Wamũyũ has never seen the city from this high up. It looks upside down, the stars littered on the floor, and above it, hard, dewy ground. There is no moon, no cloud, just dark grey reflection. There are no mountains or hills, no valleys or rivers, no ocean or lake, nothing to break the monotony. The city is flat and spreads out, endless. The tall flags that mark her home are indistinct in the night. Her world from up here is nothing.
“Are you comfortable?” Ng’endo asks.
Wamũyũ nods, and he moves closer to the bed. He carries a tray with his gloved hands. On it, a tall bottle of pale blue liquid, saline solution, cotton balls, a four-centimetre long needle attached to a cannula, empty syringe and plaster.
“Please, lie on your back. It goes in easier this way,” he says.
Ng’endo places the tray on a heavy mahogany table, the medical equipment an odd fit in his home.
“May I?” he asks.
He opens the bottle and places the cotton ball on the rim, soaking fragrant spirit through the cotton. He rubs the sodden wool on her breastbone, near the heart. He ensures he remains professional, not once grazing her nipple or gazing with lust. He has none for her. He had none when he bought her. She was as naked then as she is now. Her ribs showed just as much, her brown skin was as translucent, her hair as faint. She winces at the touch of the cold antiseptic.
“Am I hurting you?”
“It’s to numb your skin, so you don’t feel pain.”
“When the migrations began, we would have had a doctor to help but now… well, here we are. I know how to do it, but I may not be as smooth as a doctor might be. Do you know how this works? How it all began?”
She stays silent.
“Well,” he says as he discards the dirtied cotton, “a long time ago a friend of my grandfather, a holy man and priest, discovered there really is another side, a better side. More importantly, he found out how to get there.”
With his right hand, he takes the needle as his left hand presses down on her chest.
“This will only pinch slightly. Tell me if it hurts, please.”
She barely feels the hand on her chest, and even if she did, it wouldn’t matter. She nods again. The needle pierces the thin skin above her ribcage. He moves with a practiced ease, attaching, detaching, pressing, placing, pulling. She watches tubing grow out of her flesh – unexpected, like new branches on a dead tree.
He releases a breath he didn’t know he was holding.
“Good. Very good. You can sit up now, just rest on the pillows. Are you sure you’re comfortable?”
He attaches the tubing from her chest to a long cable, and that to a machine with large whirling discs. He turns the machine on, a simple switch. A low refrigerator-like hum begins. He monitors the cable sticking out of her chest.
“Back then, soon after that family friend completed his migration, many people left. There was a time when almost everyone who could and dared to believe travelled. Back then you weren’t even called vessels. You were called lymphs, for the lymphatic fluid that was drained out of you. Historically, people always thought it was the blood that carried life, but there it was, all the while, the carrier of our souls just floating hidden in the body. Lymph. I always found it amusing – you know nymph, lymph – but…’
A drip-drip sound punctuates the room. A straw-gold fluid is drawing out of her.
“There. It’s working. We just have to wait till it’s time.”
He looks around, searching for imperfection. He has already ensured that the lighting wouldn’t overpower her enlarged pupils. There is an injection waiting, ready to dilate her eyes chemically if need be, although he was certain he wouldn’t need it. The bed she is on is perfectly placed. Plush pillows, view of the city, enough space on the bed for him to lie beside her when it was time for his journey to begin. As he scans the room, he is attacked by the luxury of the space; the high ceilings and pillars, all the silks and carpets. A cough chokes out of him. The pain radiates. He can’t wait to leave.
Ng’endo never fully believed in the idea of travelling through a body to a better world, not even when his father told him, not even after his father took his final journey. Even when the cough began and his body began to fail, Ng’endo had his doubts.
