River

“Do you remember living outside of the dome?”

I blink, not sure if I’m hearing her question right. “Outside the dome?” I lean my head back and look up through the circular skylights in the ceiling. The night sky is black, as it is every night, devoid of any color or light.

“I think so,” I answer slowly, trying to taste the truth on my tongue. “I think I remember my family. My mother.”

Omma. She comes to me as a chestnut madonna, her hair a fury of coils around her damp forehead. She smiles, and I see the slightly crooked front tooth—she said it was from when she fell as a little girl. I try hard to remember my younger siblings, all skinny legs and unbowed insolence, but I can’t recall their faces, only their voices.

“I remember the piles,” I continue. “Where we used to get the leftovers from the dome. All sorts of useful stuff somehow ended up there.” The first motor I built was from a twisted old fan and a toy car. I was always one of the first ones to the pile when they brought the new shipments in at the beginning of the week, steaming under the heat of the sun. We could smell  the shipments before actually seeing them, the stench of trash and hot metal coalescing to drench the area in an iron stench akin to blood.

“Do you remember when you came here?” she asks.

I blink and then turn my head to look at her. “Do you?”

“I don’t know.” Yemi sighs, her chest rising and falling slowly. “I don’t know if it’s because they don’t want me to remember- or because I don’t want to.”

I slide my hand into hers and squeeze. “I’m sure you’d remember if you could.”

Silence envelopes us, as still as the filtered air in our room. I know she slipped into a place I could not follow, a place of forgetting and guilt. I know there’s nothing I can say to lessen the pain of losing something of oneself and one’s memories, to alleviate that feeling of disappearing.

“I do remember something,” she says after a long moment. “A song.”

“A song?”

Yemi sings in a voice unsteady and unused but strong.

“Mother

Take me to the river,

Let her take away my pain

Dip me in the river,

I promise I won’t come out

the same

I’ll be new and free

A thing

that only

belongs to me

Take me to the river

You’ll see”

We sit in silence again but this time, the air doesn’t feel still anymore—it feels warm.

“So, you do remember,” I say to her with a grin. The warmth dances a slow path along my skin.

She turns her head to me and smiles. “Yes. I guess I do.”

 

“How’d your tests go?” she asks me as we leave class.

I shrug. I thought they were pretty easy, but I bite my tongue —physics aren’t Yemi’s strong point. I weave between the schools of students swimming in the hallways after the bell. Some faces are worried, some are relieved. Each year, the tests keep getting harder and harder and each year, the class gets smaller and smaller. A distant threat soon becomes an impending reality.

Failing means losing your scholarship. Losing your scholarship means you can’t stay in school to learn to become a productive member of society. And only productive members of society are allowed in the dome.

Most of the students, like us, were found outside of the dome. All of us demonstrated some sort of skill or ability that the dome was interested in. I’ll never forget the day a dome agent visited our school, wearing a plain blue suit and dark sunglasses. I remember thinking his skin was unusually pale and he seemed wearied by the sun, sagging like a chocolate left too long in the heat. He came in and observed us intently throughout the day. When the end of day bell rang, I saw my teacher signal me to stay seated. I obeyed and watched as my peers poured out of the classroom and into the hallways, eager to get home to their families. Their excited voices floated up to the open windows.

He waited until the school fell silent and only then did he speak. “You have quite a talent at making things.” I couldn’t see his eyes behind his glasses but somehow, I knew they had been on me all day. “Do you make things a lot?” His voice was high and brittle, as if he was speaking around a mouthful of dry leaves.

“Yes.” I used a piece of wood to prop open my desktop and showed them the wealth of wires, metal and motors inside. “A lot.”

“Adept at math and science?” he asked the teacher as he reached into my desk. His gloved hands fiddled with cords of red and blue.

“Very much so. Outpaces any other student in the school.” As he rummaged through my desk, my teacher steered me by the shoulder into the hallway. She looked at me desperately through her scratched glasses lenses and whispered, “You have to make the most of this opportunity, you hear?”

