Carima got to Kadia shortly before seven, as the little town awoke from sleep, and the sights and sounds of human activity gradually reestablished their dominion everywhere. Here a woman carrying an enormous basket overflowing with loaves of bread hawked her goods with a voice sweet as music, ‘’hot bread for sale, folks! Crunchy, tasty bread for sale!’’ A little further away a man riding an old rickety bicycle waved to a pedestrian in greeting. On either side of the street, people hurried by.
Footsore and travel stained, Carima sat on an old wooden bench next to a convenience store to rest and figure out what to do next. She thought back to her friend, Adiza, whose high-pitched voice and quiet humor she suddenly missed even more than she had as she took her first steps into the starlit night, homeless and forlorn, on her flight into the unknown long ago. She thought of Papa, of what he must have felt and said and done when he’d awakened to find her gone. She imagined what must have been his frenzied search—alongside Mama Fital and their incredulous neighbors—through bushes, side streets, and sheds. Adiza would have been among the searchers, Carima decided; in her mind’s eye she could see her dumbstruck and robbed of the power of motion a moment upon hearing the news, then joining the search as she channeled her sorrow and her anger into action.
Carima wasn’t sure she would ever see any of them again—nor was she sure of what she would say to them if she did.
Still, she chuckled at the thought of encountering them as she was—hair cropped short and no earrings, wearing tight-fitting blue jeans and a bottle-green shirt Papa had long discarded—and taking off her disguise as a boy to reveal her identity to them. She could imagine the expression of shock and bewilderment on Fital’s goofy face.
It was then that Carima caught sight of the man. Of noble bearing, he was robed in white, and slung over his shoulder was a brightly colored bag made of synthetic material. His bushy beard was flecked with silver. The man looked left and then right as he waited at an intersection. Then he fired a glance towards Carima, or so she thought, before crossing. A shiver ran down her spine; instinctively, she averted her gaze, though she didn’t want to. She wanted to watch this man, wanted to see where he was going.
In fact, she needed to.
When she looked again, the man had disappeared. It wasn’t like she’d seen him before; he’d been a total stranger. Even then, she found herself springing to her feet as if her body had been programmed to do it from afar. Carima looked up and down the tree-lined street, frowning in concentration. Then, she snatched up her bag and hurried past a fat little boy who stood and stared after her a moment before going back to sweeping the dry and dusty patch of ground in front of his father’s barbershop.
As Carima rushed helter-skelter along the street in pursuit of a total stranger to whom she felt a strange connection, a stranger who seemed to be playing cat and mouse with her, a voice spoke to her and said:
Find that man at all costs… He will be to you a better father than you have ever known.
Carima slowed her stride almost to a stop and pondered the mysterious voice a moment, oscillating between faith and doubt.
Then she quickened her pace anew in the direction she hoped the man had gone.
The sun was getting hotter and hotter as it rose ever higher in the sky, and Carima was covered in sweat and winded by her fruitless pursuit. The noise of traffic and a medley of voices calling, joking, cajoling, singing, remonstrating, or pleading filled her ears while the acrid smell of engine fumes, comingled with the aromas of fresh-baked bread and spicy food, tickled her nostrils. Carima looked right, left, and all around as she hurried along, scrutinizing any face that bore the slightest resemblance to the one she was after, but the face she sought was as elusive as a mirage.
Find that man at all costs. He will be a better father than you have ever known, the mysterious voice urged again.
Carima reached a juncture and saw to her right a handful of young men dressed in blue overalls, sporting construction workers’ hard hats, clustered around a tall, fine-featured food vendor serving them food with one hand and collecting fees with the other. A sweet smile disclosed a row of shiny baby teeth now and then in response to the men’s bawdy jokes and occasional accusations:
‘’Hey, Silas and I paid you the same, why is his portion twice as big as mine?’’ one voice cried shrilly. ‘’Good looks are not part of the deal here, are they?’’
‘’Wait a minute!’’ another voice called out with a laugh. ‘’You and that fellow over here are from the same village I know, but I am much older than he and have been your client for much longer. Did you never get the message in that popular song, ‘Age Before Beauty,’ my dear?’’
A delicious smell of rice and beans made Carima’s stomach growl as she surveyed the scene a moment. She was faint with hunger and thirst, but she knew she couldn’t tarry and, begrudgingly, moved along.
