The silence deafens her.
It was not always like this. Even a stranger who has never stood where she stands now knows that this sort of quiet is unnatural.
A noise in the distance punctures the stillness, rupturing the ghostly tranquillity. She glances up at the sky. It is a vulture, dark and frightening in its flight across the face of the sun. The avian calls again as it departs, leaving her in a slight shiver, chills streaking through her slender frame like flashes of lightening.
She returns her gaze to the vast expanse of land where she had played as a child. Her childhood – those were happy times. They never had much, but they had laughter. It rings somewhere in her mind’s ears now, the happy sounds of yesterday – her own laughter and Amina’s, the screeching of the other children running in the fields, the babble of chubby toddlers, the cackle of firewood, the aroma of cooking food, the shrieks of village women and the cursing of grown men.
She had been away for eight years, serving her mistress and schooling in the west, and somewhere in her absence, an ominous hand had stolen in, and rolled happiness up and away like a mat. The hand had tucked the mat neatly out of sight, stashed it in a place reachable only in pleasant dreams. It left two things in its wake: a sniveling sadness, and a cynical stench that clung onto the shoulders of the town like a desolate mother singing dirges.
Hauwa’s stomach churns in a violent vortex that sucks air through her lungs and she gasps, determinedly fighting the urge to throw up. Her left hand has been a clamp over her nose and mouth since she arrived. They’d warned her about the flies and the stench, that there was no getting used to anything here any longer. She remembers with a sad smile a trick she and Amina used to play on each other. They would stick a finger into their anus, whenever it was at its smelliest, preferably immediately after shitting. Then they would stick the anointed finger in the nostril of the other person. It was a rare evil. The pong followed you everywhere you ran. The only way to get rid of it was to remove ones nose. And that was the first instinct she had felt when the bus had dropped her off here before speeding off in a dusty haze – a violent urge to remove her own nose, to pluck it off.
She knew that the smell was of hurriedly buried corpses.
“There was no time for proper interment. Husbands, wives, fathers and mothers, neighbours and friends returned under the cover of darkness to bury their dead. They said they’d sleep better at night when they had ensured that the bodies of their loved ones would not be desecrated by vultures. …” she’d read in the tabloids.
She walks hurriedly on now, overtaken by a sudden urgency to leave this place of death. The sun is fast losing its bright yellow glow and in its place comes a mournful topaz burnish that also diminishes by the minute. She side steps the shallow graves that litter the fields, those that she can identify from a distance. She steps on others, the earth on them soft beneath her tired legs. As she walks, she wonders if she’d stepped on mama’s grave or side stepped her fathers; she shifts uneasily when it strikes her that the one she momentarily stood on a few minutes ago just might have been Amina’s.
By the time she reaches the dusty road, tears are falling freely from her eyes. She had arrived here with a weight on her shoulders. Now, it sits in her chest, heavy like a mill stone.
She doesn’t need anyone to tell her that she will never return.