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Rivers of London - Ben Aaronovitch
Elsie Winstanley & Mamusu Grant
Elsie Winstanley, Mamusu "Rose" Grant
Additional Tags:
Adventure, Travel, Women Being Awesome, Supernatural Elements
Yuletide 2022
Published: 2022-12-16 Words: 12,057 Chapters: 6/6



Working in Freetown, Elsie gets a mysterious letter that sends her on a journey across Sierra Leone.


Many thanks to my beta reader Trialia! You helped shaping this story into how I envisioned it to be. Working with you was a joy.

Chapter 1

Chapter Notes

After her time in Zimbabwe and Zaire, Elsie’s supervisors at the library had decided that she needed a couple of calm years and, as far as they were concerned, it was going well. Restructuring the library of Fourah Bay College in Freetown was good work: there were no hand grenades hidden in books, no National Liberation Front invading the city and, while Elsie was convinced that conserving libraries in war zones was important work, there were other librarians who would take over for her for a while.

For now, Sierra Leone was a comfortable place to be. Unlike Guinea or Liberia, it was neither a dictatorship nor a place of civil unrest, and given her previous experience of tropical climates, Elsie found it easy enough to acclimatise. It was interesting work, too: albeit small, the university’s library held some very interesting works that she read in her free time.

She was glad it wasn’t her first time managing a library – the locals obviously knew their job, but had been understaffed for too long, and as a result, the library was in quite a state. They definitely needed the help, and Elsie was glad to provide it. 

It may have been a small library, in a small country, but its rich history as sub-Saharan Africa’s first university meant that it contained volumes she had yet to see anywhere else. When the anniversary of her arrival passed by, Elsie was surprised to notice that in the full year she’d spent here, she had not once left Freetown.

When the parcel from Oxford arrived, Elsie knew that was going to change. She’d heard of Harold Postmartin, of course – her own supervisor, back when she had been a student, had warned her against him. ‘Postmartin the Pirate’, she had learned, would borrow certain books from other libraries, but then would produce some kind of document which stated that the book fell under some criterion or another that allowed him to confiscate the volume and feed it to the Bodleian, never to be seen or found in a public index again. To get a parcel from him, especially one that, going by the shape the packing paper made under her hands, seemed to contain a stack of spiral-bound papers, seemed highly unusual.

Elsie turned to the letter attached to the parcel. “Dear Miss Winstanley,” it said, “allow me a moment of your time to …” Elsie scanned the letter, and then read it again, slowly. Apparently, a schoolteacher in Kabala had asked for Postmartin’s advice, on a topic about which he stayed conspicuously silent. The teacher hadn’t answered his first two letters, but he had found a book he wanted her to have.

The matter was urgent and important, and could she perhaps deliver the copy to the former mission school up in Kabala, please? 

It was a pity the letter had arrived now and not, say, two weeks earlier, when Mamusu Kamara, Elsie’s assistant, had still been here. At the moment, the young librarian-in-training was on leave, spending some time with her father’s other family, who lived close to Kabala, as far as Elsie remembered. It would have been easy to give the book to her and ask her to check up on the teacher.

Well – it seemed as though Elsie  would travel the country after all. She smiled at the realisation, and set to preparing her trip.

Chapter End Notes

Fourah Bay College really used to be an important university in Western Africa and has the byname "Athens of Africa".

Chapter 2

Chapter Notes

You couldn’t rent a car in Freetown. When she’d asked about it, people looked at her as though she’d grown a second head. ‘Take a taxi,’ her other colleague at the library had said, then told her whence the taxis left, and how much it should cost to go to Kabala. ‘And don’t travel by night if you can avoid it.’

Elsie was sure this advice was very important, but it wasn’t her primary concern as she stood at the busy crossing. Her colleague had told her to come early, so here she was, in the red, dusty morning light, looking for a ride into the backcountry. Already, several old cars stood next to each other. Loud voices carried over to her, and by now she recognised their intent through their tone of voice, even before she heard the words:

“Hello, pretty girl, where do you want to go?” and, “To Kenema, yes?” and, “Special price, extra for you!” They all spoke to her in English, for which Elsie was thankful. She had learned some Krio, but it wasn’t really good for more than “wetin yu nem?” and for ordering food. She had never needed any travel vocabulary. Their English was often heavily accented, but it was better suited for this than her Krio.

“To Kabala?” she asked, and then it began: the first driver pointed her to the next, and the second said he thought his cousin wanted to drive there next week, would that be good too? Next week would be too late for Elsie, so she shook her head and clutched the parcel with the book Postmartin had asked her to deliver. He had insisted that his friend could get into serious trouble if she didn’t receive this information quickly enough, and what was a librarian’s job if not making knowledge accessible to those who needed it?

After half an hour of asking around, Elsie finally found someone. “I am not going to Kabala,” he said, “but I am going to Makeni. You can find someone else there who can take you to Kabala.”

Elsie reminded herself of the map she had memorised. Makeni was a town two-thirds of the way between Freetown and Kabala. Her colleague had told her that the bush taxis didn’t have fixed routes, and that they depended solely on the drivers. If there wasn’t anyone going to Kabala today, then Makeni was her best option. “That sounds good,” she said, and began haggling.

The price finally agreed upon, Elsie set out to wait. As far as she could see, the car was empty, but going by how heavily laden the other cars in this place seemed to be, she doubted she would have the back row to herself, so let the driver store her backpack on the roof of the car.

It was several hours before they actually left, and by the time they did, Elsie didn’t even have a seat to herself. The driver insisted that she take the front seat, she and a large, older Sierra Leonean woman, while four younger men shared the back row. All their combined luggage was stored on the roof, where it added a good three feet of height to the car. Elsie sat squished between the woman and the door. Thankfully, the window was open and she leaned out, both to give herself and the other woman more room, and to better watch the world outside.

The clay houses, a familiar sight in Freetown once you left the town centre with its multi-storey colonial buildings, spread out thinner and thinner as they left the town. The wind season wasn’t quite there yet, but the air was drier than it had been for months, and a thin layer of Sahara dust dulled the landscape.

Behind Elsie, the men were chatting away in fast Krio. Sometimes the driver and the woman next to her weighed in too. Although Elsie tried getting an idea of what they were talking about, the words she thought she recognised didn’t make sense together. That was the part she liked least when listening to other people’s conversations: when they sounded like she should understand them, when the language was similar enough to the ones she spoke, and still eluded her every time she tried to make sense of the words. In giving her the impression that if she just tried hard enough, she should be able to understand the words, it was a different kind of alienating than simply not knowing a language.

While the conversation and the constant rumble of the old car’s engine provided calming background noise, the many bumps and potholes in the road—which was more of a dirt track than anything Elsie would have called a ‘road’ back home—meant that watching the landscape change was all she could do. Of course, she had seen the hills around Freetown, and the tropical rainforest; she had even been to the beach once or twice. They provided an interesting background to the city, but in the year Elsie had lived here, she hadn’t really spent time in these environments. As she was neither a botanist nor a zoologist, the jungle held no particular allure for her. Her dealings were with books, with civilisation. Yet she couldn’t help but stare at the thick cover of trees, so similar to the jungle in Zaire, yet different in a way she couldn’t describe, as the road wound its way towards them.

