Subterranean Press Magazine: Fall 2012
African Sunrise by Nnedi Okorafor
Excerpted from The Great Book
There is no book about me. Well, not yet. No matter. I shall create it myself; it’s better that way. To tell my tale, I will use the old African tools of story: Spoken words. They’re more trustworthy and they’ll last longer. And during shadowy times, spoken words carry farther than words typed or written. My beginnings were in the dark. We all dwelled in the darkness, mad scientist and specimen, alike. This was when the goddess Ani still slept, when her back was still turned. Before she grew angry at what she saw and made the sun blaze. My story is called The Book of Phoenix. And it is short because it was…accelerated.
I’d never known any other place. The 13th floor of Tower 7 was my home. Yesterday I realized it was a prison, too. Granted, maybe I should have suspected something. The two-hundred-year-old marble skyscraper had many dark sides and I knew most of them. There were 39 floors, and on almost every one was an abomination. I was an abomination. I’d read many books and this was clear to me. However, this place was still my home. Home: a. One’s place of residence. Yes, it was my home.
They gave me all the 3D movies I could watch, but it was books that did it for me. A year ago, they gave me an e-reader packed with 700,000 books of all kinds. When it came to information, I had access to everything I wanted. That was part of their research.
Research. This was what happened in Tower 7. There were seven towers, all of which were in the United States. However, Tower 7 was where I lived, so this one was the one I studied the most. I had several classified books on Tower 7. One discussed each floor and some of the types of abominations found on them. I’d listened to audios of the spiritual tellings of long-dead African and Native American shamans, sorcerers and wizards. I’d read the Tanakh, the Bible, and the Koran. I studied The Buddha and meditated until I saw Krishna. And I read countless books on the sciences of the world. Carrying all this in my head, I understood abomination. I understood the purpose of Tower 7. Until yesterday.
Each towers had …specializations. In Tower 7, there was “transformative” genetic engineering, the in vitro fertilization of organic robots, “rejuvenation” surgery on the ancient near-dead, and the creation of weaponized weeds. There were people created in Tower 7, some were deformed, some were mentally ill, some were just plain dangerous, and none were flawless. Yes, some of us were dangerous. I was dangerous.
Then there was the tower’s lobby on the ground floor that projected a different picture. I’d never been down there but my books described it as an earthly wonderland, full of creeping vines covering the walls and small trees growing from artistically crafted holes in the floor. In the center was the main attraction. Here grew the thing that brought people from all over the world to see the Tower 7 Lobby (only the lobby; there were no tours of the rest of the building).
A hundred years ago, one of the landscapers planted a new tree in the lobby’s center. On a lark, some scientists from the 9th floor emptied an experimental solution into the tree’s pot of soil. The substance was for enhancing and speeding up arboreal growth. The tree grew and grew. In a place where people thought like normal human beings, they would have uprooted the amazing tree and placed it outdoors. However, this was Tower 7 where boundaries were both contained and pushed. When the tree began touching the lobby’s high ceiling in a matter of weeks, they constructed a large hole so that it could grow through the second floor. They did the same for the third, fourth, fifth. The great tree has since earned the name of “The Backbone” because it grew through all 39 of Tower 7’s floors.
My name is Phoenix. I was mixed and grown in a lab on the 13th floor. One of my doctors says my name came from the birthplace of my egg’s donor. I’ve looked it up. Phoenix, Arizona is the full name of the place. However, from what I’ve read about my floor, even the scientists who forced my existence don’t know the names of donors. So, I doubt this. I think they named me Phoenix because of what I was, an “accelerated organism.” I was born two years ago but I looked, behaved and felt like a forty-year-old woman. My doctors said the acceleration would stop now that I was “matured.” To them, I was like a plant they grew for the sake of harvesting.
Who do I mean by “them,” you must wonder? All of THEM, the “Big Eye”—the Tower 7 scientists, lab assistants, lab technicians, doctors, administrative workers, guards and police. We of the tower called them “Big Eye” because they watched us. All the time, they watched us, though not closely enough to prevent the inevitable.
I could read a 500-page book in two minutes. My brain absorbed the information and stories like a sponge. Up until two weeks ago, aside from mealtimes, looking out the window, running on my treadmill, and meetings with doctors, I spent my days with my e-reader. I’d sit in my room for hours consuming words upon words that became images upon images, ideas upon ideas. Now they gave me paper-made books, removing the books when I finished them. I liked the e-reader more. It took up less space and I could reread things when I wanted.
I stared out the window watching the cars and trucks below and the other skyscrapers across from me as I touched a leaf of my hoya plant. They’d given the plant to me five days ago and already it was growing so wildly that it was creeping across my windowsill and had wrapped around the chair I’d put there. It had grown two feet overnight. I didn’t think they’d noticed. No one ever said anything about it. I realize now that they had noticed. The plant was not a gesture of kindness; it was just part of the research. They didn’t really care about me. But Saeed cared about me.
Saeed is dead, Saeed is dead, Saeed is dead, I thought over and over, as I caressed one of my plant’s leaves. I yanked, breaking the leaf off. Saeed, my friend. I crumpled the leaf in my restless hand; its green earthy smell might as well have been blood.
Yesterday Saeed had seen something terrible. Not long afterwards, he’d sat across from me during dinner-hour with eyes wide like boiled eggs, unable to eat. He couldn’t give me any details. He said no words could describe it.
“What does your heart tell you about this place?” he’d earnestly asked.
I’d only shrugged, frustrated with him for not telling me what he’d seen that was so awful.
He leaned forward, lowering his voice. “You read all those books…why don’t you feel rebellion in your heart? Don’t you ever dream of getting out of here? Away from all the Big Eye?”
“Rebellion against whom?” I whispered, confused.
He laughed bitterly, sat back and shook his head. He took my hand, squeezed it and let it go. “Eat your jallof rice, Phoenix.”
I tried to get him to eat his crushed glass. This was his favorite meal and it bothered me to see him push his plate away. But he wouldn’t touch it. Before we returned to our separate quarters, he asked for my apple. I assumed he wanted to paint it. He always liked to paint when he was depressed. I’d given it to him without a thought and he’d slipped it into his pocket. The Big Eye allowed it, though they frowned upon taking food from the dining hall, even if you didn’t plan to eat it.
His words didn’t touch me until nighttime when I lay in my bed. Yes, somewhere deep deep in my psyche I did wish to get out of the tower and see the world, be away from the Big Eye. I wanted to see those things that I saw in all the books I read. “Rebellion,” I whispered to myself.
They told me the news in the morning during breakfast-hour. I’d been sitting alone looking around for Saeed. The others, the woman with the twisted spine who could turn her head around like an owl, the man who never spoke with his mouth but always had people speaking to him, the three women who all looked and sounded alike, the bushy bearded man who looked like a wizard from a novel, the baboon who spoke in sign language, the woman whose sweater did not hide her four large breasts, the two men joined at the hip who were always randomly laughing, the woman with the lion claws and teeth, these people spoke to each other and never to me. Only Saeed spoke to me.
One of my doctors slid into the seat facing me. The African-looking one who wore the shiny black wig made of synthetic hair, Bumi. They always had her deal with me when there was upsetting news. My entire body tightened. She touched my hand and I pulled it away. She smiled sympathetically and told me a terrible thing. Saeed hadn’t drawn the apple. He’d eaten it. And it killed him. My mind went to one of my books. The Bible. I was Eve and he was Adam.
I could not eat. I could not drink. I would not cry. Not in the dining hall.
Hours later, I was in my room lying on my bed, eyes wet, mind reeling. Saeed was dead. I had skipped lunch and dinner, but I still wasn’t hungry. I was hot. The scanner on my wall would start to beep soon. Then they would come get me. For tests. I shut my eyes, squeezing out tears. They evaporated as they rolled down my hot cheeks. “Oh God,” I moaned. The pain of losing him burned in my chest. “Saeed. What did you see?”
Saeed was human. More human than me. I’d met him the first day they allowed me into the dining hall with the others. I was one year old; I must have looked twenty. He was sitting alone about to do something insane. There were many others in the room who caught my eye. The two conjoined men were laughing hard at the sight of me. The baboon was jumping up and down while rapidly signing to the woman with lion claws and teeth. However, Saeed had a spoon in his hand and a bowl full of broken glass before him. I stood there staring at him as others stared at me. He dug the spoon into the chunks of glass and put it in his mouth. I could hear him crunching from where I stood. He smiled to himself, obviously enjoying it.
Driven by sheer curiosity, I walked over and sat across from him with my plate of spicy doro wat. He eyed me with suspicion but he didn’t seem angry or mean, at least not to the best of my limited social knowledge. I leaned forward and asked what was on my mind, “What’s it like to eat that?”
He blinked, surprised. Then he grinned. His teeth were perfect—- white, shiny, and shaped like the teeth in drawings and doctored pictures in magazines. Had they removed his original teeth and replaced them with ones made of a more durable stuff? “The taste is soft and delicate as the texture is crunchy. I’m not in pain, only pleasure,” he said in a voice accented in a way that I’d never heard. But then again, the only accents I’d ever heard were from the Big Eye doctors and guards.
“Tell me more,” I said.
After that, Saeed and I became friends. I loved words and he needed to spill them. He could not read, so I would tell him about what I read, at least in the hours of breakfast, lunch and dinner. He was from Egypt where he had been an orphan who never went hungry because he could always find something to eat. Rotten rice, date pits, even the wooden skewer sticks of kebabs, he had a stomach like a goat. They brought him to the tower when he was thirteen, six years ago. He never told me exactly how or why they made him the way he was. It didn’t matter. What mattered was that we were who we were and we were there.
Saeed told me of places I had never seen with my own eyes. He used the words of a poet who used his tongue to see. Saeed was an artist with his hands, too. He had the skill of the great painters I read about in my books. He most loved to draw those foods he could no longer eat. Human food. Portraits of loaves of bread. Bowls of thick egusi soup and balls of fufu. Bouquets of lamb and beef kebabs. Fried eggs with white cheese. Plates of chickpeas. Pitchers of orange juice. Piles of roasted corn. They allowed him to bring the paintings to mealtime for everyone to view. I guess even we deserved the pleasures of art.
Saeed could survive on glass, metal shavings, crumbles of rust, sand, dirt, those things that would be left behind if human beings finally blew themselves up. However, eating a piece of bread would kill him as eating a big bowl of sharp pieces of glass would kill the average human being.
He took my apple and, that night, he ate it. Then his stomach and intestines hemorrhaged and he was dead before morning. I never got to tell him what was happening to me. It might have given him hope; it would have reminded him that things would change. I wiped a tear. I loved Saeed.
As grief overwhelmed me for the first time in my life, I pressed a hand against the thick glass of my window and longingly looked down at the green roof of the much shorter building right beside Tower 7; one of the trees growing there was in full bloom with red flowers. I’d never been outside. I wanted to go outside. Saeed had escaped by dying. I wanted to escape, too. If he wasn’t happy here, then neither was I.
I wiped hot sweat from my brow. My room’s scanner began to beep as my body’s temperature soared. The doctors would be here soon.
When it first started to happen two weeks ago, only I noticed it. My hair started to fall out. I am an African by genetics, my hair was very coily and my skin was very very dark. They kept my hair shaved low because neither they nor I knew what to do with it when it grew out. I could never find anything in my books to help. They didn’t care for style in Tower 7, anyway, although the woman down the hall had very long, silky, white hair and Big Eye lab assistants came by every two days to help her brush and braid it…despite the fact that the woman had the teeth and claws of a lion.
I was sitting on my bed, looking out the window, when I suddenly grew very hot. For the last few days, my skin had been dry and chapped no matter how much hydrated water they gave me to drink. Doctor Bumi brought me a large jar of shea butter and applying it soothed my skin to no end. However, this day, hot and feverish, my skin seemed to dry as if I were in a desert.
I felt beads of sweat on my head and when I rubbed my short short hair, it wiped right off, hair and sweat alike. I ran to my bathroom, quickly showered, washing my head thoroughly, toweled off and stood before the large mirror. I’d lost my eyebrows, too. But this wasn’t the worst of it. I rubbed the shea butter into my skin to give myself something to do. If I stopped moving, I’d start crying with panic.
I don’t know why they gave me such a large mirror in my bathroom. Large and round, it stretched from wall to wall. Therefore, I saw myself in full glory. As I slathered the thick, yellow, nutty smelling cream onto my drying skin, it was as if I was harboring a sun deep within my body and that sun wanted to come out. Under the dark brown of my skin, I was glowing. I was light.
I pulsed, feeling a wave of heat and slight vibration within my flesh. “What is this?” I whispered, scurrying back to my bed where my e-reader lay. I wanted to look up the phenomena. In all my reading, I had never read a thing about a human being, accelerated or normal, heating up and glowing like a firefly’s behind. The moment I picked up the e-reader, it made a soft pinging sound. Then the screen went black and began to smoke. I threw it on the floor and the screen cracked as it gently burned. My room’s smoke alarm went off.
Psss! The hissing sound was soft and accompanied by a pain in my left thumbnail. It felt as if someone had stuck a pin into it. “Ah!” I cried, instinctively pressing on my thumb. As I held my hand up to my eyes, I felt myself pulse again.
There was a splotch of black in the center of my thumbnail like old blood but blacker. Burned flesh. All specimen, creature, creation in the building had a diagnostics chip implanted beneath his, her or its fingernail, claw, talon or horn. I’d just gone off the grid.
Not thirty seconds passed before they came bursting into my room with guns and syringes at ready, all aimed at me as if I were a wild rabid beast destroying all that they had built.
“Get down! DOWN!” they shouted. One man grabbed my arm, probably with the intent of throwing me on the bed so he could cuff me. He screamed, staring at his burned, still-smoking hand. Someone shot me in the leg. It felt like I’d been kicked there with a metal foot. I sunk to the floor, pain washing over me like a second layer of more intense heat. I would have been done for if someone else had not shouted for the others to hold their fire.
Thankfully, I healed fast and the bullet had gone straight through my leg. If it hadn’t, I don’t know what would have happened with my extreme body temperature. One minute I was staring with shock at the blood oozing from my leg. Then next, I blacked out. I woke in a bed, my body cool, my leg bandaged. When they returned me to my room, the scanner was in place to monitor me since I could not hold an implant. They replaced my bed sheets with a heavy heat-resistant one similar in material to my new clothes. The carpet was gone, too. For the first time, I saw that the floor beneath the carpet was solid whitish marble.
As the days progressed, I learned that when I grew hot and luminous like this, electronics died or exploded in my hands. This was why they started giving me paper books. They were difficult to read, as I couldn’t turn the pages as quickly as I could with the e-reader. The paper books they had were limited and old and I was afraid that I’d burn them. And they could now easily monitor what I was reading. Although now I realize with the e-reader they were probably monitoring my choices, too.
I didn’t tell Saeed about the heating and glowing because at the time I didn’t want to worry him. I enjoyed our talks so much. I wish I had told him.
The door slid open and my doctors came in, Debbie and Bumi. I took a deep breath to calm myself. Though the heat did not go away, it decreased, as did the glow.
“How do you feel?” Bumi asked, as she took my wrist to check my pulse. She hissed, dropping it.
“Hot,” I said.
She glared at me and I shrugged thinking something I had not thought until Saeed was dead-—You should have asked first.
“Open,” Debbie said. She placed the heavy duty thermometer into my mouth.
I saw these two women every day. I knew their names, nothing more.
“She’s not glowing that brightly,” Bumi said, typing something onto her handheld. I resisted the urge to grab it and hold it in my hands until it exploded. Saeed was dead because of these people. I steadied myself, thinking of the cool places sometimes described in the novels I read. I once read a brief story about a man who froze to death in a forest. I thought about that.
“It might just be menopause approaching,” Bumi said. “I believe the two factors are correlated.”
I tuned out their talk and focused on my own thoughts. Escape. How? What would they do to me? What did Saeed see? My internal temperature was 130 degrees, but the temperature of my skin was 220. They couldn’t take my blood pressure because the equipment would melt.
“We need to get her to the lab,” Debbie said.
Bumi nodded. “As soon as the scanner says she’s reached 300 degrees. We don’t want her any higher or things around her will start to ignite.”
They left. I paced the room. Restless. Angry. Distraught. They would be back soon.
How am I going to get out of here, I wondered. As if to answer my question, Mmuo walked into my room. He came through the wall across from my bed. My heart nearly jumped from my chest. “Mmuo, good evening,” I said. He’d scared me but I was glad to see him. So glad. Without Saeed, Mmuo was my only other friend now.
“Did you hear?” he asked, sitting on my bed.
I blinked, feeling the rush of sadness all over again. He was Saeed’s friend, too. “Yes,” I said.
“I’m sorry, Phoenix.”
My face was wet and drying with sweat. “I’m getting out of here,” I declared.
Mmuo grinned but it quickly turned to a frown. “What is wrong with you? I can feel you from here,” he asked.
“I think it has something to do with how they made me. It’s been happening for two weeks and it’s getting worse.”
We looked at each other, silent. I knew we were thinking the same thing but neither he nor I wanted to speak it. If we spoke of my name, I didn’t think I’d be able to move, let alone run.
“Yes, that would make sense,” he said.