I nodded though I didn’t know what she meant. “Yes ma’am.”

After a few moments, the man joined us in the hallway. “Let’s go.” Suddenly he was leading me down the hall and away from my teacher and my classroom and my motors. I didn’t say anything until we exited the school doors and walked out into the arid air. It hit me that whatever was happening was very real.

“But my family. My mother-”

He stopped abruptly, looking down at me through his obsidian lenses. “This is for your family. Should I assume you’re turning this down?”

“Vanya!” I heard my name, a desperate call carried on the belly of the heavy wind. I saw my mother in the distance, running desperately towards me over hills of maroon sand with my baby brother hoisted high on her hip. “Vanya!”

My knob-kneed friend Salma trailed behind her. Salma must’ve told my mother about the pale man and teacher asking me to stay behind. Almost every parent knew what those things meant when strung together. “I’m assuming that’s your mother?” the pale man asked. I could hear the surprise in his voice. It made me wonder how many children he led off who weren’t able to see their families before disappearing in the desert. We sat and waited until my mother made it across the dune. The man’s fingers never once left the cusp of my shoulder.

“Vanya, eyo my girl.” My mother slid my brother from her hip down to her leg where he clung to her calf.  Her eyes were crinkled in the corners like the napkins we used before washing them and hanging them to dry.  My mother was a beautiful woman, but thinking back, I cannot remember her face. I suppose everybody thinks their mother is the most beautiful woman in the world.  

“My daughter.” Her hands came up to cup my face, weathered palms on my cheeks. “Do you know what this means?”

I looked up at the spectacled man and then back at my mother. I shook my head. “No.”

“It means,” she said. “that I love you. That I will always love you. That you are a part of me and I of you.” Our eyes gleamed the same brown in the sun. “It means that you can never afford to forget.”

I was young and didn’t understand what she said or why but what I knew was that an escapable feeling of loss flooded through my veins and my heart started beating the way yams get pounded in wooden bowls. My brother began to cry. I could tell that he was doing what my mother wished she could but would not allow. She would not let herself cry in front of the pale man.

“Omma,” I said softly, reaching out to her. She pulled me into a tight hug. “I love you. I’ll be back, I promise.”

She smiled at me, but not a real smile. It was one of those sad smiles that picks up the corners of the mouth the way women pick up their heavy skirts. It was an illusion of happiness.

“Oh, my love,” she sighed. “You won’t be.”

 

I wake up, covered in a sheen of sweat. My hand immediately goes for Yemi’s, who is almost always up before I am. She’s the only one who knows about my terrors, knows that I’m tormented by a past I can’t remember once I wake up. When her hand slides into mine, everything feels better. When she places my head on her chest and I can feel her heart beating beneath her breast, all of the darkness drops away.

The room is empty. There is no Yemi. I can still feel the warmth in the air from her singing. Since she remembered her mother’s song, more came back to her, like birds flying back home to roost. She was singing all night, humming as she gently detangled her afro and plaited it down. She was singing as I fell asleep and was still singing when I woke up to use the bathroom. But now, she’s gone. I remember there is a word for this feeling - my mother named it when her child, born in between myself and my brother, died. Isonu, she had said. Loss.

“Yemi?” I call out into the darkness. A panic sets in when I see her bed is empty, covers crumpled in a pile by the footboard. The city outside of our window is still whirring along—lights flood the room as the elevated train system roars past our dormitory building. The hands on the clock indicate that it’s only 5am—we still have another two hours before we have to get up and get to class.

It takes me until 8am to search the academy. By the time I get to class, all of the other students are seated and the board up front is lit up, preparing to start its steady stream of material we have to study for the day. We have no teachers; computers are more reliable and effective than humans when it comes to teaching mathematics and physics. Plus, computers don’t have biases that affect our learning capabilities.

“Where’ve you been?” Koni, a friend of mine who came from the same place I did, was looking at me worriedly.

