There was always something curious about her. She was both a tempting night and its secretive moon. She was born before her time, in foggy winter. Her mother’s nipples itched with the bitter cold and a lurid anticipation. She was the first born of her seventeen-year-old mother and the second child of her thirty-something-year-old father. The air was profuse with anxiety. She had come too early at a time of perturbing infant mortality. She clenched her mother’s thumb in her tiny fingers and looked into her eyes like her soul rested there, indiscreet and maybe too dull for her little taste and her unkind eyes which were sharper than the things an infant should have seen. Her mother held her odd gaze that sparkled with little enigmas and cryptic histories. She was as magic, celestial and of moon.
At three, the Little Moon’s strangeness had become too intense for comfort. She had gone through months of the year of initial language acquisition with not so much as a “mama”. It was not a big issue at the time; some children took longer to speak. She was particularly slow to develop; she did not walk until her grandmother was so desperate that she put thorns on the floor for her to “move on your soles for God’s sake!” Her mother tried to ignore her lack of speech but as is the way of worry and its upsurge with time, her efforts to do so proved futile. She had a child who didn’t speak and she knew that she needed to find out why, even if her friends told her to give it some time. If something was wrong, she needed to know.
It was a long trip to the clinic. At that time, there weren’t many cars in their part of the world and they were not wealthy enough to have had a horse. It was during the autumn and the reluctant winds were blowing wild and haphazard for their nature. Dust danced in its freedom, clinging to her old knitted towel like its pores were meant to be filled. Leaves flew metrically against Issa’s mettle as she carried her toddler on her tired back and walked the hours to the clinic. She arrived when they were about to close and begged the nurse to look at her daughter.
“What is her name?”
“What took you so long? Ma’am, children pick up some language before they are two, she is almost three…”
“I couldn’t bring her without my husband’s permission. He works far from home and has only just returned a letter granting permission to bring her.”
“Does she respond when you speak to her? Does she come to you when you call for her?”
“Yes, she does. She hears everything I say; she even closes her eyes and pretends to be asleep when I tell her to sleep…”
“Does she cry?”
“Soundlessly. She doesn’t make any sound. At all”
“Do you see her trying to make out speech when you talk to her?”
“Not really, she smiles in agreement, nods at orders and shakes her head in disagreement.”
“Is there a lot of verbal communication in your home?”
“Yes. I live with my mother, my sister and brother, and my husband’s son- there is always a lot of talking”
“You’re going to have to bring her back another time- tomorrow. The doctor arrives here quite early in the morning. I will tell him about Kamaria and you can meet with him tomorrow”
That night tragedy struck Issa for the second time in her life. She received news of an accident at her husband’s work that took him into his final sleep. Her world was devastated beyond consolation. She was fifteen when she met her husband. He had met with her father on business; he would take up planting on their farm land which had been unused for years after Issa’s father had retired due to an ailment. Issa had made tea for the men and been hit by a childish attraction to the older, very refined man that he was. They hit it off the way shy girls do with older, fancy-language-speaking men. They married immediately after Issa’s father died. He had never given his blessing but her headless family needed someone to win the bread. The older man had stepped up without flaws; he married her in a boastful ceremony at the old, mud building which had become the hall and church alternately following the missionaries’ arrival.
Her grief at his death was so consuming that everything else took to the background while her memory recalled their past. She had never been truly in love with her husband but he was good to her and in return, she submitted to him without question and admired him greatly. They had the model family, revered within their village. He was the epitome of a good husband. He provided for her and her family without complain, he loved her even when she was believed to be barren, and never let her find out about his other women. She was the virtuous wife; devoted in her whole life to being his own gentle portion of an otherwise demanding life.
If the days leading up to the funeral were like piercing blazes on Issa’s skin, the day of the funeral was an internal hell that burnt her insides to ashes. She sat pale and numb through the weighty proceedings that came with funerals. The women helped. The men killed the animals and shook her bony hands. The ceremony was short and customarily without contempt. She washed her hands in aloe as a windy rain blew through her neat village. It blew as though sweeping away all of the trouble and ensuring healthier things to follow.
However, it was not so. Three weeks into her grief; a time of strenuous black fashions and sorrow, her husband’s son died suddenly in his sleep.