His full name was Uzochukwu D’nnmma but he called himself Mmuo, which meant spirit in a Nigerian language. He was a hero to all those who were created or altered in Tower 7. Like Saeed, Mmuo had been taken from Africa. He said he was from “the jungles of Nigeria.” I didn’t believe he was from any jungle. He spoke like a man who had known skyscrapers, office buildings and digital television. He knew how to disable the security doors on several of the floors and was known for causing trouble throughout the building. Not that he really needed to do so to get around the tower. Mmuo could walk through walls. The only walls he could not pass through were the walls that would get him out of Tower 7. Mmuo could not escape; obviously his abilities were created by Tower 7 scientists.
Mmuo was a tall, thin man with skin the color of and as shiny as crude oil. He never wore clothes, for clothes could not pass through the walls with him. He stole what food he needed from the kitchens. He was the only person/creature who’d successfully escaped the Big Eye’s clutches.
Why Tower 7’s Big Eye tolerated him, I do not know. My theory is that they simply could not catch him. And since he was contained, they accepted the trouble he occasionally stirred up. Most of those in the tower were too isolated and damaged to be much trouble if freed, anyway.
“It looks like your skin is nothing but a veil over something greater,” he said, after an appraising look. It was something Saeed would have said and the thought made my heart ache again.
“Can you open the door?” I finally said. “I…I want to see what is down the hall, near Saeed’s room.”
Mmuo met my gaze and held it.
I frowned. “What did Saeed see?” I asked.
He only looked away.
“Show me,” I said, suddenly wanting to sob. “Then help me escape.”
He moved close to me and I was sure he was going to hug me.
“Don’t touch me,” I said. “You’ll…”
He raised a hand up and made to slap me across the face. “Don’t move,” he said. His hand passed right through my head. I felt only the slightest moment of pressure and there was a sucking sound.
“Can you hear me?” I heard him loudly say through what sounded like a microphone. I looked around.
“Shhh! They’ll hear you!” I hissed. I frowned. His lips hadn’t moved.
“No,” he said. He held his finger to his lips for me to quiet down and grinned, his yellow-white teeth shining, his black skin shining, too. ”“They won’t. You are hearing this in your head.
“Not even the Big Eye know I can do this,” he said aloud, but lowering his voice. “Whatever they did to make me able to pass through walls, I can pass it into people and they can hear me, until the tiny nanomites are sweated from their skin.
“I did this to a little boy on the fifth floor. He had a contagious cancer, so they kept him in isolation for tests. Hearing me talk to him from wherever I was, kept him sane. At least, until he died.”
His disease could have killed you, though, I thought.
He started to descend through the floor. “Fifteen minutes,” he said in my head, then he was gone.
I whipped off my pants and t-shirt and threw on a white dress they’d recently given me that was made of heat resistant thin plastic. The dress was long but light and allowed me to move very freely. I didn’t bother with shoes. Too heavy.
For a moment, I had a brief flash in my mind of actually stepping outside. Into the naked sunlight. I could do it. Mmuo would help me. He and I would both escape. I felt a rush of hope, then a rush of heat. The scanner on my wall beeped. I had reached over 300 degrees.
Just before the door slid open, I had the sense to spread some shea butter on my skin. I ran out of my room.
“If you want to see, turn right and then go straight. Do it quickly.”
I jogged, my feet slapping the cool marble floor. The hallway was quiet and empty, and soon I was in a part of my floor that I had never graced. The side where they kept Saeed. His prison, I thought.
I crossed a doorway and the floor here was carpeted, plush and red. I paused, looking down. I had never seen red carpet. Before they took it out, the carpet in my quarters had been black and flat. I wanted to kneel down and run my hands over it. I knew it would feel so soft and fluffy.
“See what you must but you have to make it to the elevator in two minutes,” Mmuo’s voice suddenly said into my head. “Go down the hall and turn left. You will see it. Hurry. Don’t press any buttons when you get in.”
“Ok,” I said aloud. But he could not hear me. One-way communication. I ran down the red hallway. Through glass windows and doors, I could see lab assistants and scientists in labs. Each large room was partitioned by a thick wall. There was bulky equipment in most of the rooms. If I were careful, no one would notice me. After sneaking past three labs, I saw the one that Saeed saw. It had to be. I stopped, staring and moaning deep in my throat. This lab was much bigger than the others and ten black cameras hung from its high white ceiling.
There were two wall-sized sleek grey machines on both sides of the room. I could hear them humming. Powerful. Between them, the world fell away to …...another world where it was daytime and all that was happening was perfectly bluntly brutally visible. There were old vehicles, trucks from long, long ago, boxy, ineffective and weak. But strong enough to carry huge loads of cargo to dump into a deep pit. And that cargo consisted of human bodies. Hundreds and hundreds of them. Dead. Not Africans. These dead people had pinkish pale skin and thin straight-ish hair like most of the Big Eye. When was this? Where was this? Why were the Big Eye scientists just standing there watching with their clipboards and ever-observing eyes?
It was not like watching a 3D movie. Even the best ones could never look this ...…true. Bodies. And I could smell them. The whole hallway reeked with their rot and feces and bile and the smoke of the trucks. My brain went to my books and recalled where I had seen this before. “Holocaust,” I whispered, fighting the urge to turn to the side and vomit. I shut my watering eyes for a moment. I took a deep breath and nearly gagged on the stench. I opened my eyes.
This genocide happened during one of the early world wars. The Germans killed many of these people because they felt they were inferior or a threat or both. The book I read spoke as if wiping them out was the right thing to do. It certainly looked wrong to me. Were these Big Eye looking through time? Is this all they could do? Look? And why this time period? For a moment, the portal disappeared and there was lots of scrambling, adjusting machines, pushing buttons, cursing. And then the portal reappeared showing the same activities, in the same time period in the same place. Happening.
I could feel the surge of heat in my body. Like a deep heartbeat of crimson flames. I shuddered and felt it ripple over every surface of my skin. But I couldn’t move. Saeed had probably stood here just like this, too. Acrid smoke stung my eyes. My feet were burning the red carpet. A fire alarm sounded. I ran.
The elevator was open. It was empty. I got in and it quickly closed behind me. I wished Mmuo would say something. If it went up, I was caught. If it went nowhere, I was caught. If it went down, I might be caught, but I might escape, too. I shut my eyes and whispered, “Go down, go down, please, go down. Have to get out!” Sweat beaded and evaporated all over my confused body and the elevator quickly began to feel humid.
If I hadn’t rubbed all that shea butter on my skin at the last minute, I’d have been in horrible pain, my skin drying and probably cracking. I was hot like the sun, there was a ringing in my ears, as if my own body had an alarm and it was going off, too. I looked at my hands. They were glowing a soft yellow. My entire body was glowing through my dress.
The elevator jerked upward. I grabbed the railing, pure terror shooting through me. At least, I would make it outside. I hoped I could take two breaths before they caught me. I sunk to the floor. Saeed was dead and I was still trapped. Tears dribbled from the corners of my eyes and hissed as they evaporated down my cheeks.
The elevator jerked again. “Sorry about that,” I heard Mmuo say in my head. He sounded distant. The elevator started moving down. I jumped up. I still had a chance. A louder alarm started to go off. They’d realized I was missing. “I can get you to nine,” he said. His voice was fading and I had to strain to hear it. “Two stairways in there. Run to the emergency one on the other side of the greenhouse, straight ahead when the doors open. You’ll be on the side of the greenhouse, just go straight ahead! Do NOT go near the center! There’s…” His voice faded away.
Had my heat burned away his nanomites? Probably. As the elevator flew down to the ninth floor, my feet burned the elevator floor. It came to a sudden stop and the doors opened. The blare of the Tower 7 alarm assaulted my ears but the most beautiful sight I’d ever seen caressed my eyes. An expansive room full of trees, bushes, flowers, vines. In pots, on shelves, tangled within each other. A contained jungle that reminded me of the green roof of the building next door. I could see the city through the windows on my left. The sky was the deep rose of evening. I started quickly walking down the narrow path before me. Moss grew on the sides of trees. The air smelled green, fragrant, soily, I had never smelled anything like it.
I heard a rush of footsteps from amongst the plants to my right. Between the foliage, I could see them. Big Eye guards. In armor with shields, with guns.
“Hey!” one of them yelled, spotting me. All their guns went up. “Put your hands up. We will not hurt you.” The one speaking was a woman. I could see her clearly. She was short with long straight brown hair. She had pale skin and a hard voice.
Behind me I could hear the elevator rumbling. I still didn’t move. Saeed was dead. There was nothing for me here. I was two years old and I was forty years old. The marble beneath my feet absorbed my heat.
“Please, put your hands up,” the woman pleaded. “You know what you are. We can stabilize you.” She paused, obviously considering how much to tell me. I knew enough, though. Saeed was dead and it was all clear to me now.
“You’re a weapon,” the woman admitted. “If you wanted to know, now you know. I’m only here to help. You have to trust me. This wasn’t supposed to happen, you being like this. Please, let us help you.”
I heard the elevator beep then the doors opening just as I felt the light burst from me. There was warmth that started at my feet. It rolled up to my chest and pulsed out with a wave of heat. My shoulders jerked back and I stumbled to the side, getting a glimpse behind me. If I had blinked I still wouldn’t have missed it. My skin prickled as my glow became a light green shine. The light steadily radiated from me, bathing every plant in the room. The guards behind me in the elevator and on the far right side of the room all ducked down and for a moment it was quiet enough where you could hear it. All the plants began to grow. Snapping, pulling, unfurling, creeping. Thick vines and even tree roots quickly crept, stretched and blocked the elevator door. Leaves, branches and stems grew so thick around the guards to my right that they were blocked from view. They didn’t know I could do this.
The entire greenhouse swelled and flooded with foliage. Except a few steps ahead to my right. There was what I could only call a tunnel through the plants. It diagonally passed the cowering Big Eye. I ran into it just as the guards behind and to my right began to shoot toward where I’d initially been. Were they shooting through the plants or shooting at me, I do not know. And in many ways these two things were one and the same.
Mmuo had said to go forward to find the doorway. But I lost all sense of direction. So when I ended up standing before the giant glass dome I had no clue which way to run. My first thought was of the same book that spoke of the treacherous apple of knowledge. The Bible. Except that the man with enormous wings was not held up by any wooden cross. He was suspended in mid-air with his arms out and his legs tied together. His eyes were closed. His brown-feathered wings were stretched wide.
He was naked, his bronze-skinned body, muscled and very very tall, at least compared to my six feet. He had Arab facial features like Saeed and a crown of wooly African hair like mine if they’d let it grow. He was magnificent. Behind the glass dome was a rough wooden wall. The Backbone.
Behind me, I could hear them coming. Hacking and shooting through the plants and calling my name. I wasn’t going to get out. I walked up to the glass and placed a hot hand on it. The glass was thick and very cool. Was there even air in there? Was that how they held him? Was it like being in outer space? What was space like for a creature made to fly?
His eyes opened. I gasped and jumped back. They were brown, soft, kind, eyes.
“Oh my God, Phoenix! Step BACK!” one of the guards screamed, shoving aside a bush. I noticed the guard did not point his gun. Nor did the others who emerged beside him. I looked back at the man with wings. He was looking right at me, no expression on his face. I was surrounded by guards, all begging me to step away, pleading that this creature was unique and dangerous. However, none of them came to capture me. I didn’t move.
Seeing the Big Eye cower, seeing their fear and sheer horror had a strange effect on me. I felt powerful. I felt lethal. I felt hopeful, though all was hopeless. I turned to the caged man and my hope evolved into rage. Even he was a prisoner here. I vowed that if I didn’t get out, at least he would.
For the first time I did it voluntarily. I was already so hot and I grew hotter when I reached into myself, into all that I was, all that I had been and all that I would be, I reached in and drew from my source. Then I turned to a nearby tree and let loose a pulse of light. I sighed as it left me, feeling relief. Immediately the tree’s roots began to buckle and creep toward the glass cage.
CRASH! They easily forced their way through and the rest of the dome began to crack in several places. The Big Eye turned and ran for their lives. I didn’t bother running. There was no better way to die. He burst through, knocking me aside with the intensity of his wake. Into the now-dense foliage of the greenhouse. I saw none of it, but I heard and smelled it. Wet tearing sounds, screams, ripping, snapping, choking, not one gun fired. The air smelled like torn leaves and blood. It was still happening when I spotted the stairway between the plants and ran into it. I ran down and down flights and came to a heavy open door and entered the lobby.
For a moment, even after all that I had seen, I forgot what I was doing. The sight took my breath away. Tower 7’s lobby was more spectacular than I’d ever imagined. No words could make up for actually seeing this place. This space. I had never been in such a space. The ceiling was so high and the marble walls were draped with gorgeous flowering vines, the small trees and plants growing through the soil-filled holes in the floor. I fought not to fall to my knees. There was the base of The Backbone. Its trunk had to be over thirty feet in diameter.
I was dizzy. I was burning up. I was amazed. I was exhausted. There was a freed angel beast massacring its captors nine floors above. I could hear more Big Eye guards coming down the stairwell. The alarm was blaring and the lobby was empty…...except for a lone figure standing near the exit doors. He was grinning. He’d been trying to get to this very spot for nine years and my escape gave him the chance.
“Hurry,” Mmuo cried. “Phoenix, MOVE!” I heard them burst through the stairway. I was running. I dodged small trees, scrambled around benches and leapt over plants. The door was yards away. I was going to make it. Outside, people walking by stopped to look.
Then I saw the guards come running onto the tower’s wide plaza. They seemed to come from all directions. They shoved gaping people aside. They pulled up people who were sitting on benches enjoying the lovely evening. Then they formed a line blocking the exit and stood there, guns to their chests. I ran to Mmuo and would have given him a hug, if it weren’t for my heat. We’d both almost made it.
“Go,” I told him.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“For what?” I was having trouble thinking straight and I could smell the floor burning beneath me. I didn’t know marble could burn. “Saeed would have been proud. I am proud. I set an angel free.”
His eyebrows went up. “You…”
“Go!” I said, looking at the approaching Big Eye coming from the stairwell. They were flooding from doorways and were coming down an escalator on the other side of the lobby. “Don’t ever let them catch you!” I said.
He sunk through the floor and was gone.
I stood tall. There were hundreds of them. Men and women armed with the guns I had seen them carrying all my life. No Big Eye guard went anywhere in the tower without them. I knew how they sounded. Nearly silent. I had been hearing shots fired all my life. For a multitude of reasons, but always with the same result. Something or someone who’d gotten out of control was dead or severely injured. “Protect the scientist from the subject.” “Observe and learn.” “We will be better for it.” “For the Research.” I was taking all the pieces I had read and finally putting them together. The Big Eye crowded around me, twitchy with anticipation as if I were evil. After all I had done, to them, I guess I was evil. Or crazy.
I held up my hands, feeling myself utterly shining. The light bloomed from my body. The release felt glorious and I moaned with relief. Then more sighing than speaking, I said, “I give…...”
They opened fire and it was as if I were punched with steel fists in every part of my body-—chest, neck, legs, arms, abdomen, face. I was blown back and my vision went red-yellow. I lay on my back. Everything was wet, the smell of smoke in the one nostril I had left. Smoke and…...the perfume of The Backbone. I was looking at it, gazing at how it reached, up, up, up, through the high marble ceiling, through the 39 floors above. Into the sky. Reaching for the sky.
I felt the radiance burst from me, warm, yellow, light, plucked from the sun and placed inside me like a seed until it was ready to bloom. It bloomed now and the entire lobby was washed. The Big Eye covered their faces and dropped their guns. A few ran to the stairwell, others to the far side of the lobby. Most of them ran past my mangled body and out of the building. Those ones must have known what would happen next.
I knew. I was burning as the light pulsated and pulsated from me there on the floor. My body convulsed with it as my clothes burned and then my flesh. There was no pain. My nerves were burning.
My light shined on the plants and tiny trees of the lobby and they began to grow wildly, stirred and amazed with life. Vines stretched, lengthened, thickened. Flowers twisted open. Pollen puffed the air sweet. Leaves unfolded and widened. The stone floors were covered with green yellow white brown black, the strongest roots cracking its foundation.
My light shined on the great tree that was The Backbone. Its roots groaned as they shifted, coiled, expanded, and caused the entire portion of the floor around its roots to buckle and fall apart. The tree’s colossal trunk twisted this way and that, shrugging off the building that was its shackle. Chunks of the floors above began to crash down around me. I was ashes being scattered by vines and roots when Tower 7 fell.
Several of the buildings beside the tower fell, too. The Backbone stood tall, stretching its branches and opening its enormous leaves over buildings and streets. At its base, a small lush jungle sprung from the rubble of Tower 7. All this in the middle of the city. Helicopters hovered, news crews streamed footage live, people gaped from afar. When the debris settled, there was a moment where my brilliant light shined into the darkness, for it was now night time. The news cameras recorded the winged man flying out of the rubble but not much else lived, except the man who could walk through walls. Mmuo walked out of The Backbone’s trunk and stood before it. “This is what you all deserve!” he shouted, shaking his fist at the eyes of the hovering cameras. Then he sunk into the ground and was gone.
No one in the city would approach the ruins of Tower 7. They sat for seven days, a pile of those things Saeed used to eat: rubble, glass, metal and……ash. And then I realized the meaning of my name.
