The night’s chill prickled Chibesa Kalota’s skin bumpy. She glanced at the unexpected passenger behind her, his small soft hands wrapped tight around her waist, warm in her bomber jacket while she froze. This should have annoyed her but it only made her smile.
“Are you sure about this?” he screamed over the zooming wind rushing past. “Ba mbuya said this was pointless.”
She didn’t care about what their grandmother said. She would do this. The old woman wasn’t always right despite her impeccable attempts to appear so.
“Do you want to go back?” she asked Chanda, her younger brother, while they could still see the husk of the crushed derelict alien vessel marking the village’s edge.
“No.” He gripped her tighter.
She smiled to herself, looked at the GPS on the bike’s dashboard. Too many kilometres left to make it at the current speed. Her left hand hovered reluctantly over a long black switch on the dash. The experimental feature could just as much blow the engine and render their night flight out of the house moot.
You shouldn’t be doing this. The voice inside her took on the scolding tone of her grandmother.
Out of spite, she flipped the black switch.
The engine coughed and burped black smoke, then exploded.
They zoomed away, the bike zipping off the ground with the unstable agility of a frightened grasshopper. Behind them, a trail of blue dust lingered, the end product of the burning gems inside.
“It worked,” she said, excited and surprised, after she stabilised the jerking vehicle.
Then the bike burped, causing her to worry. It held but continued to jerk dangerously. She knew it would not hold for long.
“Come on, girl. You have to make it.” She adjusted the engine’s power using the bike’s gears.
As if responding to the words, but more likely to her tinkering, the bike stilled again, and her attention returned to the screen GPS that now displayed a different arrival time.
“Close. But it will have to do.”
Chibesa’s one miscalculation was trusting tech that had never seen land it dared describe. The GPS showed the river as a stream, and it probably was—most of the year, but a strange five-day torrential rainstorm had turned it into a river. The belated outpouring, a result of a seemingly more common erratic climate, had hindered the hospitalised man whose duty she now had to complete in his stead.
Lucky for Chibesa she found help.
“Two children shouldn’t be out so late.” The pontoon man showed them the time on his small phone running old embedded software. “Go home. I’m sure your parents are worried.”
She focused on the fingers holding the phone, greatly gnarled by time. She knew the time already, but these fingers reminded her of another elder, though not as old, who had tried to block her path.
“Chimene, across the river is our home,” she lied, face pleading. “Can you help us cross?”
“You lie,” the man said, his tone calm. “I work this river. And I did not see you pass. For only through me can you travel in and out of Chimene.”
“Our bike floats over land and water,” she said, effortlessly tying truth with a lie. “We floated before. Now the engine noises make us wary of crossing as we did before.”
The man’s face hung unchanged in disbelief.
“Tell me another story.”
Another glance at the racing time incited a panic within. So, she told the truth. With the dust from the war with the Visitors finally settling, it was time to rebuild the disintegrated government, this time from the bottom-up. For that, each district needed a representative. The vote would begin in a few hours.
The man gave her a long scrutinising look, digesting her story, and when she thought he would die a statue in silence, he said:
“This is no task fit for children.”
“Yet we are here and intend to do it,” she said.
Chanda contributed a full-toothed smile to her argument, finally drawing enough courage to wiggle his face from behind her.
The man conceded. They crossed.
“You see what I did?” Chanda said excitedly on the other side of the watery barrier. “No one can resist my smile.”
Chibesa tried the bike again. It still refused to start. She sighed. “My secret weapon.”
She was about to open the bike up again when Chanda pointed to the blue fluid leaking from the canister holding the combustion gems.
She moaned a silent curse. A combustion engine she understood, but the experimental second one jamming up her power was her grandmother’s domain and she ruled it in solitude, not out of selfish control but protection. When the engine was complete, Chibesa suspected the information would be forced into her whether she liked it or not.
