“Shouldn’t you two be in school?” the manager asked, appearing like a hoary snowy owl as Esma and Sabite strolled through the avenue of carpet rolls, their long, dark ponytails swinging like the tails of field mice.
“Nah, we’re sixteen,” Sabite said. This was a lie. They were eleven, and they looked it.
“We need to find which rug has our sister in it,” Esma said. This was the truth.
The old man raised his eyebrows.
“She’s not a ho, yo!” Sabite said, doing some gangster rapper hand gestures that she’d seen on YouTube, “she’s in love.”
Esma saw the man’s face soften with the word love, and she imagined him and his wife, together, in a nest.
“Nah, not with a geezer, with science, innit.” Sabite finished, pressing her face against a pink furry rug. “This is sick!”
The manager made a noise, somewhere between a sigh and a hoot, and left them to it.
Esma and Sabite helped their mama prepare the evening meal, all of them crammed into their tiny kitchen on the eleventh floor of a crumbling tower block. As mama shelled broad beans, Esma chopped red onions and coriander and garlic, as Sabite shaped the minced lamb into perfect balls, ready for frying.
“The Dust Dama will be here at eight,” their mama said, her words punctuated with flour puffs as she rolled out flat bread spiked with cumin seeds.
“We’ll pop a cap in his ass for taxing Mephare!” Sabite said.
“Sabite!” their mama shouted, but her bottom lip was trembling.
Esma knew that mama blamed herself. She’d been a mote too, once, turned into dust and imprisoned in a rug for criticizing the regime; trapped between worlds as the sobs of their grandmamma echoed around their mountain village, like a milking goat, broken, at the bottom of a well. Mama was brought back, eventually; coughing and spluttering out good intentions, in exchange for all of the family’s possessions; in exchange for their loyalty.
“We have a good life here,” their mama would say, whenever she told them the story. But she always said that. When the other mamas wouldn’t talk to her; when there wasn’t enough food for all of them, and she’d pretend that she wasn’t hungry; when they’d walk to the duck pond through the grubby estate that was full of dog-shit and pale, hostile faces in hoodies. “A new start,” she’d say.
But the Dust Dama had followed them.
The Dust Dama seemed to fill the whole flat; his shoulders brushing against the ceiling and his feet poking out of the windows, like an ogre breaking through a doll’s house; but then Esma would rub her eyes, and he’d be man-sized again, sitting at the far end of the table.
“You have your father’s eyes,” he told the twins as he gnawed on a chicken bone, like a barbarian. Well, you look like a walnut, Esma wanted to reply, brown and wrinkly, and all teeth—breaky and throat-chokey, but she didn’t dare.
“He was a fine man,” he continued, “willing to risk his reputation—”
“That was a long time ago,” their mama interrupted, and Esma could see that she was wearing her get-to-bed-NOW-face, but the Dust Dama didn’t care.
“Dust is skin, my petal. You can never get rid of it.” He laughed, and clapped his hands together; hands bigger than thunderclouds; hands smaller than cardamom pods, which made them all sneeze.
“What do you want?” their mama snapped, rubbing her nose, and Esma felt her chest tighten as the Dust Dama steepled his fingers. This man could turn people into nothing, one click, and poof! Game over.
“The old ways are dying,” he said, wiping his greasy lips on a serviette. “The women in the weave are leaving, the men are unravelling without them. We need to preserve our heritage, our customs, we need to unite.”
“So you kidnap my daughter?”
The Dust Dama paused. “Yes.” He said, “Until she agrees to be my wife.”
“But she’s down for being a chemist!” Sabite blurted, and the Dust Dama chuckled, like Sabite had cracked a joke. Then he turned back to mama.
“Besides, you owe me,” he said.
“Mama hates spiders because the webs remind her of the threads, wrapped around her,” Esma said, thinking aloud, as one dangled in the moonlight from the ceiling.
“Everybody be buggin’ on spiders, stupid.” Sabite said, sleepily, stealing the covers.
Esma found Sabite in the bathroom, covered in towels so she looked like a multi-coloured mummy.
“What are you doing?”
