Authors: Tara Sullivan
G. P. PUTNAM'S SONS
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Copyright Â© 2013 by Tara Sullivan.
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Published simultaneously in Canada. Map copyright Â© 2013 by Martin Sanders.
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To Nick, for making this, and all my successes, possible
I am sitting
under the acacia tree on the
ridge when I first see them: three men, in nice clothes, coming toward our house. Their shoulders are straight and their fat bellies strain against their belts when they walk. They are the image of power.
I wish I could see their faces, but my eyes aren't good enough for that this far away. I peel off my long-sleeved shirt and my floppy hat with the cloth sewn onto the back and crawl to the edge of the ridge in nothing but my long pants. My skin burns so easily that I could never do this in the middle of the day, no matter how hot it was, but now that the sun is setting I can enjoy the feeling of the wind whispering over me. Our goats mill around me, eating their dinner; the breeze carries the smells of the evening meal my mother and sister are preparing up the slope. The three men walk to our door.
the first man bellows.
Mother appears in the doorway. After a moment, Asu joins her. Beside the big men, my mother and sister look weak and small. Mother bows her head respectfully and invites them into the house. The men walk in, and now I can't see them anymore, can't hear what's going on. Curiosity crawls over me like army ants.
I toss my long clothes over my shoulder and grab the horns of the lead goat, pulling her down the hill toward the three-sided pen set into the wall of our house. She digs in her hooves and bleats angrily at me, but I push her in anyway.
“I'll make it up to you later,” I promise, and shove the other goats in behind her. Pulling the gate shut, I sneak around the wall toward our front door. I rest my hand against the mud wall; heat from the day warms my fingers. For a moment I feel happy about my cleverness. But as I hunch there, listening, that feeling bleeds out of me, until soon it's as if it had never been.
I'm not sure how long I crouch there, but it's long enough. Long enough to hear that the men are the tax collector, the seed provider, and the landlord. Long enough to hear my mother and sister beg. Long enough to hear what the men say in return: No.
No, you cannot have three more months to pay your taxes.
No, you cannot have more seed if you cannot pay.
No, you cannot stay here anymore.
The men leave, closing the door behind themâ
My mother and sister don't come out with them. There are no more sounds of dinner-making. Instead the hollow sound of sadness fills the house.
When I stand up, my knees creak like an old man's. I don't go in. Instead I go to the goat pen because I can't think of anything better to do. And that's why I'm the first to see the hole in the side of the enclosure where the goats have kicked and butted and chewed their way to freedom and the dinner I didn't let them finish. They're nowhere to be seen.
I need to get the goats!
I toss my crumpled clothes toward the house and scramble up the side of the hill separating our farm from the rest of the village. No goats. I race off into the brush under the trees. No goats. I call and shout, hoping against hope they'll return to the pen at the sound of my voice. I run home: still no goats. But my brothers, Enzi and Chui, have arrived from working in the coffee fields, and they're standing by the hole in the goat pen with Mother and Asu, waiting for me. The instant I see the four of them there, I know I'm in trouble.
“Habo!” my eldest brother, Enzi, calls out to me, his voice low and angry. “Where are the goats?”
I stop where I am and look down at my feet.
“Well?” Enzi stomps across the space between us until the shadows from his broad shoulders completely cover me.
“Gone,” I mumble.
“What?” Enzi is shouting now, which really isn't necessary. My ears are one of the few parts of my strange body that work just fine.
“They got out,” I say.
Enzi looms over me. His hands fist at his sides, making his upper arms strain against the thin material of his shirt.
“And just where were you when they got out, hmm?” he asks.
I don't want to admit what I heard. I dart a glance toward Mother, but she is staring off in the direction of Arusha and doesn't see me look at her. In the pause I hear Chui grumble to Enzi, “He looks like a ghost and he does as little work as a ghost. I bet he was sleeping.”
I hate Chui for saying it, but it gives me the lie I was looking for.
