The rains seemed endless. Storms howled in from the east shredding moss from the trees and petals from the bloom, savaging every tender thing. But one day, the gloom broke for a moment and sun sliced across the sodden ground. Muleki, grown day by day more cranky and claustrophobic, ran from the house with the excuse of replenishing their stores of firewood.
Every green thing dripped and glittered. Every bird and bug rejoiced. Muleki picked his way on the jungle path gathering fallen branches when suddenly he heard the frantic wail of the little goat back behind him. He ran to her where she thrashed, black with ants, by a rotting log. He grabbed the writhing goat under his good arm while her tiny hooves scraped and flogged his chest and her screams split the forest din. Ants immediately streamed up his good arm and soon covered his face and arms and chest in a veil of stinging.
He splashed into the swollen river with ants crawling into his ears and nose. They seemed to sizzle all over his skin like hot metal in water. They climbed him trying to reach higher ground in a single molten black body, like the burning ooze of pitch, from the goat up his arm and chest and into his face and hair. Muleki howled like an animal. He dunked himself and the goat in deep water, yowling when he came up for air and scraping ants wildly from skin and hide. He blew ants from his nose, he spit them from his swelling tongue.
He clamored from the water, the goat slippery wet and still wailing under his good arm and stumbled blindly back towards the garden screaming for Old Auntie. She met them at the gate, understood all with a glance, and rushed them to the ash bin where she rubbed great handfuls of soot hard into the goat’s hide and face and ears. Muleki did the same to himself, howling and wildly scraping and slapping at his burning skin until both he and the goat were black and choking. At last they both collapsed, completely spent.
Meanwhile, Old Auntie carefully sharpened her best knife and with great care sheared the goat of her blackened hair, then rubbed more soot deep into the welted flesh, brushing and pinching stray ants between her hard fingertips. She rubbed soot into all the goat’s soft spaces—carefully clearing ants while she rubbed ash into nose and ears, into tender mouth and gums. The little goat panted and wheezed in ragged gasps.
Old Auntie sharpened her blade again and did the same to Muleki, shaving the hair from his head and rubbing soot deeply into his swelling wounds, the softest and most powdery ash she saved for the sockets of his stinging eyes which were swelling quickly shut.
When satisfied, she turned back to the little goat now fighting for each breath and gathered its sooty little body into her arms and took it to rest by the fire in the house. Muleki followed like a black shadow and curled himself next to the shivering wretched thing.
Old Auntie hovered over them rubbing balms into their ravaged skin, prying swollen lips apart to slip a hollow reed into their mouths for them to painfully swallow water and vile tasting tea. She rocked them in her ample lap by turn, singing one of her ancient healing songs. Muleki could hear the ragged choke in her voice though his eyes had swollen shut and knew she wept. His skin burned and he and the goat clawed at it continually until Old Auntie finally bound hooves and hands in linen rags.
At last the tea worked its wonders. A dead calm slowly snaked through his veins, his racing heart slowed, the rage in his skin cooled. He felt the world slip away bit by bit until there was only the comfort and heat of the old woman’s arms and a vague smell of smoke that seemed to swirl around and through his dead limbs, his swollen nose and ears and eyes.
The strange words of her songs wove themselves dreamily into pictures—pictures of the earth shimmered across his fevered mind. Beckoning. He could hear the trees calling, the glint of fish under pond lilies, the jaguar’s golden eye watching from the grass—all of it encircling, embracing his slow heartbeat—the drum beat tethering him to this world.
In the fog of dream Old Auntie’s touch was his grandmother’s as she swabbed the ash from his eyes and ears and tilted his head to the light to check his swollen tongue. The warmth in her hands was his grandmother’s as she rubbed balm into the fire of his wounds. Her voice, his grandmother’s voice as she sang prayers. Her love, his grandmother’s love seeping into his burning skin like salve.
He woke at times to sounds of his own groaning or wheezing, or gasping for breath, or at times to the thin whining agony of the little goat, or to Old Auntie’s singing. Seeing him stir, she’d stop and spoon water into his cracked and swollen mouth. She’d gently stroke the wounds on his scalp and whisper into his throbbing ears, “Child, my only child, please don’t leave me.”
He woke at last with strength enough to open his swollen eyes to narrow slits. The room smelled dank and stale and a light rain fell on the thatch. Old Auntie dozed at his side, the pathetic little goat cradled in her sooted arms, new streaks of grey in her messy hair, her face thin and drawn. She woke when he stirred and smiled with a great sigh.
“You have decided then to live, my son,” she said and quickly swiped at tears escaping down her dirty cheeks leaving their jagged trails of clean.
The strength of both boy and goat gathered bit by bit as the rains diminished. Each day brought a better chance of blue and also a fever of itching. Old Auntie laced their chores with elaborate stories to take Muleki’s mind off his crawly, scabbing flesh, but the little goat had no diversions. They were both skinny and pink with pocks and welts. Their itchy hair sprung out in halos of tangly rays.