Standing in the dark with the cold biting into her bones, the pontoon man’s watchful gaze trained on her—sharp and hawk-eyed, waiting for her to admit defeat—she wondered if the old woman was right about her efforts.
“Hey, Cracker.” She gave Chanda the screwdriver. “Can you crack this code?”
He bared his teeth sheepishly. Pretence, an attempt at playing humble. If anyone could break the blue engine’s mechanisms it would be him. He hung about Ba mbuya like a tick, absorbing both knowledge and mannerisms, good and bad.
“Can’t?” She dangled the tool in his face. “Guess we just have to go back home. Failures.”
“Fail.” His eyes popped as if he had just bit into raw electricity.
He took the tool and rushed for the canister. He worked like she meant to throw him into the river if he failed. He cracked the vessel open, revealing a complex nest of sparkling blue gems inside. The pontoon man took an involuntary step back, the gems’ unpredictable explosive properties inspiring memories of gruesome news stories. Chibesa knew them, too, but believed these ones were stable. Chanda crunched into each, glared into a few like a prospector and threw out half. He re-engineered the remaining few into the canister and closed it up again.
He wore frantic eyes and they sent a sharp needle into her heart. The look was becoming more common on him and it unsettled her, a gift from his grandmother. She had hoped the ride would give him the relief and peace absent at home under their grandmother’s full-time homeschooling.
“Come on, try it.” He pulled her hand to the handles.
It took one burst and then the bike rumbled fiercely in the night.
She smiled and rubbed his wild overgrown afro. “My secret weapon.”
The words almost made her cry, though she did not understand why.
With the bike fixed, they continued their unending ride into Chimene.
When they reached Chimene Village, Chibesa found herself missing the engine’s wild explosive farts as the megaphone’s stable sound waves failed to reassure her fears that the prerecorded message she carried would reach the sleeping residents.
After one slow ride across the village’s main arteries of travel, she came to a stop at what looked like the main market. Wooden stands and temporary stores made of scrap metal and threaded sacks were a beacon she could recognise anywhere.
“Help me set up the Quick info drones.” She told Chanda.
Her brother had not talked much since repairing the engine and wore a distant gaze, though he obeyed her without fuss. She talked him through evaluating the drones’ responses to the five major languages of the nation.
As she worked, she doubted she had made it in time. Chimene’s voice would likely go unheard, and from the previous messenger’s injuries, she wondered if that was the point. The wild thought was sparked by hearsay and rumours surrounding the man’s sudden hospitalisation during the rainstorm. It was all everyone had talked about after emerging out of their forced five-day isolation. Her aunt, the local clinical officer, said he was found unconscious on the clinic doorstep one chilly rainy morning. Her father pinned it on a drunken brawl, her mother suggested an unwelcome excursion into a fractured marriage, and her grandmother had simply shrugged and called the cause irrelevant. All the old woman cared about was repairing the emergency vehicle meant to carry the injured man to the central provincial hospital. When that time came, Chibesa still struggled to match the casual smiling face she’d sold bottled munkoyo to a week earlier with the limp figure on the stretcher the local clinic staff loaded into the off-road SUV her mbuya had just repaired. Any semblance of familiarity was lost, hidden under bloodstained bandages and swollen flesh. Although his face was unrecognisable, she remembered his motorbike, even as it lay a wreck awaiting repair in mbuya’s garage. She remembered him taking her noise pollution joke well. He had laughed and comforted her with news that he would be leaving for Chimene the next day. The rains came that evening and news of his bloodied body soon followed.
“Done.” Chanda pulled her out of her thoughts before they could spiral down a rabbit hole of pointless speculation. With such an understaffed police force, the how behind the man’s injuries would probably go unanswered, and that made Chibesa more uncomfortable than she wanted to admit.
“Same.” She nodded solemnly to Chanda, a little disappointed as she let the rectangular cube float off her palms and into the air.
