The Thick Night
By Sunny Moraine
2 May 2011
Mkali is a proud woman. She knows it because everyone says so, though she's never thought of herself as proud. They say that she was named well—fierce, strong—but as with her pride, she only knows this about herself from what others say. What she knows is that she has kept her siblings—the only remnant of her family—safe through two wars, and now the drought, and the drought will not best her. When the Lord's Resistance Army came streaming back down from the north like an unholy wind and swept the lives of her parents away, she lived her name, because she had to; because the other choice would have been to die, and, before so doing, to watch her brother and her sister die in front of her.
The night the LRA came was very dark, and thick with smoke and screams. Buqisi and Kani were so small, huddled against her, Buqisi barely months old and Kani only just walking; how could anything so small stand against a night like that? So she stood against it for them, terrified and still practically a child herself, dragged into an abrupt and unwelcome adulthood. She led them out after, and she rebuilt the burned house with her own two hands. She beat the earth into submission, pulled food from it, kept them all alive. So if to be alive is to be proud, if to shake one's head at death is to be proud, then yes, Mkali is proud. Too proud to get a man? Perhaps.
Perhaps it is merely that she doubts that any man can be relied upon.
Not too proud to take a handout. They don't say it, at least not aloud, but she's thinking it as she walks down the dusty streets of Gulu. She wouldn't have if there had been anything to be done about it, but it's been a hard season, and the goats aren't giving much milk, and if Buqisi and Kani are going to go to school even some of the day . . .
There are foreign men in Gulu, Mkali has been given to understand. White men, at least some of them, and wearing blue helmets, at least some of them, and they have bags of rice and lentils and cornmeal, and bottles of medicine. They are giving these things away to those who are willing to stand in the hot sun to receive them.
Mkali is a proud woman, if to do what needs to be done is to be proud.
It's a long time since she was in Gulu, and it feels like an alien place, this much noise and this many people, chickens squawking under the wheels of ancient cars, open-air cafes pungent with cooking meat, lanky boys sitting under rough tarps and crying out their wares to her as she passes: CDs, DVDs, American movies, beautiful men and women and guns, explosions, bang, boom, so much excitement! Such foreign excitement.
Mkali sighs and turns her face away. Not foreign enough. Far too familiar. Only, real war was never so bloodless as what she has seen in such movies. Real war never looked so good.
Down a wide lane lined with dry trees, ready to crackle into flames with the heat, and she can hear an even greater commotion in the square ahead, a cloud of dust rising up past the steeple of the church. Through the dust she sees trucks parked, a seething crowd of people around them, bags being tossed to them by men in uniforms. She walks a little faster. One or two of the bags of food will be a lot to carry back on her own, but she can. She will have to. One or two of those bags of food is enough to last them for weeks, if they are sparing with it. And the earth is no longer generous with its goods.
She reaches the edges of the crowd and pushes her way into it. It is not as orderly as she expected—a mass of people so clotted together that they almost become a single entity, the shrill cries of women and the chatter of men, agitated, almost angry. The men standing on the trucks look hot and overwhelmed. Mkali feels a wave of pity for them: they look as exhausted as the people they've come to help, and even further from home. But she is holding up her hands with the rest, entreating. Please. Just a bag. Toss it here, please. She feels shame at doing such a thing, begging like one who can't work. She thinks of Buqisi and Kani with their heads bent as they shape their first hesitant letters and she lifts her slender arms higher.
There's a rumble to her left and the crowd seems to turn as one: another truck! More supplies. They surge forward and Mkali is carried with them, fighting just to stay upright; it would be so easy to be trampled into the dirt in this human chaos. Above the work she's doing to stay standing, she lifts her head, trying to see the new truck. It is closed, the contents hidden from the world. Men are jumping off the back, opening the doors. A ripple of excitement runs through the crowd. What will this be? What have they brought?
A person steps down from the back of the truck. Not one of the men. Not . . . a person? Mkali's eyes widen.
It's a human-shaped figure—head and arms and legs—but there the resemblance diverges. She can see the soft shine of skin on the arms, legs, torso, the same color as hers . . . but at the joints, the gleam of black metal and chrome.