What would await her there? The other teachers would know more. Elsie ran her hand over the paper-wrapped parcel lying on her knees. What kind of book did it contain, and could she get a copy? It seemed rude of Postmartin to have her deliver a book without telling her anything about its content, and she resolved to address the issue in her next letter. Even her first one, in which she had merely confirmed receipt of the parcel and her immediate departure, would probably arrive weeks after she returned to Freetown, so perhaps, if she were lucky, she would get to read the book after delivering it to its intended recipient.

Another bump in the road made the car shake. And brake. Elsie clutched the door-frame through the open window, and braced her feet in the footwell.

The driver frantically turned the wheel, then corrected as the car threatened to veer off the road. Shouts and screams rang in Elsie’s ears. The driver shouted a string of what sounded like swear words in reply.

Finally, the car scratched to a halt.

Elsie held onto the door-frame for a few more seconds before she dared to let go and just breathe for a moment.

In an instant, the driver was outside, and the four other men quickly followed. They were all shouting again. It took Elsie a moment to realise that the woman beside her was talking to her in Krio and gesturing to the door.

“Oh, of course, I’m sorry,” Elsie said. It seemed likely this would be the answer to what the woman was probably asking. “Let me—” She opened the door and set her feet on the ground. Her legs shook a bit, and hurt when she stretched them, but it wasn’t too bad.

She moved to make room for the other woman to get out, and Elsie took a few steps around the car. She wasn’t hurt, so if she could make herself useful, all the better. The four men were bent over the left rear tyre and, when she offered her help, the driver said that they had it under control.

It didn’t look like it to Elsie, but she wasn’t going to push the matter. She exchanged a glance with the other woman, who just shrugged, gesturing for Elsie to sit down. 

“I am Kadi Bangura.” 

She offered Elsie some of her sour plums. Elsie hesitated. There was a saying that had so far proven very valuable advice for Elsie: cook it, peel it, or forget it. On the other hand, Miss Bangura was eating them herself. It should be fine.

Elsie introduced herself. As so often in Africa, she had to repeat her surname more than once, and in the end settled on just her Christian name. Kadi didn’t stand on ceremony either. She didn’t understand much English and could barely speak it, but managing the public library in Kolwezi had taught Elsie many things—one of them being that it was always possible to communicate in some way. She took the offered sour plums and sat down.

While the men were working, more or less successfully, upon changing the tyre—from what Elsie could see, they were in each other’s way more often than not—Kadi told her stories about her life.

From what little Elsie understood, Kadi lived in Makeni with her family, and was returning, now, from a visit to Freetown, where her eldest son had moved for his studies. He wanted to leave Sierra Leone, to go to Europe. He was studying to become an engineer and, while Kadi was very proud of that, she didn’t understand his wish to leave his home.

With the language barrier, it took some time to tell the story and, before Elsie could provide any insights of her own, the car was ready to go. They all took a quick break behind the nearest bush or on the roadside; Kadi then shared the rest of her sour plums with the men, before they all took their seats. When the car started rolling, all its passengers seemed to hold their breath for a moment – but the tyre proved secure, and on they went. Only this time, the conversation included Elsie.

Time passed quickly in this way. With sunset came a sudden darkness. Even though she had spent several years in tropical latitudes, this was something to which Elsie had never grown used. Oh, she knew it, and she had learned to count upon it and to deal with it, but it always made her uneasy nonetheless. A minute earlier it had been daylight—yes, muted by dust, but bright all the same—now, when she stuck her head out of the window and looked up, she could sometimes see the bright twinkle of stars, between the highest of the treetops and the clouds above them. 

Driving through the Sierra Leonean bush at night was a different experience than by day. The car’s headlights were broken – only the faint glimmer of the parking lights shone into the night. Every second, Elsie expected a pothole to break the car again, or an animal to jump in the way. The driver never slowed down, not even a little. He followed the many bends of the road at a speed that had seemed reasonable during the day, but seemed dangerously risky at night. Next to her, Kadi seemed to pray.

It probably wasn’t as long as it felt, but after what felt like hours, they finally reached Makeni. Elsie had survived much worse, but in that moment, she felt an immense relief at being out of the car. Her colleague had been right: driving through the night was an experience best avoided.

One problem was solved easily: Kadi offered her a place to stay for the night, which Elsie gladly accepted. When Elsie tried to give her a handful of leones for her troubles, Kadi flatly refused.

The next morning, she escorted Elsie back to the town centre. “Kabala?” she asked, and Elsie confirmed. This time she didn’t even have to go looking for a taxi herself. Kadi found her a taxi going to Kabala, and even negotiated the price for her. Elsie hugged her goodbye.

Her new driver looked vaguely familiar, and when he introduced himself, Elsie understood why. “Are you related to Mamusu Kamara?” Elsie asked him.

A delighted grin spread across his face. “I am her father.” He asked how she knew his daughter, and when Elsie answered, he said, “My wife tells me that Mamusu is doing well at the library. We are very proud of her.”

Elsie was pleased for her young protegée. As far as Elsie knew, Mamusu was past the age when Fula girls were usually married, but then, she was Fula only on her father’s side. Elsie had assumed that her mother was pushing for education, and that was probably true, but apparently it wasn’t all of it. Mamusu was bright and clever, and it was good that her father acknowledged it.

This time, she had to wait far longer than yesterday until the car was full. But the journey wouldn’t take half so long as the previous day’s, so Elsie didn’t feel the same urgency. So she waited, and, when the dusty wind gained force, she draped her scarf over her mouth and nose and sat in the lee of a nearby building until it was time to get moving.

Indeed, they arrived in Kabala in under four hours, which meant that, despite their late start, there was perhaps still enough time for her to visit the school, but Mr. Kamara wouldn’t have it. “You are our guest,” he said. “Come. You can get to the school tomorrow.” 

Elsie only had Postmartin’s vague written instructions to find the school in Kabala, and besides, after two days on the road, a thin layer of reddish-brown dust covered her skin. She could use an opportunity to refresh herself before she delivered the mysterious parcel.

The Kamara household was on the outskirts of town. It was a small clay farmhouse, like many of the others Elsie had seen on the way here. In the yard, chickens ran around, and there was even a goat that greeted them in front of the house.

Mr. Kamara shouted something and a small boy came running. He hugged his father, then glanced curiously at Elsie.

“Hello,” she said, “I’m Elsie Winstanley.”

He answered in immaculate, if accented, English: “Hello, Miss Winstanley. I am Alfred Kamara. I am pleased to meet you.”

She smiled and mirrored his good manners. “The pleasure is mine.”

Then, Elsie met Mr. Kamara’s wife and his other children. Mamusu was among them.

Elsie knew her as a bright girl, an efficient librarian-in-training. She saw what needed to be done before you told her. If you gave her a task, you could trust that it would be done in no time, and if you blinked twice, she’d be standing in front of you again, asking what she could do next.