As if sensing her bubbling displeasure, Chanda said, “We can do another pass. No point rushing home.”
She smiled, not looking forward to the punishment awaiting them at home. “Might as well earn our beatings.”
Back on the pontoon, floating back home under the slowly brightening sky, Chibesa’s stomach bubbled. They had done two more runs than intended yet she still felt unsatisfied, surely a side effect of her grandmother’s perfectionist demands that she had endured since her first steps.
Her eyes settled on Chanda sitting across her, drinking a cup of water, and her heart pulsed. She realised then the true root of her anxiety.
“You don’t always have to do what she says,” she said. Chanda paused, blue plastic cup halfway to his lips. “If you don’t like it, that is.”
His eyes shimmered understanding. The war in his eyes reminded her of her own silent pains when she once held her grandmother’s full attention. Throbbing eyes from late hours in the garage, splitting headaches from early mornings spent in thick university-level alien text that bled into evenings of impossible tests. It was a no-lifer mode of existence, so singular in its focus that it made every reprimand for the smallest error feel like a sharp razor to the skin. If her skin showed those wounds, there would be nothing left of her to recognise. The thought made her lower lip ache; unconsciously she bit into it as she imagined the same wounds on Chanda. Her little brother.
“It’s your choice what you become,” she told him.
He stared at her for some time, then his lips parted to speak but before he could, the shore loomed ahead and on it stood a titan of a woman wearing a fierce expectant gaze that sent Chanda retreating into himself. Their grandmother, sturdy as the proud mukulu tree despite her age stood firm, and at either side of her were their parents.
“Pointless.” She sighed in defeat.
Once on shore, the pontoon man watched the tense Kalota family reunion with the unease of a perched crow ready to move at the slightest sound. Chibesa didn’t need any saving, a boldness born from the anger inside refused to dissipate despite her parents’ angry unflinching scrutiny.
Now you’re angry? Seriously? Not when your son cries at the dinner table in silent pain, unable to eat because he can’t understand the heavy alien tome he is forced to read every day?
Thoughts bounced in her head. Each bounce increased the thoughts’ heat and poison until all that remained inside was righteous rage.
“What was this nonsense?” Mbuya Kalota scolded.
Of course she spoke first, she was the true head of the family, the rest were just nodding heads, and the same was expected of her.
“Something important.” She kept her answer short to prevent the rage from escaping into her tongue.
“Ahh.” Mbuya Kalota swatted at her ear as if her words carried the annoying whine of a mosquito. “Frivolous nonsense. A machine that can only take and yields nothing is pointless.”
“Well, this wasn’t about a machine.”
“Iye!” Mbuya Kalota’s voice carried pain as if Chibesa had slapped her. “Wemwishikulu,” she pointed a wrinkled finger into her granddaughter’s face. “We have not reached that level yet. If you think you can talk back, why don’t you just undress me and throw me into the river right now.”
Chibesa’s shoulders dropped in defeat at the old woman’s exaggeration. “Ba mbuya naimwe, I didn’t mean it like that—”
But the old woman wouldn’t hear it.
“Continue with your nonsense alone,” Mbuya Kalota dismissed. “Give me my grandchild so I can leave.” She reached out a hand to Chanda, standing behind Chibesa. “He has already missed his morning session because of your budding madness.”
Chanda sheepishly walked toward the woman. Chibesa stretched out a hand and stopped Chanda by the shoulder. An instinctual thing beyond conscious thought, she couldn’t stop herself. From the look on her grandmother, a stinging slap was the only logical next step, but it never came. The woman never hit them near the head for fear of turning them simple, she suspected that was the matriarch’s worst fear.
Mbuya Kalota turned to Chanda instead. “Come on, Cracker, don’t let your sister’s laziness and wild distractions keep you from your destiny.” She goaded him with praise like she used to do to Chibesa. The once sweet words now felt like sand in her ears, the manipulation inside them laid bare.
