The fish were made of silver. So were the terns. The fish swam in the clear blue sky, leaving little ripples as they weaved a course through the heavens. Beside the school of fish, the gleaming birds flapped in formation. All of them moved with singular purpose to a silver half moon that was bright despite the day, a moon that matched the creatures’ ethereal gleam.
Smack! The fish, the terns, the moon, it all unraveled.
Mums was in the shop, rubbing the back of his woolly head, his daydream supplanted by dull pain. Fat Man was giving him that stern look, pointing at him with a long ebony finger.
“You’ll be sixteen in a week, a man by any nation’s measure. You must stop these flights of fancy; those things are for boys and liars.”
Stupid Fat Man, Mums thought. He nodded.
“Keep your eyes about the shop. If someone as much as steals a sausage, you’ll find food missing from your plate tonight.”
There was no one even in the shop. He could argue that but it would likely earn him another smack to the head and a stern lecture about due diligence. So he nodded again.
This was the worst time for diligence and the best time for his mind to wander. It was right after midday, so very few shoppers came into the store looking for dinner meats until later.
Fat Man’s shop was a typical zimba, larger than most but still built of the mortarless granite stones that gave the city of Dzimba-dza-mabwe its name. And while Fat Man had painted the granite walls and ceiling of his zimba with festive blues, yellows and greens “to pull the customer’s eye,” as he put it, it did little to make Mums feel festive. He was not a customer; and any joy he had once gotten from the design was long gone after spending most of his childhood in here looking after rows of various meats.
Mums put his elbows on the counter and propped his face into his brown fists, getting comfortable while he watched over the gazelle steaks that were advertised on sale.
“No no no, boy,” Fat Man said. “That’s how I found you when you earned that smack. Now earn your board and daily bread. Check the temperatures.”
Mums grumbled but did as he was told.
Fat Man did not have rows of meat lying out just to spoil in the heat of the day. That would have been costly and Fat Man did not get to where he was by being wasteful. The rows were divided into sections which had different cuts of meat lying on bronze trays. Underneath the bronze trays, hidden from spying eyes by cabinet doors, was the expensive, imported cooling array that had propelled Fat Man’s Meats and Delicacies into one of the most convenient shops of the West End.
It was a combination of Hittite materials, Minoan alchemy, and Qin engineering. Tubes of grayish metal ran along the entire row on the underside of the bronze trays. The tubes then ran into a contraption of metal works with bins spaced evenly along the device.
Mums did not know how it worked, Fat Man never told anyone. But Fat Man did train him on what to check for. He opened up a metal bin. Inside was what the Minoans called “Boreas’ Breath”, something they described as ice that never got wet. Mums had never seen the wet variety of ice but the dry kind, this Boreas’ Breath, was always shrouded in smoke and fog.
Mums went from bin to bin, checking that smoky fog was in each one. He was underneath the last row checking the bins when he heard Ngoni call out to him.
“Mums! Come and see what I have.”
Ngoni stood in the doorway of the shop flashing a triumphant smile of perfect teeth. He had an impala draped across his broad shoulders.
He dumped the impala on the floor.
“You should have seen it, little brother. This one was clever, but I stalked it relentlessly all morning. Brother Lion would have been proud.”
“I should have known this is what you’ve been up to,” Fat Man said coming from the back room. “You slip away before the sun is finished sleeping to hunt game. We don’t need meat; I own whole herds of beef cows. What is one impala to that?”
“I have Ziwa blood coursing through my body, father. It tells me to hunt. And that is your blood too. I do not see what keeps you from coming with me. Little brother is not even Ziwa, but he enjoys the hunt more than you. Tell father what fun we had last time, little brother.”
“Yy…yyye…ye…ye…yes, it ww…wwa…wa…”
Fat Man cut him off. “Two boys’ talk of fun does not equal one man’s talk of business. I am trying to teach you to hunt bigger game, Ngoni; the elusive quarry of coins in the pockets of men all around you.”
Fat Man chastised with his words. Ngoni was far from a boy. He was three years past the Ziwa Ritual of Manhood; his powerful muscles seemed chiseled into his black skin. But Ngoni nodded and hung his head at Fat Man’s words.
“Esteemed Fat Man,” a girl’s voice said in the doorway, “I hope I am not intruding.”
