My caretakers were as big as water buffalo. Their hundreds of glittering eyes and segmented arms filled my stone chamber. They came out of the ceiling and told me how to stop the end of the world.
On most days their voices rang in my mind as loud as acacia bloom, as colorful as rainfall. But this day their voices wheezed from their hanging bodies.
“Not easy.” The asymmetric panels that made up one’s face shifted.
“Complicated.” With five preening arms, this one folded the ragged orange blanket.
“To save the world from the burning that is upon them, we must send you out amongst the citizens.”
“The citizens are bloodthirsty.”
“They adore the shedding of blood.”
Sometimes my caretakers repeated themselves.
“I want to do it,” I said. “And you’ve shown me how. I don’t want the bad things to happen.”
“Responsive child. But incomplete.”
“Requires additional testing.”
“I really can,” I said. “You don’t believe me.”
They floated like bottleflies, clicking their musical hands.
“She is ready.”
Finally, they believed me.
“We have given you protection.”
“And the tools you need.”
“You will need them.”
They made coverings for my body and a little bag to put on my shoulder but nothing else. My caretakers were sometimes forgetful.
But I knew they were gods. Once, woken from slumber, I wandered the caves and cable-pipes and found a cavern of glowing smooth stones deep in the mountain, glittering with symmetrical patterns and whispering in melodious voices. My caretakers, I knew, could read these patterns and understand these voices. I stepped forward and touched the cold flat stone.
Hundreds of hands found me then, covering my eyes and ears and puppeting me back to my chamber.
On the day of my departure, one escorted me from the mountain. It shuffled down the tunnel alongside me, with the ramble of a beast who has lost a leg and must alter its gait, and deposited me at an unexceptional opening in the mountainside.
Beyond the cool tunnel, the yawning sun baked the earth with its breath. Copper-colored stone and distant savannah rippled beneath it. My companion lurched. Its clanking body groaned and hissed. Its six wide eyes shrank at the pounding light.
I knew this staggering shape: the seahorse curve of its back, the shifting cloak of cilia that hung from it, the face that opened and closed like a flower.
“What must I do?” I asked.
“Spread the seeds,” my caretaker said. “Spread the seeds, and the world will be saved from death.”
Its instructions continued. I had heard them before, memorized them. It went on, repeating itself, until it had cycled the instructions a third time.
Suddenly I understood why it was delaying.
“You’re sad to say goodbye.”
“Can I kiss you before I go?” I asked.
“This avatar represents only a fragment of us,” it said.
I hugged it anyway. I kissed it on the cheek.
“No crying, Bimani,” it said.
But it was sad too. Worried. I was sure. A hundred cilia brushed against my bare arms and shoulders, against my face.
“Seven seeds,” they said.
“These are only four seeds,” I told them, holding out my little hand. The pebbles rolled playfully, clacking against each other.
The caretaker’s spiraling faceplate opened. A claw that could have impaled me jabbed harmlessly at the pebbles.
“Seven,” it said.
For just a moment I felt fear. The caretaker clasped my wrist, and I stared up into its churning face.
“Spread the seeds,” it said. “Do not forget.”
The first time I saw a citizen, I called out and waved a limb in greeting. It fled in between sage and up tumbling shale. I chased it. When I finally got close, it unfurled six filmy crimson wings and buzzed away. If it was self-conscious or a part of an established civilization, it didn’t have any of the standard indicators.
I knew the names and identifiers of various types of citizens: lions and antelope, monitor lizards and ostriches, giraffes and hippopotamuses. None of these were visible in this biome yet, though the terrain was suited to them.
I planted the first seed by a natural basin of pure water, then crouched and drank. By the time I had drunk to satiation, the seed had made a small home for itself and was as tall as two of my fingers, opening itself—silver— to the light.
Later, as the sun was setting and I was nearing the bottom of the mountain, I wondered if the seed I had just planted was too close to the mountain. I tried to shove another into the red soil at my feet, and my arm recoiled against my will. On a second attempt, an orange light lit up within my palm and a buzz of pain dulled my senses. I reasoned to myself that if the first seed had been too close, I would have had a similar warning, and that this warning indicated that I needed to increase distance between the seeds themselves.
I moved on.
I only slept a few hours. When I woke I found myself gazed upon by a glittering congress of stars. I could identify at a glance the constellations—the Rowing Man, the Twin Foxes, the Sailor’s Ship with its plumes of fuel-smoke—and watched the thousand thousand satellites patrol like an insect army, each blinking its own color and pattern.
I missed my caretakers.
On the third day, I met a citizen.
He was young, which I would eventually learn from seeing his kin. He was playing in the thorny bushes, chasing another citizen about a tenth of his size. The quarry was desert-colored, coated in fur. The hunter—my eventual husband—had glistening skin the color of rich soil after rain, two skinny legs and arms (like me!) and eyes full of laughter.
My caretakers had prepared me for this. They had not known what species of citizen would be intelligent enough to understand me, but they had mentioned that the most likely possibility was that they would be ape-descended sapiens. This was why I was generally of that shape.
This sapien sprinted over the sizzling rocks barefoot. A wrapping of leather, attached to one of his limbs and loaded with a stone, spun as he tried to point it towards his quarry, which squealed and leapt high. The citizen let the rock fly. It missed and instead hit me in the face.
I collapsed back, emitting a cry that I couldn’t stop. The pain throbbed through me.
I heard his pattering footsteps accelerate towards me.
“Oh! Oh oh!” he cried. “Oh!”
I didn’t understand much of what came after that. He made an enormous number of sounds in a quick succession as he ran over to me, touched my forehead with his spindly, nervous fingers, and helped me up. Hot liquid burbled from my head-casing.
I was damaged. How would I plant the seeds now? My hands moved. I tried to touch my head, but my hands didn’t respond well.
