They call her Mama Noa. She lives alone, right at the highest point of the hill behind the city, from where she can see all the way to the sea if the day is clear.
All of the hill, down to the fringes of the city itself, is covered by the slum. It’s a maze of narrow alleys, staircases and houses constructed out of tin sheets and plastic, with windows covered by polythene. It’s a place the people of the city hesitate to visit in daylight, and with good reason. At night, none of them will even think of coming here. At night, even the people of the slum don’t go out of their homes if they can help it.
The hours of the night belong to the gangs.
The gangs have carved territories for themselves, and guard them zealously. They are the final word in the areas they control. Nothing happens without their permission, and everyone pays them taxes. Few people can travel from one gang-controlled area to another without paying a toll, even to visit a relative.
One of the few exceptions is Mama Noa.
Everyone in the slum knows Mama Noa. Many of them were born at her hands, for one of her functions is the slum’s most skilled midwife, the one who gets called in at the really difficult births. But that’s only one of the many different functions Mama Noa serves.
She’s the one the people go to for advice when they can’t think of anyone else. She’s the one who hands out good luck charms and amulets, and sometimes tells fortunes in the tiny front room of her little house with the view of the distant sea. She adjudicates disputes, does what she can to heal, is respected by everyone in the slum, and feared by not a few.
She doesn’t look like someone to inspire fear, does Mama Noa. She’s a tiny woman, scrawny and older looking than her real age, dark as the night, and always wears a headcloth over her thinning hair. She has bright black eyes that remind one of a bird’s, and speaks in a slightly breathless voice, as though she’s always excited about something. She usually is.
She can walk the lanes and alleyways of the slum in perfect safety, at all hours of the night, can Mama Noa. The gang members stay in the shadows if they do see her. They have legends about her, that she does the black arts in the back room of her little house, and that she can change them to toads and worse. None of these tales are true, of course, as Mama Noa will confirm with a laugh if anyone asks.
She doesn’t like the gangs, though. She speaks out openly against them, and tells the boys and girls to stay out of their clutches. It doesn’t do any good, because the gangs give the boys the emotional security they don’t have, and the money and power they can only dream about otherwise. But she does what she can.
More than once, reporters from the newspapers in the city have come to the slum, after arranging safe passage with the gang lords, to interview Mama Noa. They imagine it will make a nice human interest story, so they ask Mama Noa questions, and photograph her to their hearts’ content. The stories are never actually published. Some assistant editor always kills them since they aren’t quite interesting enough. Who really cares about some old woman up in the slum who delivers babies and does a little business in lucky charms?
The reporters don’t know the real questions to ask. They don’t ask about the past. They don’t ask how she came to be who she is, and the real reason why the gangs leave her alone.
And, if they did ask those questions, Mama Noa wouldn’t answer them.
But this is that story.
The girl who will one day become Mama Noa steps out of her house into the street. It’s a warm summer evening, and she’d dressed in as little as she can – a halter top, short skirt and cheap sandals. Her mother screeches at her from inside the house, but she ignores the woman, as always. Her mother no longer has any claim on her loyalties, as she never had any on her love. Not after the way she’s treated Noa all the seventeen years of her life. Even though her mother is pregnant again, and may give birth at any time, Noa isn’t interested. Her mother has too many children already. Nobody asked her to breed again.
At this hour the slum has not yet sunk into its fear-filled nightly silence. People are still moving about, neighbours chatting in the narrow alleys and congregating at the tiny shops. The many who work down in the city – which might as well be in another country – are coming home on the evening buses, and hurrying home up the staircases and tiny alleys. Soon the shops will close, though, and shortly afterwards everyone will shut themselves inside the tin and plastic walls of their huts, the men resting and drinking while the women cook supper. And after that, the gangs will come out to do their various kinds of business.
These would be the worst hours for a pretty young woman to be out of doors. The gang members love fresh young women. But Noa has no fear of the night, because she has the best protection of all.
Noa’s lover is a gang boss.
He’s barely twenty, and quite old enough to be a boss. The gang members don’t live that long, and they have to make their mark while they can. Noa’s lover, who goes by the gang name of Hugo – borrowed from a foreign footballer whom he admires – has made his mark, many times over. He’s killed several times, and his gang is properly terrified of him.
