Deqo steps barefoot across the festering mulch that slides beneath her feet. Her red plastic thong sandals hang delicately from her fingers, and beads of water drip from the trees as if the branches are shaking their fingers dry, splashing her face and neck in mischief. She hides behind the wide trunk of a willow near two crouched figures, her face framed in a scorched cleft where lightning has flung itself in a careless fit. She whispers her name to give herself courage. The men's talk is distorted by the music of raindrops falling over thousands of trees in the ditch, their leaves held out like waxy green tongues. The drought that had tormented her in Saba'ad is over, but she is in no mood to enjoy the downpour.
On either side of the trees are the stray dogs, thieves and promenading ghosts of Hargeisa. The swish of cars crossing the bridge and the susurrations of secret policemen come to her through the darkness. The barrel in which she sleeps is cold, too cold. The scraps of cut-off fabric that usually line the bottom are floating in kerosene-rippled water, the emeralds and sapphires of a peacock's tail flashing on its moonlit surface. She shivered with goose-pimpled skin for as long as she could bear it and then sought out the drunks and their fire in a moment of reckless desperation; she wonders what they will do for her, to her. She wants to know if hyenas can only be hyenas when confronted with a lamb. The heat of the men's fire blows over her, its crackling and its colours warming her. They have built a bombastic blaze, full of their alcohol; it lurches at the dark, quivering trees before stumbling and falling back into the barrel. She breathes in the smell of damp smoke, the taste of fresh ash.
'Waryaa, hus! Can you hear something, Rabbit?' one of the drunks slurs to his companion.
'Oh Brother Faruur, only the complaints of my poor stomach,' the other replies.
Faruur doesn't reply, his ear cocked to the side, his face concentrated and stern. He reminds Deqo of a dog, his body taut, his ear attuned to the hiss of faint breath, his twitching nose-hairs trapping and tasting the sour-sweet odour of blood.
'There is someone over there in the bushes,' Faruur says triumphantly.
Deqo steps out with a thudding heart, preferring to reveal herself than be caught; she marches straight to the burning barrel and puts her palms out to drink in the heat. Her brazenness works; Faruur and the other man look down in confused silence, both of them anxious that their hallucinations have returned.
The fire holds her hands and beckons her closer. It is like bathing but without the sting of water in her eyes or the awkward exposure of her naked body while unseen eyes watch.
Faruur's eyes are sick soups of yellow and pink, glossy like an infant's, the bottom lids slack. He looks Deqo up and down.
'Get away from here, from our fire!' He picks up a piece of wood with a nail spiking out and grasps it aloft as if to strike her. Beside his unlaced shoes leans a bottle of surgical spirit, half drunk.
Deqo meets his gaze. He thinks he can chase her away, they all think that. 'Man, be a Muslim. Let me get warm and then I'll leave you in peace.'
Faruur keeps his arm up and Deqo remains calmly by the fire, her hands like two explosions. Slowly his arm relaxes and falls to his side, the weapon still in his hand.
The other drunk reaches out to grab at her thigh; she jumps quickly beyond his reach. 'Oof! Go grab your father, you disgusting old lizard,' she shouts.
The two look to each other and laugh, the hacking, husky, wheezy laughter of men with tuberculosis.
'Now, look here, Rabbit, we go to the effort of building a fire, collecting wood, buying matches, sacrificing our precious alcohol to get it started on this wet, godforsaken evening, and then this this kintir this overgrown cunt comes along to steal our heat.' A moth flits around Faruur's head as he speaks. 'What has the world come to?'
Copyright © 2013 by Nadifa Mohamed
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