By Maheni K. Arthur
The thing to know about those who lived in Mwangani, is that living was brief. It’s residents lived a fraction of an existence that was designed to be wiped out entirely, leaving nothing behind. To some it was a relief. People figured the end had to be better than the beginning, or better than a life of barely surviving in Sayadra, the ‘real world’ they knew before. To others it was riddled with unbearable fear, to have your life taken from you at the push of a button, at the hands of some faceless entity. But to everyone, it was a betrayal. Everyone in Mwangani had been betrayed by The Federation at some point in their lives, and each resident shared a complex history of secrets and broken promises that had trickled down the littered alleyways and into one small bungalow; and around an old mahogany dinner table sat three sisters that were about to find out their own.
One hour and fifty-four minutes until the end. Amina, Nala and Zuri sat at the dinner table in silence save for the leaky kitchen tap and whistles from the wind outside, stuck between everything they wanted to say and everything they couldn’t. The entire meal had gone by the same, every unsaid word hanging heavy in the air above them. Amina pushed the last of her meal around with her fork and glanced at her sisters. Nala casually drummed her fingers on the lace placemat, Zuri’s eyes were glazing over the room. Nala’s habit forced Amina to pinch the insides of her cheeks just to stop herself from snapping Nala’s fingers clean off. Amina was a slight stickler for manners and as the eldest she took her role as surrogate mother seriously - right down to the details of making sure their dinner was just as Mum would have made it, just like it was when they were kids. She’d cooked groundnut stew - or as their mother Maya called it, “a hug in a bowl”, which always made Zuri smile. Creamy, coconutty peanut sauce adorned chicken that melted in your mouth, fluffy rice to soak up every sweet morsel, so good you had to fight with yourself not to lick the bowl clean (another quirk that Nala took to with great delight over the years). It was their mother’s favourite and Amina figured; “it would be good to have the good parts of Mum with us for our last night.” However painful the memory of her still was. But this comfort of a meal was proving much less so as they all knew that after this, it was the end. The final full stop. Mwangani was set to be demolished at midnight along with everyone and everything in it, Federation’s orders and no mercy. Now dinner was done and the sisters were left with nothing but their thoughts, their fears, and the message that lay waiting for them from the one person missing at the table.
The letter had been sat in the hallway cabinet for over three months - but it wasn’t to come out until after dinner, Amina had made that very clear. She’d found the crumpled envelope on the doorstep one afternoon and it had since remained the last communication they had from their mother after she had disappeared. No Federation Post approval stamp, no return address; it had to be from her. They made a silent agreement to ignore the thoughts they’d all had about how Mum had even got it to them, the only thing that mattered was that she did. So it had to be opened tonight, and not a minute before, it’s what Mum wanted.
Zuri could feel Amina watching her, but she didn’t care to entertain her older sister’s concerns at the half eaten stew in her bowl. Instead, Zuri stared at the splintered wood of the mahogany table, wondering how it had managed to get so old looking in the five short years they’d spent in Mwangani. She stared at the empty seat beside her and wondered if their mother had even made it this far, wherever she was. But Zuri stared mostly at the digital clock above the fireplace that sat dead centre staring back at her, taunting her with every flash that followed them towards the inevitable.
Zuri never said much. She’d always been more of an observer than a talker, which made her an expert at keeping secrets. She was the best at keeping them for her sisters (Nala’s stash of sweets in the wardrobe, Amina sneaking meat from the pot on the stove to feed the neighbours cats at midnight when Mum wouldn’t see), but Zuri learned their true value when they moved to Mwangani. Being surrounded by adults who conveniently left things out of the truth became a constant she always saw coming.
“Your father needs to stay here in Sayadra, The Federation are taking care of him”, her mother had said hastily whilst they packed on the morning of the move.
“Mwangani Town will protect the citizens who need it the most!”, Zuri would hear the Federation’s minions would declare over a smattering of microphones through the television.
“A TEMPORARY SOLUTION FOR SAYADRA’S SPECIALLY SELECTED”, headlines would boast in newspapers strewn about the streets.
Zuri thought that to keep secrets was to protect the people around you, whether it was for good or bad, and protection was a privilege they needed to keep themselves safe. So Zuri learned to be silent. Being silent was safe, being silent didn’t call for questioning. Zuri learned to stay silent when her and her family were sneered at on the street, when people reminded her that they weren’t wanted in Sayadra. To Zuri, silence is what would save the people she loved from torture or from total oblivion. She knew that some secrets might hurt them, but it would surely save them from something worse.
