Happy Holidays, readers! I hope everyone found some peace and inspiration, however strange or small or unexpected. And while you consider your world in 2019, I want to tell you that my novel, “Sugar and Dust” will be available on eBook on March 1, 2019, and Paperback on March 15, 2019. And if you are are a forgetful person, or March feels like forever away, you can sign up on a mailing list at http://www.ellakerr.com and I will email you directly and let you know the book is SO ready to read.
Enough business talk. Below is a little bit of a teaser: an excerpt from “Sugar and Dust.”
I knew where to find Maya. Not because she told me but because I saw her thick hair in the back of the brown pickup truck picking its way down the road one evening. She covered her head with fabric to shield her face from the dust, but I knew it was her. And I knew the pickup truck.
The truck belonged to a Somali man who lived ten kilometers from the Manor. He was an older man, probably in his late sixties. He had a definitive Somali look. I could’ve guessed where he was from by glancing at his eyes, his cheekbones, the texture of his hair. Legend had it he fled Somalia in the midst of the pirating days just a few years before. I heard that his brother was a pirate. I heard that he was a pirate. I heard that he was attempting to take over all of East Africa with his milky blue eyes and wispy white hair. I heard he came to this country to gather mistresses from all over the world, to have them do the pirating work for him, to loot and steal and bask in his eternal pirate glory. I think he mostly wanted peace. I think he came to live in the dust because it felt better than the Somali sand in his eyes.
I don’t remember his name, but I do remember he had one hundred and ten camels. In a land where livestock determined one’s wealth, he was a king who lived in a brick and mud house and drove a white pickup truck that sat low to the ground. It was no wonder people called him a pirate: camels were expensive, and one hundred and ten of anything made you a king.
The morning after I spoke with the Kenyan poet I got up with the sun and drove the ten kilometers to the Somali’s house. The sun rose pink and orange and full of juice that this land thirsted for.
I pulled in between the thorn bushes that formed a fence for the camels. The sun had begun to cast thick shadows of the animal’s necks on the ground.
The man stood outside: his black skin thick and shiny, his eyes electric blue, his hair white. Long white fabric covered him to mid calves. He waved when I approached.
I slammed the car door and carefully stepped my way through the thorn bushes to his home. A fire was burning outside; a young boy tended it and boiled thick yellow milk in a pot just above the flames.
“Welcome,” he greeted me in English, “How can I help you this morning?”
The camels began to stir in their thorn bushes, gracefully gliding to a full standing position, making soft snorting noises with their enormous muzzles.
“I am looking for a friend of mine. I believe she may be staying with you.”
“Sit down,” he said, smiled warmly, and shuffled toward the entrance to his home. “Maaz will make you some chai. Let me see if I have any friends you may know here.”
I sat on a wooden bench and the young boy poured the thick tea into a tin cup and set it in front of me. “It’s from the camel’s milk,” he told me in shaky Swahili.
Maya stepped heavily outside, barefoot and sleepy. She pulled a faded purple fabric more tightly around her shoulders, “Good morning, Madame,” she said, dipped her head for me to touch with my palm in the traditional tribal greeting.
Maya and I sipped the thick tea in silence for a few moments before she spoke again.
“I think the others told you what happened…” she said, looking into her tea.
“I did hear what happened. It was difficult not to hear what happened.”
“Does my father know yet?”
“Not that I am aware.”
“Has anyone said when he is coming back?”
“I don’t know, Maya.”
Another long silence, another sip of tea that went down thick and sticky.
“He’s going to kill me when he finds out. You know that, right, Madame? He will actually kill me.”
The camels seemed to sway with the wind.
“I can get you out of here. To Kenya. If that’s what you want.”
Maya kicked the dust with her bare feet and brought the purple cloth up over her head. I had never noticed before that her eyes were so light, a toffee color.
The Somali man sat on the wooden bench next to me and was given his own cup of thick camel tea. We stopped our conversation and finished our tea in silence. Soon he stood, grabbed his herding staff and woke the camels that had yet to rise and greet the day. He tapped the beasts gently on the hump and they rose: back legs first, then front legs. They made a soft, groaning noise in miniature protest.
“What will I do in Kenya?”
“You will attend school. I can get you a sponsor. Maybe not the schools we talked about. Maybe not the school that’s first choice, but you’ll be alive.”
