PodCastle 772: “Mama uat-ur”
By Z. K. Abraham
Pressing her forearms against the first-floor window’s metal frame, Temesghen watched aegean-blue waves splash against the concrete walls, searching for another flash of the being’s presence in the sea below. The stars were partially shrouded by the clouds; the sky was a milky greenish swirl like rotting leaves and tree sap, while the taste of sour algae and salt hung in the air. In the distance, several tall, concrete structures loomed: the Stacks, all that was left in a now-drowned world. Every Stack was the same inside as hers — at least, that’s what the overseers assured them. No way to tell for sure, since they weren’t allowed to sail or swim to the other buildings.
A flicker in the sea below: she perked up, but it was only a silverfish. The yellow beam of a flashlight danced over the waves. Temesghen dove to the ground, cursing herself for losing track of the time between patrols. The guards opened the windows above, searching for any illicit activity in the water, their torches passing over the windows of the lower level where she now hid, hoping she’d left no trace of her presence. A bloom of sweat drenched her chest under a loose tunic. Pushing down gurgling nausea, she leaned back against the gritty stone wall and crouched as still as possible. Wandering alone at night on the upper floors was considered trespassing, punishable by only a few months malnutrition and some light torture in the barracks, but those who went down to the forbidden lower floors were often never seen again. Her elderly parents were hard of hearing; she was able to sneak out without disturbing them. As long as she wasn’t caught by the patrols now, no one would ever find out about her desperate desires.
Before the world ended, Temesghen had travelled everywhere she could, visited the remaining green lands and diminished icebergs, taught herself to swim in the Red Sea. Freedom was a cacophonous sunrise, all bright oranges and flagrant pinks. No splintered guilt guiding her, no rumbling, bilious fear; none of the shades of trauma her parents carried everywhere, always. She’d once been a traveler, a nomadic researcher. No one to tell her “no”. As the water had further encroached on the land, she’d worried about the changing shape of the world, but had also been enthralled by the ever-present shimmer on the horizon, the tumult and texture of rising waves. Since being brought to the Stacks years ago, she took solace in watching those waves when she could. Weeks ago, she’d come to her familiar spot to observe the waters and seen a glimpse of pale eyes in the dark. Many people did not believe that ocean dwellers even existed; the overseers firmly denied the possibility that anyone could survive outside the Stacks. But she knew what she’d seen. The spotlight swept across the water, back and forth, then it was gone. She counted a full minute before she finally rose and continued her search.
There — a flash of copper in the waves. A flat sound, like a fin slapping against the surface. An arm. Something, someone, was breaking the surface.
Toes pressing into the rough concrete, Temesghen held her breath as the being emerged from the water. The moon was nearly full. Its pale light burst through the clouds, stabbing like a dagger, to illuminate the scene. The object of her interest had long, matted, dark hair. Brown skin, stretched taut over high cheekbones. Unnaturally pale irises. The being cocked her head when she noticed Temesghen. Tonight, she did not swim away like a startled shoal, but ebbed closer. She trod waters coated in a film of overripe algae like the rotting blooms of spring, waters sometimes lit by hordes of luminescent jellyfish, waters that had seemed endless, impossible, until now. Closer still, until she was right below the window. The rumors were true. Temesghen raised a shaky hand to wave. Her knees wobbled. Through a daze, heart hammering, she remembered the traditional sign her grandmother had taught her as a child, the way to greet a water dweller. Hands pressed together, like a prayer, she motioned as if diving.
The being watched the motion with curiosity, yet did not return the salute. She bobbed up and down in the waves, the webbing between her fingers translucent as she trod the water with muscular arms. Puffing out her chest, she dove backwards into the depths; her head, torso, and breasts were covered in serpentine, coppery scales, followed by thick legs and webbed feet. The waves churned, picking up in height and speed, as if stirred by an angry god.
