Chapter 1

It’s the fourth day of the crucifixion.

       They don’t usually look this bloody or take so many days to die, but this slave is a particularly feisty little louse.  

       I watch him lift his face, sweat glistening on his naked scalp, eyes defeated yet defiant. He opens and clenches his tied hands, easing the stiffness in his fingers then angles his head. The simple gesture is enough for me to read his intentions. I take a step back just as he shoots bloody spittle over the edge of the rectangular wooden stage. Men and women whip their heads away, spinning on their heels.  I fix my gaze back on those jutting ribs, those sharp hip bones, and blue-black ankles, both bloated and deformed.

       The sight of them makes my stomach lurch. Well, that’s what I get for standing so close to the platform. I slide my gaze away from the cross and dig around my purse for my mirror. In its reflection, the shadows under my eyes seem darker than I remember this morning. Maybe it wasn’t such a great idea to study so late last night.   

       Brilliant, and I’ve completely eaten my lipstick.

       I slide my purse under one arm, tuck my auburn curls behind an ear and reapply another coat.

       Standing beside the crucified slave is the High Priest, flanked by two stocky guards. They’re wearing iron vests that grip their sculpted chests and dangling from the sides of their belts are two unwound leather whips. The Priest is a thick-browed, pale fellow with fat fingers matching his chubby cheeks and round belly. With the Book of Roots in one hand, he clears his throat and projects his voice across the square:

       ‘Remember brothers and sisters! The Avanders are not equal to the Elriyans. Their subordination to our superior race is a necessary consequence of their naturally barbaric and sinful nature. The Book of Roots states: “and the Lord created-’

       The Avander tied to the cross grunts.  The Priest pivots to face him, hissing:

       ‘You will not make a sound while these sacred verses are recited!’ He adjusts his white robes over his protruding belly and flicks through the pages of the book.

       The Avander lifts his chin up ever so slightly, his blue eyes swollen and discoloured. His lips part, revealing jagged, broken teeth. ‘Fuck you. Fuck all of you!’

       Several Elriyans smack their hands over their mouths or over their children’s ears. A group of teen boys burst into laughter. Girls giggle. I roll my eyes.

       This is fairly standard Avander behaviour. After a few days hanging in the square, they’re never in their right minds. Especially when it’s hot and the sun beats down on their bald heads like today.  You get used to hearing the most profane things after attending so many crucifixions.

       The Priest runs a hand over his long grey curls then nods at the guard to his left.  

       The officer marches over to the cross and unleashes his fury with the flick of his whip. The leather slashes the slave’s feet and he jerks his head back, his body tensing and easing with each lash.

       I watch him squeeze his eyes and gasp, too exhausted or too proud to scream out loud. I watch his pain and feel nothing. No joy or satisfaction. Just a lingering boredom and restlessness. I scan the empty faces dotting the square. We’re all tired. Tired of these crucifixions, the sermons, the gore, never running out of enemies, watching them writhe then die.

       Again and again and again.

       The guard adds one final gash to the blistering criss-cross striping the Avander’s chest. How he’s lasted this long with all the damage to his body is beyond me.  As if he’d just heard my thoughts, the slave shudders, finally giving into the pain. He screams and his voice sends a little girl howling.  Around me, old women tut and shake their heads. The High Priest looks out at the crowd and purses his lips. The girl looks no older than six and a jungle of frizzy brown curls caresses her brown shoulders. She clings to her mother, who I recognise as Mrs Miller, the local seamstress. Her face is stern and she’s spitting words at her daughter that I can’t make out exactly.  She catches me watching them and shrugs, her eyes apologetic.

       I weave through the men and women between us and stand by Mrs Miller’s side. She’s a bulky lady with short kinky curls and has to lean down to speak into my ear.

       ‘She refuses to look,’ she whispers. ‘I don’t know what else to do.’

       I stand on my tiptoes, aiming my voice at her left ear.

       ‘Give her some time.’

