Ewwwwww. Still sick as a dog. Honest to god, I will look at replies for the last part as soon as dragging my sorry ass to the computer doesn't hurt.
Some quick notes on names:
Alexandrienne is the French feminization of Alexander, both meaning the same thing. (protector of mankind). Honestly, picked it because it was a feminization of Alexander, so the meaning is kind of immaterial here.
Bunmi is a Nigerian name that means my gift.
Liwaza is a Swahili name that means consolation.
Kosoko (Bunmi's husband) is a Nigerian name that means no hoe to dig a grave.
Oh, and I keep forgetting to mention: All my cut-tag quotes come from Babylon 5. Seems fitting, no?
I'm not OCD. Not. At. All.
As we continued along our bumpy road to fate, I tried with all my might to see a solution to the conundrum before me. Yet, no matter how I turned the matter over in my mind, I could not see how a happy result was at all possible.
The village was empty and silent when we finally arrived just as the fierce mid-day heat began to taper off, save for the presence of some wandering chickens, four bad-tempered goats, and two desultory cows.
Alexandrienne was already on her feet in the rear of the jeep before it came to a full stop. Her eyes were wide as she scanned the area and her mouth was slightly open as she tried to formulate the questions in her mind into English.
As soon as the jeep stopped, Radar was on his feet next to her. “What happened?”
Although Sister Ig wasn’t exactly calm, she was certainly calmer than the either Radar or the Slayer. “Harris ran all the Slayers, Doc, and Sue out to the surrounding towns yesterday to set up a perimeter. As far as I know, the non-Slayers with the exception of Grandmother Touré were moved out this morning. He probably got held up somewhere and that’s why he’s not back yet.”
Alexandrienne and Radar exchanged worried looks. However, even without their reaction, I knew this was not good news.
“The trouble is worse than you lead us to believe,” I said.
Sister Ig remained focused on the dashboard. “No. Just a precaution.”
“Against what?” I demanded.
“It’s just for a day. Maybe two,” Sister Ig said as ignored my question. “I’m sure you’ll be here when this is over and you can meet everyone then. Probably better this way.”
Her statement and her steadfast refusal to look at me seemed to indicate that she was trying to convince herself of that fact far more than she was trying to convince me.
“I’m sure Harris will tell you what he’s doing and why,” Sister Ig said as she finally looked at me with a strained smile. “Like I said, I’m the teacher and I stay out of the strategy sessions as much as I can. I need to focus on the girls as girls, not Slayers, so it’s my own choice. He’s not freezing me out or anything like that. That’s why I honestly won’t be able to answer a lot of your questions. I’m pretty sure he’ll tell you what’s going on if you ask.”
I was about to turn to Alexandrienne and Radar in hopes of getting some explanation about this extraordinary event, but I was interrupted by a cry of, “NuqneH!”
I turned to the source and saw a young woman with a baby strapped to her back jogging over to us.
“That’s Bunmi,” Sister Ig quickly explained before she turned and waved at the approaching Slayer. “NuqneH!” she called out just as Radar and Alexandrienne shouted the same word.
This was some sort of greeting, then.
Alexandrienne crouched down so she could more easily speak to approaching woman as Radar crowded her from behind.
Bunmi stopped when she reached our jeep and bowed slightly to me in acknowledgement as her infant son gurgled happily behind her. She then looked up to Alexandrienne and Radar with a grin. “MajQa’,” she said.
“’Qapla,” Radar said proudly.
“Hija’,” Alexandrienne added. She looked around with a frown before adding, “QaStaH niq?”
“What are they saying?” I asked Sister Ig.
“Basically? Hello. You did well. Yes, we were successful. And the real question of the hour, ‘What’s going on?’” Sister Ig translated. She then interrupted the exchange before Bunmi could answer to introduce me to the Slayer and mother in the barking dialect of honorable Slayers everywhere, or at least in Mali at any rate.
I was so distracted by these exchanges that I did not notice that another person had approached us until she was standing next to Bunmi. I startled upon seeing a very young, very tiny girl carefully holding a cup of water cradled in her two delicate hands. Her vacant eyes and smiling face scanned the jeep before her expression collapsed into one of confusion.
