A man tried to run away. Aminah didn’t see the horsemen hang him, but in the bright morning light his slack body swayed from a tree, his feet dangling above the muddy soil. His hairless head, shaped like a cone of shea butter, rested against his right shoulder, his bare body gashed with lines of blood. The horsemen chatted around a fire. The smell of roasted meat wafted the way of the captives, digging into the emptiness in their bellies, into their nausea.
‘I hope they have nightmares,’ Hassana shouted. With sunken eyes, she leered at the horsemen.
‘It’s okay,’ said Aminah, trying to hush her. ‘It will get better.’
Hassana stopped talking but her eyes were fixed on the dead man. Aminah didn’t think it was going to get better. She knew nothing, really. And she was wracked with guilt at possibly having enabled her mother’s death. She should have gone into Na’s hut to wake her up.
One woman – also Gurma like Aminah’s people, but not from Botu – had said they were being sent to a lake with no beginning and no end. An infinite lake. She called it ‘big water’. Her weaver husband had gone south to sell in the markets and had seen these pitiful people chained to the fronts of houses. He was told they would be put in boats controlled by white men and sent on the infinite lake. Her husband was shaken by the whole thing; he stopped asking questions. The woman had gone to visit her mother when the raiders attacked her mother’s village. When they started tying her up, she knew her fate.
At least she’d had some preparation. For the rest of the captives, it was like walking in the forest on a night with no moon. They groped, bumped into things. Wild animals lurked and, sometimes, the animals bit.
A gust of wind sent the lifeless body swinging and wafted the smell of meat in Aminah’s direction. A lump pressed hard against her sternum, from inside her body. The muscles of her belly contracted and convulsed. Up came bitter liquid. She swallowed it, suppressed it. It was horrible. She’d never had to swallow vomit before.
After the horsemen feasted, they poured water to quench their fire. They gave their porters the leftovers, and the porters gave some of their captured the bones and gristle. Issa didn’t eat the tiny morsel of meat Aminah gave him. Then the horsemen split into two groups. A porter ran along the file, counted up to a point and cut the cord. The group ahead of Aminah, Issa, and Hassana went to the left. That group included Husseina. They walked until the tall grass swallowed them. Where were they going? Would the two groups reunite?
Aminah wanted to chase after them to get Husseina back, and just as she thought this, a shriek cut all the noises around to silence. It came from Hassana. Her scream froze blood. She doubled over, folded her arms over her belly, and wouldn’t stop. A horseman trotted over and yelled something at her. She was now curling into a ball on the ground, her nails digging into the red soil. The horseman dismounted and walloped her with his riding whip. She didn’t stop screaming. He kicked her ribs, but still she screamed. Only when a patch of red stained her dress, did Aminah break out of her trance. She fell to the ground and wrapped her little sister with her body and tried to stop the shrill scream by covering her mouth. The man’s riding whip whacked Aminah’s body until Hassana quieted down. Hassana whimpered all afternoon. Aminah had lied; it wasn’t getting better.
The captives tried to function as one. They urinated and emptied their bowels at the same time, under watchful eyes. When they were given food, they made sure every one got at least a small piece. But it was impossible to stay united in such conditions. Some of them were in more pain than others.
Issa struggled to walk, slowing down everyone behind him. Aminah begged one of the porters to let her carry him even though she herself had very little strength. He now weighed next to nothing.
After walking for what must have been a week, like they were never going to stop, they arrived at a place unlike any other they had crossed. Rocks jutted up from the ground and trees grew everywhere. Okra-green grass carpeted the land, and even in her despair, Aminah found the green fresh and beautiful, the rocks mesmerising. Not far off, vultures flew in circles.