Mums recognized her voice before he even saw Fenami. And seeing her made his heart pump a little quicker. She was wearing a voluminous yellow dress made of the soft fabrics that were the fashion of the Midian people. Silver bracelets adorned her honey brown arms. Her hair, black as panther fur, fell across her shoulders. She glanced at Mums with twinkling eyes before turning her attention back to Fat Man.
“I have a message from my father. He had urgent matters to attend at the port in Sofala. He wanted me to tell you that he has agreed with your business proposal and will finalize it when he gets back to the city.”
“Ah, great news,” Fat Man smiled. Then his face straightened. “Did he tell you what our proposal was?”
It was slight, but Mums saw a hint of her frown.
“Father says women’s ears aren’t meant to hear business.”
“Ah, I see. Well, thank you for delivering his news.” Fat Man looked to his son. “See young Fenami home.”
Ngoni looked down at his impala. “Little brother can do it. I need to butcher my game. Besides, he has been trapped in this shop all morning taking care of you. He needs the fresh air more than I. Isn’t that right, little brother?”
Mums grabbed Fenami’s hand and sped out before Fat Man could protest.
When they had gone a couple of blocks from the shop, Mums stopped in the middle of the avenue. Fenami went a step and then turned and looked at him.
“What?” she asked.
He beckoned to her with his finger.
“No, not this time. Mama expects me back.”
His lopsided grin grew wicked. And still his finger coaxed her.
“I thought you cared. You must want to see me get into trouble.”
His smile did not budge. He backed away from her, one slow small step followed by another. His finger slowed to a mesmerizing crawl, teasing her to follow.
She smiled and her defense was broken.
He brought her to the hill overlooking the promenade. They sat upon a stone outcropping and looked below at the various vendors and performers in the street. Mums pointed to the Cat Man from Sheba, who had new cats doing tricks at his command. Fenami’s eyes grew big and her mouth went slack as she looked on amazed by the new tricks.
Reflected sunlight caught Mums’ eye. He looked down at her ankle bracelet. Silver charms in the shapes of fish, terns and half moons used the sun’s rays to wink at him as they danced around her ankle.
She elbowed him.
“Maybe you’re from Sheba. If the Cat Man was lighter, he’d look a bit like you.”
Mums tilted his head, considered the Cat Man and nodded approvingly. Then he reached into his small leather pouch and produced two dried yam treats that he had bought from a vendor earlier. It had cost him a day’s wages, but wages were meant for such things. He offered Fenami one, which she took eagerly.
“I often wonder what you are,” Fenami said as she chewed her yam treat. “Your skin is brown like mine but yet your hair is wooly like the Ziwa.”
Mums had never known himself. He gave her a sheepish smile and shrugged.
She smiled. “A simple answer to throw me off the scent. Maybe you’re a son of Baal, a divine prince here to live with us mortals.”
Mums stuck his chest out and beamed a triumphant grin.
“Ha ha! I doubt, you’d tell me even if I guessed right. Still, there’s something more about you. I intend to figure it out.”
I will gladly tell you, Mums thought, if I could only find you.
They watched the cats and the other performers for awhile. At length, Fenami started to rise. Mums held his hand out.
He hated his awkward tongue even more around Fenami. He often wished he had Ngoni’s gift of speech and diction. But he stumbled and staggered his way through the small word because it was his way of letting her know how much he wanted her company.
If she was ever annoyed by his stuttering, she never showed it. She smiled. “All right, but only for a little while.”
Late that night, Mums floated in dreamform above the figment city of Dzimba-dza-mabwe. He knew the real city quite well, but the figment city was a far cry from that. The figment city, his Greater Zimbabwe, stretched from one end of the horizon to the other. This was the Dzimba-dza-mabwe that its inhabitants dreamed of and in; it was always changing, reshaping and rebuilding itself based on the dreams of the people.
Years ago, he had given up on mapping this fickle city that always changed its clothes each night. Instead, he had taken his dreamform and quested for distant lands. He joined red men in their hunt for shaggy coated bulls, watched battles between pale men and giants in a strange land where the sand was white flakes that fell from the sky and into their yellow and red beards. He laughed as brown beardless men dreamt of being pampered on carriages they sat upon Brother Elephant.
He missed those distant dreams of distant people. But for two years now his desire lay here, in Greater Zimbabwe. He started exploring.