Amina stood in front of the small cabinet in the hallway, clutching onto the matching mahogany wood that housed the most sentimental of their belongings. She slid open the lowest drawer, lifted the false bottom and rummaged lightly around its contents. The cut crystal from from Maya’s old perfume bottle peeked out from underneath the picture of Amina and her sisters outside their old house in Sayadra, their mother’s wedding ring, the letters from Dad. Under one such letter was another, a small and crinkled brown envelope covered in smears of dried mud that had the words, “FOR THE END.” scrawled onto its surface in a familiar haphazard scribble. Amina felt a tear sting her eyes and held her head back to stop it from falling. She’s been proud of herself for keeping it together all these weeks since Mum had gone, leaving her and her sisters with nothing but each other - but now was not the time to crumble. Mum had taught her better than that. Amina thought back to the talk her mother gave her after the first time The Feds showed up unannounced to their old house in Sayadra, and how she nodded her head fiercely to her mother’s questioning as they prepared dinner together. “If anything ever happens to me, promise me you’ll protect your sisters, yes? Promise me?” Maya’s face was so clear in Amina’s mind; heart shaped, sporting a broad nose and big brown eyes, beauty mark above the left of her top lip. She shook her head as if dislodge the uncomfortable feeling the memory gave her. Nala and Zuri glanced at each other uncertainly as Amina walked back to the dining table, placed the envelope in the middle and took her seat. The three of them transfixed their eyes on the envelope, each tick of time going by feeling like a weight closing in. Time was precious, and they were losing it fast.
After several minutes of unbearable silence, the envelope remained unopened. Nala sat biting her nails.
“This is ridiculous, can’t we just open the thing?”
She glanced at Amina for an answer to her question - but not like she was depending on her, she would never admit to that. Nala was perfectly fine depending on herself, thank you very much.
“I don’t know,” Amina sighed, “I feel like we should prepare ourselves first or something.”
Though they’d never admit it, in this moment they were doing the same thing; Amina and Nala couldn’t help but be so alike. Both uncertain. Both afraid. Both stalling.
Amina turned her head to look at Zuri, who’s eyes were fixed on the clock still.
Zuri blinked her eyes as though she’d been in some sort of trance.
“Do you want to open it?”, Amina said gently.
“Oh sure”, Nala rolled her eyes, “give our baby sister the joy of finding out why our mother abandoned us.”
Amina’s cheeks flinched as she readied to address her insufferable younger sibling. To say the tension between Amina and Nala had risen since Mum had disappeared wouldn’t be enough. After being left to fend for themselves with no explanation Amina knew Nala had resorted to blaming her for not being the mother they lost.
“She didn’t abandon us!”, Amina snapped. “We don’t know why she left but...maybe it was to help us. Maybe she got out.”
“No one gets out of here Ami,” Nala muttered.
Nala’s cynicism was in the right place. Nothing and no one had been let in or out of Mwangani for months. Nala flashed back to clambering through the crowds of people at the border in their hundreds, every pair of eyes, every mouth begging for extra supplies to last them before the gates shut for good. No such luck. But Nala had gotten smart over the years and even more so when they were left to figure things out once Mum had gone; she learned what guards were more slack on their watches than others, studied camera angles and worked out how to slip into vans that carried food for the guards without being seen, she followed the drones that flew from Sayadra into the Mwangani’s forests; care packages sent by invisible allies from miles away. Other people weren’t so quick. But a broken system will always work perfectly for the people who broke it, and The Feds were counting on the unlucky to lose hope and their will to live all on their own.
The envelope sat with a thousand possibilities all true at once. Amina hoped it contained the secret to a way out, or Mum would reveal where she was and how to find her. Zuri wanted it to be a confession, some kind of answer to the question of where she’d been and why she left so suddenly. Nala couldn’t help but to think the worst, that it was a trick from The Federation saying that they were coming for all three of them next. Amina grabbed the envelope and tore it open. She read aloud:
“My darling girls.
I couldn’t warn you any sooner. You know about Mwangani now...I’m sick at the thought of leaving you alone. I didn’t have a choice, they told me they would take you too and I’d die before I let them touch you. I know you’re scared, I know you’ll be holding it in. Don’t leave anything left unsaid, for all your sake, for mine. Don’t be afraid. Hold each other. Light is coming.
I love you endlessly.
The silence was back. Amina held the letter in her hands, it seemed to have brought more questions than answers. “Where has she been all this time?”, Nala broke through the quiet, “where did they take her- why did they take her!?” She was pacing the room, arms crossed and erratically peering through the curtains into the road out front. Her paranoia was rising. She looked to Zuri.