Transfixed, Temesghen stared out at the waters, waiting. A thud from above. Her bones thrummed, her whole body trembling with a fine, tense anticipation. Another thud, then the clomp of footsteps down the stairs. Guards in this staircase, at this time? They had changed their patrols. A bitterness on her tongue, her breath tight in her throat, she searched for an escape from the guards. She ran up one floor and pushed against the door. It was unlocked. She ran down the hall, landing light on the balls of her feet. Guards’ voices echoed down a perpendicular corridor ahead. Stopping, she gently pushed open a door, hiding out in a closet full of brooms and dust. Suppressing a cough, she waited as the guards passed. After they turned a corner, she ran to the opposite staircase, barrelling up to the twentieth floor, gasping by the time she arrived in her family suite. Gripping her knees, her pulse was palpable in her temples.
Temesghen had started late tonight. In fact, it was already morning. Sunrise’s fingers of warm peach and tender pink were already slipping through the window. As the crests of waves sparkled with light, she caught her breath.
It was too late to get any sleep. Her father’s mildew-induced coughs, like the morning rooster, were already broadcasting from the bathroom. She dressed as she heard her mother rummage in the bedroom, preparing her and her father’s uniforms. Her mother emerged from the room and avoided Temesghen’s gaze. Usually, she couldn’t dodge her mother’s stream of mumbling, seemingly meaningless gossip about so-and-so’s pregnant daughter or lazy neighbors. Something was wrong.
“What is it?”
Her mother ignored the question, continuing to brush the living room floor with her graying head bowed. Her parents’ once buoyant brown faces were now shriveled by a lifetime of upheaval and long-buried sorrow
“Don’t speak to me in that tone.” Her mother’s head snapped up from her broom, as if awakening from sleep. “Where were you?”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m not stupid. What were you doing?”
Temesghen’s face grew hot. “I was just on one of my walks.”
“You went down too far again!” Her mother’s voice grew shrill. “I know you did. I know —” She abruptly stopped. The sound of heavy footsteps could be heard passing by in the hall.
“Relax,” Temesghen whispered. Occupied with tidying the dining table, she avoided her mother’s gaze. “I don’t go down that far anymore. But wouldn’t you want to see them?” She turned to her mother, unable to keep the pleading note from her voice. “If there were people surviving out there?”
Her mother started muttering something in their native language. Temesghen recognized a few words: bless, demon, protect. Her mother closed her eyes, pressing her fingers to her face. Small scars, parallel lines cut into the flesh below her eyebrows, were like talismans; she used to claim all kinds of reasons for these scars — a cure for poor eyesight, an aesthetic preference. One night, after Temesghen had come back too late, her mother had pointed to those scars and announced that they were for protection from the angry old gods, the ones before Jesus.
The demons in the water.
Communal breakfast was eaten in the cafeteria, where the barred windows let in an orange-hued light. Temesghen picked at the dry, flaking skin along her thumb, a consequence of the eczema they all suffered within these walls. Two other teachers sat nearby, bemoaning dissidents through open mouths and teeth caked in reddish bean sauce, but she soon ignored their chatter, devising a new method for returning to the lower floors. An overseer, his dark-blue jumpsuit zipped to the collar, glared at Temesghen as he passed their table. She tried to smooth the errant curls escaping from her bun. Her head ached. This might be her last chance.
Smoothing the wrinkled front of her baggy gray jumpsuit, savoring the last dregs of her bitter coffee, she rose from the table. Her father mumbled goodbye, while her mother remained silent.
Last night’s revelation pulsed through her. She failed to redirect the rowdy children in their small, moldy-cornered classroom, while trying to teach them the day’s lessons. The overseers set the curriculum: math, a narrow range of biological sciences mostly confined to botany and farming, and a few prescribed fairy tales designed to promote adherence to benevolent authority. When she had the energy, she injected resistance where she could. A story of a boy’s unsanctioned journey through a forest, little breaks for art. The kids were boisterous today, requiring her full attention.
Over dinner, her parents made no mention of the previous night. Her father blathered on about manufacturing new parts for the unreliable generators, which were prone to shorting and causing power outages, while her mother remained quiet. That evening, like always, they sat together and listened to the radio broadcasts, the propaganda plays and jangling showtunes. Bedtime was heralded by the clomp of guards’ rubber shoes down the halls. Supposedly, the guards kept them safe from dissenters, or the invaders on hijacked ships that navigated the ocean, climbing up walls and taking what they could.