“I was looking for Yemi,” I whisper, keeping my head straight as the room is scanned. Body temperatures are recorded and kept on file. Fever runs rampant in the dome and anybody whose temperatures rises beyond the average is immediately dispatched to the hospital.

Koni clicks his tongue against his teeth in dismay. “You can’t find her?”

“No. Not since last night.”

“Maybe the test?” he says.

Our eyes lock and my heart plummets. What happened after the test? As hard as I try to recall the memories, I can’t picture what Yemi and I did after class or what happened before we got to our room. The only thing I remember from the night is Yemi’s lips on mine, my arm encircled around the small of her back as we sat on the edge of her bed. I remembered the unfurling of her brown skin at my fingertips as I unbuttoned her white shirt.

“Did she fail the test?” Koni asks.

I shake my head. “She couldn’t have, she couldn’t…”

I think of Yemi twirling a coil of hair around her finger as she stares out the window in class. The clock is ticking, and she only has minutes left to finish her test. She is singing under her breath.

“I don’t know if she failed,” I say. “She didn’t tell me anything.”

I can feel the sympathy in Koni’s gaze. He knows that Yemi is more than just a roommate, more than just an acquaintance. I try to keep myself from referring to her in past tense. If I do that, then I acknowledge that she’s disappeared. And she can’t disappear as long as somebody is looking for her. I think of my mother, of how I told her I’d come back, and I think about how now, I can’t even recall her face. I think about not remembering Yemi’s face. I imagine the arch of her nose and her eyes buried beneath equations and prototypes.

“Where are you going?!” Koni hisses as I abruptly get up. Everyone else turns to look at me, eager to be distracted from the day’s lesson.

“I have to find her.” I stuff my books into my bag and sling it on my shoulders. “I have to. I have to know where she’s gone.”

“Are you crazy?”

“I have to know where they go, Koni. Don’t you want to know?”

“No, I don’t. In fact, I’m here so that I don’t end up like them!”

I shake my head. “It’s not right Koni, it’s not. And you know it. You knew Yemi. And you don’t even care that she’s gone?”

“Vanya, you won’t pass your tests if you don’t sit through today’s lesson. You have to stay. We can look for Yemi-”

“I’m not waiting Koni. Something’s not right. I know it, you know it and they all know it too.”  My eyes level the other students watching quietly from their seats. It’s only then I notice that our classrooms never have any empty desks. Yemi’s desk, usually at the far end of the second row, is gone, as if she never existed.

Rage leaks through my body and I feel my body temperature rising. The alarm in the classroom immediately begins to go off. I kick over my desk and the beeping escalates into a blaring screech. Everyone clasps their hands over their ears, eyes scrunched closed like fists.

I run.

I run and I run until I don’t remember what I’m running from.

 

“You have an abnormally high temperature- would you like to-”

I dip into an alleyway, criss-crossed by a grid of pipes, to avoid the Neurobot hovering along on the sidewalk. They regularly pick up on body temperatures, and while they can’t force you to seek treatment, they log your information and report it to the Health Bureau. I know that the steam emitting from the pipes washes out my own body heat. The Neurobot continues moving stupidly through the mid-morning rush of people.

I pull my hood up to cover my hair and continue down the alley. Where would they take Yemi and the others? Rumors circulated that ejected citizens were forced outside, into the deserts. There’s no surefire way of getting out of the dome. The trash system is probably the best bet, but there’s no telling where all of the trash chutes lead to. And there’s no telling if I could survive the journey.

I come to another street, though this one is less crowded than the other. I quickly scan for any Neurobots. An automated trashbot rolls by and uses a high-powered vacuum to suck out the contents of the street garbage cans. It moves from each one like a bee searching for pollen, its pleated belly expanding as it consumes more and more garbage.

I follow the trashbot as it rolls down the soundwalk picking up more and more trash.  Artificial winds rush down the street, brushing my hood from my head. As I walk past a man working on the holographic sign of a convenience store, he turns to look at me.

