With a jolt, Erika tumbled out of the dream, out of sleep.
Her heart was pounding. Her throat was parched. She felt her skin and shuddered because it was icy. Throwing a glance at the window, she recalled she’d drawn the curtains because the night had been hot. It wasn’t now, and dawn slowly peeked through the sky.
With a thug, she dragged the wrapper over her body and stumbled to the table.
Nne insisted everyone kept water in their room before going to bed. Erika gulped with gratitude for that wisdom. Then she set back the stainless cup, and out of habit, made the sign of the cross.
For as long as she could remember, she had had dreams. Of births, deaths, an impending mishap, an unexpected guest coming to visit. She dreamed of people she knew, of a world she was familiar with. But she didn’t know this woman. She didn’t recognise the world. Nothing had been familiar.
Why would she dream of a woman she didn’t know?
What kind of a man wore a black fog and had fire beaming out of him? And what—or who was the dark presence in the sky?
Confused, and still a little spooked, Erika reached for the lamp at the foot of the bed to turn it up. There was a time she would have tapped the switch on the wall to turn on the light. But that was before a wild storm blew down a number of electrical poles in the village five years ago, and no one came to lift them and replant them on the ground.
She was about to kneel for her morning prayer when she heard the noise and shot back up.
It came again. A rather loud whimper and a man’s hushed snarl.
Suspecting the snarl to be her brother’s and curious about who made the whimper, which had come again, she found her slippers and headed out the room, and through the open back door.
Outside, it was dark even with the lamp that sat on the well.
Erika raised her own lamp as she edged forward. Her brother, still in his nightwear of shorts and nothing else, was in the middle of the yard, holding on to someone desperately struggling to get free. A woman, Erika observed, and positioned her lamp better to see. Then she froze.
It was her. It was the woman from her dream.
“You’re not going anywhere until you tell me why you snuck in here in the first place.” Olisa’s voice echoed as if coming from a distant place.
The woman stopped struggling. Erika saw how she suddenly went still, slowly turned and stared at her.
The direct stare, a replica of the one they’d shared in the dream, dried the spittle in her mouth. The semi-dark made it difficult to read her eyes, but Erika sensed an unspoken communication between them. What was communicated, she could not say. She could only think, only wonder, how it was possible for her to be there.
“Erika, bring that lamp over here!”
Olisa’s order jolted her. Swallowing to choke back icy fear, Erika reminded herself her brother was there, and forced her feet to move. “What is it?” Her voice did not quiver and she thanked the Lord for it. She hated to be a coward, and felt very much like one at the moment.
“I heard a noise, came out and caught her sneaking in,” Olisa said.
It was truly her. The torn grey dress, the bare feet, and the terrified, dirt-stained face. It was her, right there in their backyard.
Erika couldn’t stop the shiver. Or the question that tumbled out of her. “Who are you?”
“Where are you from?”
Instead of an answer, she whimpered, turned and tried to pry off Olisa’s hand.
Erika shifted her gaze, saw the slightly-swollen reddish welts and the ugly gash. It wasn’t deep, but it was open with dry blood sticking to the surface.
“Let go her hand, Olisa. She’s hurt.”
Olisa looked, swore and quickly loosened his grip. “I didn’t see. Sorry.”
She tilted forward in a faint, and Erika automatically caught her wrist, steadied her on her feet. Her face was worn with exhaustion, her eyes glazed over by it. Like in the dream, she looked thirsty and terrified. Also, uncertain, Erika realised, studying her eyes. But in them, she saw no recognition.
Not sure if she was pretending and confused how she could be in such a state of utter fatigue, Erika went with instinct even though she was tempted to ask her to leave. “She’s exhausted. I think she needs water, food and a bath.”
“We don’t know who she is, Erika,” Olisa said.
Erika knew he was not being unkind, only cautious. Something she should be herself if she wasn’t letting her feelings rule her, not good sense. “I know. But she’s injured, and needs care.”
“Who is that?”
Binyelum, a wrapper secured over her nightwear, strode towards them. “Where did she come from?” She asked again as she peered at the woman.
“She snuck in.” Olisa supplied the answer. “Erika thinks she needs food and a bath.”
“She needs rest too to fully recover her strength.” And she needed to speak to Nne about her dream, Erika thought. “Binye, why don’t you get her water? I will take her to my room and help her get ready for her bath.”
“She should use my room. It’s bigger than yours and I’ve got water there.”
Erika nodded. “Go with Binye. By the way, I’m Erika, she’s Binyelum and this is my brother, Olisa.”
“We’re supposed to be inquiring about her, not giving information about us,” Olisa chided.
“She’s told us her name, it’s only polite to return the courtesy,” Erika said mildly. “Go on. I will come in in a minute with clean clothes for you to wear.”
She hobbled as she went into the house and the memory of her pain as twigs and splinters stung her feet flashed through Erika’s mind. Had she come by the same path as in the dream?
Shelving the question to worry about it later, she turned to her brother. Olisa had a faint frown on his face. “It’s only right to feed her and give her a chance to wash off the filth on her body.”
“I agree. But it’s wise to be cautious. She could be anybody.”
“That is true. But I doubt she’s a threat in her present state. Olisa, she’s hurt everywhere.”
“Yes, I noticed how she walked with difficulty, which makes me think she’s come a long way. We will find out where later. Much later,” Olisa added. “No time querying her this morning. I have to get to the farm, and you and Binye to the market. So, questions will wait until we all get back in the evening.”
“You’re right.” Erika nodded, and while he went to grab his broom to begin his morning chore of sweeping the yard, she strode inside to find clothes for the strange woman named Lota.
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