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And, for your reading pleasure, below is the first chapter of
(There is a Glossary of Terms available in the novel)
Chapter 1 - Lulu (The Past)
“I shall despair. There is no creature loves me;
and, if I die, no soul will pity me.”
I stopped believing in promises when I was young.
‘You’ll be happy here,’ they said, as they bundled me into the car that would take me to the Sacred Heart Holding Camp. I was five years old. ‘Children like you have fun in the Camps. You’ll have friends to play with. You won’t miss your mother.’ Why they thought I would miss the woman who abandoned me because my skin was too pale and my hair too white is still a mystery.
We left the City of Gold—a misnomer if ever I heard one—and headed south. The drab and narrow streets, huddled between tall, concrete skyscrapers on either side, gave way to long stretches of highway; this, in turn, surrendered to wide open spaces as we travelled away from the sun.
As one day changed into the next, the vegetation became sparser and sparser until only a few quiver trees stood scattered amongst the dust and rocks that lined the dirt road we bumped along. Their multitude of fat succulent branches, crowned with spiky blue-green leaves, arrowed out of a single trunk. Stretches of sand and rock and clumps of dry stubby grass isolated each tree from the next.
Long before we arrived, I saw the camp in the distance. At first the dust kicked up by the tyres, and the haze of heat we’d followed since the sun rose, softened the view. It looked welcoming; a haven, nestling in the foothills of the forbidding Droogrivier Mountains. As we drove closer, the silhouette sharpened into three buildings. Built in an L-shape, they were square and squat. A patch of green and white—it looked like a small rose-garden, struggling to survive—broke the dullness. Beyond that, lining the dry old riverbed that gave the mountains their name, a hedge of buffalo-thorn trees, with delicate branches and double-hooked thorns, offered a meagre welcome. There were no other signs of life.
The man switched off the engine and we sat in the heat until, ‘Come,’ he eventually said. ‘There must be someone to sign you in.’
He climbed out of the old Jeep and opened the car door. I scrambled down, but he did not offer to hold my hand as we approached the heavy wooden doors. He clanged the old brass bell that hung from a hook underneath a sign that proclaimed “Sacred Heart Holding Camp: Home for the Unwanted.” Above the sign was an effigy of the Spirit King; the doors had large novas carved in their centre to remind us that this was a holy place.
As we waited for the noise of the doorbell to die, a gust of wind captured unwary grit and leaves, refusing to release them until they struck my bare legs, stinging them with a million pinpricks of pain. An old windmill creaked into life, the dull clacking ominous in the vast silence of the inhospitable landscape.
‘You never said she was a Pale One,’ the Controllers complained when they let us in.
After the city man left, they forced me to my knees, before yet another statue of the Spirit King, nailed to a colossal wooden nova in the small court, behind the holding camp’s dining room. His face, carved in ivory, was harsh with the suffering of his people. Black horsehair curls drifted downward over a coral bead pressed into the centre of his forehead and this symbol of his ancient and divine ancestry mocked me from between the empty slits that were his eyes.
‘Ask the Spirit King for forgiveness,’ they said.
‘For what?’ I dared ask.
‘Your Great Error is your skin; your white, white skin,’ and they pushed me so hard I fell to the ground.
The callous stone floor scraped through the thin calico of my dress. I flinched, but welcomed the pain. If I appealed hard enough to him, perhaps the Spirit King would love me. It’s what he promised: to love me, no matter how great my error. He would paint my hair and my skin as black as the other children, as black as it should have been were I not born an outcast by virtue of the paleness of my skin.
‘Cleanse yourself and you will be whole,’ the Controllers chanted. To ward off any contamination from my aberrant appearance, they would make the sign of the nova, lifting their hands to brush their foreheads, their mouths, their hearts, in an age-old gesture of subservience.
‘What did I do? Why don’t the others want to play with me?’ I asked Sub-Prioress Dalia one day. ‘Why does the Spirit King hate me?’
Although, in the end, she wasn’t courageous enough, Sub-Prioress Dalia—the youngest of the Controllers, her round face framed by her black-and-white pandita—had not yet forgotten what compassion was.
‘He loves you, child. You’re the Spirit King’s special angel,’ she whispered. She slipped a white rose next to my pillow and bent to kiss my chafed knees. ‘Believe it.’
Then, I believed her. Then, I asked and asked for her to be my friend, to ease the loneliness. Even the quiver tree had the tiny sugarbird as its winter visitor when it came to eat the tender yellow buds sacrificed by the tree. Like those isolated trees, all I wanted was one friend; one beloved to compensate, in some small way, for all that I suffered in my difference.
• • •
By the time I was fourteen, I had learned the lesson well: believe no one’s promises. Except, perhaps, the promise of my beloved.
‘Lulu? Lulu!’ Exasperation twined itself around the Prioress’s call. Leader of the Controllers, if she spoke, she was obeyed. ‘Where has that child disappeared to?’
I could have told her but I did not. Hunted again, I pressed myself deeper into the undergrowth and ignored the bite of thorns into my pale and vulnerable skin.
‘She’s hiding,’ Sub-Prioress Kapera answered. Close, she was too close. I rooted myself as close to the ground as I could. Already I had learnt to depend on myself. Sub-Prioress Kapera was quick to teach me that. ‘She’s the Levid’s child, that one,’ she said. I imagined the sly sign of the nova she made, to ward off any unsettled spirits I bring.
‘Shush,’ said the Prioress, ‘the child may hear you.’ A silence followed, broken by the heavy sullenness of Sub-Prioress Kapera’s footsteps. ‘Lulu?’ the Prioress called again. ‘Answer me, child. I want to talk to you, not punish you.’