“Albatrosses and wind are inseparable.”
—- photographer Frans Lanting
Awakening was natural. It was easy. Nevertheless, my story will never be easy to digest. But it is important. It is filling. Pay attention. As expected, my saga continues…
I lay in a heap of rubbish in a jungle, and people were looking at me. What must they have seen? I did not move. It was night and the air was warm. I could feel it. The breeze blew and, despite my situation, I closed my eyes and let it wash over my face. It felt like silk. It smelled of sweet blooming flowers and leaves, at first. Then there was an after-smell of dust and crushed rubble, disintegrated marble. Then it stank of raw gas, smoky rubbing alcohol, it smelled like suicide—- this must have been the refuse of vehicles in the streets. This was the smell of car and truck exhaust.
I’d smelled this only once in my life. It was when I was trying to escape Tower 7. The smell was mixed with the stench of dead bodies. I pushed the memory away and inhaled the air of the outside world. I was free of Tower 7. I was like the soft sweet flesh that falls out of the cracked hard shell of a walnut.
“We’ll be quick,” a young man in black pants and a black jacket was telling the anxious-looking group of about ten people. “They don’t like people lingering here. So for this leg of the tour, no digi-cams with flashes or cam-lights. Use night-vision or don’t take any photos at all.” His back was to me and I could clearly see that on his jacket, it said, “Haunted City Tours”.
His audience members held all kinds of photo-taking devices in their open palms. These had eyes on their fronts that reflected the dim streetlights and the lights of distant passing vehicles. Eyes, I thought. Big eyes. I wanted to get up, then. At the time, I had no idea how long I’d been there.
“Seven Days!” the young man said, with wide eyes and a big grin. “It’s only been seven days since Tower 7 crumbled and this strange jungle sprung up in its place. And as you can see, not one dump truck, not one construction worker, not even a lawnmower is here to clear this mess. It’s incredible. Some people say that there is a dangerous alien ship buried in there that the government is terrified of disturbing. Others say that a live nuclear warhead is beneath the jungle and if it is moved, it will blow. Others say that those in the building were called The Big Eye, secret government workers owned and led by the Illuminati. All sorts of conspiracy theories floating around.
“The mayor has still not sent a soul to come and try to dig up survivors or bodies. Of all the haunted places in the city where I can take you, this one is the most haunted…for now. Be proud to be the third tourist group we’ve brought here. You’re likely the last. The city can’t possibly leave things this way much longer.” He looked around and then said. “And be glad to be the second group that has managed to sneak here without being quickly detected.”
All the people started whispering excitedly as they held their hand devices which I assumed stole light somehow to make photos or recordings. Again, I wondered what they were seeing. No one pointed at me and screamed that there was a woman lying in the rubble.
“People used to come from all around the world to see the building with the giant tree growing through its center called The Backbone.” He cocked his head and winked. “Now, you don’t have to go inside Tower 7 to see its magnificence. The Backbone is all that stands. Look up. You can’t see its top. Since the Tower fell, scientists say that the tree has grown another five hundred feet. Even before the tower fell, it was said that it grew at night and sometimes you could hear it groaning as it grew. Its noise would shake the entire city like a minor earthquake. I have heard this noise a few times, myself. It is not a myth. It sounds like a giant monster.”
“What will they do with this place?!” an old man asked. He was the only one not holding out a device. He had a strange accent that I had never heard. It was not African, nor was it American. “They can’t just leave it like this! It’s a great big rubbish heap in the middle of the goddamn city! How is this even logical?”
The tour guide smirked mysteriously, as if the old man was adding to the guide’s obvious act. “That’s the mystery, sir.”
The tour guide stood back as the others took more photos and stared blankly at me and the heap that used to be Tower 7. Then the tour guide said, “Shall we move on?”
Looking relieved, everyone nodded or said “Yes,” or “Please”. The old man was all frowns. There were no children in the group. I’d have loved to see children. I’d never seen them in real life.
I was alone now and I was glad. Every part of my body was shrieking. With life. Fresh fresh life. I was alive. I was awake. I was intact. I could move. My temples throbbed a different kind of pain. It felt like pieces of glass grinding in my head and my vision went blurry for a moment.
I curled my body and some of the rubble that had buried me fell away. Chunks of white marble, chips of concrete, broken beams of steel, shattered glass-—things that Saeed loved to eat. It was all heavy but it did not crush me. I pushed it off. I tore off vines that had grown over me. There was no one around to hear the tinkle, crunch and scrape of debris tumbling, sliding off my body. I got up. My vision blurred again and I stumbled. My balance felt off. Like the world around me was tilted to one side. My tough feet crushed more glass and some tiny white flowers and ground against a piece of piping as I stumbled. Then it seemed everything settled-—my vision, the way I related to the world around me. Ok, I thought.
I stood tall, stretching my arms, back, and legs. I felt a little odd. Like I was me, but who was me? I looked at myself. I was naked and covered in dust; I must have looked like a ghost. But I was alive. After I’d died. I vividly remembered dying. My name is Phoenix. I don’t know who named me but I’d been named well.
I licked my wrist. Then I smiled. My skin was still brown as the ripe shell of coconut. I was me. Tall. Lean. The breasts of a forty year old woman. Strong legs. Long feet. Did I still have the dark brown spot on my left eyeball? The birthmark on my thigh? Did I still have the scar on my belly from when they’d taken a hip bone sample? The burn mark under the nail of my left thumb? I frantically started swiping the dust from my skin. I swiped and swiped. My arms. Legs. Belly. Backside. Chest. There was so much that a dusty cloud rose up around me. Then I stood still. The warm breeze caressing my body and blowing away the dust.
The birthmark on my thigh was there. The burn mark under my thumb was gone. I laughed. I looked up. The night sky was indigo with a hint of red. The way the sky had always looked to me. I had never been outdoors. Until now. I had never seen the stars. I would. I would get out of the city. Away from its light pollution.
“Ok,” I whispered. My voice was the same, too. I was working up to answering a most troubling question. If I was still me, was I still me? I stilled myself, shut my eyes and took a deep breath. Immediately, I could see it. Right through my eyelids. The soft yellow green glow that emanated from my skin. Beacon, I thought. I am a beacon.
When I attempted to escape from Tower 7, they had surrounded and riddled me with bullets as I burned to ash. My powerful light woke the plants, especially The Backbone. Then the Backbone had brought it all down, killing almost everyone and every freakish thing inside. Now I’d woken up in the ruins. I was reborn. I still glowed. I was still Phoenix. I let out a breath, a tear rolling down my cheek. It wasn’t over. It was silly of me to think it was.
When I opened my eyes, they fell on something white and blowing in the strong breeze a few yards away. A dress hanging on a piece of piping sticking out of a jumble of thick green shoots. Only two people would have known to leave it for me. Only two people really understood what I was. There was Saeed. How I loved Saeed. But Saeed was dead. And Mmuo, who’d also been a prisoner in Tower 7 and managed to escape when it all came down. Mmuo who could walk through walls. Mmuo who had opened the door for me. He’d most likely left it.
I walked over to the dress. With each step, I felt more like myself. It was cotton, stained a little from the dust, but long. It would fit perfectly. I liked long dresses but I hoped the cotton wouldn’t burn off me. As I put it on, it felt odd on my back. I frowned. My back felt odd, now that I thought of it. Achy, as if I’d been kicked there. But yet, when I touched my shoulder blade, I didn’t feel the touch as much as I should have. I smoothed out the dress on my body and then touched my back again. I had a swelling or a sort of hump.
I bent forward without a problem. Only the aching. A flare of heat flew through my body. Then I was cool again. “Wish I had a mirror,” I whispered.
There was a deep groaning and I froze. Then it came again. From behind me. I turned around. The sight took my breath away. You could not see the end of it. Surrounded by smaller trees and bushes, its great trunk was the diameter of two cars. Its rough rich brown bark was now covered with large thorns. No human in his or her right mind would attempt to climb it even if the tree were at rest. Which it was not. You could sense it even from yards away. If it wanted to, it could call its roots together, pull them out of the ground and walk away. Maybe it eventually would. Stranger things certainly had happened in the last seven days.
Its leaves were broad and oval shaped and you could see them happily waving with the wind, high high high into the sky. Until you could see no more. The leaves of the Backbone were slightly luminescent, just like me. And it had bloomed large fiery red flowers that grew high up. What happened at its very top? One would need a helicopter to find out.
The groaning came again and all the sounds of the city-—vehicles driving on roads, the breeze moving through the skyscrapers, the creak of crickets, the sound of people talking-—it all stopped. There was only dead silence. The building across the street was dark and deserted but on the second floor, if I squinted hard, I could see a pigeon was frozen in midflight.
“Wha…” I startled myself. It felt as if my voice was coming from within and outside me at the same time. “What is this?”
The grassy ground beneath my feet vibrated and then domed the slightest bit. I stumbled forward and the ground here also domed and I was forced forward again. The Backbone wanted me close. And it must have had a hell of a secret to tell me because it had stopped time so that it could do so. At least this was my theory. Of the thousands of books I had read in Tower 7, I had once read an African myth, or was it Arab, that spoke of a tree so old that it had learned to stop time. Hadn’t that tree been covered with spikes, too? My memory said it had. When I was mere feet from its lethal looking trunk, the bare ground before me began to churn.
If it weren’t for the forceful sagacious presence of the tree, I’d have run. I touched the hump on my back and rubbed at it. It felt so achy. The ground before the tree was rich red soil, different from the rest of the brown soil. Had the Big Eye done exactly that? The Backbone had been a tree soaked in experimental growth formula as a joke between scientists. When it began to grow like crazy, it had been allowed to grow through the center of Tower 7, like a backbone. The history of its official planting in the base of Tower 7 and the methods used to nurture it were kept top secret. This was even omitted from the classified books and files they let me read about the history of Tower 7.
“What is that?” I whispered as something began to push up beneath the churning soil. A tan powerful thin root whipped through. Then another, then another. Then a larger root must have pushed it from below, for the wooden box rose from the soil like a gift presented by a God, held up by a slave. It rose slowly, carefully, dare I say dramatically.
It was for me. I’ve never questioned that.
I picked it up and the tree groaned softly. Then I tensed, all my new flesh, muscles and sinews, tightening for the first time. My body flashed. It was a brilliant green, I think. I was blinded for a moment, though I kept my eyes open. It wasn’t hot, however, for my dress remained intact. I felt more gather in my chest. Then it burst from me, violently rustling the Backbone’s leaves and the twigs, leavef stems, vines and flowers of all those plants that grew around the great tree. The tree shivered.
The flap of pigeon wings behind me. I turned around and watched the pigeon finish flying to the next building. The sound of vehicles moving, vomiting plumes of exhaust. The sound of far off voices. The movement of the breeze around the concrete jungle.
Then a different kind of rumbling began. There was enough light from the street and the buildings around the area to show me exactly what was happening. It was the building across the deserted street. Where the pigeon had landed. It was called the Axis Building because according to satellite maps, it sat in the exact center of the city. The rumbling became a great roar and the concrete building started to collapse on itself. Crush, crash, beams buckled, buttresses splintered. The destruction plumed out dust, papers and rubble. I stared…in awe. I had been looking down at this building all my life. It stood right outside my window. It was one of the buildings the city designated to house a lush roof garden full of potted trees, bushes and flowers.
I’d looked down on the false jungle and dreamed and hoped and never touched, smelled, stood within. I loved the sight of it from afar, but now I realized an unconscious part of me loathed its existence. It was unattainable. It was not part of my world. Over eight days ago, this never would have been so clear to me, but now it was. Now it was. As the building collapsed, I felt joy. Most likely, there was not a soul inside it. It would have been evacuated after Tower 7 fell. They must have known it was unstable. But I loved the fact that it was I who gave it the push that finally brought it down.
The box I held. There was no lock or latch. The wood was not heavy but it was solid. And a rich brown like the tree’s trunk. Its edges were worn smooth. Do I open it? There was definitely something heavy inside. The box had a weight. When I moved it side to side, whatever was inside slid heavily this way and that. It was one thing.
I had been created in Tower 7 two years ago from the DNA of an African woman possibly born in Phoenix, Arizona. Or maybe what I was was the origin of my name. Maybe my DNA was brought directly from Africa and had nothing to do with Arizona. So many of those created, manipulated, enhanced, deformed, crippled people with me in Tower 7 were from parts of Africa. Fully unraveling my origins is a lost cause.
But one thing I had learned was that, despite my origins and the sinister reasons for creating me, my light brought life. I was a positive force. It had been my light that had brought this jungle that grew in the debris. It was my light that had given the Backbone the strength to shake Tower 7 from its great body.
And now The Backbone was offering me a strange gift. I opened the box.
My hands went numb. My eyes began to water. The scent of leaves packed my nose. The taste of mud flooded my mouth and my entire body began to glow. The grass pushed up beneath my feet, and tiny flowers blossomed from the blade tips. The Backbone softly twisted, shedding bits of bark as it stretched further toward the stars. I could hear it snapping and creaking, but I was looking at the object in the box.
“It’s a nut,” I whispered.
Round and about the shape and size of a garden egg, it looked to be made of a tougher heavier wood than that of the box and the tree. Etched deep into it were mazes of lines that made circles, squiggles and geometric shapes. The black lines ran and repeated close to each other but they never touched. The designs moved in a slow dance, undulated like bizarre insects.
Heat. It coursed through me like water, rushing up from my feet up my entire body to my head. The heat again. Seven days ago, I had heated until I burned to ash. Now here I was again. However, my clothes still did not burn. I shined brighter through my brown skin. I reached into the box and picked up the strange nut.
Pure. Quiet. Then pricks of tiny white, blue and yellow lights. I was seeing stars for the first time. Billions and billions of stars. As I flew through space smooth and gentle. In a vastness that made me want to weep. But I had no eyes with which to shed tears. No body with which to shudder. No nose with which to leak.
I was traveling. I would know where to land when I saw it. My direction was clear. The pull was strong. The small blue planet. Earth. I was hope sent from afar. A beacon. Deep in the red soil. Until the right time.
“They dug you up?” I said aloud, as I stared down at the nut. “They dug you up with the red soil and brought you here.” That is why The Backbone knows itself, I thought. Alien seed. Alien seed in the soil of Tower 7 where scientists, lab assistants, lab technicians, doctors, administrative workers, guards and police and the mutations, monsters and mistakes they made dwelled. I laughed hard.
The world went white. I nearly dropped the box as I shielded my face. The light was harsh to my unaccustomed eyes. My heart sank as I understood I had been so focused on the nut that I hadn’t noticed the chopping sound.
“Do not run,” a voice blared. “Stay where you are!”
The helicopter’s searchlight nearly blinded me. I had seen them many times while I was growing up in Tower 7, where the windows were thick glass. Their chopping noise was always muted. I’d never imagined they were so loud, their blades chopping the air like a cleaver on a chopping block. As my eyes adjusted, I could see that on the side of the helicopter was the logo I’d been seeing in Tower 7 all my short life. A hand grasping spears of lightning. Those of us in Tower 7 had always called them The Big Eye; I did not know the official name.
They probably thought that I had brought down the Axis building. In a way I had. But shouldn’t they also have been expecting me? They made me. I was their weapon. To be used for nuclear warfare or biological warfare, I did not know. I hadn’t matured in the way they had wanted. I was a failed project, a rogue prisoner. But still, they had to know that I would show up again. Maybe that is why they had not begun to clear the incredible amount of debris. Maybe. Maybe not.
I shut the box, tucked it under my arm and took off. If they knew nothing else, they’d know not to shoot.
My lean legs were strong. My back flexed. I could feel every muscle in my body working in perfect harmony. I was made to run. I was like the finest horse. First and foremost, they’d been trying to create a human weapon. A human bomb. One who could run fast was a plus. I’d only gotten to run on a treadmill, during my time in Tower 7. Now I got to sprint out in the open. It was absolute joy, even with the Big Eye pursuing me.
One foot, then the next. Digging into the ground and launching me forth. My healthy fresh lungs expanded and drew in copious breaths. I ran faster. Faster. FASTER. There were cars on the street and I kept up with them as I dodged the few pedestrians on the sidewalk.
It was night. I’d always thought people retreated indoors. I read a lot about the crime rate here, it only made sense. The shootings, gang violence, muggings, car crashes. But people walked the streets, men and women. In groups and a few alone. They all carried glowing screens. Some spoke to them, other’s watched probably the very same shows they could watch on the sides of buildings.
I passed a group of people standing outside a restaurant. These people looked confused and bewildered and were pointing toward the ruins. They’d probably heard the building fall. Did these people even see me? They did, but not for long. Above, the Big Eye followed, shining their searchlight, confusing the people on the sidewalks and streets even more.
So this was a city. Palm trees grew beside roads. Mango trees. Iroko. Rosewood. Mahogany. The tall buildings were adorned with lights that showed large screens with dancing people, prime time TV shows, and flashy commercials. All the buildings were draped in those sweet smelling vines the mayor said would help keep the city’s air clean. Those vines had been engineered in Tower 4 which was on the US Virgin Islands, but few people knew that. Even fewer cared.