The horsemen dismounted, trussed up their stolen sheep and goats, and led the captives towards clusters of large rocks and trees with gnarly crowns. On a large boulder, people were gathered, eating. Aminah’s heart pinched itself in what must have been excitement – the first time in a long time she had felt any hope. Perhaps that was the group that had left first. They could be reunited with Husseina after all. Aminah watched Hassana, but said nothing. Her reddened eyes stared ahead, focused on nothing in particular, as if she were sleepwalking.
If they died, would they become spirit walkers? She had to stop herself from thinking like that. She pressed Hassana’s hand – to transmit that something good might be on its way, but also to convince herself.
Up on the boulder, Aminah searched for faces from Botu. The group was unfamiliar. Suddenly, their captors whipped them and shouted at them to move. Aminah didn’t understand the language, but the word ‘Babatu’ was repeated. It was a name she’d heard in Botu, a man who was feared by the people of the caravans. If these ruthless horsemen were also afraid of him, he had to be a terrifying person. As that group left, any hope she had harboured dwindled.
Their horsemen led them to a patch of bald rock and one of them approached three women sitting behind large pots. Aminah couldn’t see what was in them, but she had sat behind enough pots to know the thick, gurgling sound of boiling porridge. The horseman returned and, with his accomplices, divided the captives into smaller groups and sat them before oval troughs smeared with the muddy dregs of the previous group’s leftover porridge. The women slopped the thick porridge into the troughs and the hollows steamed. Aminah cupped her hand to scoop the scalding gruel, blew on it, and led it to Issa’s lips. He shook his head and pinched his lips shut tight. No matter how much she begged him, he wouldn’t eat.
The sight of the skin puckering above his lips began to annoy her. She felt a strong urge to slap him. Hassana swallowed a handful of porridge and twisted her face but kept eating. Finally, Aminah ate what Issa rejected. The millet porridge was sour, with no sweetness. After eating, they were led to larger holes, where water had collected, and from that they quenched their thirst. For the first time, Aminah’s mind and body had pause. Something about having a full stomach calmed her.
She thought of Baba and Na, wondering what had become of them. She had left things incomplete with her mother. And then she hadn’t called her out of the room. How would she ever right that?
When the horsemen said it was time to go, Aminah got up, feeling full. Not satisfied, like after a good meal, but her body had more energy to keep going. Then down the hill they went.
Below them spread groves of trees nestled in lush green grass. It was never this green in Botu, where Aminah wished she could return, and strangely, the sentiment of loss and nostalgia made her hope the big water would come soon. She didn’t know what future it held, but she just wanted to stop walking.
Issa fell. He didn’t trip or stumble. His body was sucked down, as if called by the earth. His skeletal form stacked itself against the grey metallic sheen of the rock. Aminah stared at the way his bony legs had crisscrossed, as if someone had delicately arranged him into a neat pile. It was Hassana who got down and tried to revive him. When they realised Aminah and Hassana were stalling, a horseman and porter raced over, shouting. As they drew closer, they saw what had happened.
The horseman muttered and dismounted. He peeled Hassana off Issa and picked him up as if he were a bird. They carried him, then flung him over the rock. Above the rock, the circling vultures. Vultures were attracted to death. Aminah imagined below them was a cemetery of people like Issa who hadn’t found the strength to go on. She pictured skeletons stacked on skeletons or flesh on skeletons, in Issa’s case. Suddenly cold and afraid, she took Hassana’s hand, small and dry, and tried to think of to say something to comfort her sister, but more to comfort herself. She felt the heaviness of her tongue. She swallowed several times, before words could come out.
‘Maybe this is better for him,’ she said. ‘He was so weak.’
‘I hope he comes back as spirit walker to haunt these people,’ said Hassana, snatching her hand away to wipe her face, wet with tears.
When they left the rocky place, dying began to seem an attractive option. Running away was too costly; Aminah was so disoriented she didn’t know which way home was, and she could fall into a worse situation. The name Babatu was frightening, if even these horsemen were afraid. And how would she do it? Die? Swallow a poisonous bark? But she looked at Hassana and blocked her thoughts. They needed each other.