Kazi’s mother put her tiller across her shoulder and left the two of them to complete the day’s tilling as she prepared lunch and oversaw matters across the homestead.
“Hurry up and be in time for lunch,” she said as she departed.
“Yes, Ama,” they replied in unison.
Kazi struck the ground with her tiller, loosening lumps of iron-red soil. It had not rained once in five months and a red dust hung about them – a fine copper powder that stung your nostrils if you breathed in too deep.
During the day a blanket of it would condense in the atmosphere above, turning the sunlight – and the whole visible world – into a pale red. It was part of nature here and always would be. At night the scenery was different: the two moons would emerge, one on the tail of the other, and the dust would condense and sink to the ground and the light would be true and pure and beautiful. Kazi would stay up late many nights gazing up at the two large orbs that traversed the sky, staring right back down at her.
Her tiller struck something in the ground and she snapped out of her daydream. It was something hard. Hika was right next to her, tilling furiously as they prepared the farm for the new season. They were going to sow Muska seeds.
Kazi stopped and gazed at the peeping, shiny object that reflected the red sunlight into her eyes.
“What’s the matter?” Hika inquired.
“There’s something in the ground,” Kazi replied.
“What is it?”
“I don’t know. Let me see…”
She bent down and dusted the red earth off the object. Hika came over and they both gazed at it for an age without figuring out what, for the life of them, it could be.
Kazi lifted it from the red soil and turned it this way and that in the bright afternoon redness.
“Aaka will know what it is,” Hika said.
Kazi contemplated the object for a while in silence.
“Let’s hurry up and finish and go see Aaka,” Hika continued.
“No,” Kazi replied, suddenly wrapping the object in the folds of her apron.
“What do you mean no?”
“I mean we’re not showing it to Aaka. Or to Ama. I found it, it’s mine.”
Hika was confused by this and made a note of the event in his mind.
“Okay,” he said, “whatever you like.”
That evening was still a pale, dull brown as the last of the red blanket relinquished its hold on the atmosphere and fell to the earth and the two brilliant moons emerged from the South like they always did, the big one trailing the smaller one, like a mother guiding her child across the sky.
Kazi was staring at the spectacle like she always did when her brother called her from behind. They were both standing outside the Great Hall.
“Kazi!” he called, “Are you deaf?”
She snapped out of her hypnotic state and turned to look at Hika.
“It’s time for the evening offering. Aaka is about to begin,” he said. “You’re the only one missing.”
He turned and walked back into the large building, erected decades ago as a kind of temple from which they could cry out to whatever gods or spirits ruled the new planet. Kazi followed him inside.
The building was lit by lanterns hang on the walls every two or three metres. Long, permanent seats made of red earth were built into the floor, about fifty of them, with each seating about four people such that at its full sitting capacity the Great Hall could accommodate over two hundred heads.
Right now there were about fifty people present, half the number from the previous season’s thanks offering rite after the old man Yumba had taken his lineage to find new land to cultivate north of their settlement.
The old woman cleared her throat and the whole congregation went silent. She was seated in her wheelchair on the stage at the front of the Great Hall. Her hair was a brilliant white, her skin brown, pockmarked, and wrinkled. Her hand quivered as she raised it to hush them.
This night, like on many others, she recounted to them the tale, as she herself had heard it as a small child, of the Great Migration, when five hundred and fifty spaceships, each filled with at least ten thousand people, fled the old world, that blue speck in the sky, after disease had ravaged half their number and a nuclear war had sealed the deal for the other half. They had for a long time made preparations to colonise Xhai. When they finally departed nothing was left of the old planet except a dirty-brown ocean and a charred, blackened, smoking, poisonous earth.
Kazi’s mind always painted vivid pictures of these stories, of this great landing. She would see in her mind that on that day the Xhaian sky was covered in clouds, awash in their red hue. They parted slowly to reveal hundreds of spacecraft. If you looked up from the ground what you saw up above were innumerable circles of bright white light, one at the bottom of each craft, where the engine released its energy for levity. As the terrifying spectacle descended, you saw several other lights on each ship – some spherical and bright, some tubular and blinking, several magnificent colours, and you heard the all-consuming din of their rumblings and vibrations, their buzzings and hummings – a swarm of metallic locusts.
When the colony was first established the people thought they had chanced a permanent haven and would have to be nomads no more. They built homes and parks and cultivated the land. They bred furiously and established courts and prisons. They built danceplaces and learnt the brewing of strange and exhilarating liquors. They discovered new fabrics and beautified their faces in novel and striking ways. It was as though the new planet had uncovered a new creativity, a new freshness among the human race. But the red earth carried a secret within it that nobody had anticipated.
