Mago walked alone through the corridors of her home. This early in the morning no one could be found on the upper floors. She took the gently slopping stairway that wrapped around the four-storey building. She liked the feel of the rough granite on her bare feet and the sound of the wind whistling through the hollow air vents that dotted the outer walls. Nesting birds made their homes in the vents and a few late risers greeted her with their song. It reminded her of her childhood home with the breeze coming off the beach and noisy mornings trying to get everything done before it got too hot. Stepping into her modern office, complete with a standing desk and a Roomba, was jarring. She was in an odd way today. Her body would not settle on a mood.
Instead of taking her usual seat and calling for coffee, she waited by the large bay windows for her personal assistant. This early in the morning she could see the dew on the golden statue that stood guard over her roses. The drops glittered on Selwa’s small nose and shimmered all the way down to the bottom of her gown. Mago was so distracted by the play of light that she did not hear her PA come in.
“I’m sorry Padma, pardon me. I’m a little out of it today.” Mago said.
Padma’s lips rose a little and she gave a brisk nod then turned the page back to her binder. The thing looked heavy enough to knock out a bull.
“I was just telling you that the eastern tunnel operation is closing down for at least three weeks for repairs to the equipment. The foreman will be sending a full report but it seems that the hydraulic cone crusher has broken down again. All the workers will be on paid leave until it reopens.”
“Alright, make sure we tell everyone who should know.”
“Of course. We’ve also received a warning from the insurers about coming rainfall in the next month. The Gedinese weather department predicts floods and mudslides. The relevant teams are assessing the threat level and will give a recommendation on Ishumaa.”
“We should start preparations for a full shutdown all the same. And please have them extend the assessment to Makutano and the surrounding villages. It wouldn’t make sense to safeguard the mines and lose workers all the same.”
Padma added the note.
“One last thing, the speaker of the senate has invited you to testify before the trade committee.”
“Please inform the speaker that I would sooner dance the forbidden tango with a revenant corpse.”
That got a wide grin out of Padma. They discussed a few more administrative matters and then she was gone as quietly as she came. Mago went back to the window and watched the statue for a while.
The first time Mago saw the statue was in the house in Mombasa. She was returning from the market when the gardener ran past her as though Shaitan himself was chasing him. After him, the cooks and the maids. She tried to ask what was wrong but all they did was make the sign to ward off evil. She started to run towards the kitchens but a new group of people came rushing out. The harem, that’s what everyone called them or baba’s entourage if they were being generous. They were wrapped in scarves, many hardly clothed and each one of them was carrying an item or more of gold. Golden cups, golden shoes, a golden statue of a cat that looked terrifyingly familiar. Mago elbowed past them and entered the kitchen.
The house was quieter than she had ever heard it on a Saturday afternoon. The loud wailing coming from inside notwithstanding. She took slow, careful steps avoiding the vegetables and taking the pots out of forgotten fires. When she passed the dining room she had to avert her gaze from the glare. The dining table large enough to fit a battalion shone gold as did the chairs and all the cutlery that remained. Mago poked a fillet of fish and jumped back when she touched warm metal. The wooden arches leading into the living room were golden too. It was a shame. They were of traditional Lamu design, carved out of Mvule hardwood and worth far more than gold.
There she was. Selwa in her full splendor. She wore a silk gown with leather slippers. Teardrops hung from her ears and neck. They used to be diamonds but no more. Every strand of her curly hair stood out in a way that neither artist nor machine could achieve. Her hand reached out as though caressing a lover’s face. Their father wept at her feet. For a moment, Mago did nothing but stare. She was sure it was a dream. Long ago she had sipped from an abandoned glass of wine and hallucinated for days after. But even in her dreams, she could never conjure her father in this whimpering, pathetic state.
“Baba.” She said.
His head shot up. His hair, soft and curly like Selwa’s, stuck to his head. His eyes were changed and his irises were ringed with gold. Even his tears glimmered.
“He tricked me. The pirate tri…this is a curse. Everything I touch…everything.” He blubbered.
She wanted to run. This was beyond anything she knew. She would find a mistress of the arts and bring her here or she would close the damn door and set this cursed place on fire.
He may have seen it in her eyes or he may have simply found what little of his sanity was left. A hateful sneer overtook his panic and Mago prepared to run.
“I saw you talking to him. Did he give you some of his magic? A witch just like your mother. Take this curse back, take it back now. Bring Selwa back to me or I will…”
Her father had never asked her for anything. He often punished her for failing to do things she did not even know she was meant to. Sometimes he invited her to do things she would never do just to entertain himself or his friends with her revulsion but those were not requests either. Something dark burst out of a hidden place inside her and poisoned her whole being.
“Sleep baba. You know you want to sleep. Put both hands on Selwa’s feet and go to sleep.”
He fell into a deep sleep and Mago went out into the garden. She paced under the palm tree and tried to think. Soon, word would reach everyone in the village and they would come to see for themselves. She needed a spell to confuse them and send them back. Failing that, she could call a python and compel it to lay across the path to the house, add an owl for good measure. She could call to whoever was close enough to hear for help with anything more. That would expensive though. Mago laughed. No one would refuse payment in gold. She went back to the kitchen and started brewing.