The sapien lifted me with no trouble from the earth. He ran across rough rock; I jerked as he ran.
I despaired. I had already failed.
“Tito! Tito, this blue girl is hurt, I hurt her.”
The words he repeated four or five times, and only during the final iteration did I begin to understand.
“Eto,” a voice demanded. “What is this?”
Smoke from a small controlled fire filled my mouth. I coughed. I blinked away tears and looked around.
The little citizen, apparently called Eto, had brought me to more of his kind: slick with some glittering lubricant, and they reeked with a smell I had never known before. They were large beasts of the same type as the young one, almost twice my size, with detachable bladed limbs that they leaned on.
“What is this thing?” cried one of the citizens in a high voice.
“Maggots are that color blue,” said the one Eto had called Tito, “It crawled from a rotting log.”
“Too big to be a maggot.”
As I listened to them, I realized that I had been processing their language and was beginning to piece together their colloquialisms.
The caretakers said they had given me all the tools I needed; was this one?
“Then what is it?”
“Look,” Tito said, “Shaped like us, like a little girl. Just the wrong color. Sickly.”
“A ghoul, then,” supplied another.
“If she is a ghoul, what is she doing here by daylight?”
I spoke. “My name is Bimani. I’m here to save you from the calamity.” My voice rippled uncomfortably as I spoke, splitting into two voices—one my own, high-pitched and childlike, and another a thunderclap that sent shockwaves through the grass around me.
The citizens all took a step back. One tripped on a rock and tumbled onto its buttocks.
Their curiosity turned to terror, and then to anger.
“She is cursed,” whispered one.
“A witch!” shouted another.
“We must kill her before she can work her magics!”
“Wait!” cried the little citizen, my husband-to-be. “She’s hurt! She’s just a little girl!”
“No,” Tito said to those lifting their bladed arm-extensions—tools. “She may be a witch, but we must be sure of it. She must go through the cage.”
I looked from citizen to citizen for understanding, but I found none.
These citizens lived in a huddle of thatched and mud-daub huts, and there I was dragged. They tied my hands with cords of cured gut.
As my fear mounted, I started to struggle. I kicked at the legs of the one tying me. A citizen with large hands clapped them against both my ears. Another placed its foot on my chest, pulled back, then kicked hard in the same spot. I felt something crack, followed by a blossoming of pain.
I cried again. They dragged me. Tito, eventually, taking pity, carried me.
“If we kill it on the way, we cannot know if it is a witch.”
How could my caretakers have let this happen?
Fearing I would not have the chance again, I let one of the seeds fall from my hand as we walked through a dry streambed. It fell unseen into the mud—one of the citizens stepped on it, cementing it deeper. I hoped it would not dry up so close to the surface.
When we arrived at the circle of huts, the sun was blazing. My bare feet and translucent skin felt aflame. No cloud obscured the pale blue dome above us. My eyes burned, but in the haze I could see more dark figures emerging from their homes. I heard their shouts, and the shouts of those who brought me, but in my distress my understanding of their language faltered.
They dragged me forward to the cage.
The cage was an egg-shaped structure woven from the branches of a thorned tree. A primitive lock and door allowed it to be opened and closed. I watched as the citizens took a stick and used it to flip the lock open, then as one used a hook on a rope to open the door.
The thorns were as long as my hand.
I screamed and bit the hand of my captor. Surely, I thought, my caretakers would show their power now. They would have made my teeth venomous or my jaw as powerful as a lion’s. They would know my location and call down lightning. Something!
But nothing happened. With a blow, my captor dislodged me and cast me to the ground.
They tossed me in. My head struck hard against the thorns, and more blood ran down my face. I whirled around, scraping my arms and back and feet against the long, sharp thorns.
I heard gasping from the group.
I tried to persuade them to let me go. I told them (in a voice that grew more and more musical like theirs without my actively trying to change it) that I meant no harm. I told them that I was not a witch, though I did not know what that was. When they did not allow me to leave, when they did not believe me, I asked for food, for water.
The others looked at Tito. Their faces were full of concern. Maybe they believed me. I was even beginning to believe me. I heard myself blubbering things like “How could you kill a child?”
Seeing the faces of the others, I felt a feeling I never had. The caretakers were my keepers, and I loved them—but I had feared them for years. Looking into the face of a caretaker was like looking into the face of an insect. Slightly frightening, always foreign. But I could read so much about these citizens simply from those faces.
An old woman approached the cage. Her silver curled hair framed her face. Her cold hand touched my skin.
“Are you lost, child?” she asked, so quietly that only she and I could hear.
Her dark eyes locked onto mine, and I felt a storm inside me. My heart pumped so loud I wondered if it could overexert. Was she right? Was I lost?
Were these citizens my home?
But the woman was ripped away by the crowd. Tito pushed them back.
“She will stay for two weeks,” Tito said. “If she is alive after that, we will know she is a witch.”
The little boy Eto stared at me with an expression I could not read.
There was little shade in the cage.
In the heat, my translucent azure skin burned. It became opaque, then bright red, then a harsh and blistering crimson.
They stole the water I carried with me, and as part of their test the citizens gave me no more. They rooted through the tiny sack I had been given, destroying the few gifts handed to me by the caretakers. I watched as they pulled out the two remaining seeds.
The seeds were heavier than they seemed—shining and thick. They rolled in the hands of my captors.
“Talismans of her power,” they said.
“She could use them to work dark magics.”
They took great sharp rocks and attempted to smash the seeds. Their efforts made no difference. They threw the seeds into the coals of their fire, but when they pulled them forth with tongs, they only glowed a little with heat. The women of the village who spoke to one another in hushed tones took the seeds, and I did not see them again.