She always struck Elsie as someone who liked to keep busy, but over the course of the evening, Elsie got the distinct feeling that it wasn’t possible for her here. Of course, there was always work to be done around the house, but it wasn’t Mamusu’s household to run, so she couldn’t make the decisions. Mamusu seemed somehow less lively here than she did in the library, and she was clearly bored.

So of course, the next day, Elsie asked Mamusu to accompany her to the school.

Chapter End Notes

I tried getting as much of the setting and feeling right as I could, but while I found lots of interesting academic texts, finding information on road condition is surprisingly hard for present times, let alone the late 1970s. A lot of the setting is based on extrapolation from today's data and the personal accounts of my [relative] who spent a good deal of time in Togo in the 1980s.

Chapter 3

In the morning, they went to the school. The director invited them into his office. He was a white man in his fifties or sixties, tired-looking, and not able to help them at all.

“She is not here?” Elsie asked incredulously. She had focused on getting here, having thought that was all she had to do.

The director shook his head. “She left at the end of the rainy season.” When travelling the country would have become easier, Elsie assumed. But why, and where had she gone?

“Can you tell us more?” Elsie watched the older man. He looked tired, but he watched Elsie back, before glancing at Mamusu. As the man didn’t immediately answer, Elsie prompted him, “You may say in front of my assistant anything you would say to me. Now, do you know where Miss Mary Woods went?”

“She’s not here anymore.” It was curious, the way he avoided giving an answer to her question. He wasn’t interested in the parcel either; he paid it no attention. Instead, he glanced at the clock and seemed partly distracted, partly annoyed. Elsie could relate. She wasn’t distracted, but she was very annoyed.

Elsie took a moment to collect herself. It wouldn’t help to show her feelings. “That wasn’t what I asked,” she said mildly, but didn’t conceal the steel in her eyes. “Could you please tell us anything you may remember?”

He huffed. “Look, Miss Winstanley, I don’t know where she is. She left of her own accord. She decided gallivanting around the country was more important than what we’re doing here. I could not hold her here, thus she is no longer my responsibility.” His eyes landed on Mamusu, who steadily held his gaze with her head high, before he turned back to Elsie and continued, “She obviously decided her own whimsies were worth abandoning her duty. It happens – young people come here hoping for freedom, and when the realities of the work don't agree with them, sometimes one or the other of them leaves.”

The comment didn’t sit right with Elsie, but she decided to let it go. “Do you have any indication where she went?”

He glanced again at the clock and shook his head. “Ask around," he indicated the door. “Someone around here will know. You may leave the parcel with us and consider your duty done.”

“Thank you for your time, Mister Rowe,” Elsie said politely, and stood. She did not leave the book with him.

Outside, Elsie said, “Let’s go find someone who can help us.”

Mamusu knew where to look. “My siblings go to school here,” she explained. “Let me talk to her.”

They lingered outside the classroom and waited until the lesson was over and the young students streamed out, then Mamusu approached the English teacher. Elsie stood back and observed, glad to give her protegée the opportunity to do something. Clearly the bright girl was bored out of her mind.

The English teacher was a young white woman, barely taller than Elsie. She was older than Mamusu and younger than Elsie, perhaps in her mid-twenties, but it was hard to tell. She had a kind face, which seemed like a good start. She smiled at Mamusu, and her face went from curiosity to concern, then again curiosity when Mamusu shook her head. The teacher glanced at Elsie and smiled a greeting.

Elsie could see the moment Mamusu mentioned the missing Miss Woods: concern and curiosity were joined by relief. After a few words were exchanged, Mamusu called Elsie to her side. They swapped names. The teacher, a Miss Patricia Gordon, regarded Elsie. “Mary is not here,” she said, “but I can tell you more than Mister Rowe could have done. Come, sit down.”

Once they were all seated, she continued, “Mamusu here tells me that you are looking to deliver a book, and that it is urgent. I don’t know that Mary was looking for information from such distant sources, but she was quite obsessed with” – Miss Gordon glanced at Mamusu – “local folklore. She kept talking about how there was more to it than met the eye, and kept her own records. Perhaps she sent her notes to someone in England for safekeeping, or for comparison with the known literature.”

Elsie nodded. “The colonial rule was long enough that there are bound to be records.” She hadn’t opened the parcel, after all the inviolability of the mail was important. But perhaps there could be some exceptions … “Professor Postmartin – who is the person sending this to her – was adamant, in his letter to me, that Miss Woods needed the information as quickly as possible, and that any delay would mean danger to her life and soul.”

At this, Mamusu leaned forward. “To her soul,” she repeated in a strange tone of voice that Elsie couldn’t quite place. “Patricia, tell me, where exactly did Miss Woods’ interest lie?”

“I am not sure,” Miss Gordon said, “as she was interested in everything she could get from the locals.”

“You have to remember. It’s important.”

Elsie was taken aback by Mamusu’s sudden intensity. “Perhaps,” she said, “now would be the time to have a look at the book Postmartin sent.” They both turned towards her and Elsie placed the parcel on the table. Carefully, she opened it.

The Folklore and Superstitions of the Sierra Leonean People, with Personal Notes of James Henry Weaver-Mercy, F.S.W. , it read. “I’m sorry, Mamusu,” Elsie said, gesturing at the title. Unfortunately, she wasn’t surprised at all by it. Elsie frowned at the abbreviation. She had seen it before, of that she was sure, but where, and in which context? She shook her head, and turned the page.

It was a printed book, thank God. Not that Elsie didn’t enjoy finding her way through another person’s diary or personal notebook, far from it! But if the matter really was as urgent as Postmartin had led her to believe, then time was pressing indeed. It had been at least a week since Miss Woods had left the school. If the book could provide clues as to where she had gone, it was more useful in print than in cursive.

Elsie flipped through the copied pages, looking for handwritten commentary, but nothing stood out. The personal notes of this mysterious F.S.W. must be included in the text itself, and as such, not of much help in finding out where Elsie needed to look.

She opened the book at the back and, luckily, found an index and a table of contents. “Miss Gordon, Mamusu,” she said, and gestured for the former to come to their side of the table. “Please tell me if something is of note to you. If there is something you remember her talking about, or something you know from other sources.”

But even as she said it, Elsie found a pencilled note in Postmartin’s hand. It pointed to a categorical entry: Genii Locorum .

“Mount Bintumani,” Miss Gordon said, at the same time as Mamusu said in a very quiet voice, “Lake Sonfon.”

Lake Sonfon, it turned out, was said to be inhabited – or possessed, or protected – by a powerful spirit, an ‘orisha’, as Mamusu called it in a whisper. 

“I have never met it,” she said, “but my father has told me about it. It is possible, and good, to be on its good side. But if you are not,” she paused, and her brows drew together, “then your soul really is in peril.”

The book corroborated the story, and described some of the rituals the people living on the lakeshore carried out to stay on the spirit’s good side. After a moment’s hesitation, as if taking a moment to convince herself to say the words, Mamusu looked first Miss Gordon, then Elsie in the eye. “I do not approve of the way this is written. You should take these warnings very seriously.”

