2022 Reading Challenge

2022 Reading Challenge
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Excerpt: Mage of Fools by Eugen Bacon

About the Book

In the dystopian world of Mafinga, Jasmin must contend with a dictator’s sorcerer to cleanse the socialist state of its deadly pollution.

Mafinga’s malevolent king dislikes books and, together with his sorcerer Atari, has collapsed the environment to almost uninhabitable. The sun has killed all the able men, including Jasmin’s husband Godi. But Jasmin has Godi’s secret story machine that tells of a better world, far different from the wastelands of Mafinga. Jasmin’s crime for possessing the machine and its forbidden literature filled with subversive text is punishable by death. Fate grants a cruel reprieve in the service of a childless queen who claims Jasmin’s children as her own. Jasmin is powerless—until she discovers secrets behind the king and his sorcerer.

The Excerpt

1

Tuesday. 

Outside the double-glazed window, a speck grows from the moonless night and yawns wide, wider, until its luster washes into the single-roomed space, rectangular and monolithic. One could mistake the room for a cargo container. 

The space, one of many units neatly rowed and paralleled in Ujamaa Village, pulses for a moment as the radiance outside grows with its flicker of green, yellow and bronze. The cocktail of incandescent light tugs along a tail of heat. Both light and heat seep through the walls of the khaki-colored shelter, whose metallic sheen is a fabrication, not at all metal. 

Light through the window on the short face of the house—the side that gazes toward Central District in the distance—rests on the luminous faces of a mother and her two young children, their eyes pale with deficiency in a ravaged world. It’s a world of citizens packed as goods in units whose short faces all stare toward the Central District that will shortly awaken in the dead of the night. The light drowns the toddler’s cry of wonder. 

As sudden as the ray’s emergence, it evanesces and snatches away its radiance, leaving behind hoarfrost silence. A sound unscrolls itself from the darkness outside. First, it’s a thunderhead writing itself through desert country—because this world is dry and naked, barren as its queen. 

The lone cry of a wounded creature, a howl or a wail reminiscent of the screech of a black-capped owl, plaintive yet soulful, rises above the flat roofs screening the wasted village. The cry is a dirge that tells an often-story of someone in agony, of a hand stretched out to touch an angel of saving but never reaches. A second thunderhead slits the sound midcry, nobody can save the mortally wounded one.

Jasmin closes her eyes. She needs no one to tell her. She knows. 

Everybody knows—except the children. That King Magu’s guards—so few of them, yet so deadly—have found another story machine, and its reader.

2

Siyent yight,” says two-year-old Mia. Her owl eyes—evolved to navigate darkness—gaze into Jasmin’s. But they are eyes that are also glows: they not only see but soak light to illuminate her world. 

Jasmin does not speak. She’s unpacking the reality of what’s just happened. She is overwhelmed by an emotion that’s not yet rage. Her ears are ringing, a child’s sound toy, but there are no more toys in Mafinga. The country’s reality is cold, gray. Its wind vibrates with the dirge of a better yesterday. It’s a world gone dumb—must all be broken? The bones of the ancestors pop with metamorphic hymns of water that is ruler and land that is slave, as people degenerate into crustaceans. 

“Siyent yight, Mamm,” says Mia again. 

Jasmin’s fingers rest on Mia’s twin cornrows that end in pigtails. 

“Yes. The silent lights.” 

“Someone hurt?”

Jasmin is taken aback. She never imagined Mia understood. 

“The sirens are coming,” says Omar in his grown-up voice. Even at four, he hasn’t outgrown the burst of curls on his head. His pale chocolate skin is still baby soft. 

“Soon,” says Jasmin. “You know what it means.” 

She glances at the children still hugged to her hips. They too are readers, partaking of the story machine, they just don’t know it yet. Each time she narrates from the device— 

She closes her eyes, unwilling to fathom how much she has endangered them with her oral tales. 

“I bwashed my teeff.” 

“Good, Mia. Now you, Omar. Make it happen.”

He peels himself from gazing at the world out there. 

Mia stays. Her eyes seek assurance. “I good, Mamm, aight?” 

“You’re always good, dear goatling.”

The children know about goats. The goats from the stories Jasmin tells them. Tales of animals so calm, you think they are stupid, but their working minds sharpen with each bleat. Despite their odd pupil shape, how unsettling to a human eye, goats are intelligent beneath the horn. 

Jasmin watches as Omar navigates the space between the unpartitioned living area with its metal-like seats and spartan table, its kitchenette with a tiny chiller and microwave, its multipurpose sink, the sleeping area with its floored mattress, its toilet—only a curtain for privacy. One wall is fitted with an automated screen that turns itself on, off at central command. You don’t flick channels to choose the news, sports, documentaries, music or entertainment. Pzzz. Pzzz. The screen comes on at a whim with the propaganda of the moment: sometimes it’s a choir of children in flowing pinafores and jester pantaloons singing slogans. Or the same children in sisal skirts and war paint doing a folk dance, chanting the Hau, Hau, Acha We song about decrying dissenters. Pzzz. Pzzz. The screen goes silent as it does now, momentarily asleep. 

All units in Ujamaa Village are the same. They are metallic khaki in color. Everyone’s within a kick, right there, next door. But you never hear anything—except the outside. And, mostly, as just then, the outside world brings the sound of dying. 

