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Immaculate Halla | Symphony

“Stay away from that girl,” Mama warned the day her friends told her that our neighbors, the Kelces, were witchcraft practitioners.

I kept my mouth shut. I didn’t think she cared much for a response because ultimately, I was her compliant daughter. But every Sunday at church, my eyes met Isolde’s—the Kelces’ daughter. Standing slightly taller than me, her back was adorned with long black braids, eyes as deep as the night, and lips reminiscent of the color of blood. Mother would kill me if I looked like that.

Isolde and her parents occupied their usual place in the pew on the right-hand side of the aisle, situated across from us. The hem of Isolde’s dress hung three inches above her knees. My mother would’ve strangled me dead if I dared to wear such a thing. Too short, she’d yell. As if Jesus checked skirt lengths at the gates of heaven. I lived to feel approved by my mother’s biblical guidelines and truly believed God was really what life revolved around . . . until she smirked at me. Isolde.

I did a cautious scan around, making sure my mother or any onlookers hadn’t noticed our interaction. Isolde’s smirk grew wider and an unfamiliar heat crept up my face. But all the others were engrossed in harmonizing their voices and clapping in rhythm with the choir.

At first, I managed to convince myself that it was probably my imagination. There’s no way Isolde would spare me a glance when we’ve never even talked before. We technically didn’t know each other. But it turned into a habit—me and her exchanging secret glances, her smirking at me, and me shying away from her scrutinizing gaze. It was real. In a soft-pedaled pace, she had gyrated from the devil that the rumors said she was, to a walking Taylor Swift love song on the radio playing incessantly in my ears. The type that was too sensual for me to listen to in front of my mother.

I refrained from gazing at Isolde after Mother told me about the witchcraft affair. On one occasion, when I inadvertently caught sight of the girl, she responded with a concerned expression. Her eyes, in silence, inquired about the matter. What happened to our little speechless friendship? I turned away and ignored her existence.

On the thirteenth Sunday mass of me ignoring Isolde, she walked all the way from her seat to where I sat just to shake my hand during ‘peace’ time. There was a thud in my chest when she smiled and held out her well-manicured hand, my eyes stuck on her perfectly red-polished fingernails. I could feel my mother and all my aunts’ glares piercing through my skin, but for a minute, I pretended they didn’t exist and shook Isolde’s hand. I didn’t come to terms with how much I missed the girl until the skin of our palms touched. I suddenly wondered what it’d feel like to have her hand touch me somewhere else. Mother shot me the ‘Shaking hands with the devil now, are we?’ side eye after Isolde cat-walked away in her black minidress, her spotless legs making me rethink all my values and almost making me run to the altar to confess my new raging wild thoughts. It hit me that I never knew why people referred to her family as the devil’s family in the first place. Was it because they were witches? Were they really witches, though? I mean, if they were really witches, would they be coming to church? Did it have anything to do with why her legs looked so fine?

I shouldn’t get myself associated with the devil. But that wasn’t in the ten commandments, and that was enough for me to excuse myself to the bathroom after exchanging glances with Isolde on a Christmas Sunday mass.

“Beautiful holiday, isn’t it?”

Her voice was like a symphony. It was weird how I knew who it was before I could even turn around.

“Just a quintessential Sabbath to me.” I shrugged.

Out of nowhere, facing her felt like the most intimate thing I had ever done. I mentally thanked the holy spirit for keeping the bathroom empty because I still wasn’t sure if I wanted anyone to see me associating with the devil again. I blamed the first incident on ‘peace’ time, like I couldn’t get away from the handshake. But now, I would have nothing to blame as I let Isolde slip her arms around my waist, hugging me close to her body like she was finally attaching the two pieces of a puzzle.

We stayed like that for a while. I became an autumn leaf in her embrace, falling, our syncing heartbeats lullabying me to dormancy.

“How can I be sorry if I don’t know the crime, Rebekkah?” The symphony broke the ice.

I wondered if having someone say your name could send you straight to heaven, because Isolde surely did. For the first time, the mention of my name didn’t remind me of how my mother named me after a woman from the Bible simply because she wanted me to be married off to some lucky Isaac who would be my lifeline.