Some of the roads were smooth, and I ran on these roads, keeping to the side. But I got to a few that were full of potholes. The news reports I had read all year were not exaggerating. The city had a water drainage problem and the year’s heavy rainy season had exacerbated it. The vehicles on the road were flat, fast and dented. I’d never seen one close and I’d always wanted to drive one. The acrid smell of their exhaust was greater here.
Suddenly, I saw huge versions of myself on the buildings. In some of them I was running. Others were old photos of me not smiling, peering into the camera. These photos were from before I had been what I was now. People looked up from their portable screens, to the big ones on the buildings and then back at their portable screens. Fantasy meeting fantasy. How confused they must have felt when they then saw me run by.
As I ran, the hump on my back ached worse than ever. I grunted from the pain, but I kept running. They would not have the box. It was mine. The tree gave it to me. And it had told me where to take it. And they certainly would not have me. Never again.
I ran beneath a railway and watched the searchlight pass overhead it. Then I ran along the sidewalk beneath the railway. I could see the helicopter trying to change direction, but it was too late. How would they know which way I’d gone? Or if I ran, at all. They chose to go in the opposite direction. For the moment, I’d lost them. But my face was everywhere. Someone would recognize me any moment and report my whereabouts. I slowed to a walk as I tried to figure out my next move. I passed a jewelry shop and a currency exchange. Both were closed.
As I walked, I sniffed. There was a spicy smell in the air. Tomato, onion, garlic, lemon. A perfumy aroma. A familiar one. When I came to the open door, I looked up. Ethiopian Sunrise. I walked into the restaurant.
“We’re closed!” a slim brown-skinned man with granite black curly hair said. His accent reminded me a bit of my lost love Saeed. Saeed, I thought. Saeed was dead. They had made him want to die and that was what made me want to live.
“I…I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t…”
“You!” he said, pointing at me and striding up to me. “You’re the terrorist who they are saying just brought down the Axis Building!” His eyes got wider. “Are… are you…you’re…you’re glowing! Why in Allah’s name are you glowing?! I thought the photo they were showing of you was just bad.”
I backed toward the door.
“No, wait!” he said, holding up his hands. “See?! See my hands! No portable, no nothing.”
I looked past him. Certainly there had to be others in the kitchen. I wanted to kick myself for coming in here. It hadn’t been a rational thing. It was the smell. The smell was so familiar.
“I just need a moment,” I said. “To rest. Then I will leave.”
The houseplants near the restaurant’s window began to stretch and thrust out fresh leaves. He looked at this and then slowly back at me.
“Where would you go?”
“Why would I tell you? Who are you?”
He laughed. “I am sorry. I am rude.”
I only frowned.
“My name is Berihun. I am an immigrant from Ethiopia and the owner of this restaurant. My wife Makeda is in the back. Only her.”
Then I understood what had attracted me to this place. The smell. The food. In Tower 7, the majority of the cuisine we all ate was African, whether you were African or non-African. My favorite dish was the Ethiopian dish of chicken in red pepper paste. How I loved doro wat. Just the thought of it made my empty stomach growl. I had not eaten a thing since my rebirth. I decided to leave it all up to what Saaed called The Author of All Things, for Saeed had stopped believing in Allah long ago and I had never believed in any gods of religions.
“Please, Berihun, I would like some doro wat,” I said. “It is my favorite dish and I have not eaten in… a long time.”
Berihun blinked and then he grinned wide. “You know our food!”
I smiled back and nodded.
“Sit,” he said, motioning to the table beside the counter. “I will be right back! Makeda will be so excited. What is your name?”
I paused. Names are powerful. They have a way of becoming destiny. They should not be shared with just anyone. But this man had given me his name without hesitation. “My name is Phoenix,” I said, sitting at the table for six.
He grinned and turned to go to the kitchen. He turned back. “They say that Tower 7 was the research facility where Leroy Jackson and his group of scientists discovered the cure for AIDS, but no one ever saw him or any of his famous research team even go in there. My wife is sure that what they really did in there was evil and cruel. My wife is smart and observant. I usually believe every word she says on subjects like this. She is correct?”
I nodded. “Leroy and his team worked out of New Orleans, Louisiana, in Tower 3.”
“You are not a terrorist.”
“No, I am not.”
He nodded and started walking away when he stopped again and came back.
“Do you have scoliosis?”
I knew what this was. A woman with the head of an owl in Tower 7 had it and I’d read about it in one of the medical books they gave me. The curvature of the spine. It was a deformity that sometimes resulted from growing too quickly. “No,” I said.
“My wife has scoliosis and your back kind of looks like you may have it, too.”
He came closer.
“Well, really I…I don’t know,” I said. “Does hers hurt?”
“No,” he said. “Not at all.”
“Can you look at my back?” I said. “I can’t really see it.”
He hesitated and then stepped around me. “Well,” he said, gently pulling the collar of my dress back a bit. “Oh my!” he said. “Your skin is very warm. Are you running a fever?”
“No, not in the usual way. I glow and…heat up.”
That was when I noticed the counter behind him. There were several items for sale there. My eye fell on the large tub full of a yellow thick substance. Shea butter.
“Can …can I use some of that? I’m sorry I don’t have any money but…”
“Use what?” He looked toward the counter. “Oh. Which one?”
“The shea butter.”
“Sure,” he said, picking it up.
“Thank you,” I said. “So…aside from the heat, did you notice anything else about my back? I don’t normally have any sort of hump or swelling there.”
He pressed his lips together as he handed me the shea butter. I pulled the lid off and the nutty smell assured me this was the pure unrefined kind. Perfect.
“What have they done to you?” he suddenly asked.
I paused, touching the smooth hard surface of the shea butter. It softened at my warm touch. I sighed, looked him in the eye and said, “I think it is more that it is what I am, Berihun.”
“Maybe,” he said.
“So what did you see?” I asked, rubbing the shea butter on my arms. It felt like cool water. It felt so so good, though not as divine as the shea butter they gave me in Tower 7.
“The skin,” he said. “It’s…it’s kind of puckered and swollen. Is that muscle?”
I frowned but said nothing, rubbing shea butter on my legs.
He shrugged, trying not to look worried. He quickly went to the back.
Two minutes later, a plump tall woman with many long black braids came out of the kitchen. Why didn’t they do my hair like that? I wondered. In Tower 7, they had never known what to do with my coarse hair, so they constantly shaved it off. I touched my head. “Oh,” I said. I had a healthy two inch afro. I pressed at it as the woman stared at me. Then I rubbed it. Pebbles and dust flew out.
“So it is true?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“Africans? Like me? Like my husband?”
“Yes, many of us were Africans.”
“Not that I knew.”
“But they served our food?”
She came over to me and touched my cheek. Only Saeed had ever touched me with any tenderness. Tears welled up in my eyes and I wasn’t quite sure why. “So warm,” she said. “My child, you are safe here.”
As she went back into the kitchen, I noticed what her husband spoke of. Her back was slightly crooked and she had a bit of a hump, like mine. But I didn’t think her back was hot to the touch.
His wife brought the food out minutes later. By then my upper back was aching so badly that I began to wonder if my light was burning me from within. But if that were the case, then my whole body should have been in pain, not the area around my shoulder blades. Every move I made brought a deep itchy pain that made me want to tear at my skin.
“My husband and I were about to eat dinner. This is my special recipe,” Makeda said, ceremoniously placing the large round metal platter on the table. “I only make this for family.”
The platter was covered with injera, a spongy delicious flat bread. At Tower 7, only once in a while did they serve my doro wat with the traditional injera. On the layer of the bread in the center of the platter, were the drumsticks and boiled eggs stewed in the spicy red sauce. On the injera layer closer to me, to my left was a small mound of boiled cabbage and carrots and on the right was a mound of yellow curried lentils. The same was on the other side of the platter.
Berihun sat across from me. “You should have the pleasure of company with your meal,” he said. I felt my chest swell with emotion. Good company, a small but good thing. That was exactly what I craved, next to a good meal. It seemed so long ago that I’d had good company. Makeda also set a plate with four rolled up sections of injera on the table and then sat down in the chair beside me.
“I’m not hungry for food, but I am for your story,” she said, looking at me with eyes of wonder. “Will you tell us?”
“Let her eat some first, my wife,” Berihun said, chuckling.
Makeda nodded, but glanced toward the door. I understood her unspoken words perfectly. I didn’t have much time. The Big Eye were out there. They were looking for me. How long would it be before they came running down this street, checking every building?
I picked up one of the soft rolls of flat bread, unrolled it a bit and tore off a piece. I grasped some chicken and stew with it and popped the combination in my mouth. This is the most wonderful thing about injera flat bread; it is simultaneously food, eating utensil, and plate. My eyes grew wide as my brand new taste buds sang.
“Oh! Delicious! Oh!”
Makeda beamed. Berihun was busy shoveling food into his mouth, too.
I tore off more injera. The balance of meat, egg, pepper, tomato was harmony. Tower 7 doro wat had never tasted like this! The injera was delicately sour and light as a cloud. The sauce was colorful tantalizing heat. The chicken savory. I ate and I ate. She brought out more of everything and I ate that, too. Neither of them commented about the fact that I was eating like two large men, and I was glad.
All that I have been through in the last hour was smoothed away by this perfect sustenance. My entire being relaxed. My mind was calm and alive as the flavors in my mouth touched my other senses.
“My name is Phoenix,” I said. We’d been eating in silence for ten minutes. Berihun and Makeda both looked at me with anticipation. “My DNA was probably brought straight from Africa. That makes the most sense to me now. I was mixed and grown in Tower 7, two years ago, though I look and feel 40 and have the knowledge of a centenarian. I am what they call an ABO, an ‘accelerated biological organism’…amongst other things. I think I was supposed to be one of this country’s greatest weapons.”
I told them everything.
“Now I am free of it,” I said, after a few minutes. I sat back. My meal was done. All three of our eyes kept stealing to the front window and door. The streets seemed too quiet. But what did I know about what streets normally looked like?
“No, you’re not,” Makeda said. She and her husband were grasping hands. As if the tale of my life and my journey would fling them into space if they did not hang on tightly. “This is who you are.”
Berihun was nodding vigorously. “I didn’t want to tell you this while you were enjoying your meal but your face is on every network, every newsfeed, even embedded in the advertisements. This is happening now, Phoenix. Everyone who looks at a television, computer, e-reader, portable, everyone who walks past a building and looks up at its screens will know your face by morning. Whatever that is you have, seed, nut, whatever, take it where it demands to go.”
Makeda took my hand and for a moment, I forgot all things. Her grasp was warm, strong, as was her gaze. As the food had calmed me, she and Berihun gave me strength. My eyes stung and I felt the tears coming again. Unlike before, when I was trying to escape Tower 7, it did not sizzle to vapor. It ran down my face, and dropped from my chin to my lap.
“You can’t stop now, girlie,” Makeda whispered. “You have to keep running.”
She pulled me close and said into my ear, “There is an exit in the back. Leave now.”
The bell on the front door jingled as a young man in a black uniform walked in.
“Assaalmu Alaykum,” Berihun said, jumping up and quickly walking to the front of the restaurant. He laughed loudly, thickening his accent and breaking his English, “We are close.”
I was running again. I didn’t know where I was going but I was running. Something had happened to the streets. There were no cars. There were no people. They’d been cleared. The sky sounded like it was swarming with helicopters. I could see the flash of searchlights in front of me and to my side. I needed to get out of the city but how would I do that on foot?
I felt something give in my back and I stumbled, but didn’t stop. I felt it painfully rupture and then ooze down. Blood? This was something new. What was happening to me? I ran into an alley. I reached behind my back and felt…I had no idea what I felt. Something was protruding. Wet but hard bone? I knocked on it. Not heavy. Hollow. I ran my hand over it. Soft things, too. I flexed my shoulder blades as the itchiness grew intense again. I shuddered as what felt like the skin of my middle and lower back tear some more. This time I could even hear it. But the pain wasn’t pain. It was relief. Itchy relief. I looked at my hand. Indeed, it was red and wet with blood.
“Oh God,” I wept, disgusted. I shuddered, as I fought not to scratch.
I leaned my face against the wall. The concrete was cool against my cheek. A door opened feet away from me, spilling out warm yellow light. Perhaps the backdoor of a shop or a restaurant. A man walked out laughing. He took one look at me and gasped, stumbling over his feet.
I tried to press my back to the wall but…could not. Whatever was sticking out was too big. Then whatever it was knocked over a garbage can over two yards to my right. I could feel it hit the can.
The man only stared at me, slack jawed. Another man came out, carrying a pack of cigarettes. “Holy shit,” he said, staring at me, dropping the cigarettes. He made the sign of the cross and fell to his knees.
We were staring at each other, the wind blowing a potato chip bag and a piece of paper up the alley. Me, breathing heavily, standing there in the middle of the filthy alley in a sweaty white dress. And the two men, one African and one Asian, standing near the open door both wearing jeans. I reached behind my shoulders and felt the hardness and softness that was attached to me. I looked over my shoulder. As I did so, whatever was on my back flexed, I could hear it unfolding and stretching. It sounded like the branches of a leafy tree in the wind. It felt…like relief.
With my peripheral vision I saw brown. I turned my neck as far as I could. Feathers. Wet brown feathers. I had wings.
The two men still said nothing as I backed away. They didn’t follow, they did not retreat. But one of them had his portable and its top was slid open. He was glancing at it and then glancing at me.
Running was difficult with the wings. My wingspan had to be over twenty feet. I was stressed and couldn’t help stretching them out, hitting the alley wall. My head throbbed as I focused on my wings. I could see them spanning out over twelve feet each. Then it was like something clicked into place in the center of my forehead. It was all there. Maybe it hadn’t been there before I died but now that I was alive again, it was. My wings were mine, I knew them, they made sense. My feet kept trying to leave the ground.
When I heard the sound of a helicopter and saw the search light coming toward me, I tried to flap them. It was easy. The feathers had dried and all I had to do was imagine that I had another set of powerful arms. Powerful arms whose every curve, fold, muscle I could control. I could flex them, retract them, move specific parts. I ran.
I flapped for my life.
The air reached down and took me. I reached up and took to the air. The wind hugged me. My feet left the ground. My remade body was made to fly.
Eight days ago I had never left Tower 7. I had only seen the world through thick glass. I’d never smelled the breeze. My best friend and the man I loved had killed himself when he lost all hope. Seven days ago, I had died while urging the trees and plants around me to live. Just over two hours ago, I was reborn. And now I had wings and I was flying.
I was just above the lower buildings, gazing at what I had only seen from my window. People on the sidewalks, on apartment balconies, coming out of vehicles and homes, in parking lots, they were all looking up and pointing at me, the screens of whatever devices they carried glowing brightly enough for me to see from so high up. They were texting, calling, emailing, flashing, the whole world would see the new me soon.
I heard it long before they saw me. But the helicopters were moving too fast for me to really escape. The searchlight soon found me again. I was flooded in white. The helicopter flew beside me, its blades chopping at the air and forcing me to work hard to keep from losing control.
“Land on top of the nearest building,” the female voice said. “We will not hurt you.”
She sounded like the woman soldier in Tower 7 who led the soldiers to attempt my capture when I was trying to escape. Maybe it was her. Most of the soldiers had probably escaped before The Backbone brought it all down. And this woman soldier spoke the same unconvincing words that the other had spoken just before they opened fire on me. I still remembered what it felt like to have no face. To have bullets eat away at my legs, belly, arms and chest.
I flew faster. So they did, too.
The soldiers in the helicopter brought out their guns…again. I looked straight ahead. I would die escaping, as I had before. I heard someone shout and then the guns fired. I braced my body for the pain. Nothing. But there was more shooting. And now, more shouting. Then the sound of the helicopter changed. The chopping stopped. Creaking. Screaming. I dared to look.
He was raw power. His wings were albatross-like and brown, as mine were, which meant they unfolded in three different places on the wing. When stretched out, they were straight and slim. But his were twice the size and length of mine. He looked darker-skinned than when I had freed him seven days ago in Tower 7. Had he been soaking up the sun? Nonetheless, he was no less lethal. Before, he’d killed many soldiers as soon as he was free. Now he was hurling the entire helicopter into a building. His hands were still stretched forth, as he’d just let go of it. The helicopter was sailing toward the street.
Just before it smashed into a building, I caught the eye of the woman who had claimed she would not harm me. She was screaming and reaching for me. Then there were flames, broken glass and twisted metal, the sound of fire alarms and other chaos. I flew on. The winged man flew behind me. Not one of the helicopters followed us, after that. Nothing followed us.
The tree grew wide, tall and crooked, as if it were dancing very very slowly. It had long narrow leaves and its branches were heavy with bunches of shea fruits. I wouldn’t have known what they were if I hadn’t run into the young woman who could speak English. This was a farm where the nuts used for shea butter were made.
After destroying the helicopter, the winged man had flown with me for some miles. He turned and flew back as soon as I left the city limits. It was the seed in the box that led me all this way. It took me weeks. I used my albatross-like wings. I flew. To Africa. Ghana. In the north. A town called Wulugu. To the middle of a shea tree farm not far from a small village. To this large tree. There were people in these farms working. How strange I must have looked to them, for this was not a place where there were many Muslims and here I was in a full burka, all alone. My wings made me look like a crippled hunchback.