It was desperation, not belief, that led him to his first vessel. The vessel’s eyes were wide and blue, sky-blue, true-blue. When he studied her eyes, he finally saw it. A whole world. Oceans, continents, people. His first attempt at a move was thus through an expensive thoroughbred; a direct descendant from the first line of lymphs, or so he was told. Right at the cusp of the ceremony, right when the last drops were being drained and the doorway widening and the new world touchable, right then, the vessel closed its eyes. Kept them closed. Ng’endo tried to pry the lids apart, but the chance to migrate is short and fleeting, a wink and a flutter. He stared at the empty vessel for hours. He couldn’t bear to look at the world he was still in. He became a true believer.
His second vessel failed because he was weak. She was a beautiful girl, just beautiful. He kept slipping and saying nymph not lymph and she would smile back. She was so ready. Golden-brown eyes and black skin, otherworldly. She must have come from the other side to ferry just one lucky man back. Even the non-believers, those fools who couldn’t see a whole world right in front of them, hesitated when they saw her. When she began emptying and Ng’endo readied himself for his final migration, they kept eye contact. The full hour passed and they never once looked away from each other. She believed. She smiled wider and wider as her body faded. Towards the end, when her vessel was cleanest, her eyes lit up. He stared deep into them and began to move. He heard it first. Waves crashing. There was ocean, fresh and salty. He tasted it, the salt, and felt the spray land on his skin. He felt it and started to cry. It was too much. He closed his eyes. She screamed at him, but he kept his eyes shut. By the time he realised what he had done, it was too late.
He had both vessels painted, eyes closed, after their wasted deaths, and hung them in this very room. Not even the portraits of his father and his father before him hang here. The vessels are more important, reminders not to fail again.
He heard of Wamũyũ, his third, as one does, from the right people. He found her at the site where the movement began.
“See how wide her pupils are,” the priest said, shining light into her eyes. “See? They never shrink, not even in the brightest of light.” He pulled her left eyelids apart, pressing his palm into her nose.
“Look closer. See there? Can you see the movement? It is slight, yes, translucent, but it’s there. It isn’t an illusion whatever anyone else says. I mean, you can’t expect to see heaven perfectly from here, can you?”
Ng’endo found the priest distasteful, a bastardisation of the priests before him, a symbol of the decomposition of a great religion to its skeleton. Ng’endo knew he was leaving this world, regardless of his opinion of the priest, but he needed to ensure he would go on to a world of his choosing. He let the priest’s words wash over him as he studied Wamũyũ’s eyes, brown and limpid. He, unlike the priest, had caught a glimpse of heaven once, and he could recognise a doorway in the eyes. He came closer and looked into her eyes through a lens, a camera, carefully assessing the details of her iris. Ng’endo selected her because, unlike his previous, failed vessels, she didn’t turn her eyes away. Not once.
He refuses to stare into her eyes now, in his own house. He is saving his strength for the journey.
She must be hungry, he thinks.
He moves to the far left side of the room, where a spread is laid out. Beans in coconut, fresh fish, calf’s liver, dates, plums, fermented honey, fresh pear juice. Wamũyũ, lying perfectly still, can’t turn around. The cables can’t be moved. She focuses on the sounds in the room. The low hum of fluid being drained out of her. Spoon scraping plates and bowls. Plop, plop. A soft mash, perhaps. Step, step. Heavy, careful steps. He moves like a fighter, but old, as if his knees can’t take the impact of the ground.
He places the food on a footstool near the bed.
“It’s here if you’re hungry. They said you could eat.”
She shakes her head once, polite.
Instead of eating, she opens her eyes once again to drink in colour. The bed she lies on is covered with cushions, plush and thick, velvet-cased, infinite colours. She is used to the full spectrum of brown. Dirt-brown floors and walls, rough brown skins of vessels like herself, the toffee-brown stained teeth of sellers, the butter-soft browns of buyers, the rotted whorls in collapsing stands, the sharp crinkle brown of money, soft brown dust on hard stone floors in tight spaces. Here instead is a spectrum of greens and blues, yellows and reds. Are there as many colours here as there are shades of brown in the temple? The colours blend with rich purple curtains, carpeted floors, two gilded frames on either side of the wide window, each holding a portrait. Even the sheets she rests on, silk and purple, have a weave of many shades in colours she doesn’t know how to name. Her right palm touches the softness in the space he has left for himself.