Chanda hesitated. His eyes latched on her, expectant, but Chibesa couldn’t think of anything to say and the boy went to their mbuya.
“Good boy.” She rubbed his dirty face with a cotton cloth. “This is why you will be the best Kalota ever. Better than your great-great-grandmother.”
Better than a woman whose self-taught work ended a half-century war?
It took all of Chibesa’s will not to scoff and wrestle her little brother from the woman’s hands. The boy didn’t need any more invisible weight to carry.
Angry and full of impotent rage, she stomped to her bike, pushing her father’s compassionate arm away when he tried to stop her. An act instantly regretted, but she could not take it back. A beating would come but not now. Ashamed, she slumped on the bike handles struggling to start the machine.
“Troublesome child.” Her grandmother spat into the water, talking loudly to her parents. “She begins to leak blood and thinks herself an adult…” She spat again, choking on her anger. “I don’t know where she gets this stubbornness from.”
That set her off.
“Ooo!” Chibesa got off the bike. “The fruit never falls far from the tree.”
Her grandmother’s entire face wrinkled, enraged. “If that were true you wouldn’t squander your time so recklessly.”
“Reckless?” She was screaming and didn’t know how to stop. Which, in her grandmother’s eyes, meant she had nothing important to say. “What happened to, ‘if you can, do what you can for your bleeding country,’ huh?”
“Exactly. See, you weren’t listening.”
“No, you didn’t understand.” She refused to be dismissed. “It’s what I can, not you. And what I can do goes beyond tinkering with engines and lubricating parts in the garage.”
“So…” The old woman shook her head vehemently and Chibesa’s mother had to support her to prevent a sudden coughing fit from sending her to the ground. When their mbuya regained balance, Chibesa’s voice had died in worry. “I am fine.” She refused the help. “Pity the dead, I’m still alive.”
They all fell silent until Chibesa’s father spoke: “It’s best we went home.”
“No,” Mbuya Kalota objected. “Let the petulant child speak, so I know what to whip out once we’re at home.”
“I am not scared.” She was, just thinking about it made her want to run away and live in the surrounding wildness. “Whip me all you like, but you won’t make me your robot.”
“All boldness and noise,” she scolded. “Childish ideals filling you up like a balloon, forgetting that you have an elastic limit. When it blows, you will see.”
The old woman ended the conversation and took Chanda on her own bike, leaving everyone else behind like refuse no longer needed. She had her prodigy who would supposedly solve equations the highly advanced empire of sky Visitors couldn’t solve themselves. If not, he would be thrown away like his petulant sister and branded a thick stubborn kawayawaya not worthy of carrying the Kalota name.
Chibesa glared at her parents, as if that would lead to anything, until her mother pointed a scolding finger that sent her staring at the wet ground.
For all her infuriating, condescending talk at the lake, the old woman’s words came true when late in the evening with the polls close to closing, Chibesa saw no faces emerging from the Chimene route into town. Some hope still lingered inside as she continued to watch the near-empty gravel road to the library, which had been turned into a polling station for the election until a hand tapped on her shoulder. She turned and stared into the familiar face of despair sitting comfortably on the pontoon man’s face.
“You still in one piece I see,” the old man greeted her, three holes accentuating the joy in his toothy smile.
“What are you doing here?” She was too shaken to be polite.
He showed her his blue-painted thumbnail. “Voting.”
“Who will help the people cross the river?”
“My son,” he said, his tone soft and compassionate.
There was no one to blame or any excuses to be made. She wondered if she had sneaked out earlier maybe… Or perhaps she should have done another run around Chimene village, maybe then…
The man put a hand on her shoulder. “I didn’t know about this election before you told me.” Disappointment settled in his eyes when he noticed the words meant little. “You do what you can.”
He let the words settle before leaving her to digest them.
The lack of attendance felt like a slap in the face, one so brazen it left her bewildered and frozen to the spot. Unsure of herself, she tiptoed for what seemed like eternity until the library doors closed.