“I just didn’t think she was really gone,” Zuri whispered under her breath wrapping her arms around herself. It was the first time she’d spoken all evening. “I didn’t know how to tell you...it all happened so quickly...” Amina and Nala caught each others eyes in confusion. Their mother’s goodbye was the final straw and Zuri couldn’t ignore her secrets anymore, nor could she keep in the truth about the biggest one she’d ever kept.
The storm that night had been raging for a few days, the force of the winds screeched past the windows and rain lashed loudly on the roof. Amina and Nala had fallen asleep on the sofa when Zuri heard raised voices from outside. She tiptoed out of the living room and watched from the back porch to see her mother arguing with two armed guards, their silver star badges glinting under the full moonlight. Zuri watched them through the veil of rain in the distance, being careful to keep hidden and squinting to try to make out what was being said. One guard pointed to the house and then to the van parked nearby, the other stood shining a torch into Maya’s face. Zuri gasped sharply as she saw the first guard grab her mother’s arm, to which she snatched it away. Then he began to walk towards the house and Zuri heard Maya pleading with them, making out the words, “not my girls, please”. Zuri watched her mother walk back up to the house and darted back into the kitchen as Maya walked in dripping in raindrops, and Zuri saw a look in her mother she had never seen before. Maya always had a confident certainty about her, something she tried to teach each of her daughters.
“I have to go away for a while”, Maya wiped the water from her eyes, or the tears, she couldn’t tell which. “I don’t know when I’ll be back but I will soon, okay? I promise.”
Zuri felt her mother’s cold hands cup each side of her face as they trembled, then pull her towards her chest closely. Zuri could still smell the sweet lavender perfume through her mother’s wet clothes, she wished she could hold her forever. As Maya walked away to the van, Zuri caught glimpse of inside it as the second guard shined his torch inside. Several other pairs of wet feet, shivering hands, and one other mother she recognised from around Mwangani looking terrified. It dawned on Zuri that their house was just one of many. All mothers taken away from their children, for reasons she couldn’t understand. Zuri dragged herself upstairs and straight to bed, passing her sisters in the living room and not daring to look in for fear of them waking and asking questions. After that night she barely ever spoke, and no one ever came back.
Back at the dinner table, Amina took Zuri’s hand in her own. “Zee? What do you mean?”
“She said she’d be back,” Zuri blurted out her words, panicking at each one leaving her mouth, “she told me she would, that night, she promised me! They took others too, I saw them- I don’t know where- I didn’t know how to tell you- either of you! I thought that- that she would explain - that someone would explain - I thought they might come back to take us too - that they would hurt us - I was scared they’d hurt Mum - and then they told us about demolishing Mwangani and- you got so scared- we all were- so scared, all these weeks waiting for it and then I realised maybe she never would come back but- I couldn’t bring myself to tell you, I’m so scared all the time Amina, it’s too much and I couldn’t stop her- I couldn’t help her- I’m sorry Amina, I’m so sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry...” Zuri’s voice trailed off into her tears.
Amina opened her mouth to try and speak but nothing came out. She was losing grip on trying to be the strong big sister she thought she had to be. She was exhausted, they all were. A stuttered breath caused her tears to finally flood out from deep within her, from a place she had never allowed herself to feel before. She watched the letter through the blur in her eyes as it fell from her hands onto the table, and she understood that her mother was right. This was the only time they had to finally let everything go.
Nala walked over to pick up the letter and read it again to herself, she couldn’t find her own words just yet. Everytime she blinked she saw the flash of her mother’s face. Mum, who layered her lavender oil over cocoa buttered skin, who taught them all how to flat twist their fluffy mountains of coils and curls, who taught them strength and how to love each other, who taught them kindness and resilience. Mum, who made their existence feel so easy amongst the chaos when she was around. Mum, who she missed so much it made her insides hurt; she could never understand how something could hurt you so deeply without ever breaking your skin. She felt so hateful of the lies that had forced them to Mwangani, the ones that told them they would be safe and protected from the worst of Sayadra only to have everything taken away from them without a second thought. She felt guilty for feeling so angry with her mother for as long as she was and she was angry at herself for taking it out on her sisters, for making things so hard for them when they were just trying to cope too. In all of their upset, Nala saw her little sister be consumed by the feelings that had been plaguing her all this time, she understood her bravery to be honest in the last moments they had, and the importance of letting her know she wasn’t alone.