His anchor was the southern glut of zimbas, the tiny homes of the slumdwellers. That looked the same in the figment city as it did in the waking world and never changed. He did not know if the people dreaming there could not imagine more than their slum or if they just did not know how.
From there it was trial and error. One by one, he flew into neighboring zimbas, looking at the people in them and their dreams. He darted from zimba to zimba, some as small as a single room, some as opulent as palaces, each time searching for the dreamer. He kept careful mental note of his bearing in relation to the slums. Sometimes new zimbas appeared behind him and he had to backtrack as new dreamers added to Greater Zimbabwe. And sometimes zimbas crumbled and collapsed as a person awoke.
A man dreamt of buying another wife. A woman dreamt of sewing her husband’s mouth shut. Miners dreamt of tunnels collapsing. A sailor dreamt of the open sea. Children dreamt of pastries and sweets. Lost souls dreamt of finding lost causes.
Mums’ disappointment grew with each zimba searched, until he was close to resigning another night as fruitless. He floated into the next one, a humble zimba with a soft green light emanating from the window. He stopped, breathless.
She was teaching cats to do tricks. Two emerald green cats lay on their backs batting a ball to and fro with their paws as she clapped with glee. She noticed him approaching and took a frightened step back.
“Who are you?”
“Do not fear. I am a friend.”
“What is your name?”
“Names matter little here. The time we spend is all that matters, and I would like very much to spend it with you.”
He could not speak his name. Her mind would try to recall who he was in the real world and the effort would wake her. She must come to know who he was without his help.
“Do you like cat tricks?” she asked.
“They are my favorite. May I watch your cats with you?”
She nodded and went back to instructing the cats.
Mums had an idea. While Fenami was distracted with her pets, he snuck out of the window and gathered some items he had seen in the dreams of a few others.
When he returned the cats stood on their hind legs batting the ball with their front paws. His finger traced a circle and the ball was replaced by the full moon. The cats batted the moon back and forth without a pause.
Fenami looked at him. “How did you do this?”
“It is the power of dreams. Look at your cats.”
She looked back and the green cats were regal as kings. They wore gold headdresses and royal skirts. Beautiful necklaces hung from their necks. Now they purred contentedly as they batted the moon.
She gasped in delight. Mums smiled broadly. He ran a finger down the backs of both cats and the white wings of doves sprouted. The cats flew in the air, doing somersaults as they batted the moon, meowing with delight.
And Fenami was breathless. Mums was content watching her eyes sparkle as she looked on enraptured.
They remained like that for some time, watching the cats perform their aerial maneuvers. Then Mums noticed a zimba stone fall from the roof.
“You are waking up soon. Did you enjoy our time together?”
“I can’t remember when I’ve had such fun.”
The bricks fell faster. She was trying to actually remember a better time and it was causing restlessness. He had to hurry.
“If you like, I can come see you again. But you must give me something that belongs to you.”
“Please come again. I can’t think of what I should give you, but you’re welcome to most anything.”
The roof and walls fell away, revealing the moonlit city of Greater Zimbabwe. The floor gave out. Fenami disappeared as dust. His chance was disintegrating.
His two hands reached out and grabbed the only thing in reach as her dream zimba disappeared entirely. Mums was left floating in the air gripping two winged green cats by the scruffs of their necks. Together, they looked at him and yawned.
“You two are my key back to her,” he told the cats. “Go and play and do not make too much mischief.”
He let them go. They flapped their wings up to the giant moon above Greater Zimbabwe, perhaps to try batting that around.
Mums awoke happier than he could ever remember being. Now that he had found Fenami and had totems that knew the way back to her, he could visit her every night. The more time he spent the more she would recognize him in his dreamform. Soon she would come to know how he felt about her, without his pathetic stumbling and struggling with every word.
Mums bustled around the shop that morning full of life and energy, to the uproarious laughter of Ngoni. Just when he thought nothing could ruin his day, Fat Man delivered disaster.
“I have great news to announce,” he said. “I have secured an agreement with the city’s most influential merchant seaman, the immigrant Murat. He will carry my beef cows on his ships to ports all over the world.”
“Excellent news, Father. And no easy feat, I bet. How did you sweet talk him?”
“Talk of blood ties here. And a hefty dowry for his daughter. She will make a fine wife for you, son.”