She lied. They all did. Every word they spoke was a punishment. For if they could find a way to evade me, they did; even the plump Prioress, Leader of the Controllers. It showed in the way they glanced over me, and not at me, when they spoke. It showed in what they said, when they thought I did not listen. Was it because I was young, I wondered, that they talked about me when I stood right beside them? Or was it because I am what I am that I was invisible?
Why, I sometimes asked the Spirit King, why do they hate me? The Spirit King never answered, but the mirror told me why. Born a Pale One, I am different. A freak. White skin where there should be black. Pink where there should be white around my eyes. Brass curls cup my head, when they should be a soft sooty black.
That time they stalked me because of the girl, Taki.
• • •
All I wanted, when the Prior arrived with new toys after the morning service, was to play with Taki and her friends. To be their friend.
Scrawny in his dingy chuba, the holy Prior looked like a crow proud of its scavenging. He pressed the tatty plastic bags, familiar with their red, blue and white logo, into Sub-Prioress Kapera’s clasp and, as he always did, brushed close to whisper his secrets.
The toys were never new: a doll’s clothes, mended with small neat stitches, and a painted truck, dulled by love. Other children had scuffed the newness off them.
That day the younger girls got a ball. We got a game called pick-up-sticks. The shabby box, held together by worn tape, had no instructions. Sub-Prioress Dalia showed us how to play. She let each of us have a turn, until we understood the rules.
When my turn came, I lay on my stomach, crouched close to the sticks because my eyesight already showed the weakness of my kind. I ignored the chatter of the other girls and, with steady patience, diminished the pile, stick by stick.
As the heap next to me grew larger while the one in front disappeared, the buzz of chatter sputtered out. Sub-Prioress Dalia murmured quiet words of encouragement until, as I picked up the last stick, she clapped. ‘Well done, Lulu! Look, girls, Lulu’s got them all!’
Quivering at her praise, I held out the last thin spike. My grin must have looked foolish to the circle of faces around me.
‘Ergh,’ said Taki. ‘The freak can smile.’
‘Don’t look! Don’t look! You’ll go blind,’ another girl shouted. I never could remember afterwards who cried out. The howls of laughter bewildered Sub-Prioress Dalia.
‘Stop!’ she said. ‘Stop at once!’ The meek threat had no effect and, above the chorus of taunts, she added a more forceful one. ‘I’ll fetch Sub-Prioress Kapera to deal with you!’
The door slammed behind her, and they gathered around me like thunderclouds over an anthill. I hunched my shoulders and tucked my head between them as I began my appeal. ‘O Great Spirit King, warrior wild…,’ I chanted. Inadequate protection for what came next, I mumbled on as the first shoe struck, ‘Look upon a little child…’
It had always been clear that they hated me, except perhaps Sub-Prioress Dalia. ‘Pity my simplicity,’ I continued to whisper without hope that my plea would be heard. I did not flinch, because the kicks always came faster when they sensed my fear. ‘And suffer me to come to thee…’
Above the scuffles, we heard Sub-Prioress Dalia’s steps, sharp with anxiety, as she returned. With one last kick, Taki said, ‘You’d better not tell on us, you child of the Levid, or it’ll be worse for you.’ She cast a feral, warning glance at the others. ‘We’ll tell the Controllers she tripped.’
Today, I carry within me the rage born in that moment.
I snarled. A little snarl, one they didn’t hear above their laughter as they gawked at me sprawled in front of them.
They heard the next one, though. It stunned them into immobility and I surged upwards, clenching the red pick-up-stick in my fist. The force I stabbed with pushed it backwards through my palm. I ignored the pain; even welcomed it, as the thin plastic toy became a nail lodged deep in Taki’s leg. I will carry a small, round scar on my hand for the rest of my life. Nothing much. Not compared to my satisfaction at her yowl of pain, her pack around her as they bayed their sympathy.
Before they remembered me, I fled. This time, I didn’t run towards the holding camp court, where the smell of incense and the nova high above the altar used to soothe me. For I had already begun to ask: when has the Spirit King ever answered any of my petitions? Instead, sucking the blood from my wounded palm, I ran outside. I ran through the rose garden I saw on my arrival—three straggly bushes of white roses the Prioress indulged herself with—and over the dry river bed bordering the mountains until I could fling myself beneath the buffalo-thorn hedge. I crawled deep into the filmy branches, their gentle leaves and vicious double-hooked thorns my protection. For aeons, they have collected the spirits of the lonely dead returning home from exile. There, in their dark silence, I was always welcome.
• • •
Later, much later, as I lay on my narrow bed—nothing more than a slab of concrete topped with a thin foam mattress—my face wet with tears of hunger and the exhaustion of my unhappiness, Sub-Prioress Dalia glided in.
‘The Spirit King is your friend,’ she whispered. She placed a slice of bread, lathered with honey, and a glass of warm milk, mixed with a teaspoon of red wine, on the bare pine table next to my bed. ‘You are his beloved,’ she added, ‘so you need to love them. Just love them.’
My rage, so recently birthed, was too great. I turned my face away, away from her and her unbearable words of love. She hesitated, as if she wanted to say more but, without another word, she left as softly as she had come and I smelt the promise in the sweet, sweet fragrance of the single white rose my beloved laid next to my pillow.
• • •
Continue reading about Lulu and her journey in
Dancing in the Shadows of Love
Print edition available from Amazon (July 2011)
Dancing in the Shadows of Love
Print edition available from Amazon (July 2011)
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