The thing turns its face toward her, and she sees eyes as multi-faceted and glittering as diamonds.
The foreign men are pointing into the crowd, speaking to each other in a language Mkali can't understand. More of the things are climbing smoothly down from the back of the truck now, moving with an unearthly grace. Mkali thinks of stories told to her as a child: spirits of the air, the stars, the sun. Children's stories, melting away with time like dew burning off in the sun. Not true. But as the crowd churns in confusion around her, as the things start to move in among them, she sees that flash of chrome, so clean, diamond eyes again meeting hers, and she feels a cool hand at her back, pushing her gently away and out of the crowd, guiding her toward the lane and the trees, carrying a bag of cornmeal easily on its metal-jointed shoulder.
She doesn't look at it the whole way home. She doesn't know how to look at it: you look at a person one way, and a thing another way, and the two are not the same. But this . . . she tries to look at it, and her very eyes seem to disobey. So she looks away again. It carries the bag home for her, in any case, and she supposes that she's glad of the assistance.
It's a new aid program, it explains to her as they walk, its voice soft and musical and somehow, like the rest of it, a full step or so to the left of human. Food aid works tolerably well most of the time, and medical aid the same, but for many people in a land decimated by war and famine, manpower is an issue. Or so the thing's creators say. So now there are things to help with that as well. Cheap, powerful, durable. Solar-powered. Water is needed, but used slowly and only needs to be replenished every now and then. It is here to help her. It will do anything she needs.
Mkali thinks, one or twice, that what she might need is for it to turn around and go back to the men, back to the trucks, back to whatever system selected her for this dubious honor. A thing she did not ask for. She has never gone into debt to anyone. And she will have no slaves.
I was made to serve you, the thing says in its melodious voice. Anything.
It's full dark by the time they get back to the house. The children are inside on their pallet, curled up together like puppies. Mkali stands in the doorway for a time, looking down at them; the thing's eyes cast a soft glow. She hasn't mustered up the will to tell it to turn them off.
At last she tells it to sleep wherever it feels most comfortable. She's not sure what else to say.
I do not sleep, it says. But thank you.
She gives it a name on the second day, because the children, immediately enchanted, are asking what its name is, and it can't respond. It hasn't been given one. It responds with what might be pleasure when, sighing, she tells Kani what it is to be called. Madini. It hums softly, deep in its chest. Can it feel pleasure? Is that a thing that, in the context of such an object, can be called real?
It goes to work in the field beside the house, chipping away at the hard earth. It would go easier if there were water, it says, its eyes shining. Mkali nods. Yes, it would. But the well is over a mile away. No matter, it says. Provide me with a tool and I will dig you a well for your field.
Mkali leans on her hoe and watches as it digs. Now she can look at it directly, though it still feels very strange to do so. It is a bizarre combination of lanky and squat: its torso, bereft of organs, short and powerful, its chest topped with curves that might be breasts, though surely it would have no need for such things. Its legs and arms are long as well, but disproportionately thin. Deceptive; she knows firsthand how strong they are. Its face is the most human thing about it, soft-featured, a broad nose, high forehead, full lips. And yet its face is also the least human thing about it, because of its eyes.
Madini. She speaks the name in silence, her lips forming the word she doesn't say aloud.
In three days, they have water.
No one seems to know what to make of it, when it helps Mkali to carry some goat milk to market—for now that the goats are better fed, there is a surplus of milk, enough to sell, and to Mkali this seems like almost unimaginable wealth. But no one seems to know what to make of Madini. By now word of such things has spread through the countryside, but for many people it's still only rumor, and Mkali feels eyes on her as she walks with Madini into the center of the little village half a mile from her home, carrying the milk in a jug. Eyes, everywhere. Envy? Fear? She did not expect this, though she supposes that she should have. She draws closer to Madini before she realizes that she's done so. Madini turns its glowing gaze to her.
We will return home soon, it says, soft. Once we have sold the milk. You do not seem happy to be here.
Mkali waves it away, shrugs, smiles faintly, pulling her scarf tighter around her head. She's not afraid of anyone. She has already stood against the thickest night. She would know it, were it to come again.