Mums and Ngoni flashed the same look of dismay.
Murat’s daughter is Fenami, Mums thought.
“She is not Ziwa,” Ngoni said.
“Your next wife can be Ziwa. This deal stands to put our meat on the plates of people all over the world.”
“It is not tradition, Father. She should be Ziwa.”
“Tradition will keep you poor like many of the Ziwa that follow it.”
“There must be a better way than to marry off your son.”
“You are well into manhood, high time you were married. You have seen Fenami. Is she not beautiful?”
“She is, but…”
“There are no buts. I have secured for you a beautiful wife and secured your future prosperity at the same time. That hardly ever comes hand in hand.”
“Son, tradition is there to enhance your life, not to make you a slave to it. When the world changes you must change with it.” Fat Man pounded his hand into his fist. “You would not be the first to break with the old customs. Look at Mtume and his Ethiop wife. Or Karinga. Or even me; according to tradition I should have twelve wives sucking the life from my coffers.”
Ngoni smiled and nodded. “You are right, Father. I see the wisdom in what you have done. And she is beautiful. I will enjoy…”
The two men turned to stare at Mums.
“I ww…wwa…wa…wa…want h…hhh…h…her.”
Fat Man laughed heedless of the anger it etched on Mums’ face.
“You?! Stop playing games. You are old enough to know that some things are beyond you.”
Mums glared at Fat Man. He repeated himself, this time the effort taking longer because of his anger.
Now Fat Man spoke bereft of mirth. “Just as soon pluck the stars from the night sky and offer them as jewels for her dowry! You have nothing. You are an orphan boy, lucky enough to be my shop assistant. And yet you dare to rage against me?”
Ngoni stepped in. “Father, do you not see? Little brother cares for her.”
“It is not his place to care for her. Neither is it my place to entertain his impossible wishes. We may care for him like family, but he is not my son. He is no one’s son. To offer Murat my orphan shop minder in your stead would bring dishonor to both our houses. There would be no deal. And no one would have gained anything.”
“Deals, business, bah!” Ngoni waved dismissively. “What are such things when two hearts are entwined?”
“Two hearts together beat a mighty rhythm,” Fat Man quoted the old Ziwa saying. “But right now we have one heart skipping beats. It is a rhythm only a fool could dance to.”
Ngoni looked at Mums. “Father speaks truth yet again. Has Fenami spoken her heart to you?”
Mums wished it were so. He shook his head.
Ngoni’s slow nod signaled his contemplation. After many long moments he spoke again. “Then we must see. If Fenami’s heart beats for you, then there are not enough deals in the world to cause me to step in and break that dual rhythm. If it does not, then we must embrace the practicality of father’s hand, little brother.”
Mums nodded his approval. Fat Man spoke his disapproval.
“His heart, her heart, they do nothing for my deal. There is still a matter of honor between two houses.”
Ngoni looked at Fat Man. “Murat will see the honor in his daughter’s soaring heart. Any holes left in his honor after that can be filled in with gold, even if you have to double or triple your original dowry.”
Fat Man tried to protest but Ngoni’s stern gaze let him know there was no changing his mind. He relented and addressed Mums.
“Fine. You have until Murat returns from Sofala, which normally takes four days. She must speak her heart before we announce their marriage to the world.”
Mums nodded. Murat left yesterday. He had three days to get Fenami to fall in love with him.
He hoped it was enough time.
First, Mums collected a few things from dreamers here and there. Then he ascended high above the city. He whistled and it resounded through the world. After a moment he spied green dots emerge from the city below. They made their way toward him with the lazy flap of their wings.
They had shed their royal headdresses, jewelry and skirts. One was a mess; silvery white powder dusted its fur in random spots that defied Mums’ attempts to brush off. The other was clean, it groomed itself even now as they all listed high above the city.
“I do not know what mischief you two have gotten yourselves into, but I hope you have missed your creator as much as I have. Shall we go and see her?”
The cats descended with Mums in tow. They reached Fenami’s zimba in short time.
“My kitties!” she cried as she saw her cats enter her window. “And my friend!” she exclaimed as she saw Mums.
“Ha ha, it is good to see you as well. I have brought your pets back to you.”
“I wouldn’t call them my pets. They are my friends.”
“What are their names?”
“I have not given them names. We can do that now! You name one and I’ll name the other.”
