I have heard it on the rumors that when the tale-spinner’s guild gathers in its secret places, a full half of them are sworn to never tell the truth, and the other half to never tell a lie, even if it mean their life. Being one of that trade myself, I can tell you that that’s more or less the shape of it, and I tell you this so that you will know that the tale I tell you now is true, just as it happened and just as it was told to me, for I am one of the ones sworn to the truth.
First, three stolen months ago, scroll through fifteen hundred wistful words about a white woman’s transformative trip to Egypt before getting to the recipe. Only absorb every fourth sentence because your fingers keep straying to refresh Twitter. Soak up words like “nourish” and “sacred grains” and “fauna,” but mostly just stare at the pictures of bread swaddled in linen and tucked inside wicker baskets like baby Moseses, sailing between islands of polished lemons on stone countertops.
Mriti moves the blitzer methodically over the tiles. Like everything the Mohars fashion, it is silent and sleek, made of crystal chrome. It sucks up dust, spills, blood, and bacteria in micro-seconds. These were the first gift from the Mohars. How delighted the Jaani had been, Mama clapping her hands, declaring it a workers’ revolution, welcoming the Mohars with handfuls of rice and marigolds. Only Neer had rolled her eyes and snapped her gum—
Cotton. Lemon. Drone of bees. Your mother somewhere deep in the cool cave of the house. The sunlight spangling through the last dewdrops on the lilac bush. Everywhere, heat creeping into the edges of the day. Grass against the bare soles of your feet, a single stem of clover curled against the inside of your big toe. The wind shakes the sheets on the line. The cotton whispers. You run your tongue, rough with lemon juice, between your lips.
The intel is good. It had better be; three women died to get it to us. I tuck away the binoculars and crawl back from the window long enough to hand-signal my girls. Fire team moves up, drop team on my mark, support to hold position and watch our flank. The enemy might have nothing but mercs for security, but their bullets punch holes same as real soldiers’, and some of ’em are hungry enough to be competent. We’re hungrier, though.
You are here because you ignored the words of your parents and elders, your more sensible peers. You have thrown away promising careers in sheepherding or law, trade or civil administration. You bribed your way here; you stole money for your passage; you broke promises and made new ones that you never meant to keep. You’ve sailed rivers and oceans, crossed mountains and plains, and now here you are at the edge of the desert.
We didn’t ask you to come, not here, not now. Not into the deep, where we didn’t want you. Nor into our other waters, where we didn’t want you either. But you came anyway, with your ships and your harpoons and your chanting tunes. And we watched you slaughter our kin and dim their songs, and still, we did nothing. Until their blood ran red, in the cold, dark sea, and our anger ran true.
In the beginning of me, I was a bird. A magpie, although I’ve since been a jay and a red-tailed hawk and even a big, black crow, crying tok-tok-tok at every passerby. But the magpie was special: on my first day, I saw those flashing blue wingtips, and I was myself. And every day after, I woke up and flew to a shiny window, just to admire my plumage. Birds don’t last. Their hearts beat so fast, the seeds burn them out.
Now that you are dead, we will write you a love letter. It was Achmat’s idea. He worries that in our loneliness, the two of us will become like parallel mirrors, reflecting upon each other an eternity of grief. You were the strong one, he says. Our centroid, he calls you. I disagree. You made us strong. That is why we will write you a letter. Perhaps it will make us strong enough to bear your passing.
They never tell the story right. The Danish must have their heavens and happy endings, and Andersen’s tales are meant for children. We, however—you and I—know that people are people, and every one of us capable of— But the story. Once there was a vain and foolish emperor, who made up for his foolishness by a kind of low cunning. As such rulers do, he drew to himself a retinue of like men and women, who told him he was wise and humble, gracious and good.