       Mrs Miller blows out a sigh, frustrated. ‘It’s her third crucifixion Estelle. She won’t look no matter how much I explain the importance of the occasion.’ She tugs at the child.  ‘She’s shaming me.’

       She’s right about that last bit. But I don’t want to upset her by agreeing. I rest my hand on her elbow and she gives me a weak smile. Against her even black skin, my own looks patchy, a pink-yellow colour like the market eggs I buy.

       ‘It’s not always easy to look at death,’ I say.

       ‘None of the other children are making such a fuss.’ She waves her arm in the direction of a toddler. He’s watching the Avander on his father’s shoulders while chewing on a banana. His blank eyes are a bit unsettling, but I don’t mention this in case Mrs Miller understands my comment to mean more than it does.   She drops her chin and speaks through gritted teeth.

       ‘If you don’t do as I say Sophia, if you don’t behave like a good Elriyan girl, I’ll spank you raw’.

       I squeeze her arm. ‘Give her time Mrs Miller.’

       ‘She’ll never learn.’

       ‘She will when she’s ready.’ I squat beside Sophia, my waist-long auburn curls swaying between my knees. She senses my presence and turns her face away.

       It’s time for my secret weapon. I pull out a long piece of candy from a paper bag tucked away in my trouser pocket.‘So-phee-yaaa’, I say in a sing-song voice.‘Look what I have for you.’

       Her head turns. She has these wide brown eyes that remind me of my own and a cute pointed nose I wish I had.

       She sees the candy and brightens. ‘Pineapple straws! My favourite!’

       She doesn’t wait for me to offer her the piece again and snatches it out of my hand. 

       I laugh then lower my voice when I notice the Priest glaring at me. ‘They’re my favourite too. I can’t stop eating them.’ I run my fingers over her tight ringlets then lightly pinch her cheek. 

       ‘Good girl,’ I whisper. ‘Today is a special day, did you know that?’

       Chewing, Sophia shakes her head.

       ‘When the Queen catches a naughty Avander, we should be happy and celebrate. We don’t want them misbehaving do we? And we definitely don’t want them growing out their hair like this one did.’

       Sophia’s jaw drops. ‘He grew out his hair?’ Too loud. A couple click their tongues at us.

       I nod and whisper: ‘When the officers found him, he hadn’t shaved his straight hair for two weeks. Imagine that. He’s a very bad Straight-Head.’

       Sophia shifts her gaze to the platform. Its wooden foundation is two meters high and she cranes her neck, squinting in the harsh sunlight.

       She looks at her mother and smiles. Mrs Miller mimes me a thank you then cocks her head, her eyes focused on something behind me. I turn and watch Papa shoulder his way through the crowd. A man striding in the opposite direction knocks Papa to one side and he spins round spitting a curse at the man’s retreating figure. Suddenly everyone in the square has their eyes on me.  Well, maybe not everyone- just enough to make my cheeks burn.

       Papa gives Mrs Miller a slight bow of the head.  ‘Samantha. You look…well.’

       ‘Thank you Mr Ilnett.’

       He nods and pulls me to one side. ‘We’re going to be late,’ he mumbles.

       ‘I thought you wanted to stay till the end of the sermon.’

       ‘I changed my mind.’ Without another word he marches towards the stone block of shops surrounding the square.

       ‘Well, I’d better get going then. He can be a bit impatient sometimes.’ I say to Mrs Miller.

       She smiles. ‘Most old men are.’

       I wave her and Sophia goodbye then scurry behind him.

       ‘Papa!’ I fall into a light jog to catch-up. ‘Why are you in such a hurry anyway?’ I shout behind him.  ‘The festivities last for hours.’

       He scratches his head. Despite his old age, Papa has a head full of grey-white curls…and a tonne of itchy dandruff.   I’ve been lucky enough to inherit his tight corkscrew 3c curls plus Mamma’s auburn hair colour. If things had worked out the other way round, I’d probably be standing here with loose, mousy brown ringlets. Now that was a close call.