With all hope dead, she left.
“Ba mbuya wants to talk to you,” Chanda said.
Chibesa found her little brother, doodling alien script on a large piece of paper as dying insects flinging themselves into the lightbulb above fell around him. On it, she saw a drawing that resembled the canister full of blue gems that had powered their flight into the night.
“The blue engine.”
He looked up at her, nodded and continued painting what to her resembled a hybrid of mathematical symbols born of another distant planet. She knew enough of them to know it had something to do with power conversion, resistance, and material conductivity.
“Have you eaten?” she asked.
He pointed to a bowl full of groundnut shells, their inviting earthy smell lost to the now fading heat of the fading sun; it was their snack before lunch.
“I’ll make some tea,” she said and entered the house through the front door that led to a kitchen stacked with plates and dishes reaching the roof.
Inside, there was a cold meal waiting on the kitchen table and a warm brazier in the corner bleeding warmth into the room, ready for use. She put on a small pot, grabbed some leftover boiled sweet potatoes and smashed them to mash in a bowl while waiting for the water to boil.
After a silent, patient wait she prepared two mugs and served them outside.
“Break time,” she said, and when he grumbled, she added, “periodic rest increases productivity.”
“For the weak, maybe.”
She pinched his cheek for the insolent remark, and when he threatened to wail she stuffed a spoonful of mashed sweet potatoes into his mouth. He grabbed and gulped the tea himself to wash it down.
“You could have killed me,” he moaned. “This is a choking hazard.”
“Then don’t make me repeat myself.”
The boy whined and complained but obeyed. As they sat on their veranda enjoying the meal, she told him what had happened at the library. He listened patiently, eating slowly to match her cadence, and only opened his mouth to speak once she was done.
“As Ba mbuya says, wins and losses,” he said, not fazed by the situation. “Try again, better…”
Mbuya Kalota emerged from the right side of the house, the whites of her hand greasy black and full of grime, and walked to the veranda. She stopped and looked at them with indifferent eyes.
“What did I tell you?”
Chibesa’s heart sank even though the question was not aimed at her.
“It must have slipped my mind,” Chanda whined. He turned to face Chibesa. “Ba mbuya wants to see you. Alone.”
He put on his brightest smile.
“Well, tell her I’m eating.” She decided to be stubborn, not wanting to hear the old woman gloat.
Chanda turned to face the old woman and parroted her words. His secretary act drew a smile from the old woman and that made Chibesa smile, because she loved to see her grandmother smile.
“After she’s done then. I’ll be in the garage.” Mbuya Kalota turned back and left.
The garage was a black funeral tent hung above two tall poles on one side and tied to three trees on the other. Inside lay the graveyard of all manner and types of motorcycles mbuya Kalota was paid to rebuild and fix. In the middle of the mechanical carcasses lay a special pile of scrap bought from the scavengers who mined the alien vessel at the edge of town.
Chibesa found her grandmother sitting near the alien scrap pile, tuning the makeshift quad bike Chibesa had once thought genius enough to create. The end product was a noisy and frustrating monstrosity best left locked away in the dark.
She took a deep breath.
“You called,” she announced, ready for anything.
“Grab a spanner, I need your help.”
The unexpected words disarmed her and in the absence of active conflict, she fell back to her default programming as a dutiful granddaughter.
“What are you doing?” she asked, taking her place beside the old mechanic.
“Some rich fool came by and wanted a toy for his visiting niece.”
“So, how much am I getting?”
“Ten thousand Kwacha,” Chibesa’s eyes popped at the mention of the amount. “Straight to your university fund.”
She frowned. “Of course.”
An amiable silence settled between them as they worked. It lasted long enough for Chibesa to remember how much she loved working with her mbuya, and how she could never see a future apart from the old woman. Despite all their differences she could never deny that her grandmother always believed in her and had given her the stairs needed to reach further than she ever could alone. But then again, their arguments were never about the lack of belief but the pressure born from its excess. The moon can’t become a sun no matter how brightly it shines, but a place in the night sky always awaits.