The Folklore and Superstitions of the Sierra Leonean People , as if there were a single Sierra Leonean people, instead of many ethnic groups interlinked. Mamusu herself was the best example for the multi-ethnic and multi-religious society of Sierra Leone, and if she believed in what the book called superstitions , Elsie would rather honour her belief than side with an old book that had already shown itself to be wrong in one respect. There wasn’t going to be anything supernatural about a lake, of course, but she owed it to Mamusu to treat her beliefs with respect.

Elsie returned Mamusu’s serious look. “Thank you. I will,” she said, and turned to Miss Gordon. “What about Mount Bintumani?”

Miss Gordon looked uncomfortable, but Elsie couldn’t tell if that was due to what they had found out about Lake Sonfon, or because of Mamusu’s earnest reaction to it. “She kept talking about it. It was strange, she said, that there were stories about a … local spirit of Lake Sonfon, but not around such an extraordinary mountain like Bintumani.”

“Were there other places she talked about?” The question was important – if there were, it would make their task so much more difficult. There was no doubt Elsie would have to follow her, at the very least to make sure that she was all right, and (though hopefully not!) to spare her soul the dangers of what the book called a Genius Loci.

Had the book been her only source, Elsie wouldn’t have been so sure about her course of action. Apparently, Miss Woods had written to Postmartin for further information, and he had copied her the relevant information from this library of his to which books disappeared, never to be found in any public index again. The author didn’t confirm or disprove the existence of a Genius Loci of Lake Sonfon, but treated it as a very real – and very dangerous – possibility. The book was also full of the good old English colonialistic worldview and, as such, not the most reliable source. In all probability, Elsie wouldn’t have taken the chance, and would have acted upon the information all the same. But it was Mamusu’s firm reaction that made Elsie sure of what she had to do.

“None with the same frequency as Lake Sonfon and Mount Bitumani,” Miss Gordon said.

Elsie was relieved. “Good. That narrows it down. I understand that you,” she looked at Miss Gordon, “can’t leave your position here, and I’m not asking it of you. What about you, Mamusu?” She turned to her protegée. “I am not asking it of you either, and please, stay with your family if you want. I could use your help on the trip, but I’ll manage without it if need be.” Elsie would rather have Mamusu with her, but she couldn’t in good conscience make her come. Holding their work in Freetown over her head like that wasn’t right. She needed someone with knowledge of the country, but she could find someone else if she had to. 

“I don’t think it is wise to go,” Mamusu said, “but I think it is important. I am coming with you.” Then she grinned. “Also, I have never had the opportunity to travel the country like this. Let’s go.”

Chapter 4

There were no roads to Lake Sonfon that were fit for a car, and none at all to Mount Bitumani. Standing in the town square until, sooner or later, someone came along who happened to be going to their destination wasn’t going to work now.

Luckily, Mamusu’s father knew someone who had relatives in Kensekoro, the little settlement closest to Lake Sonfon. He wasn’t exactly happy to let them go there on their own, but he was willing to help them get there, and that was enough. Elsie was well aware that his word held a lot of weight in his family, and had he wanted to keep Mamusu from going, there wouldn’t have been much Elsie could have done. As it was, it seemed that Mamusu’s father saw it as an honour that his daughter was responsible for protecting the European from walking into something she wouldn’t be able to leave again. Elsie didn’t need this kind of protection, but if it meant that Mamusu was going to be able to help her in navigating a country where she didn’t speak the most common language, she didn’t care too much about the specifics.

It took them the remainder of the day to prepare for the journey, and they set off early the next morning. Unlike the one Elsie had ridden back in Bulawayo, Mr. Kamara’s friend’s cousin’s motorcycle was lightweight and quick to react to her steering – the first time she had tried it, at least. Now, though, it was awfully packed, with two adults and more luggage than Elsie had thought possible, and every movement of the handle made her feel the motorcycle was going to topple over. It was going to be difficult, going quickly enough that they kept their balance, yet slowly enough that they didn’t have an accident as a result of the terribly uneven road.

As they slowly made their way through town, it looked as though even Elsie had underestimated how difficult it would be. At least here, in this backwater town, Elsie didn’t have to worry too much about other traffic. Mamusu’s father wasn’t the only one to own a car, but it was clear that he was one of very few. It was no wonder, really, that he left the farming to his wife and the children. He had to make use of the car as a taxi to cover its costs.

The road was bumpy and, while other cars or motorcycles didn’t turn out to be a problem, it was clear that the road wasn't made for them. Children and animals ran about, making Elsie zigzag along the road. At this rate, it might have been easier to walk, but they had promised to take the motorcycle to Mamusu’s father’s friend in Kensekoro, along with the supplies he had brought on his last trip through the country.

As soon as they left the town, driving became easier. They still couldn’t go very quickly – Elsie wasn’t new to riding a motorcycle, but her experience hadn’t prepared her for the current circumstances. They didn’t have helmets here, and she would rather take longer than not arrive at all. Road accidents were not a rarity, as the occasional burned-out wreck of a car on the side of the road on her long drive from Freetown to Kabala had proved well enough. Mr. Kamara had told her not to be concerned about it, but Mamusu had seconded the advice given by their colleague from the library: not to drive after sunset. ‘Most accidents happen at night,’ she said. It was a good thing that Elsie had spent the night in Makeni, rather than go on. Now, they didn’t have to worry about that. Even though they were going rather slowly, the twenty-eight miles to Lake Sonfon were well within half a day’s travel.

The road leaving Kabala heading southward was broad enough that two cars could pass each other, and the end of the rainy season meant that it was dry enough for the tyres to get a good grip. Small fields and the occasional clay house adorned the side of the road, and behind them, the outskirts of the tropical forest. The day before, in town, Elsie hadn’t paid much attention to the wind, but now, it was inevitable. She still didn’t notice the wind itself: it came from behind them, and it wasn’t strong, so it was easy to dismiss. But when, after what had amounted to perhaps half an hour of continuous driving, Elsie felt Mamusu tap her shoulder, she was glad to stop the motorcycle, if only for the chance to cover her mouth and nose with her scarf.

“Let me help you,” Mamusu said and, with Elsie’s consent, fastened the scarf more securely. Then, she pointed to a road behind them. “This way to Lake Sonfon.”

Elsie took a moment to sip some water to help her dry throat. This early in the wind season, the wind wasn’t strong, but that didn’t mean it liked being ignored. After offering the water to Mamusu, she imagined the mental map she had made herself for the journey. It didn’t really deserve to be called a map; it was just a list of directions. Elsie could navigate with a map just fine, in fact, just having seen a map was often enough to provide her with a sense of direction for a place. She could place Kabala in relation to Freetown, and could mentally trace the road, but hadn’t thought of looking beyond that. It meant she was now flying blind.

“We stay on this road until Kondembaia, right?” she asked, eyebrows scrunched. “Beyond the village, we keep to the right, then when the road forks again, we take the left fork.” She shook her head. “If we don't take a break before that, you’ll have to tap me on the shoulder again to remind me. I’m not sure I’m going to recognise it.”

The doubtful look Mamusu gave her spoke for itself. “My father said that Kondembaia is the place from which several roads go. We have to find the one leaving it towards the south. It should be big enough that we can’t miss it. After that, it is as you say.”