The world returned slowly to blue and green, smelling both of rot and growth. Birds flew from their places of sanctuary in great dancing clouds to feast on newly winged bugs rising from the mud in feathery smokes and on fish stranded in the shrinking shallows.
There was much work to do in the rain damaged garden. Thoughts of Layla or the Man of Light were quickly dampened by any glimpse of the sorry little goat or his own reflection. He dreaded the look in Layla’s eye. The pity for his dead arm had been bad enough, but now he looked a monster. And the little goat, his hoped for offering to the Man of Light, once beautiful and white and free of blemish, was a ragged pink pocked misery.
Rather than the arc of the dog star or the holy mountain, he charted the days now by the redness of his flesh or the receding of his swollen lips and eyes and by viscous itching. By the fleece beginning to cover the little goat’s scabs and scars. One day, with great relief, he finally noticed a bit of dance returning to her step, the waggle returning to her tail.
His skin healed more slowly. Old Auntie rubbed aloe sap into his scabs and oiled his wild hair to coax it flat, but it seemed to do little good and his spirits sagged.
On a crystalline day, they delivered a flower blanket to the pyramid and decided to visit the floating beds for seeds and flower slips and sprigs to repair the damaged garden. The sun had dried the stone road of all but the most stubborn mud and puddles and all along it traveled people newly freed from their damp houses. Muleki saw the alarm when their eyes fell on him. Each look of surprise or pity felt like a slap. Their eyes were Layla’s eyes to him and when any look lingered too long or a child pointed and whispered, he felt the blood rise to his cheeks and ducked his head as far down as it would go.
Old Auntie felt it too and laced her sturdy arm through his dead one as though she needed him for balance. At her touch, her face suddenly became his grandmother’s face and he could not duck for looking at it. His grandmother’s wise eyes. Her gentle smile. Even the smell of her the same.
He found himself leaning into Old Auntie as they passed the vendors and the children who stopped their monkey play between the sellers of sweets and bread and flowers to stare. They passed old men whose rheumy eyes slid over him while they sat in their patches of sun, balancing walking sticks on boney knees and women gathered like happy hens around carts stacked with cookpots and baskets whose whispers trailed him. Old Auntie drew him in close beneath the armor she’d spent a lifetime crafting against such looks, such whispers, such scorn.
The lake, when they came to it, was glittering and blue as the sky. Reed boats skimmed across its face dragging their wakes through reflections of clouds clean and brilliant white. He helped Old Auntie into one of these boats and she took the paddles and charted an almost effortless glide out into the lake’s center.
The busy glee from the shore melted into the hush of water slipping past and into the soft song Old Auntie sang for the rhythm it gave her paddle strokes. He turned to catch her looking at him with a joy unrestrained and open and she was Old Auntie again. To see his grandmother in her face had been a rare and wondrous and desperately needed gift, but he was also glad she was Old Auntie again—because Old Auntie also loved him. And because he loved her.
He understood in that shared glance, something so large his words and heart struggled to hold it. Her face, framed by sun shimmered water was a kind of perfection. A perfect moment bound within its tiny frame of time—and he, who for so long, had belonged nowhere and to no one, belonged to this moment completely. And finally, after all he had been through, to this person.
The relief of this, the pure joy of it—the blues of it, the jangled red and yellows and purples from the floating gardens, the sift of butterflies and the chitter of green parrots, the croak of spotted frogs, Old Auntie’s toothy grin—all, all of it, a gift that seemed placed with great deliberateness into a palm pried open by the gods so that he could receive it.
They slid up against one floating island then another. With great care, he climbed the woven walls and ventured onto each to gather seed pods and cuttings—never too many, never all in one spot. He crept within the thick waves of color and scent lost in the music of flowers and felt, in their joy a kinship. Acceptance. They didn’t care about his arm. They didn’t care about his welted and frightful skin. He belonged to them.
In the hard heat of the day, they tied the reed boat to a mangrove root jutting up from a real island, one with rocks and tall trees casting shadows out onto the water. Old Auntie slept in this soft shade, rocking in the cradle of the boat while Muleki swam out into the cool shallows among lily pads and bobbing ducks.
As the day waned, they turned back towards the city and its din. They walked again past the temple in the gathering purples of a twilight thick with the smell of roasting onions and garlic—dinner smells. Instead of the raucous jumble and chaos of the morning, the air seemed almost hushed with a strange anticipation. Every eye turned heavenward in the gathering dark towards the holy mountain and the dog star, both aligned and waiting on the evening star. The anticipation rippled like a wave and scattered the last crowds. The Man of Light was coming—not yet, but very soon.
“We have much to do with these seedlings before we can leave on our pilgrimage,” said Old Auntie.