“Empathizin’ with da victim, innit. Like them psychics on the TV.”
“It’s scorchin’. And bare itchy, blood.”
“There’s a carpet shop on the high street. I’ll pay the bus fare, you can buy the sweets.”
“Do you think they know about motes?” Esma said, looking around at the collected English people on the bus: the blue-haired grannies with their raincoats; the young boys with their baggy jeans and their mobile phones blaring out music; the young girls with their bright orange fake tan and lipstick on their teeth. A young couple were kissing in the seat in front of them, and Esma watched as the boy’s tongue jabbed in and out of the girl’s mouth. She seemed to like it.
“Do you think men become motes?”
“It isn’t fair.”
They didn’t find Mephare.
“It’s her!” their mama whispered, as two red-faced fat men deposited a rug in their sitting room, muttering as they left about the broken elevator and the stairs they’d had to climb up.
Mama rolled it out, and the twins gasped. It was beautiful, like the ocean caught and geometrised, all blue bulbs and aquamarine angles, and Esma smiled, thankful that at least her sister was being kept somewhere pretty.
Their mama got down on her front and pressed her head against it, as Esma and Sabite lay next to her, all face down, like murder victims.
And soon enough, they could hear Mephare, singing the lullabies that papa used to sing to them; the ones that he’d wrap around them like a fleece, when the shadows would steal the sun, and their mama’s eyes filled with tears. Then her face furrowed.
“Time to get her out,” she said.
They hung the rug over their brick balcony, and they began to beat it—with their hands, with umbrellas, with books—and as the motes flew out over the overflowing communal garbage bins and the ouroboros of tyre marks on the forecourt, Esma saw her sister in particles smaller than pinheads: Mephare brushing her long, black hair; Mephare eating watermelon; Mephare asleep with her glasses all wonky, and a textbook on her lap.
They pounded the rug for hours, finally falling back, exhausted.
“How did grandpapa get grandmamma out of the curtains?” Esma panted.
“Pssh! That didn’t happen, stupid.”
“Did it, mama?”
But she wasn’t listening.
“Are you sorry for upsetting the Dama, Mephare?” she asked, rubbing her aching wrists.
“No,” a muffled voice replied.
“Do you want to come out?”
“I won’t marry him. I’d rather stay in here.”
“Can we Hoover her ass out, mama?”
The Dust Dama stood on their shabby mat on their doorstep. They’d had a nice one, one that read W-E-L-C-O-M-E but somebody had stolen it. He’d wipe his feet on Mephare, Esma thought, wanting to spit on his shiny shoes.
“Her answer?” he asked.
“Yes,” mama said, “come tomorrow.”
She must be trying to make it look homely, Esma thought, as she watched their mama hang a new, heavy pair of curtains up. She’s trying to make it nice, in case a new foreign family move in, people like us, people who’ll feel the cold, even in the summer.
“You be chillin’ Mephare!” Sabite shouted, as the taxi driver slammed the rug into the boot of his cab. “We be here, innit!” The driver looked confused, but he didn’t ask.
“Where are we going, mama?” Esma asked, as they all got into the back.
“Home, stupid,” Sabite said, “to our real yard.”
“Home is what you carry,” Mama said, as the taxi sharked its way through the streets of silver shutters; of bus stops and upturned bottle banks, beneath the stars scattered like dandelion seeds. “But we aren’t going there.”
Esma breathed on the glass and drew a spiral with her finger, as Sabite, at the opposite window, did the same.
“Will the Dust Dama kill us, when he finds the flat empty?” Esma asked.
“There are worse things than death,” their mama said, but whether that was good or bad, Esma didn’t know.
“Besides,” mama said, “the flat isn’t empty.”
Somewhere, there was a scream; a shout; glass smashing; a sound like somebody falling, then a thud. Somewhere else somebody was singing; somewhere a lot closer, but much, much further away.
NICOLA BELTE lives in Birmingham, U.K, and is a part-time MA writing student, part-time pint-puller and an in-between time writer of weird things. Say hello at her blog, here: http://nicolabelte.blogspot.com/