“A wonderful idea. This one here, with the dust smattering his green fur, let’s call him Patches. Now what shall we call the other one?”
Fenami looked at the cat. “Oh, I don’t know…Scrat Chins?”
“What? It’s Midian for Green Tail.”
Mums clawed at the air in front of her.
“It’s not funny!” she elbowed him.
They both laughed.
Mums looked around at her simple zimba. “I think it is time your home reflects who you are inside. May I?”
Fenami had a quixotic look on her face, but she nodded assent.
Using the things he had gathered earlier, he transformed her zimba. He pushed up with his hands and great archways and high ceilings formed. He added rooms and expansive domes that the eye got lost in. Then he placed colorful tiles on the walls and in the center he made a courtyard that opened up to the vault of heaven. In the center of the courtyard he placed a majestic fountain that sprayed sparkling water.
She grabbed his hand and took him with her as she went from room to room, exploring all that he had done. At last she arrived in the courtyard, where she stood mesmerized by the sparkling fountain and the host of heaven.
“Thank you,” she breathed.
“I am glad you like it. And I am almost done.” Lastly, he reached his hands up to the night and pulled stars one by one from the sky and set them in the blackness of her hair to sparkle. “All of this,” he said, “it is but a reflection of what I see in you.”
“It is a grand gesture from a wonderful friend. If your zimba is a reflection of you as well, I’m sure it is much more beautiful than this, something I can scarcely imagine.”
“I was born into the world a homeless orphan. I have no zimba.”
She looked at him with saddened eyes. “Well, now you do. Your home is here, with me. You will always be welcome.”
He smiled at her. She smiled back. And then she became as dust and with her, the whole of her magnificent zimba.
A short distance away, Patches and Scratchins flapped toward him. They presumably got distracted in play in one of the rooms of the zimba and now that it was gone they seemed to look at Mums in an accusatory manner.
“My friends, I am just as upset as you are. I am afraid you two must conduct your antics elsewhere tonight. We will see her again tomorrow.”
The cats took his apology and flew off to explore the city.
Dismayed that their time was so short last night, Mums went to see Fenami the next morning. Ngoni agreed to watch the shop, eager to help. “Let nothing stop your heart’s rhythm, little brother,” he said.
He was going to be a stuttery, awkward mess. But he needed the time, as much time as he could get.
Fenami’s mother stopped him cold. “She has no time to fuss about with you,” she told him, before closing her door. “You know as well as I do, we have a wedding to prepare for.”
Grrrrr… Fat Man! Mums yelled in his head. You told her! What of all your talk of secrecy until Murat returned?
Fat Man answered his question when he returned to the shop. “It is still secret, no one knows but the family, and that is how it will stay until Murat returns. But the mother and daughter need time to make ready.”
He had two days left. And Fat Man had robbed those days of their waking hours. He would have to wait for nightfall.
Patches and Scratchins were waiting for him when he arrived in Greater Zimbabwe. They took off without ceremony to see Fenami.
Her magnificent zimba shuddered and shook. She was restless, troubled in sleep.
“Dear friend, I have been longing to see you,” she said as he came to her in the courtyard. “Something is troubling me deeply, I know it. But I can’t remember what it is.”
The zimba groaned and shook loudly. He put up his hands to calm her quickly.
“You have no troubles here. Be at peace, Fenami. Here I shield you from problem and woe.”
The zimba’s shaking subsided into small tremors. “Are you sure?” Fenami asked.
“Please, think no more of it. Let us, instead, enjoy our time together.”
“All right.” She nodded. “What shall we do then?”
But the small tremors did not entirely go away. Mums knew they would only grow as time went by. He risked losing her to restlessness if they stayed here.
Taking her from her zimba was also a gamble. He had never tried such a thing with a dreamer.
His desire to share this world with her made the decision for him. “Would you like to see the land of dreams?”
“I believe so. But first, we need means for our journey.” He whistled and from another corner of the house the cats bounded to him on their paws, their wings neatly tucked behind their backs.
Mums placed his hands together. He increased the distance between his hands and as he did so Scratchins grew. Then he did the same for Patches. When he was done they were larger than lions. The cats unfurled their wings and stretched.
Mums helped Fenami mount Scratchins. He mounted Patches and together they flew from the trembling zimba.