But they do leave quickly. And she is happy to do so.
Your children are lovely. They are sitting in the long shade of the house, watching Buqisi and Kani play in the dying daylight. They have found a little green lizard; Kani catches it, lets it run over his arm, and Buqisi claps her little hands and laughs.
"Not my children," Mkali says. "My brother. My sister." And then, before she's really aware of it, she's telling Madini everything, about the soldiers, the fire, the screams and the thick night. Madini listens in silence and then, when Mkali is done, it lays a hand on her forearm. Madini's hand is smooth, unnaturally so, and cool to the touch, the top covered with that same skin-like material, but the palm and fingers black textured metal.
I am sorry.
Mkali shakes her head. There is nothing to be sorry for. But she doesn't move Madini's hand away, and Madini doesn't move it either. They sit together in the gathering twilight, the cicadas very loud in the trees and the goats bleating gentle gossip to each other, until it's time to call the children in for bed.
Mkali tells Madini more. As before, she doesn't intend to, but working in the field or milking the goats or sweeping out the yard, the words come, as though a dam has broken, because there is so much that she has never told anyone, because there has been no one to tell. Kani and Buqisi are young, and soon enough they'll see firsthand all the horror that life can throw at them, but for now she wants to protect them. She sings to them. She tells them happy stories. And in time, Madini learns the songs and the stories, and then new songs begin to appear, and who can say from whence they come? New stories are told; can Madini dream up such things?
Madini does not sleep. Does Madini dream?
Mkali tells Madini of what she traded to the soldiers who came back after the thick night. Mkali tells, her voice quivering only a little, of what she gave them to get them to go away. It was an act of desperation, because she had never been given any reason to think that they would honor the terms of such a deal, and it was an act of sheer will, because she did what she could, gave what there was to give, and in the end the men had gone away, the twilight ringing with their coarse laughter. And after, there had been the fear of a child, strange-faced and with a hungry mouth, but no child had come, thank God.
God, Madini echoes softly. What, in your understanding, is God?
Mkali does not answer for a long time. Flies buzz in the sleepy afternoon. She has never said this, either. No one would want to hear.
God is the one who does not come, when the house burns, when the people die, when the men laugh and their hands become rough. Mkali says, There is no God.
Then, says Madini, its—her, her—eyes glittering so lovely in the sunlight, why are you thanking it?
Mkali watches Madini drink. This is a new thing: Madini has never needed to drink before, but the reserves inside her have run low. There is plenty of water now, a scaffold built, and it is so easy to lower a bucket and bring it up, cool and sparkling as Madini's eyes. It still needs to be boiled before Mkali and the children can drink, but Madini cannot get sick, so she opens her mouth, tips up the bucket, and drinks. Her throat does not move as she swallows; the water simply flows into her, an open and waiting vessel. Some of it overflows and spills down her shining body, wetting her skin, her gleaming joints.
Mkali stands by the goat pen and watches Madini drink, one hand on her chest, as though she is tired and out of breath, or weary to the point of pain. Or, as though she is laughing.
She is a little afraid to look too closely at what she feels now.
It is still difficult to go into the village. Some of them have grown used to her—Madini, of course, nothing to be remarked upon, it lives with Mkali and helps her with her land. But others—many others—mutter behind their hands. What is that? Sorcery. From America? Unnatural, that such a thing should be. What is Mkali, that she should have it? Why did they give it to her?
One word, only needing one voicing to take on a life of its own. Witch.
The stares become uncomfortable. Mkali does not bring Madini into the village anymore.
Mkali tells Madini about the future. This is also new; she has not given much thought for the future before now. The future was impossibly far away, impossible to plan for. Every day was a gift—only not a gift. Gifts come with no cost. Every day felt like borrowed time. Every day felt like a loan that might be collected upon. But now Mkali allows herself to think of the future. Buqisi and Kani will have an education. They will go to university in Gulu, perhaps even in the south, in Kampala. They will become doctors, scholars; they will go to Europe and America.
America. Something in Madini's eyes seems to flare.
