Desmond Efe-khaese’s Crossing The Land was shortlisted for June 2020 Collins Elesiro Literary Prize.
Malith carved out Bor Dinka on the desert’s soil. The four thin lines representing the tribe cut through the ground like a hot knife through butter. It was one of the two curses that were stored in his testicles. The other was his height. It was a common palate in Bor Dinka that when the first Dinka had the choice to dictate how far his people would be from the sky, he had taken tebeldi – the baobab – the wood nymph who was damned to have its root grow from its head. The consequence of this was his successor’s use of their elbows and knees when whispering to the earth. Or if they ever considered renouncing a god in the Sahara desert.
Malith traced the totem gently, careful not to awaken another god in a quest for defection. He let one finger find his throat. Then another. The couple enveloped the base of his tongue, attempting to unearth the digestion of his previous meal. Nothing came. So he let saliva fall from his mouth and into his palm, and from his hand, the drool dragged a lone line that endured in the air for a second before embracing the bronze of the sand. Then he untied the knot supporting his breeches, aimed at Bor Dinka, and allowed his phallus to tell the tale of how he despised his mother for marrying a fisherman from Ifoto.
His eyes were glass-like. They held rage. Yet, doubt, like rays of sunlight peeking from behind a gathering of clouds, told him that though he sought new feathers, they might not be able to take him home. This was his first try at executing a renunciation. Malith wondered if he had missed anything. The plan was to lay a putrid stench on the tribe’s insignia, and wait.
The sand then sucked in his apostasy. First, the spittle, and then the piss. The sign of Bor Dinka – four lines coming together to form a descending arrowhead – stood still. The Sahara hit a non-verbal crescendo as it cleared the place Malith had made into an altar.
When it was clean, his feet held the ground fast. A voice had told him to stand still, and make myself look like a tree. Not because it was pleasing to revel in the loss of his kinship, but for the familiar horned viper that appeared before him. She was Abuk, the mother of Deng, the sky god, the one his people called Father. She stuck a pronged tongue into the sand as if to point out that he was the ignorant child about to roam the milieu on blindfolds. Malith reduced his face in reverence. The elders had spoken of how it was Abuk’s duty to oversee the loss of her children. The process of desertion was made to annoy the specific deity. So, his fear boomeranged, when Malith turned to face the serpent goddess and there was no spittle, no piss, no scaly reptile, and Bor Dinka had released him.
He wondered where she was before now. When the rebels reduced his house to charred pieces and sent his family to Pugnido refugee camp. The enmity between Dinka and Nuer had escalated into a civil war, and the war had become a bidding contest. Each tribe tendered as many heads of the other to show who was stronger. The proof of identity was the distinct markings on their bodies. Malith had his tribal landmark on his forehead, just as his ancestors had demanded of every man. He remembered the blood, the scars, and the ritual that declared him a man.
He was thirteen. The morning had met him at his father’s gate. Behind him, his mother bellowed to the neighbours. She would not have a Boy in her home and she thrust her breasts in his direction to feed her purpose. Two women materialised behind her, advising him to ignore his mother and come lay beneath their bosoms. At that point, Malith understood that being a Boy meant he did small things, and doing small things showed he was not worthy of growing up.
At the traditional head marking ceremony, the people gathered at Qaqriyal. Some of them took their eyes off the sacrificial oxen, the dancers in conflicting colours, the blear-eyed sorcerer, and focused on the chest of the kneeling boys. It was said that the exercise of a boy’s chest determined whether he would complete the trial or not. If it stilled, it was assumed that he was strong enough to succeed. If his eyes perspired and his chest became a heaving bulge, the bets were stacked against him.
The sorcerer, a burly man with the tan of a he-goat, stood over them. He smelt bad. In his hands were a wooden bowl and a dagger. His breath came out in heavy sniffs as if he was struggling between the morning air and the smell of the dead ox a few metres away from where the flies attended. He had asked them if they were ready to become men. Malith had not answered as the other boys did. He did not want to leave lies at the dawn of manhood. His mother had pushed him out that morning.
She had called him a boy.
And no matter how well-placed adulthood was, one was never prepared to receive it with a forehead cut in three ways.