I watched the citizens’ lives through the thorns. I saw how children grabbed hold of the hands of their mothers, how lovers embraced. They were together as I and my caretakers had never been, and the realization ached in my teeth and in the bones of my feet. What it might be like to be cared for like that? How did it feel to be touched with love?
After that, I begged. I vacillated from pathetic moaning to shouting in anger. Once, when a citizen came close enough and put their fingers through the cage, I pulled their hand through the thorns, trying to hold onto someone. But spears stabbed through the cage, pushing me back, drawing blood from my arms and face.
“I’ll kill you!” I screeched. “I’ll kill all of you one day! You think me a witch? Just wait until the day you think yourselves safe and happy! I’ll make your entire world bleed.”
The boy Eto came to me once, after sunset. After the blazing day came night so cold that my teeth chattered. He sat nearby my prison and rested his chin on his knees.
“I’m sorry,” said he said. “That you’re a witch.”
I did not move. I felt like a tiny vessel, holding a few drops of water. Even the slightest tilt, and those drops of water would tumble and be lost.
Using what little energy remained in me, I rotated my head and peered at him.
He was a blue silhouette in the darkness. His head was shaved. With a shaking hand, he offered a waterskin through the thorny gaps.
I snatched it—using the last of my strength. My hand went limp with its weight—I barely could maneuver the mouth of the skin towards my mouth, and a handful of precious liquid spilled over my face before I drank.
“I think you are good, Bimani,” he continued.
The water was washing the dust from my throat. My voice croaked forth.
“Then free me,” I said. “Tell them.”
“But you are a witch, aren’t you?” he asked.
“Why do you think that?”
“I’m not sure why they thought it,” Eto admitted, looking down at his open palms, “but the stories say that witches change their shape. And you are different now. Your skin is darker. Your nose wider, more like ours. Your eyes were yellow when first I saw you, like a panther’s. Now they are dark like mine.”
“Everyone changes when they come to a new place,” I said, not sure why that thought had come to me.
Eto shook his head. “Not like that.”
A winged citizen cooed in a nearby tree. The moon hid behind a passing cloud, obscuring us both.
“I don’t know what I am,” I told him. “I am a child. My parents sent me far away. They wanted me to plant seeds.”
He chuckled. “My mother makes me carry seeds in a slotted pouch in my belt when I leave home. That way the seeds fall to the earth.”
“That would have been wise.” I coughed.
He laughed, then stopped himself, looking around at the tents.
“Why did your parents want to send you so far away?”
I looked into his eyes. “They sent me for you.”
My voice rumbled again when I said it. I felt an ache. My heart, which beat regularly to spread oxygen throughout my body, seemed to be spreading pain instead.
He looked at me with a pained expression.
“I’m sorry that you’re a witch,” he said, repeating himself. “If things were different, I would want you to stay and live with us.”
“Please don’t leave me,” I said, in my own voice.
Then he stood, as if ashamed.
“When you die,” he said, “I will come to visit you at the cursed tree.”
After two weeks, I died.
I was somewhat surprised by death. I had always perceived it as an end to consciousness and action. But it was not so for me.
I woke but could not move. I felt my body—crumpled in a corner of the cage, limbs angled bizarrely, starting to stink.
They watched me for another two days, until the stink grew overwhelming, and then Tito pulled open the thorn cage and dragged me out in a plume of dust.
The village gathered around me. They looked down at the wrinkled thing that was left of me. Beneath my skin they could see the steel bones and the synthetic purple musculature.
They cut me into pieces. Axes bit into me. Their hands pulled at my hands until my wrists detached from my arms; they ripped my arms from my shoulders; they dislodged my head from my body. There was no pain. Just the detached tugging of skin ripping, the thunks of bone breaking.
After that they threw my pieces into a net and carried me a long way. From my place in the net, I watched the clouds in the bright blue sky until a leap across a stream caused my head to flip over and end up with me facing the orange soil for another three hours.
As they transported me, I tried to send a message to the caretakers. I could make no movement and could not speak, but I tried to reach out to them, to cast my thoughts like a flower casting its blossoms.
No reply ever came.
Eventually they reached their destination: a twisted, blackened tree in an open plain. I heard a grumbling; when they turned, I caught a glimpse of thick black clouds on the horizon, and tent-stakes of lightning stabbed into the earth.
“We cannot stay long,” Tito told them. “From now on this twisted tree will be cursed. It is a place that no children are to wander and no one is to disturb. Evil things never sleep, and neither will the witch. We can only warn others where she lies.”
They buried my separated limbs under the tree. They pressed my eyes face down into the soil.
The last thought before the soil fell on top of me was that I wished I could have seen Eto’s face. Did he regret his cowardice? Did he regret trying to help me? Whatever he was thinking, I would never know.
Then the darkness tumbled around me.
I could sense the world above me. Lizards skittered across my sandy grave. Some time later, a sprinkling of rain drummed at the periphery of my consciousness.
The boy Eto came to visit.
At first I didn’t believe it was him. I assumed a heavier citizen was above me, a canine or ungulate. But the rhythm of footfalls indicated it was bipedal, and I heard his voice.
“I’m sorry it took me so long,” he said. His voice was deeper now than it had been.
He was quiet for a long time, as if I could reply. I was glad that he could not see my body’s scattered parts.
“You didn’t deserve this,” he continued. “You deserved another chance. You could have been my friend.”
The rest of his words were too soft for me to hear. Eventually he departed.
I wanted to reach out to him. Under layers of soil, my severed fingers stirred.
Fire cannot last forever, especially underground.
Soon even the memories of my destruction had changed, and amid all the ashes instead I saw the people. Their village. The boy who came to me.
And I thought of my caretakers in their dark and silent mountain. How they never touched me. Never spoke to me except as a vessel of their work.
The humans might have cared for me, had I not seemed a monster.
Dying is not as bad, I thought, as living without love.
