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, and 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 for being a good citizen.
Ayan wished she could pull the bone white palm off her wall and haul The Right Hand outside in the ever burning red sun. She would even settle for being able to adjust the volume. But communication through The Right Hand only went one way; it talked at top volume, listened at top volume, and sent a silent alarm if it was broken that would bring Black Mambas on motorcycles roaring up to her door. Ayan sighed. 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.
No. I'll send the boys. Today is your special day. Come open the shutters and sit here with me.
Lily opened the steel shutters and sat on the wooden stool by the window.
Do you know how you'll start your day tomorrow? Ayan asked.
Lily shrugged. I don't know. I guess it's gonna be like any other day. Yosef will go to work. His mother will probably tell me what to do, cook and clean. But I already learned that stuff from you. I wish we could go somewhere.
Lily looked at Ayan.
Who's gonna carry the water for you and make tea in the morning, Mama?
Ayan wanted to pull the covers over her head and let the tears flow like blood. Her child was leaving home and she wasn't leaving to go sleep on the floor in someone's house and work herself to death, or to sell herself to one of the factories. She was leaving to live in a village where her husband loved her and when she had her babies, she would be surrounded by the women of the family. She wouldn't be like Ayan and end up in the world alone.
Ayan took a deep breath and when she spoke her voice was steady.
Don't worry about the water child, I'm not old yet. And I heard that there's no long water lines in the little villages. So maybe I'll come visit and take a long bath.
I hope you do, Mama.
As the sun brightened, strips of light flooded the room. Lily's scarf was off, and her braids tumbled around her face; black hair threaded with streaks of auburn and gold. The light made her hair glow, and Ayan was reaching for the basket of scarves 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 had to let Lily follow her own intuition.
What is Yosef doing now? Ayan asked, as a test.
Lily folded her hands in her lap and closed her eyes. She took a few deep breaths and her face relaxed, almost as if she were sleeping.
He's excited. And happy too. He's thinking about tonight and- and children.
She giggled and covered her mouth, and Ayan smiled.
And there's something else. I can't quite get it.
Lily's face became serious.
He's afraid, a little bit. Because he doesn't know how I know stuff sometimes. Or he might be thinking something and I'll just say it. There's a part of him that thinks I might be- Umeshwara, she whispered.
She opened her eyes and looked at Ayan, wiping a tear from her face.
Mama. Are we witches?
Ayan got up from bed and sat down at her daughter's feet.
Lily. Do you know what Umeshwara really means?
Lily shook her head, and Ayan took her hand and held it tight.
All her life, Lily had been by Ayan's side as she did her healing work. She had heard the whispering about her mother. In the small villages they visited, most of the women were married and under the protection of men, and when Ayan came by with her cloth bag of plants and potions, the children in a tight semicircle around her, the women stared and the men frowned. A woman alone, still beautiful, who didn't leave her house at dawn in a worker's dress to serve others, or sell scraps in the market? A woman alone, with three healthy children, who grew mysterious plants and called herself a healer? A woman alone who had never been caught by Mambas? She must know unspoken things. She must be aligned with forces other than herself, and who knew what those forces were? She must be Umeshwara- a witch.
Lily. I have always told you to listen for your own wisdom and question everything- even what you learn from me. Listen to the word, Umeshwara. Um means mother, but more than mother too. It's not just mother of your children, it is mother of all children. It is to mother and care for those who need you, to care for your own body and the earth. And eshwara is the universe, the stars, the angels, and all the known and unknown layers between us and the forces that create us. You are Umeshwara- mother of the universe. Through your body comes life, and in you are all the forces of the divine. Let no man take that from you.
Lily slipped down from her stool and hugged Ayan tight.
Mama, how come you didn't tell me this before?
Ayan held Lily's face between her hands.
Tell me you truly didn't know who you are.
Lily looked down. I think I knew. But I was scared. I don't want to be- evil.
Ayan raised her daughter's head.
You are created by the highest forces in the universe. There is no evil in that.
Thank you, Mama.
You're welcome, child.
They sat together on the floor, watching the sky deepen from white to red. The day would be scorching.
Those were your words, weren't they? Ayan thought to the Waponyaji.
Maybe, came their reply. But what do we know? You're the Umeshwara.
Then, the sound of their laughter.
The squeaking wheels of the water carts brought Ayan's attention back to the street. Baladhi and Onandi stuck their heads in her doorway, faces still lined from sleep. Good morning Mama, said Onandi, We're going for water. Baladhi grumbled and Onandi folded his skinny arm and poked his brother in the side- and Ayan had a flash of Salim's long arms around her shoulders as they walked the fields of his village at night, and she wondered if the boys would have the steady presence of their father. Baladhi, shamed into greeting, mumbled, Good morning, and then, Is there gonna be chicken at the wedding?
Yes, Ayan said.
Real chicken, not the fake one from Common Gardens? asked Baladhi.
Yes! Ayan and Lily said together.
Alright! Baladhi danced in front of Ayan's door in his bare feet.
Onandi said, I don't believe it. Who can get real chicken just like that? The Common Gardens lady came to school yesterday and showed us how they make nuggets from plastic bottles. How are we gonna get a chicken?
Before Ayan could answer, The Right Hand blared: Recycling is the law. Please bring recyclables to the nearest Common Gardens location. Remember, repurpose, refood, refuel! All food is good food. Thank you for being a good citizen.
Ayan held her a finger to her lips, and the boys nodded. It was easy to forget The Right Hand was always listening. She spoke loudly.
Enough of this. It's time to go for water. And take your sister's bags downstairs. Today is her day.
The boys tumbled down the hall in a burst of energy, and Ayan heard them wrestling with Lily's burlaps bags full of scarves and dresses she had sewn for herself over the last month, and the bottles of dandelion oil Ayan had sent along to share with the women in her new family. She listened to them argue about where to put the bags, and then where to find their shoes, and she was grateful for their noise and light. Finally, she heard the squeaking wheels of her own water cart and the slam of the front door. The house was silent now, like it was when her and Lily met each other at the kitchen table each morning. drinking hot water steeped with herbs from the garden and planning how to survive.
Ayan got up from the floor and pulled Lily up behind her. Gently, she guided her back to the small stool, placed her hands 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 heart. 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 again. Ayan knew she felt that her mother needed extra hugs today.
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 fill out the necessary forms, 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, automatically looking 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 forerarms 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. 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 croaked.
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 and the boy, who was eating some of the hard bread.
They took my son, the cook was saying. 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.