"You are from America," Mkali says. Of course this must be true. All riches, technology, wealth and power, all of these things come from America. From where else could someone like Madini come?
But Madini cocks her head on one side, touches a metallic hand to her cheek. I do not know America.
No? No. My home is here. Madini pauses, as if weighing something. Mkali can feel her thinking sometimes, more than other people; other people are chaos, a mess of jumbled things, but when Madini thinks it feels like fitted pieces slotting together, a soft, orderly clicking.
My home is here with you.
Mkali dreams of the fire, the thick night. It is a memory, and yet not a memory; it is an echo of the past cast forward into the future like dice, coming up on the wrong numbers. Bad luck, which, if there is no God, is what it must all come down to. The house is burning, the goats are loose, running and terrified, the field is dancing with flames. Mkali stands naked before it all, not bothering to try to cover herself. They have come back, then, as she always knew they would. The LRA, the UPDF, scatters of letters that have no meaning, that all mean the same thing in the end. If they want to take her, she won't fight them. She lost her fear of them a long time ago.
But there is a scream from the burning house. Kani. Buqisi.
She tries to launch herself forward, her breathing abruptly hard and frantic, but she moves as one does in bad dreams, as though through mud, so slow though she's using all her strength. Another scream comes from the house and she joins it with her own, clawing at the air. She has lost her fear for herself but she has never stopped fearing for others.
She manages to move one foot forward when the roof falls in a great eruption of sparks and flame, and her own screams are all she hears.
She must have moved before she was fully awake. All at once she's conscious, but not in her bed. She's standing in front of the house, very like the dream, but facing away, out into the field, the night still. The moon is high and bright, and it casts shadows that are at once both sharp and dreamlike. There is a cool breeze across her face. She shivers in her old, torn T-shirt, though she is not cold.
She turns sharply, inhaling, though she already knows who it will be: Madini, standing in the doorway and looking at her with those softly glowing eyes. I heard you cry out. Are you all right?
"A bad dream," Mkali whispers, and turns away again.
She hears Madini's quiet step behind her, and then the weight of a hand on her shoulder. It is over now. It was never real.
"Yes, it was." And she is turning again, suddenly, feeling so small and lost, her mother and father so long dead and in their graves, out at the far end of the field; she buried them with her own hands, though she was exhausted and shaking and blind with tears. And she has rebuilt the house and beaten the earth into submission, but it has been so long, she is so tired, alone, and now there is a body against hers, warm but not human . . . but is it close enough to humanity? Has it been close enough, these past few weeks?
Don't, part of her urges. Don't do this. But they've given her this thing, this . . . to help her. To serve her. Even if that's not what she wants. She lays her hands against Madini's cheeks—skin that is not skin, skin smoother and softer and stronger than human skin ever was—leans in and presses their lips together, and if Madini was not made for this too, why does it feel this way?
Why does it feel this good?
She feels Madini stiffen, the closest to surprise she thinks Madini has ever been—then she feels that thinking, that soft clicking, and she feels arms around her, lips nudging hers apart. When the breeze touches her again, Mkali does not shiver.
Dawn comes hot, shockingly so after the cooler night; Mkali draws up a pail of water and washes herself, sponging down her lean body with an old cloth, her skin sucking in the coolness that comes as the air touches and takes its wetness in exchange. Madini is back inside the house, not sleeping. Madini does not sleep.
A great deal of this would be easier if she did.
Water trickles down between Mkali's breasts, down the flat plane of her belly. Breasts that never swelled with milk, belly that never swelled with child. And will that happen now? The step she's taken—can she walk it back? She's long since learned that certain things are irreversible, burned into the world. A metal touch burned into her skin, and no amount of water can cool it or wash it away.
She stands, extends her arms at her sides, drying in the open air. Sometimes, she thinks, a step is not a step, but only the path one was following all along, at last made plain. In the thick night, she gave up on people, but for Kani and Buqisi, her blood, the only children she is ever likely to have. In the thick night she gave up on people, and now she has another option.
