In the October issue of The JRB, we present three new short stories from the Goethe-Institut Afro Young Adult anthology, Water Birds on the Lake Shore: An Anthology of African Young Adult Fiction.
Water Birds on the Lake Shore: An Anthology of African Young Adult Fiction
Edited by Zukiswa Wanner
Ouida Books, 2019
Read the excerpt:
By Y Mlangiza
As the girl’s hand connected with that of the boy, the alarm beeped, like a sharp knife slicing them apart. The girl groaned, shot a hand out of the blanket and turned the alarm off. The clock had disturbed an important moment of her life—again.
He’s still here. If I go back to sleep we could continue where we stopped, she thought closing her eyes, desperate to hold on to his presence.
She felt about blindly for the clock, wanting to reset it to ring again in thirty minutes. Her eyes opened and, focusing on the time, she jumped out of bed. Six o’clock.
If she was not careful, she would be late for school. And she would make her two younger siblings late as well. She reached for a chitenje that lay on the wooden chair beside her bed, wrapped it tightly around herself and tucked in the ends underneath her armpit. She slipped into her flip-flops, hurried out of the bedroom and ran straight out.
Outside, she reached for the charcoal burner and took it to the corner of the veranda where the sack containing the charcoal sat—slumped and weak under the weight of a dog that had turned it into a bed. She shooed the lanky brown mutt away and dipped one hand inside the sack. Coming up empty of any big blocks, she breathed out in exasperation. Big charcoal blocks made stronger fires, and given the time, she needed the strongest fire and nothing short of a miracle to make it to school on time.
She should have risen an hour before when the first alarm had gone off, but she had been deep in conversation with the boy and so she’d reset the alarm. Thinking of him, she paused and smiled, laughing at her own faulty reasoning: as if one hour could ever be enough with him.
Time tended to fly when she was with him. However, much as she appreciated not being late for school, she couldn’t ignore the truth. If anything, her clock understood nothing of good timing. Take today, for example. It went off just as one of his hands grabbed a hold of her waist, the other on the nape of her neck drawing her in for a kiss. Had the clock waited just a few moments, she would by now be smiling, knowing how her lips felt as they moved under his. The not knowing, irritated her.
She wished this hadn’t been one of those days her mum needed to work the night shift at her job. But unfortunately, it was. Which meant she was the adult in her mum’s absence, the one responsible for everyone else at home. She loved the responsibility but she hated it at the same time. She loved what it implied: that her mother no longer saw her as an invalid, a burden she had to carry because God wouldn’t have given her more than she could handle.
The girl loved being seen as a capable adult. She really did. And it would have been enough, if she hadn’t seen through her mother’s façade and recognised her smile for what it was—a lie. She knew that deep down, and like everybody else, her mother couldn’t get past her scars. The very reason she hated the responsibility.
The different treatment had begun a year after the fire. The scars remained long after the wounds had healed. The girl knew she looked different. She couldn’t deny this, even after shunning the mirror for months. But she was still the same person despite her changed looks and itchy skin. She just wished others would realise it as well.
The boy seemed to be the only one who could see into the woman she was on the inside. Buried deep underneath those dark patches that were now permanent fixtures on her skin. She cherished every moment spent with him.
As she washed pieces of cassava, preparing them for the pot, she thought of how finite the hours in a day were and whistled a joyful tune. Soon it would be night again. She would go to sleep and as always he would come back. If only she could be brave enough to ask him to continue where they had stopped. Mentally she stamped her foot on the floor and growled. That alarm had ruined her perfect chance to feel those dark lips on hers.
She knew the alarm hadn’t ruined the relationship though. Nothing could. What she and the boy had was love. Real. Rare. They were meant to be. No matter what. Nothing kept him away. Night after night he came. Dream after dream he was there. As if he waited for her as she went about her day, counting the hours to the time she would come back to sleep.
For four months now they had been together. Four months of the sweetest dreams of her life, the sweetest existence she’d ever had.
She had been too naïve to understand it all when it first started.
The first day he came to her, he changed her life. He told her that she had called to him, summoning him. She had said nothing, mostly because she had no idea how she’d accomplished that feat. But his image stayed with her throughout the day after she’d woken up. Never in her seventeen years had she seen someone so beautiful—if a man’s good looks could be called that. She had thought it a weird dream, too conscious to consider the truth.
Gleaming in the dark shadows, the boy watched her as she bathed. He should already be gone by now but it was becoming harder and harder to leave her these days. So he watched her through the translucent curtain that separated both worlds, longing to be with her even during the day. These days, being with her only in her dreams was no longer enough. He longed to be part of her everyday existence, but it was not yet time. He had to wait.