“You barely spare me a glance these days,” Isolde clarified, letting go of me. “What did I do wrong?”

It’s not you, I wanted to say. It’s my mother. My Aunts. My family.

“Tell me.” She urged, her eyes searching mine while I tried to pick the right words to say.

“Are–are we friends?” I dropped the question.

Socializing wasn’t really my expertise, and I could tell she could pick it up from my evident diffidence. Was this how two strangers normally conversed for the first time?

Isolde smirked before looking at me like she knew something I didn’t. Perhaps she did.

“Why? Did you have any other better ideas of what we could be?” She raised a playful brow and my stomach churned, making me unable to look her in the eyes.

Isolde shifted closer to me, and my breathing ragged.

“I–” I swallowed, visibly nervous. “I–”

I could barely name what all this was, yet I tried to figure out if my feelings were sinful or not.

“Tell me, Rebekkah,” she whispered, taking my hand while studying my face. “I can be what you want me to be. Anything.”

Her words went through my ears, into my brain, and trailed into my bloodstream. I pictured how ideal it would be if I could simply get stuck in the moment. If only everything and everyone else didn’t exist, so I could be with Isolde for a bit longer than I should.

Her energy ignited something inside of me. It made me wonder if I could actually rebel against my mother so I could commit this sin in peace. I needed a second of privacy, just a second, without Jesus watching my every move from a corner. A moment to be held tight by Isolde and try to be part of her song-like presence. I wanted to open my mouth and tell her how badly I wanted to leave this distasteful, confined dark neighborhood of Ikkige. The thousands of midnights I fantasized about eloping with her into the unknown, only to get up from my bed to pray it all away.

“You’re running out of time, beautiful. Make up your mind.” She squeezed my hand.

What did she mean I was running out of–

“Rebekkah!”

My mother’s yell came from the bathroom door and I immediately felt a cardiac arrest while Isolde looked calm and composed. If the girl wasn’t afraid of my mother, then she should be now. Because I knew all of this was going to go down a hell hole.

Mother snatched my hand from Isolde’s grasp, pulling me behind her as if to protect me from the girl. Little did she know, I needed someone to protect me from my mother instead.

“Miss Tarimo. Good morning to you too,” Isolde greeted, nonchalant.

“Stay away from my daughter, you heathen!” Mother growled, a mixture of fury and disgust tangled in her expression.

Tears stung my face as Mother dragged me by the sleeve of my long white flowery dress, almost making me trip on my sandals over the cemented floor.

Mother didn’t let go of me until we reached her white old Toyota Harrier. People staring at us was none of her concern. She just caught her daughter talking to the devil, and that was the only matter at hand.

“I knew she poisoned you in that handshake! I knew it!” Mother shouted, letting me go only to grab the ends of my cornrows. I cried out in pain.

“You listen to me carefully, young lady,” she shouted in my ear. “If I ever catch you having a thought about that devil’s child, you better find a place to fucking go. I haven’t gone to labor, fed you, washed you, and put a roof over your head for you to come and befriend that witch! Hear me?”

I nodded with my eyes closed tight and tears ran down my cheeks.

“Answer me like a good girl who believes in Jesus.” She gritted her teeth, and I nodded furiously.

“Yes, Mama. I understand.”

She let go, pushing me away from her.

“Now you’re going to stay back here and wait for Father Edema to finish mass so you can confess to him. Make sure to state every sin you did today, okay? Afterward, find your own way home.” Mama unlocked the door of her car and climbed in.

“Yes, Mama. I’ll do as you say.” I morphed into the ideal robot she raised. Her perfect daughter.

With that, she closed the door and hit the key to ignition.

                                                                          ***

When I found Father Edema after mass, he was talking to Mr. And Mrs. Kelce, the three of them laughing. I thought about what Mother would think if she witnessed him chit-chatting with the devils. Maybe I should go confess to another padre and–

“Rebekkah!” The man waved me over before I could leave. “Come here and say goodbye to the Kelces. They’re leaving Ikkige this Tuesday.”

What?