The evening before, over the cup of rice that had almost been mild enough for Elsie, the whole family had discussed their trip. Mamusu, it turned out, had been to Lake Sonfon barely two years ago. Her father had spoken highly of someone he knew there – not the friend whose motorcycle they were now driving, but another one – and it was clear that he had wanted his eldest daughter to meet him. Nothing had come of it, as Mamusu had no intention of marrying a farmer in the countryside, and her father obviously hadn’t pressed the issue.

But it meant that Mamusu remembered the way, and Elsie trusted her assistant’s local knowledge here as much as she had in Freetown.

They continued their journey, this time both protected by headscarves around their noses and mouths. The road was narrower now, just two worn tyre tracks in the red dirt. Most of the time abandoned fields, slowly recovering into bushland, framed the way. The road followed the path of what had perhaps once been a riverbed; while the road wasn’t in good condition, littered with rocks and, in parts, overgrown by whatever brambles crept from the edges of the erstwhile fields, it also followed a clear path.

From time to time, they had to get off and refasten the baggage that had  come loose from the ups and downs of the road, or to push through an especially challenging bit of bramble. They didn’t encounter anyone on the road, but there were small settlements along it, a homestead every few miles.

Mamusu took every opportunity to get off and talk with the homesteaders, in rapid Krio that Elsie had no chance of understanding. What she got, it seemed, was information on where they were and how far they had yet to go. These stops also provided them with information on the road conditions ahead.

Around noon, they arrived in Kondembaia.

“Before we cross the river,” Mamusu said as they ate their picnic, “I need you to stop. We can’t cross the river before we stop.”

She had a look on her face that Elsie didn't understand. Mamusu was serious, but also hesitant, and determined. As if she were going to ask something from Elsie that she couldn’t give.

“I will,” she said, because that was an easy promise to make.

They set off, and, after another hour, they came to the river. Elsie brought the motorcycle to a stop, and they got off. Elsie stretched her arms behind her back, and walked a few steps. Riding a poorly-balanced motorcycle down dirt tracks all day had been different from her faster riding back in Zimbabwe, and her shoulders made themselves painfully known.

The river Rokel was Sierra Leone’s biggest river: from its source in the north-east to its estuary in Freetown, it crossed the whole country. This place here was about two-thirds of its length between its source and the place where it left the hill country. It still had a long way to go before it joined the Atlantic Ocean, and didn’t take up all the space that it would later on in its course. Here, it was a narrow river, perhaps sixty or seventy feet across. There was no way they would be able to cross the makeshift pendant bridge riding the motorcycle, but it looked like the crossing-point was well chosen: the rising of the river-bed and the falling of the water level between them formed a natural ford.

“Stay back,” Mamusu said, and walked past Elsie. Her steps were slow and firm, and she carried a bottle in her outstretched hands. It was some of the rice wine, of which they had packed several bottles. Elsie stayed back. She could do with a rest. Mamusu seemed to have stood the journey much more comfortably than Elsie had, but then, Mamusu was a good decade younger.

So Elsie sat down and watched Mamusu raise the bottle above her head. She said something, but the river’s gurgle drowned out her words. Then, she placed the bottle on the ground and returned to Elsie. “Now we wait,” she said, before Elsie could ask.

Elsie didn’t mind the continued break as such: her body needed it and, after crossing the river, they wouldn’t have much farther to go. It was still early enough in the day that they would arrive before sunset, as suddenly as it came in these latitudes. There was no reason to worry, but the unexpectedly extended break made Elsie uneasy.

This wasn’t her country, she reminded herself. She didn’t know how things worked here, and if Mamusu needed more of a break to feel safe, then Elsie could give it to her. Mamusu sat down next to her. They shared an orange and some coconut cakes and drank some water. They talked about the weather, the journey, and how Mamusu’s half-siblings were doing in school.

It wasn’t until Elsie began needing almost to shout to make herself heard that she noticed the swell of water in the river. The water had been steadily rising, and now the river was almost breaking its banks, a tempestuous deluge. Elsie's words trailed off, and she began to watch the river. She checked the sky in the direction where she suspected its source lay. The sky was clouded as always, multiple layers of grey interspersed with the occasional hint of blue sky, but nothing indicated a rainstorm. It was the beginning of wind season after all, the first part of the dry season.

Then, the water receded. It went lower and lower, until it was as it had been before, and then, the riverbed—the whole seventy-foot span of it—was covered in nothing but slick mud. The bottle of rice wine, Elsie noticed, was gone.

“Now we can cross,” Mamusu said, satisfied.

Elsie pushed herself to her feet. “You knew this would happen?”

Mamusu smiled. “I suspected it. But come on now.”

The riverbed was still moist. Elsie grabbed the handle and pushed the motorcycle upright. It swayed, and Mamusu came to the other side to stabilise it.

They couldn’t drive through the mud, so they had to wheel it to the other side. On the edge of the riverbed, Elsie hesitated. “Is it safe?” she asked.

Her shoes were acceptable for working in a library, and for walking through the city. They were less acceptable for riding a motorcycle; the least she’d have wanted for this were ankle boots. These weren’t at all suited to crossing a tropical river on foot. In the tropics, you weren’t supposed to enter fresh water. 

There were a lot of things against which she had been warned before first going to Africa.

Not sleeping without a mosquito net or wearing short-sleeved clothing were the first. She hadn’t even brought anything with short sleeves, but sleeping without a mosquito net had been unavoidable over the last three days. So far, her malaria prophylaxis seemed to be enough.

Eating things that weren’t cooked, and which she hadn’t peeled or washed herself with water from trusted sources, had been the next. She had made that mistake before and paid with a very painful case of Amoebiasis, right at the beginning of her stay in Zaire.

Setting foot in a body of fresh water had been the third point on that list. Elsie was well aware that the nearest hospital was too far away.

Mamusu’s answer was firm. “It will never be safer.”

Well. At least she had left word of her destination at the school in Kabala. They pushed the motorcycle forward, through what was usually a flowing river. Perhaps it was safe enough this way. Elsie just wasn’t sure that Mamusu meant the same kind of safety that she did.

Nonetheless, they arrived on the other side. As the two of them pushed the motorcycle back onto the road, Elsie heard a slow trickle of water behind her. A quick glance confirmed what the sound suggested: the river was rising once more. If it had been safe to cross before, it definitely wasn’t now. Had Mamusu known?

After crossing the Rokel, the terrain became more irregular. They were now without any doubt in the hill country that formed the northern and eastern part of Sierra Leone. Driving was more difficult over this ground, and Elsie was more than glad when, an hour before sunset, they finally arrived in Kensekoro. ‘You can’t rush West Africa,’ her colleague in Freetown had once told her. Just twenty-eight miles in an entire day seemed a very slow pace, yet they might be lucky to have made it.

Even though he had had no way to know of their coming, and hadn’t planned for guests, Mamusu’s father’s friend offered them a place for the night. That, too, was typical of West Africa, Elsie had found. 

Over dinner, he told them about the young woman who had come here, talked to the lake, then left the next day. Elsie and Mamusu shared a look – their journey wasn’t over yet.

Chapter 5

Chapter Notes

There was no road from here to the Loma mountains. Of course, that didn’t mean that there wasn’t a way.