For us students in the dome, we live in a bubble. Very rarely do we interact with the dome’s other citizens, only because they treat us so differently. There’s a level of reverence and also contempt in their eyes when they look at us. On the one hand, they know that their scientific and mechanical future rests on us, but on the other, they hate that their future relies so much on us reformed Desert dwellers. Is this what it feels like to be god? Hated and loved simultaneously?

I see the man’s eyes lock onto the bush of hair at the nape of my neck that escapes the confines of the rubberband. His eyes travel down my frame, taking in the uniform and my silver dipped fingertips. “Hey!” he calls out. I try to sidle behind the trashbot to hide. “Hey you! Student!”

The trashbot suddenly accelerates, leaving me exposed. The man jumps off his ladder and approaches me. He is unusually pale like the others, never touched by the rays of a real sun. His eyes are a light blue, so light that they look devoid of color. It sends a shiver down my spine.

“What’re you doing all the way out here, so far from the Academy?”

I bite my lip. I wish to say something far ruder than my tongue will allow. “I’m looking for inspiration,” I say through clenched teeth. “To solve a problem.”

Technically, I’m not lying.

He tips his hat at me. “Well, I’m sorry to interrupt! You have our future in your hands, you know—”

Out the corner of my eye, I see a Neurobot turn swiftly on the street. My heart rate accelerates. “Thank you!” I interrupt.

“What?” he asks confused as I brush past him. He stops me in my tracks. “I was asking you if you know anything about the faltering of the sun. We need answers!”

My eyes fly up to the artificial sun hanging high at the top of the dome. Oorun- the word slips past the haziness of my past and onto the tip of my tongue. I don’t know how I know but I know it means sun. We never learned how the sun works in the Academy, only what it does and how it benefits the dome. It’s the dome’s main source of energy and the only thing that allows life to continue in this artificial environment. I look down at my skin which is getting warmer and warmer to the touch.

“ We never learned about how the sun works,” I answer truthfully, pulling my hood back up over my hair. “Only what it does. Other than that, we know as much as you do.”

“Oh, c’mon now, that’s bull-”

A loud whirring erupts from behind me. The Neurobot is on my heels, getting ready to scan.

“I have to go,” I tell the man. He looks at me and then at the Neurobot.

“You-you have a fever!”

“I don’t!”

He began to yell. “She has a fever! This student has a fever!”

The Neurobot inflates like a bodybuilder. It senses the man’s panic and elevated heart rate and I see it shoot out its beam of red light, ready to scan my body temp.

“You have an abnormally high temperature—would you like to be escorted to the Department of Health?”  

“No!” I snap.

It repeats, “You have an abnormally high temperature—would you like to be escorted to the Department of Health?”  

“I don’t want—”

The next thing I know, I’m falling towards the luminescent pavement. I feel a sting in my neck and my fingers find the tip of a dart imbedded in my skin. “You-you can’t do that,” I mumble around a now useless tongue. I can no longer control my body. The Neurobot rolls closer and slides its mechanized arms underneath me. It picks me up and continues to roll along. As my head lolls back, I see the man by his sign, staring.

“You will be escorted to the Department of Health, Vanya,” the robot says in its startling human sounding voice.

“You have a fever.”

 

I have no idea how long I’ve been asleep when I wake up. The only thing I feel is heat laying on my skin like a lover. I’m sweating again, hair damp and curled tightly at my temples. When I open my eyes, I see nothing but red. I close them and squeeze hard, hoping to see my room when I open them again.

“Vanya.” Yemi’s voice comes to me like a dream. “Vanya.” I can almost feel her fingers on my face. It takes a moment to realize that it isn’t a dream.

“Yemi?” I open my eyes and see her there, glistening like a mahogany mirage over me. Her hair is cut short, hugging the curve of her scalp and she looks skinnier. She was only gone for a day- how much weight did she already loose? “What’s happening Yemi? Where am I?”

“I wasn’t sure you’d wake. You’ve been sleeping for three days straight.” She helps me sit up and sighs heavily. “I knew you’d look for me, Van. I knew it in my heart.”

