She liked to watch me sleeping. “I always remember you like this,” she would say. “Drowsing in a pool of sunlight, dawn pouring off you like gold. That is how I know you are rich.”
When she was young, rich to Tseleng meant time enough to weed millet, and light enough to spot vipers. To me, it meant a roof that didn’t leak. When the Buyani arrived, it meant them, and suddenly the whole planet was poor.
They were generous enough; the very definition of philanthropists — they loved humans. They even said they were human themselves, and they looked the part — tall and strong, with tight copper curls, aquiline features, loamy skin.The Buyani were as human as aliens could be. Too human. If ever our gods come back, they will look like this.
They weren’t really Buyani, of course, any more than they were Atlanteans, or Lemurians, or Muans, or any other lost race. They admitted that their vast ship could land, could submerge, but they left it at the L1 Lagrange point, between the sun and an Earth turned upside down by surprise and suspicion, by alien wizards and wonders.
We’d talked about it, Tseleng and I, in those drowsy, golden mornings and in the busy afternoons, when she sold her books with Mamekete and Leabua, the weathered sages of Maseru’s open air market.
“They say alphabets are for children,” Tseleng would tell us. “They say letters are the stick figure art of communication — a primitive tool to be left behind along with counting on fingers and uncertain bladder control.”
“No one will buy books anymore,” Leabua would say, wiping dust off his piles of outdated textbooks and social science tracts.
“No one buys them now,” Mamekete would reply, determined to match pessimism with cynicism at every turn. But she would wipe her own stock of novels and poetry chapbooks nonetheless.
“The Buyani don’t have any books. Do you really think they remember everything?” Tseleng would say, playing optimist. “People say they even have some sort of racial memory.”
“Too much information,” I would say. “Where could they store it all?” Every group needs a sceptic, and Serbs are naturals at it.
“It’s just transmitters in their brains,” Leabua would say. “The information’s in the cloud.” And then the conversation would circle back to whether the Buyani were really human, and whether they had left us behind, or visited before, and whether their other ships were shaped like islands or pyramids or mountains.
The Buyani wouldn’t say. They were chary with information about themselves, but they gave technology freely, so that even in Lesotho, we had free energy, and clean water, and synthesized food.
“It’s a trick,” I told Tseleng one day, as she smoked pot under a black locust tree. “They’ll make us all dependent on them, and then,” I made a fist, “they’ll have us.”
“They have us now.” They’d shown no signs of violence, but no one made any pretense that we could win a war. A few hotheads, a few suicide bombers, a few terrorists had tried, but with the Buyani present, bullets floated to a gentle stop, bombs set off slow, soft breezes, and toxins faded into nothingness. There were still wars, of course, but they were small, local scuffles over religion and other trivia. Life was better, even for sceptics.
I gave this to the Buyani — their distribution network was efficient. Even on the dirt roads outside Maseru, we got their latest gifts as soon as anyone on the boulevards of Boston, or the cobblestones of Quito.
Those lazy conversations would have been the sum of it, should have been the total of my experience of the Buyani. Until they came to us, and Tseleng went to them.
We all have our means of escape. For me, it was travel – outside the grim, stuffy confines of Belgrade, with its cheery sidewalk cafes overflowing with dour traditionalists, its bright, modern shops selling things no one could afford. I’d gone south, to Greece, and Egypt, and Rwanda, and South Africa, and finally Lesotho. Tseleng had escaped through drugs, from glue bottles on the paths of her nameless village to harder fare on the roads of Maseru.
We’d met halfway, each deciding to try something new. For her, a tall, exotic foreigner. For me, a drink or two in a shabby bar. And it had worked. I’d settled down, she’d let the hard stuff drift away. It hadn’t been easy, not for either of us. But it had been worth it.
And then the Buyani came. A dozen years after that huge ship appeared, and the radio told us all that life had changed, they arrived in Lesotho.
“What do they want?” I’d asked her, when she came home one day, still flustered after an encounter in the market. “Why would they come here?” We only ever like the changes we make ourselves, and sometimes not even those.