As she prepared her cot, buzzing with plans for reaching the lower floors that night, her mother emerged from the bedroom. “I need to talk to you.”
Gritting her teeth, Temesghen shook out her sheet. “I’m pretty tired.”
“You must be. Going where you shouldn’t.” Her mother marched to the cot and sat down, triggering a series of high-pitched squeals from the cot’s springs.
She considered simply leaving at that very moment. A simmering canary-yellow rage, bright and simmering, bubbled underneath her skin. Using all of her patience, she pushed down the rebellious feelings and sat.
Her mother took her time, a monarch letting her subject stew before the royal lecture. “I nearly died as a child. First trip to the sea. I can remember it now. My mother held onto me this tightly.” She raised a fist. “But I didn’t listen. I only wanted to feel the water. The sea was something I could not understand.” Her mother wiped her face, her shoulders suddenly drooping. “I thought it was like God: too deep to reach the bottom, stretching around the world with big arms. My little brother and I ran away from my mom into the water. It was warm and full of salt. And then a big wave, something powerful underneath us, like hands pulling so hard. And he was gone like that. I woke up on the sand and my chest hurt and my mother was crying.” Her mother paused, jaw-slacked.
“But Uncle, he was found later?” A small and curled-up part of herself was afraid her mother would cry. Her cheeks were hot with shame. She had the urge to leave the room.
“No, this was before your Uncle. My first brother died. My mother would cry all day, wake up at night and kiss our faces so hard it hurt. ‘Stay away from the water. The ones of the water took him. Stay close to me’, she said. When I was sixteen, I had a secret boyfriend. But he was arrogant, from the wrong family. She told me no love is worth danger. ‘Stay close to me, listen.’”
“Grandma told me about the sea.” A pressure bubbled in Temesghen’s chest. “She loved it.”
“Oh, you knew her when she was an old woman. Soft by then.” Her mother sighed, the long rattle of a kettle about to wail. “I thought I did everything right. Left home for America. Big brick houses, streets paved with gold. But this land was so lonely. Eventually, the water took everything anyway. Maybe I should have never left home. At least then . . .” Her mother turned, a spotlight reflecting at various angles to shine through the window, catching flecks of hazel in her dark-brown irises, the twisting blood vessels snaking along her sclera. “Stop chasing what will destroy you. It is not worth it. Just listen to me.” Her mother’s shoulders rose again, her chest raised, as if she had regained a certain solidity. She nodded to herself, agreeing with a group of invisible listeners. Her eyes were wet, but she did not cry.
Temesghen turned over this story, trying to shake off the spiky intimacy of her mother’s warning. She didn’t know what to say.
After several silent minutes, her mother went to bed.
Her mother’s pain had always been a long arrow, twisted and bent toward her daughter, so she too was pierced by it. Or perhaps that fear was a buoy, tight around Temesghen’s middle. It was the same, always; she tried to escape their fear, they tried to pull her in tighter. A glossy rage foamed and crackled within her. Gathering the hem of her tunic, she crept barefoot over the threadbare carpet, past her parents’ bedroom, and out the front door of the apartment. The lock on the back stairwell remained broken, the door swinging open with delicious ease. She still could avoid the guards if she timed it right; they still needed a certain amount of time to patrol each floor. Sneaking down the ghostly stairs, navigating by touch, she quickly reached the first floor. Her legs were strong from her nightly trips. The air tasted sour and metallic, like wet clothes and old spoons. She slid the window open. Moonlight swam in the air as if she were already underwater. Closing her eyes, the wind dragged its calloused fingers along her cheeks as she tasted brine on the breeze.
When she opened her eyes, her water dweller was right below. There was a bright alertness in her expression, irises such a light gray that they merged with the whites of her eyes. The waves were quiet tonight, so quiet the ocean appeared to be a turgid, vast lake.
“Hello?” Temesghen leaned out the window.