A long day. In the summer the days are all too long, relentless, every workable hour needing to be filled and enough of them to thoroughly exhaust her. But in some respects this is a good thing. Work drives out thought, and Mkali suspects that too much thought just now wouldn't lead her anywhere good. It has been more than a week now, and things are much as they were before—they have to be, because under the circumstances, it is nearly impossible to hide anything. She steals moments. Seconds. She steals touches and glances. She feels selfish, and she feels that selfishness has eluded her for far too long, and now she's taking what's due to her.
She has never had a lover. She feels giddy with it. It feels more like terror than she ever would have expected. Can anyone tell? Her body, her words and her movements—have they betrayed her? Buqisi is still too small to notice much . . . can Kani see? When she goes into the village, are they looking at her even more closely now? It feels like enough to cripple her. So, work, and little thought.
She is sitting in the shade, too tired for the moment even to fan herself, but the field is hoed, the weeds all pulled, and a few green sprouts have begun to push their hesitant way up through the cracked earth. She palms sweat away from her eyes, waves away the flies that gather to drink from her skin.
You should not risk dehydration. Madini, kneeling gracefully down beside her. Madini is meant to be taking the goats out to pasture, but . . . it seems it's later in the day than Mkali knew. She leans against the smooth solidity of Madini's frame, feeling the coolness of her joints.
Come. I have water. Mkali feels fingertips against her chin, tilting her face up. What Madini feels—if Madini feels anything at all—it is impossible to say, and Mkali has wondered, when she has time to do so, how one speaks of love to a thing, if it can even be done. But the way in which Madini touches her now is new; that, she is sure, she is not imagining. Madini tilts her chin up and leans in, presses their mouths together, and water flows through their lips, cool and sweet. Mkali drinks, slides her hands up over Madini's shoulders and drinks, moans softly and drinks until she feels her belly swelling and she's gasping for breath, her bare arms lightly beaded with sweat and the flies drinking their fill.
Mkali is about to leave the village in the last of the daylight when they come for her. It's not entirely unexpected—part of her has been waiting for this, she realizes now, and so there is a sense of relief, because at least now she can face it squarely.
But more than that, over and on top of and crushing down the relief, there is terror. And this time there's no mistaking it for love.
Two men flank her before she can do anything, taking her by the arms and hauling her backward. At some point—she's not sure when, but it must have happened quickly—a crowd has gathered. She is dragged around to face them, their angry faces, their muttering. Some of them she has known since she was small. Some of them helped to rebuild her house. She sees fires burning in some of their hands; torches, smoking into the thickening night.
"No," she says, and they drown out the word. She hears it in snatches, fragments, barely coherent but coherent enough. Why should you have it? What are you doing with it? We've heard things. What is it, anyway? Looks like a person but isn't. Unnatural. Perversion. Cursed thing. How could you? We'll fix it. We'll fix you.
"No!" Louder, a cry, a scream of denial, like the word has enough force behind it to push back what's happening, but when the wall of night descended, flaming, upon her and her siblings, she wasn't able to push it back with words, and she doesn't really expect to be able to do so now. She struggles, pulling so hard in the grip of her captors that she half expects her arms to come free from their sockets; she sees a gleam in the twilight, the soft light of glowing eyes, and, horrified, she begins to understand what they mean to do.
Mkali? Madini is being pulled forward like her, but placidly trying to keep up with the tugging hands that drag her along. She is looking around, her artificial face blank. If she can be said to have any expression at all, it is one of confusion. What is happening? I do not know what they want from me.
Of course not. And of course Madini would try to discover what it might be, to please them. She was built to serve, after all.
"Let her go!" Mkali turns to one man and then the other, to the assembled crowd with their fires and their angry faces, and Mkali is a proud woman but Mkali is not above pleading. "Please . . . she's done nothing wrong, she was just given to me to help. . . . I didn't even ask for her!" and there, the words turning back on her like a snake, inches away from outright denial. She wonders if she might now hear three harsh crows of a cock. She meets Madini's eyes, that soft light, and she has never felt so small and useless.