“Ami, Zee,” Nala crossed her arms around her body to try to soothe her shaking, “I’m sorry, I haven’t been-” Amina shook her head and held out her hand towards Nala. She didn’t have to try to say anything else. Nala went to hold Amina’s hand and felt it squeeze her back. They cried together in silence. “I’m sorry for everything,” Nala whispered tearfully. “It’s okay,” Amina sighed in relief.
The flurry of emotion had finally settled. The pot of jasmine tea Amina had made sat steaming between them, another family tradition. After dinner, always hot tea. Nala went to pour Amina a cup, Amina poured Zuri’s, Zuri poured Nala’s. A small gesture from each of them to show that they were truly holding space for each other. They sat and sipped.
“What do you think it’ll be like? You know...after?” Zuri posed the question and looked to her sisters hopefully. Nala for one had always tried not to think about the answer to this question too deeply. She figured it was wasted time, thinking about something that she had no control over.
“I don’t know,” Nala started, “calm, I think? Like...still.”
Zuri expression dropped slightly and she sipped her tea. Nala could tell her little sister wasn’t satisfied with this answer. Nala thought for a moment and leaned in a little more.
“Remember when Mum would take us out to the garden after Sunday dinner and we’d lie out on the grass? We’d count the stars in the sky and everything felt so big, but it was like we were the only people in the world? Like nothing could touch us?”
“I think it’ll be just like that.”
“Yeah. And Nala’s right, it’ll be so peaceful. Down here is where all the havoc is, the higher up you go it just gets quieter and quieter.”
Zuri thought back to the evenings spent in the garden with Mum when they were younger, meditating underneath the midnight.
“What’s it called again, Mum? The stars?,” she would ask.
“Constellations, honey.”, Maya smiled.
“Con-stell-ay-shuns. That one’s my favourite,” Zuri pointed to a belt of six stars shaped in a zig zag, with each second star twinkling brighter.
“That’s Pamojiri. I remember spotting her when I was about your age, one of the first constellations I ever saw.”
There was always a sadness in Maya’s voice when she would reminisce about her childhood. Amina remembered holding her mother’s hand a little tighter in that moment, reminding her she wasn’t alone.
“It’s okay to be a bit scared of it all though, Zee,” Amina nodded as she set her cup down, “it’s good to say all the things we’re scared of, just like Mum says. Then we’ll know how to overcome them.”
Nala felt compelled to lean into this sudden moment of profundity. She took a deep breath. “Yeah. I’m scared too.” Nala’s lip began to quiver, her inhales short. She took Amina and Zuri’s hands in hers. “Death is...it’s one of the only things that’s true. It’s inescapable and we’ve had to learn that everyday we’ve survived while surrounded by it. I know I’ve not always shown it, but having you two around has been one of the only things that’s kept me going. I’m just saying, whatever happens to us after this, wherever we go, whatever’s out there...I’m really glad to be going there with you.”
Amina, Nala and Zuri sat themselves in the garden, cross legged in a circle with the letter in the centre. The hay-like grass scratched their ankles as they wriggled on the hard earth to get comfortable. Zuri held a small cut crystal vial in her hands, the letter “M” embossed in the centre of a dotted oval on its front; their mother’s lavender oil, and her mother’s before her. Zuri twisted open the top and let the scent drift up towards her, closing her eyes and breathing deeply. Sweet and soft, so comforting but still stinging the part of her that couldn’t forget that last embrace. She passed the bottle to Amina, who rubbed a little between her wrists, Nala did the same on her clavicle and temples. Then, a stillness. An acceptance of exactly what was to come and the company they each shared. Each their mother’s daughter, each a shortened life that deserved so much more. The only thing left for the three sisters was to be. A faint rumble in the distance shook the ground beneath them and Amina saw the fear mist back into Zuri’s eyes.
“It’s okay Zuri, I’m here. We’re here,” Amina said with a conviction that surprised even herself. In that moment she felt it click. They didn’t need to be afraid, they had made it to an end even if it wasn’t the one they deserved, but they had everything they needed. The rumble was getting closer, what was left of the grass around them began to tremble in an unnatural breeze. “Close your eyes Zee. You too Nala,” Amina told her sisters, giving them a reassuring smile as their eyelids shut. Amina looked toward the sky as the rumbling got closer, and smiled as her eyes filled with tears. The clouds began to fracture and a bright light splintered through, shrouding everything surrounding them in a blinding brilliance, enveloping the sisters as they clutched their hands together, gripping each other tighter with every drop of light that singed their skin and bones into obscurity.