       ‘You know I hate crowds,’ Papa says with a frown. ‘If we’re early enough, we can avoid that blasted stampede into the field.’

       When I reach him, I throw my arms round his waist, squeezing him in a backwards hug.

       ‘Don’t be such a grump!’

       He chuckles and runs his hand over my forearm.

       ‘Okay stop. You’re going squeeze my breakfast out of me.’

       I release him and print a kiss on his cheek. Papa smiles and offers me his arm. I take it and snuggle into his side as we walk past the butchers. Through the glass panel, I can see Mo, apron stained with blood, hacking at a wild boar carcass.

       It’s almost the end of the dry season but it’s still scorching hot. I fan my face with my free hand. The trees around us feel the heat too. They look like giant cinnamon sticks, leafless and dry.  If it weren’t for the evergreen ceibas, acacias and palms you’d think we were living in some arid land and not a tropical island.

       ‘You know, it’s actually quite good we’re going so early,’ I say. ‘The sooner we get there, the sooner I can leave.’

       Papa stops walking. ‘I thought we agreed to spend the whole day at the Festival.’

       ‘I agreed to attend the celebration to watch the Queen’s speech then help you pick out an ointment for your dandruff. That’ll only take a couple of hours at most.’

       An old lady selling coconuts pushes her cart towards us. She grins at Papa.

       ‘Would you like to buy a-’

       ‘We don’t want any of your blasted coconuts,’ Papa snaps. The woman nods and moves on.

       I rest my hand on his back. ‘Papa…’ 

       It’s these damned crucifixions. They’re not good for him, especially after Mamma’s death last year. They feed his anger and aggression. I can see that clearly in the way he lashes out at everyone around him. I know it’s his way of dealing with the anger he feels over Mamma’s death. So I indulge him, like a parent indulging a child. I don’t even complain when he asks me to attend all days of the crucifixion sermons and processions. Nate once told me I put too much pressure on myself. Maybe I do. But I don’t know how to love Papa in any other way.

       I follow Papa onto the forest path leading to the Festival fields. ‘You’re becoming a bloody recluse.’ He says with his back to me.  ‘You know, it’s been a difficult time for me too. But you need to spend more time interacting with people instead of locking yourself up in your room, doing Curl knows what. I thought we were going to spend a lovely day together. You know…like before.’

       I kick a stone in the shade of the packed palm trees.  ‘It’s not that Papa. You know I love spending time with you. I just need to get back early to-’ I bite my tongue. ‘I have some things to do.’

       He slows down and looks over his shoulder. ‘What?’

       Papa was born deaf in one ear, so I’m not sure if he’s asking: ‘What did you just say?’ or ‘what things do you need to do?’ I hesitate.

       You see Papa isn’t the most reasonable man when he loses his temper. So I know to stay away from any discussions about my work application to the Centre for Othersidian Studies. I’ve been studying day and night for a language assessment next month but he still has no idea. And I plan to keep it that way.

       ‘You know what? Never mind. It’s only one day, I’ll stay.’

       Papa halts under an umbrella tree. ‘What things Estelle?’

       Before Papa retired, he was a teacher; which basically means he has an uncanny ability to spot when you’re trying to hide something. But as the daughter of a teacher, I’ve also developed my own artillery for these sorts of situations. I call the following: “the weapon of redirection.”

       I raise one shoulder. ‘Oh, it’s nothing. Just something for Nate.’

Papa perks up and takes the bait.

       ‘Really? How is Nate?’

Papa loves Nate because he built himself a successful career despite growing up as an orphan. He’s like the son he never had.

       ‘Oh he’s good. You know, doing well. Working hard in the labs and all that.’ I lie. Well, it’s not exactly a lie. He could be doing well, I just wouldn’t know. I’ve been avoiding him for the last couple of weeks.

       ‘Such a good lad!’ Papa offers me his arm again and we move down the forest path. Through the gaps between the trees I can already glimpse the outlines of stalls and a few Elriyans.

