Without thinking, he began to draw Mbuta's face superimposed upon the box. His hand laid light, uncertain lines for what may have been the outline for her face. What came out clear and bold was the eyes: dark and sedate, they had a deep, subtle glimmer, not the hard shine that made him think of inserted mirror discs. Between the eyes, over the bridge of the nose, he drew the cruciform mark, a large circle overlaid with four shapes that might have been spearheads or leaves. When she wasn't working, the slit in the middle couldn't be seen unless he ran his finger across the skin or gently pulled it in opposite directions. On her chin, there were the three round dots, one just under the lower lip, in the center, and two more below, arranged in an upward-pointed triangle. He thought of the night the two of them had spent in that horrible cluttered room. He had switched off the electric light, which was making him sick, as was the sizzling of the dust-coated and flyblown bulb that dangled overhead on a single cord. In a further corder, he had found a bundle of firewood and five-ounce bottle of lamp oil and started the fire in the hearth. Once the room was bathed in a softer glow and the shadows were shifting and flowing on the walls and ceiling, they sat down cross-legged in front of the grate. Though languid and thoughtful, Mbuta was more talkative than she‘d been before. As she smoked her long wooden pipe and warmed her hands by the fire, she told him how her wenxa-dyem was taken and how one night she, too, barely managed to escape with her life. An unseen barrier seemed to have melted; her cautious, guarded bearing was gone and there was nothing left but a deep calm. Once or twice, he had turned to find her gazing straight at him with a strange look on her face, earnest and watchful. Eventually, Mbuta trailed into silence. He had forgotten how exhausted she was, that she hadn't had any rest in the past three nights, until he felt the back of her head lean against his chest. He was surprised that her face hadn't changed - he'd heard all those rumors about the Aska Bere being "special", but hadn't had the chance to see for himself - but her teeth had come out, her eyes were a dark wool-gray and he could swear he saw them shimmer with a soft light of their own. She touched cheeks with him and rubbed, squinting at him through the corner of her eye, and he responded, pressing closer against her cheek and nudging at her nose with his. In what may have equally been two minutes or two hours her head had rolled, her body slumped and went limp. When he gathered her into his arms, she was already in the day-sleep. He put a couple of pillows under her head and back, covered her with the ragged old quilt and tucked her in to save more of the warmth and prolong that delightful sleep as much as he could. When she grew cold to the touch, he carried her over to the opposite wall, where a quantity of soil had been spread on the floor. He sat by her side until daybreak, weaving a shade for the bulb from some strips of bark (even without the dim unnatural light and the thick fluid shadows it threw onto the bags scattered on the floor, or the buzzing and flickering, and even after cleaning it with a cloth, he still couldn‘t stand the sight of it) and watched her as she slept. There was a blissful smile on her face. The warmth was everywhere, inside him and outside, surrounding him and swelling in great waves like an ocean. He lifted his head and looked at the sheet. Mbuta's face was like a light shadow cast over the box. He had drawn the thing in the middle of her forehead as open and she was staring at him from the sheet, all of her three eyes fixed on him in reproach and dismay. He shuddered. He failed her. He let her slip through his fingers, as he'd done with so many others. That he had had no choice wasn't an excuse because those who wanted to have a choice always ended up with one. He simply hadn't tried hard enough.
Now he was forgetting her and had nothing to hold onto. The Fadda Bidya excelled at severing the links that connected the dead to the living.
That night, he had been surprised to see the concrete block lying slantwise across the road and the dark silhouettes, surrounded in silver against the solid whitish wall of rain. A roadblock in that area was strange to say the least, because there wasn’t a whole lot to monitor. As he drove closer, the indistinct shapes turned into gray figures in wide-sleeved coats down to the knee and double harnesses over their tactical vests. The slightly curved tips of the massive single-sided swords that hung under their left arms almost trailed along the ground. He could see the badges, the white emblem strips sewn into the uniforms, the odd glimpse of a nose clip in the shadow under a hood. Fadoshan. As many as four of them, though even one would have been trouble enough. This had to be the welcome party they had had in store for him, he thought, the one he’d been anticipating all along. Two others stepped out of the darkness at the further end of the barricade. They were in full riot armor, with straight black face-guards and shields made of the same shiny black material. No, he corrected himself - make that an honorable welcome party for very important persons. Or for non-persons. One of the lower-ranking Fadoshan walked over to the cabin and signaled for them to get out. His face, shaded by the watertight hood, was ashen, without the most distant hint of the dark flush. The rectangular reading-lenses in his glasses turned his eyes into swimming, out-of-focus black blobs. The tips of his thumb and forefinger were smeared in black, and there was black under his nails from the type of ink that wouldn't wash out for weeks. On his upper arm there was the obligatory band - green, or so Ibrahim had been told, but to himself, a dingy and nondescript gray, much like the man's own skin.
