The Luminous Air of Heaven
“That’s one,” I tell Amooti, “the devil’s eye.” I pause to let the weight of my words worm its way into his ears. “Some even call it the door of death,” I whisper.
Amooti looks at me, catching me in the lie, and we both laugh. He punches me in the ribs, and, wincing, I spit out the roasted coffee beans that I am chewing. “That’s for calling me stupid, Mugisa.”
Our laughter dies down and we stare at the shimmering slices of the enchanting green in the water below that I was pointing at. The water is the truest blue, and the little pockets of green seem to borrow from the unending carpet of savanna that wraps the hills and cliffs around us. We blind ourselves in the stare, watching for where the sun shines in a green glimmer. It’s like the water in those parts weaves its own waves, circular motions that twirl in a spot.
The devil’s eyes are littered all over the crater lakes that lay atop and between hills around Fort Portal. In Kyaninga, the crater that is the closest to home and for which our village is named, you can see them shining, usually below the cliffs.
Rarely, like now, they appear suddenly in a new part of the lake. A single spot holding the attention of the sun. Turquoise hues, shimmering in silver, calling.
In our silence, we wonder what gems the devil’s eyes hold to make them such a marvel. They call us, in their brightness. Still, however, we know not to heed that call, to only swim in the depths we’ve always swum and leave the further depths untouched. We know there is a home to go back to.
As it gets dark, we watch a light go on across the lake. It’s atop a cliff on which builders are constructing something.
“What do you think the builders are building?” I ask Amooti.
“We could go ask for jobs and find out.”
“Yeah. I was told they’ll only take those above 18. We could say we are.”
“But Mugisa you can also see how skinny you are. Everyone can see we are 15.”
“Just say you are a coward.” I stand up and shout through cupped hands, “Amooti is a coward!”
“I’m just not stupid like you, stupid.” With some force, Amooti tugs at my legs even though there is no one around to hear the proclamation, and I fall with a thud.
We stay until the night falls, watching the builders’ light grow stronger as the night gets darker. It now seems to split the lake in two.
“There is no moon tonight,” I tell Amooti. “Wait here.”
I have a plan.
I run to a shrub nearby and come back with two thorns.
“Let’s make a covenant of brotherhood.” I look into his eyes and dare him. They are brown, the eyes. Light, like filtered honey.
Amooti squints through his white eyelashes but doesn’t say a word. I know he will.
I give Amooti one coffee bean from those I’m eating and a thorn, and set aside one of each for myself.
“Are they supposed to be salted? These are for eating,” Amooti asks, but there is a crack in his voice.
“Well, it can only make the brotherhood stronger.” I try to sound brave, but my voice sounds shaky too, and I can tell this comforts him.
We take our shirts off. Amooti’s chest is pale, his skin dotted pink, almost white because he never takes the shirt off. He says the sun is not good for his skin. I look away so as not to watch him prick his navel. Amooti suppresses a shout, and I only hear him exhale with a grunt. I prick my navel as well, but I feel something stab my head, and I let out a noise. Animal noise, Amooti tells me.
We each cover our coffee beans with the navel blood and give them to each other to eat, swallowing them whole. I reach for a weed I know in the grass, get its leaves, and grind them between my fingers and palm. They produce a dark green juice that is bitter to the nose. Afterwards, I give the crushed leaves to Amooti to put on his navel, and when he does the bleeding stops. I put some on my navel too.
We greet each other the next time we find ourselves atop the hill overlooking the crater, and there is a satisfying heaviness that fills up my chest. I know Amooti feels it too.
From the top of the crater, the lake below is a blue void. Clusters of white fog float above it, twirling in suspense like miniscule clouds. The brightness of the early sun lights up the air, casting shadows of cliffs upon other cliffs like a black choral dance. Us, a couple of gods in heaven, watching. We sit up in the grass and watch tiny people and machines crush things on the other side of the hill.
“What do you think the builders are building?” Amooti asks me.
“They are mining for gold.”
“See the cranes they’ve put in the further depths; it must be oil .”
“No way. It’s gems.”
“It’s the healing water. They are making a factory to package it.”
We take turns guessing.
We come here every evening. We watch the cliff across take on different shapes; flattened here and curved there. Things blow, machines bark and roar, sometimes the ground trembles. Dust from crushed rock rises, at times from the water below, and our curiosities grow.
Amooti suggests that we swim across the crater. At night, when the builders are asleep. We can then climb up the cliff and see what the builders are up to.
I am afraid of swimming at night. I worry that a devil’s eye may appear, and we will swim right into it. But I look at Amooti and say yes, hoping he doesn’t see the fear in my eyes.