“Well?” he says.
She looks at him. He must have been handsome in his youth. All the structures of handsomeness remain. Tall. Muscular. Broad-shouldered but belly rounded. Skin like dark stained mahogany. His square jaw filled with full lips. Teeth perfect save for the two incisors on the top row. They are sharp. But his handsomeness is iced over with age and sickness.
“Are you hungry?”
“I meant, no, thank you.”
“Oh, of course.”
She is confused, watching him wringing his hands and tracing maps on the floor with his feet. She expected to be scared. She always thought she would be afraid when the time came. Instead, she has a calm and clarity that surprises her. She can hardly move without disturbing the cables, and all the draining is weakening her body. Yet her heart isn’t beating as fiercely as his, and there is no sweat on her brow. Why is he afraid? She asks herself because she cannot ask him. At least he knows where he is going.
He sits beside her, still averting his gaze. She doesn’t speak unless spoken to, and even then, nothing more than a mutter or a nod. The silence confounds him. His mouth opens from time to time, the barest hint of a word slipping out before it settles back down and chokes him. He swallows down the coughs as best he can.
She watches him sit beside her feet, avoiding the cables draining out her lymphatic fluid. The subtle hum of the circulator drones on as they dance around each other. She found the attachment of needle to flesh painless, and the winding of cables, like a python, around her left breast and down her wrist, mechanical. But his nervousness is making her itch. She tries to focus elsewhere.
The paintings catch her eye. The first is a man, no, a child, no older than fourteen. A cherub, his cheeks almost comically pink. The second, a lady with rich black skin, an artist’s exaggeration. They are perfectly framed and preserved, a couple.
“Who are they?”
“Them. In the paintings.”
He wants to tell her about them, he does, but how? He can’t document his failures to Wamũyũ of all people. He can’t risk another one.
“Nobody, just art.”
She doesn’t ask again. She learned a long time ago – back when she was sold into the temple, back when she was taught that her destiny was to carry a man to the other side, back when she learned to empty herself like a womb sheds its lining – not to ask questions. She was always told she’d be richly rewarded for the sacrifice, that she should be grateful for the chance to prove her worth. Not many people, the priest said, have the courage to give themselves up for larger cause, to allow themselves to be the ship that carries voyagers home.
Wamũyũ wants to believe it. That this isn’t yet another time when stupid men thought they had found a way to outsmart the gods, where sacrifices are made out of their lies. Sometimes, right before she falls asleep, and now as her body dries out, she feels footsteps in her eye, like the strings of her iris are being plucked by some kinder hand. She has never seen the other side for herself, not once. She does, however, know how to use her eyes, the same way one can breathe without seeing their lungs. She knows how to bat her lashes for an extra piece of bread or for the sleeping mat in the corner without the draft. She had long learned how not to swallow back tears, but to keep them pooled, held back in her lower lids. How to pull her lids wide apart and gaze upon a man, make him believe he is the centre of the universe. She does that now. She looks at him, tears pooled, but doesn’t speak.
She remembers the paintings she saw as she walked into his home, generations and generations of stately men with wizened beards and dark eyes. They were on full display at the entrance, commemorations of power, a motif echoed everywhere but here. Here, in the room with them, there are only two paintings: a boy and a woman. Their eyes are closed. Whoever they are, he must be terrified of them.
She tries to shift her body, get some blood flowing into her numb thigh but she can’t move too much without shifting the cables. She twitches instead.
“I want to thank you,” he says.
It is hard to accept thanks when you cannot reject the task.
“It is my duty,” she replies.
“Still, I am grateful for your belief.”