It took Elsie the first day of walking to get used to it. She had never been much of an outdoor type, having had neither opportunity nor inclination to go gallivanting about the countryside. She was at home in cities, and if, now and then, she found herself in places like this one, it was generally out of necessity, rather than a choice made for her own enjoyment. She could appreciate the beauty, of course.

Until now, their road had always followed the ever thinner path of civilisation. In comparison to their journey so far, it felt like they were now well out in the wilderness. The Loma mountains were directly to the east, but they couldn’t go that way.

Their host had told them a story, in Krio. During the first half of the first day’s march, Mamusu had recounted it to Elsie. It was a story about the lake and the mountain, or rather, their personifications, Sonfon and Bintumani, and their generations-long rivalry, running so deep that it had caused the land between them to ripple. Elsie didn’t have sufficient writing supplies with her. Perhaps she could ask Mamusu to repeat the story again once they were back in Freetown.

Regardless, it was a good explanation for the rugged landscape, for the many hills that constituted the uplands leading up to the Loma mountains, and the valleys that, close to the mountains, ran in a north-south direction. It was easy to get lost crossing the hills, to find oneself in a dead end where the jungle had made further advancement impossible. It was better if they moved in a northerly arc. Their march would be longer in miles, but shorter in days, and much safer.

It wasn't as if the impression of a wilderness was truly accurate, after all. People lived here, and had for generations, in scattered villages and settlements. Once the ground around the village had been exhausted and could no longer produce food, they moved to a new place and left the fields to lie fallow, to recover in time. It really wasn’t wilderness – they often found themselves walking through the remains of what had once been fields, and here, in the uplands, the occasional pasture. 

Even so, they walked for most of the day without meeting anyone. Elsie wondered, more than once, if they were still walking in the right direction. There were footpaths, but a footpath could lead anywhere. Elsie remembered vaguely reading that game paths often looked like footpaths, but led only to water. From time to time, she stopped to ask Mamusu if she thought they were still on the right track. Two sets of eyes were better than one.

Together, they made it. It was afternoon when they arrived in Kalamaro, early enough that Mamusu found them a place to stay. Elsie had brought money for her trip, but out here, they traded the goods they carried in their backpacks in exchange for shelter and food for the night.

The next day, they once again thanked their hosts and set off as early as they could.

On the second day of walking, they found a rhythm; knowing when to keep going and when to take breaks; showing each other the beauties of the Sierra Leonean landscape; looking for the right direction.

The wind was a constant force, but less noticeable on foot than it had been on the motorcycle. It came steadily from a north-easterly direction; another way for them to keep track of the direction in which they were walking.

It was on the third day that Elsie’s feet really started to hurt. The march from Momoria to Bandakaraia was supposed to be shorter than the distance they had had to cross in the first two days of walking, but it didn’t feel like it. Elsie’s feet had hurt nearing the end of these marches, but on the morning of the second day, she’d started refreshed and well.

Now, everything hurt: her shoulders, from wearing the heavy backpack; her back, from the unfamiliar posture. Her right knee hurt whenever she put her weight on it while bending it. Putting her weight on it was tolerable, bending it was tolerable, but trying both at the same time? Unpleasant. She could work around that, however. The worst of her injuries from their trek could be found in the soles of her feet. They burned, and, worse than that, every step sent sharp pain through the bone of each heel into her leg.

One foot after the other, Elsie told herself again and again, whenever she wondered how far they still had to go. The Loma mountains had been looming ahead of them for some time, the ragged outline of Mount Bintumani only occasionally visible through the clouds. They were close, and yet, moving cross-country on foot, without roads, meant that even a single mile was a long way—and they had a lot further to go than that. Each and every step jarred her bones.

When they took another break and Elsie massaged her feet, Mamusu looked at her, concerned but curious. “Why are you doing all of this?”

This wasn’t like any kind of adventure Elsie had had before. A week ago – oh dear, was it a week already? – she had thought it would take her four days at most to get back to Freetown. Driven by the urgency conveyed by Postmartin’s letter, she had made haste to get to Kabala.

Now, it was her sense of duty that kept her going. She wasn’t the post office, but she was a librarian. Her job was to make information available to those who needed it. She wasn’t so sure whether Mary Woods would still need this information, but she would rather leave the choice to the former teacher than make it for her.

“When I became a librarian, at first I never thought I’d find myself in a place like this one,” Elsie began slowly. “Then, I was offered the chance for an internship in Uganda, and I took it. That was 1970. When the coup d’état happened and among other things, the libraries were shut down, I understood that part of a fight for power was always a fight for control of information. It is why a free press is so important.”

Elsie looked over the remains of what had once been a house. “But the freedom of the press covers only one side of the issue. A free press brings daily updated information into the eye of the public, but without archives and libraries, it isn’t enough – it’s not sustainable. Information needs to be accessible in the long term, for anyone who needs it.” There were exceptions, not every piece of information had to be available to the general public. But if Elsie continued in that direction, she would find herself, sooner or later, justifying Postmartin’s secret archive. Where should the line be drawn? She shook her head. That line of thought was for another time.

“Libraries and archives are the most important resources we have for sharing knowledge in the long run. If I learn something, I can share it with you, but in writing it down and storing the information where others can access it, I share it with anyone who may need it in the future.” 

Even as she said it, Elsie knew it wasn't wholly accurate. “In most cases, that is,” she amended, “but working towards the safekeeping, freedom and availability of information is what I'm doing.” Sometimes more the one than the other; her work in the Fourah Bay College library was almost exclusively a case of making information available. 

She shrugged. “I feel that it is my duty to give Mary Woods the information she asked for all those months ago.”

Her feet were now merely buzzing; it was much more pleasant than the constant pain from before. “That, and I wanted to see your country,” Elsie added, with a wry smile.

Mamusu had listened to her monologue without saying a word, and as she herself had been looking over the landscape, Elsie didn’t know whether Mamusu agreed with her or not. 

She knew the version of Mamusu she'd met in Freetown: a bright young girl with a quick wit, who worked with speed and diligence, and didn’t take nonsense from anyone. Out here, she was different. More subdued, perhaps, as if the countryside weighed her down. Even more than Elsie, she seemed to be a city girl.

“I went to the library for that,” Mamusu admitted wistfully. “A window onto the world.” She gazed into the distance as she said it, just as Elsie had been doing before her. 

“Is it the way you imagined?” 

The Fourah Bay college library held many books on many topics; it was more than possible to gain a glimpse of the wider world. A librarian’s job wasn’t to read all the books, though. It was to classify them so that other people could read them.

Mamusu slowly pulled her shoulders upwards and let them fall down again. “The window opens back into my own country.”

“Then why are you here?” Elsie was glad to hear that she’d managed to give her voice a gentle note.

Mamusu turned to look at Elsie. “I want to meet the person who looked through a window into my home and decided that she wanted more of it.”

When she saw Mamusu working in the library, almost as efficiently as any fully-trained librarian, Elsie often forgot how young the girl was. Ten years—or so—weren’t necessarily such a disparity in age, but in this case, the disparity in experience meant that Elsie had already found her place in the world, while Mamusu had not.