I ended up beside the padre and he introduced me to the couple as if they had never seen me before. But my mind still lingered on the fact that they were leaving. Isolde was leaving.

“Rebekkah is one of the best girls I’ve met. She never misses a Sunday of church and is always here for any extra prayer sessions and confession on Saturdays,” Father Edema began his usual praises of me. “She recently finished her A-levels, so she also comes here on Fridays too, to help the sisters clean up the church.”

“Aaw, that’s lovely.” Mrs. Kelce looked at me with eyes full of sweetness.

“Have to admit our Isolde is nothing like that, babe.” Mr. Kelce placed a hand around his wife’s waist and I met eyes with the crucifix, checking if the fake corpse allowed this extent of PDA. Mother would be muttering low insults right now if these two dared to hold each other like that in the Lord’s sanctuary.

“Yeah,” the woman nodded along, smiling. “But we love her, nonetheless. She’s an angel.”

My mother never called me an angel, no matter how much I tried to fit into her idea of an ideal child.

“Honestly, our daughter only comes to church when she feels like it, but she’s still a total gift from God.” Mr. Kelce shrugged with a proud smile, and I pondered whether my mother ever considered me a gift. Far from that, probably. I was an undoable curse that had stumbled into her life. Somebody should’ve advised her to abort me before it was too late. I mean, even my father left me before I was even born. Talk about being unwanted.

“You guys are something else. I’m gonna miss you two.” Father Edema chuckled, shaking his head at the two.

Though we all had the same shade of dark skin, Mr. And Mrs. Kelce had longer faces, thinner noses, darker lips, lengthier eyelashes, and less tangled hair. I could trace where Isolde got her beauty from. Such lucky genes these half-Rwandan half-Tanzanian species were. A typical Jack and Rose couple, but one that harbored such golden hearts.

Father Edema kept me under his arm while we escorted the pair out and only faced each other once they were gone.

“So, what brought you here, child of God?” Father Edema’s voice echoed in the almost empty church. The only other people around were the altar boys trying to re-arrange and redecorate the altar.

My face fell at the inquiry. I got reminded of my mother’s recent treatment towards me.

“I–I’m here to confess, Father.” I stuttered.

“You always do that with your mother. Where is she?”

“Um–” I bit my tongue. “She’s sort of pissed at me right now. So I’m here by myself.”

“Oh. That’s new.” He cleared his throat. “So you’re here alone?”

“Unfortunately.” I nodded.

“Good.”

“What?” Confused.

“Good, because I think there’s a better person you’d rather be confessing to.” He marked before turning me around by my shoulders.

Right there, at the door, stood none other than the girl I shouldn’t be associated with again. Isolde. She was looking at me like she couldn’t see anything else. Like I was the only visible thing.

“You have like–” Father Edema checked his wristwatch. “–half an hour before your mom starts calling to ask about you. Hope you know how to use this time wisely. Good luck.”

He winked and squeezed my shoulder before leaving. Sooner than I expected, it was only me and . . . well, witch girl. Everything I’ve ever wanted, but shouldn’t.

“Wanna go up the clock tower?” She casually asked, gesturing over the tall building outside before holding her hand out to me.

She could get me in trouble. I should finally say no to this witch, whose gaze had my feelings in a chokehold, and save myself from the wrath of my mother.

I stared at her hand. All the lights in the situation were red, but I was green to go.

Something inside of me went alight when the skin of my palm touched hers. She tightened her hold, smiling, before leading the way out and into the church’s tower. She surely had me under her spell, and the weird part was that whatever it was, I didn’t want it to break.

“Are we allowed to be in here?”

“Don’t worry, I’m acquainted with Father Edema. He’s sort of a friend,” Isolde explained as she took the first step of the stairs.

“Sort of?”

“Well, that’s an understatement. He’s literally my confidant. I talk to him sometimes–no, most of the time when I need someone to talk to. I think he knows me better than anybody else does?”

“Never pictured you as someone who’d have a padre for a best friend, but okay.”

“What–a witch and a father can’t be on the same page?”

I stopped in my tracks.

“Is that what you really are? A witch? I thought those were just rumors.”

