After another hour, I was too tired to continue.
“Kebedi,” I called out as we entered a clearing in the forest, “Please, let’s take a rest. Neither of us knows where we’re going, so we may as well sit down, and come up with some sort of plan.”
Behind us was the way we’d come, and in front of us were three potential new routes, all looking more or less the same. The middle of the clearing was lit up in various pockets by the sun’s rays, shining down through a hazy mist like so many spotlights. As I sat wearily on a boulder, Kebedi stepped into one spotlight and looked at me in contempt.
“A plan,” he repeated. “How do you propose we make a plan, if the both of us are lost, and neither of us seems to have any remote sense of direction?” He looked at the three paths in front of us, and slowly blew the air out of his mouth, swiveling his head up toward the sky.
“I read a story about a detective,” I said, “Who got to wherever he needed to be, by following people who looked like they knew where they were going.”
“Great,” Kebedi said scornfully. “Then we’ll just do that, and follow who, exactly?”
“Well,” I said, “There’s someone.”
A figure was approaching in the distance, meandering up the middle path. They were dressed in long white robes that seemed to dance in the waves created by the haze. A magnificent blue headdress topped their ensemble, giving them what seemed to be an extra half a foot of height.
Kaku used to tell a story about a water god who fell in love with a daughter of the air. Every day he would wait for her to drift over him, then rise out of the sea in waves to sing to her. With time, she grew to love him back, deeply. Though consumed by desire, the two were unable to physically hold on to each other, and could only make themselves as near to each other as possible. She would dive toward his arms, but he would always separate on impact. That caused the waves, Kaku said. The god would break himself into many tiny water droplets to float through her, before eventually falling back down. That was the rain. Sometimes, overcome with passion, the god would leap out of the sea, and she would swirl around him, holding him out of the water for as long as she could. Using the gusts of wind in her power, she kept the two of them up in a tornadic waterspout.
Watching the slow movements of their advancement, and the robes swirling underneath the blue, I was reminded of that last natural occurrence. It was mesmerizing. Kebedi sucked his teeth.
“Christ,” he muttered. “Not this fucking guy.”
I looked up at him, then back toward the figure, and blinked. Although they had not changed their gait in any discernible way, they were quite a bit closer now than they had been a moment ago. What I’d previously taken to be a head wrap was actually hair. Blue locs were piled high on top of their head into a bun, reinforcing my impression of swirling water.
“I seriously hate this dude,” Kebedi was saying.
“Why?” I wanted to know.
“It’s just – the vibes, man. He ain’t straight. Being near him is unsettling. Come on; let’s leave.”
“How can we, when we don’t know which way to go?”
“Back the way we came. I don’t care. Let’s just get out of here!”
It was too late, though. The stranger had already reached us. The sun illuminated grey eyes shining out of a face dusted with freckles, as the dancing robes came to a rest in their own spotlight, and our newcomer held up a long, light hand.
“Malukayi, Kebedi?” The voice was much higher than I’d expected it to be. “How are you?” Kebedi scowled.
“Bimpa,” he replied gruffly. Then, apparently deciding that his “good” needed a modifier, he added, “Kakese. Look, guy, I don’t know what you’re up to today, but whatever it is, I don’t have time for it. Just keep it pushing, please.”
“Hmmm,” came the voice that was too high and also, I realized, too soft. “Why would you assume I am ‘up to something,’ and that it would seem to be bad for you?”
“I’m sure it couldn’t be good,” Kebedi retorted. A frown passed over the freckled face. The brow creased slightly, and the grey eyes looked almost pitying as the head cocked to the side, into a new shaft of light.
“What would you consider good? Is that limited to what you’d expect to hear, or what accords with your plans? Or do you have room for exceptions?” The change in light brought out a different view of the stranger’s face, softening it to match the voice. They were incredibly beautiful. Kebedi was uncharmed.
“Yo,” he said, as if he was shooing away someone on the street, “Keba. I already said that I don’t have time for you, pale-face, and this thing you do, twisting words around and wasting time, is why.”
“Excuse me,” I said, cutting into what I realized was not even a conversation, “But we’re lost. We want to find the red ficus. Is it possible for you to direct us?”
“What are you looking for near the red ficus?” The stranger wanted to know. They didn’t question the existence of the tree, which I took to be a hopeful sign.
“Well, you see – ” I began, but Kebedi cut me off.
“Don’t tell this asshole anything,” he growled. “It’s not like you’ll get a straight answer out of him, anyway. But even if you could, I do not trust white people, and I do not listen to white men.”
“But, Kebedi, she’s black.” Freckles notwithstanding, this was obvious to me from looking at the rest of the facial features. Then I realized I had used the pronoun without thinking about it, and something clicked. “Also, she’s…a woman? I’m sorry – are you a woman?”
“Does it make sense for you to call me that?” she asked in reply.
“Well, I think so. But okay, like, what’s your name?”
“Djina djani…You may call me Baraka,” she said.
“I thought that was a man’s name, though?” I was confused.
“Why? Don’t you know what it means? Baraka is ‘the quintessential element of nature’. You can choose to see that as masculine if you wish, although I wonder why you would?”
“Well,” I stumbled, “Maybe the meaning is not necessarily masculine, but – ”
“He’s a fucking weirdo, is what he is!” Kebedi was exasperated. “And you’ve gotten so caught up in figuring him out, you’ve forgotten all about getting to where we need to go!
“What’s wrong with you?” he asked, turning on her. “Why can’t you be straight? Every single time I have the misfortune of running into you, I always end up confused. You never give a direct answer to anything, no conversation is ever clear-cut, you question all my questions until I don’t know what I wanted to know or wanted to do or even thought originally, and then – ow! Ow!” He jumped, interrupting his vituperation to wince and swat at his leg.
“Ow!” Kebedi said, one more time, flinching. “That happens! I end up getting hurt!” He sat down stormily, turning his back to us and massaging his leg. Baraka sighed and shook her head, allowing different expressions to flit across her face. Mild annoyance was chased by disappointment, followed by understanding and settling in acceptance.
“The day Kebedi gives up his need for absolutes,” she said, “Will be the day his life becomes infinitely less frustrating.”
“What just happened?” I asked.
“He can’t stand Doubt,” she answered.
“No one likes to doubt things. What does that have to do with absolutes? Or how he just got hurt? Or why he blames you?”
“Your cousin prefers to have things just so,” she stated, swaying and using her body movements to accentuate her points. “Once he believes something to be one way, that should be it – comme ci!” She leaned onto her right hip. “When he wants to know something, it should come to him quickly – comme ca!” She moved onto her left. “What happens when someone like that, who does not appreciate having his perception of the world questioned in any way, is thrown into one of only nuance?”
The swaying turned into twirling. Light caught the robes that billowed out, making new waves and obscuring Baraka’s feet. It occured to me that tornadoes upended anything not at their centers. Kaku’s story never mentioned anything beyond the elemental lovers. I wondered what happened to the creatures caught on the outskirts of their eye.
“Is that all you do?” I wanted to know. “Force nuance onto people?”
“How could I know the entire effect I have on others?” Baraka twirled faster, seeming to float. “I embrace ambiguity. I accept that people will read me differently when it comes to my race, or gender, or even personality, but it does not matter. Of course, it unfortunately can be annoying to people who only want to view me one way, especially when they encounter others who will view me another. Most people who interact with me are also hit by Doubt. That is unpleasant for them.”
“Well, how do you view yourself?” I asked. I felt dizzy.
“How do I view myself?” she repeated.
“Like this.” She vanished.