“I hope you find what you are looking for,” she said.

They went on walking.

Chapter End Notes

The orisha of Lake Sonfon is an existing belief around Lake Sonfon, which is why it didn't make an appearance. Mount Bintumani is not sacred as far as I could find out. Nowadays, the people in the villages around it work as mountain guides for the occasional tourists.

Chapter 6

Chapter Notes

They reached Bandakaraia in the late afternoon. Elsie longed for nothing more than to soak her feet in a cold brook. Cold water was nowhere to be found, and anyway, she didn’t want to tempt fate more than she already had when crossing the Rokel. They were guests in an interfaith household so Elsie had made sure to leave her shoes outside. She took care that her blistered soles didn’t point toward other people while she put her feet up to help reduce the swelling.

After the shared meal, Mamusu asked about Mount Bintumani. She got into an animated discussion, of which Elsie didn’t understand anything more than gestures. Later, Mamusu relayed the information to Elsie. They were finally here. The old couple had heard about a young white woman coming into the region, even if she’d arrived in a different village. Apparently Mary Woods had taken the direct path from Lake Sonfon to here, and had ended up a bit further to the south – then she had disappeared.

Darkness had come as suddenly as it always did in the tropics, but before sunset, as Elsie and Mamusu had approached the village, the mountain had loomed in front of them, a dark mass with steep, unforgiving slopes. From what they'd been told, the mountain was more accessible further south.

“They said that you can’t set out to climb the Bintumani. There have been many people who tried,” Mamusu had told Elsie. “Many of the other villages around the mountains tell the same story: people who try to scale that mountain when they are not wanted there will be found wandering through the wilderness.”

There was a catch in that, and Elsie had noticed it. “And when they are wanted?” 

“Then the Bintumani will welcome you.”

That had been in the evening.

Elsie woke at dawn. She stood up and readied herself in silence. Beside her, Mamusu followed suit. They had no need to speak. Preparing their backpacks for the day's march, they left most of their luggage in the house of their hosts. They would come back here, eventually. They ate breakfast, then set off.

The sun was still hidden behind the mountain, but it was bright daylight. Clouds tinted in red and brown touched the northern flank of the mountain, and in the south, patches of clear blue sky flashed through the cover. It was as good a day for walking as any during the last week had been, if not better, because they were finally close to her destination.

Elsie set one foot in front of the other. They barely hurt any longer. Mamusu walked quickly, with the energy and strength of youth, but Elsie found, nonetheless, that she was able to keep up. They followed footpaths and then, when there were no more paths to tread, the forest itself seemed to make way for them. There was always a gap to be found in the undergrowth, or a game trail that would lead them upward.

It was a long walk, and Elsie wondered at her unexpected and unaccustomed endurance. She didn’t know the exact height of Mount Bintumani, but it was not only Sierra Leone’s, but also West Africa’s highest mountain. Five thousand feet in altitude, at least, compared to the surrounding terrain. It was a problem Elsie hadn’t considered until now, as they had had to reach the mountain before they could even attempt to climb it. As it turned out, it was good that she hadn’t wasted time worrying.

Although, now that Elsie thought about it … it was worrying, and she was embarrassed that it had taken her so long to gather her wits. She kept following Mamusu, of course. Being in this wilderness alone was worse than being led by … something. Someone.

So, she was walking under some kind of influence. She could still feel it, even though it had lost the power of its grip on her once she knew it was there. She could submit to it, just a bit, and let the strange influence take the weight off her shoulders and the strain from her feet. She was also able to think.

This was what happened to people who were supposed to climb the mountain. Elsie just hoped that she was supposed to leave the mountain again, too. She had left most of her gear down in Bandakaraia. That had to count for something, right?

Why were they allowed on the mountain? They hadn't come to worship it, they didn’t want to meet the – Elsie found that it was easier than ever to take the idea seriously – spirit of the mountain. It probably didn’t want to trap them, or it wouldn’t have left them the option to go back. That said, Elsie doubted she would be able to find a safe way back without guidance.

She could refuse the call, turn back and try to find her way to Bandakaraia. Or she could continue upwards, and see what the supposed spirit of the mountain wanted from them. She didn’t know how strong it was, whether this was the full extent of its strange influence. Whether she had a fighting chance if she wanted it. She didn’t know nearly enough. Only one way to find out.

“Mamusu?” she asked. For a short moment, a surge of fear swept through Elsie. What if Mamusu didn’t respond?

But Mamusu turned, and her eyes were sharp as always.

Elsie let out a relieved breath. “I am so glad you are …” Yourself? Conscious? Elsie let the sentence trail off and shook her head. “What do you think, should we carry on? Is it safe?”

Mamusu looked towards the summit. It wasn’t so far away now, Elsie noticed. The girl drew up her shoulders. “I think,” she said, “that since we want to go to Bintumani, it is good that Bintumani wants us to come.”

With a jolt, Elsie realised: Mary Woods was either here, on this mountain, or probably dead. The chances were slim that she had disappeared from the other village and survived on her own. The best they could hope for was to meet her on the summit of the Bintumani.

“Also,” Mamusu continued, “we knew we should expect an orisha on the mountain.”

She was right. The book sent by Postmartin hadn’t confirmed a genius loci on Mount Bintumani, but the writer had obviously been to the surrounding villages and written down some – in hindsight, distorted – versions of the tales Mamusu had heard from their hosts in Bandakaraia. If the author had tried to climb Bintumani, he hadn’t succeeded, and hadn’t included his attempt in the book.

The information had been there all the time. Elsie just hadn’t considered, until now, that a genius loci, or orisha, could have any power at all, beyond just the power of stories and belief.

There were still other explanations. Perhaps their silent start in the day meant that after almost a week of travelling together, they were now operating well together. Perhaps Mamusu hadn’t experienced the trance in which Elsie had been all day, and simply found the way because it was an obvious way, or because she’d asked their hosts for directions. Perhaps Elsie was sick; she hadn’t slept under a mosquito tent for a few days now, and malaria was a danger even in the early dry season. Perhaps crossing the Rokel hadn’t been safe after all.

More and more, though, Elsie found herself ready to accept another possibility: that there really was a spirit of the mountain.

And now that she was here, physically and mentally, there was just one thing to do – she wanted to know.

“You’re right,” she said. “Let’s go on.”

So she let herself get tugged back into the trance, or close to it, so that it guided her steps and led her up to the summit.

The spirit of Mount Bintumani looked like a middle-aged black woman. She was dressed in the colours of the sun and the dusty wind and the deep tropical forest. As Elsie looked at her, the clouds opened up behind her. She had to squint against the sun to see the Bintumani’s tall, imposing silhouette coming nearer.

Elsie felt the pull again: the pull to fall down on her knees and prostrate herself before the sheer breathtaking beauty of the landscape. To stand on the highest point of the summit, and shout out loud, tell the world about its strength. To be one with the mountain, to let the rain fall on her flanks, to enjoy the wildlife bustling through the undergrowth of the old forest. To oversee the landscape, a silent and steady sentinel for a loud and lively land. This would all be hers, too, were she to follow the Bintumani.

This time, she refused.