I say yes because that’s the only time Amooti swims. Only after the sun melts behind the cliffs, drenching the sky and horizon with its burnt orange remains does he swim. Then his pale skin won’t break out in blisters of red and brown.
That night we go to the lake, sidestepping every nook in the pathway in an exercise of memory. Kyaninga is our village, and we know it with the pressure in our feet just as we do with the vision in our eyes. Down the steep slope of the valley, I pluck at a bush in the dark and show Amooti a purple flower that I know.
“These only smell at night. Like flavoured milk. Vanilla.”
Amooti takes the flower and sniffs. Something fragrant and light hits his nostrils. Vanilla.
“How did you know this, Mugisa?” He smiles, amazed.
“Yeah, you can’t smell it and not smile. It does that to people.”
“Ha…I didn’t smile, Mr Botanist.”
Amooti holds onto the flower. We stand at the edge of the water, our feet soaked in the soggy foliage that lines the lake, our faces glued to where we are bound. The smell of rotting vegetation and the piercing freshness of cold blend in the air, strong enough for us to taste and spit out. I look at the builders’ light splitting the lake into two and shiver.
“Is it still the devil’s eye if the glimmer is from an electric light?” I want to ask, but I figure it sounds stupid, so I don’t.
“That will guide us,” Amooti says about the light as if reading my thoughts.
When Amooti strips, leaving only small khaki shorts, I think I see his pale body, now almost the colour of the moon, shudder.
“It will be alright,” Amooti says, so silently, and then, turning to me, repeats, “It will be alright.”
I see a nakedness in Amooti’s light brown eyes. It looks like fear, but it is fear at bay. It is fear that will not be listened to, fear that is used to being ignored, and so it curls like a child at the back of the head. Fear that does not put up a fight.
“It will be,” I reply.
I feel my fear stutter, untamed.
“It will be alright,” I put it together.
I remove my shirt and drop it to the ground. Amooti looks over at my trousers and I nod to say, no, I won’t be taking them off, where on another day I would shake my head to say the same. Amooti gathers our clothes, placing the flower on top.
“Let’s go,” he says and immediately dives into the water.
Shocked, not waiting for thought to form into fear, I dive in as well.
The water is cold on impact, then slightly warm. I swim along to the drifting shape that comes in and out of the water ahead of me. We do not stop until halfway.
Amooti stops and turns, laughing aloud. He makes a noise, a kind of whistle, a trumpet sound, and it comes back to us from the cliffs that surround the crater in different tones. I laugh and make my own, but it’s not loud enough, so it goes, clean, and does not return. Amooti looks at me and ducks his head.
I think he is coming to scare me under the water. I look at the builders’ white light still tearing the lake in two, and notice we are closer to the cliff without realising it. I submerge myself to beat Amooti to our destination.
I hear my name twice and swim further. I push my head out of the water, and notice that I have crossed the builders’ light. Amooti is on the other side of it. Suddenly, I feel tired. The waves are raging, I feel them push. But I pull away, arms flapping in the water. I try to reply to the call but only cough, the fullness of water stinging my eyes and nostrils and throat. I hear my name again, further and then further away.
I try to call out for Amooti, but there is a tightness in my chest, breathlessness – pain. My legs are held back; the more I flap them, the tighter they become. Words cannot form. My mind is screaming. It screams forever, or what that feels like.
I feel lost. I am lost.
I watch us from the vantage point of space. A sudden clarity over everything below. Amooti’s head bobs over the water, turning all around, searching. My trousers and feet are easing from a rock’s clamp.
Amooti thinks he now sees a head back across the builders’ light, but only for a second, and it disappears.
He charges for the light, back to it.
He swims but seems to be going nowhere. The builders’ light is now a mirage in the water, always shining a little further. He swims and his arms give way, and he keeps searching until he finds himself back at the shore.
“He is not yours…he is mine,” Amooti pleads.
“My brother’s mine!” he screams, chants, his voice in the tone of a stranger.
Our clothes lie untouched, the purple petunia atop them like a one flower wreath.
I do not return.
And yet Amooti curls, squatting, waiting.
The next day Kyaninga is alive, bustling with the news of a body found at the foot of the cliff on which the builders are constructing. Some say a foot was twisted, others say it’s entirely missing, and to others yet, it’s the eyes missing.
Months later, Amooti learns of a settlement by the hotel – the builders – to my family. An unfortunate accident due to the construction debris, a consideration for the contamination and life taken.
Amooti refuses to go back to the crater. When he leaves Kyaninga, he vows never to return, as if there is no home to go back to.
Amooti has learned to play games with death. For 12 years now he has tried to dictate what could be his and what death can take. It is a chant grown into a song. A song grown into a game.
In the evenings he takes a stroll to the main road, stands by a building, and studies the state of traffic. When he sees that there are more the white cars than black ones, he assigns them.
