NOVEL EXCERPT from Plant A Seed
The rattling carts of women lining up at the public water taps pulled Ayan from sleep. She sat up, feeling the dampness between her legs, the sweat beading under her breasts and in the tight curls of her hair. Down the hall, The Right Hand blared: Colony One, it is 7am water collection time. Please report to your tap promptly to be served. Thank you, and may you be a good citizen.
Ayan sighed, wishing she could haul The Right Hand outside in the ever-burning white sun. But she knew as soon as she touched it, the Black Mambas would roar up on their motorcycles and kick in her door with steel boots. Her lower back was aching and her flow was heavy. All she wanted was to sit at her window with a cup of tea and bleed into her flannel cloths. She would have the children fetch water today.
Before she could get out of bed, Lily opened the door, casting a square of light into the brown darkness of the room. Mama. You want me to go get water? She leaned against the doorway in her short nightgown and Ayan looked at her calabash hips and said, No. I'll send the boys. Come open the shutters and sit here with me.
Lily's scarf was off, and her braids tumbled around her face; black hair threaded with streaks of auburn and gold. She sat on a small wooden stool and opened the steel shutters that covered the window. Strips of light flooded the room and made Lily's hair glow. Ayan reached for a scarf in the basket near her bed when she heard the Waponyaji in her head.
Leave the child. She must have some freedom.
But it's mating season, Ayan thought, And she's there by the window. The Mambas smell women.
Would we not warn you, if there was danger? We have always guided you. Let the child be.
Mama, Lily said, as she looked out of the window, I felt you. I know you want me to move. But I'm okay. She turned now and smiled at Ayan, her cheeks as round as when she was a baby sleeping on Ayan's chest on the holiday meal lines. Ayan drew away from the basket of scarves. Lily would feel danger in her own body if she wasn't safe. Ayan was learning to let Lily follow her own intuition.
The squeaking wheels of more carts drew closer. Baladhi and Onandi stuck their heads in the doorway, faces still lined from sleep. Good morning Mama, said Onandi, We're going for water.
Baladhi grumbled and Onandi folded his long, skinny arm and poked his brother in the side. Ayan had a flash of Salim's long arms around her shoulders as they walked the fields at night, safe in the walls of his compound and she wondered if the boys would have the steady presence of their father. Baladhi, shamed into greeting, mumbled a Good morning, and they shuffled down the steps. Ayan and Lily laughed; they were the early risers in the house. Ayan felt her stomach cramp sharply. Lily was leaving today and there would be no more mornings where the two of them sat at the kitchen table, drinking hot water steeped with herbs from the garden and planning how to survive. She stood up behind Lily and placed her hands gently on her daughter's head and prayed.
Protect her. Guide her. Let her husband be good to her. Let the women of the house surround her. May she always be among friends. May she always follow her own mind. Bless the air above her and the earth below her. Bless her body from head to toe and the children who come with ease...
It is enough, said the Waponyaji. Do not frighten her. And Ayan stopped.
Lily got up from the stool and hugged Ayan. Mama, I'm gonna make us some tea and see the boys get in safe. Why don't you rest some? It's gonna be a long day.
Ayan was too full to speak. She climbed back into bed, even though the room was stuffy. The sun was warm on her face as she slipped into sleep.
It was Christmas 2121, and Ayan was 21 and thought the world meant good for her. There was no longer snow, but it was still cool enough to wear sweaters. Ayan and her mother had on shawls, and Lily was a baby in a fuzzy jumpsuit sleeping on Ayan's chest. Ayan’s father had on a wool hat and down coat, and his eyes had the sunken look of all men just coming home from service. They were in line for the holiday meals at Rockefeller Park, where the big tree was heavy with lights, and people were allowed to camp out around small fires. At that time, hundreds came, and then later thousands, until the program was stopped. But then, warm meals were given out—meat and potatoes with rolls and sweet drinks—from Thanksgiving all the way until New Years Day. People who had nowhere to sleep brought blankets and bundles and children and stayed the entire season. In the mornings, families washed up in the public bathrooms, and oatmeal was dished out from enormous steel drums, and in the evenings, children wrapped themselves in old blankets and ate donated chicken legs as they watched the ice-skaters in matching coat and hat sets take pictures near the giant tree. At midnight, all the lights went off except for the numbers of the New Year strung across the top of the tree. Ayan would remember that year forever. At the beginning of the year, she had parents, and at the end of the year, she was alone in the house with Lily, hiding from the Black Mambas.
Ayan awoke feeling soggy. The towel she kept under her was soaked with blood. She got up slowly and carried the towel into the bathroom where she washed it and herself in the trickle of warm water from the showerhead. Just as she was starting to enjoy the lukewarm stream on her back, the faucet clicked off and The Right Hand said cheerily: This concludes today's first shower allotment. You have 3 allotments remaining. Remember to limit your showers and conserve water. Thank you for being a good citizen. Ayan sighed and shook the water from her curls. If she didn't file the necessary paperwork, Lily's departure would leave them with an extra allotment, and Ayan could finally have a proper evening shower instead of a bucket bath after the heat of the day. She reached for her large wicker basket of flannel cloths under the cabinet. She automatically looked for Lily's smaller basket to see if she needed a new supply, but of course it was gone. A sudden rush of blood trickled down her thigh.