As long as Noa stays his lover, and as long as he retains his position as boss, and as long as she stays within the gang’s territory, she’s safe. This is why she can walk the slum at night half-naked, as her mother says, without problems.
And increasingly, she’s given jobs to do for the gang, jobs that fill her with pride. Not, for her, the usual fate of gang members’ girls, the dangers and drudgery of prostitution, or the perilous existence of a drug courier. Noa has never run drugs in her life and Hugo has been the only man who has ever known her body. She has a much higher place in the scheme of things.
Hugo lives above a shop that sells car parts. Almost all the merchandise is stolen, from other shops or from the cars themselves, but here in the slum nobody cares where something comes from as long as it’s serviceable and cheap. The shop owner does good business, and can easily afford the protection money he pays Hugo. He sees Noa and nods cheerfully, a large fat man with a happy untroubled grin.
“He’s upstairs,” he tells her. “He said for you to go straight up.”
Hugo has a sentry posted at his door, of course, some ten-year-old new recruit who gawks openly at Noa’s breasts. She slaps his head and walks past without pausing.
“Your guard’s no use,” she tells Hugo, who’s at his desk cleaning a gun. He puts away the weapon, rags and oil in a drawer when he sees her. She doesn’t like guns, and he knows it. “He let me past without a word.”
“He’s young,” Hugo says. “He’ll learn.” He’s in a good mood tonight; she can tell by his posture, relaxed and free of tension. He’d been talking about a big deal for some days; things must be going well. He stands up and opens his arms. “Come here.”
Much later, she climbs off his bed and reaches for her clothes, wondering if that little devil outside the door has been watching through the keyhole. It’s night outside now, and silent except for a dog barking somewhere. “Is that the only reason you asked me to come tonight?” she asks.
“Why, don’t you think it’s a good enough reason?” he teases, pulling on his shorts. “Actually, there is. You’re to go and meet Speedy.”
“Speedy? But –“
“You’ve been to his house before, haven’t you?”
Yes, she wants to say, but he scares me, with his eyes that undress me and his hands that twitch to touch me. It’s only fear of you that keeps him off me. And I don’t know any longer how afraid he is of you.
“I know it,” she says instead, shortly. She’s dressed except for her sandals, which she can’t find on the cluttered floor. Kneeling, she hunts around for them with her hands. “What do you want me to do?”
“He’ll give you an envelope of money. There ought to be fifteen thousand in it. Check it carefully to make sure the notes are genuine – I showed you how to do that. Check it and count it in front of him. If it’s all correct, bring it back. If it isn’t, leave it there and come back, and tell him what’s wrong.”
“He’ll think it’s a personal challenge.” She can imagine Speedy’s yellow eyes, his simmering anger. “Are you sure you know what you’re doing?”
“He won’t dare harm you, don’t worry.”
“I’m not worried about him harming me.” It’s not true, but not as important as the other worry. “I’m worried about him harming you.”
“Why, do you think Speedy’s going to rebel one of these days? Maybe he’s got the anger, but he’s too stupid to do it properly. I’d know about it well in time. Besides, he needs putting in his place.”
“So,” she says, unenthusiastically, “should I go now?”
“You might as well, unless you’d rather have another session.”
She looks at the rumpled bed. In the near-darkness, it seems suddenly alien and uninviting, stinking of their sweaty sex. “Let’s leave it for later,” she temporises. “When I get back.”
“Do you want me to send someone with you?”
“If by someone you mean the kid outside, don’t bother. I’ll be better off alone.”
He nods. “Don’t be too long,” he says.
The kid outside leers at her, his hand rubbing at his crotch, so she smacks him again.
The lanes are dark at this hour – there are no streetlights in the slum, of course – and deserted, but Noa usually walks them without fear. Tonight, she’s full of apprehension though, apprehension because it’s Speedy, whom she’s known for longer than she’s known Hugo, and whom she knows better than Hugo knows him. There is stupid-dangerous, and intelligent-dangerous, and there is just plain dangerous.
Speedy is just plain dangerous.
His house is ramshackle compared to Hugo’s, merely a shack with iron sheets for walls. Dim yellow light shines through chinks. She taps on the door, the gang code tap, and waits. After a while the door opens.
