybe three months more, dietary complements for Tantoun.
“Mashallah.” She whispered.
The boy nodded, riding alongside her quietly.
Tagedouchet could barely contain herself as they got closer. She didn’t want to breach etiquette, but when the sun’s setting rays reflected on a shiny patch in the sand ahead, barely a glint through the strings of on-comers, she turned to the boy, kicking her engine into full gear.
“Come! Let me show you Tchinta!”
The kid smiled through his cracked lips and let his camel drop alongside Tagedouchet’s, a hundred meters beneath the caravan, and dashed forward.
The caravan retreated backwards over their heads. She could feel their thirst and knew their patience. Every grinding mile through the desert.
The patch grew closer; she could make out trees around the lake: robust groves of palms spreading from it for hundreds of meters. Birds had been the first to find it, adding their colors to the mechanical camels, bouncing from the treetops, and dashing for the water.
“You’re a very lucky woman,” the boy said.
“Wait till you meet my husband and daughter,” she answered, ecstatic. “The settlement should appear right there–”
“I don’t see anything, auntie.”
Neither did she.
Something inside her heart snapped. She left the boy behind, speeding towards the lake, nearly crashing into other hunters as eager as she.
Tagedouchet scared a flock of birds rising from the grove, cutting into several of them. Their bloody feathers fell from the air and onto the surface of the lake, where, at the bottom, small tents were still attached to the sand. Others floated loosely on the surface, dragged out by newcomers with hooks and small boats.
And on the shores of the lake, Ané, wearing the same yellow boubou he’d worn when she left, was being pulled out of the water, his body limp and his eyes rolled over in his head. Tantoun floated face down in the wavelets by his feet.
Her grip on the controls faltered, her body sliding off the mechanical contraption the way her youth had faded from her once vibrant skin, unaware that she was falling. The bodies drifting in the Oasis grew closer.
The wind blowing past her held all the trauma and pain of an infant wail. The same as Tantoun had eructed upon diving out of her, her child’s voice strong enough to reach into the future and let it know it had been warned. And yet, there Tantoun was floating, there she was dead, there she was….
Ané’s glassy eyes bore into Tagedouchet, his skin bloated and flaccid, his mouth twisted into a rictus that perverted the warmth of his smile. Had she really resented his illness? The illness he bore from slaving in the mines scraping a living for his family? Ané who had loved her from the first ray of sunrise?
The liquid wall closed in on her. The last hope of a dying people had killed those who’d needed it the most. I’ve lost everything, she thought, the once inviting breath of the water turning colder. A hand grabbed her wrist just as she was about to shatter against the surface, pain screaming through her shoulder and silencing the pain in her heart.
She looked up, her damp eyes blurry, salty tears burning the dry flesh of her cheeks, at the young boy she’d been so eager to introduce to her family, holding her barely a few inches above the pond.
He pulled her onto his vehicle. “Auntie! What happened?”
She saw her dead mother, her father weeping, her husband coughing, and her daughter crying. She saw them all laughing and loving, singing and dancing, struggling, every one of them, to make it alive through the Reaches of their forebears as they slowly turned into wastelands.
On the ground, children splashed at the water’s edge. The singing of the birds over their noisy play, their parents’ servile joy: these felt like a slap across her jaw, bruising her with the grittiness of a sand storm. Were they really that blind?
The boy’s eyes followed hers. His cracked lips started mouthing words but stopped mid-breath.
“Quewa manu?” he asked in condolences, inquiring about the emptiness left by the deceased.
“Quewa ichek.” she responded, realizing she didn’t even know his name. “What’s your name?”
“Malam.” he responded.
“Malam,” she repeated. “Can you land by the water?”
She stepped off the camel. Several of the villagers recognized her, whispering her name as she approached the bodies. She dragged them out of the water, shoving off any help save for Malam’s.
She laid them under a palm tree, closing their eyelids, rubbing a single tear against their foreheads, and steeling her heart as she covered them with a cloth.
There would be time for weeping later. Much later. The moment before she would join them.
She turned towards the villagers staring meekly at her, the water running down their faces swallowed by the sand in an instant. Her hands rolled into fists, her vision clearer than ever.
“Don’t stare at me. Stare at them,” she said, pointing at a Han Industries thopter flying in the distance, a carrion bird against the cobalt blue sky. “Will you stay here and gorge yourself on their sewage? Or will you remember who we were and fight?”
They were silent at first, looking at the sky and staring longingly into the water, but slowly, every one of them, man, woman and child, turned back towards her.
A bead of sweat trickled down her turban onto her nose, dropping into the sand as the Han Industries thopter pounded the air overhead, scaring off the tiny beetles scrambling around her. The armored bugs were rulers of their tiny world but knew better than to face an enemy a million times larger than themselves. Perhaps she should follow their lead. Then again, perhaps not.
Seeing them scatter calmed her down. It wasn’t their first operation, but her nerves still frayed in anticipation of having to kill.
She picked up the small mirror by her side, reflected the evening sun in three sharp flashes aimed at the dune across from hers, lifted herself up, removed the rocket launcher off her back, aimed at the insectoid ship, and fired.
On the other dune another rocket took off at the same time, both missiles slamming into the thopter in unison. Its cockpit exploded in midair, the ship dropping as its wings stopped beating, crashing into the ground with a wave of golden sand that blocked out the sun as it skid to a halt.
A ululation rose from the dunes as hundreds of Tuareg rushed the wreckage, clad in brown and beige, sabres catching sunrays in a blinding parade of sharpened metal.
The pilot and crew were just employees, technicians who didn’t have a stake in the larger corporate manipulations, innocents with families to feed just as she had. But how many innocent among her people had perished for lack of water? Of food? Of everything?
There was an old saying: when the music changes, then the rhythm of the dance must change also. She’d thought they’d lost their rhythm along with everything else.
She’d been wrong. There was still something left inside her people. Even fighting a lost cause, they burned — for themselves, for their families, for their ancestors who lent them their strength. Her family lent her theirs, and she would honor that gift until it was taken from her and she was just another bleeding mound slowly growing into a dune.
Someone could sort the innocent from the guilty then, and weigh her heart on a scale if that’s what they fancied. But not today.
Inch ‘Allah, not tomorrow either. There were many more struggles ahead, but no matter when, and no matter how they judged it, with compassion or disgust, they would be weighing the heart of a warrior.
About the Author
Mame Bougouma Diene is a Senegalese American humanitarian living in Brooklyn, NY with a fondness for tattoos, progressive metal and policy analysis. He is the Francophone/US spokesperson for the African Speculative Fiction Society (http://www.africansfs.com/). Another Day in the Desert is a prequel to “Ogotemmeli’s Song” released later this year in AfroSFv3, and also a prequel to “Apes and Satellites” published by Brittle Paper in 2017.
About the Narrator
Halima Salah is Somali-Canadian civil engineer and artist currently based in the US. She also co-curates an online zine-.BYTE.-a zine for aliens and humans. Her work has been exhibited in Germany and the UK. Her zine-making and illustration work explore alienation and technology.