Fiction · 11/06/2019

Horns

Rub the coarse fur. Let his heat warm your hands. White his yellow coat with suds that split the sun. Smooth his fattened belly, hoping it’s not all cardboard and plastic bags, that le mouton, the ram, also ate mango skins and fish heads with all the other garbage in Yoff, where he roamed the beach. Dry him with scraps of towel until his fur lights up the late afternoon.

Cos! Malal squats next to you, drying the legs. You taught him to say that.

Pretend with exposed teeth that you’re also looking forward to tomorrow, the yearly ritual, the feast of Tabaski. Absorb his joy.

Cousins bloom like bissap in this city. In New York you had none. Now you have more than you can count. Some are at university, like Malal. Watch them laugh and pace up and down this sandy street where your uncle lives. Behind the gate, a tiled courtyard and a separate wing where each wife soothes the newest members of your Mammi’s people, who want to play with the bubbles that float off the sheep’s fur.

The next morning, arrive on the same sandy street in Oakam, in time to show Malal you’re one of them. Not for Abraham and Isaac, not for the angry youth convening around the President’s Palace, but because you’re running out of places you belong.

Look down the road, dotted with rams, each with a rope tied around his neck, next to a hole that will swallow the blood. Malal coaxes the one you washed onto its side, a brown ring around his eye.

Open the gate and peek at the women and girls inside the compound, peeling carrots and chopping onions, steaming cassava. Simmering mustard-onion sauce for the feast. Stacking and wiping off three round metal dishes, one for the men, one for the women, one for the children.

Cos! Malal calls. The boys need help holding the sheep still. He’s kicking his legs in the back, and the two smaller ones aren’t up to the task. Pretend you don’t hear him, not over all the bleating. The sand cements your feet where they stand. There’s no way you are going to be the one to stare into his circled eye when they cut his throat.

The little ones bounce from foot to foot. No one else seems to be worried about what’s about to happen. And no one is a vegetarian. Not at Eid. Up and down the street, prone rams sound like a call to prayer in animal tongues. Jagged. Sour.

Cos! Malal needs you. The boys are losing to the kicking hoofs. Hands and calves are bruised from the ram’s protest. They want to give up. Shake your head no because there’s no way. Point to your crisp dark jeans. Malal will think it’s all about maintaining your New York edge.

Sheep must be sacrificed, you understand. But to be the one to hold his head when your uncle appears with a knife, says the prayer, and makes the cut is impossible. You cannot bear the sound of the knife through the skin, like Velcro pulled apart. You cannot look when the sheep’s neck opens, dark purple streaking matted fur. Still cool from morning, the blood will steam when it hits the cold sand. Soon the yellowing beast will be hung, then skinned, his parts piled in a plastic bowl. Legs on top of ribs, the liver a prize, shimmering on the top. Find Malal’s eyes, squinting towards you into the sun, confused that you’re not also feeling the pull of blood and ritual and family.

For a million dollars, you couldn’t hold the head.

The one thing you’ve always had, when your father comes for you, is two free legs to sprint.

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Tej Rae is a freelance writer currently based in Rome, working on her third novel. As journalist and fiction writer, her publishing credits include The Washington Post, BBC Focus on Africa magazine, The National newspaper in UAE, YogaLife Middle East, The Wheelhouse Review, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, Eunoia Review, and Fiction365, among others. Tej has two children and travels with her husband who works for the United Nations. She spent twelve years teaching high school English in Zambia and Senegal, where she founded Africa’s first children’s museum, ImagiNation Afrika.