“I don’t do bloody sacrifices or raise the dead, if that’s what you’re thinking. I just heal a couple of people by herbal treatments, do spells, and keep some Hekate-centered altars. A craft I’ve learned from my great grandmother, and also a blessing.”

That was the most intriguing description of witchcraft I had ever encountered.

I followed her up. We took a couple of breaks, but I lost most of my strength when she thought this would be the best time to enlighten me about the fact that it was a twenty-story clock tower.

“No way I’m climbing twenty sets of stairs for nothing.” I whined.

“You’re gonna thank yourself when you get to the top. It might not be too high, but the view is still so much worth it. Trust me.” Isolde moved with ease, not looking tired at all. Meanwhile, my sweat glands lost their function and my brain tried to fathom why tall buildings even existed. Or most specifically–why most church clock towers never had elevators.

In the next few minutes, my exhaustion came full on, so I let Isolde carry me the rest of the way up.

“Are you really leaving Ikkige tomorrow, Sol?” I asked out of nowhere in the midst of our little venture.

She stopped walking and looked sideways at me.

“Did Father Edema disclose that to you?”

I nodded, praying she wasn’t going anywhere. Crossing fingers so she would want to stay with me as much as I wanted her to.

“Yes,” she nodded back. “We’re supposed to move tomorrow.”

My heart shattered.

Yes, Ikkige was a bullshit place to be in, but–What about us? Did she think about what we could have?

“And you didn’t think to tell me?”

“I did. But you avoided me for literally two weeks and then when I finally have a chance to talk to you, your mother appears. I was meaning to know your intentions about us, even though I know my parents would never let me stay here without them.” She explained, and I tightened my arms around her, as if that could hold her back from leaving. “So I wanted to make the most of our last moments together. If you ever let me.”

Maybe if we talked to each other like normal people, all that time wouldn’t have gone wasted. If only I could get away from my mother for once and make a move. Maybe Isolde would’ve stayed, maybe she would be sure that giving us a shot was most probably worth staying in Ikkige for.

Isolde was right. The view at the top of the building was worth it. I couldn’t remember the last time I had been that high up on the ground. It made me feel so in control.

“Isn’t it beautiful?” She stared around at the far sight of bluish mountains and empty dark grassland that seemed unaffected by the gleaming sun. Ikkige sure was outside of the city. Maybe too far out, but not too far out for electricity or water resources to reach, like how most far out places worked. However, seeing the whole of Ikkige like this made me realize how much I had kept myself in a bubble. How confined a place looked when you zoomed out.

“I wanna get out of this place.” I found myself saying as I stared ahead.

Isolde watched me as I moved forward, closer to the edge of the building.

“Then do it.”

“No–I wanna get out of this place with you.”

I couldn’t believe my words. My mother would be so ashamed of me if she heard me say such things to someone. Not just a random someone–Isolde, of all girls.

“Why?” she asked. “Why do you want me to come with you?”

“I want to be with you.”

“Why?”

“Because I only see myself when I’m looking at you, Isolde.” I looked at her, our gaze locking. “You give me strength. You give me hope. Every Sunday that I see you, I wonder if there’s something better than life out there that I could be living instead of this mediocre. And I want to try to be as strong as you. I feel complete when you’re next to me. I’m the best version of me when I’m with you, and you seem to cope better when you’re with me . . .”

I let my feet halt at the edge of the roof. Isolde mimicked my position, taking my hand in hers, silently assuring me that I wasn’t going to do this alone. That she would come with me. If she couldn’t be the love of my life, she could at least be the death of me. Maybe we could have our forever, in our own way.

“. . . Like two parts of the same soul,” she finished, and I slowly let go of my balance.

—————

Image: Bianca Van Dijk via Pixabay

Immaculate Halla
Immaculate Halla
Immaculate Halla is an emerging writer from Tanzania who is passionate about storytelling. An alumna of Idembeka Creative Writing Workshop for African Writers 2023, she was longlisted for the Island Fiction Prize. Her work was also mentioned in The Writers College Short Story Competition 2023 Honors list. Some of her work can be found on Writers Space Africa Magazine, Wattpad, and other online literary spaces.

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