The girl was one of the very few special ones. He could see it when he looked into her eyes. Faith. Untainted and pure. She was a believer. Rarely did you find such faith in a grown up human person. However, her bridge was still weak and could only be used when her mind was not working. So he kept his distance unless she was sleeping, knowing how risky it could be otherwise. When awake, her mind would fight the threads of the bridge and anyone passing through would fall into the endless pit of blackness that waited below. The connection would be forever lost, and he didn’t want to lose her. Not yet. Probably never.
He knew she thought of him often. Every time she did, even if just in passing, the threads of her bridge grew stronger. A miracle, one his friends envied him for. Most had been forgotten by their humans who had grown up and stopped believing in the power of magic. Humans had this way of listening to other humans, their minds becoming more powerful, resulting in the weakening of the bridge. And soon as humans grow older, they stop needing them, forsaking them here with nothing to do. Most of them wandered in the void of this jungle, discarded by the very people that created them. The boy used to be one of them … until he heard her call.
He had been lounging with his friends, warming over a fire, when the pull of her cry reached him. It tied strings to the five corners of his heart and tugged. He didn’t try to fight it. The echo lifted his body high in the air and the wind carried him to where the sound came from. His friends watched in puzzled silence. None of them had ever seen anything like that before. They had only read about it in the books written by the old and wise.
‘Hope is not lost to us all. We have made a life for ourselves in this wilderness and most of us are happy here. We all miss those days when our humans were young ones who could still believe and use their imagination to cross the bridge and play with us. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. It is a noble pain. And for the luckiest of us, it’s not a futile aspiration to dream of one day interacting with our human again.
‘It has been recorded in the Time Book that a few of us get lucky sometimes. Their humans start believing again, imagining things so strong it builds a temporary bridge. Then they can cross over, and for one night, play or chat with them in a dream. You must be warned however, this is rare. Don’t pause your life waiting for it to happen to you, for it may never do.’ So the books say.
The boy had never imagined that he’d be one of the lucky few, but here he was.
He plastered a smile on his face as he floated over. He couldn’t wait to see the man his little boy had grown into. Seventeen years had passed, and so he imagined a man with broad shoulders, maybe even a deep voice. His breath caught in his throat when he saw the person standing at the other end of the bridge. It wasn’t his boy nor was it a man; it was a woman. A fine looking one. One with kinky coils on her head, clear eyes and a wide forehead. She was so beautiful in her bronze skin that the sight of her made his palms sweaty. Suddenly he felt hot and he didn’t know what to do. So, instead of crossing the bridge, he had turned and sprinted away. The strings on his heart pulling him in the opposite direction hurt, but he ignored the pain. He ran to the centre of their town, where the Council of the Wise was in session. He needed to know what had happened.
But even they couldn’t explain it. It had never happened before, according to the Time Book. It was strange to be called by a person that wasn’t your human. Only one’s human knows about one’s existence in the other world. But in his case, a girl that wasn’t his human had called him over. The Council advised him to go and see what she wanted.
Before nightfall on the next day, the boy went to the Keeper of Knowledge and borrowed a book on the girl. He read all he could about her. He wanted to understand why her cry would reach him. Didn’t she have imaginary friends of her own when she was young? As he read on, he came to understand quite a lot about her. She had left her human friends behind when her mother moved the family halfway across the country after a terrible fire, and none of her imaginary friends could play the role she needed of him. She wanted love. She was starved of love.
He knew then that no matter what, he would be there for her. Always.
It was no coincidence that she had dreamed of a man who looked exactly like him. He always smiled at his good fortune. The boys in the other world were fools. How could they not appreciate the beauty that radiated from her every pore? How could they have starved her of affection so much so that she fired her imagination with an intensity so strong as to be heard in the other world? But he recognised that their loss was his gain, because he loved everything about this girl. Even the scars that ran down the whole of the left side of her body. The boys of the other world might have thought it made her ugly, but to him, she was beautiful. To him, her scars were an accessory that made her more all the more appealing.
She was flawless. He had to struggle within himself to peel away from the curtain as she walked out the door on her way to school. One day there would be no curtain of worlds separating them.
Soon, he vowed to himself.
The alarm beeped, waking the girl from the depths of sleep. She didn’t mind, unlike two months earlier. This time, she was ready to wake up at the first sound of the alarm. She had not left the boy waiting on the other side of her dream. He was here with her.
He was right here with her!
This was the best day of her life. She had been looking forward to it since the day the boy suggested he follow her to this world. She had agreed without hesitation. How could she not agree, when it was the deepest desire of her own heart?