By the time Ayan returned to her room and pulled on a loose housedress, she was drained. Dizzy, she sat on the edge of the bed and closed her eyes. The Waponyaji would come soon.
When she opened her eyes, they were standing around the bed; six velvet-skinned night women with stars for eyes, bald heads that rippled like the galaxy, and diamond nose-rings. No feet appeared under the brilliant red of their dresses that draped the floor, but they closed in around her and she felt their hands resting on her like the softest breath.
Your time for hibernation is done. You have been mourning and we allowed for that. Now you must move. Leave everything behind. Take no plants, or clothes, or things. Just yourself and your children. This will save your lives.
Move? My mother left me this house. Where would I move? Why would I go out into the world with my children?
Not why, corrected one of the women. when?
Then they were gone, and Ayan heard Lily coming up the stairs.
Water. Please. We're going to die....
Ayan glanced out the window from her bed.
Lily entered the room with tea in the dried halves of two coconuts.
They're okay Mama, playing in the backyard. I think something is going on outside.
Ayan felt her stomach clench as more blood drained slowly from her. Lily set the tea on a little wooden table the boys had made, and sat on her stool by the window, easing out of the light. Together, they looked out onto the street.
Down below, a woman in a cleaner's black dress was begging. A boy with fuzzy hair clung to her leg, a red car dangling from his hand. Even from the window, Ayan saw the white streaks of tears that had dried on his cheeks, and the beggar's face was pinched and drawn. The large sleeves of her dress flapped around her forearms as she pleaded, and reminded Ayan of her very early childhood when trash swept along the street on windy days, back when there were still windy days and street sweeping was not a common profession.
Please. Just a little. Three days and no water. They want us to die.
The woman moved from one person to another on the line, repeating herself, shaking her hands folded in prayer in front of everyone's faces, the boy with his car stumbling along silently at her side. Almost as one, the women put their heads down and gathered their children close. Trouble was easy to come and hard to leave, and no one wanted to be denied water.
A big woman in a cook's white dress stretched tight and shiny across her bosom wheeled her dripping jug away from the tap and stopped the rickety cart right beside the begging woman and child.
Hush up. Stop all that hollering before you draw those Mambas here. What did you do?
The begging woman looked down at the boy, his fuzzy hair brown with dust.
I don't know, she whispered.
The women sighed collectively. She could have talked back to a Black Mamba or said something about the Divine Leader or broken The Right Hand or kept her children out of school or not shown up to work or went to the store on an unauthorized day or shared some of her water with someone that was being punished or anything at all, really.
The cook said, Hold out your hands.
The beggar dropped to her knees in front of the water cart and cupped her hands under the spigot of the jar. The boy knelt at her side. A thin trickle of water ran out and the beggar washed her face quickly, cupped her hands and drank a long swallow, then filled her cupped hands again for the boy. The water left a semicircle on his dusty face and he smiled, lines appearing around his eyes.
More? he whispered.
The beggar was washing the boy's face and letting him drink and crying and thanking the cook all at the same time. On the line, a woman dug a coin out of her dress pocket and gave it to the boy, who looked at it and put it in his car. Another gave him a packet of hard government bread, wrapped in tinfoil., The boy held the packet in one hand, his car in the other.
Lily said, Mama, I'm gonna take them some oranges, and Ayan said, I'll wrap up a few liferoots for them to chew on. Let's hurry.
Lily rushed out to the garden while Ayan gathered a few bundles of liferoot under her window that she had been saving as a gift for Lily's in-laws. She headed downstairs and slipped her feet into her sandals as Lily came from the back of the house with four oranges and a loaf of soft bread in a net bag. They arrived outside to find a small group of women standing around the beggar, who was smiling, and the boy, who was eating some of the hard bread.
They took my son, the cook said. He wasn't even finished school, but he was tall and strong. One day, he just didn't come home. The Right Hand told me that night. Now, we get extra water, but I can't even drink it.
As Ayan and Lily approached the circle, some of the women greeted them with smiles. They had come to know each other a little, day after day, month after month, year after year, standing under the same brutal sun, hoping and praying for water, sometimes collecting it and sometimes not.
Ayan came forward with the liferoot and Lily with the oranges, and the beggar was turning to them when all the women froze at the same time.
In the distance, there was the roar of motorcycles.
Radhiyah Ayobami is Brooklyn-born with Southern roots. She holds a B.A in Africana Studies from Brooklyn College, a MFA in Prose from Mills College, and has received awards from the New York Foundation of the Arts, the Sustainable Arts Foundation and a residency with Atlantic Center for the Arts. She has been published in several anthologies and journals including Agni, Apogee, Asterix and Tayo Literary Magazine. Some of her most enjoyable work has been facilitating workshops with pregnant teens, inmates and elders. Her free time is spent listening to plants, going to her son's basketball games, and working on her first novel.