“You’ve returned.” The water dweller’s voice was startling: raspy and low, the timbre of rumbling violets and indigos.
Perhaps Temesghen had not expected her to speak. She glanced up at the outer, blackened gray walls overgrown with purple lichen. No lights in the windows, no faces peeking out. Her limbs were tremulous. She resisted the urge to leap out the window. “I’m Temesghen. I’ve been looking for you for so long. I’ve seen you here before. And in my dreams.”
The water dweller raised her hands. Palms pressed together, a swift diving motion.
“Of course. I remember everything about you.” The waves swelled and retreated around her. “I have seen your face many times. Although you did not realize. Every bright moon. And your face, too, returns to my mind.” She bobbed in the water, dark nipples just above the waves, her webbed fingers barely disturbing the surface. An oak tree, swaying in a breeze.
Temesghen clutched the window’s metal frame, skin pimpling in the cool evening air, or perhaps the thrill of the moment. An exquisite pain echoed through her chest, the high note of a brass instrument. The small holes along the water dweller’s neck opened and closed. She still had mammalian lungs.
The being jerked her head upwards, then refocused on Temesghen. “I hear them coming.”
Temesghen’s throat tightened. She couldn’t yet hear the approach of the guards, but knew they would return soon. “Can you come in? You can climb in through the lowest windows. I can help, I can —”
“I don’t go inside. Behind bars and cement, in these prisons . . . I can’t.” The being dove beneath the water.
“I’ve been so lonely.” Temesghen’s eyes watered. The salt in the air was burning them. Aware of the seconds ticking by, she waited, waited, until the water dweller emerged again, eyes wide and unblinking.
The water dweller’s mouth opened as if trying to form the right words. Night stretched out in its smoky green, the hazy half-light nuzzling against the distant Stacks, settling over the horizon. Flicking her head up, she gurgled. “They’re coming!”
“They’ll never go to the ground floor, please!” Temesghen cried.
The water dweller thrust her broad shoulders back. Gasping for air through her mouth and the holes in her neck, she sent out a low whistling sound before diving into the water.
Footsteps thundered behind Temesghen. Lights already bounced down the stairs, ready to sear. Instead of going up, she followed the swell rising within her, rising to a round and clear amber that overtook her, encased her, and drove her down to the lowest, ground floor.
No one went to the ground floor. It was all foundations, rough concrete, and invading seawater. They were told the water was toxic. Jumping over a barrier, stuck with the bits of cloth of those who had tried to escape in the past, she began to smell a slick, ancient green. The darkness was dense, undisturbed. Ahead, she saw the faintest shimmer of the water, seawater she had not touched in years. She submerged one foot, then the other. They were shouting right above her. The water lapped around her face, bitter malt in her mouth, splashing up her nose, but she remained still. Her skin did not burn. She was not overcome with toxic fumes. After several minutes like this, she felt the sting of the salt in her cracked skin, then felt her fingers prune, sucking in the moisture. The guards argued and stomped above, but soon began to rise again. They were unwilling to go farther, unwilling to believe someone would risk a swim.
Their voices faded. Her eyes had adjusted to the darkness, making out the smudged borders of concrete columns, the edges of a window caked in fungus. Squinting in the darkness, she made out another window on the opposite wall. She could see clear through it, catching a portion of the pulsing moon. It was open. A splash behind her.
She turned in the water, her body confused by the lightness of her limbs, and was face to face with the waterwoman.
“You made it.” Her voice cracked.
This close, even in the darkness, she could better make out the waterwoman’s features. The faint moonlight grazed her nose, painted her jaw. Her skin was smooth, then a mosaic of sharp angles below her collarbone; her scales emerged like a revelation, catching the light in proud coppers and delicate reds. They stood at the same height. She glanced at the window, twitched her arms closer to her sides, her movements flighty.
“It’s okay. They’re gone.”
“We never go inside these walls.” The waterwoman raised her head to the ceiling, breath threaded with feathery, low whistles. “I’m Helena.” She reached out a webbed hand to Temesghen’s face.