As she neared the marketplace, the squeals and intermittent laughter of a small crowd drew her attention. A moment later, she found herself at the edge of the gathering. Still moving as if controlled by another, she squeezed between two women, the fabric of their dresses scratching against her arms, and found—at last—the man she’d been looking for.
He was sitting on a bench and smiling, while all around him, a motley assortment of people stood as though transfixed.
“Babouka, you are one of a kind! I love your stories!” someone exclaimed. Then the speaker stepped forward, made a little bow, and flung a fistful of coins into a bowl at Babouka’s feet. A few others in the crowd followed suit, and the tinkling of coins filled the air like music.
“Give us a riddle, Babouka!” another voice rang out. This time, it was a boy no older than ten, with big roving eyes that, for a moment, happened to meet Carima’s. Instead of the voice filling her mind and urging her onward, something else inside of her head now pulled her backwards to “The Abode on The Far Side” where she, her best friend Christopher, their mentor Pierre, Lazarus, and a bunch of other homeless children had lived for five years. But it didn’t pull her back to the night she and Christopher first arrived at The Abode on The Far Side, and Pierre introduced them to Lazarus and the other homeless kids who welcomed them with lights in their eyes. Instead, it took her to the night before. To the mahogany table at the police station where Christopher’s lifeless body had been laid. To the smashing of boots against wood, the snapping of metal hinges, and the crack of the door against the wall at the start of the police raid on The Abode on The Far Side two hours earlier.
“Lazarus!” Carima muttered under her breath, recovering herself, “he reminds me so of Lazarus!”
But she looked away so as not to embarrass the boy—especially because Babouka had begun to speak.
“I am more precious than gold and rubies. I cannot be bought or sold, and the more you give me away, the more I increase. What am I?”
A chorus of voices rose, proposing various things, but none did Babouka find satisfactory.
“I am Love,” he said at last, his eyes gleaming.
The crowd cheered, asking for more.
“Time has flown, and I must go home,” he responded. “But I will give you one to ponder until we meet again tomorrow. I am powerful. I visit people all the time, and I often change their lives forever. What am I?”
As people drifted away, Babouka emptied the contents of the bowl into one of his pockets. Dropping the bowl in his bag, he brought out a plastic bag containing a mango. He sniffed it and grimaced before heading for a nearby garbage can.
Carima held her breath, eyes shut. She needed to go and speak to this man—she’d chased him all the way across town—but what was she supposed to say? Why had she even followed him in the first place? Because this voice had told her to? Why hadn’t it also told her what to say to him when she found him? When she reopened her eyes—to make sure she hadn’t lost the man again—Babouka was standing a few steps away.
“Why are you crying, friend?” he asked in a voice smooth as velvet. “What ails you?”
She hadn’t realized she’d started crying. Hadn’t felt it happen. “What?” she said numbly.
“What ails you?” Babouka repeated.
How could Carima possibly tell a total stranger about the hunger burning her stomach and the greater hunger of her need, however strongly she may feel drawn to that man?
No, she needed time to think things through, to get to know him a little better.
‘’What is the matter, my child… Why are you crying?’’ Babouka said once more, drawing a little closer.
“I don’t know,” Carima replied, her tears flowing fast. “I can’t… I can’t tell you.”
“That’s all right,” Babouka said. “That’s quite all right. You don’t have to explain.”
The voice that had spoken to her shortly after she laid eyes on Babouka sounded in her ear once again. He will be a better father than you have ever known.
“I am Carima,” Carima said, and she held out her hand—again without truly knowing why or meaning to do it.
The moment Babouka had first laid eyes on Carima, he had known that he was in the presence, not of a boy as appearance proclaimed, but of a girl in disguise. His sharp eye and penetrating wit had spotted the deception, but he held his peace, for it was an article of faith with him that the heart has reasons of its own that reason itself knows nothing about. Still, the girl looked haggard, was dirty and sweaty and shaking a little at the knees. He couldn’t just leave her there in the middle of the marketplace.