       ‘Why not invite him over for tea next week?’

       That doesn’t seem too likely. Things haven’t been the same between us for some time now and I don’t want to make promises I may not be able to keep. So I simply nod as we cross the tree line into the Festival fields.

       Around us, merchants are selling all sorts of savoury nibbles, fruit preserves, hair products and Tressian flags. I scan the different objects and mumble their Othersidian names.

       Tex-tiles, noun.

       Deli, deli-ka-te-sen, noun.

       Wreath, wreaths- noun, silent ‘w’. 

       In the distance, the ancient spitting mountain, Akarish, watches over the festivities. Its snowy peak is almost hidden behind a long white cloud and climbing up its rocky side, are the fuzzy outlines of several pilgrims seeking grace from the mausoleum of the Blessed Curl- one of King Goren’s very own preserved locks. It’s hard to believe that it’s already been a year since Mamma and I had hiked here together one final time. It feels strange, wrong even, coming to the Festival without her. Sometimes, I wonder if the strain of that day had aggravated her illness. If that was why she… I bite my bottom lip. The sharp pain is a brief respite from the dull ache building in my chest. I swallow and focus my attention on the bald Straight-Head miners hacking at the iron deposits in the rocks at the foot of the mountain.

       Vol-kay-no.

       The tension in me eases. Just focus on the words Estelle. I mumble more Othersidian words.

       Vol-kan-ik,

       vol-kay-noes.

       Lava, heat, hot.

       Lord, it really is so hot today.

       Wearing a pant-suit was a terrible idea. The sun is blazing and I can already feel my blouse sticking to my back. I fan my face with both hands and head to the Papadew stall where Papa is standing.

       As I approach, I hear him say: ‘But last year, you were selling one pint for five silver Pegs.’

       The vendor doesn’t reply and prepares the sweet beverage for a young couple. Around their left wrists are locks of hair fixed to ribbons, signalling their completion of the curl exchange courtship ceremony. When I sneak another look at them, I catch the man whispering something into the woman’s ear. Her eyes glance over Papa’s purple tartan trousers. The fabric is a bit faded and shrunken from years of wash and wear and his hairy ankles peek out the bottom. The woman giggles.  I glare at her till she notices me. Her smile drops and she shrinks a little.

       ‘Like I told you before Mr Ilnett, we’ve been having a bad harvest. I don’t control the price of papaya.’

       ‘I understand, but one bloody gold Knot for a measly pint! It’s madness!’

       Papa turns to me for support. To be honest, I don’t think the vendor’s prices are too unreasonable. But still…if you don’t have your family’s back, who will? I nod and agree with him.

       Beyond the stall section where we are, a group of children play tug of war. The rope slips and three boys tumble into a broad- shouldered man on his way to the cockfighting pit. The impact sends the man’s cage smashing into the grass and the rooster into a frenzy. I chuckle to myself and that’s when I see him. And I know I can’t be wrong because even from a distance, there’s no mistaking that bright floral print shirt.

       I curse under my breath.

       My initial impulse is to hide behind Papa. This, I quickly realise, is a stupid idea because he’s quite a petite man. So I walk away, hoping to disappear between the hordes of men and women around the stalls.

       ‘Where in the world are you off to?’

       I stop in my tracks. Papa has abandoned the Papadew stall after finally deciding against the drink.

       My eyes skip past him to the bright shirt disappearing and reappearing between the stalls. ‘Emm…I, I-’ My brain rushes to fill the gap.

       Papa grabs my face between both hands.  ‘What’s wrong? Has your stutter come back?’

       I smile. I’ve been stutter-free for two years now, but Papa still worries about it. ‘I’m okay.  I was just thinking I should find some people to mingle with. Lina should be here already…I think.’

       Papa’s hands drop from my face and so does the expression on his face. He falls silent for a while before saying: ‘Well, I suppose it makes sense. You’d rather be with people your own age. I am just a boring old man after all.’