“Of course I would. I could never let you go.”

She smiles, her eyes folding up the way they do when she’s genuinely happy. Her forehead comes down to rest on mine and she’s burning hot too. “Are you sick?”

“We’re not sick Vanya.”

“But the fever-”

“Look around you. Where do you think we are?”

I glance around at the structure we’re in: a circle made up of panes and panes of silver lined panels. I see others laying in beds that stretch all the way down the hall. All of us are brown and all of us are-

“This is where the students go?”

Yemi nodded.

“I thought you failed your exams! When did they take you? In our room?”

She shook her head. “I didn’t fail.  Afterwards, they found me when I went outside for a walk. A Neurobot scan.”

“I don’t understand,” I tell Yemi.

“They tell us we are sick,” she says. “But we’re made this way.”

“What do you mean? Does this have to do with our body temperatures?”

“Yes.” Yemi takes my hands in her hers. “I’m getting out of here Vanya. I have to.” Her eyes search mine; I can see a shine of desperation in them.

“Where are we Yemi?” The heat is sweltering now. My tears are steaming on my skin. “Is this-is this the sun?”

She smiles, something I haven’t seen in a very long time.

“My love. We are the sun.”

 

“Remember my song?”

“Of course.”

The bots are taking their programmed break to update their systems. We’re rushing through the halls to make it to an opening Yemi swears she saw when she first came. “Something happened Van,” she explains to me. “When I started singing, I started to remember. And the more I sang, the more things came back.”

I remember the warm, static feeling that hung in the air after she sang. I follow Yemi blindly. I don’t know how she can tell where she is- all of the hallways look the same, coated in the same silver foil material.

“I’m not sure if it’s because we lived outside the dome. Maybe our physiology is different. But once I started heating up, I couldn’t stop. Then they brought me here and I realized that every student that was here ‘failed’ their exams. ‘Fever’ doesn’t exist: it’s a preliminary system put in place to catch us when we start to get hot.”

“Hot?”

“When we start manifesting our heat.”

I’m still confused but I begin to think of everything that’s happened. Our collective memory loss, our inability to remember our families or our native tongues. In a second, memories begin to flood back, memories of stories of our past, of war and blackened skies, of humans who destroyed the planet and the people like us who tried to bring it back.

“The real sun,” Yemi says. “Doesn’t work like this one. Radiation poisoned a lot of people when the ozone layer continued to deplete. But us! Oh Vanya, we survived. Because of our skin! Because we are from the sun.”

We come upon a black hole at the bottom of the silver siding. Yemi uses her hands to force the opening wider. “This is it,” she says

“Where does this go?”

“Outside,” Yemi answers wistfully. “To the desert.”

I visibly recoil. “There’s nothing in the desert Yemi. You’ll die out there.”

“Will I? Or will I die in here, used up to power our sun? What if it’s all a lie? I remember being perfectly happy outside of the dome, don’t you?”

I think back but my memories are still wrapped in fuzzy cotton. I remember my mother, reaching out to me. “Even if we get out, there’s no way we’ll know how to get back to where we came from.”

“I don’t care Vanya. My mother’s people always said to follow the river. That’s what I’ll do.” Yemi crouches down to the floor and sits at the edge of the hole, sliding her feet inside. She reaches out a hand. “Come with me.”

The whirring of the neurobots suddenly becomes audible. They’re back online and are tracking us.

“I can’t.”

She nods her head. “You can. We can. This is not impossible.”

“Yemi.”

“Come with me, Vanya! We don’t have time!”

I look at Yemi, remembering how I told Koni I wasn’t waiting. How the thought of forgetting her terrified me. I look at her hand and then back at the neurobot wheeling closer, screeching a high-pitched alarm. What would we find out there? Would we die? Where will we go?

“Come with me Vanya,” Yemi begs one last time before she prepares to launch herself into the hole. “Please!”

The neurobots are right on us.

I put my hand in hers and close my eyes.

And then I jump.