Speedy himself stands in the rectangle of light, peering at her. “Come in.”
His furniture is basic, a raw wood table with newspaper for a tablecloth, two red plastic chairs, an unmade bed against the wall, and a light bulb hanging from the ceiling. He’s pasted nude pictures all over the walls, naked white women with improbably blonde hair and huge breasts. She ignores them.
There are two others in the room, a girl and another young gang member whom she doesn’t know, sitting side by side on the bed. The girl blinks at her sleepily from under a pile of hair and sucks on a cigarette. The boy sucks on a beer bottle. Blue smoke hangs in the air.
“Come to join the party?” Speedy asks. “We were just thinking we need one more girl to make the numbers.”
“Hugo says you have a packet for him,” she replies. “I’m to take it to him.”
“Quite the little second in command, aren’t you.” Speedy gives her a venomous glance, but reaches into a satchel hanging from a nail on the wall and pulls out a large envelope. “There you are. Now, if that’s all you want, get out.”
“Not so fast.” Her instincts scream at her to leave while the going is good, but she sits down at the table, pushes aside a gun and a dirty dish, and opens the envelope. “Let me check it first.”
She knows almost at once something’s wrong. The third note she touches feels different, the paper thinner and rougher than it should be, and when she holds it to the light she can see the watermark’s blurred and indistinct. Wordlessly, she puts it to one side and carries on with her task. The three others in the room watch her silently, but she can feel the tension rising.
Altogether there are eleven fake notes in the envelope, adding up to six thousand. She pushes them neatly together with her fingertips and looks up at Speedy. “I can’t accept the money,” she tells him. “It’s counterfeit.”
“What?” He stares at her, his eyes growing bloodshot with fury. “That’s a lie! The money is fine.”
She shrugs and stands up, pushing her chair back from the table. “You can check it for yourself. It’s fake, and not very well-faked either.”
“You take that money, bitch,” he says, pointing, “and tell Hugo that he’d better have a good explanation for sending his little hooker here to mess with me.”
“Sorry, Speedy,” she interrupts, turning to go, “But Hugo gave me specific instructions. After all, it’s not my fault if you don’t know a fake note from a real one.”
He moves so fast she can’t hear him coming, and grabs her by the arm, pulling her back. “Wait a damned minute, you little whore.”
The girl with the cigarette giggles, her voice high-pitched. The boy stares, blank-eyed, over his beer.
Speedy begins to slap Noa. They aren’t really hard blows, just preparing the skin for the real hitting to follow. She’s been slapped around since she was a child, by her mother and the man she was with then, the one Noa has never acknowledged was her father, and she rolls with the blows as much as she can. But Speedy’s an expert, and he’s hitting to hurt her, not out of a momentary flash of anger or frustration. Her vision begins to fade, and she clutches at the wall not to fall down. A naked woman rips away in her fingers.
The door opens. “Let her go, Speedy.”
For a moment, everyone stares at Hugo. He leans against the door, the gun he’d been cleaning earlier held casually in his hand. “Let her go,” he repeats.
“What the hell do you mean by ordering me around, Hugo?” Speedy asks, still holding on to Noa.
“Do I hear a hint of rebellion, Speedy?” Hugo leans forward, sweat shining on his dark skin. “Are you questioning my authority to issue orders?”
“You send your whore around to insult me, then damn right I’m questioning your authority.” Speedy raises his hand to slap Noa again. “It was all a set-up, wasn’t it? Huh?”
Hugo points his gun at Speedy. “It’s not her fault she’s smarter than you. Now let her go.” They glare at each other over Noa’s head, as though she were a piece of disputed property.
Then the girl with the cigarette screams, and the tableau explodes in violence. The boy with the bottle hurls it at Hugo and jumps to his feet. Speedy throws Noa back against the wall and jumps for the gun on the table. Hugo fires, the shot deafening, and the light goes out.
Lying on the floor, half stunned from the impact of her head striking the iron wall, Noa has only a vague idea of what happens in the next moments. The room is lit by the flashes of gunshots, the reports almost drowning out the screams.
