Nemi sat on her hut’s woven straw floor, peeling purple skins from shea nuts then dropping them into a bowl. Her bony, gnarled fingers, drenched in purple like withered lavender flowers, struggled with the pearl-sized fruits. Each naked shea clanked into the bowl, a sound like a raindrop on a roof’s straw. Glass mourning beads, stained violet from sheas, burdened Nemi’s neck and dress.
Through the lone window Nemi could see thatch huts and leashed ostriches and baobabs sprawl onwards beneath a lapis sky.
She needed to finish the shea butter before the mob came.
As a child, she would stroll with Grandma Ashanti to the shea tree grove outside the village, ignoring the villagers’ whispers and glares, to pick the fruits. They’d return home and Grandma would show her how to peel and cook the nuts and mix the paste. At night, they’d drink honey tea so sweet it made Nemi happy to be alive.
A shea fumbled from Nemi’s fingers. On instinct her arms tensed and brow furrowed and mind focused. The falling shea then hung in the air, held by the invisible, ubiquitous force of “ma’at.” Ordering the push-pull magic always felt like shifting the air with her mind.
The shea came to her fingers like a chick flying towards its mother.
Nemi had considered leaving many times since Grandma Ashanti died. Maybe there was somewhere where the few who could order ma’at wouldn’t be spat on. Where they didn’t think an orderer would blow you up out of maliciousness like soldier orderers did in the old wars generations ago. Where villagers wouldn’t come sneaking under night’s cover to buy your shea, believing it magical and not understanding that ma’at could not be used to imbue anything, only to push or pull. But she didn’t know where. And imagining Grandma’s gapped-tooth grin underneath this same roof still gave Nemi the warmth of a night’s fire. She couldn’t leave that behind.
Little Jye burst through the wooden door, pushing it open with so much ma’at the door split in half. His sidelock plait bounced as he stumbled towards her.
Nemi understood his tears. After all, Fatima’s funeral was today. The stained mourning beads entangled with her hands. She pushed them away and continued peeling.
“Son Jye. Welcome. I would offer you the usual shea tea and kola nuts, but I suppose you are not here for a secret ma’at lesson.”
“After Fatima’s funeral, people were riled. They’re scared of you ordering ma’at but…Fatima died. She used to plait my hair. Everyone misses her. My father told the village, ‘We should finally kill the dirty ma’at witch.'”
She didn’t look up. Nemi would never forget yesterday’s accident. Little Fatima, with her long braids and brown eyes, screaming as her stomach exploded. It was seared into Nemi’s mind as if branded there. The vision had terrorized her dreams.
Ma’at pushed and pulled however it was ordered to, no matter who or what was around. No matter who was ordering it.
Jye’s gift was so strong, still so uncontrolled.
Nemi put her head down and peeled. She at least wanted to leave poor Fatima’s parents the gift of shea butter. Another shea into the bowl.
Jye hugged her, grasping her as tightly as a falling boy would grasp the nearest ledge. “You let them blame you for Fatima. You have to go,” he whispered into her linen dress.
“I have nowhere else.” She hugged Jye back.
Her hug tightened. “Do not feel guilty. You were born with power. You needed lessons. You still do, or yesterday will happen again.”
“But our lessons got Fatima killed!” he cried.
Jye’s tears dampened her dress. Nemi had told Jye to be careful during practice, because at rare times people wandered into the distant savanna behind the village. Nemi’s secret student could push more ma’at harder than her, but he lacked patience and awareness of surroundings.
Nemi peeled. Another shea clattered into the bowl. “My grandmother raised me here. It, and sheas, are all I have of her. I will not leave. I will not leave you.”
He gripped her mourning beads with his small fists. “But they’ll kill you!”
“Then they will no longer have the best shea butter since my grandmother’s.” She winked.
He pulled on her dress to raise her to her feet. “I beg you!”
He wiped his nose. His gaze went to the window. When his eyes bulged she knew what would come next. “They’re coming!”
The mob’s distant rumblings reminded her of an approaching stampede.
She continued peeling. She would get done the little she could to comfort Fatima’s family. Her grandmother would have like that.
“Leave me, Son Jye.”
Jye sniffled again. He planted his feet and faced the door. “No. I won’t let them hurt you. I’ll tell them I did it.”
Nemi’s breath caught. She stood, letting the sheas spill onto the floor. The bloodthirsty chants and cheers grew louder, like thunder just over the hill.
Terror stabbed at Nemi’s gut. If Jye gave into his guilt and confessed, the mob would kill him.
Grandma Ashanti had lived for Nemi, peeling with Nemi in this hut until her body gave out.
Nemi would live for Jye.
She ordered ma’at to part a hole in the hut’s rear. She hobbled toward it, overturning the shea bowls with her bare feet. She smiled at Jye, extending a hand.
“My…my family,” he cried.
“I accept you as you. Would they?”
Jye hung his head. “But…Fatima…”
“Dying won’t bring her back.”
“Where will we go?”
“I don’t care. I can have nowhere else. But I won’t have no one. And neither will you.”
The chants grew louder. She could hear the words now: “Kill the ma’at witch!”
Jye reached for her hand. She escaped with him to anywhere and nowhere.