 

The sun is nothing like the one in the dome. It is bright and it’s warm and it follows you in the blue sky as you move across the sand. It kisses your skin. It feels familiar.

Yemi struggles up a dune in front of me. After years of living in the dome, we’re no longer adept at traveling across sand and stone. I look over my shoulder at the dome in the distance, glistening like a blister in the heat. A trail of rubbish fans out behind us, stragglers from the hover trucks that transport all the trash to the settlements outside.

We’ve been traveling for almost a day. We’re running on our bodies’ last reserves of water but we’re strangely not overheated. In fact, it’s nowhere near as hot as the dome taught us it would be outside of its walls. I am not staggered by the heat- I’m invigorated by it.

“Vanya! Come look!”

I run to catch up to her. My feet sink like lead in the sand as I trudge up the hill. “What is it?”

“Look.” She points.

There is a settlement. As we trudge closer and closer, I can see a long river curling out like a tail behind it. Pinpricks of children stream out of the crumbling brick faced school, laughing and yelling. A teacher follows them like a hawk as they head to splashes of green blooming in the square. Grass. Something they told us was long gone outside of the dome.

“Wait,” I whisper, eyes scanning the buildings and jaunty huts. “Wait.”

Yemi slides down the slope of a dune.

“Yemi!” I follow her desperately. “I know this place!” She keeps running towards the settlement. “I know that river!”

I run after her. I don’t care that the air is missing from my lungs or that I’m wheezing by the time I catch up to her. All I care about is that teacher, whose form looks so familiar. All I care about is how the brick of the school matches the one from my memories. A jolt flies through me and I start running faster, leaving Yemi in the dust. The settlement draws nearer and nearer and before I know it, my eyes are leaking, and my head is hurting but only because this is the first time in my life that I’ve remembered this much.

“Teacher!” I scream out, waving my arms! “Teacher!”

The woman herding the children like goats turns around and stares at me running towards her. She squints through thick lensed glasses. It’s her. She’s aged but her face and tight scowl are the same. Confusion twists her face but as I draw closer, it turns into recognition. “Vanya?” she yells out, unsure.

“Teacher!”

“Vanya!” Her voice is elated and overflowing with disbelief. “My girl, how did you—”

I run past her and call out, “My mother! Where is she?”

But I don’t hear her answer. It doesn’t matter. I know exactly where to find her. I look over my shoulder and see Yemi, closing in on me with a huge grin on her face. I run past my old house but don’t stop. I can see there’s a new family inside. I head straight for the tip of the river, weaving between people congregating in the square.

“Omma!” I begin to scream. “Omma!” I feel dozens of eyes on me, but I ignore them. I see the blue of the water drawing closer. I see a woman bent over at the waist, washing laundry in the river. A tall boy slender as a reed stands next to her, holding a wicker basket.

“Omma!” The woman pauses and then continues her washing. I am almost on her now. “Omma!”

She turns her head.

All I see is the flashing of those brown eyes before I am enveloped by arms and warm skin and wet washing. Hot kisses pepper my cheeks and forehead and an immeasurable feeling of fullness forces out more and more tears. The boy who is my brother claps his hands and begins singing. I feel the air get warmer around me.

“Omma, I am home,” I say to her. I see her eyes focus over my shoulder. “That is Yemi. She’s my girlfriend.” Yemi smiles shyly at my mother.

“Hello.”

“Hello, love,” my mother says touching Yemi’s cheek with a palm. She looks back down at me. “Eyo, my daughter.”

“I’m sorry, Omma.” I’m sobbing now. “I’m so sorry that I forgot.”

She smiles and wipes away my tears. “Do not dwell on the forgetting, Vanya. You did not forget. You could not remember but that does not mean that you forgot.”

“I am home,” I cry.

Finally, I remember.

 

 

Follow Arielle on Twitter @bonitafrobum

 

We encourage all QTPoC writers to submit your own short-story fiction and non-fiction essays and articles. Browse our Submissions Page and send your writing proposals using the Submissions Form at the bottom of the page, or write to fiction@efniks.com.