Soon enough I dreamed of my caretakers.
“You must not fail,” they said. “Must not be stopped from your purpose.”
Their dangling bodies dripped with cobwebs. Their cracked glass eyes flickered faintly.
“I tried,” I told them in my dream, “But I’m not strong enough. You made me weak and small.”
“It was a necessary shape,” the dangling gods declared, “required to gain the trust of the citizens.”
“And how well did that work?” I demanded. “You made me too ugly, too different! You were fools. You were unprepared.”
“It was a necessary shape,” the caretakers repeated. They hung there stupidly, regarding me.
In my dream I wheeled away and stomped out of the mountain, into a pouring rain. Rivulets of mud danced down the slopes.
From that dream vista, I could see the village down below. The young boy Eto with his gesture of kindness, the old woman asking if I was lost, the faces in which I could read the landscapes of a future.
“You deserved another chance.”
A thousand times, in a thousand dreams, I heard these words repeated. Another chance. To be a person, like him. To be a friend. To have the woman ask, “Are you lost?” and run into her arms.
In my dreams I shouted through the rain back at the mountain: “If I ever have another chance, I won’t care about you or your broken plan! I will go to the people, I will beg to be welcome among them! And I will be good to them—truly good.
“I will have my own life.”
Even in my dreams, the mountain didn’t answer.
But with my yearning, I sent ligaments pressing out of my limbs into the soil, like the fingers of fungi. The tendrils strove towards one another, at a pace of months and years.
I continued to yearn.
Years after my dreams had faded to occasional flickers like distant lightning, an earthquake shook the land.
I felt it coming through the roots of the world. I felt distant hills sliding into ravines as if they were piles of sand. The ancient tree where they buried me, the thing they called the Curse Tree, toppled.
I was thrown to the surface—my severed head, part of my torso, and my left arm.
After lying in the sun for a few weeks, I wriggled out and washed myself in a pond until it was red with silt. I clawed through the soil with my teeth until I reached my torso, and the sprouting tails of ligaments began to tie into one another. Pink ropes of coiled sinews sought each other out; brittle bones thunked into place and smoothed over with skin. I tugged away a curtain of hair and stood. My head drooped on my chest.
I was hungry.
I found the decaying corpse of a fat herbivore citizen, a few days old. It had been largely scoured, but with my one good hand (the other was a dangling mess of fingers) I cracked open the ribs and drank the marrow from inside.
It was the most delicious thing I had ever tasted.
My hair was long, dark, and curled tightly—far different than it had been when I emerged from the mountain. I cut it as well as I could with a sharp rock, leaving my scalp a bloody mess.
I rose bloodstained and broken. Having eaten and drank, my limbs began to seam themselves back together with renewed vigor. My fingers wove closer to my palm.
In the drunkenness of my first meal in years, I took in the wreck of the cursed tree, the undulating grasslands, and the pink sunrise. After so long seeing nothing, the vista was overwhelming—gratuitous. But I did not stay long.
I knew where I had to go.
I came across a tree on my way towards the village.
It drew me from a distance. Its silver bark glistened pink in the dawn light, and its wide mirror-leaves were a kaleidoscope of rose and orange.
It stood in the dried-up streambed, twenty feet tall, so thick around it would have taken three of me to fully surround it.
I stared at it for a full minute before I realized where I was.
I had been carried across this streambed years ago. I had dropped one of the caretakers’ seeds. And this tree had grown from it.
I put my hand on its cold, hard surface. No fruit or blossoms grew from its shining branches. It had another purpose—one that my caretakers had never told me.
“I do not serve you anymore,” I told the tree.
The village was gone.
I knew the place where it had been, at the curve of a river. Now the river was gone, and the meadow where grass huts had stood was empty. The grass, long trampled by their feet, had not fully grown back.
At the edge of the clearing, a winding line of tender new grass showed me the beginnings of a path to their new home.
It took me three days to find them.
A child, no older than five years, was the first to see me. She shouted and pointed a finger.
Others soon took up the call as I came closer to the circle of huts. When I had first come among them, their faces had been alien and unreadable to me; now I could read their expressions as easily as the weather. They were not angry; they were afraid. Some, seeing my wounds, were concerned for me.
“Hello,” I said quietly—the noises barely emerged from my dusty throat. I held up both my hands to show that I carried no weapon.
A crowd of citizens—people—encircled me. They wore the skins of animals and leaned on spears. All of their creations were decorated with shells and beads, and so even standing still, they made a sound like the beginnings of rain.
An old woman was foremost among them. I had seen her those years ago, before I was murdered, but now she wore a beautiful woven garment and her eyes were whitish with the wisdom that comes upon the old, taking their sight in exchange for understanding. Her knotted, wrinkled hand gripped Tito’s spear tightly.
Not knowing what to say, I nodded.
“Do you know us?” the wise woman asked. “I can see wounds on you. And you are far too thin.”
“My name is Bimani.”
The wise woman’s eyes narrowed. “Where do you come from, Bimani?”
I was distracted—a wiry, tall man pushed his way through the crowd. When he came forth, I thought him Tito at first—the man who had led my murder. I recoiled.
But then I saw his kindly eyes. His mouth opened and shut foolishly, like a fish’s. I knew who he was.
I spoke. “Eto.”
The village was silent. Eto blinked hard.
“I... I know you, don’t I?” he asked.
“We met at the gathering of tribes eight years ago,” I told him, amazed at my own creativity, “I was but a girl then.”
“There has not been a gathering in ten years.”
I let out a ragged breath of apology. “I may not remember everything well. Things have changed. My tribe was dying of drought. There was infighting. I was hurt before I could get away.”
“We know of drought,” the wise woman said. “This is why we moved on.”
“You are not afraid of me?” I asked. “Where is Tito?”
“Tito died three years ago,” said the older woman.