Finally, there is silence, and a scratch of a match. A candle flares to life, and wavers in front of her face. “Are you all right, Noa?” Hugo asks.
She nods, struggling to her feet. She’s lost her sandals again, but can’t be bothered to look for them. Her head is still ringing like a bell as she looks around by the light of the candle.
The girl with the cigarette lies back on the bed, dark blood spreading around her like a halo. The boy who had thrown the beer bottle is sprawled partially over her. He’s obviously as dead as she is.
Speedy is sprawled against the wall below the satchel. He’s still moving, trying to get up, but slipping back each time he tries. He stares up at them, and even in the candlelight Noa can see the hate in his eyes.
“Go on.” Hugo pushes something into her hand, something heavy. Without surprise, she notes that it’s his gun. “Go on,” he repeats. “Kill him.”
She looks at the gun, and at him, and then at Speedy, and begins to shake her head. She never quite completes the gesture.
Speedy’s moves quickly for someone who had seemed to be on the point of death only seconds before. He raises his arm, the gun in his hand barely visible in the candlelight, and she reacts without thinking, pointing Hugo’s gun and squeezing the trigger, and the recoil knocks her back against the wall again. When she looks, Speedy has fallen back and isn’t moving any longer.
“Great,” Hugo says, and kisses her on the forehead. “You did for him, all right. Now, give me the gun.”
“No,” she tells him, her voice so thin that it sounds like a whisper to her ears.
“What do you mean, no?” She can’t see him frown, but can hear the surprise in his voice.
“I should have thought of it before.” She moves away from him, pushing to the other side of the table. “Speedy was right. It was a set-up.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“I should have thought of it earlier. Why did you ask me to count the money in front of Speedy and reject it if there were fakes? I mean, why not just take it back and do it in your house? And, most of all, why tell me to do it? You know how the gangs feel about women. Letting a woman show him that she’s smarter than him – that was about guaranteed to push him over the edge.”
“Look,” Hugo says. “Give me the gun. We can talk about this later.”
“No, let’s talk about it now.” Her voice is strengthening. “I think you knew that the money would be fake. I think you made sure it would be fake. That was all part of the set-up.”
“You don’t have any idea what you’re talking about.”
“And the clincher,” she goes on remorselessly. Now she’s got the table between them, and with the edge of her bare foot she can feel something hard on the ground – Speedy’s gun. “Why did you follow me and come here, all armed and ready, arriving just at the right moment? I wasn’t supposed to think about that, was I? But I did. Why did you come here, unless it was to take advantage of the situation and goad Speedy into starting a fight he was sure to lose? After all, he was too angry to think straight by that time, let alone shoot straight. Wasn’t he?”
“He’d have killed you if I hadn’t turned up.”
“No,” she shakes her head. “He’d have beaten me, probably quite badly, but he’d have calmed down before he did me any lasting harm. He wasn’t really driven insane by anger until you came in. And now you’ve made me a killer.”
“Give me the gun.” There’s a hard edge in his voice now. “Or I’ll hurt you – really hurt you.”
“Come and get it,” she says, and then he throws the candle at her and pushes over the table, jumping, reaching for the gun.
But this time she’s ready, and her hand barely shakes at all when she fires.
The shooting hasn’t brought the neighbourhood rushing. In the slum, people know enough not to get involved. Oh, she knows they’ll be watching from behind curtains and doors held slightly ajar, but they won’t try to stop her as she stalks out of the hovel, leaving the door open behind her, and stalks up the deserted lanes. All the way, most likely, there will be eyes following her, but she doesn’t really care about that anymore.
Her mother has just gone into labour as she arrives home. The older woman is lying back on her bed, her dress bunched to the waist, and barely registers Noa entering the room. From the corners, the other children are watching, with bright fearful eyes.
Kneeling silently between her mother’s spread legs, Noa delivers the baby. She has never done it before, but she makes an excellent job of it.
Afterwards she washes her hands, scrubbing them raw, not caring about the blood. Blood is blood, whether the baby’s or her mother’s, Hugo’s or her own. It washes off easily.
But, try as she might, she can’t get the stink of the gunpowder out. She can smell it on her fingers no matter how much she washes.
What she doesn’t want to tell anyone is that she’s still trying to get it out to this day.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2011