I dropped to my knees and began to dig with my bare hands. All day, I had eaten nothing but a few bananas that I’d plucked from a tree hours ago. My belly was empty. I had no money. I did not know what I would do after this. I was still glowing, though my body remained cool. But none of that was important. This nut. This alien seed was the focus of all things for me.
The dirt was red and moist just like the dirt at the base of the Backbone. It was easy to dig here. I dug a hole three feet deep and by then, I had an audience. I decided to give them a show. I shined brightly through my burka and giggled as all the trees and plants including the one right in front of me began to stretch, their leaves unfurling, their stems expanding. Some people screamed, but most of them sighed and murmured with awe. While they watched the plants grow, I brought out the box with the seed and gently placed it in the hole.
As soon as I did this, I felt it go out. The light within me extinguished. The plants around me stopped growing impossibly fast. Just like that. It was such a relief that I sighed and leaned forward. I could feel the seed sucking and sucking it. I could have sworn that I even heard the “clop” of the box closing. I sat up, looking at my hands. They did not glow with even the hint of green yellow. I touched my back. My wings were still there. Stronger than ever. Begging for the sky as something deep in me begged for justice. Justice for what had been done to me and all the other prisoners in Tower 7, in all the towers. Would I still burn and come alive? I would find out.
I stood and faced the people gathered. A woman came forth crying and laughing something I did not understand. She switched to English and said, “Welcome.” Then she hugged me. Then a man joined in. They all hugged me. I hugged them back.
Time stops when one listens to a story. The storyteller starts it again. She starts it in her own place, in her own moment, in her own point of view. As long as you listen, she is in charge of your destiny. You and the storyteller share everything, even your very existence. I choose to take you back to tomorrow first. After I died, came back to life, left the place of my false motherless birth, and travelled across the ocean. To my motherland. After I replanted to seed.
I started picking up the local accent. I could never fit in, so that wasn’t the reason. I just liked the sound of it. It reminded me of those I missed-—my love Saeed, my friend Mmuo, the other Tower 7 prisoners who weren’t so nice to me. I spoke differently here and after all that had happened, it felt good to be different from what I had been…yet the same. That which was me would never change. That which was me could survive death. Over and over.
I was Phoenix.
They called me Okore. It meant “eagle” in Twi, though I felt my wings were albatross-like. But there is no word for albatross in “Twi”, so Okore was fine. I was picking up the language quickly. I could speak it better than most and it had only been a few months. It was part of my…acceleration. This was good because otherwise, I’d have been a problem here. The language of a people is sacred. It is their identity. Though most Ghanaians spoke English, it was good to know the native tongues, also. To lack the ability to communicate on multiple levels always means trouble. So, for once, I was spared.
But then again, I came into this village in the people’s favor. As I buried the alien seed at the base of one of their oldest shea trees, I fortified all the trees of their farms with my life-giving light. My timing was perfect. It was harvest season, so the trees were heavy. With “Okore” came great abundance in Wulugu. Even after my life-urging light was reabsorbed into that seed, the trees’ fruit continued to multiply and grow steady and strong. With me, came abundance. By market season, the people of Wulugu were flush with wealth.
They built me a house. Some women helped me grow a garden. They invited me to their meetings, marriages, parties and burials. It was through them that I learned what a “jelli telli” was. While I was in Tower 7, no one ever showed these to us. Probably because our rooms…no, our cells were too small. Nevertheless, jelli telli’s had apparently been around for a few years.
Jelli tellis were square sheets of gelatin that could be stretched to cover an entire wall. You then clicked the golden button on a tiny round remote, there was a tinkling sound and the most realistic image ever seen materialized. The village had two jelli tellis and on weekends, everyone would gather to watch West African 3D movies. Once in a while, they’d screen an American one, too.
No one ever asked me where I came from or what I was. I wore the clothes of a Muslim woman. There were not many in Wulugu, but there were enough where no one bothered me. People assumed that I was hunchbacked and that was fine, too. But that didn’t keep the men away. Three proposed marriage to me because, they said, they had fallen in love with my face. My face, can you imagine? I was much more than my face. Only one man truly understood this. Kofi Atta Annan. His father named him after the UN diplomat who spearheaded the riots in Nigeria and Ghana two decades ago. For Kofi, I would take my burka off. When the time came. That time was today.
He lived about a mile away from me. His home was small and had running water. He was also one of the few who could afford fuel for his generator. That’s more than one could say about most of the homes here. Even I went to the well and carried water home every morning with the rest of the women.
It was daybreak and the roads were empty. I’d woken up knowing what I wanted to do. So I’d bathed with my last bucket of water, dressed in a backless yellow sun dress, covered up with my black burka, eaten some buttered bread with sardines and gone to find Kofi before he left for work. Kofi was the town doctor. The only town doctor. His days were always long.
I was excited. Finally Kofi would know. What would he say when he saw that my hump was actually a set of wings? The thought made my heart flutter. I didn’t love Kofi as I loved Saeed. I don’t think I will ever love a man the way I loved Saeed. But Kofi was a lovely man. To look at him, even from afar was to smile. He was tall like a tree, and had a strong clear voice. If the great winged man I freed in Tower 7 were to speak, I suspected he would sound like Kofi. And Kofi was kind. When he treated his patients, he asked how they were feeling, he asked permission to touch, he truly cared about their well-being. He was the opposite of the Big Eye who had taken care of me in my first life as one takes care of a cow they will slaughter at the end of the year.
With Saeed, we could only be together during those times when we were eating a meal or given social time. Saeed once told me that he used to talk to me for hours while he sat in his room. I never told him this but there were many nights where I would dream about him talking to me for hours. I wish I’d told him that. We had so little time together.
With Kofi it was different. Freer. He was there that first day when I arrived. And he was the only one who actually saw me bury the alien seed. Everyone else was in awe of the plants and trees growing right before their eyes. But it was I who fascinated him. Days later, after I was settled in the house they gave me, he approached me in the market and introduced himself. Then he asked, “What was it?”
“What?” I asked.
“The thing you buried. I …I don’t know what I saw. It was green, glowing. You…”
“Will you then go and dig it up if I tell you?”
“No,” he laughed. “Whatever it was, it’s clear it belongs there.”
“It does,” I said. I paused, looking him in the eye for a moment. I was wearing my black burka, only my face was exposed. My wings were aching from being tucked close to my body for too long. I needed to get home soon. “And that’s all that really matters.”
His smile broadened and he nodded. “Ok,” he said. “Well, welcome.”
“Thank you, Kofi.”
I went to him first. I was bored and I’d decided that I liked the sound of his voice. He was seeing to patients when I walked in. There were over twenty people waiting for him and he was all sweaty and looked exhausted. However, when he saw me, he smiled a big smile. That was when I fell for him. When I saw him smile, despite all of the stress and work he had to do. Smile at me. Without really even seeing me.
“Even a doctor needs to eat,” he said. “Wait for me.”
I laughed and said that I would. I quickly went to the market, found the woman who sold cooked food and bought us some jallof rice, two oranges, and two malt drinks. I retuned, sat down and waited for two hours. I watched him see to his patients’ health. Each time he touched a patient, he asked for permission first.
When an old man with a heart condition insisted that he would keep making his wife cook him soup with palm oil, Kofi asked him about his grandson. The man’s face lit up and then the man quickly understood Kofi’s point. If he didn’t stop eating foods high in saturated fat, he wouldn’t have much more time with his grandson.
I watched Kofi sing to a boy as he gave the boy twelve stitches on his leg and I watched Kofi diagnose a woman with malaria in less than two minutes. He was kind, gentle yet firm-—all that the Big Eye doctors were not. When the last patient for the morning finally left, he looked up at me and said, “Just you sitting there made it all easier.”
From that day on, we ate lunch together nearly every day. We began to meet in the evenings to go on walks and stargaze together. Kofi never asked me about my “hump”. And when I kissed him, he kept his hands down. He kissed me with his lips and only his lips. I’d kissed Saeed only once. In the cafeteria. It was fleeting. We were rushed. But it was sweet and full of potential. Saeed had looked into my eyes and grabbed my soul that day. Fourteen days later, Saeed was dead. With Kofi, I was free, there was more. I wanted more.
I passed the bicycle shop. There were two young men sitting beside the bikes. You couldn’t see them, but they both carried guns. Kofi, who knew them well, told me so. One was so dark-skinned, you could only see his bright eyes in the warming darkness. I raised a hand and waved and he tiredly waved back. His partner was asleep. The roads were lumpy from water damage, but nothing nearly as bad as the streets back in the United States.
I passed the mosque, a great sandstone edifice that looked more like a sand castle than a place of worship. The two-story building was over two hundred years old. However, since there are so few Muslims in Wulugu, the morning prayers brought more ghosts than people at daybreak. The Imam who lived in there was said to be a descendant of the sheik who built it. He once told me that this sheik was sure that this village was built on sacred land and that was why he built the strange mosque here, despite the lack of a Muslim community.
I think the Imam’s ancestor somehow knew what was buried at the base of that tree. Or maybe the tree wasn’t there when the alien seed fell into the ground. Regardless, I think he knew something. And I think he was honored by as opposed to afraid of that knowledge.
I passed the spot where the men sold cell phone cards and the ugly bulky old cell phones they called “battle commanders”. I passed quiet homes, and then a small stretch of farmland. In the distance you could see the cell phone tower which had several vulture nests near its top. The villagers were both thankful and annoyed by this tower. They loved their cell phones but felt the tower was an eye sore and probably zapping them with all sorts of “nonsense”. They also weren’t surprised that it was occupied by vultures.
Finally I saw the hospital down the street. Just past the one and only hotel. I took a deep breath. What if he screamed and ran away when I showed him my wings? What if he was disgusted? I pushed these thoughts away and kept walking. An owl hooted. The air was warming faster now. I loved the weather here. The breeze was always heavy, humid, and smelled like a million green leaves. The dirt was red and rich. Trees grew well here, when the floods weren’t washing them away.
I froze. Everything stopped-—my train of thought, my enjoyment of the morning, my legs. I stood there, in the middle of the empty water damaged road. I felt like vomiting. My wings twitched. Sitting in the parking lot of the hotel were three trucks. Black and shiny, except for the spattering of red dirt and mud on their tires. Large fresh-looking Toyotas, one equipped with an antenna that reached high up. All of them carried the same large white emblem on their sides-—Aa hand grasping spears of lightning.
I remembered. Oh I remembered all of it. Not even death could make me forget. In my two years of life, before my escape, they’d done things to me that I now understood were evil. Before I started to heat myself, they would place me in a heated room and watch me sweat and wheeze for hours. In my second year of life, they started burning me. With hot pokers, then larger broader instruments. On my face, belly, legs, arms, they burned every part of me. I knew the smell, sound and sight of my cooking flesh.
However, I kept healing. Eventually. Fast. Scar-free. Never pain-free. Despite all the books I had consumed, at the time, I thought what they did to me was normal. There was no story that featured anyone like me. And I’d never been outside. I had no way of knowing any better. Until I met Saeed. Or maybe it was when I began to love him.
I still wonder what they did to Saeed. I know they did worse things. Mmuo told me a little. Electric shock, poisoning, disemboweling and reconstructing. And they would not have used numbing medicine or anesthesia on him. That would interfere with the “test results”. I asked Saeed a few times. He refused to tell me details. “You don’t deserve that,” he said. “You are so young.” He was right on both counts. But I wanted to know. To know someone’s pain is to share in it. And to share in it is to relieve it. But all he said was, “I survive. I always survive it.” Yes, he had survived…up until he killed himself.
I took a step back, staring at the vehicles in the hotel parking lot. And then another. I backed to the other side of the road. I hid behind a dirty parked pick-up truck, whose back was full of shea nuts. I rested a hand on its side and leaned over for a better look. The Big Eye, the organization that had engineered and then killed me, had come to Wulugu, Ghana.
I was about to quickly make my way home when a group of gregarious young white men came out of the hotel. Even from where I stood I could tell that they were American. Their body language. The way they wore their clothes. The rhythm of their loud voices stabbing at the morning’s peace. Their…confidence. That aura of self-entitlement. Kofi would later tell me that this white male self-entitlement swagger was something white men from every part of the world had when in rural Africa, but that is beside the point.
They hopped into their cars and drove off in the direction I had come from. The Big Eye were headed toward my home. Or was it toward the tree where I’d planted the alien seed? Why were they here?
My legs shook with unused adrenaline. I continued on my way to see Kofi. As I quickly walked past the hotel, I made a decision. I would stay cloaked. For now. “That’s the best idea,” I said to myself.
The village changed because of them.
Kofi said they’d been here before. Last year. At harvest time. No one knew who the white men were or what their company was named. They called them “Red Red-Eyes”, a name they tended to call all white people. “Red-eyes” signaled danger, demons, envy, and jealousy. In Tower 7, we called them “Big Eyes” because they were always watching and experimenting on us. Interesting, the similarity in names.
“Since I can remember they have been coming,” Kofi said. “They always buy lots of our produce. We do business with them, but those of us who are wise, keep it at that.”
Not all are wise. Especially desperate families and ambitious girls with dreams bigger than their means. There were at least forty white men who came this time, no women. Over the next few weeks, I watched them swagger about the village, buying produce, purchasing the best bicycles, chatting with whomever was willing to chat with them, usually the men in the tavern. And then there were the girls.
I walked past the field in the back of the hotel once and saw it with my own eyes. A man lay in a hammock, a straw hat covering his face as a girl gently rocked his hammock back and forth. Another girl stood beside him, gently waving a large fan. The hotel had power. The man could have plugged in a fan or gone inside to enjoy his air conditioner. Obviously this was about a different type of power.
Both girls looked simultaneously miserable and content. He must have been paying them well. A few feet away, another girl was hanging freshly washed cloths. As she clipped a pair of pants to the wire, a rotund white man with silver in his hair and lust in his eyes, came and grabbed her from behind. The girl didn’t fight or move as the man, grabbed her breast and pressed against her. The man being fanned and rocked laughed and leered. I could also see other girls inside the hotel rooms. Working, being used, getting paid scrapes.
In Wulugu, families had little money and a lot of pride. It was frowned upon to even hold hands with a long time betrothed boyfriend. Here these girls were being publically handled by these men like prostitutes. Everyone was aware of it. Some parents fought with their daughters over it. And girls often ran away to stay with these foreigners…at least until another fresh pretty girl came along.
A few times, the men of Wulugu held meetings in the churches to discuss this problem. I would have loved to hear what was said but the closest I got were reports from Kofi. “It is the white men and their lust for women, yes, but it is also the girls,” he said. “Many of them run away when their parents tell them not to go.”
I’d seen this for myself when a mother beat her seventeen-year-old daughter in the street after dragging her half-naked out of the room of one of the white men. The white man had stood back and watched, flushed red with anger as the mother threatened him in Twi, which the man probably didn’t speak. Then she beat her daughter right then in the middle of the street. I knew this daughter’s mother well. She was the one who’d shown me the best well to get my water. Her name was Mansa and her daughter Sarah was good in math and liked to wear colorful clothes.
“Do you want to get married?!” Mansa kept shouting. “Will you marry Red Red-Eye? Bush men from concrete bush? What are they? What are they!?”
Her daughter Sarah had covered her head with her arms and screamed, as people gathered to watch the spectacle. Then the girl did the unthinkable. She somehow jumped up, dodged her mother and ran to the white man and threw herself at his feet.
“Please! Please!” she said in Twi. She switched to English. “Take me away!”
The white man had only looked down at her with disgust, though he looked a bit shaken too. There was sweat on his brow and he kept looking from Sarah’s mother to the other town’s people who’d gathered. Maybe he felt a little guilty. Maybe he was embarrassed, too. Some of the other white men had come out of the hotel to watch. Maybe he didn’t like the idea of being responsible for this girl kneeling at his dirty feet, this girl he’d so carelessly used.
He kicked Sarah away and walked off, leaving her there. He would find an easier “washer girl” to use. Still, days later, I heard that Sarah had run back to the hotel to be with another white man and now she walked around with news shoes.
You could almost see the tension in the air of the once peaceful town. When the white men walked past groups of village men, the aura of violence shined like my skin on the day I escaped Tower 7. There was great heat brewing in Wulugu. Mostly, I stayed away from the white men or at least hid when they were around. Until that night. I’d been out flying. It was a dark night. My kind of night.
I’d had a feeling. A really terrible feeling. It weighed so heavily on my heart that I landed. Right there behind the hotel in the grass. First I heard music. It was a song that I knew. It was not an African song. It was an old old song that had been included on my e-reader back in Tower 7 along with thousands of other classic songs. The title was “Don’t Fear (The Reaper)” and it had always scared me. Hearing it in the middle of a field in rural Ghana was even creepier. Then I heard the cry.
It was muffled, not really a cry at all. It was not loud. It was barely a peep. But it was a cry, nonetheless. It was a shriek. From a girl. Then I saw her. She was brown, spoke Twi, ate kenkay, a daughter of the land. The Big Eye white man was mashing her face in the grass and dirt, a small media player sitting beside them. He was trying to take from her. He was desperate now. Urgent. I didn’t have to imagine that his thoughts were muddled—- focused on grass, flesh, heat. The situation was that clear. She wasn’t saying stop. Right there, yards away. This had happened to her many times. It was expected. He expected. But she didn’t like it. I whimpered. For a moment, too disturbed to move.