"It's not right," says an old man—he seems to be the ringleader, though Mkali finds that she does not know him, that his face is strange to her. "We have heard from people who have seen you with . . . that thing. It's not right that it was given to you. They put these things in among us, and they only bring trouble." He turns back to the crowd and lifts a hand. "Give it to the fire!"
Mkali screams. There are no words this time, but the words behind the scream are not again. She jerks her body, one huge, hysterical spasm, and one arm pulls free and then the other, and she's charging forward, her eyes blind with tears, and she should be thinking of Kani and Buqisi, she knows, and how she must stay alive for them, for the future she sees for them, but all she can see is Madini, her eyes, her soft face, and the vanishing of it from her life. So much taken. Too much. She reaches the men holding Madini and throws herself at them—but she never touches them. She is in Madini's arms, Madini having somehow pulled herself free with utter ease—was she even trying, before? She has always been very strong.
Come, Madini says, her voice lilting terrible music. It is not safe here for you. And they're running together, flesh clasped around metal, the night closing around them, angry shouts behind and the pounding of chasing feet, back through the village and toward the short road that leads to her house.
Mkali sees the turning rush coming to head them off, too late to do anything about it. Nevertheless, she turns, they turn together, trying to head away, running headlong into another group of them. Mkali lowers her head and charges through; she sees a flash of fire as she knocks back two people carrying torches, a spin and whirl of lights and darkness, and she trips and is caught around the waist and hauled down. She's screaming, again without words, looking wildly around for Madini—and the crowd falls silent. There is a crackling sound. An acrid smell. Smoke. Mkali at last sees where they are.
Torches have fallen against the school, and it is on fire. Night thickens.
They all stand, watching the roof catch. For the moment, no one can think to be angry. The day is over and the school is empty—but it stands in everyone's mind as a place for the children, the ones who can be spared to go, reaching up beyond themselves and held aloft by exhausted, desperately hoping men and women. Now it is aflame. Buqisi and Kani's future, the world they'll see. Mkali lets out one more wordless cry, and then the night itself seems to strangle her. She slumps, falls silent again.
Do not worry. Madini steps forward and no one tries to stop her. Her voice is rising like a song over the growing roar of the fire. Her squat, powerful body and graceful limbs are a living shadow against the flames. She opens her mouth, and water jets from her with astonishing force, spraying over the roof, hissing into steam—but some of the flames die back.
"The well!" Mkali struggles to her feet, turning to the sea of shocked faces. "Go to the well! My well! Bring buckets!" Not my well, she thinks, half a prayer, a prayer to a thing she no longer dares to believe in, but she sends it out into the darkness with a hope that it will be heard nonetheless. Not my well any longer if we live through this night, and not my helper alone, if she agrees. But already, a line of running figures is hurrying away down the road, some carrying pails and pans, others crying direction and encouragement. Madini turns to follow them, but for the briefest of moments she stands against the fire, steaming, her body glistening and deep honey-gold.
All will be well, Mkali—my darling—All will be well.
Mkali is a proud woman, but she has never in her life been too proud to work, and now she sets down her bundle of cornmeal, carried from Gulu, and wipes the sweat from her face with the corner of her scarf. One of the village women comes to take it from her with a smile and carries it away, but not before handing her a tin cup of cool water.
Mkali sits in the shade of one of the houses, drinks, takes her breath and her time. Across the dusty road, Madini's joints shine in the sunlight as she leans over to patch another spot on the school roof. A man hands her some thatching, smiles at her. A little hesitant, a little unsure, but genuine. Madini nods. Soon the school will look like before, better than before. Madini has said she will also assist in the building of some new desks.
"Come down and rest," Mkali calls. Madini turns to her, cocks her smooth head.
I do not need to rest.
"Come down here for me, then," Mkali calls, softer, and she feels that this might be too bold, and she worries . . . but she pushes it back. All of it, back. Life is far too short and far too fragile, to be anything but bold.
Madini comes down, crosses the track, sits beside her. Mkali takes the cool, rounded metal of Madini's hand in hers, and Madini immediately squeezes it. It feels very real. It feels very human. And Mkali thinks, as she watches Buqisi and Kani running with the other children around the side of the schoolhouse, that the air around her has never felt so light.