She tilts her head to look at him. She can’t imagine how he believes that they are in this together. That this is some kind of symbiotic, spiritual sojourn before his voyage to the holy land. That his migration from this world to a better next is enough for her. He is an old man now, with children that hate him and a world that doesn’t understand him. He bought her so he could escape. My belief, she thinks.
“Yes. Why… do, don’t you believe?”
She is thinking out loud. The straw being spun into gold out of her flesh is drawing thinner the veil between mind and mouth.
“Well, don’t you?”
“Believe in what?”
“In this! In the chance to go to a better world.”
“Does it matter?”
“Of course it does.”
“No, don’t just say okay, say what you mean.”
She wants to talk, but cannot decide if it’s worth it. Nothing can change the outcome. She knows she will die: her only choice is the value of her death.
“I don’t mean anything. I’m here.”
He recoils from her words as if they were made of flame. She watches his eyes flit and hands wring as he realises he cannot afford to lose her, not when they are this close.
She doesn’t know what it is to be that desperate. He has options. He has a home that he wants to run away from. He has a dream that he wants to run to. He has the means to get there, the fear of failure, the hope of success. She, a mere vessel, has none.
A foggy silence fills the room as she stares at him, expression blank. She knows how he needs her. Empty.
“Are you scared?”
He chokes down another cough. She doesn’t blink.
She lets the silence be. He shuffles in it, shifting his body to and fro, his foot tracing lines on the ground like a little girl with a crush.
“We are going somewhere better,” he says.
Wamũyũ remembers the priest. Once, when he was drunk, she asked him why he wouldn’t travel himself. He said that buyers and sellers are the same in every world, and the money here is good. The next morning, like every morning, he preached to her and the other vessels on the honour of service.
“You won’t die,” she says.
“You won’t die, but I will.”
He bites his lip. His fear is exhausting her. The lip biting, the foot tracing; he luxuriates in his fear. She is disgusted by the weakness of it.
“You are doing a great service,” he says.
She laughs. The sound is unfamiliar to both of them. A cross between a death gargle and a chirping bird. Rough and soprano. Hearing the sound makes her laugh harder. Gasping air and aching rib laughter. He laughs too, unsure of what else to do. Both their lungs ache.
“Okay, okay,” he says.
Tears are running down her face and she feels heavy drops land on her breast. They tickle. She laughs more.
His face is turning to a frown, his vulnerability turning to anger. When he frowns, his lips jut out even more and, with his square jaw, he looks like a carnival mask, carved to entertain. She laughs still more.
She tilts her head down, an acknowledgement, but she doesn’t look away from him. There is a surety in being someone’s last hope, the last floating piece of wood from a shipwreck. She is even more tempted to refuse him. When the moment comes, he will be staring deep into her eyes, and she into his. No one knows precisely how the journey looks – only those who’ve made the voyage can tell us – but she always imagined a pier, a rowboat and an endless sea. He will walk along the edge of the pier, bare feet damp from cold sea spray and fog, towards the boat. She, holding a lantern, because all great voyages happen at night, will be standing in the boat. He will walk up to her, passport in hand and eyes shining with hope. She will take it and flip through the pages, inspecting his worth. Then she will rip each page out, one by one, and toss them into the water. She will sit down in the boat and row and row and watch him shrink into the distance.
His cough erupts. It racks through him like her laughter did. He sits on the floor, trying to catch his breath. A few tears escape down his face. She realises tears are still streaming down hers.
What are you doing? he shouts at himself. Keep her comfortable. She can’t back away or be scared, she can’t. He takes a deep breath and releases it.
“This is important for the both of us.”
He sits on the bed, trying to make peace.
“Are you sure you aren’t hungry?”
The food is still on the footstool by the bed. She reaches out and takes a small plum. She really doesn’t have the taste for food, but it is more important to be open. She takes a small bite and lets the fleshy tang slip over her tongue. She chews it slowly. He watches every grind. She swallows. Places the bitten fruit back on the plate.
“Is it good?”
“You can have more.”
He can’t stop the quiver in his voice.
She shakes her head: no.