That night, as his mother wiped the dried blood from the wound, Malith asked why she had sent him for the Bor Dinka rituals. Why his people placed a premium on scars. Her eyes fell into her chest. She said she wished he could have asked his father. The man had the patience to tell him the history of Bor Dinka of South Sudan. Of how they had fought back the Ottoman Turks, the slave merchants who tried to convert them to Islam. He would have told him of Moinjaang, “People of the people”. Or how the Dinka tribe might be the descendants of the original settlers, who cut their forehead to differentiate themselves from the Egyptians. But she dried his head with her wrapper and said the rituals are culture. Then she squeezed the wet towel she used in wiping the blood and said it was a sign of their lineage. Then, she stood up to feed the hemic water into the night, turned at the door with the darkness floating at her back, and said that Bor Dinka would always bring him home.
As Malith stood at the feet of Agadez staring into the invisible horizon of the Sahara, deliberating on how Abuk would want him to die, he knew his mother had not bargained for the madness of the rebels who redefined home to mean the acrid smoke mocking the ruins of his family house.
As he walked back to the ghetto, he thought about the journey ahead. The desert was known for its active dryness. With a misdirected step into its innards, men were soon possessed by the lack of water and dusty wind. The first tool was hunger. But that was a mercy unlike thirst. It was an eternal dilemma amongst travellers – thirst or hunger. Malith had chosen the latter. If thirst is hot air being pumped down the gullet with a garden hose, hunger is a spiked vacuum, sucking on one’s vital organs and growing larger the longer it lasts. Still, the worst fear was what he had heard from the occupants of Agadez. There were the bandits who loitered across the massive expanse looking for travellers to kill and harvest their organs for the black market.
Before Malith pissed on his tribe, he had been apprehensive of losing his kidney to a stranger. If one dies with any of his organs missing, he would not be baptised by Deng, neither will he be allowed to eat anything from the garden of his mother. If such a person ventured in and ate of her fruit, the juice would dissolve into a thousand snakes. Then, he would be sent back to retrieve his lost part or roam the earth, homeless and blind.
Now that he had no lineage, he wondered where he would go when if he died in the desert. Probably to the place Abuk sent her disobedient children. A place with endless pain and fire.
Malith spat out the thought.
His mouth felt dry afterward. As if the salivary exit was the only thing that held his tongue from embracing the heat. He would have requested for water but he was not willing to pay for it. In Agadez, a thing was priced according to how much it was in demand. Water was imported from the nearby town of Alarsas, few kilometers away from the Mosque. It was traded as the need demanded. So, drinking water was costlier than the one used for bathing.
Malith found his way into a room situated inside the ghetto. He strode towards the place he kept his bag and found it beneath the head of one of the sleeping men. The man did not stir when he retrieved it. Immediately, he replaced Malith’s bag with another man’s waist.
An unexpected sigh escaped him. Most of these men were unknown to him. It would be bad if he angered one. Especially when the man was half-dead in sleep. Their number was alien to him at the time and he had stopped counting when he got to thirty-six. At night, some slept in the open because of the heat.
From the space created by the man’s head, Malith made a seat. He pulled out a hand mirror from the bag. The instrument produced his reflection – an ashen face where a dark complexion had once been, his big reddened eyes shadowed, his lips powdered with dust, and the corners of his mouth spiked with thick saliva. His water storage had run dry a fortnight ago. Now he begged from those that were willing to give. If they did not, he stole from them. It was an effective strategy. If any man had his property stolen, he was dissuaded by the number of roomies he had to accuse. It only informed his ability to be careful next time.
There were other men at the ghetto. Men like him who were fleeing conflict zones and others who just wanted the joy of dependency. They lived at the edge of the Sahara desert, so they could board a truck that would take them across, through the Mediterranean Sea and on to Italy. Malith had heard about how the migration routes are littered with the blood of desperate people. He had not thought about that as he set out. The conflict had left him with burning farmlands and his daughters’ cheeks sinking into their bodies. Mounting the truck that came in two days was the one way to reclaim the pressure that once fell on him as a father and husband. A sharp pain hit him presently and installed itself into his eyes. Just before they could bring out tears, Magot came into the room reeking of sleep.
He was the only other Dinka man present at the ghetto. The first time they met, Magot’s scar sat on his head like a flag. He spoke the Dinka language fluently and was always willing to find another brother to engage. He had not been affected by the conflict. In fact, he was a runaway debtor who hoped to cross to Italy and come back a big man. When Malith told him about how his people were destitute, Magot had put up a feint expression, the kind that shows false concern, the kind that one gives when a neighbour drops the tale of a barren wife on the way to the fish market. Still, the man loved his tribe and was always eager to communicate in the native language anytime he found him.