Shivering, Temesghen lay a hand on top of Helena’s. They stood like this, feet adjusting for grip against the slick floor, which was covered in a layer of underwater growth.
“I had to reach you.”
“Can you tell me about yourself? While we have time. I want to know everything.”
Helena ran her hand down Temesghen’s arm, speaking in a low, layered voice. She told a story of a life far from here, a life that started before the Stacks, in watery caves and rocky beaches. Her people had always lived between the land and the sea. When the land receded to the water, it was a natural conclusion, an inevitable second coming. But the land dwellers blamed them. She had always stuck to the waters, migrated with her clan from beach to beach, cave to cave. As she spoke, Temesghen was transfixed by her rising and falling cadence. Their fingers brushed underwater, sending shivers like the brush of electric eels. They moved around the water, closer to the window where they were better illuminated. She breathed in Helena’s metallic musk through the brine. She shared too, details emerging in bursts. Helena listened, her lips parting as she searched Temesghen’s face.
Finally, Helena stepped back. “I have to go. Tomorrow, we are migrating. I’ve been wandering too far as it is. We aren’t supposed to go so close to the Stacks. My dreams drew me here, but I have to leave.”
“Migrating? Will you return?”
“I don’t know. We follow the old routes. Maybe in a year, we’ll be in this region again.”
“Please, don’t. Maybe . . .” Temesghen gripped the waterwoman’s hands, velvet-soft in her own. She didn’t know what to say, how to make the moment last. Instead, without thinking, she leaned over and kissed Helena. The waterwoman stiffened, then kissed her back. Helena’s lips were full and tart, her breath hot and bitter. They wrapped their arms around each other, scales impressing themselves into Temesghen’s skin. Helena pulled away, blinking slowly. A second later, she was gliding to the window, grasping its edge and launching herself through it, into the night.
It was some time before Temesghen emerged from the water, dripping wet, coughing up seawater and steadying herself from the rush of adrenaline. Pulling off her tunic and squeezing out the water with trembling hands, she climbed the stairs, naked and cold, entering her family rooms as quietly as she could.
She awoke confused. She’d been dreaming of shadowed figures and glistening waves. Bleary-eyed, she made out a face above her. Heart pounding, she rubbed her eyes.
Sitting up, Temesghen grabbed at the sheets, remembering she was naked underneath and covered in a layer of sweat and grime. It was a dark morning, little light coming in through their window. “I didn’t realize the time.”
Her mother shuffled closer, fiddling with the head scarf tied below her chin, tears streaming down her face.
The tunic she’d stuffed under her bed last night was now washed and drying on the clothes line along the hallway.
Her mother grabbed Temesghen, shaking her by her shoulders. “Why are you doing this?” Her voice was strained, a too-taut violin string. “Don’t bring us any more shame! Don’t fall to her!”
“My own mother warned me about her. I should have never left, that’s why this is happening. Why has she chosen to curse us now?” Her mother’s grip tightened. “I can help.” Before she could react, her mother was pressing the point of their smallest kitchen knife into Temesghen’s left eyebrow.
Jumping up, she pressed her hand to the small cut. “Stay away!” Warm blood was already trickling into her eye and down her cheek.
“Just let me finish, let me help you.” Her mother’s voice grew higher, ready to snap. “It releases her power over you.”
“No one has power over me.” Jaw tightening, she ran to the bathroom and locked the door. She had to get ready for work. In the shower, she quickly washed the blood from her face with trembling fingers, pulling her hair into a wet, misshapen bun. Peeking out of the bathroom, she saw her mother was gone.
At work she could hardly pay attention to her lessons. Blood soaked through her bandage, which she hastily replaced during a short break. Halfway through teaching the students a calculation, the numbers began to confuse her. Wiping the chalkboard clean, she started again. Helena kept flashing into her mind: her glistening skin, the slope of her neck, her graceful dives, the sharp pressure of her scales. She ached to hold her, to swim beside her. There was life adapting to this world, transformed by it, free of the Stack’s narrow, stale rooms and its constant, violent gaze.