“I see,” Bintumani said in Krio, slowly enough that even Elsie understood the words. “You are not here for me.”

Elsie looked at Mamusu. She was relieved to see that ‘you’ seemed to include both of them.

“No,” Mamusu agreed. Of her next words, Elsie understood only “Mary Woods.”

Bintumani looked at them for a long moment. The clouds drew back and covered the sun. Now, Bintumani was just a woman with wrinkles round her eyes and a mild smile on her lips. “I see,” she said, and beckoned them to follow her as she turned towards a footpath Elsie hadn’t seen before.

She led them to a small hut on the western flank of the mountain. Elsie exchanged a glance with Mamusu. She felt  as if she had somehow dodged a bullet, even more so than when she had been made to leave Kolwezi. It wasn’t over yet, though. Bintumani didn’t seem keen on trapping people who didn’t want to be here—the strange feeling had been an offering, no more—but Elsie’s business here wasn’t finished.

The young woman who came out of the hut had to be Mary Woods. She seemed surprised and a bit wary, but once Elsie and Mamusu had made it clear to her that they weren’t here to take her back or make her do anything else, she readily invited them to sit down with her.

They settled into some wicker chairs in front of the hut. Elsie shared the snacks she had brought, and began telling the story of how they’d ended up here.

“I confess,” she finished, “that I am very curious about your experiences.” After all, she had crossed the whole country in order to get here, even though she wasn’t going to voice the thought. Miss Woods didn’t owe her a story for her troubles, after all. “What brought you here?”

Elsie didn’t have to worry, though. A soft smile lit Miss Woods’ face.

“I don’t know if you have ever called a place home ,” she began. “I know I haven’t.”

Elsie knew what she meant, yet didn’t.

Every place where Elsie had lived had, sooner or later, become a home to her. She had called her childhood house home , and left when it was time. University had been home , and she’d moved on when her studies and training were done. Even though she was employed by the British Library, she didn’t spend much time in London, but when she was there, that felt like her home, too. Kolwezi, Bulawayo, Freetown – each of these places was important to Elsie. She didn’t know whether she would ever see Zaire or Zimbabwe again, or even Sierra Leone when her time here ended, but that mattered less than her memories of all those places. In every single one, Elsie had left a piece of her heart. She didn’t know any other way to live.

And yet… she suspected that Miss Woods meant another kind of home. The one where your time to leave never came. A home where you wanted to stay.

“Even as a little girl,” Miss Woods said, “I always wanted to go away. I didn’t know where – just away. Our village was too small, too stifling. But in the place my family calls home, there are barely any opportunities to leave. My sister married a boarding school teacher. I chose to teach, myself.”

A hint of guilt crossed her face. “I’m afraid I wasn’t the best teacher – not the most honest one. I really just wanted to get away, and I used it as an escape.” Her hand flew to the cross on her necklace.

“It was better when I arrived here, in Sierra Leone. I could breathe here.” She chuckled at the irony – rare was the European who could breathe better in the tropics than in a temperate climate. But  she meant a different kind of breathing.

“It was better, but it wasn’t good. Only this time, I didn’t feel the need to get away. Flight is without direction. This time, I knew the mountains were calling me. Every morning, when the sun came up over the hills, I knew I had to get there. More than that: I was sure that sooner or later, I was going to get there.”

While Elsie had never felt that way about a place, she found that she could relate to it. For her, her heart had always been in books; books and knowledge. She’d always known she’d end up in some place that connected the two.

“I wasn’t exactly unhappy in Kabala," Mary went on. "I liked teaching. I liked the children. I liked my colleagues. I tried to be who I was expected to be. But the mountains kept calling me. So I studied them as well as I could. I wrote to my great-uncle; I know he has access to some rare books, and the notes of the wiz– well, anyway, it appears that he found something, and decided to send it. Thank you, by the way, for your efforts to get it to me.”

If she was his niece, or rather his great-niece, Postmartin’s urgency and haste were entirely unsurprising. “You’re welcome,” Elsie said, trying not to think too hard about how she would tell Postmartin the news.

“In the meantime, the pull of the mountains gained strength. I've never felt anything like it. As if there were no other way for me than to go there. I still wanted to know what would await me there, but reading about it had become less important than experiencing it. So I went to Lake Sonfon. I had heard stories, and wanted to see if they were real.”

She shuddered. “The people there like living on the shores. But I never felt so wrong, so out of place, not even in England. I moved on as quickly as I could. But once I was here …” She shook her head and smiled. “It just felt right. I didn’t know it could be like this. That I could feel like this. As if I belonged.”

Miss Woods opened her arms wide, as if to draw the whole world in, then hugged her chest. “When I think about leaving, my heart bleeds. I look around, and …” The bright smile on her face spoke for itself. “This is what home is supposed to feel like.”

When Elsie had first decided to go to Africa, her family had made quite a fuss, as if their precious little girl—in her mid-twenties at the time, thank you very much—would go away for good, never to be seen again. Perhaps this was what they had feared: that she’d find a home here. Now, though, presented with the evidence of how that could look, Elsie found that she couldn’t think of it as wrong.

“I’m glad,” she said.

They didn’t leave immediately. There was still a lot to do: Elsie made sure to confirm that Miss Woods would be free to leave if she chose, and that she wasn't held captive, or under any obligation. That she was in her right mind, and able to make the decision. She assured her that, should she ever tire of the place, she could still leave. She encouraged her to write, at least occasionally, to Postmartin. His replies would take weeks, perhaps months to arrive, but they would get here eventually.

It wasn’t necessary to leave one world completely to enter another.

By the time Elsie felt content that she could in good conscience leave Miss Woods here, the evening was near.

“You can stay the night, if you like,” Miss Woods offered. “I will have a letter ready in the morning.”

The clouds had mostly cleared again, driven southward by the relentless winds. They watched the sun set over the horizon and, within half an hour, it was night. Dust-brown, splotchy patches of the Milky Way, seeming almost the same colour as the Saharan sands that by now coated every surface in the countryside down below them, soon followed the sun, leaving them with nothing but the vast, open tropical sky and a myriad individual, sparkling stars.

Yes, Elsie thought. This was a place worth calling home. This was a place where someone like Mary Woods could find her freedom.

Elsie went to bed, and, as she drifted into sleep, she could hear Mamusu’s and Miss Woods' voices, still talking outside.

In the morning, Elsie woke refreshed, the blisters on her feet completely gone. After breakfast, Miss Woods handed over a letter, and the book. Mamusu thanked her and smiled. Elsie was ready and, going by the look they shared—content, peaceful, yet determined—so was Mamusu.

It was time to find their way back.

Chapter End Notes

Thank you for reading, I hope you enjoyed it! It certainly was a joy to write.

Post reveal notes:
Mamusu's familial background is inspired by the meta-text on Right From The Source by Beatrice_Otter. In it she proposed that Mamusu grew up with her Krio mother in Freetown while her Fula father (who had more than one wife) was living somewhere else and travelled a lot on business. There are not a lot of jobs requiring travel that a man whose family is poor and relies on subsistence farming can have in 1970s Sierra Leone, so I made him a bush taxi driver.


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