Then I beat my wings. I was there in seconds. I pulled him off her and threw him to the side. He tumbled in the grass. I was powerful. Yes.
I carried enormous jugs of water from the well. I needed no help. They were used to me. They did not ask questions in Wulugu.
Rolling to his knees, the white man stared at me with wide wide eyes. The man was clearly drunk.
My brown wings were spread wide. My arms held up, fists clenched.
“Okore! Thank you!” the girl was saying in Twi, as she gathered her clothes. She started crying. I don’t know if it was the sight of me or what she’d been through. She was a plump dark-skinned girl with tightly cornrowed hair. Had she done her hair specifically for this night? I blinked. I knew this girl. Sarah.
“I’m sorry,” the man said. “I’m sorry. I…I lost control.” He laughed nervously, standing up and zipping his khaki pants. “I always seem to lose control. Something about this place and these people.”
I only glared at him.
“What are you?” he asked, wiping the sweat from his face. “An angel?”
I could nearly see his mind working. Looking at my African face, my brown skin, my brown albatross-like wings. His face grew suspicious. “No, you can’t be an angel. You’re just some bullshit my brain is ejaculating because that bitch won’t let me fuck her.”
“Leave us,” I said.
“I paid her,” he said. “She goes with me.”
“Paid her for what?” I asked. “Is this what you call ‘washing clothes’? ‘Cooking dinner’?”
“Look, I don’t know what you are, and I don’t care. Everything’s fucked up about this place. You probably bathed in the dirt and whatever weird shit is in it did that to you. Lord knows, you’re filthy people. But I’m fucking that girl tonight. Sarah, get over here.”
Sarah shook her head and stood behind me.
“Do you want your mother to starve?” he growled.
“Or better yet, I’ll let her know how much of a whore you are.”
“All girls who come to you people are whores,” I said. “Everyone knows that. But we do not reject them. They are ours.” I wanted to laugh at myself. I was speaking as if I belonged in Wulugu. Did I? Maybe. Kofi felt I did.
I was watching the man’s hands as we talked. At first they’d just hung there but slowly, they were becoming fists. So I wasn’t surprised when he stopped talking and launched himself at me. I slapped him hard upside the head. I heard a crack. He fell and did not move.
I looked down at the media player, the song was just finishing. I stamped hard on it and the night became quiet. For the first time in my existence, I felt cold. Is he dead? I shuddered, the sides of my eyes stinging. No, I thought. I’ve just knocked him unconscious. I quickly turned to Sarah, who had run a few feet away and was now just staring at the unconscious man.
“Go,” I said.
And Sarah went.
Bang, bang, bang!
Someone was at the door. My wings shot open, knocking down the glass of water on my nightstand. It was all that I kept in my room. For this very reason. I’d gone to bed exhausted and disturbed. I normally didn’t forget to put the glass on the floor.
The sound of chopping came from outside. My mind flashed to the night above the city when they’d tried to shoot me out of the sky. There was no great winged man to save me in Ghana. That got me to my feet, a scream in my throat. Still in my night gown, I donned my black burka and ran to the door and threw it open ready for a hail of bullets to tear into my chest, rend my legs into rags, eat away my face…like last time.
The tears of anticipated pain blurred my vision. When the pain didn’t come, they ran down my cheeks and I was looking at Sarah. She was wearing jeans and a t-shirt. Her nose was bleeding, the side of her face scratched and swollen. For once, she wore no make-up and she looked younger than her 176 years, even with the wounds.
“I’m sorry!” she screamed and then grabbed me in a hug. Every part of me tensed. Not since the first day here where I planted the alien seed had I hugged anyone. To allow a hug was to allow the person to feel my hump and understand that maybe it was not a hump at all. But Sarah already knew this. She hugged me tightly, pressing my wings with her arms. I relaxed and hugged her back. She was sixeventeen years old and I was only three. She felt frail in my arms. She was only a child.
I looked over her shoulder. I could see the helicopter disappearing over the palm treetops. Its chopping sound was fading. Was it landing nearby? Moving farther away? Where was it going? Regardless, I knew it was not gone. The Big Eye never just left.
Sarah took my hand, tears falling from her eyes as she looked at me. “I couldn’t help it!”
“They beat me, Okore!” she said. “My mother beat me.” She took a deep breath to calm herself. “They found him yesterday. He is dead. I was the last person people saw him with, so they came to my house. My mother…she was angry that I’d been with a white man. She beat me until I told them what happened.” Horror passed over her face. “I’ve betrayed you! Oh my God, I have betrayed God’s messenger!”
She burst out crying. And I hugged her to me again. More than a small part of me had known that this would be the last night I spent in the comfort of my home. “I am not God’s messenger,” I said. I felt so tired. The Big Eye knew who I was, what I was and I had killed another of their own. I might as well have sat down right there in the door and waited for them to come and kill me. I had flown across the planet, yet here I was again.
“You are one of God’s messengers,” she said, her voice muffled as she pressed her face to my chest. She pulled back and took my hand. “Please,” Sarah said. “They are coming for you. Come!”
She pointed to the car she’d driven here. It looked over thirty years old, at least the body did. All the doors were a different color from different cars.
“Come come come!” she screeched, dragging me toward the car. “No time for anything. They are on their way right now!”
No shoes, no money, no nothing. I was in my white nightgown. I could have resisted Sarah. I was certainly stronger than her. But in me, no matter how hopeless I feel, is the instinct to survive.
I climbed into the back seat. The leather had worn away, leaving a layer of foam and wires. There was a fire extinguished mounted to the passenger seat door. To make matters worse, the floor of the vehicle was nonexistent, eaten away from rust and age.
“Lie down on the seat!” she said.
Just as I did, I heard the sound of vehicles pulling up.
“She’s not home!” I heard Sarah yell to someone as we drove off. Still I heard the sound of car or truck doors opening and shutting. Then we were on the road. As I lay on the seat, I stared down at the road though the floor. The smell of exhaust filled the car. I hated that smell. It was the smell of self-inflicted death.
“Good,” Sarah said, looking in the rearview mirror. “They are not following…yet. My God, that was scary. What are they…”
“Oh my God,” she moaned, staring into the rearview mirror.
We were moving away from it but the car was not very fast. And it had no windows and parts of the floor were gone. The sound was loud and clear.
We were both quiet. I didn’t want to get up and see what they had done to the only home I had. I had no family. I was created in a lab from African materials. I was an ABO, an ‘accelerated biological organism’. My body and spirit were forty, yet I was only three years old. I had no history. That house was all I had. I whimpered, curled into a ball and shut my eyes tightly.
“Take me to Kofi’s house,” I whispered.
His home was the last one in the village. We were already heading in that direction.
Kofi was standing outside his house when we pulled up. He’d heard the explosion, too, along with everyone in the area. Crowds of people were heading up the road, toward where my house used to be.
“Okore! Sarah!” he said running up to the car when he saw us. He spoke in Twi, which he normally didn’t do. “What’s going on? I was about to go …” He looked into my eyes. He always looked into my eyes first.
“I’ll tell you when we get inside,” I said, also in Twi.
“Alright,” he said, frowning and looking at my bare feet.
“Tell people to leave town for a few days,” I told Sarah. “There’s going to be trouble.”
She nodded. I took her hand through the window. “This was not your fault,” I said. “Be glad I was there last night to save you. Make better choices from now on.”
“I will,” she said, tears coming to her eyes again.
For a moment we all just stood there. Sarah in her car, me beside her car, Kofi behind me. We were frozen in time, in that tight instant of intense tension. There were powerful events just ahead of all of us and we all knew it. I squeezed her hand tighter then leaned forward and took her face, “It-wasn’t-your-fault,” I said.
She started sobbing.
“Go, Sarah,” I said.
Again, she went. As she slowly drove off, I stood with Kofi.
“Let’s go inside,” I said. “I have something to show you.”
I took him to the center of his small house. The living room. The ceilings were highest here.
“Sit down,” I said.
He sat down. Outside you could hear the choppers again. More than one.
“Last night I killed a man,” I told Kofi.
“One of the white men, the Red Red Eye,” I quickly said. “He…he was raping Sarah. I shoved him off her.” I shut my eyes. I could feel Kofi staring at me, unsure of what to say. I opened my eyes. “But then he came at me again. When he saw me. I slapped him away….I am stronger than I look. And I was angry.”
“What do you mean, ‘When he saw you’?” he whispered.
“I was not wearing my burka,” I said. I threw it off.
You must know something about Kofi. He’d been born and raised in Wulugu. Like everyone else, he’d used the shea butter, called nkutu, for his skin during the dry Harmattan season. And he knew there was something in the soil that the trees absorbed. He knew that that something was in him. He knew that at night sometimes certain trees glowed a soft green. He had seen plants grow faster than normal, even before I came. He had seen nature’s mysteries and accepted them. And Kofi was a medical doctor. So he also understood that these mysteries were gloriously complex.
I stretched my wings out filling the room.
“Okore,” he whispered. Then he said it in English. “Eagle.”
“My name is Phoenix. That is what the Big Eye named me in Tower 7,” I said as he stepped forward and stared up at my wings.
“This is what you have been hiding?”
He blinked and then reached into his pocket. He brought out his portable.
“Can I?” he asked.
A story is not a story until it is told. I’ve always believed that a story is best told in many ways. “Will you stream it live?”
“Do you want me to?”
He pressed the button on top and there was a soft winding sound and the top slid open and a camera lens came out. The electronic eye looked at me. “I’m Phoenix Okoro,” I said to it. “And I am in Wulugu, Ghana.” I didn’t know the year or the date. Something in me had stopped keeping track since my rebirth.
He turned it to himself, “I am Kofi Atta Annan, M.D. We are in my home and all that you see is happening now. It is real.”
Kofi stepped around me. “May I touch them?”
“Phoenix, I won’t…”
“Yes,” I said. “You can touch them.”
I felt him run the edge of his hand between my shoulder blades. He pressed the powerful muscles there. He kneaded them with his fingertips and slowly ran his hand over the feathers of the long bones. He was gentle. The hands of a doctor.
“So then, how old are you?” he asked running his fingers through the longer feathers of my left wing. My wings were sensitive and I was beginning to feel blood rush into their flesh. I began to sweat. He touched the tip of my left wing and I shuddered.
“Does that hurt?” he asked. But he laughed as he said it. “Should I stop?”
“No,” I said.
He moved to my right wing. “They are so natural,” he said. “These belong on you. You’re a work of art.”
“I was created in a lab by those you all call the Red Red Eye. I call them The Big Eye,” I darkly said. “There is nothing natural about me.”
“No. It doesn’t matter where or how you were made. You are God’s creature.”
“I am an ABO, an accelerated biological organism,” I said. “I am only three years old. I was supposed to be a weapon. My name suits me, Kofi.”
“Yes, but then you obviously escaped,” he said. “You have died and risen, then?”
He poked a finger between my feathers to see the skin. It felt like heaven. “You are brown even beneath the wings. Is your blood…”
I laughed. “It is red.”
“Can…can you have children?” he asked. “Do you have a womb? Can an immortal bear life?” He spoke the question more to his portable than to me.
“I think I am too old,” I said.
He chuckled to himself. “He saw you and attacked you because you could not possibly be an angel from God. You are African.” He laughed harder.
When he came to face me, he turned his portable off and put it in his pocket. There were beads of sweat on my forehead and my heart was beating faster than a small bird’s. I know what you are thinking. Yes, we needed to leave, but this moment felt more important. I had never had anyone inspect me. Not with love. He said I was God’s creature. I didn’t believe in God but those words were like magic to me. They said that I, too, was an earthling. That I belonged here. I belonged.
Every part of my body was heated and my thin nightgown hid none of it. My nipples poked right through and I was glowing. Not green, however. Beneath the rich brown of my skin, I was a soft orange red like the rising sun or the inside of a sweet mango.
“Chali,” he said. “You are lovely.”
The front door burst open. Through the doorway in the living room, I could see the white men had black uniforms and guns. They were looking around, spreading to all the rooms, screaming. “Anyone in the house, Get DOWN, GET ON THE FLOOR NOW!!” They hadn’t seen us yet. With the door open, the sound of the chopper was clear. We’d both been hearing the sound of the chopper since I arrived. We’d both ignored it.
Kofi grabbed my hand as I grabbed his. We turned and…there was the sound of the back door bursting open in the kitchen, too.
“Step away,” I told Kofi. “They want me, not you.”
He met my eyes. We ran up the stairs. To his bedroom. He shut and locked the door just as someone’s foot banged on it. I looked at the window. I could carry him. We could fly away….if it weren’t for the chopper outside that was hovering over the house. They had me, again. We pushed the bed in front of the door.
“Kofi, you don’t know what these people are capable of, they…”
“YES, I do!” he snapped. There was a bang at the door, as they tried to beat it down. He looked at me with wild eyes. “They took my whole family. My parents, my sister! Maybe they took them to one of the towers, maybe even your Tower 7.”
“They were like you, I think. Different. Possibilities,” he said. “I wasn’t…they left me.” He ran to his closet and threw it open. He brought out a rifle.
“No,” I said. “They…”
The bedroom window shattered. Big Eye soldiers started to climb in.
“Get on the floor!” one of them yelled.
I ran in front of Kofi as he brought up his rifle.
“Leave him!” I screamed. “Take me! Take me!”
“GET ON THE GODDAMN FLOOR!”
“No! Get out of my HOUSE!” he screamed. “You’ve taken enough from me! You will NEVER have her.” Tears flew from his eyes, spit from his lips. He turned to me, his eye twitching and blazing with warrior’s blood and rage. “I won’t let them take you, Okore.”
I loved Kofi. He was the gentlest man I’d ever met. Wulugu needed him more than anything. Who else had been born and raised here, educated and trained elsewhere, yet returned to give back? Who else?
Kofi stepped in front of me as he raised his gun. He was as tall as me. I wondered what it was that his family members could do. Maybe I had even known them. Most of the others in Tower 7 were Africans—- Egyptian, Cameroonian, Kenyan, Senegalese, Nigerian, and yes, Ghanaian. Yes, maybe I knew his family. I grabbed him and shielded us both with my wings. But not before I heard what sounded like the chirp of a small bird. Kofi’s blood hit my face, as my wings closed around us. All went dark.
He dropped the gun. He started choking. I opened my wings a bit to give us some light. He was bleeding from his neck. His eyes were staring at me in shock. Not from the fact that the Big Eye had shot him, that I know. I didn’t know what they did to his family, but Kofi did not expect it to end this way for him. Not for him. His body bucked as his life blood ran over my arms, reddening my white garments. All he’d had to do was get behind me. He’d gotten in front of me instead. He’d refused to run.
I loved him.
And now the Big Eyes had taken him, too. Just as they’d taken Saeed. They were always taking from me. Always taking the best. Of my people. Of my world. Take take TAKE! Sssss. Kofi choked and gurgled weakly. He was leaving. I was hot, glowing orange. He was in pain.
The tears evaporated on my face as they crowded around me. I looked down at Kofi, he was still staring up at me, his mouth open. Trying to speak. I shut my wings, blocking off the Red Red Eye.
“GET OUT!” I screamed at them. “GET OUT NOW!”
I didn’t wait.
I put Kofi out of his misery.
That’s why I burned. I burn hot. Hotter than I’d burned the first time. I could do that. To make it quick for him.
Everything went brilliant all around me. Hues of red, orange, and smoke. Kofi was quickly growing lighter in my arms. I looked up. I wanted to remember him as he was. My flesh was pain. But I held my consciousness. I held Kofi in my arms. In my head I heard that song from last night about the reaper…
…Baby take my hand…...don’t fear the reaper
We’ll be able to fly…...don’t fear the reaper…
Around me, the house blew away like castles of ash in the wind. All of Kofi’s life disintegrated. As I died with it, there was a black slip in front of me in the chaos. I raised my hand. I paused, looking at my fingers which had burned down to the bone… …bones that weren’t bone. They were metal, red from the heat.
I slipped the metal bones of my hand into the pocket of blackness before me and that part of me disappeared. I brought it out and it was there again.
Curious, I thought.
Then … I was gone.
I’m alive, again.
I am the villain in the story. Haven’t you figured it out yet? Nothing good can come from unnatural bonding and creation. Only violence. I am a harbinger of violence. Watch what happens wherever I go.
The Big Eye have no idea. Below, they travel on a tanker heavy with crude oil. It’s on its way to the United States; I ride the angry winds just behind it. How arrogant they are to believe that I am compliant. How naïve. I thought scientists learned from experience.
This second time I returned to life, I woke to the smell and sight of rich red earth. Then the stench of burned dirt. “First my Saeed,” I thought, staring blankly at the moist soil. “Now my Kofi.” I moaned as the grief of both their deaths washed over me. I kept coming back but I could not bring them back. Not even once. They were dead. Before their times. I didn’t believe in God. How could I believe in God? So this meant that they were gone. Both of them. Forever.
Heat. I heard the ground below me hiss and then crackle as it smoldered. Heat. Within my body; outside of it. I grabbed handfuls of dirt and squeezed, curling my body in on itself. Heat. Nothing eased the pain.