“We are not afraid,” said one man with greying hair—I remembered him as a younger man, wielding an axe that had severed my legs from my body. “But the seasons have grown harsh. There is not much food.”
The silence that followed served as grim confirmation.
Eto stepped forward and addressed the village. “I will provide her with food. I am not married and have no children, and I work as hard as any.”
He turned to me and held out his hand.
I strode to him across the sand and kissed him.
Blood roared in my ears, so much that I barely heard the sound of the village laughing.
I stepped back. Eto’s face was still paralyzed in surprise.
“I’m sorry,” I said. I could feel the blood in my cheeks.
As they laughed again, I knew I was welcome.
“A beautiful girl, arriving at the full moon!”
“And now Eto takes her into his house!”
Some of the talk of me was spoken to my face; the rest I overheard. I did not mind it. Even gossip, here, was a form of acceptance.
I woke in the mornings on a bed of grass and looked out the little window at the dry savannah and laughed to myself. For seventeen years there had been only silence underground. Now, I was never alone.
The land around us was scorched. We knew only a few trees that grew in the region, and none that bore fruit. The animals that ate of the thorny bushes gave only meager meat, and as the rivers had narrowed, the waterbeasts—hippopotamuses and creatures the villagers called kugos—moved elsewhere or died. Predators—panthers and auran—fought viciously and yielded little meat. The people, with seeds in slotted pouches at their belts, planted hardy plants that yielded tasteless rice.
They were desperate. Each season at least one person died of hunger, or of sicknesses that had claimed them. And yet they were a happy people.
Folami, the wise woman, called me over whenever she saw me, whether she was sitting in the shade of a hanging cloth or under the acacia tree or in her hut. Sometimes it was with a reason, teaching me about some local plant or about a quirk of a neighbor I should remember so as not to upset them. At other times it seemed that she only wanted to talk to me.
The caretakers had only ever spoken to me when it was required.
I learned the names of the villagers. Harith who loved to sing while tending her garden; Pemba who fell asleep everywhere, whose head always had a little sand on it from falling unconscious off a sitting place; Ruzi who was angry in the mornings and a great friend to everyone in the afternoon.
More than the rest, I came to know Eto.
He was afraid of me at first. He would let me sleep until the afternoon rather than wake me for food. He would sit with me for a few minutes, talking, but then ‘leave me to my time,’ he called it, rather than stay. He brought more food than I could possibly eat, barely eating himself.
After a few months, I married him.
The day before the ceremony, Folami came to the hut. She bent to enter the door and sat cross-legged on the woven-grass earth-covering, groaning as she descended.
“Someday you, too, will be this old,” she warned me.
I thanked her for coming to visit me, thanked her for blessing the marriage. She waved my formalities away with a wrinkled, speckled hand. From a satchel she brought forth a dried lamuba seed husk, as large as a skull. Some used them to carry water over long distances; others made them into resonant musical instruments. This one had been cut in half, hinged at one end with resin and cords.
“I was given these to destroy,” she said. “Never could. Perhaps they could be a bauble to you for an earring.”
Tears were invading my eyes. “You are too kind to me,” I said.
I opened the husk—the rich smell of the lamuba tree wafted up from it—and my heart felt as if stabbed with a knife.
The two remaining seeds my caretakers had given me were there, cushioned with dried grass. They gleamed in the evening light.
My expression must have revealed my distress.
“Are you all right, Bimani?” Folami asked. But when I met her eyes there was more than concern there. There was curiosity.
“I...” I couldn’t gather the words together.
I looked down at the seeds. In my head the voices of my caretakers suddenly rang.
Spread the seeds.
“It is you, isn’t it?” Folami asked. “From all of those years ago? You were the witch that Tito killed.”
My hands were shaking. What would she do if I said yes? Would she call the village together to kill me?
“How did you live?” she asked. “What are you?”
“I... I don’t know,” I said. “I woke up after the earthquake. I have forgotten so much. I came to plant seeds...”
Folami nodded, although nothing I said had made sense.
Tears ran down my face. “Please, let me live,” I begged.
Folami watched me sob for the space of a few breaths, then reached out and took hold of my hands.
“Does Eto know?” I asked.
“Eto is like many men,” she said grimly, “he will not question sorcery if it comes in the form of a beautiful woman.”
The words seemed a jest, but there was no mirth in either of us.
“All cursed things have a source,” Folami mused. “Diseases from rotten things. Snakes from dark holes. Do you know where you come from?”
“Yes. But it is behind me. I am a woman, like you,” I said pleadingly.
Folami’s eyes were full of tenderness. “We all feel, at times, that we come from another world; that we only have place among our fellows by their mercy.”
She was looking out the window. She turned back to me and smiled. “I know that you mean us no harm, Bimani.”
She held out her hands to me, palms upward. I took them in mine, bent forward with my sobs, and cried into her hands.
Eto and I were married under a dying acacia tree. I wore the two seeds of the caretakers as earrings, but afterwards I put them away in the lamuba husk, wrapped them in furs, and hid them.
Eto gathered his friends to make a mud hut for us, far more spacious than the cave where my caretakers had raised me. For the first weeks of our marriage, he showered me with kisses at every opportunity, until I became annoyed with them; later they came less frequently but meant far more.
The years pressed into me like the fingers of a good husband rubbing a sore shoulder—each one a painful part of a pleasant pattern. With each year I felt a loosening like a tight braid being undone, a calm like a warm summer’s day.
I forgot many things. I stopped thinking of all living things as citizens and learned their names instead: five-horned rimodons and chittering lupepettes. There came a day when I realized it had been months since I had thought of the caretakers or the end of the world. It seemed, finally, that their task was behind me. Our world was brutal, but perhaps it had always been so.
