Sisters of Mercy Convent, Natar Village Compound, Ward 7
Tribal Reservation of Urnah, Nasai, White Moon 3303 –October
The Neutral Zone
Safiya was dreaming again, and in this dream the ag’wan was close – closer than it had ever been to catching her. She was alone in the Silent Gardens, running, trying to get back to the Convent where she knew that she would be safe, but her limbs were moving in slow motion and she couldn’t run fast enough. This time the ag’wan had a form and she could hear it panting not far behind her, but she didn’t have the courage to look back at it. She stumbled over an exposed tree root and nearly fell to the mossy ground but managed to regain her balance: if she fell, the ag’wan would catch her, would devour her.
Her mind screamed at her body but it would not increase its pace and she could smell the ag’wan’s rancid breath over her shoulder – it reeked of sulfur and rot. A heavy claw-like grasp wrenched her shoulder and knew that she was caught, all she could do was scream at the top of her lungs, and it was her screaming that woke her. Her eyelids flew open in a panic at the sound of her own shrill cry, but she was paralyzed by fear and unable to move any other part of her body as she lay stiff as a board beneath her bedcovers. She glanced around at the walls where the fireplace cast shadows from the low flames smoldering within it and sensed that the ag’wan was there in the room with her: ominous and hiding in the darkness but formless and without shape.
She offered the dua for protection silently and swiftly, uttering the words fervently.
Oh Bountiful Creator, You are the Watcher in the Day and the Night, protect me from the evils that persist, seen and unseen, and be my constant Friend. The Light shall overcome the Darkness and the righteous shall prevail over the evildoers, give me the faith to persevere, the courage to enforce your will and the strength of victory over the rebellious ones, amin.
She repeated the words over and over again until her racing heartbeat slowed and her breathing returned to normal. The ag’wan had fled and the fire had smoldered to ash by the time she felt brave enough to move. Light from the encroaching dawn glowed beyond her window in shades of lavender and silver as she sat up slowly, exhaling deeply and glad to sense that the heavy, suffocating feeling was also gone from the room. That was too close, she thought to herself. This time was different than the others; this time she had felt as if the ag’wan didn’t only want to hurt her, it wanted to defile and devour her; to change her into something abominable.
She leaned forward, covering her forehead with her hand, and was silently offering another prayer when she felt Una’s life vibrations beyond her bedroom door just before Una knocked and entered.
“Are you ok, my Sofi?” Una asked, her expression worried as she hurried across the room to where Safiya sat in her bed. “I heard a scream come from here: is it the ag’wan?”
Una was only a few moons past forty summers but most of her curly black hair had turned grey following the airstrikes. It hung in disarray down her back as she shuffled to Safiya’s bedside. She wrapped her thin arms around Safiya’s shoulders and Safiya could feel the rapid beat of her heart against her arm. Safiya didn’t want to alarm Una any further but Una always knew when it was the ag’wan so Safiya wouldn’t try to deny it.
“Yeah. I’m sorry I woke you, Una,” Safiya responded, glad that she was calmer now, but Una was not fooled.
“I could feel it too this time,” Una said and gently brushed Safiya’s tousled hair away from over her eyes. “It is growing stronger.”
Safiya and Una never talked about what had happened that day at the safe house, but they were unconsciously and permanently linked to one another by the painful memory and the ag’wan had been haunting Safiya ever since. Safiya rested her head upon Una’s shoulder and closed her eyes. The bombing of her village was never far from her mind and she still found it hard to believe that her parents had really died. If only Ami were here . . .
“Do not worry, beloved,” Una soothed and stroked Safiya’s hair. “I will offer special prayers for you. The time of Reckoning is upon us: it is the prophecy. The darkness is coming, but it cannot defeat the light.”
Safiya sensed Una’s fear upon mentioning the Reckoning and couldn’t help but feel a little fearful herself. The Histories said that the red comet would mark the beginning of another trial time before the Reckoning, and Safiya had watched the red comet flash across the sky three nights ago. She’d been uneasy since she arrived back at the convent a week ago and seeing the comet had caused a nervous queasiness to form in her stomach. It hadn’t helped that Sister Maryam had been giving her the silent treatment so she hadn’t been able to go to her for guidance.
“Come. The bell for the morning prayers will sound soon. I too will make my prayers and then I will hurry to the kitchens and prepare cassia cakes to break fast with,” Una stated and kissed Safiya upon the forehead before standing to leave. “But do not take too long. The cakes go so quickly.”
Una stood and smiled sadly before quietly leaving the room and closing the door behind her. She and Sarai had been so relieved that Safiya had returned unharmed that they did not even consider chastising her for having run away, but Safiya could sense that Una took Safiya’s flight personally, as if she had failed Safiya in some way. Safiya had tried to explain that her running away had nothing to do with Una or with her life here at the convent, that she and the nuns had always been very loving and generous, but Una had not believed her. She supposed she couldn’t blame Una there; Safiya had never been good at expressing her feelings in words and her actions could easily be interpreted as unhappiness with her life here.
The Chapel bells began to chime announcing the start of the morning prayers and the floor boards began to creak above her head as the other orphan girls in the bedroom above began moving about to prepare for chapel. Safiya tossed off the bedcovers and crossed her bedroom to the white and blue tiled washroom for offering her ablutions. She turned on the water faucet to the round light blue ceramic bathing pool depressed within the floor in the center of the room and allowed the water to run for a few seconds to become warm. Glimpsing her reflection within the mirror beside the shower stall, she sat slowly onto the ledge of the tub and felt the familiar ache of missing her parents creep into her chest.
She had her father’s green-blue eyes, high cheek bones and thick black hair, but her mother’s rounded-nose, full lips and ruddy complexion; and she only saw a mixture of the two of them when she looked at herself. The real reason that she’d run away the last time was that she just couldn’t take being around the orphans and feeling their loss and sadness in addition to her own for another day so she’d left. Going to the Republic had been a last minute idea after she’d reached Ward 1 and saw how bad the villagers had it there; she’d thought that Wards 1 and 6 received more aid and lived better than the other Wards but that was obviously not true; they looked as though they lived under worse conditions.
She turned away from her reflection, trying to avoid the sadness and further thoughts of her people and the loss of her parents, and knelt before the pool to dip her hands into the running water to begin her ablution. She rinsed her mouth and splashed water over her face and head, then over her arms to the elbows and over her feet to the ankles. When finished, she turned off the water, reached for a towel to dry her face, arms and feet, and draped the damp towel over the rim of the bathing pool to dry before walking barefoot back into her bedroom.
She grabbed a discarded headscarf from her bedpost and draped the long, rectangular piece of purple fabric securely over her head and shoulders. She went over to her closet and removed her prayer rug from its shelf inside to spread it upon the floor facing east alongside the empty stone fireplace. The mantelpiece above the fireplace held her bowl for burning incense atop of it and she lit a small pile of Geya leaves with a tiny feri-maker to release the sweet musk into her room. She stepped over to the foot of her prayer rug, folded her arms across her chest, and began her salaat with closed eyes as she surrendered her heart and mind over into worship of the Creator.