I was in Ghana. It was a hot sunny day and I was me. I was brown, but as I stared at my skin, just beneath I saw the hint of glow, now it was red. I didn’t need to inspect myself this time. I knew. And I remembered everything. Saeed. Then Kofi. I tried to curl tighter and couldn’t.
These people again.
“Don’t move,” the woman’s voice firmly said. Her accent was American. She pushed the barrel of her gun against the back of my head. As if I was afraid of dying. Why did they always think I feared death?
“Get up,” she said, in her flat voice. I turned to face her, as I sat up. She wore the black uniform and there was a fist grasping lightning bolts on her left breast pocket. The symbol for the Big Eye was always stitched over their soldiers’ hearts like a blindfold. She certainly couldn’t see me. Not really.
I looked up. All around me was red dirt. Then…the blue sky and the yellow sun. I was in a pit the size of Kofi’s house. Where Kofi’s house used to be. Where on the second floor, his body had died. There were about thirty Big Eye standing around me, some more on the rim. All pointed their guns.
Slowly I stood up. Tall, naked, bathed in bright sunshine. The ones closest to me, moved stepped away. I stretched my back and then my wings. In the corner of my eye, I saw shiny red gold. My feathers had changed color. I stretched my wings again and again, giving them big flaps that sent half the Big Eye running for cover. I laughed, folding them behind my back. I knew the ones who hadn’t moved away wanted to shoot. But they didn’t.
“There is no need for all this,” I said. But in my head I thought, It is the calm and silent water that drowns a man. An old Ashanti woman once said that to me as we’d angrily watched one of the Big Eye men lead a young local girl to his hotel room.
I gave myself over to them. No fight. No flight. Nothing. They gave me a heat resistant white dress. The back was cut to accommodate my great wings. I dressed there in the pit that used to be the location of Kofi’s house.
Seven days and nights had passed. And for all seven days and nights, Big Eye soldiers were stationed in the ditch. Watching for me. I do not know what they saw when I came back to life. Did I simply rise from the ashes at the bottom of the pit? Did I appear cell by cell? Or did I just appear? I don’t know. I never asked. I didn’t care.
There had nearly been a riot when they escorted me into the Big Eye truck. When terrible things happened in the African towns of many of the 3D movies I watched, the Africans would flee like a pack of primitive unthinking beasts. Hooting and scrambling, their black skin powdered with dust, mindlessly stepping on jutting rocks and sharp branches with their bare feet.
For the first year of my life in the Tower 7, I’d wondered if I was made from inferior DNA. Then I started choosing books written by Africans about Africans. The stories were different. My time in Ghana had taught me even more. So when they escorted me out of the pit and walked me at gunpoint past what used to be the hospital and was now mostly rubble, past the empty market, the mosque which still stood and the burned bicycle shop, toward the waiting truck, I only smiled when I saw the armed crowd.
The Big Eye had been watching for me for days but they didn’t realize that there were people watching them, too. The people of Wulugu loved me. And I loved them. We all loved Kofi. I’d told Sarah to tell everyone to flee. But they didn’t. Even Sarah stayed. They had given me another name when I arrived in Wulugu, Ghana. They named me Okore, which meant eagle. But they also knew the name I was given at birth. And they knew its meaning. So they knew to wait. The people of Wulugu had probably started gathering at the armored truck as soon the lookouts saw me come out of the pit. Everyone was probably sent text messages.
As I came up the road, the crowd started shouting and the Big Eye pointed their guns. “Okore!” Sarah shouted in Twi. “They took Dr. Kofi Annan, we will not let them take you, too!” Yes, in all the noise, I heard her.
“Phoenix Okore lives!” several men shouted.
Some women started singing a song praising Jesus.
“Leave her!” a young man shouted, a cudgel in hand. He was one of the men who sold bicycles. He wore a tattered t-shirt, old shorts and flip flops but he looked ready to take down a dragon.
“Let her go!” a muscular dark-skinned man in old jeans and a dashiki roared, shaking a machete in the air. He was a shea nut farmer who owned several of the healthiest trees in Wulugu, including the one where I’d buried the alien seed. Several enraged men stood menacingly behind him, equally armed with machetes, knives and probably a few guns.
All of their protests were in Twi. How did they expect the Big Eye to understand them? Or maybe they didn’t care or want understanding.
Someone threw a stone at one of the soldiers. The soldier ducked. He looked at the largest group of men, bared his teeth and started raising his gun. In that instant, I had a flashback of what happened to me in Tower 7. If the Big Eye started shooting, I knew they would not stop.
“Please!” I shouted in English, spreading my wings wide. The deep golden red shine of my giant outstretched wings had the desired effect. Everyone quieted and stared. Big Eye and Wulugu townsfolk, alike. A soft breeze blew through the lush trees behind the old houses beside the road. Shhhhh. I quickly spoke to the people. I spoke in Twi. “I don’t want any more of you to die! Wulugu must survive all this!!”
I hoped that they understood exactly what I meant. It was too risky to say exactly what I wanted to say, even in Twi. The Big Eye were in Wulugu because of the alien seed, directly or indirectly. That had always been clear to me. They might have known it was here and were searching for it. Or maybe they were scouting out unique people (like Kofi’s family) affected by the seed whom they’d then take to one of the American towers. Or maybe they merely sensed something exceptional about the shea products here——the nuts, the fruits, the unprocessed butter. That “special-ness” was because of the alien seed. The people of Wulugu may not have all known I’d replanted the seed, but they knew I’d done something there. They had to survive to guard it.
“You will give them a good challenge but they will wipe you all out in the end,” I said in Twi. “Save it for a better day. I will be fine.”
There was a moment where they angrily surged forward but thankfully the Big Eye held their fire. Then the people of Wulugu, mostly men, a few women and no children, reluctantly pulled back. They let the Big Eye shove me into the truck. I looked out the window at the people who were the only family I had. The truck drove off before they could say goodbye.
So I agreed to return to the United States with the Big Eye. Across the ocean. However, they couldn’t bring me by airplane. It was too dangerous for them, and my wings would not fit. Thus, they made a quiet deal with an oil tanker set to leave from the coast of Lagos, Nigeria two days later. The cramped drive from Wulugu to Lagos took twenty eight hours. Even when we stopped for breaks, I wasn’t allowed out of the truck. They didn’t want people to see me and start talking. Africans like to tell stories, and stories travel and germinate. And sometimes, stories evolve into trouble. My suggestion of wearing a burka while outside was ignored. When we got to Lagos, the Exxon representative who handled the deal would not allow me on the tanker.
“I will fly,” I said, tired of the Big Eye and the Exxon representative’s bickering.
They implanted a tracking device on me, just in case. A Big Eye doctor injected the nanobots into my bloodstream, slipping into my blood cells and multiplying whenever the cells split. These tiny tracking devices essentially became part of me. The Big Eye would know where I was, what my temperature was, what I had eaten, it was like being in Tower 7 all over again. Obviously, this was an upgrade made just for me. The nanobots wouldn’t melt unless I became hotter than 4000 degrees Celsius, which is the approximate temperature at the center of the Earth.
All stories must be told.
I’ve been telling you this one as I cross the Atlantic. Below me its waters ripple and roil. There is great wind here. An angry type of windy. But it’s moving in the right direction which means that all I have to do is keep my wings open. The wind is taking me to my false home in America. To pass the time, I tell you African SunriseThe Book of Phoenix. My oral unfinished tale. Unfinished because it will finish when I finish.
If I stray too far from the ship below, I have no doubt that they will come after me in their helicopters, with their weapons and their fear-inspired and self-entitled intent. However, they have nothing to worry about. For now, I comply.
How long have I been telling you this tale? How long have I been flying? For days. I’ve shut down my system. I do not want sleep. I do not need food. Flying is effortless. My titanium alloy bones are not light, but I’m strong. Yet I need no nourishment. The Big Eye built me well. I’d have been a good weapon…...if I were not human. If I did not have a brain that could remember after death after death after death.
And there is more. Last night, he came to me. I was flying low, listening to the calm of the water and fantasizing about dropping into it. If my wings geot wet, I won’t be able to fly. The water will pull me into its great belly, as it has so many other Africans on unwanted journeys. Will the Big Eye be able to come after me? Do they have deep diving gear ready? Will they be able to reach me? I can fly, but I am not light. I will sink fast.
The smell of the ocean out here in the middle of nowhere, a mile from the ship whose lights I follow, is of fine salt and the flesh of bodies large and small, plant and animal. Last night, I was feeling good. I inhaled the fresh air, feeling my brain and spirit vibrate because of the fact that I was so much more than I was before. Tower 7 would never have held me for long. I wished Saeed could see me now. “Saeed,” I whispered. “So much has been lost, but all is never lost.”
It was too dark for me to see anything but the sliver of moon above, the lights of the ship and the soft glow of my red gold wings. The wind was gusting, so I couldn’t hear him. The ocean’s musk was in my nose, so I could not smell him, either. But I sensed him. In the tips of my longest feathers.
There he was, flying below me, slightly to my right. His enormous wings spanned past my left. He rode the air inches above the water. Something told me that he didn’t risk a watery death if his wings got wet. It was the winged man I’d freed from the dome of glass back in Tower 7. Already I was putting next to no effort into flying; his presence made flying even MORE effortless. He was carrying me, for the moment. I stared down at him. His skin was so dark that I only clearly saw his brown wings. I heard his voice as if there was no roar of ocean wind and he was right beside me. He spoke to me in Twi.
“Phoenix the Okore returns to her birth place, the prodigal daughter.” His voice was rich and it sounded like he was smiling.
I frowned and spoke aloud, despite the noise of the wind. “I’ve had two other ‘birthplaces’, so far. And there will probably be more.”
“Yes, but Tower 7 was the place of your creation,” he said. “There is nothing to love or hate about it. It is fact.”
“Tower 7 no longer exists. I am going to see The Backbone.” I paused. “Then I have other…plans.”
“Phoenix of the Okore,” he said again, this time laughing, deep and throaty.
“How did you get here?” I asked. “Who …who are you?”
His voice grew deeper. “I am your father.”
I paused. Then I burst out laughing, glad that he was carrying me. I’d had the time, equipment and access in Tower 7 to watch thousands of 3D movies, old and new. How had he had the chance to see the fifth movie in the Star Wars series while trapped in his glass dome? I could hear him chuckling, too.
“Not all questions have answers,” he said.
“I’m here to show you how I got here,” he said. “Because you can do it, too. And you… might like to have some fun with it.”
“You are not what I am,” he said. “I’m immortal. I cannot die. You are super mortal. You can live and die to live and die again. You are a phoenix. Specimen, beacon and reaper, life and death, hope and redemption.”
Villain, too, I thought, darkly. And I have plans. But I hoped he couldn’t read my mind. No one needed to know that. Not even him.
He chuckled. “That is to be decided by your actions, Phoenix. Not by your thoughts. I want you to remember the ends and the beginnings, of life and death. Remember.”
“I can’t remember when I was born.”
“No. But what of the other times?”
The first time I inhaled my first breath in the ruins of Tower 7, it warmed my warming body. I remember noticing the breeze first, how it smelled of flowers and then exhaust. The second time was in the pit that used to be Kofi’s home. A hot shiver from my toes to the top of my head. I’d thought of Saeed, but then Kofi. I remembered both times that I died, when there was also heat. I frowned, remembering something else.
“There’s…” I said, distracted. There was something…when I died in Kofi’s house.
“Good.” He said. “You’ve found it.”
But I hadn’t. Not yet. It was right on the tip of my mind but I couldn’t grasp it. There was something. When I died. With Kofi burning up in my arms. As I burned. For a whole minute we flew, not speaking. I still couldn’t remember it.
“I live outside of life and death,” he said. “So I can slip through time and space. You live inside life and death. So you can do the same.”
I looked up at the moon. It was a tiny sliver. Like an opening, a cut into another place. That was when I remembered. A sliver. The moon. Like the slice of otherness I’d seen when I was burning up. When I was trying not to look at Kofi’s disintegrating body. My heart ached for a moment, as I remembered Kofi’s face blowing away, becoming ash, showing bone, then bone becoming ash.
With effort, I focused on the opening into nothingness I’d seen. “There was something into something else,” I whispered. Instead of being a glowing warm white like the sliver of moon, it was black. No not black, it was nothing. I’d stared at the “bones” of my hand, realizing that my bones were some kind of metal. Then I’d slipped them into it and they disappeared. I brought them out just before I died. My bones were still intact, burning red hot from my flames.
“Will it hurt?” I asked.
The Big Eye had no idea what was coming to their coveted country, their beloved city. I am reminded of the chant that the African market women over a hundred years ago shouted when they battled against the white colonialist foreigners. One woman would cry, “What’s that smell?!” and the other women would respond, “Death is that smell!”
That was yesterday. It is today. It is afternoon. Up ahead is the American coast and the Big Eye are signaling me to come and land on the ship. I told them I would never set foot on that damn ship. I will never arrive in this country on a boat. Never. That should be their first clue.
I take one last look at the coast of Miami. Then I do as the winged man taught me. I look deep within myself, as I hear the Big Eye’s helicopters approaching me. I count to five as I focus inward. I am heating up. My wings are probably glowing. Then I fly forward and I am gone. “Slipping”, that’s what I will call it. And it isn’t hard to do because I am “slippery”. And it doesn’t hurt. I am made for this, too.
And I know exactly where I am going.
Tower 1 is a large building in the middle of a Chicago northern suburb called Naperville. It is surrounded by bushy unkempt palm trees but it is easy to find. I can practically smell what they are doing in there. Once you’ve smelled captivity, greed and abomination, you know the grey nose-stinging scent anywhere. I don’t need to go in through the entrance. They have high security to make sure only cleared personnel enter and none of their creations get out. This place is no Tower 7 where guards and security relied too much on technology. Here they have true Big Eyes. Especially after what we had done to Tower 7. Also, security is tighter here because Tower 1 is where it all began. Tower 1 is the nexus.
I read about Tower 1 in my days at Tower 7. It is where they created their first abomination—- They “adopted” a ten year old girl from Ethiopia. They believed that she was a descendant of “Mitochondrial Eve” and thus carrying the complete genetic blueprint of the entire human race. On top of this, the girl was afflicted with hyperthymesia, an extremely rare condition that made her able to remember every moment of her entire life. They renamed this girl “Lucy”. The portion of the records that gave her real name was deleted.
To the Big Eye, within this girl was the complete Great Book of Humanity. They did two things with her. They made a perfect clone of her (when you have one Great Book, you make a back-up copy). Then they tried to make Lucy immortal by reprogramming her DNA to not age. For eleven years, Lucy remained in the body of a ten year old. When she was twenty-one, she escaped and threw herself from the roof of Tower 1. She left no suicide letter. Nevertheless, her case was still deemed a great success. And they still had Lucy #2.
From that point on, the programs in Tower 1 were heavily funded. They built Tower 2 in Boston, where they focused primarily on creating methods of dealing with climate change and buoy technology for floating towns and cities. Soon after that, they built Tower 3 in New Orleans, where Leroy Jackson became famous for curing AIDS and several of his students began studying the New Malaria. And so on. Behind the good intentions and amazing science, however, was abomination. Weapons, the quest for immortality, how far could we go…the foundation of all the towers was always always always corrupt.
To kill a snake, cut off the head.
No one has any idea what is about to happen right here in the dead of night. It doesn’t matter who is patrolling the hallways or the streets and parking lots outside. It doesn’t matter who is perched in the trees, guns ready. None of it matters.
Somewhere a tracking device receiver is beeping. At first, it claims that the nanobot’s host is in a department store. Then it claims that it’s inside Tower 1. But that does not matter either. They will dismiss it as a malfunction because no one has injected me with the tracking nanobots yet. Not to their knowledge. That won’t be done for another two days. I’ve stepped into a different space and time. Naperville, Illinois, Tower 1, Floor 4 out of 9. The most extreme research is usually done on the middle floors.
The walls are white and low. The floors are grey, shiny and cool beneath my bare feet. There is steel railing running along the walls of both sides of the hallway. We didn’t have that in Tower 7. The hallway is narrow, so I fold my wings tightly against my back. It’s painful but I have no choice. I’ve wrapped a black sheet over myself so that only my face shows. I pinned it below my head, tso that it doesn’t fall off. I have used make-up to shade my dark brown face a light peach color. If I am seen by their cameras, they cannot know it is me.
I walk down the hall, the soft slap of my feet the only sound I hear.
“Like a hospital,” I whisper. But I know it is not. This was not a place of healing. Pathologies are created here. It smells strongly of rubbing alcohol. I turn a corner and step into a hallway with walls full of glass doors. I tug my black sheet over my forehead to hide the upper part of my face and peek into the first door. I want to scream. But I hold it in. It’s not his fault. And as I look at him, my eyes understand what I am seeing. He is no different from me.
He is a man with rich brown skin and a wide puffy crown of black hair. Another African. He could be Kofi’s brother, for all I know. A jelli telli is stretched to cover the wall in front of him. He is watching an ancient Western that I recognize immediately because the theme song had scared me so deeply when I watched it over two years ago: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. As if something is mocking me, the awful theme song plays and I shudder. It still sounded like a chorus of starving coyotes.