       I throw my arms around him and he returns the embrace half-heartedly.

       ‘There’s no one I’d rather spend today with.’  I hold his face in my hands.‘You’re my favourite person in this world. Don’t you ever doubt that.’

       He smiles.

       ‘I won’t be long Papa, I promise,’ I say. My eyes land on the tropical shirt gaining pace towards us. My face flushes and I take a few steps backwards.                   ‘After the speech, I’ll come find you.’

       I wait for Papa’s nod and turn on my heels darting down the stalls, past neat rows of curl oils, stacks of fried pineapple and jam fritters and bubbling pots of spiced buffalo milk.

       I know it’s childish of me to run away from Nate but I can’t think of any other way of avoiding his love declaration. I’m not a fool.  He’s done enough to confirm my suspicions over the past couple of months. Those lingering gazes and flirtatious moments of physical contact can only mean one thing.  And the thing is, I’m not sure what to think about it. I know I love him- in the way you’d love someone you’ve known all your life, someone who’s important and close to you. But is that love love? I don’t know…not yet at least. I’m not ready to say yes or no. And I don’t want to hurt him. But if he pushes me too soon, I just might have to.

       When I near the final few snack and fruit stalls, a shrill voice calls my name. I stop to wave back at Lina and glance over my shoulder. Nate is in the near distance, strolling between the growing numbers of men and women. I consider running away again when Lina pulls me into her arms.

       ‘You came! I’m so happy’. She squashes my head against her breasts- one of the unfortunate downfalls of having a very tall friend. I give her a rib-cracking squeeze in retaliation. She lets out a laugh-squeal and lets go of me.

       I look around again. Nate is nowhere I can see and for a moment my muscles relax.

       ‘My…You look fabulous.’ I say. ‘Can’t say I’m surprised though.’

       Lina’s in a short purple dress that would’ve exposed a large area of her pale chest, if not for the countless necklaces dangling around her neck. She flicks her loose sunflower curls over her shoulder.

       ‘Aww thanks.’

       She takes a step back to examine me with her huge googly blue eyes.

       ‘Love the bow on the purple shirt and love these high-waist trousers.’ She runs her fingers over them. ‘Love the fabric and wide-cut. NOT loving the dreary grey colour or those hideous canary flats you can’t stop wearing.’

       She’s right about that. I wear them all the time. Mamma loved all things yellow and bought them for me a few years ago. In other words, canary or not, these flats are sacred.

       ‘If you had told me you were coming, I’d have lent you one of my dresses. You’ve seen the size of my wardrobe.’

       I have. It’s three times the size of mine and full of clothes I’d never wear. Lina knows this but always offers anyway. She’s sweet like that.

       ‘Maybe next time.’ I say and link arms with her. ‘So… what wonderfully embarrassing activities have you got lined up for us today?’

       A voice speaks behind me. ‘Well you could start by trying one of my guava tot-treats.’  

       It’s Tim, the son of Mr Webbler, the owner of the largest bakery in Tressia. His stall is heavy with platters of odd-looking buns, crescent rolls, and dough twists all dyed royal purple to match Tressia’s flag. 

       He walks round the table, bringing with him the sweet scent of cinnamon and fresh bread. Against his purple shirt, his frizzy curls look more orange than usual. 

       ‘I know they sound strange but they taste amazing. Trust me. I’m selling them for a Peg each, but I’ll give you one for free. Friends and family special discount. Lina already had hers.’

       Lina nods and pats her stomach. Like his father, Tim has passion for fattening up everyone but himself. Seriously, he gets skinnier each time I see him, like a piece of stretched taffy.

       He hands me a cake from a large platter of unsold treats. I take a bite. It’s moist and fluffy and just…well, amazing.

       ‘Mmmmm. This is so good. Thanks Tim.’

       Just then, I feel the warm energy of someone approaching behind me.     

       ‘Elle?’  

 

 

© Alwia Al-Hassan 2018