The sky is ablaze with angry red streaks that claw their way across the horizon, casting the solitary structure and the surrounding bones of Baobab trees in shadows that shift with the sleeping sun.
Our salvation hovers in the space between solid and specter.
The metal rhino screeches to a halt, its armored plates slipping and sliding along the massive body. Steam rises from its snout, curling up a pair of formidable horns to collide with clouds of chalk that coat the glass. The automaton driver snaps open the steel jaws of the carriage, jolting me from the velvet seat.
My trembling grip on Chipo’s fingers tighten, his small hand steady and sure, ignorant of the peril awaiting him. I couldn’t bear to tell him. He followed me blindly, never questioning the frantic actions dragging us halfway across the thirsty grasslands. I’ve enough fear for the both of us.
Crisp air creeps under my threadbare coat, nipping at skin laced with sweat. I pull at the leather straps near my brother’s neck, willing the fading warmth to wrap around his frail frame. He tilts his head and smiles up at me, his eyes, one a glowing amber, the other a vibrant blue, reflect an unfailing trust.
He was an unexpected gift, one we guarded fiercely for seven years. He was safe, until the day our baba and mai were killed. We were sent across the valley to my father’s brother, whose drive to drink drove his debt beyond the reach of two extra mouths. Within a week, our guardian gloated over the generous roora offered for my hand by a powerful clan near the Zambezi river.
My brother was to be sold into a life of servitude stretching far across the valley towards the east mountains–his fate left to the cruel devices of a society that will deem him damaged by the strange silence and ceaseless calm that surrounds him. They will poke and prod and pierce until his secret spills from his blood.
There is no hope for an imperfect boy in a perfect world.
So we stole away in the steel cage of the General’s son, chasing the breath of a chance to a place steeped in magic and mystery.
I edge closer to the timber and iron door, the promise of heat seeping from beneath. The slice of light grows wider with unseen hands, tendrils of sweetly-scented smoke beckoning us forward. A massive fire roars in the center of the spherical room, its flames glinting off iron rivers that run along a network of intricate symbols carved into the rough serpentine walls.
I call out into the cavernous room, my voice swallowed by a sea of glass chimes. Chipo tugs at my sleeve, his chin tilting towards the sky, eyes wide with wonder.
My gaze is drawn to the vaulted timber ceiling where hundreds of clear orbs wink in the firelight. They float above us in all manner of shapes and sizes, their centers swimming with soft, spirited colors.
“What is this place?” I ask, more to myself.
“The place where dreams are born,” a deep voice answers.
I snap my head forward to find a woman standing near the fire pit, swathed in sheer emerald robes embroidered with glowing gold that reflects the warmth of her crinkled eyes. Her ebony skin is crisscrossed with the lines of a long life.
“Where dreams are protected,” another figure appears, taking the shape of a beautiful woman near the age of our mother, her flawless features resembling sculpted Shona stone. The shimmering scarlet of her dress flickers as if made of fire.
“Where dreams take flight,” a young girl whispers from the shadows, materializing near the growing flames. The light dances on rounded caramel cheeks dusted with freckles and glints off a gossamer gown that swirls about her ankles in vivid shades of liquid indigo.
I pull Chipo behind me and back up slowly towards the door.
“No need to fear us. We mean you no harm,” the older woman offers. “Quite the opposite, in fact. I am Rutendo, the guardian of Faith. “ She gestures towards the motherly figure. “This is Rudo, guardian of Love.”
The young ethereal girl steps forward. “And I’m Tariro, keeper of—”
“Hope,” I mumble, my mind trying to wrap around an astonishing truth . “The legends are true.” Chipo ducks under my arm to stand beside me.
“There’s a grain of truth in many myths, Mudiwa,” Rutendo smiles warmly.
“How–how do you know me?”
“We know all our children, beloved.” Rudo glances upward, sweeping her open palm towards the glittering glass.
“What are they?” I ask, following her gaze.
“They’re the hopes and dreams of every living child,” Tariro breathes reverently.
“Each feather represents the spirit behind the dream,” Rutendo says affectionately.
“Some are collective hopes—their spirits joined together to achieve a common dream,” Rudo adds, plucking a rounded ball from the air. Four multicolored feathers swirled within its crystal walls.
Like the hopes of a family, I think to myself. The broken dreams of my parents dig into the fresh wounds of their loss. I can’t do this alone. I can’t save Chipo without them.
“What troubles you so, child?” Rudo asks gently.
“My brother. He’s…a natural born. Unmodified. Unaltered,” I bite back the anxiety of long buried secrets. “My parents never reported him, or his…imperfections. Interactions with others is difficult for him. He rarely speaks…even to me. But he can sense things no one else can. See and hear beyond our capabilities, even with our genetically perfected pedigree,” I snort. “He has a gift. But our society wouldn’t take the time to understand it. Without our protection, he’ll be labeled an outcast…or worse.”
I glance at my brother, balancing precariously on a wooden stool to graze the glinting glass balls with his fingertips. A laugh escapes his lips that’s more magical a sound than the enchanting chimes falling around us.
“Other hopes belong to a single spirit, and it is up to them alone, to see it fly.” Tariro cradles a long, translucent orb in her cupped hands. Inside floats a solitary feather painted a lustrous, metallic blue. “This is a feather of the Blue Swallow—a rare and magical bird wiped from the skies over a century ago. They were the closest creatures to the divine. The swiftest flyers of the land, soaring into the sky above all others, delivering messages to the Great Spirit. They are a guide to those who are conscious dreamers, capable of greatness,” she glances lovingly at Chipo, “however misunderstood.”
Chipo hops down from the stool and walks over to Tariro, cocking his head at the fragile feather in her grasp. He brushes the glass with his fingers, a strange, knowing smile lifting his lips.
Tariro places the Blue Swallow feather into his hand. “It belongs to an extraordinary spirit. One just as rare, just as magical, who swims in the tears of angels and whispers in the ear of the divine.”
Chipo walks over to face me, the gleaming swallow feather held between us. He tilts his head and brushes away the salty rivulets running down my face. “Don’t worry, Mudiwa. I can do it,” he whispers, “I can fly.”
He opens up his palm and smiles as his hopes and dreams float back to the sky in a cascade of chimes and a child’s laughter.