I was the first one to see her—walking towards us—clutching a piece of a broken skull between her bloodied fingers. She staggered as she walked, teetering like she was about to fall then gaining her balance and staggering again. Her feet shuffled on the ground, raising the sand and sending a cloud of dust spiralling behind her. She looked a little dazed; the way you feel when you wake up from a deep sleep and for a brief second can’t recognize where you are.
I turned to Broda who was sitting on a rock, playing the Ayo game with his mate Ore. They would toss a stone in the air, then see how many more they could gather in their palms with the same hand before reaching for the stone that was in the air and catching it. With each turn played, the number of stones gathered would increase.
I wanted to turn to Broda and ask him if he could see her too— to confirm that I was not imagining this shape of a girl holding on to a skull, tottering towards us from the plains beyond the boundary—her hands stretched to us as if beseeching. The boundary beyond which we were forbidden to go and from which no one had ever come. Not a single human being; until her.
She wore a dress that looked like something Sista used to wear to the worship on the Resting Day—a dark loose tunic that draped to the ground—and as the wind blew, the dress rose with it, showing more of her legs right up to her thigh. Something stirred within me then and I might have even purred. I stood up, and it felt as if something was pulling me towards her. Everything around me disappeared. I did not see a thing or hear a thing. All my senses were on the girl. Later, Broda would box my ears for not answering him when he called me to come back.
Something about the girl wavering towards us from the plains enthralled me; the way her feet moved like she was gliding through the sand rather than walking. One arm of her dress was torn off and the other one was barely hanging by a thread, yet, the dirt on her dress, hands and face seemed to make her all the more appealing. The closer I moved to her, the clearer I saw her—the way her eyes sparkled as they fluttered, her eyebrows like wings, and a nose that rose high and dignified from the flat of her face like the Big Hill.
Suddenly, there was a gust of wind, revealing more of her thigh that was lighter than the rest of her body; fairer than any skin I had ever seen. A flush of blood rushed to my face and shot straight to my head. It flooded my cheeks and made my heart beat fast. My palms suddenly turned wet and even though the sun had gone down and the east wind was blowing, I could feel sweat trickling from every pore in my body.
I must have lost my senses for a bit, for she was now in front me; so close I could touch her if I stretched out my hand. I looked at her and took in the outline of her dry and chapped lips, and suddenly I felt the urge to put my mouth on hers and lick them wet, running my tongue over the cracked lines on the surface of her lips and biting down hard so that the blood could come back to them.
The girl was still clutching the piece of a broken skull in her hand. Then I saw something I hadn’t seen before. In her other hand, there was something else enclosed within a tight fist. So tight that her hands were turning white. She lurched forward and I flinched and shut my eyes, afraid that she would hit me with the piece of skull in her hand. I noticed the stream of dry blood that had trickled all the way down to the sides of her arm.
I took a step back and the piece of the broken skull she had been holding fell to the ground and then she collapsed on top of it. I stood for a moment and looked at her lying there. Her thighs were exposed again and I felt that familiar rush of blood flooding every inch of me once more. I knelt beside her and just as I was leaning over her sprawled body, she reached up and grabbed my hand, clinging to me with a strength that belied her simple looking frame. Her lips parted and ever so slightly like the sound of a gentle breeze, she whispered,
It was barely audible, but I know I heard it. She grew limp and fell back in the dirt. It was only then that I noticed she had thrust something between my fingers; something that she had been clutching tightly with her other hand.
The thing felt strange in my hands—like something forbidden—like nothing I had ever felt before. First, I ran my fingers over the rough, flat surface; smoothening it. The edges were thin and sharp, but not like a knife or a blade. Then I spread out my palm and looked down to see what it was. I had never held it before, but I know I had seen it once. It was something they said used to be everywhere in the old world but when that world had ended, so did it. In fact, they had told us, it was the very thing that had led to the end of the world. It was paper.