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The Night Masquerade (Binti #3)(5)
Author: Nnedi Okorafor


I don’t know what happened.

Mwinyi returned an hour later carrying two dead rabbits. He found me lying on the mat, saliva dribbling from the side of my mouth. I’d watched him approach through dry gummy eyes. As I gasped his name and weakly typed it on the virtual device now hovering on my lap, I saw the red word appear before me. His name floated above him, slowly descending onto his head, where it settled and oozed onto him like melted candle wax. I groaned and when I did, I saw the phonetic spelling of the sound creep from my mouth onto the sand like a caterpillar. It was as if the zinariya itself was mocking me.

It was all too much and when I tried treeing to make it better, my world filled with so many numbers that I felt as if I’d kicked a hornet’s nest. I couldn’t see around me and some of the numbers grew more aggressive the angrier I got, zooming around and darting at me.

“How am I supposed to get up tomorrow?” I whispered. “So I can … my family.” I started weeping, though I knew it would wash off even more of my otjize. I turned away from Mwinyi, repulsed by the thought of him seeing me so naked. One of the wild dogs trotted up to me and sniffed my okuoko. I heard Mwinyi put the two large rabbits he’d caught down and I assumed the soft yipping I heard was him telling the dogs not to touch the rabbits.

“Can you see?” he asked.

“No,” I said.

He clucked his tongue with annoyance. “Get up, Binti.”

“I can’t.” I started crying harder. Then I thought about my otjize and my crying turned to sobs. I felt another of the dogs sit on me and I heard Mwinyi walk away. Then I must have fallen asleep because when I woke, I smelled cooking meat. My stomach rumbled and slowly I sat up. The dog who’d sat on me had also apparently fallen asleep and now it lazily stepped off my legs.

I looked around. My world was stable. No expanding, no numbers, no words bouncing, crawling, oozing about with every sound I made. No tunnel in the distance. No feeling like the Earth would hurl me from its flesh into space. I sat back with relief. It was a dark night, the sky overcast with thick clouds. Our camel Rakumi was resting nearby, her saddle on the ground beside her. Mwinyi sat before the fire he’d built, eating. In the darkness, the fire was a welcome beacon. I stood up and then hesitated.

“I’m not Himba,” he said, without looking away from the fire. “Your otjize looks like adornment to me. You don’t look naked. Come and eat. We’re not staying here long.”

Regardless, as I crept up to him, I burned so hot with embarrassment that I could only approach walking sideways. I sat right beside him. This way, he’d have to make more of an effort to look at me. When I looked up, I noticed the dogs lying on top of one another on the other side of the fire, a pile of small bones beside them.

“Aren’t they wild dogs?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said.

“So why are they still here?”

He shrugged. “The fire’s warm and they like me.” He turned to me. Surprised by his sudden look, my eyes grew wide and I crossed my arms over my chest and instinctively tried to pull my head into my top. It was such a silly thing to do that he grinned and laughed. I found myself smiling back at him. He had a nice smile.

He turned back to the fire and said, “And I gave them one of the rabbits I caught.”

I laughed, again.

“We made an arrangement,” he continued. “I feed them and they stay and stand guard for a few hours while you and I get more sleep.”

“They told you this?”

He nodded. “Wild dogs are free and playful, once you convince them not to attack you,” Mwinyi said. “I suspect we have until their bellies have settled and our fire dies down. I don’t think there are many other dangerous animals out tonight. But Binti, something’s clearly happening in your homeland … and maybe not just in your homeland.”

And what if it’s because of me? I thought. Maybe he was thinking it too because he was quiet and pensive and for several minutes neither of us spoke.

I changed the subject. “My best friend Dele … well, he used to be my best friend,” I said, gazing into the fire. “Now, I don’t think he’s a friend at all.”

“Sorry to hear that,” Mwinyi said.

“It’s okay,” I said. “I think I lost all my friends when I left, really.” We were silent for a moment. I continued, “Dele was always interested in the old Himba ways. He knew everything. He was always reminding me that the Himba see fire as holy. A medium to communicate with the Seven. What was the name … okuruwo, holy fire. Yes, that was it.” I sighed, the warmth of the fire toasting my legs and face. “During Moon Fest, I’d sit beside Dele with the other girls and boys. While everyone else sang, I wanted to dance in front of the fire because I always thought the Seven preferred dance and numbers to singing. After I was tapped to be master harmonizer, Dele said I would be disgracing myself if I danced.” I frowned. When I’d last spoken to him, he’d been apprenticed to train as the next Himba chief; he’d looked and spoken to me as if I were a lost child.

“To us Enyi Zinariya, fire is holy too,” Mwinyi said.

Something large and green zipped past my ear, zoomed a circle over the fire, and then plunged into it. There was a small burst of sparks and a soft paff!

“What was that?” I said, jumping up.

“Sit,” Mwinyi said. “And watch.”

I didn’t sit. But I watched.

A second later what looked like an orange, yellow, red spark the size of a tomato flew from the flames, shooting straight up into the black night sky. Then it silently went out.

“I thought you’d spent time in the desert before,” he said.

“Only during the day.”

“Ah, that explains why you’ve never seen an Icarus,” he said. “They’re large green grasshoppers who like to fly into fires. Then they fly out of the flames and dance with their new wings of fire and fall to the ground wingless. The wings grow back in a few days. Then they do it again. The zinariya says that some woman genetically engineered them as pets long ago.”

I looked around for the wingless grasshopper. When I saw the creature, I ran to it. I picked it up and held it to my face. It smelled like smoke. “Ridiculous,” I whispered as it jumped from my hand to the sand and hopped wingless into the darkness.

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