“They seek the pure people,” she’d said. “They want excitement. They are young, these Buyani who have come to us.”
Too young. Too exciting. And nowhere near pure enough.
“They speak perfect Sesotho,” she’d said. “I told them we were as pure as you could want. Up here in the mountains, in our isolation, you could not ask for more purity. We do not mix with others.”
Unless you counted South Africans, or itinerant Serbs like me. But she was happy, and that was worth any number of sharp comebacks. I wish I’d learned that earlier.
“You should meet them,” she’d said. “You can be giants together.”
They were giant enough, and good looking enough, to make me jealous. I was human enough to try to hide it.
“I’m busy,” I told her, and so we spent our days apart, and some of our nights, too.
“I’ll take them to my village,” she said, and I nodded in false confidence, because why wouldn’t sophisticated aliens be interested in a nameless agglomeration of clay huts and tin roofs?
“It’s very pure,” I said with a little bite, because no matter how we pretend, we’re all limbic lizards at the core.
Tseleng’s lizard was less active than most, and she’d just shrugged and taken three giant aliens on a week-long road trip. I was sorry by the time she got back, and she’d forgotten all about it.
“Your Buyani friends wouldn’t have,” I pointed out, as if it were a winning point, as if bringing them down to my level of pettiness would make them less attractive, and me more so.
“Their memories are their pride,” she said, and kissed me. “I am hoping they will teach that trick to me.” I remembered that later, as I looked around our little mokhoro with its concrete floor and mud walls and absence of Tseleng.
I woke early, and alone. “It’s their last night in Maseru,” she’d told me. “They want to celebrate.” I had thought she might be late, or drunk, or both. But now, as the dawn light ran down the tin of the roof and the stone of the walls, I wondered whether I should have expected her at all. The bed beside me was empty, untouched by anything but my own midnight thrashing. There was no sign Tseleng had been there, and deep in my gut, the lizard shook its tail and spat.
I ate old, dry toast, eschewing the flavored nutrient blocks of the Buyani synthesizer, dipped water from our old, stale well in place of clear, safe water pulled like magic from the air. It was childish, and I knew it, but sometimes the smallest acts of resistance are all you have.
I dawdled through my shower, my resolve too weak to forgo solar-heated comfort in favor of mere principle. But when I emerged, to towel dry under a warm November sun, Tseleng was still not back, and at last I accepted the inevitable. If she would not come back to me, I would go to her, Buyani or no.
I passed through the market, first, through the jumble of rusting tools to the heaps of vegetables with their flies. In the tea stalls, I found Mamekete.
“Lumelang, ‘me-Mamekete,” I said.
“Good morning to you as well, young one.” She looked troubled.
“Have you seen Tseleng?”
“I… In the market. I think.” She looked like she wanted to add more, but she and Leabua can talk for hours, once they’re started.
“Leboha, ‘me.” I left her there, no doubt deploring the awfulness of my Sesotho, and commiserating with the tea sellers about outlanders.
Tseleng was back! Not to our home, no, but to work in the market, and that could only mean the Buyani were gone. I had a bounce in my step and a smile on my lips as I wended my way through the stalls to the quiet area where books were, if not sold, at least displayed.
“Lumelang, ntate Leabua,” I offered with my best accent as I passed the old man by. I ignored his gestures, my eyes intent on the spare form of a short woman at a neighbouring table.
“Tseleng!” I leaned across the table to kiss her. “I missed you.”
She smiled back at me, bemused. “Well,” she said, “perhaps I have missed you too.”
“No perhaps about it,” I shook my head, though I’d expected a little more enthusiasm. “You have missed me like corn misses rain, like potatoes miss rosemary, like stars miss the night.” But she didn’t smile her ‘I love you for your foolishness’ smile.
“I will take you at your word,” she said, and ran her eyes over my t-shirt and my jeans. “You seem a likely enough fellow. Come and smoke with me.”
“What?” I’d only smoked with her that one time. It had made me sick, and since then she’d known to stand downwind of me when she lit up.