At dinner, Temesghen watched the sallow faces along the tables. The chatter mixed together into a familiar static, never too loud, unspoken rules restraining the volume. The tart smells of vinegar, onion, and sweating bodies swam around her. The fluorescent lights shuddered. She ate mechanically, until acid bubbled into her chest. As she stood to deposit her half-cleared tray, one of two guards stationed near the exit looked right at her. Five years back, before the windows had been barred, someone had flung themselves out of a cafeteria window, desperate to swim, to be free. Their escape had led to a clamoring panic. She had been in the canteen then, pushing through screaming people to get to the exit. Guards had been stationed at the doors ever since. One of them, a man she didn’t recognize from the day shifts, pointed in her direction.
Head down, she veered through the aisles. The guard called her name. Avoiding their eyes, she pretended not to hear. As she passed by them, one stepped forward and grabbed her arm. “You there! Stop when you’re called!”
An impulse, like a long-rising wave, seized her. She yanked her hand back. “Let me go.”
The first guard stood, slack-jawed and mouth agape. The other guard began to pull a club from her waist. Temesghen ran through the doors. She was crashing, no longer able to hold, erupting into foam. Everything before had led to this point. Her footsteps rebounded down the empty halls. The guards were catching up.
She ran faster, turning right, then left, diving down a staircase to the floor below. The lights continued to shudder. She lost the guards around one corner, then hid in a utility closet, crouching beneath dusty shelves. Her jumpsuit was drenched in sweat, her breath jagged in her throat. The guards passed by the door, unable to find her. Settling in, she waited.
When she’d first arrived here years ago, she’d imagined the Stacks to be a temporary measure. All that sea could be navigated, unsubmerged land to be mapped. After a while, she’d lost hope that she would ever leave. Then she’d learned of those impossible people, those who lived in the water and on distant, hidden shores. Her dreams had become suffused with long limbs, scaled bodies, salty musk. A clock ticked on the opposite wall. She waited. Several hours passed. The lights flickered on and off. Her knees ached. Guards passed by the door but didn’t open it. It was past 10 p.m. The lights shuddered and went off. Another outage. Now was her chance. Without power, she could take the electronically locked western stairs. The guards would be changing shifts now. In the dark, they wouldn’t catch her in time. She still remembered how to swim; whenever she was alone, she practiced the strokes.
Leaving her shoes in the closet, she ran down the hall and jiggled the door to the western staircase. It caught, then unlocked. A thrill, tangerine-sharp, pierced her. As she ran down the stairs, she heard guards shouting along each floor. Finally, she arrived at the first level. She turned the corner and came face to face with a guard. A young face, half-illuminated by the moon.
Trembling hands raised a club. “Free — freeze!”
“I saw one of them. In the water. Please, let me look.” She had nothing to lose, and this one was young. Perhaps still accessible, before intimidation and doctrine had taken his ability to empathize. “Two minutes. If she doesn’t come, then take me away. I saw someone out there!” She’d let a long-repressed desperation slip through. Tears fell down her face, along with a warm trickle of blood from her cut. She tasted salt and iron. “Please.”
He stepped back, eyes searching her face, as if recognizing something familiar. “I see.” He pulled back his club. “I saw one when I was little. They told me I was crazy. Two minutes.”
Temesghen yanked open the unbarred window. They waited. Ten seconds, thirty seconds, one minute. Her pulse drummed through her ears. An eager wave, rising and falling. A flash of copper.
Helena burst out of the dark waters. “You’ve returned. Are you safe?” Those small holes along her neck opened, gasping little mouths.
“No. Neither are you. I want to come with you.”
The guard was breathing down her neck, a whine in his throat.
“Temesghen. I’m meant for the water, I always was. But . . .” Helena’s voice echoed like the old singers on the radio, “. . . what of you? Others have left, but not everyone survives away from here.”
“I’m strong, I can swim. Take me to where you live, the place you rest on land.”
Helena’s dark hair fell in many small, tight curls around her face and down her back. “Are you sure?”
“I have to go.”
She smiled. “I think I knew you would come with me. I dreamt it. Come down. We’ll go east. To our islands.”