‘’Be careful here, old man,’’ he cautioned himself as he considered how best to win the child’s trust. ‘’The road to hell is paved with good intentions. As you well know.” Indeed, Babouka remembered his own arrival in Kadia, a total stranger in need of a place to stay, desperate to turn over a new leaf and keep his past a secret. Well did he remember the kindness and gentle manner of the Islamic priest, Malik by name, who took him in for the night and helped him purchase at a bargain price the place he now called home. He shuddered to think how he would have reacted if Malik had harassed him with questions about his hometown, his identity, his motives for coming to Kadia, and his past, or had appeared too eager or too forward. The gratitude he felt then and still felt all those years later, long after Malik had gone to his Maker, filled his heart with empathy for Carima. He would never have needed to escape to Kadia in the first place if things hadn’t gone the way they’d gone, and so while he wondered what could have made the child disguise herself as a boy, he decided to leave it be. Instead, Babouka reached out and took her hand and said, “Come with me. I will show you where I live. You can stay with me if you want.”
Carima’s vague fear of the unknown and her residual mistrust of strangers faded in an instant, and she felt no surprise and had no hesitation—only joy and thanksgiving—when her body again operated independently of her conscious will and she nodded along to Babouka’s offer.
For his part, Babouka felt something like a mild electric shock go through him when their hands touched. He made nothing of it, however, dismissing it as a freakish manifestation of his own overexcitement. Only later, in the radiant light of hindsight, did he see it as an early sign of Carima’s supernatural power and the miraculous cure for the arthritis that had come to him with the season of old age.
Babouka’s house lay at the edge of town, a simple but spacious mud-wall structure thatched with reeds and hidden apart from the urban sprawl like an oasis nestling in the far reaches of a desert.
“Make yourself at home,” Babouka said with a broad smile.
A feeling of joy stirred in Carima’s breast as Babouka pointed to a library overflowing with books, a little bathroom with a sink topped by a mirror, and a tiny sitting room / dining room. At one end of the house was Babouka’s bedroom wherein a lantern burned in broad daylight, and at the other end was a guest room of comparable size, which Babouka said was to be her own.
After Babouka excused himself and went out to give her privacy, Carima gazed around her new room, running her fingers along the unpainted walls, checking the closet as well as the full-length mirror inside it, and pacing up and down in great excitement. She had lost her cozy little room at “The Abode on The Far Side” forever, but she had found this, and it was cozier and more beautiful than words could say!
When she came out to tell Babouka how much she loved his house and how grateful she was for his kindness, she found that Babouka had put out food and drink for her, a simple lunch consisting of smoked-fish stew and boiled plantains.
“Who could this man be, and what is the secret source of so much kindness and such warm hospitality toward me, whom he has just met and knows nothing about?” Carima wondered as she tossed and turned on her mat in search of sleep following her long journey.
She felt such an outpouring of gratitude toward her host that her stomach lurched at the thought of keeping him in the dark about her true identity and her quest a moment longer. The story of her life, from her flight from home disguised as a boy to her departure from Lego the night before; what a relief it would be to unburden herself, make a clean breast of it, and, if the voice in her head was to be believed, embrace life here as Babouka’s adopted daughter! That, surely, would be the sensible thing to do!
And yet, deep in her heart, she felt a tug of caution, an instinctive fear of speaking out of turn and rushing to bare her soul and reveal that which she had better conceal. The more she debated within herself the rights and wrongs of secrecy and transparency, the more muddled she felt until, mercifully, she closed her eyes in sleep at last. Or, at least, that’s what was about to happen—until she was pulled all the way awake again by a melodious voice singing “What a Wonderful World,” a song that had made every fiber in her body thrill and frolic with pleasure since the first time she’d heard it as a small child out in her parents’ garden.
Carima listened, nodding in time to the music until it dawned on her that the voice was not that of some gifted singer who had come by the house to sing for his supper, but the voice of Babouka himself singing his heart out in a moment of leisure.
“God, he must have peace in his soul and love that passes all understanding to sing like that,” Carima thought to herself. “Such beautiful, soul-lifting singing must flow out of a deep-seated reservoir of boundless love and goodwill toward all men.”
‘’Is this,’’ she asked the mysterious voice that had urged her to find Babouka, “is this why you sent me after him? Why you brought me here? Was it to find someone who actually embodied the love they claimed to have for others? Someone who might actually help me because he wanted to—rather than because he felt obligated to? Unlike the others.
Unlike even Papa, the only father she had known until the moment she ran away from home.