The rumours started circulating, serving to threaten her young and timid esteem. And then they intensified to such an extent that the women called her a witch to her face. The words eroded parts of her that were once too unadulterated to suspect cruelty. Her personality was not one of confrontation so she hibernated for so long she became critically thin and could not emerge from beneath her blankets.
A man, who was well known in their province for his gifts of prophecy and healing, visited Issa. He had been called for by Issa’s sister in desperation to save her from her melancholy. The man arrived in the early hours of the morning on a large, brown horse. He jumped off it adroitly and walked towards Mina, who stood outside the door. He had the air of great rank about him and Mina thought it probably the consequence of his superior spiritual knowledge.
“Hello Miss Mina, is your sister inside?” he asked, his speech laced with a brittle self-importance.
“Yes, Sir” she answered softly.
“May I see her?”
The Prophet spoke to Issa for a few minutes before calling Mina’s mother and brother aside to counsel them on handling what he called, “a minor possession”.
“There is a spirit. It is not a very powerful one but it has been able to send the boy to his grave prematurely. This spirit has also made Issa very dislikeable and as a result, the whole village has turned against her. She is no witch, I am sure that you are all aware of this. I have not done much but pray about it and that really is all that we can do. God has to go about the real work.
“I need you all to continue praying for her. Show her kindness and support. Bring her to the church on Sunday so that she can be encouraged by seeing that whole world is not holding her in judgment. Bring me the child too. Issa tells me that she is dumb. It is nothing but a pathetic fiend preying on defenceless women and their young daughters”.
The winter arrived in its animosity and passed ever so resentfully into spring and it, into the summer. The years, again, travelled fast.
Kamaria’s childhood was dominated by exorcisms. Her mother took her to prophetic services religiously. There, her body was shaken and sometimes struck in a bid to rid her of the silencing demon. Everything else became of no importance. That the women never tried to rebuild ties with her, didn’t bother Issa beyond the trivial feelings of rejection. That her daughter had no friends, as a teenager in a village whose girls were knitted together like the words of a country’s anthem also didn’t upset her enough to do something about it.
Issa only understood that she was a victim of a terrible satanic presence and all that was required of her was to pray and to wait on God to give her Little Moon a voice. She often reminded Mina of the meaning of faith. Sometimes she would become dispirited and forget it herself, and then the words would swell up in her mouth and she would say, “Faith is substance of the things we hope for, and the evidence of things we do not see”. So their faith continued its test and their devoted religiousness did not waver often.
A couple in their thirties moved in at the house across the footpath from Issa’s house. The house had previously belonged to a lonely old woman who died from a fatal flu. The couple had a daughter roughly two years older than Kamaria.
The two of them became great friends very quickly. Aro was very carefree and zany. It took her weeks to discover that Karma, as she warmly called her, didn’t speak because she always had far too much to share to care for responses. She didn’t give it any mind either, she only wondered why Kamaria didn’t do any hand gestures like the mute people she had come across in the city.
Issa treasured their little friendship, although she despised the lack of culture that she found to be the character of Aro’s mother. She’s too forward, she often thought to herself after Aro’s mother flung an awkward or prying question at her. In her concealed, and a little unchristian heart she gladded in the presence of another woman to draw the scorn that was a pastime of the village women.
One night Kamaria sat on her porch. The moon owned that night’s sky and drowned out the stars that sat too close to her. She was anxious. Something had happened that had made her more desperate than she’d ever been to have words pour out of her mouth. She had watched the night wrap the world up in her blinding embrace. There were letters dangling about the sky, distant from the bullying moon. She rolled and unrolled her tongue and all she got of it was an increased heart rate and critical chest pains.
She wished she could make out the words.
Her uncle opened the door of his hut and saw her sitting across from it and immediately paced towards her, “this is the last time! You hear? This is the last time we are shamed like this” he said vigorously before heading back to his hut and banging his door shut. Kamaria sat dead still, she had tight knots in her stomach and feared the prospect of diarrhoea. What did I do? She wondered. She was sure she’d done something wrong. Her mother’s religion required her to not engage in any sexual activity before she was married and that was what had upset her mother. But she thought it no use to wait for something that would never happen- no one would ever want a dumb spouse for their whole life. She hadn’t set out to do it, it had happened unexpectedly and she’d had no capacity to stop herself from doing it over.