Folami and others spoke often of children. I felt certain that I was not the same as them and could not bear as they did, but I was wrong. One summer I grew somewhat ill, and Folami, who visited, was all smiles. When I understood what she meant, twin feelings of dread and joy wove together within me like two reeds.
I had not one but three children with Eto: Onika first, with her glittering silver eyes; then Thandiwe who would not stop moving; then Zawadi who loved to sleep. I was not alone in raising them, like the kugo or the orangutan; the village provided, and I watched the children of the others just as they watched mine.
They filled my days with small crises and small solutions. Onika filled my ears with questions and theories; Thandiwe climbed everything, starting with me. I would find both of them trying to eat dirt and rocks—many children did, during the lean months—and reprimand them. And Zawadi was still enough that I could hold her close for as long as I wanted.
Folami died a few days after Zawadi was born.
I had visited her the day before. My children had whirled through her house. Folami had answered Onika’s questions as best she could, praised Thandiwe’s agility. She had cupped Zawadi’s tiny head in her hand.
“Children are our reminder that we belong in the world,” Folami said to me. It’s the last thing I remember her saying.
My nightmares returned.
Spread the seeds, and the world will be saved from death.
Visions of flame and decay. Fields covered in rotting corpses of citizens. A world devoid of life.
For two years I kept the final two seeds hidden away in the lamuba husk, wrapped up in hides. I dreamt of them every night, of taking it in my hands, of finding rich soil for them. I dreamt of a tree sprouting up in an instant. It churned and hummed, and soon, rich water poured from its branches.
Night after night, I woke up with a fever, with my mouth dry. My hands itched for the seeds. I was halfway to the husk. Eto stirred on the bed.
But always I stopped myself. I had made a promise beneath the tree I had planted that I would live my own life, not that of the caretakers.
And then a day came that I looked in the husk and the seeds were gone.
“Who has gone into this box?” I asked my children, desperately. “Thandiwe, did you feed your sister anything strange?”
My eight-year-old did not look at me. He was trying to climb the house. “I didn’t feed her anything.”
“Zawadi, did you eat something from this box?”
The three-year-old’s face was blank.
“Box,” she repeated, not understanding.
“Where is your father? Where is Onika?”
And then I saw Onika and Eto returning to the village. I stood in the doorway, the lamuba husk open in my hands. Onika saw me and stopped, a look of fear on her face.
“I didn’t know what they were,” she said.
“You snuck into my room,” I hissed. “You took them. Why? Why??”
I shook her.
“What is this about?” Eto asked me warily.
I shot him a look that quieted him.
“I don’t know, mama! I felt like I should take them. They were pretty! They’d been kept there forever—how was I supposed to know you didn’t want me to have them?”
“And where are they now?” I demanded angrily. “Where are the seeds, Onika?”
Onika was shaking, holding out her hands as if I was going to strike her.
“Where are the seeds?”
“I took them from her,” said Eto. “We planted them. Onika didn’t tell me where they had come from.”
My breath heaved. I stared at him.
“And there was good soil?” I asked Eto.
His eyes narrowed at the intensity in my voice. He shrugged. “All the soil is bad these days. But it had rained a little. People are planting on the eastern edge of the village.”
I looked at Onika. Her silver eyes watched me in terror.
Despite the efforts of years, the seeds had been planted. The caretakers’ wishes had come to pass.
Could the caretakers control my child? Had they made her do this?
I recoiled from her as if she were a snake that had bitten me.
I went back to the tree I had planted in the streambed.
It stood three day’s travel from the village. I told Eto and the children that I needed to visit my old village. He did not understand at first, but after much explanation, he ceded to my will. I packed my things—as well as a pair of strong spears—into a roll of furs and went out on my own.
When I left the tiny valley where our village was hidden, I found the landscape desiccated. Skeletal trees and calcified bushes dotted the red wasteland. The few beasts I encountered were emaciated or desperate, and I fought off a ghoulish lioness that died after barely two blows with the spear. The world rippled with an unquenchable heat.
I looked up at the mountain’s great shadow. I could hike up it and find the entrance. I could try and speak to them. My heart drummed at the thought.
But I did not.
The tree stood at the base of the mountain. It was three times as tall now as it had been when I had woken from the dead; its lowest branches were four times my height. Despite this impressive growth, no oasis surrounded the tree. If the tree was meant to save the world from its death of heat, then it had failed. The gleaming foliage was so hot that in the sun I could feel the heat radiating off of it, and I knew that if I touched it I would be burned.
“I don’t know if you can hear me,” I said, “But I need to speak to you.”
I looked at my own face in the mirror leaves.
“I am not your servant anymore,” I said, “Not your child. I am human. I do not believe there is a calamity coming—or if there is, I do not believe you can stop it.”
Still, there was no answer.
“But you are interfering. My child’s eyes are the same silver as your blazing trees. She planted the last of your seeds.”
I raised my voice.
“Perhaps it is only an accident, only foolishness. But you have always been there in my mind. Trying to change me. You made me a suitable shape for the people. You gave me the gift of changing, the gift of language. But your task is done.
“Leave me and my family alone.”
Heart pounding, I took one of the spears from my pack. I struck the tree with it—a clang echoed across the dark landscape. With the next blow, the spearhead shattered into pieces.
With another spear, I dug at the soil around the trees. If I could reveal enough of its roots, I thought, I might be able to rip it down.
I dug deep, at first with the spear, then with my hands, then with a slab of rock. I went as deep as my arms could go, but the roots were thick. In fact, they grew thicker, all of the same shining material.
Those roots could go on forever.
What could their purpose be? Unease stirred within me.
I felt almost nothing during my return from the tree, as my footsteps crunched beneath me in the cracked earth. Had the caretakers even heard me? I couldn’t know.