The two councilors stood a few yards away and waited. The redundant armor made him think of overgrown grotesque insects, and the revulsion that rose in his stomach was much the same – he wanted to squash and stomp on the vile thing just to be sure it was no more, as if he’d seen a giant black scorpion scamper from under a rock, pincers raised and tail poised to strike. The folk by-name was spot on, except they were showing no signs of going down alongside those they had stung and drowned as they rode on their backs across the stream. What happened then? As soon as he had opened the door and stepped out of the cabin, he was grabbed, pulled down and shocked with a stun gun. His jacket was yanked off. Then he was sprawled flat on his face in the cold muck in the downpour with his hands duct-taped behind his back and the cold hard nozzle of a machine gun pressed against the nape of his head. He was patted down from head to toe, his pockets were turned out, his boots pulled off. They continued to press him into the mud until he was submerged, holding him down with such force that he was sure he was going to walk away with broken bones, if at all. Had he needed to breathe, he’d have suffocated. He was too cold to shiver, but the touch of the soil was soothing and he was beginning to drift off. There was a mild, pleasant weakness and a distinctive sensation in his skin, similar to being rubbed with cotton wool. He was floating inside a soft cloud, weightless, beginning to melt. Sounds grew duller, although he could discern distant thudding and jangling coming through the loud rustle of the rain. No, he told himself, this wasn't the time to sleep. They hadn't buried him just yet. The tape that bound his hands was cut through and in a moment the weight was gone from his shoulders and legs. He rose on one arm, wiping the mud from his face. One of the councilors was stretching out a hand to him; with the other hand, he had started to lift the face-guard, so Ibrahim could see his blanched chin. Ibrahim had bared his teeth and hissed at him as he staggered to his feet, tore off the remainder of the tape from his wrists and began to put his boots back on. Fuck you, he had thought. No, I don't want to see your sick-looking mug. Show it to your underlings. There must have been other words, too, he was sure of that, though he, on his part, had nothing to tell them. Back inside the truck, he had watched the wipers drive the torrents of water back and forth. There were no sounds save for the deafening roar of the rain. If it weren’t for the lining of the seats being cut open, and the dirt, and each of them being soaked and caked in half-dried mud, one could well think it’d been a bad waking dream. He had wondered whether it'd been their dose of mindfuck for that night, which the Fadda Bidya, for reasons known only to themselves, had decided to double. Perhaps they wanted to remind him who was running the show and have him lie face down in the dirt while they combed his truck and clothes simply because they could, just so he didn’t forget his place. But his inside was dark and muddled, and he knew it went beyond the usual frustration at their status games; he wanted to reach home sooner. What came next? They must have gotten stuck in yet another pit along the way. The roads in those quarters often were more impassable than the open countryside, especially during periods of heavier rainfall, when they turned into a mire. He had climbed out and leaned against the back of the truck, almost knee-deep in the sticky, slippery clay, as he thought to himself: Was the councilor the one who murdered her? Did he watch her die? No, he could never be their friend, or engage in an ongoing collaboration effort that entailed civilized communication, whatever they chose to call it. What was he to do, shake that councilor’s hand and be glad he’d shown his face? After he had hoisted up the truck, he became aware of a sharp stabbing pain in his side. The dull ache must have been there ever since they let go of him, but the effort brought it out. Broken ribs – two, or three or four, he’d never have bothered to count in that state. His mind was growing more and more clouded with a hunger that in itself was painful. He climbed out, let Initran take over the wheel and walked home alone, making his way more by the faint hints of scent than by sight or hearing. What then? The ear-shattering sound of the water smashing down onto him in streams. The cold that seeped through his skin and beneath, into the marrow of his bones. Falling to his knees, scrambling back up, falling again. Sharp burning pain in his side. Pain from the spasms in his stomach. Flushes of heat, frequent because of having to wade through the muck, but not