“You were right,” Chibesa said.
“What’s new.” The woman exuded nonchalance and it infuriated Chibesa.
“Doesn’t mean I was wrong either.”
Mbuya Kalota gave her a long scrutinising look. “If you say so.”
“So only you can be right?”
Mbuya Kalota took her time before answering. “No.”
More silence followed until the old woman broke it: “Your problem was making a choice without taking in all the data.”
Chibesa puffed her cheeks defiant.
“It’s June, cold season. Most of the people in Chimene live off the maize they farm. When is harvest season?”
The information wasn’t new, but pieced together it laid bare a situation she had not thought of.
“You asked them to pick a face on paper over survival.”
“It was important.”
“They haven’t had a government for the past five decades and they’re still alive. Experience tells them they don’t need one now. Experience usually wins out over ideals, even if it ruins us in the end.”
Chibesa frowned. “But—”
“Nothing. Choice is good and all on paper, but it needs practicality to mean anything.”
Chibesa couldn’t think of anything to say.
“Wemwishikulu of mine,” the old woman looked at her with patient eyes, “do you understand why it was pointless? As much as you answered one question, there was another completely overlooked.” She pointed her eyes to the improvised vehicle before them. “So now that you understand the heart of the question, how will you answer?”
“I did my part. I’m done. It’s not like I have anything to do with this. I only went because it didn’t seem fair.”
“If you say so,” the old woman teased and walked to the pile of defunct alien parts.
“Even if I tried again. Like you said they would still go to harvest. That won’t change.”
The old woman dug meticulously through the alien pile and picked out a cylindrical canister with two short tubes sticking out on opposite ends. She blew one end and faint blue dust ejected out the other, just like the dust trail she’d left the other night when she turned a half-day journey into a single hour’s trip.
“A lot can change in five years.” The old woman had the twinkle of youth in her eyes. “So, my little groundnut, will you remain as rigid as your shell?”
The invitation to return to her side was clear. A return to the old days, where she was the obedient student and her mbuya was the faultless benevolent gifter of unending knowledge. Her heart ached with yearning just thinking about it…
But the old days happened before she woke up early one night and found her little brother shoving needles into his arms for failing one of their grandmother’s test questions.
“You were right,” Chibesa said. “Choice is impractical if it means losing more than you can gain.”
She excused herself and left to take her place on the veranda, watching the boy that was already the greatest Kalota in her eyes, because he had the brightest smile. A smile she would protect from anyone who would try to take it away, either be it the million dozen-eyed Visitors orbiting the planet or two-eyed family members that would use him to fight the silent war for power to come. If that meant remaining rigid then, for her brother’s sake she would become the uncrackable nut, stronger than diamond.
“So?” Chanda turned to look at her with glittering eyes, reflecting an image of her more potent than a diamond-studded young woman walking on water.
A part of Chibesa still considered the lack of Chimene’s voice in the elections a communal failure, one that everyone else seemed too willing to accept. She felt uneasy about accepting such a situation without trying to change it but found the feelings hard to articulate. Unable to pretend that she was alright with it, her mind was already churning out ideas on the future possibilities of how to tackle the issue.
Though difficult to admit, she was truly her grandmother’s granddaughter, and the old woman’s scolding words filled her mind ceaselessly.
Try again, better.
Mbuyu was mistaken if she thought her granddaughter couldn’t do it without her. Chibesa stared at Chanda, who’d already finished solving the blue engine’s alien hybrid mathematics, and couldn’t help the confident smile that crept onto her lips.
“Cracker,” she drew him into a warm, protective, loose embrace and whispered into his ear, “my secret weapon, are you up for a five-year puzzle?”
He giggled in excitement.