But on the third night of my journey back, I continued walking long after sunset—even though the cold became nearly freezing. I looked above at the same blanket of stars I had seen ages ago. Once, the caretakers had told me that they could speak to the shapes that moved in the abyss—that satellites could hear their signals, and that they could send commands.
But as I looked up, I saw nothing. The stars were hidden behind banks of clouds. I believed, in that moment, that the rest of my life could be one of peace.
A few hours later, I saw the light of the village. I was surprised there was still a fire—it was the middle of the night. But as I came close I heard shouting. Several of the women of the village came running towards me.
“Bimani!” they cried, “Bimani! You’ve returned!”
“It’s late for a party!” I called, laughing.
“There is no celebration,” they answered mirthlessly. “Your daughter burns with sickness.”
A twisted relief washed over me. A sickness! A natural crisis. That, I could handle. I could hold Onika for a few days, get sick myself, comfort her, and soon all would be better.
“I see. What is it?” I asked calmly. “Has her bleeding begun? Has she been struck with fever?”
They looked at one another, sharing the look a mother fears most—uncertainty. Whatever was happening to Onika, they had never seen it.
I rushed to the mud house. Onika lay on the floor on her side, glistening with sweat, contorted in pain. She twitched. Her arms pointed upwards in grotesque motions, then dragged through an arc as if she was drawing on the ceiling of a cave.
Her blood was close to her skin. Drops of it bubbled through and smeared across her forehead. Her eyes were closed.
“Onika,” I cried, “Onika, I am here. Your mother is here.”
I grabbed hold of her, and her eyes snapped open. Her hands clutched me.
“Mama,” said my child, tears streaming from her eyes, “I can feel them coming. Great visitors made of stone, to tear down our house.”
I held her close. “You’re feverish, Onika.”
“They’re coming.” She shook. “I can feel them.”
I gripped her tightly. “Nothing is going to hurt you, my dear. I promise. I’m here to help you.”
When she spoke next, it was with the force of an avalanche. The house rumbled. Her silver eyes seemed to glow.
“We have one purpose, mother. We must save the world.”
She collapsed, instantly unconscious, and drooped in my arms. I barely caught her before her head hit the dirt floor.
Her skin blazed. It burned my hands to touch her, but I did not let go.
She carried my curse, the power of the caretakers, and there was nothing I could do about it.
With her in my arms, I remembered the scorching heat I had felt inside the cage, when I had been tortured. Those memories were buried deep, but they bubbled up. I remembered how not only my appearance but my voice had changed. I had learned their language so quickly, had imitated their mannerisms so easily. Why had I been so quick?
And why had the people accepted me so easily after I had awoken? Why did I love Eto as I did? From where did these feelings emerge?
I was wrenched back by screaming outside.
“What is it, Eto?” I asked, when he came to fetch me.
“You need to see for yourself, Bimani.”
“I can’t leave her.”
“I’ll take her. Go.”
The village was all standing outside of their huts, staring upwards; impossibly in that night, they were all illuminated with a bright light. They looked like the worshippers of a dread god whose advent had come. I looked up and immediately had to throw my hands in front of my face to brace myself against the glare.
When my eyes adjusted, I could see it for what it was: a great fire, larger than the moon and wreathed in purple flame, tumbling from the sky.
For a few moments I was certain we were about to die. It seemed to be falling straight towards us.
But it did not. It careened. It arced westward, away from the mountain. It became a soaring arrow, trailing a haze of smoke and fire. It blotted out the stars.
Was this the caretakers’ doing?
When it struck the landscape, the dried land rippled like fabric. Three houses in the village were thrown upward and tumbled in pieces some distance away; trees collapsed.
The earthquake ended in moments, but the smoke continued. Dust from hundreds of miles of wasteland soared into the air; it filled our view until we could barely see ten feet.
The dust storm continued to billow for days. It filled our houses. We wore cloths over our faces.
Eto led a party of men out into the storm, looking for it. What had it been?
On the second night, Eto returned. He removed his dust-covered clothing without speaking, set down his spear and his satchel.
He came to the doorway, staring at me. The oil lantern in his hands cast a grim light onto his suspicious expression.
Onika was curled in my arms. I held her tightly, so that no stone from the sky could come to her.
“What did they find?” I asked.
Eto had always been a man whose inner feelings were apparent—it was a trait he had passed on to Onika and Thandiwe. But now, his face was as unreadable as stone. “It was made of water.”
“Water?” I asked, stunned.
He pulled forth something from his satchel—a dust-covered chunk of rock. He came close and wiped the dust from it, revealing a transparent crystal the size of a skull.
“It melts,” he said. He licked the crystal. “It’s water.”
I pressed my palm to it. It was cold. “Water-stones from the sky?”
“Something horrible is happening,” Eto said. “Our daughter falls ill, and declares that a stone visitor is coming—and then a moon falls from the sky, destroying a village to the northeast. The land around it is scorched. A few miles closer, it would have killed us all.”
“We were lucky.”
He nodded absent-mindedly.
“On the return, we stumbled onto a tree. A great silver tree, from which no fruit grew. Have you seen it before?”
“It was spouting steam,” he said. “Hot enough that a man who put his hand on it may not recover.”
The asteroid, then the trees. And Onika... I shuddered. The caretakers were acting. How, I did not know.
He did not need to say the rest, but he did. “It is like witchcraft.”
“It is a cursed happening,” I agreed.
He continued to stare. “Bimani...” he said.
I did not look away. His face twitched in anger. But to his credit, the anger passed through as his eyes fell onto his daughter.
“Eto,” I said, “I am no witch. But there is witchcraft here. And if I go now, I might be able to stop it.”
“Our children are dying, Bimani, and you want to run?”
“I’m going back to where I came from, Eto. To the mountain where the dangling gods sleep who are trying to destroy us.”
He was still. The dust storm wailed outside.
“Why were you sent here?” Eto asked me after a long while.