even breaking the surface of the cold. Darkness. Mbuta didn't have the chance to see who her murderer was. He must have killed something because Sunim told him that he was covered in blood as well as dirt and reeked of forest beasts. By then, the hunger had diminished enough to be ignored, and the pain in his chest had begun to fade. She said he seemed to have just come back from the dead or some such, and he felt like telling her that no, he had already been back twice, first when Atyam took him and then when he had said his first words in that bricked-up basement. Third time around, nothing could get him. He had gone down the steps to find a room he didn’t recognize. The drawers in the cupboard had been pulled out, the contents scattered all over the floor – there were clothes, instruments, drawings, paper, stock sheets of metal piled on top of each other. The low table had been knocked over. The rugs had been ripped away from the walls and floor and some were still dangling with the sharp backs of the tacks visible. There were muddy prints and lumps of clay everywhere. The thick door to the side room where he slept had been taken off the hinges and stood wide open. His head was hollow and his tongue wouldn't move, as if he'd lost his speech again. He walked to the cupboard, already knowing what he was going to find. Never mind being incapacitated, humiliated and dunked into the mud with extreme prejudice - it hadn’t been about him. All of Mbuta's belongings were gone. Even the shoulder bags, which had seen better nights, and, before that, days, and the satchels and torn hand-wraps. While she was alive, he couldn't stand to see those wraps, but now he would have given a lot to have them. They, too, contained something of her - a wisp of warmth in the grazed and darkened suede, in the white threads that stuck out where the stitches had come undone. Her scent had been thick on them, and if he closed his eyes, he could sense her at his side. But no, they had to continue to obliterate her even after she was dead. The letter came last - machine-typed, unsigned, but stamped with the Fadoshan sigil, sealed in a neat envelope. Sunim and Initran read it out to him so many times he memorized the gist and most of the phrasing by rote. We regret leaving your belongings in such disarray, which must have taken considerable time and effort on your part to remedy. Be assured that no harm was meant to you or to your more, should one say, vulnerable associates - as you understand, we merely had to be certain there were no lingering traces of the blight, seeing how the descendants of Ofwo contaminate all things with their touch. We hope that no more bad dreams shall haunt you now that your shelter has been cleansed, and, with the taint gone and our duty fulfilled, we shall consider the events of the recent years, or the misguided decisions behind them, as a mere matter of miscommunication. The writing was stilted and indigestible. Every thought had to be untwisted and turned downside-up again to make sense and the long words were like boulders that both obscured the view and blocked the way. Not surprising, given that no-one could have swallowed that message if it lay on the surface. He was being spoken to, and had been for a while. Judging by the woman's raised and persistent tone, she wanted him to respond and he stared at her, unable to understand what she wanted. Some time had to pass before he realized she was the waitress. He had come there to eat, hadn't he? For once he was thankful for the sunlit time of day. The daze subdued him and made him watch his surroundings from a distance, without full involvement, which was safer for him and for others. At night, an interruption like this could have triggered a much more extreme reaction. He opened the menu and poked a finger into the pictures of the rare steak and the fruit plate – his favorite foods there, and the only he’d ever ordered - and told the waitress what he wanted to have. She said something again, he couldn't quite understand what because the words blurred together into one continuous noise, and he repeated his request. She asked him whether he wanted the usual, and this time he understood. He nodded and she scribbled something down in her notebook and left him alone at last. He looked around and noticed once again the woman in the nearby booth. She was writing something and seemed oblivious to the rest of the world, much as he'd been. She bore a distinct resemblance to someone he knew and this bothered him more than he was willing to admit to himself, but faces and names wouldn't break through the haze. Trying to recall them was like counting the pebbles at the bottom of a muddy lake. He stared at her for a while and wondered.