I could feel Alexandrienne tense behind me. Against all reason, my own muscles began to tighten in sympathy. Although I couldn’t see how such a slip of a girl could be a danger, the sudden uncomfortable silence that had fallen on everyone around me told me that I best walk carefully while in this girl’s presence.
Bunmi smiled without a trace of the strain that the others clearly felt and placed an arm around the girl’s narrow shoulders. She managed to make the harsh tlhIngan Hol sound almost gentle as she introduced me.
The silent girl tilted her head, but kept the cup raised as if she had forgotten that it was in her palmed hands.
Bunmi said something more, although the only word I recognized was “Harris.”
The smile blossomed on the girl’s face and she held out the cup to me.
“It’s water,” Sister Ig quietly assured me. “Take it. It’s okay.”
As I reached out to accept the proffered gift, I could hear Alexandrienne shift position, but her protective stance didn’t relax one jot.
Once the cup was gently turned over to my hands, I sincerely thanked the girl. It had been a long, hot drive, and I truly was thirsty.
“Drink it,” Sister Ig urged.
I nodded with a smile on my face and did as the nun asked.
As I handed the cup back to its bearer and thanked her again, the girl’s smile widened into one of pure delight, although her eyes remained as disturbingly vacant as before. Bunmi gave her a one-armed hug, said something softly to her, kissed her on the temple, and directed her to one of the huts.
Through this whole operation, I could practically feel Alexandrienne’s hawk-like eyes watching the girl’s tiniest move. She did not relax in the slightest until the girl was practically on the doorstep of the large hut Bunmi told her to go to.
“That is Liwaza,” Alexnadrienne said quietly behind me.
“She seems a bit—” I began.
“Yes,” Sister Ig interrupted.
“Am I allowed to ask?” I asked.
“That is for Monsieur ’Arris to say,” Alexandrienne said. When I turned to look at her over my shoulder, she added, “She cannot answer for herself. And you will upset her if you try.”
“Upsetting her is a bad thing,” Radar echoed. I noticed that he had moved to the opposite side of the jeep and I wondered when he had put distance between himself and Alexandrienne.
“Slayer?” I asked tentatively.
Alexandrienne’s eyebrows crunched low as if the question required something more than a simple yes or no answer. “She has the power, yes,” she finally responded. “That she is a Slayer, no.”
Most would say that Alexandrienne’s answer was a contradiction. At the time, I had no idea how to respond to that myself, so I simply let it be.
Bunmi said something to Alexandrienne, which prompted the normally prideful girl to look down and appear almost ashamed.
Radar issued a half-hearted protested in the village’s language, but a simple look from Bunmi stopped him mid-sentence.
Bunmi’s expression softened. She reached out to touch Alexandrienne’s hand and said something that prompted a nod from the Slayer.
Alexandrienne looked at me apologetically. “Me and Radar must go talk news with Bunmi. We need to know if there is something we should do.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll get her settled in,” Sister Ig volunteered. “As soon as you’re done talking, I’m going to need help to unload the jeep, so don’t go too far.”
“Merci,” Alexandrienne said as she vaulted over the side of the jeep and landed on the ground next to it as delicately as a cat. “Radar?”
“Coming, coming,” he said with exasperation as he clambered over the side.
As I watched the trio depart, or rather the quartet as Bunmi’s son was strapped to her back, I asked Sister Ig. “What were they saying?”
“Just what Ally said. They have to talk about what’s going on,” Sister Ig said.
“Before that,” I said. “Given Alexandrienne’s reaction, I rather got the impression that Bunmi was scolding her.”
“Oh, nothing like that,” Sister Ig distractedly assured me. “Just telling Ally that she worries to much.”
“That seems to be a common complaint about her,” I said as I got out of the jeep and stretched my cramped muscles. “Radar told her the same thing in Djenné when she heard about Mr. Harris’s confrontation with a vampire.”
“One thing you can count on, if it involves Harris in trouble, she’ll always worry, even though she knows Harris has more tricks up his sleeve than she can count,” Sister Ig remarked as she did her own series of stretches. “Besides, it’s kind of pointless. Harris and trouble were made for each other.”