“Oh!” Fenami looked in awe down at the city of Greater Zimbabwe, with its majestic zimbas, colossal towers, lakes, and lights that never burned out. It stretched out as far as the eye could see in every direction, and she turned her head every which way to take it all in.
After a long while they passed the city and there was naught but darkness below.
“What is down there?” she asked Mums.
“Nothing. No one is there to dream in the dark space, so it sits empty.”
“That seems lonely to me for some reason.”
“Maybe it is a solemn concept. But it does not stay empty. When we encounter a dreamer they will fill in as much empty space as they desire with their dream and they will bring life to the darkness.”
She saw that it was just so. They saw a solitary goatherd watching over his flock on the plains. They saw a king being carried on a throne of gold through a parade of cheering people in the jungle. And lovers singing songs and playing instruments for one another in a desert dominated by colossal shining pyramids.
They toured these exotic lands of foreign dreams until Mums led the cats to land at a place that was familiar to them both.
“Why, this is Midian!” Fenami exclaimed.
Mums laughed. “So it is.”
The landscape was barren and tough, but the spirit of the people was in full bloom. They laughed and played around campfires, singing and dancing as the mood struck them.
“Thank you for bringing me here. I have not seen home in years.” She turned to look out over the fires but she stopped short and looked back at Mums.
“I just noticed. You have woolly hair. Has it always been so?”
“Ha ha. Yes.” Hope warmed his heart. Maybe she would recognize him before this night was out. “What are they doing over there?” he asked pointing.
A group of women in colorful flowing dresses were holding up curtains of fabric, shielding someone behind it. They were leading the person behind the fabric to a campfire, where a group of men were standing, waiting for them.
Fenami looked and disappeared, as dust on the wind.
Mums watched the scene alone until he realized what it was for himself. It was a Midian wedding ceremony.
“It seems I am still an idiot, even when my tongue is straightened,” he told the cats. He shrunk them back to their original size. Then he grabbed the moon with two hands and cast it across the barren ground. He and the cats stepped and fell through it like a hole. And they came to rest floating above the sprawl of Greater Zimbabwe with the moon high overhead.
One day left.
The next morning was proof to Mums that the gods played cruel games.
Fat Man paced furiously in the shop. Ngoni looked worried. The wood of the front door stood splintered around a broken lock.
“Scoundrels! I’ve no doubt they came in the dead of night for my cooling array. My business, saved by the good fortune of a town sentry on patrol,” Fat Man said. “They want the secret of Boreas’ Breath, the secret I paid a small fortune for.”
“What will you do, Father?”
Fat Man paced in thought, then stopped and looked at Mums. “I’m going to do you a big favor, though it’s against my better judgment. Have the day off, go see Fenami. Maybe you can win her heart this morning. Be back shortly after midday for some sleep. You will guard the shop tonight. This will give me time to get stronger locks made and installed.”
No no no no. Mums shook his head wildly.
Fat Man looked at him puzzled. “Why would you refuse such a generous gift? Ah, I know!” he said pointing at Mums. “It is fear that grips you. It is the last day for Fenami to speak her heart and you are afraid that she will remain silent.”
“N…nnn…nnn…” Mums started, his head still shaking.
“Of course that’s what it is. But I say to you, the days where you are able to cower as a boy are at an end. You must face your fear. She will likely spurn you, but you will have faced it like a man. And when you come back we will be here for you.”
He ushered Mums out the door and down the street. “Be brave. And more importantly, be back here, shortly after midday!”
Mums stood in the middle of the street. Stupid Fat Man. What was he going to do, smooth talk Fenami’s mother into letting him see her? Or better still, wait for a moment where he could steal Fenami’s attention and then quickly ask her if she loved him? That one question would take all morning.
Besides, how could she love him as she knew him? He was a beggar, a boy with a broken tongue. It would be different if he had status or physique like Ngoni. No, she needed to see him in his dreamform, where he had the power to give her anything she wanted and the words to say how he felt. He’d tell her that he’d give her the world, day and night. Then she’d understand.
But his last night was being stolen.
Well, Fat Man couldn’t stay up all night. He’d have to go to sleep sometime, and when he did…
But how much time would he lose waiting for Fat Man to tire?