All the women she called for help thought Selwa should be destroyed. There was no life in her and even if her father’s curse could be reversed, it would not bring her back. Mago refused. They cleaned up the mess and the memories in the village, came up with a plan to leave without raising suspicion and sought the pirate through magic and inquiry. When they had done all they reasonably could, they packed her zombie-like father and her sister’s statue into a newly purchased motor.
Mago had one last cup of tea with Bibi Hadza, her mother’s best friend and the blind terror of Kisauni.
“I don’t understand why you’re taking her. She hated you more than I think anyone has ever hated anything.”
Mago smiled. Bibi Hadza did not know half of it. Selwa was only two years younger than her but she carried the venom of an ancient vampire. She lived for their father’s happiness and he was only happy if Mago was screaming. He was already a man with appetites drawn to the excess, so Selwa had to be especially inventive. She was a ghoul with the face of a cherub.
“She didn’t know not to.” Mago said.
“And what will you do with him? You have more money than anyone could hope to spend in a lifetime. Just drown the bastard.” Bibi Hadza said.
The thought did have its appeal. Would he drown before the water turned or would he be entombed? A statue within a statue. A claustrophobic nightmare but Mago only considered the possibilities with scientific curiosity.
Mago took a sip of tea and watched the spices dance in her cup. She had an ugly scar on her right thigh from a burn that was never allowed to heal right, punishment for breaking a porcelain cup.
“No. I have plans for baba.”
They moved to Kitale where Mago bought three hundred acres of land and a large farmhouse. Her land would grow to six thousand and eight hundred acres in just two years. It was where she pretended to mine gold with the magically-compelled collaboration of hundreds of workers. No one knew everything but a few people knew enough to keep things going. Selwa was installed in the shed and mining permits were acquired. The most difficult part, after finding the doctors, was getting her father to collaborate. It was only after months of working with doctors and witches that she came to the obvious solution.
She went to see her heavily sedated and restrained father in the basement of the farmhouse. Already, the doctors were making great progress in understanding the mechanism of his power to transform. Unfortunately, they could not get him to make the bricks that were crucial to her plans. His eyes narrowed slightly when she sat by his bed but he had no other reaction.
“Baba, you know what a blood oath is, don’t you? It’s the one my mother made to you when she left her people and made a spell that would kill her if her family tried to separate you. You know, the one that killed her anyway because you betrayed that love and the spell turned on her?” Mago said.
A low throaty moan was his only reply.
“Oh I didn’t curse you. I don’t have that power with your pig’s blood mixed in with hers.” She went on, “I want to make a deal with you. If you agree to transform gold for me for exactly three years, I will put an end to your misery. I’ll take a blood oath and you’ll do what you’re asked for three years.”
He was defiant for four days. Mago almost respected him for it. Ultimately, she performed the right of the oath while he watched. After that, she only saw him when they celebrated Selwa’s birthdays with dates and her favourite whiskey.
Today, she met the chef at the elevator that only went down to the basement. When he uncovered the spread, she clapped her hands in excitement.
“Everything smells divine. Thank you.”
She rolled the service tray past the doors to the subterranean vault and stopped to wave at the two lab assistants starting their shift. She came to the ward doors and pushed them open with her shoulder.
“Habari ya asubuhi Baba, I thought we could celebrate with a last meal.”
She uncovered the trays on the table to reveal a breakfast fit for an emperor. Roasted guinea fowl slathered with a honey wine sauce, sausage rolls with caramelised onions, crispy rashers of bacon, freshly baked bread, cured Irish butter and a pot of piping hot black Arabica coffee. Mago had created the menu herself. She had watched him and Selwa indulge in this feast enough times to describe every dish in detail.
She sat down to eat, positioning the chair so he had an uninterrupted view. Right on schedule, his nutrient mix pumped out of one of the machines she’d paid a fortune for and into the tube running up his nose. Like all the equipment that sustained him, none of it touched his exposed skin. Mago poured herself a cup of coffee, added three sugars and took a bite of the bacon. She spread butter on the warm bread and ate slowly.
A dizzying cocktail of muscle relaxers, antiepileptic drugs and sedatives kept him from doing anything that would cause a problem they could not fix. He could not sneeze, cry or ejaculate. They had chemically deadened the parts of his brain that could cause nightmares or involuntary jerks. It was a terrible thing to do to a man whose life had been an unending festival of hedonistic excess. Although, Mago could imagine more terrible things.
In the early days, they had experimented with a coma but his alchemical gift was tied directly to his consciousness. So awake he remained. His large appetites for food, drink, and debauchery were likely unchanged but impossible to satisfy. When Mago was having a bad day, and running an empire provided many of those, she would remember this and it would perk her right up.
“Well, I suppose this is it. Don’t give me that look, I’ll bury Selwa with you.” She smiled, “At least one wish of yours will be exactly as you’d imagined. She’ll be forever young and by your side. Does that please you, you foul, lecherous toad?” She said.
She pressed a button by the side of his tank.
A voice came through from the medical lab confirming Mago’s order. As new liquids began to pour into her father’s body she idly wondered what she would do with the medical lab. They would want more time to do tests on the corpse but she would not let them stay for more than a few months.
The machines attached to him screamed with warnings and then stopped. He sunk slowly to the bottom of the tank. When his hands touched it the tank did not change. Mago picked up the last piece of bacon and ate it as she walked out of the room.