“And Liwaza,” I said. “Is she one of Mr. Harris’s troubles?”
Sister Ig ignored the question. “Why don’t we grab your stuff and show you to a hut.”
Sister Ig helped me with my baggage to one of the village’s mud huts.
“You’re lucky we have this hut free. Usually it’s a full house around here to the point where we have to sometimes double up the girls, but Sayyida just returned home to Zanzibar,” Sister Ig explained as she helped me set my luggage on the bed.
“Sayyida?” I asked. “Who’s—”
“One of our Slayer graduates,” Sister Ig said.
I know I must’ve looked quite surprised by this bit of news.
Sister Ig burst out laughing at my apparent confusion. “What did you think we did? Keep the Slayers in the village forever?”
As that was precisely what I had thought, I stumbled over my response quite badly. “I—I—I honestly didn’t know what to—what I mean is, I have not been given any details about how Mr. Harris operates.”
Sister Ig frowned. “So, wait. How are you supposed to do a resource review if you don’t actually know anything about us?”
Thinking quickly, I said, “Much of the paperwork I needed somehow got sent to my colleague in America. I informed Mr. Giles’s office of the problem as soon as I realized that something had gone awry, but they were not able to get anything to me before I left London.”
Sister Ig shook her head with a strained chuckle. “Bureaucrats. We’ve got them in even in the Sisters of the Five Wounds. I had a heck of time convincing the Chicago motherhouse that the school in Kisumu had no idea I was coming.”
“Kisumu?” I asked.
“Sleepy little town in Kenya on the shores of Lake Victoria. Beautiful place. Reasonably modern. One of those whistle stops for safaris because the Serengeti is practically over the horizon,” Sister Ig said.
“Sounds rather pleasant,” I said sincerely.
“Yeah,” she said distantly.
“You didn’t enjoy your posting?” I asked.
Sister Ig didn’t precisely frown at me, but it was rather a close thing. “I better warn you, asking people about their lives before they got here is considered rude.”
I fought the urge to take a step back. “Yes, I was informed. I do apologize. I simply forgot.”
Sister Ig’s smile was strained. “It’s okay. Just…be more careful. The adults won’t get offended, I’m pretty sure. The kids will. I mean the kids who live here, not the kids from the other villages. They don’t care. But the kids who live here care a lot about that kind of thing.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Why does the rule even exist?” I pressed. “I am more than willing to comply, of course,” I held up a finger, “within reason, and provided it does not prevent me from accomplishing my task. I just want to understand why.”
Sister Ig glanced out the door into the dirt courtyard. “Not all of us have a proud history around here, so it’s all about having a fresh start.”
“Surely that can’t apply to you.”
Sister Ig looked at me then. I could see the mental calculus in her eyes before she said, “Don’t let the habit fool you. Let’s just say I fell flat on my face out there, bad enough that…” she shook her head and swallowed hard. “I could do a hundred ‘Hail Marys’ a day and there’s no taking it back. It’s what happens when you break the chastity vow, right?”
“Oh,” I answered in a small voice.
“I messed up, so when Harris blew into my life like a typhoon and offered me a second chance, I wasn’t about to say no. Right now, no one’s happy with me. Not the order, not sister superior in Kisumu, not the school in Kenya, and definitely not the guy I traveled half-a-continent to get away from.” Sister Ig thrust out her chin as if defying me to judge her. “That’s why I’m here. I’ve got to do this. For me. For God. I’ve got to make it up somehow and this is how I’m making it up.”
This, then, was how Mr. Harris won Sister Ig’s undying loyalty. Perhaps she might question him; perhaps she might have doubts. Regardless of all that, I could see she would fall in line behind him in the end. After all, she wasn’t doing it for Mr. Harris, she was doing it for God, and that, to me, seemed infinitely more dangerous. “I understand,” I said cautiously.
Sister Ig looked like she wanted to say something, but whatever her initial instinct, it was swallowed by her pleasant smile. “Besides, Harris and Ally saved my sorry butt from a vampire. Believe it or not, they were doing a little stake-and-dust demo for the two other Slayers they had found and it just happened to be my lucky day.” She shook her head and looked down. “That’s one little bit of grace I didn’t deserve. I was out there after dark because I…let’s just say it was right after trying to break it off Mr. Lead-Me-Into-Temptation for the tenth time and ending with…unh…you know.”