Both of the man’s arms and the lower parts of his legs are complicated masses of red, black and green wires meshed over jointed metal rods. His hands remind me of the metal bones of my own hands. Computer parts are strewn about his room and he is standing at a table heavy with more parts. His thin metal fingers are highly dexterous as he weaves wires into what looks like a green circuit board and there’s a spark. He laughs to himself and nods his head. I can’t tell what he is building.
He looks up and his eyes grow wide with surprise. I wave. He waves back. He looks up to the side and all emotion drops from his face. His room is under surveillance. I quickly look at the ceiling in the hallway. As soon as my eyes notice the camera, a siren goes off.
The man’s mouth opens with surprise and he frantically points at me.
“Hey!” he shouts.
No, not at me.
I turn just in time to see the guard about to grab me. There is a gun on his hip. I inhale. Then I am instinct and I’m fast. I pull my wings even closer to my body, whirl around and shove him backwards against the wall with one arm. I grab his face with the other. He is a big man but no taller than my six feet. And I am stronger. When did I become so strong? Was it the flight across the ocean? Or maybe it is the dying and coming back to life.
The guard has blue eyes, a sparkling earring on his left ear and a bushy black beard that is scratchy beneath my pressing hand.
My body floods with the rage that had been wanting to burst from me since I left Ghana. I let it wash over the guard; I let it drown him. I slam his head to the wall. There is a soft crunch. He goes limp. He sinks to the floor. There is blood now. I’ve crushed his head. I crushed his head. His gun is still in its holster. He had no intention of killing me. But I have killed him. I shudder and frown, my nostrils flared. My belly flutters. What am I becoming?
I stare down at the man. My mind feels cloudy. I am villain, I think.
Bang, bang, bang! The man in the room is kicking his door as hard as he can. “Forget him, O,” the man says. “He is rubbish. Go down the hall! Look for the square. Break it.”
I blink. “Square?”
“Yes! You will see it!”
I can barely hear his words over the siren. I look at the glass door holding him in. There is no knob. I push at it. The door doesn’t budge.
The man looks like he is going to go mad. “You can’t get me out!!” There are tears in his eyes. “Please, DO something! They kill us every day. They will kill you!” He is pressing his face to the door and looking down the hall. “Run!”
I nod. I don’t run. I am gone. I slip.
The second time is easier. It is natural. To me. I was made to do this, whether the Big Eye meant to make this so or not. I am like a horse who has just discovered what it is to run.
I have slipped to the same place just an hour earlier, just further down the hall, out of the camera’s view. I have not killed the guard yet; I hang on to that fact and think nothing else of it. I run in the opposite direction, this time staying in the blind spots of the cameras. When I cannot, I slip and reappear where I need to be. What do I see behind all the glass doors? More cybernetic humans, more sophisticated than I have ever seen. That must now be Tower 1’s specialization. Most have mechanical limbs, some more than others. One woman has a mechanical lover body with human legs. I see three people in the same room with skin that glows a soft green. At first I think they are what I used to be, but when I look more closely, I see that their skin is embedded with billions of miniscule screens.
“How can I get you out?” I ask them.
“Get to the glass box,” one of them shouts. “Break it!”
I’m relieved to hear the same suggestion.
“Keep going down the hall!” a young man with only one cybernetic arm says. He seemed to expect me to run by.
I am fully convinced that they are all able to communicate electronically when I pass the next door several feet down the hall. The old woman inside is the first Caucasian captive I see. She is entirely robotic except for her head and left arm. “Don’t let them see you!” she says.
“I won’t,” I say. My heart is pounding like crazy. Heat pours from me and I hope that my black sheet doesn’t catch fire. For the second time in my existence, I feel that if there is a God then I am doing God’s will. I do not think of the guard I will brutally kill in an hour. All who see me understand what I am. All creatures of the world want to be free. Even when they’ve never tasted freedom. All of these caged people are glad to see me.
A minute later, I stand before the large room staring at the wooly mammoth sleeping on an equally massive bed of hay. I am wondering why the massive creature does not free itself. Then I see the square. It’s the size and width of a sideways refrigerator and it’s made of glass. There is something foggy and vaguely red inside. There are computers and other equipment along the far wall, but I am focused on two things. The sleeping beast and the glass square.
I think of the glass dome that I’d made the plants break back in Tower 7. I smile. Here I am again, unsure of the consequences but sure that I needed to break the glass. But what of the beast? My desire overcame my fear.
I step out.
I look up. Its head is nearly as big as my entire room in Tower 7. It breathes. Deep. Calm. At peace in its unnatural life. It smells like freshly broken plants with a hint of manure. This human-made beast is my kin, too. It’s resting its head on its thick folded hairy legs. Its eyes are closed, its thick brown eyelashes over an inch in length. Its sharp yellow tusks reach and curl many feet beyond me. Without thinking, I reach out and touch its huge furry forehead. The long brown red hair is rougher than it looks. The mammoth’s breathing doesn’t change. Deep and full.
I move toward the glass case. Upon closer inspection, the thing inside looks like a ball of forming and disintegrating red dust. A soft hum vibrates from it and I can feel it in the tips of my wings and in the back of my head. It’s a pleasant feeling, however. Calming. Is this what is making the mammoth sleep? Is this why the mammoth doesn’t free itself? Beside the case is a smaller glass cube about the size of a shoe box. It was also full of something red, but more solid.
Another louder siren sounds off over the still blaring one. There must be cameras in the large room. I make the decision. I put my fist through the glass case. As the glass shatters, the thing inside sends out a vibration so strong that the rest of the case crumbles. Puff! For a moment, there was red dust everywhere. Then the dust particles pulled into a solid ball of red sand on the shards of broken glass.
I am stamping on the smaller glass case with the heel of my foot when I hear a grunt from behind me. I whirl around to see the wooly mammoth rising slowly to its feet. It shakes its head and lets out a horrible trumpet-like roar! Meanwhile there is something tall and red standing behind me. I turn to it as the mammoth runs toward the glass. The red creature is a tall and praying mantis-like, its body made of thick glass full of red smoke. Even as I look at it, the glass-like shell of its face billowed out to form a second eye. The stuff in the smaller glass case was its exoskeleton.
“I need to free the others,” I tell it in Twi. Why not English? I have no idea. When you are terrified, you do what you do, logical or not.
The mammoth is ramming its body against the solid wall outside in the hallway now. People are shouting, too. And shooting. When did more Big Eye get here? I focus on the thing in front of me. Did they create this? WHAT is it?
The air around me vibrates and I stumble back. The creature looks up at the high ceiling and then, like a giant grasshopper, it leaps. It disappears into the vent. The mammoth throws its body against the wall again and there is a loud crash as the enormous thick slab concrete falls out, revealing the night sky. There are Big Eye huddled in the blocked hallway shooting at the mammoth. But it’s clear that its skin is too thick to be harmed. They cloned the creature too well. Or maybe they cloned it and then enhanced it. Stupid. They seem to have forgotten about me.
It is still night. I stand outside of Tower 1 in the parking lot covered by a black sheet. I have slipped fifteen minutes into the future. The mammoth has left a path of destruction. There is the enormous opening in the side of Tower 1. The five crushed vehicles below it, embedded with rubble and the imprint of the mammoth body when it fell out. The torn gates. The car accidents down the road from when it ran into the street. In the distance I can hear its wild roar.
And as I stand there, men and women, almost all of them of African descent, a few Caucasian and one Asian, run past me. As they run, some swing cybernetic arms, some run on cybernetic limbs. The woman with a torso of machinery slowly struts past me. “Daalu,” she says. Then she smiles and says, “That means ‘thank you’ where I’m from.”
“You’re welcome,” I say.
As I wonder what happened to all the Big Eye, I see the young man with cybernetic arms and limbs who first told me to find the glass box. He stands in the parking lot and turns toward the building. He holds up both of his hands and splashes of orange yellow liquid fire shoots from them. The skunky smell of propane hits my nose. When the side of the building is burning, he brings his arms to his sides and slowly walks down the parking lot. He will round the building and set the other side on fire. And then another side, ands another. Tower 1 does not have nearly as many stories as Tower 7. However, where it lacks in height, it makes up with width. Still, I am sure this half man half machine, this specimen, this abomination, my kin will find a way to single-handedly bring down Tower 1. Oh yes, Tower 1 will burn just as I had intended.
Just before I slip, I see a backward shooting star. The orange red light leaps from the top of Tower 1 into the dark night sky. I doubt this “shooting star” will burn out, though. I doubt it’s a shooting star at all. I think it travels far into the night and then crosses the Kármán line and keeps right on going. Returning to wherever it came from before the people of Tower 1 captured it.
The backbone is as tall as I remember it. I look up at its spiked trunk and softly glowing leaves in the warming sky, all the way up until I can’t see any further. It has grown so much since I last saw it. I clench my jaw, pushing all this aside.
It is the early morning before I disappear from the eyes of the Big Eye over the coast of Miami. Just before sunrise. The air is warm and humid and I can hear the rush hour traffic; I can smell the exhaust. I am crying and the tears become steam before they can even roll down my cheeks. My black sheet burns up, the white make-up on my face turns to ash. My white heat resistant dress begins to crackle. I increase my heat, keeping my gaze on The Backbone. I am villain. I will break The Backbone’s back. I will burn the entire city starting from this arboreal heart.
The tree shivers and some of its leaves fall. A groan comes from its roots; they are writhing deep below my feet. And the noise echoes across the city. I hear people exclaim from nearby but I don’t turn to look. They’ll soon be dead, anyway. Good. These people are the same people who went about their lives, walking past Tower 7 every day, when it still stood. It made no difference to any of them what they were doing to us only a few floors above.
And even if I care to see these indifferent people, I can’t see them. The mile wide area where Tower 7 used to stand is now gnarled wild jungle in the middle of the city. They have tried to contain the jungle by surrounding it with a high concrete fence. I smile with disgust. These people haven’t learned their lesson. You cannot contain The Backbone. But I can burn it and the rest of this remorseless city to ash. They made me here. I will be exactly what they wanted. If no one else seeks revenge for all that the Big Eye have done, at least I will. Let me be the villain for the sake of justice.
“Is this what they’ve made you?”
I pull my wings in and turn around. He is naked and I know it must be terribly hot for him. Immediately I pull in my heat. I am so glad to see him.
“Mmuo!” I whisper. I fall to soil, suddenly very very tired. I look up at him. Now the tears fall down my cheeks, through the white ashes of make-up on my brown face. Wet. Water. They feel so cool. He reaches out a hand and helps me up. Mmuo, the Nigerian man who can walk through walls. Mmuo, who helped me escape Tower 7. Mmuo, one of the only two who to survive its fall. Mmuo, who knew that I would rise from the ashes and had left me a dress.
“He said you’d be here at 6:55 am, a minute before dawn. And here you are.” Sweat pours down his face. He blinks as a drop falls into his eye.
From above, comes the loud flutter of wings and a burst of air that blows the trees, cooling the air further. The winged man lands on one of The Backbone’s lowest branches. Then he flies down and lands before me. He stands tall, peering down his nose at me. His eyes are still soft, still kind.
“Will you kill everyone in this city, Phoenix?” he asks. He speaks with his mouth now. His voice is fatherly and I feel like sitting back down and listening to him tell stories as the children did with elders on moonless nights in Wulugu.
“Isn’t that what I was made for?” I whisper.
Behind me, I hear Mmuo laugh.
“You’re not a villain,” the winged man says.
“I am a weapon,” I insist. “I am a bomb. Isn’t that a villain? I’ll just be doing what I was made for.”
“Who made you?” The winged man asks, his beautiful face serious and intense.
“That’s a tricky question,” Mmuo added. “Phoenix, it is not so simple.”
But I still want to do it. Not only do I want to do it, I want to burn so hot that I would not come back. Saeed is dead. Kofi is dead. My only home has been blown up. The alien seed is safe. Mmuo is my friend and he can sink into the ground to safety. The winged man is my guardian and he can fly away. Let them leave me. I want to do evil. I want to do great great evil. More tears fall from my eyes as the thought squeezes my heart.
“You two should leave,” I say flatly.
“Should I leave, too?”
The voice came from beside me. Slowly, I turned my head. Slowly. The sky is warming. My eyes focus on him. He is dressed in a simple white dashiki and pants. He wears leather sandals. Saeed. I pressed my hands to my heart, curling my wings around myself.
I watch as he slowly came to me. A stunned smile on his face. “Phoenix,” he says. “I-thought-you-were-death!” He opens his mouth wide and inhalesd a deep breath.
I cannot speak. I cannot think. I cannot process.
He takes my hands. Both of my hands. He sighs, his mouth quivering. “You are real,” he breathes.
I can’t keep my tears from coming. My world is falling apart.
“I…I’m sorry,” he says. “Phoenix, when I saw what they were doing…I couldn’t…”
“You ate the apple,” I say.
“They thought I did,” he says. “They flew my body to Tower 4 on the U.S. Virgin Islands.” He pauses, a dark look crosses his face as if he were remembering something ugly. “I woke in a morgue. I don’t know what they planned to do with my body. But no one was watching me. So I escaped.”
“You survive,” I say flatly. That’s what he always used to say.
He nods. “Yes. But I had no money, I had no way of contacting you. It took me weeks to get back here. And by then…” He motions to the jungle and the majestic Backbone. “There was nothing in the news but talk of poor architecture and toxic waste.” He looks at the winged man. “I was in the Library of Congress searching fruitlessly for information about Tower 7. Over the months, I managed to take a reading class but…I still can’t…it’s hard. I was trying to read the title of a book about Tower 1 when this man appeared and nearly got us both arrested…” He points at Mmuo.
I can’t help the smile on my face as I imagine Mmuo appearing stark naked in the middle of a library; a tall glistening dark dark African man rising through the floor or stepping out of a wall.
“He found us soon after,” he says, motioning to the winged man. He pauses, looking at my red gold wings. I have unconsciously uncurled them as I listened to him speak. Saeed never spoke much. He has changed since leaving Tower 7. We all have. But we are still the same.
He pulls me to him and I rest my head on his shoulder.
“I am glad you’re alive,” I say.
“Phoenix,” he says, kissing my ear.
“I was the one who did it,” I say. “Tower 7 went down because of…”
“I know,” he says.
“I have a lot to tell you.”
“I do, too.”
We stand that way for several moments. Then he holds me back, his eyes on my wings.
“May I touch them?” he asks.
I laugh, glancing at Mmuo and the winged man. “Maybe later.”
Mmuo steps up. “That was you, wasn’t it, Phoenix? You did that to Tower 1?”
I press my lips together. Then I stand up straight. “Yes.”
I catch the winged man’s eye and then looked away. He will come to me over the ocean tomorrow.
“See?” Mmuo tells Saeed.
Saeed is looking at me with wide intense eyes. “We want to do that to all the towers,” he says.
A plan starts to hatch in my mind like an egg. There are several we can recruit who will want to help. If we can find them. I’d watched them escape Tower 1. My mind focuses on especially the one who’d set the building on fire. He will join us. That, I am sure of. But there is one problem. The tracking nanobots inside me. Even if I burn to ash, they will survive and immediately re-infect me as soon as I begin to reform.
“They will find me wherever I go,” I say, after explaining this to the three of them.
“You have to die,” the winged man says. “And you must burn hot. You have to destroy them all.” He looks into my eyes, leaving the worst of what he meant unsaid.
I didn’t just have to burn hot. I had to burn 4000 degrees Celsius. The temperature of the center of the earth. Can I do this? Might this burn away that which is me? Phoenix or not, I am still a creature of this earth. But do I want have to run from the Big Eye forever? Or even worse, get recaptured?
“I won’t let them hurt you,” Saeed says.
I wince. Kofi had said the same thing. I take Saeed’s hand and I look at the winged man, “I will have to find a desert or a…”
“I will contain you,” the winged man says. “Come.”
Saeed is frowning. “Phoenix, you…”
“Saeed,” I calmly say. “There is no other way. You know it.” I pause. “If I…if I don’t come back, make sure you destroy them all. Every single goddamn tower. Every brick, piece of concrete, shard of glass. Make…make those buildings your greatest feast!”
This makes him actually smile and I know I am making the right decision.
I look at Mmuo, who has taken my other hand.
“There are others like us out there,” I say. “I helped them escape Tower 1. Find them. What they are doing in the towers will be the end of humanity if it is not stopped. We are living in darkness and, I swear to you, one day The Author of All Things will pull a star to this planet to burn all the evil away, taking all the good with it. I don’t believe in God but I feel this so deeply. In my bones. But if we bring down the towers, maybe this will not happen.”
Saeed hugs me. He whispers into my ear, “My special bird. Don’t fly away.”
Mmuo squeezes my hand. “Don’t forget, we have work to do.”
The winged man curls his wings tightly around me and I shut my eyes. I rest my head against his bare chest. It feels so cool. I hear no heart beat. I do hear the rush of the wind over the trees, the movement of the ocean, the shift of desert sands. Who are you? I wonder. I don’t believe in angels.
I heat. With all my strength. I heat. I am so strong. I am so powerful. They made me a villain. But these people whom I love, they help me to make myself more. I have purpose. I go beyond that which I was made for. I heat. I burn. All around me are a thousand spinning suns. Oooh, I heat.
Then I hear the wind in the leaves of The Backbone and I understand the deeper meaning of my name.