“I guess I dozed off.”
I don't see Enzi raise his hand, but the force of his slap sends me staggering into the wall of our house. Small clumps of mud break off and fall to the ground from the impact of my shoulders. When my head snaps back, I bite my lip and my mouth fills with the taste of my own blood. Mother's head whips toward me at the sound, but she doesn't say anything. Enzi is twenty, and man-grown, and has been in charge since my father left. She rarely questions what he does.
Asu is a different story.
“Enzi!” Asu says with a gasp. “What did you do that for?” She runs over to me and dabs at my bleeding lip with the edge of her
her pretty face all crunched up in concern. Mother looks away over the hills again, her dark eyes strangely empty, her face as smooth as the sky.
“That stupid ghost boy lost our goats!” Enzi points at me when he says this, the muscles of his arms standing out, tense.
“And how is hitting him going to bring them back?” Asu snaps. She stands facing Enzi, her frown pulling her head scarf low over her eyes, hands on hips. She has dropped her hem again and I can see my bloodstain peek in and out of the folds at her ankles.
Enzi throws up his hands and stalks into the house, head low between his shoulders.
“You always defend him,” mutters Chui to Asu. His round face twists deeper into a scowl. He kicks a rock by his feet and it goes skittering off into the bush.
Asu turns away from Chui. She pushes the heels of her hands into her eyes, seeming suddenly tired. “Well, none of you ever do,” she answers. But she says it so quietly that I don't think anyone else hears her.
As if released from a spell, Mother starts moving again. She wipes her dry face, as though to remind herself that she exists. Her fingers trace the wrinkles around her eyes and mouth. Then she straightens her hair scarf and turns to Chui. “Pack,” she says to him. Over her shoulder, to me, she adds, “Go find the goats.”
“Why do I need to pack?” asks Chui as the three of them head into the house.
Face still stinging from Enzi's slap, I leave to look for the goats, grateful that I have a reason not to be there when Mother tells Enzi and Chui we have to leave.
I hunt for the goats for hours: until my face is red and sweaty, until my feet are sore and my lungs burn. The darkness soothes my skin, but my bad eyes are worse than useless. It's luck more than skill that sends me tripping into a gully where I land right on top of the goats, who have huddled together for warmth. Not sure whether I want to kick them for running off and scaring me or hug them for still being alive, I tie them together with the length of sisal twine I brought with me and lead them home.
When I get to the front door, I'm not sure what to do since I can't put them into their broken pen. I decide to bring them inside with me. They're still hobbled to one another and they start to walk around the small interior of our house, bleating and getting tangled in people's legs. Mother
in annoyance and strides out the door with a big burlap sack over her shoulder, pushing the goats to one side with her hips when they get in her way.
“I found the goats,” I say unnecessarily. Chui shoves his hands into his shorts pockets and glares at me. When he scowls his eyes become angry little slits in his face. Enzi glares at me, too, from where he's folding his clothes. Asu looks up from sorting the kitchen goods and laughs softly.
“I can see that, Golden Boy. But did you have to bring them into the house?”
“Well, their pen is kind of broken.”
“Hobble them outside by the door, then,” she says, “and pack up your things. We have to leave tonight.”
I pull the goats outside and hobble them with the twine. I tie the horns of the lead goat to the side of the pen, too, for good measure. Then I head back inside.
Even though I know the answer, I ask the question so Asu won't know I heard what happened. “Why do we have to leave?”
Chui's head snaps up. “Because of you!” he snarls.
“Chui,” Asu warns softly.
“It's true!” he shouts at her, waving his raggedy-fingernailed hands around to make his point. “We used to be fine here, fine! Enzi says that Father was able to keep the farm running through worse droughts than this. If he hadn't left because of that stupid ghost, none of this would be happening!”
Asu's voice is no longer soft. Chui stops talking and continues shoving things into his pack, his neck stiff and his movements choppy. His face is tight and hard.