‘Ciyibak‘, Magot said, trying to fit his head where a man’s legs were. He ignored his need for a response when he saw Malith tying a cloth on his Bor Dinka markings. “Why?” was the only thing he said as if the disturbance in his voice could be the key to unlocking his tongue. When he saw that Malith was unwilling to talk about it, he found sleep between the armpit of a man and soon dozed off. His tiredness was because of his constant visit to the brothels in Alarsas.
Two nights after, Malith was back at the place of his renunciation. Before him was the humanoid Abuk. Surrounded by the desert storm, her head supported two crowns held together by a golden string. While one sat at the fore of her head, the other slithered across her back to where her nakedness began. She showed him her palm. On it were the lines of Bor Dinka, carved into her hand by what must have been talons. Blood ran through this hand and into the sand. Yet, it did not imprint on the Sahara. The drip fell from her palm and into the dried air. Abuk then pointed one ringed finger at him and sent him back to Agadez.
When Malith awakened, he felt the need to pee. He maneuvered the ground, careful not to step on any of the sleeping men. He met a few outside staring at the stars as they whispered into the night. In the distance, a figure sat in the sand speaking to an invisible apparition. The man was submerged in prayer, a common feature of the morning before crossing the land. He passed through these things as he sought the place commonly used as a dunghill. The upper level of the desert adjacent to where the people dispensed with waste materials served such purpose. As he stooped to pee, he noticed someone has already done that for him. Across the length of his shorts, he saw the wetness. In the moonlight, it was a dark patch. He felt the surface and noticed it still dripped. At the base, Malith picked up an errant drop, viewed it by the light and noticed it was blood.
A wail erupted at that moment. It came from the ghetto. The scream sailed with the wind, and let out its voice into the night air. Malith could hear some of the men inquiring what had gone wrong. There was a response, and then more screams. These ones came louder, deeper, more in time with despair and fright. Malith forgot about the blood on his cloth and turned his legs towards the direction of Agadez. He found a few men had joined the people who had been outside the room. Some contorted their faces, displaying regret. Others whispered among themselves. A particular man Malith had not seen before had his backpack slung across his shoulder as he sought refuge in the night. He threw his hands around his head three times. At each circle, he snapped his fingers. The people suddenly began to clear the entrance of the ghetto.
Someone then shouted, “Clear clear, the body is coming out.” Then he remembered Abuk and the vision he had. Then he remembered the soft squeeze of fright afterward. Then he remembered the blood at the threshold of his shorts. He felt a turn in his stomach. It persisted, making him let out a stinging yelp. The force of the movement jerked his body further and his legs gave way.
Malith then felt a hand leading him away from the scene. It circled across the length of his back and the other held up his head. He could see nothing. The light of the moon became too sharp and the ground too steep. After what appeared to be forever, he felt that he was far from the crowd. He could also sense he was far away from everything else. He felt the hand lay him down against the sand. It moved from his back to his head and slowly began to untie the cloth he used to mask Bor Dinka on his forehead. Malith would have protested but for Abuk who appeared with only the face of a serpent. Then she began to speak in a strange masculine twang he had dreaded since he left home.
“You are a Dinka man?” she asked. Malith did not answer. Abuk gave off a maniacal cry and squeezed his throat with her tail. “You are Dinka man, eh?” “No,” Malith replied. “Bor Dinka is death,” he said while struggling with the urge to fight for air. “Yes, yes, yes,” Abuk stressed, as she released his neck to hop across the length of the desert. “That is why Magot died.” Malith took in these words like an errant child. Then he said, “Magot is dead?” “Yes, who do you think owns the body at Agadez? I killed him to harvest his heart for the black market,” the masculine voice announced.
Malith sucked in air. His strength began to return. He could not understand what Abuk would need with the black market. He could not understand why Abuk would kill Magot. Magot was the blood that had interfered with his urine. Malith began to retch all over again. He crouched his back to the goddess. When he turned, a big man had replaced Abuk’s face. The moonlight caught the tribal rash-like lines across his visage. They dipped in horizontal patterns from the forehead and then covered the bridge of his nose. Malith had seen it before, on the night the rebels redefined home to mean the acrid smoke mocking the ruins of his family house. On the night Nuer attacked. However, what he had not seen was the blade that cut through the evening breeze, eager to carve out Bor Dinka from his forehead.
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