“And I won’t have to watch cattle…” Maya muttered under her breath.
A hot feeling in my face rose. It wasn’t from the sun; it was at my long coming reaction at Maya’s careless and reckless actions. “We need to talk about what you did…”
“OK. Let’s talk about it.” Maya re-crossed her legs, folded her arms across her chest and smiled, challenging, “But I am happy I did it.”
“That’s the thing. I can help you; I can send you to Kenya and give you a push to make a future for yourself. But how do I know that you aren’t going to do something wild and crazy there? How do I know that as soon as you cross that border you won’t get upset again and get in a fight, or destroy someone’s property and end up in jail?”
My mind raced to all of the things worse than cows that Maya could potentially shoot: a raucous neighbor, a family pet, heroin.
The Somali shuffled back toward us and squinted at the rising sun. The wrinkles at the side of his eyes formed cracks and dips like the ground we stood on.
“You aren’t talking about taking my young daughter away from me now?” he laughed, a playful tone in his voice, “She’s a good cook you know. And those eyes are pretty to look at.” He was not rude or suggestive in his tone. He seemed to honestly enjoy having Maya around. I was wary with trust and did not want to give this man my complete faith, but he did give Maya a place to stay, and my heart did not feel nervous when he took a step towards me. The man with blue eyes did not say much, but he had taken in a girl who needed a place to stay, and that’s all I needed for trust back then.
“I want to thank you, sir, for taking care of my young sister. I can’t tell you how much you have helped giving her a place to stay given the situation….” I paused, assuming the old man knew the entire story. Of course he did. News in this village travelled faster than the dust.
“She’s a smart girl, Maya is. If you are able to help her, Miss Isabel, then do it. This girl will move mountains, inshallah.” The old man sighed. And then, just as smoothly as he came into our conversation, he floated back out, white vest flapping in the breeze like a lost seagull’s wings.
“Why does that man let you stay here?”
Maya puffed out her big cheeks and slowly exhaled, “He’s an old man. Only sons. He came and found me after he heard what I had done to my father’s cattle. He told me if I cooked and cleaned for him I could stay with him for a while. He also said he knew you would come find me.”
“How did he know that?”
Maya stretched her feet out long under my legs. She smelled like Ivory soap and the earthy scent of camel milk tea. “Because you see his eyes? Blue eyes on black skin mean they see things. Future things. Blue eyes in Africa mean you are a witch.”
“Is he a good witch or a bad witch?”
Ivy had believed in witches. She burned sage in the house to cleanse the energy in her home in New Orleans whenever something bad had happened, whether it was a skinned knee or a gas station robbery. When I was sick with a cold she would boil rosehips and brandy and force the still scalding liquid between my lips. “Brew” she called it. She never made the brew strong enough to save herself, though. She never did anything enough to save herself. I watched my hands move like her hands as I interlaced them behind my head and gently wrapped my hair up in my scarf just as she would have. I waited for Maya’s answer.
“He is a good witch. But he can see things that we can’t see. He knows the future. And he said that if I waited here long enough, and stirred the chai and waited, you would come for me and you would take me out of this place.”
In the distance, the old man patted the nose of a young camel; his wispy white hair blew in the breeze. From meters away, his eyes glittered like sea glass.
“What else did he say, Maya?”
“He said that you weren’t black and he said that you weren’t white.”
I crinkled my forehead, caught off guard by the comment. “What am I, then?”
“He didn’t say that part.”
The sun rose higher overhead and I squinted into the light, wondered if I was getting those wrinkles in between my eyebrows like Theresa had.
“Anything else he knows about me that I should be aware of?” I kicked Maya playfully but her face remained serious.
“He said the day that we would find freedom, the rain would come.”
We both stood silent and looked over the flat land, the dust cloud over the camel’s’ feet, the small squat trees with menacing long white thorns. The children used those thorns as toothpicks when a goat or a cow was killed and the whole family feasted. They snapped the thorns off at the base and picked at their perfect teeth while they washed plastic plates in a tub of water, or gathered cow dung in lieu of firewood. We looked out past the blue hills in the distance, across from the yellow sun, a definitive circle. We looked out to the dark clouds that suddenly descended on the horizon. Deep angry gray swirled with the dust. The wind picked up and the clouds crawled closer, like a stray dog, hungry but wary, slowly, slowly making its way to our feet. And then, the rain started.