There's an awkward silence. I move over to the corner I sleep in and start piling my clothes into the middle of my blanket with my white hands. Not black and strong like Enzi's. Not black and slender like Asu's. Not black and stumpy like Chui's. Not black and calloused like Mother's. Milk white. Bone white. Ghost white.
Mother comes back in and her sack is bulging at irregular angles. I see the outlines of tools. She unpacks them and sets them against the wall, for whoever will have our house next, I suppose.
“Aren't we bringing those with us?” asks Chui.
“No, my dear,” says Mother absently as she joins Asu near the food stores.
“Where are we going?” I ask. If we're not bringing the tools with us, that means Mother doesn't think we'll be farming anymore.
“To Mwanza,” she says, tying an aggressive knot in a large bundle of cornmeal and dried pigeon peas. “My sister lives there. We'll have to stay with her until I figure out what to do next.”
“Where is Mwanza?” I ask.
“Far away.” Her voice is a tired sigh. “We'll have to catch a bus from Arusha. Even so, it will be many, many hours before we get there.”
“What's it like to take a bus for the whole day?” asks Chui.
“Oh, ask Enzi and Asu,” says Mother distractedly. “We used to go up every year to visit when they were small. BeforeÂ .Â .Â .”
She trails off, never saying before what. But Chui shoots me a poisoned look anyway. We all know what “before” means. Before I was born. Before Father left.
Enzi looks up from where he's putting his machete and the last of his clothes into a plastic bucket.
“Ask Asu about the bus,” he says to Chui. “I'm not going with you.”
We all stare at him.
“What did you say?” Mother asks, suddenly very alert. Her hands clench and unclench by her sides. I don't think she knows she's doing it.
“We need the money,” says Enzi, not looking at her. The light from the kerosene lamp throws shadows across his face, highlighting the jut of his cheekbones, hiding his eyes. “I can make ten thousand shillings a day picking coffee. It just doesn't make sense for me to leave until after the harvest is finished.”
“No,” says Mother. “No, I won't split the family. We're all we have now.”
Enzi moves to put an arm around her shoulders. She's swallowed by his shadow, and now I can see his face. His eyes are sad, but his jaw is rigid. He's not going to change his mind.
“You can't leave us now!” exclaims Asu, slapping her hand down on her bundle. “How will we be safe on the road without a man?”
“You'll be fine. Chui will be with you.”
Asu narrows her eyes. “Mother and I are supposed to make it all the way across the country with a fifteen-year-old for protection?” Asu may be nineteen and old enough to be married, but she and Enzi fight like two children about how to run the family.
“Hey!” says Chui. “I help Enzi in the fields and get almost a man's wages. Why do you still think I'm just a little boy? Enzi thinks I can do it.”
Asu doesn't respond and instead returns to packing. I can tell she's frustrated, though, because instead of folding things neatly, she's shoving them into the bags.
I'm only two years younger than Chui, but no one has mentioned that I might help on the road, too. Chui may not be a man, but I'm hardly a person. I finish tying off my bedroll and help Asu with the kitchen supplies, handing her things to pack. It slows her down enough that she isn't crushing them anymore. I know if I let her keep doing that she'd be angry at herself later. Chui has stopped packing entirely, staring at Enzi as if he could make him stay with us using just the power of his thoughts.
“You're going to abandon us, then?” Mother has started to cry onto Enzi's shoulder. Her hands make fists in the material of his shirt.
“Just because I'm staying here doesn't mean I'm abandoning you or breaking up the family,” Enzi says softly, patting her on the back like you would a baby. “The money here is good. How am I going to make this much money on the road? In Mwanza? It's a fishing city. I don't know how to fish. We need the money I can make here.” His hands are huge and calloused from working in the fields, but he holds her softly. He looks deeply into her eyes. “You need the money I can make here more than you need me on the bus with you. I'll come as soon as the harvest is done. I promise.”