She rolled over and there he was, seated with a bright smile on the chair next to her bed. She smiled back. This was no dream; he was really there in her room. He had left his world to be with her. Despite everything, he was crazy for her. Her. The one with the scars all over her body. The one boys never asked to be their girlfriend.
She remembered how it happened, him being here. Hand in hand they had skipped through a field of blooming flowers that lay close to the bridge, giggling like the pair of infatuated teens they were. When they had gotten to the bridge, there was silence.
‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ the girl asked.
With serious eyes he replied, ‘I just want to be with you always. This is our only option.’
‘But what about your friends? Once you cross this bridge you cannot go back—that’s what you told me.’
‘You are all I need. I will miss them but I’ll miss you more if I don’t take this chance.’ He cupped her face gently with his hands and looked deep into her eyes. ‘It’s sweet that you’re worried about me, my love. But I need you to know that I love you. Just seeing each other in your dreams is not enough anymore.’
Seeing that she still looked unsure, he added with a light tone, ‘Besides, I have already exchanged goodbyes with my friends. It’s going to be embarrassing if I have to go back.’
She giggled, all her reservations evaporating with the mist of the sound. How easily he made her laugh. That was one of the things she loved about him.
So, with one tentative step after another, he had walked into her world. As the bridge slowly dissolved behind them, it became clear what they had done. This was it. There was no going back. They were stuck together. The prospect of living with him forever made her giddy. Forever was a long time, but not when she thought of spending it with him.
As it turned out, things were a little different from what they had anticipated. Other humans could not see the boy and could not feel him, so they looked at the girl like she’d sprouted horns when she spoke with him. Her mother was the first to notice.
‘I heard you laughing. I thought you finally had a friend over,’ she had said one day, as she walked into the kitchen where the girl was chopping vegetables.
The girl suddenly realised that they had not thought everything through. She had not told her mother about him nor that he would be staying with them. Her mother wasn’t even aware that she had a boyfriend.
She hesitated before replying, ‘I do.’
‘Well, where is she?’
The girl pointed, but the mother said she couldn’t see anyone. She guided her the girl out of the kitchen, telling her, ‘You need to rest, my daughter. Go to your room and get some sleep.’
Within days, her siblings noticed as well, and they wondered why she kept talking to herself. She decided to introduce him to them but they too could not see him. She didn’t understand how that was possible when he was in front of them.
‘How can you guys not see him? He is right here in front of you,’ she said, her voice cracking, shaken by the realisation that only she could see him. Her younger siblings gave her no response, but their eyes regarded her with something she had never seen in them before.
They were afraid? Of her?
At the thought, a strange sensation travelled through her body before it clamped its cold palms around her heart. She closed her eyes at the slight tic of pain it brought and let out a shaky breath.
In her room, with the door and windows closed, she told the boy they could only talk when they were alone. He was angry at this suggestion.
‘Ignoring me, that’s your solution to this? I have sacrificed everything for you; you can’t just act like am not here.’
‘That’s not what I’m saying, and you know it! I am just saying it would be best if didn’t talk when there are others around!’
‘What’s the difference?’he asked, eyes blazing. ‘You made me cross over into your world, and now you want to just throw me away? I’m not going anywhere. I told you that I’m here to stay. I will be with you every moment of your life, like I promised.’
And true to his words, the boy followed her everywhere. He was there in her room when she woke up and when she went to bed. At school he sat on top of her desk, whispering into her ears all through the lessons, making it hard for her to concentrate.
She tried to tell him to stop but he never listened. He wanted to be with her always.
She tried ignoring him during the day, but this only made him angrier.
One day, he shouted into her ears in front of her fellow students, mocking her. He came and started dancing in front of her during break time. She waved him off but he wouldn’t leave. She tried to shove him, only for friends to ask what she was doing. ‘Nothing,’ she said.
He smirked. ‘You can’t ignore me. I love you, am not letting you ignore me,’ he continued chanting in her ears. She wished he would stop. It seemed there remained no semblance of the boy from the other world she had fallen in love with. That one would have understood why she shouldn’t speak to him in public. This was not him, and she just wanted whoever this was to go away.
‘We will be together always!’ he shouted even louder.
This infuriated her. She covered her ears with her hands to block out the sound. But she could still hear him as he shouted louder and louder.
Right then she didn’t care if all the students were looking at her. She didn’t care what they were going to whisper about her behind her back. She just wanted him to stop. And so, she emptied her lungs in a piercing shout. Fuming, she faced him and seethed, ‘I said, leave me alone!’
The other students were puzzled. They gathered around her, wondering who she was talking to, wondering if she was going mad. And maybe, just maybe, she was.
- Y Mlangiza is an alumnus of the 2019 Short Story Day Africa workshop, with stories on various online platforms including Kalahari Review and Story Ink Africa.