“Just some cannabis,” she assured me. “Nothing strange. A little nausea won’t hurt you.”
“I don’t …” I looked into her eyes, and they were playful, warm. Everything but loving. “Tseleng, what’s wrong? What have they done to you?”
She winked. “Did you know that even the Buyani have drugs? Of course they do. Everyone has drugs.”
“What do you mean? What did they give you?” This was not Tseleng. Or, at least, it was, but not the Tseleng I’d lived with for the past three years. The one I’d bonded with, loved with, grown with, planned with.
“I took a Buyani drug, once,” she said, undeterred by my growing anger. “They said it works on memory.” She giggled. “I remember them saying that. Like Russian roulette for memory, they said. Big trouble if they get caught.”
A chill ran through my heart. A new drug, a Buyani drug, a memory drug. And of course she had taken it.
“Where are they?” I took her by the arm, shook her. “Tseleng, where are they?” I would find them, threaten them, beat them, whatever it took to find out what had happened.
“There’s no point,” said a sad voice behind me. It was Leabua, come shuffling out from behind his table. “They’re gone. They drove out last night, apparently. I spoke with the hotel.”
“What happened?” I tried to keep calm, to keep from shaking this old, frail man, with his old, irrelevant books, and their tired, faded ink no one would ever read.
“What you know. They played some game, took pills. Mostly they enhance memory. One pill in a thousand erases it. Tseleng lost.”
“What? But… why?”
“Why does anyone? For excitement, for escape. For the chance of freedom.”
“And Tseleng?” What freedom had she sought?
He shrugged, his eyes wet. “She lost. Lost her memory. Not all of it. She knows who she is, who we are. It’s the associations that are gone, the links. She knows I’m Leabua, that Mamekete is Mamekete.” Mamekete had come up now, had joined our little circle in silent commiseration.
“She knows she has known us, has loved us,” Mamekete said. “She doesn’t now.” She seemed tired, even the cynicism in her beaten down by cruel reality. “Whatever formed that link between past and present is missing.” She looked at me sadly. “She knows you, too. Or knows she knew you.”
“And doesn’t care?” It seemed bizarre, outlandish. As, of course, it was.
“And doesn’t care,” confirmed Leabua. “No more than she cares about us.” As if that mattered to me.
I spent hours with her, that day and night, discovering only that they had told the truth. Tseleng came home with me, knew it for her home as well. She made love to me, and it was good, as if it were something new and exciting and different. Through it all, she treated me as a stranger, a fun discovery, with no more history than a new-bloomed flower. In the morning, she said goodbye as if I were some one-night stand.
We called in the authorities, the police, the diplomats. It was an international scandal. And if anything confirmed the essential humanity of the Buyani, it was this – that their young behaved just as foolishly as ours. For all their high technology, their vaunted memory, they took the same stupid risks, made the same unwise choices, paid the same costly prices.
The Buyani found our visitors quickly. They gave them a variant of the same drug Tseleng had taken. “They’ll lose their memories,” they said. “They’ll be like new people.” To Buyani, it was the ultimate punishment. To me, it was nothing at all. Once I found Tseleng’s loss could not be remedied, I stopped talking with them.
“This is a terrible crime,” their Ambassador told me at our last meeting. He frowned his god-like frown, ran strong fingers through curly hair, let a tear run across his perfect face. “We will do anything we can to make it right, give you anything you ask.”
“Can you give me back Tseleng?” I asked. He didn’t answer, and I left.
Tseleng still sells her pamphlets and brochures in the market place. I buy one from time to time, or read her some of Pheko Motaung’s poetry in my atrocious Sesotho. We still live together. We’re friends, I’d say. Maybe good friends. But we’re different people.
When I came in from my shower this morning, she was still lying in bed, with the sun just peeking over the windowsill.
“I remember you like this,” she said. “Lying in bed, wasting good sunlight. It is how I know you were rich.” I smiled and kissed her on the cheek before starting breakfast. I was rich, once. Someday, with a little patience, I will be again.