Life had preceded the humans on Xhai. They dug too deep and awoke an invisible foe that all but exterminated what was left of their hapless race. The virus, coined Y1H1, was probably awakened in one of the cobalt mines in Hagath, in the far South of the land, and by the end of that year 30 percent of the population had been decimated. The next year it was 60 percent. There was no cure found. Men coughed loudly and painfully and spat up a black mucus, many of them choking to death in their own phlegm in a single bout of lung-ripping coughing. Women grew wide septic sores that were so itchy they scratched the skin off their arms and faces and died in screaming agony. There were bodies lying in every house, on every footpath, within every weedy bush. A viral genocide. Those left mostly fled in their ships again, escaping to a nearby small, grey planet, called Yin 5, which was not as hospitable as Xhai but offered better chances of survival, presumably.
As with all epidemics, there were survivors. Those who were immune. Kazi’s great-grandparents had been among these. They had been among the pioneers of the Kuyuga clans. The word “Kuyuga” had apparently meant “survivor” in one of the tongues of the old world. The Great Migration was now more than two hundred and fifty years in the past.
The old woman held these rites every evening and during each event she would hush the people, most of them children and grandchildren, before commencing on a long oration that would sometimes leave them quiet with awe and wonder, and other times work them up into a frenzy of chanting and ululation.
For the past two months her great speeches had been about pacifying the gods of the land and entreating them to send rain. The hot red dust was spreading over everything, the earth was parched and cracking, and their food reserves were running low. There was a dire need for rain so that at least the Muska would grow and they would not starve.
“Arise,” she bellowed to them in her hoarse voice, “Let us send supplication to the goddess of the rain; let us entreat the great god of the waters!”
The whole community arose and began to murmur and sing and chant and beseech the gods and goddesses, many hands raised, emotional entreaties escaping lips. When it was time to retire they formed two long queues to the front and each one kissed the old woman’s wrinkled and spotted hand; some on her right and some on her left one.
“Aaka,” Hika said to her as they were leaving the Great Hall. He and Kazi were walking astride the wheelchair as their mother manoeuvred the old woman towards the sleeping quarters.
“Yes my sweet one,” the old voice replied.
“Kazi found a thing in the ground today and she won’t let me hold it. She says it came from the old world.”
“Nonsense,” their mother replied. “All the relics left over from the mother world are in our reliquary – those that did not depart with the final migration.” And Kazi smiled furtively, a deep satisfaction spreading like a warmth through her. Hika’s jealousy would not win this day.
During the week that followed she began to act more and more strangely. More than once Hika caught her talking to the thing and he reported this to their mother and to Aaka as well. Kazi pleaded innocence every time.
It came to a head one Friday afternoon when Hika came panting to Aaka’s room, his eyes white with terror and confusion.
“Aaka, please come quickly!”
“What is it, my child?” the old voice tremored.
“What has happened?”
“She has gone mad. The thing, it has taken over her.”
“What thing? What do you mean?”
“The thing she dug up from the ground!”
“Let’s go,” the old woman said.
Hika got behind her wheelchair and pushed her to the Great Hall at such a speed the old woman nearly aged another year in the minute and a half it took to get her there. When they were finally at the entrance to the large building Hika released the wheelchair and pointed towards the stage at the front and the old woman rolled inside.
At the front on the stage was Kazi and there were people around her. She seemed to be oblivious to everything in her vicinity. The old woman moved closer to scrutinize what it was she had hung up on the wall, what this thing was that she had dug up in the dirt as they tilled the dry and parched red soil.
When she got close enough to see it clearly high up there her hands began to shake and she began to sweat and she began to utter incomprehensible syllables. Suddenly the attention shifted from Kazi to the old woman. She murmured nothings and eventually began to weep and sob. Her mind raced back to a distant past, a familiar acquaintance.
She looked up at the man on the Cross and he seemed to look back at her. His arms and feet, fastened to the wood, seemed to glow an emerald green in the red afternoon. She cried and clapped and, finally, when the climax of emotion consumed her, she raised her right hand and touched herself first on her forehead, on her bosom, and then on her left and right shoulders.
A strange euphoria seemed to suddenly infiltrate and pervade the land and everyone in the Great Hall began to murmur and to vibrate with a strange expectation and excitement.
That evening a pink, bright zigzag tore the Xhaian sky in half, a great explosion sounded overhead and a mighty rain fell, soaking the red earth and everything buried beneath it – from Muska seeds to the white ancestral bones from a disaster of long ago. The Kuyuga clans sang and danced in the rain and their children ran around naked in it, washing away the fear and soaking in relief and screaming in delight.
The old woman wept subtly as she watched it all from the entrance of the Great Hall. The Muska would grow, after all. They would not starve. They had found a god who listened, a god from the old world who knew the new one as well.
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