Once a week you get a pass to use the Ujamaa Facility. It used to have gendered showers: hot sizzles and soap dispensers, a luxury despite the blandness of their products. But there are no more men in the village. Now the sizzler showers and their weekly extravagance are for everyone. There’s no place for modesty. 

Whoop. Whoop. The work siren goes. 

3

Doors open, doors close.

The citizens of Mafinga respond in unison to the siren. They file out, headed to labor in Central District. Preallocated duties at Ujamaa Factory, Ujamaa Tech, Ujamaa Medico, Ujamaa Yaya and many other Ujamaas await them. The lucky ones, specially favored for an aptitude toward loyalty to the king, serve as guards and supervisors, and return home to snug two-roomers. The skilled ones, Solo and her mates, are also lucky. They live and work in the king’s mines—away from guards and supervisors, away from fear and indignity of day-by-day oppression. The skilled ones are entrusted with drilling mafinite, a gem equal in value to a diamond. But even they are not exempt from a major trait of the king’s paranoia: freedom. They are bound by location and need special permits to leave the mines. 

When did it come to this? wonders Jasmin as she and the children exit the room. 

They join the sea of bodies, a human march at night-break. Only a fool would leave shelter by day. But you had to see who died, how they died, in the sick bays of Ujamaa Medico to know it wasn’t a good idea to brave daylight. 

It’s too dark to see who’s there, bodies clustered in compulsory obedience to community service. They are wrapped in thermals, scarves, threaded coats much thinned from nightly wind. Sometimes, as she walks, Jasmin makes out smells: fresh soap or unwash, but often it’s the stench of despair. 

She firmly holds Omar and Mia’s gloved hands. She pushes with them, and a few other mothers and their small children, as they head, first on instinct and then guided by glimmer—the growing flicker of Mama Gambo’s unit. They plow toward the edge of the crowd. 

Mama Gambo is a collector. She gathers the young ones, delivers them to a place past what was once an old church, now yawning cobwebs. She takes the children to Ujamaa Yaya. There, children learn slogans, as teachers filter out proclivity to loyalty (these make guards or supervisors), intelligence (these make the king’s miners) or a trade (these make workers). 

Jasmin and the children are the first to reach Mama Gambo. 

“My little soldiers,” the older woman says. 

“Don’t make warriors of my children,” says Jasmin. 

Mama Gambo doesn’t answer immediately. She smiles at Mia, then Omar. There’s kindness in the shape of her lips, the touch of her fingers. Her expression stays the same when, finally, she looks at Jasmin. “Someone’s holding a fart.” 

“More like constipation,” says Jasmin. 

“I can see how that would make you sour. Now an enema . . .”

“Is a luxury that’s an enemy of the state.”

“The king and queen live in luxury up the hill.”

“How is that equality?”

“Be careful. People are coming.” Mama Gambo lowers her voice. “It’s treason to simply speak of those slayers.” 

“They are worse than slayers.”

“But you can’t cut a thorn tree with a twig. Patience.” Mama Gambo looks at Mia and Omar. “For these ones. Otherwise all we give them is regret.”

“I thank your kindness to the little ones.” Jasmin’s voice is gentler. 

She turns to the children. “Be good, my goatlings.” 

“Aight,” says Mia.

“Mama,” says Omar. “It doesn’t take much to see we’re not baby goats.”

“You certainly aren’t, my lambs.”

“Please, Mama.”

She knows she’s wrong to call him a lamb. He’s not meek, never quiet, but he is gentle. The word is an endearment for his innocence and sweetness. 

“On my way, then.” But she doesn’t leave. 

Mia is picking her nose and sucking her forefinger. Jasmin doesn’t snap at her to stop, as she normally would. Instead, she touches the crowns of her children’s heads as if each was embossed in braille. Her heart is lacerated, torn each night, every moment she must leave them. She’s always known their destinies remain uncertain, still even now she strains to read with her fingers the nonfiction of their tomorrows. 

But their eyes gazing into her own tell a different narrative that is too deeply etched into their cores for fathoming. Their stories needle and wheedle into her anguish, her longing. She seeks to prophesy better fortunes for them but, right this moment, her vision is impaired. 

She reads nothing in the imaginary bumps and cells in the cornrows and curls, just words in her own head that swirl in a language of Babel, a deliberate confusion of the gods. There are no allies or mentors, just tricksters and shifters, enemies and ordeals that dangle death, never rebirth. There’s no road to resurrection, nothing that lifts with the precision of genetics, just her sweat-drenched fingers from the crowns of their heads.

“Go. My daughter,” says Mama Gambo. 

“But she’s not your daughter . . .” begins Omar. 

“Not now, it is not the time for words,” says Mama Gambo. 

Jasmin smiles through her tears. She hastens to join the workers on their way to Central District and thinks of Mama Gambo. The older woman has seen death. Much death, way before the sickness that took men. Mama Gambo is a monument of pain and suffering. 

The death she has seen is of the worst kind.

copyright 2022, Eugen Bacon

About the Author

Eugen Bacon is African Australian, a computer scientist mentally re-engineered into creative writing. She’s the author of Claiming T-Mo by Meerkat Press and Writing Speculative Fiction by Red Globe Press, Macmillan. Eugen’s work has won, been shortlisted, longlisted or commended in national and international awards, including the Bridport Prize, Copyright Agency Prize, Australian Shadows Awards, Ditmar Awards and Nommo Award for Speculative Fiction by Africans.

To find Eugen online:

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