Kamaria had never heard a word since she was born. She had only been able to understand the dancing of lips and accompanying expressions. She had been put off by the prophets and never really sat close enough at church to read preachers’ lips. She’d been isolated her whole life too so she never knew the wrongness of being in love with another woman. For her, the world was simple and she had closed her eyes to all that she found complicated; the regulation of everything she thought could be decided in the moment’s preference, like how you ought to eat and dress and speak, who you ought to marry and how you ought to do it.
She sat in innocent confusion at the apparent wrath of her family. She had loved Aro the first time she’d seen her and she thought Aro’s experience the same. They were inseparable and next to each other, her muteness was nothing to note. All they had to say to each other was better said with their bodies and things were perfect that way.
That day, Aro had called for Kamaria just before lunch, seducing her with fried chicken livers which were Kamaria’s favourite meal. They had eaten in a rush and run to Aro’s bedroom where their lips met and their clothes fell off. The way of the earth had paused for a while and they had fallen in love anew. She was trapped under Aro’s arms when Aro’s mother walked in with her friend. “Oh no Aro! You promised me!”
“Oh no Aro! You promised me!” danced before Kamaria’s eyes in the opaque blackness of the night. Her uncle swung his door open and marched into the house where her mother prayed.
“Why? What’s going on?”
“What is going on? No! Issa, enough is enough. You have placed us in disrepute over the years, marrying that old man against our father’s wishes. God corrected that when he sent him to hell with his bastard son, but it was already too late. This little satan of yours was already born.
“It stops today, right now. Pack all of her clothes and bring her to me!”
The five of them walked quietly in the night and reached their destination in the forested lake a few minutes away from the view of candlelit huts and brick houses. There were sticks arranged for fire a few metres from the lake. Kamaria’s uncle tightened the rope he had on her hands and it dawned to her then that she was not in fact being sent away.
Her grandmother started to sob quietly with her hands pressed hard against her mouth as if to suffocate herself. Her mother had her face permanently turned away while her aunt shook her head in disbelief. Her uncle threw her to her mother’s shaking hands which held her tighter than her strength as she struggled to pull away. He lit the fire into thick, tall flames.
“We have to be quick. Before anyone notices the fire,” he said, looking at Issa strictly. “Put her on it”
“NO!” she shouted.
“No! Brother, please! You cannot ask this of me. It is hard enough for me to watch, but to actually do it? I couldn’t!”
“Isabelle, you will do as I say! You owe it to all of us to burn your trouble. On the fire with her! At once!”
Her skin caught fire before she had conjured up the strength for it. The pain shot straight to her heart and found that there was already injury there. She had already given up the fight but her body wouldn’t retire. We must not be meant to lie on top of death and scatter thoughts like unrelated clouds, she thought, we must not be meant to burn before we’ve seen paradise. The rope was too tight and too slow to burn- if it burned at all- and it trapped her too cripplingly for her tired struggle. Her eyes wondered about the whole scene; the incense that rose from her burning shoes, her grandmother’s watery eyes, her mother’s face, the clean sky and her stars, the moon who belonged to no one. She’d found the limit to the heat her vagina could take and she couldn’t share it with Aro the next day.
Or could she?
Surely they would stop before she was ash. She caught another sight of her mother’s face and decided that to be the last thing she saw. Her mother, standing by, sobbing quietly not to wake the neighbouring strangers while she burned to ash. Her mother, standing by, consumed in her prayers while prophet after prophet shook her body violently. Her mother, standing by in the next room, occupied in her fantasies of a speaking child while a healer had his way with her. There was the whole weight of an unlived life weighing her deeper into the fire. Her chest was clogged up with unspoken words and she felt a thump of all the pain she’d never cried out. She thought about Aro’s perfect face, her sweet voice and the warmth of her skin. The fire burnt too hot and sent all the good air out of her lungs’ reach. In a hazy distance there was a phenomenon she identified as sound, something she’d known many times before. She ran to the voice, a little girl reaching for sweetness.
They never spoke of that night. She had gone away to a mental institution, she was ill, that’s why she had been so strange. Aro and her family moved away a few weeks later and it was as though time had forgotten all about Kamaria.
Until one day. The sun rose onto the village which was later called Spirit of Kamaria, it was shrill and loud, calling its people up. All rose to the order- all but four. And in a land far away, a baby was born. Her eyes were rude and pitiless. They were a brand new moon, a night filled with words and knives. A kindled, intoxicatingly peculiar spirit.