Sister Ig’s sudden reversal on not sharing her background had taken me by complete surprise. “I…unh…oh.”
“You’d think vampires would be allergic to nuns, but you’d be wrong. Who knew?” Sister Ig said with strained cheerfulness. She shook her head and her expression because became sober. “Long story short. Harris and Ally saved me. Then Harris tried to feed me a line about muggers. I was sick of hearing lines. I was sick of lying to myself and everyone else and I was sick of people lying to me. I called Harris on it and when I wouldn’t back down, he told me the truth. He needed help with the Slayers he had, I needed help to get out of my situation because staying was only going to dig me deeper. It worked out for both of us.”
At a loss for how I should respond, I decided to keep my reply as simple as possible. “Thank you. I will, of course, be discreet about your personal affairs.”
Her eyebrows popped with surprise.
“Poor choice of words,” I hastily added. “What I meant to say is that I don’t see any reason to discuss your personal background in any of my reports.”
“Thanks,” she said quietly. She fidgeted in an uncomfortable manner. “If you don’t need anything, I have to unload the jeep.”
“I will be sure to shout if something comes up,” I said.
After Sister Ig departed, I prowled the hut. Had it not been for the mudcloth wall hangings covering the mud construction, the interior of my hut would bear more than a passing resemblance to a medieval monk’s cell.
The ill-fitting door was made of a light sheet metal that I thought might be zinc and latched from the inside. It was certainly enough to provide any occupant with privacy, but not enough to keep out any unwanted guest who may wish to shove their way in. The shutters for the windows — there was one set in the center of each of the three remaining walls — were also made of the same light sheet metal. These, too, latched from the inside.
With all that metal to provide privacy and the narrow windows, I suspected that the hut could get very warm at the wrong time of year.
I quickly ascertained that there was no electricity or running water. If I wished to have light after sundown, I would have to use the battery-powered lantern or the candles and flint. These I found on a thick, mudcloth-covered shelf set inside the thick walls. I lifted up the mudcloth and realized with surprise that the shelves were not set into the wall as I originally believed. They were part of the wall. The shelves, like everything else it appeared, were carved from the mud.
I stood up and began to take stock. There was a covered earthenware jug filled to the brim with room temperature water — I made a mental note to ask how long the water had been there and whether it was safe to drink — and a large basin next to it set on top of the sole piece of wood inside the hut. I suppose it made sense. The last thing anyone would want would be to spill water on a mud shelf. It was much better to do it on a shelf made of wood, I supposed. A cracked, overturned mug was next to it, as well as a clean, rough scrap of cloth. Apparently this jug was to serve as both my source of drinking water and water to clean myself.
I explored what I assumed to be a bench, as it had several threadbare pillows and thick mudcloth covering it, only to discover that this, too, was made of mud. Then I slowly turned to the bed, which was shrouded by the partially open mosquito net that hung from a hook set in the ceiling. Although I suspected I’d find more of the same, my sputtering optimism desperately hoped I was wrong. When I lifted the blanket, however, my heart sank. The mattress pallet was overstuffed with straw and set inside a depression in what I can only describe as a dried mud platform.
There was absolutely no sign of furniture otherwise. Near as I could ascertain, my “wardrobe” was nothing more than a metal pole set crosswise across a corner from which hung approximately a half-dozen wire hangers. A large plastic box with matching cover was set beneath it. This, then, was most likely my dresser.
My shoulders slumped more and more as I realized just how primitive my living conditions were. I simply had no idea how I was to clean my clothes, give myself a good wash, and…
That’s when I remembered the toilet in Segou and I groaned. I highly doubted that there was a communal shower with hot-and-cold running water complete with western-style toilets and locker facility anywhere in the compound.
I dropped to the bed and put my head in my hands. I didn’t even know how to begin surviving like this.
Just as my despair ratcheted up another notch, I heard the sound of a motor engine approach and the crunch of tires in the courtyard outside.
Mr. Harris had arrived.