* * *
Deqo reaches the ditch and turns off at the red-berried shrubs that mark the path towards her barrel, speeding down the slope and only staggering to a stop when it comes into view. It is a mysterious sanctuary that swallows her up at night; she doesn't know who brought it here and only found it herself by accident one moon-bright night. She scoops up the rainwater that had so tormented her the night before and quenches her thirst, the taste of kerosene faint at the back of her throat. Then she pours the rest over her head and torso, squeezing the excess from her thin smock. It will dry in the time it takes her to collect all the fruit she needs from the farms.
She hurries over to Murayo's plot which lies near the right bank of the dry waterbed, far from the noise of the road, where a flock of birds roosts and chats, their nests like bad imitations of wicker baskets. They fly up and hoot at her approach as if to warn Murayo. It depends on how Murayo is feeling each day as to whether she will allow her to glean the fruit, but since Deqo alerted her to the burglar crouching on the roof of her mud-built home she has been generous. Deqo scans the ground for the squishy, over-ripe mangoes she can eat herself before bothering with the hard, green fruit still ripening on the branches. Today there is only one lying splattered in the weeds, its orange flesh trembling with black ants.
Up in the trees she checks the foliage for snakes. She once grabbed a sleeping green snake as she climbed, its mouth suddenly yawning, rigid and white in her face, making her fall clear out of the tree. She spits into her palms and hugs the slimmest trunk, above which are a clutch of mangoes that have a nice red blush to them ready for picking; her hands hold her up while her toes slip against the smooth bark. Before she loses her grip she grasps the branch that holds the mangoes and plucks them off one by one, throwing them gently to the ground, then edges back towards the trunk and slides down, enjoying the sensation of the trunk against her skin. She collects the mangoes in her damp skirt and rushes away before Murayo comes to water her crops. The next plot is larger, dominated by dense banana trees, some so laden that the bananas hang near her head; she takes six, all that she can carry in her skirt, and turns back to town.
* * *
At the faqir market Deqo retrieves her piece of cardboard with the slice of advertising still visible on it from the pile on the ground and lays out her merchandise in two rows of six, alternating banana and mango. She has tried other jobs: collecting scraps of qat to sell to the dealers, pulling grass to sell as goat feed to housewives, sweeping the main market when there aren't enough girls in the evening, but this is her favourite. Her workday is over early and she has no boss to tell her what to do, and on the days that there are no customers she can eat the pilfered fruit herself.
Most of the other sellers are middle-aged women, with hefty arms and feet overflowing the edges of their sandals. The only one of them who is always kind to her, Qamar, is not there today so Deqo sits on her haunches and waits for customers. They come slowly, browsing the other stalls before deciding they can get the cheapest price out of her. She watches how the other sellers haggle and imitates their impatient gestures and harsh words. 'Take your shadow off of me if you're not interested,' she shouts. 'You are blocking people with more than lint in their pockets.' She says this with a straight face despite her tiny ramshackle body and the twigs in her hair.
The bananas go first to a woman carrying a toddler on her back, and then the mangoes disappear in ones and twos. She holds the money in her hand with satisfaction; there are no dramas today, no thieves encroach and no arguments take place. She hates those days when honking, clumsy women stampede through her patch in pursuit of someone or other.
Copyright © 2013 by Nadifa Mohamed
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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