“The white cars are mine, and the black ones are yours.” And so he counts, “One white, two white, one black, three white.”
He doesn’t think death has a voice or he’d know it by now, so he counts for him too. But that doesn’t stop death from cheating. Sometimes, as soon as he says “white is mine” the cheating devil fills the road with every colour of cars except white, tails of black fumes wheezing away in mockery.
“Next time I will bet on black fumes,” he curses.
When it starts to get dark and all he sees are a series of red taillights, he makes his nightly pilgrimage back to his apartment. He slows down when he reaches the place that smells of the familiar whiffs of vanilla – the petunia flower, the genesis of his ritual. He smiles; it has that effect on people. He has known this for a while. From the time he walked this path and smelt the particular scent of that one night, that teenage saudade, he uprooted a bit of it and has been collecting all the wildflowers he can find.
He notices something new, a scent – light, sharp, clean. He takes it in little gulps of air. He tries to block out the vanilla, and suddenly it hits him – orange, citrus. Yes, citrus. He hurries his eyes over the plants. He sees it and immediately knows it’s the one, the citrus flower. Small, white flowers freshly bloomed.
Amooti genuflects to the ground, touches the flowers and follows the stem with his fingers down to the ground. The flowers will be choked by dust or wheels if left here, he believes, so he takes what he can. Aware that his tall frame must cut a strange figure squatting by a roadside bush, he gets a paper bag and pen from his pocket and uses the pen to dig up the citrus-fragrant plant. Placing the lump into the paper bag, he takes his prize home.
At home, he gets an empty pot that is already filled with compost, and he puts the flower in. He waters it and takes it to the balcony.
His balcony is a hundred shades of green. A botanist’s shrine. Pots big and small take up most of the space on the floor, green and brown stems jutting out. The rails are draped with climbing plants, and baskets hang from the ceiling, their floral contents cascading down like waterfalls.
Amooti lounges in a wicker chair and stares at the flowers; his only company, his little wonders. It’s the world squeezed into his little apartment, like a secret. It’s the Garden of Eden suspended six floors above the ground. His view from the balcony is of the distant city, the dark hills of Kampala illuminated by a million starry lights. He brings his eyes to the campion; loved by butterflies, slender with its pink petals. Then the yellow star grass; he wonders how a field covered in the yellow flowers might look. He worries for the endangered bread palm, growing wide and taking up space, but he lets it be.
He gets his phone, takes a picture of his new baby, and enters it into the Google search bar. It’s the angel’s trumpets, smells like oranges and is poisonous too.
Amooti falls asleep in the wicker chair by the balcony. It’s cold, and so he dreams of the cold night by the crater. He calls me forth in his dream, and we are together again. I am older but still skinny. Our faces are those of perfect youthful bliss, the natural progression of time as if I never left. It’s night and we are swimming, but this time it’s the moon splitting the lake, and not the builders’ light.
In Amooti’s dream, we swim through the crater, daring further without fear. Now we swim through his flowers, the petunia spreading out in a floral sea. He feels something heavy in his chest. Drowning, he fears, but then he remembers he is swimming in flowers that smell of vanilla. Happiness, he realises, it is absolute happiness seeping out through his eyes. After this realisation, further we will swim, venturing and swimming through the blissful perfect places that cannot be pictured outside dreams.
He will wake up in the wicker chair on that cramped balcony, the fresh bloom of the morning glory stinging his nostrils. He will remember the expansive sea of petunia, and the crater, and very briefly, my face of imagined youth. The face will disappear forever, as hard as he will try to find it. I will show my other older faces to him in random moments, like at his wedding, as he clasps the fingers of his beloved on the church steps. I will return when he is 40, more clearly, and then more frequently as he grows older. I will even spend a week with him at 74 before the night he passes surrounded by his beloved, their four children and grandchild by his bedside. Just us, two old men recounting a life lived. But that face of perfect youthful bliss saying, dare, live, swim, will never return.
When he wakes up in the wicker chair, as he reminisces about the night, an irritation will brew in his mind, the cramping of the space compared to the endlessness in his dreams. The dream will remind him of his years back home, the days spent atop the crater washed in that luminous air of heaven. Agitated that he can hardly find space for his feet, he will get his phone and call his mother, saying, “I’ve been thinking of coming back, yes, for good.” And, “I hope I can still swim.”
Charlie Muhumuza is a writer living in Kampala. His short fiction has been published in Jalada Africa, Isele Magazine, and elsewhere. Charlie was awarded third prize at the inaugural Kalahari Short Story Competition in 2020 and was longlisted for the 2021 Afritondo Short Story Prize.
*Image by Andreea Popa on Unsplash