“I don’t remember,” I said. “I only know that I’m here, and that I must do something.”
“You’re like all of us, then,” Eto answered. He kissed me deeply. I set Onika down and kissed him in return, passionately.
“Mama?” came a voice from the other room. Even now, with the world ending, there was never a chance for a moment of peace.
“What is it?” I asked.
Thandiwe stepped in, carrying his sister. “Mama, I feel sick.”
Eto looked at me with fear in his eyes.
“It might be as it was for Onika,” I said frantically.
“I don’t understand,” he said.
“If I succeed, and the caretakers are destroyed, all this may go away.”
I crouched down in front of them and kissed my children. “My children, I love you. Listen to your father. I will come back.”
“You can’t go, mother!”
“Shhh,” was all I could say.
On the second day of my journey back to the mountain, the rain began.
The dust had threatened to misdirect me until I could not find the mountain; it had nearly suffocated me. The rain was almost a reprieve.
It soaked me to the bone immediately. There had never been a storm like this, not in the decades I had lived in this land. It pummeled the dust storm into the earth until the landscape churned. I finally could see the mountain—now a hulking shadow.
I shivered with cold. Though it was morning, the world took on an evening darkness and the heat was sapped from it.
I passed the same trees as my first visit. From their silver tops spouted enormous clouds of heat—the clouds of boiling mist could be seen from a great distance. Why would the caretakers want to send more heat into the sky? Were they pumping it from the ground with their extensive roots?
For a moment I felt my old memories—that the world needed water. That a flood would come to save the world.
I looked up at the sky.
The flood was here.
Ascending the mountain was like tromping through a river of mud. My furs were coated in it; my hands and feet grew monstrous and unrecognizable, covered in caked mud.
On the horizon I saw a thousand flashes of lightning.
Eventually I reached the entrance to the cave. It was closed off—a slab of shining stone had shuttered it. From here, I could see the entire landscape—it was a perfect vantage point.
“I am here!” I called into the storm.
“We see you,” said a groaning voice. In the pond of mud before the door, devices were churning. The rocks beneath my feet rattled, then began to open, revealing a dark mouth beneath. I leapt back. Mud waterfalled down into the new cavity as something emerged.
It was one of my caretakers. Its spiralling faceplate blossomed, revealing six eyes as wide and bright as I had ever seen them. Rain washed the mud off of it.
“Something is wrong!” I shouted, “You said there were seven seeds—only four have been planted. You told me we were going to stop the end of the world, but you are destroying everything.”
The caretaker’s back arched like a moth rising from its cocoon. It twitched. Glimmering eyes unfolded all across it. They glowed.
“We have succeeded. The seven seeds have been planted.”
“Where are the other three?” my voice was already hurting; soon I would be hoarse.
The caretaker lifted a many-segmented limb, with four enormous fingers. It pointed in the direction of my village.
“The three are gathered. The locus is ready. They have triangulated the point of descent.”
“Those are not seeds—that is a village of people!”
“And three of them are your children.”
“I... my children?”
Onika. Thandiwe. Zawadi.
“The seeds were inside me?”
“Three of them were inside you. The seeds are your children. This task is complete; you are to thank.”
“You’re repeating yourself. You are malfunctioning,” I said, remembering the terminology they used to use. “And... what do you mean? Why children? Why not trees?”
It nodded with the patience of an instructor. “The trees required only a simple pump and solar heat generation to extract water from the aquifers. But the meteoric guidance systems are far more complex. We lacked the necessary metals—but your seeds gathered those on their own.”
But I barely listened. I was shaking with rage.
“Can’t you see what is happening? You’re going to kill them all!”
The caretaker turned its eyes to me. I could know nothing of its inner feelings. Was it laughing at me? Was it compassionate? Was it confused?
“Our purpose is unchanging. The citizens you care for—and their children—will suffer in the flood. They will learn to survive. Those that follow will grow up in a world with more food than they can imagine. They will be safe from drought, from extinction.”
I swung the spear.
Sparks sprayed as it met the creature’s hardened skin. I swung again, and a thick musculature of wires split, collapsing a limb. Hot steam sprayed from a severed tube.
One of the caretakers’ iron hands caught hold of the spear, gripping it with such force that it felt to me as if it had been buried in rock.
I heard more machine movement behind me; another shape like a spider.
“Please do not attempt to destroy us,” said the glowing-eyed caretaker. “We have work still to do.”
I jerked at the spear with all my strength—it moved not a hair’s breadth. “You have to stop this. Turn back the process.”
“It is already done.”
The spear snapped; splinters flechetted my skin. I fell backwards into the mud.
“You have succeeded, Bimani.”
The splintered end of the spear was sinking into the mud. I could still use it—still fight. I crawled towards it, caught it in my hand.
A powerful claw grabbed hold of my wrist.
The second caretaker spoke. “Bimani is malfunctioning.”
“Show her what she has achieved.”
The caretaker’s rusted foot pressed my chest into the mud.
It stood above me, proud as a god. Its neck craned upwards to capture the vista of the stormy sky and the land below. As I looked up, a great stone—another asteroid—plunged through the clouds, three times the size of the first.
“Look what you have achieved.”
I spat blood. “You’re repeating yourself.”
It seemed that there was vindication in its voice. “Because humans do not listen.”
The mud in front of my face bubbled in the torrential rain. With the one eye that wasn’t covered in it, I could see the lightning striking the plains. I could see the villages, far below, as they struggled to keep their fires burning.
A growing light burned down there. My children were down there. One of them—Onika, I was sure—was the locus, the calling point of the asteroid. She must be burning now, fever coursing through her, her bones so hot they might melt.
I could see the asteroid above, high above the other clouds, glowing like a bed of embers. In moments it would shatter everything I cared about.
I wept for the beginning of the world.