Sporadic slaps to the head gave him his answer that night. Every little creak and strong gust woke Fat Man up in a panic. That panic translated into a smack to Mums’ head whenever Fat Man peeked out to check on the store and caught him drifting. They did this dance for hours.
Mums looked at the barred and barricaded door longing to escape, praying that Fat Man would just stay asleep.
Sometime in that long night, Ngoni came into the storefront, his tired eyes red.
“I do not know what it is you dream at night, little brother, but I saw earlier today how important it is for you. I root for you. May her heart beat in time with yours. Go. I will watch the store.”
In no time at all Mums was asleep and racing with the cats to Fenami’s zimba. It shuddered and quaked on its foundation.
“You’ve come home at last! I thought you abandoned me. I remembered what troubles me.”
“You do not need to be troubled. That is why I am here.”
The zimba stopped shaking. She looked at him as if he was new to her.
“You are clearer now to me. I think I am seeing who you are.”
Please, see me. I need you to see me.
Her eyes widened. “You?!”
Mums exhaled in relief and smiled at his beloved. “Yes, it is I. I have come all these nights to show you that we should be together.”
She embraced him, burying her head into his chest. “I am so relieved. Now that I see you for who you are, my spirit will no longer war with you. To think, you’ve been my friend this whole time. You always seemed a kind man, but there was something else I hungered for. I no longer desire anything else. I see now that you are truly handsome, inside and out.”
Mums’ smile slowly faded. Handsome. It did not feel right. No one had ever called him that. In a rush, he flew from the zimba to the skies above Greater Zimbabwe, looking for the giant lake that citizens often dreamed of.
Once at the lake he gasped. The water reflected his dreamform from the light of the silvery moon. Strong, handsome, flawless…his dreamform was everything he had ever wished he was.
His dreamform was the image of Ngoni.
Panic surged through him in waves. He still had time. He could change this, make everything right.
Be yourself. Be yourself. Be yourself.
Over and over he told himself this, until he calmed enough for his dreamform to change. When he finally had his true image, he darted back to Fenami.
Her zimba crumbled to nothing as he approached it. She was gone.
He stayed there for an endless expanse, willing with everything in him for her to come back to sleep. Her zimba did not return. When that failed he flew as fast as he had ever flown all over Greater Zimbabwe, from horizon to horizon, checking into every new zimba that sprouted for signs of her until…
“Up up!” Fat Man’s voice came as his hands shook Mums to the waking world. “I do not know what deal you made with Ngoni, but you’ve managed to sleep away most of the day. Come to the front. Murat is here with Fenami to make the announcement official.”
Mums raced out to the shop. He was out of time but he didn’t care. He would protest this. He’d tell Fenami how he felt if it took a whole week.
He stopped short when he got to the front. He saw Murat smiling, Ngoni and Fenami.
Mums had been ready to dismantle Dzimba-dza-mabwe, brick by brick for her. But when he saw the way Fenami looked up at Ngoni, her eyes full of sparkle and magic, he knew nothing in his power could change it. Her heart had grown roots.
He stood silently, looking at the couple. He put his hands over his heart, then spread his arms out to them. I give you both my love. Then he held up one finger. I will return in a moment.
But he never did.
There was nothing to come back to. He had already given Ngoni the greatest wedding present a man could give. Perhaps in time Ngoni would come to know what he had and treasure it.
Mums walked. Standing felt like falling, forever falling into something black and bottomless. So he walked, first out of the West End and then out of the city altogether.
And he kept going, well past the point where his calves burned and civilization had given way to the lush grasses of the countryside. He finally stopped at the top of a hill to catch his breath. Looking back, he saw the city in the distance, the granite of its zimbas and towers shining dully in the afternoon sun.
Mums faced forward. The distant lands of people he had seen in dreams lay before him. He took a step in that direction, without another glance behind, making a promise to himself to think no more of Dzimba-dza-mabwe.
Perhaps it was because promises made in the waking world cannot hold form in sleep, or maybe it was because of the incessant nudges and caterwauls of two winged green cats that came to him on occasion, but from time to time his dreamform would drift to Greater Zimbabwe, where he would bring sweet dreams into the hearth of the only home he ever had.
James Beamon’s most recent publishing credits include Parsec Ink’s Triangulation Anthology series, the September issue of OG’s Speculative Fiction, and Daily Science Fiction.
Follow him at his website “fictigristle“