“They’re coming.” The guard whispered.
Temesghen peeled the bandage off her face. Maneuvering her body through the opening, thighs pressing into the iron windowsill, Temesghen watched Helena, felt the pulse of the waves crashing against the walls, and jumped. She soared, feet pointed down in a ballet dive. Then she was submerged. Everything was darkness, water, granules on her tongue. Flailing, she forgot her strokes, until a pair of strong hands reached underneath her arms and pulled her up. Choking, she emerged face to face with Helena. By instinct, Temesghen began to paddle. The water embraced her. She’d missed it so much, this lightness, this freedom. Leaning in, she kissed Helena, fingers combing through the water as she kept herself upright by instinct now.
She glanced backwards, paddling her arms through the water. Through the lower windows, she spotted the flashlights bouncing down the stairs. Her gaze wandered to her floor, her family’s small window. The moonlight was brittle-clear tonight, illuminating the outline of a face. Squinting, her heart rate accelerated. A shadow of a figure in the frame, blocking out the light. They did not move. She held her breath, imagining her mother’s face, eyes shining, light tracing her jaw. Was that a hand, lifted to the glass? Then the shadow disappeared, like an apparition, replaced by the wash of light on the glass.
Temesghen turned to Helena’s gold-brushed cheeks, long eyelashes, pale eyes, hair splaying out in every direction.
“My darling. Let’s swim.”
…aaaaand welcome back. That was “Mama uat-ur” by Z. K. Abraham, and if you enjoyed that, you can find more of her stories at Fantasy Magazine and others, all linked from her website zkabraham.com
Z.K. sent us these thoughts on her Mama Uat-ur: This story emerged from a prompt group, as many of my stories do. I initially had a vision of a post-apocalyptic society living in tall buildings above a drowned world. I took this premise further by adding a fantasy element; I imagined towers, a trapped girl looking out to a malevolent yet mysterious sea, and that girl spotting a being in the waves. My dystopian vision mixed with fantasy and folk tales, specifically a legend I recently learned about called Mami Wata. She is a powerful entity in West African cultures, and I discovered this entity had even existed in my own East African region, possibly as Mama uat-ur. I got to develop this story while learning more about my ancestral legends and beliefs.
Thank you, Z. K., for the story and the thoughts. The atmosphere to this one was incredible, wasn’t it? I’ve sat on this outro for days now trying to find an angle into its layers, to illuminate its depths with merely a thought or two, but all the emotion and ambience has washed over my head and pushed me down to where I can’t see anymore. It has that liminal sense of being possible/impossible, a world that could be versus a world that has nowhere to exist. And yet it still has people that are familiar: people that want to cleave to structure and small horizons and the safe known walls around them, the walls they live in and the walls in their heads; and people for whom that existence is a kind of death, surviving not living, something that cannot be endured but must be escaped, no matter what family or foundations you have to leave behind. And in saying that, y’know what? Something has just clicked, and metaphors have aligned like gears, and I see it, now, the story beneath the story: the grey straitjacket that Temesghen is so eager to escape from, and the colourful world of freedom she might now find in Helena’s company. For all that the setting here is fantastical, I’m afraid that Temesghen’s desperation is all too real for too many in the here and now; almost certainly for some of you listening now. I hope you find your Helena soon, if so, and find your freedom with them. Life should be more than just survival: life should be about thriving.
About the Author
Z. K. Abraham
Z. K. Abraham (she/her) is a writer and psychiatrist. She recently completed a Master’s in Creative Writing with distinction from the University of Edinburgh. She has been published before in FANTASY Magazine, The Rumpus, Apparition Lit, and more. She is in SFWA.
About the Narrator
C. L. Clark
Cherae graduated from Indiana University’s creative writing MFA. She’s been a personal trainer, an English teacher, and an editor, and is some combination thereof as she travels the world. When she’s not writing or working, she’s learning languages, doing P90something, or reading about war and [post-]colonial history. Her debut novel, The Unbroken, came out at Orbit last year, and her work has also appeared in FIYAH and Uncanny.