It started when they baptized her in dust. She was on her way home from a prayer meeting. A Pajero drove past and left her in a burst of soil. Chassidy coughed, sneezed and spat. Her eyes tracked the vehicle, but through the whirling russet earth of Chipata compound, only its taillights were visible. Still, Chassidy could tell who was in the vehicle. Not the driver; the passengers. Chassidy could tell that the Pajero's passengers were the girls everyone noised about: girls with extensions to hair, eyelashes, nails, and everything else on their bodies that could be extended or enhanced. She could tell that these passengers were girls her mother never let her near, girls her worship leader interceded for in prayer—bad girls—their heads thrown back, liquor bottles clinking in the air, girls who slapped palms and laughed, "aha" and "eya."
With the palm that was not clasping her Bible, Chassidy wiped her face and neatened her dress. Her mother and her worship leader were going to hear about this.
Behind her, a slurred male voice said, "Good girls go to heaven, and bad girls?"
Chassidy jumped and brought her Bible to her chest. "Excuse me?"
"Complete the sentence. Good girls go to heaven and bad girls. . . "
"Go to hell," she said, her voice charged.
"Wrong," the man said. "Everywhere. Bad girls go everywhere." He laughed and staggered off.
It was a joke Chassidy had heard before, yet it left her fixed in that spot, trembling. It thrust her senses into combat and terrorized her the same way Romans 6:23 had struck fear in her the first time she had heard it preached in Sunday school when she was seven. The more she mulled over the joke, the wider her eyes opened anew to the world around her, reincarnate of the moment Adam and Eve's eyes are said to have opened to their nakedness after they ate the forbidden fruit.
The drunken man was right, Chassidy conceded. Apart from school, she and all the other heaven-bound girls—the good girls—never went anywhere, except church, waiting for their names to be called some day. But the bad girls, one was always hearing stories of them being at this or that party, club or concert in Lusaka, or that they had taken trips to the Victoria Falls, Mfuwe National Park or abroad whatever day they pleased.
Chassidy tore the Bible from her chest, carried it as she did her schoolbooks, her palm barely cradling it as it chafed against the side of her thigh. "Hallelujah" and "praise the Lord" fled from her, driven out like demons by the echoes of the bad girls' laughter. The laughter sealed every space between her thoughts, sealed the space between the lifting and falling of her footsteps.
When she got home, Chassidy placed her Bible at the bottom of a pile of schoolbooks, something that would have instantly called "The wages of sin is death" to mind, for she believed it was sacrilegious to place anything on top of the Bible. Yet, as cheap textbook after cheap textbook pressed against the holy book, Chassidy's conscience remained numb, registered nothing. And for the first time in her life—all fifteen years—she fell asleep without praying, having not told her mother about the bad girls in the Pajero.
Excuses for not going to prayer meetings began to come easily. On Wednesday, it was because she had too much homework. On Friday, because she had cramps, and when she missed church on Sunday, the quarrels with her mother began. All the while, at school, she began to lurk and stalk a clique of bad girls— Chikondi, Kubeka, and Mutinta.
Overhearing, Chassidy heard that the oldest of the three, Kondi, who was eighteen, was leaving the country. One of her benefactors, a Congolese who dealt in emeralds in Kitwe, had proposed, and she had decided it was time to retire. Now, Beka and Tinta were looking for another bad girl with whom to split the five-bedroom-house-and-pool rent in Ibex Hill.
Chassidy had eyes to see, and she saw this for what it was. If she could, she would have done something about her appearance before she startled the bad girls by blurting, "Matthew 7:7."
Just as Chassidy imagined they had done in the Pajero the day they left her choking in a cloud of dust, the bad girls aha'd and eya'd. They slapped palms and laughed tears, as if Chassidy's intrusion was the much-needed comedy, a respite from the 'it's-wonderful-that-you've-hit-the-jackpot,-but-we'll-miss-you' conversation.
"I think you need a makeover more than we need saving," Tinta said, making a show of deriding Chassidy's Vaseline-sodden kinky hair, bushy eyebrows, below-the-knee school uniform and salaula shoes.
"Matthew 7: 7. Ask and it shall be given," Chassidy said.
Another wave of laughter swept over the bad girls. "We don't do charity," Beka said when a moment of calm arose.
"You're looking for a new housemate. Here I am."
Tinta and Beka started to crack up, but Kondi shushed them. With her middle and index fingers, Kondi beckoned Chassidy to come closer.
As soon as Chassidy was within her person, Kondi turned Chassidy this way and that, gathered her flared uniform at the back to reveal every contour of Chassidy's body on which fat sat in all the right places. "She'll be an instant hit," Kondi declared.
Chassidy wasn't surprised. She knew she had a fine build. It was just that church and her mother did not allow her to flaunt it. If she could, if it were biblical, her mother would have had Chassidy walk around veiled hair to toe, eyes included.
With Kondi's endorsement, Chassidy secured a place in the bad girls' sect, and by week's end, became privy to the two pronouncements of their credo:
1. I am all about going places. I target men who will take me there.
2. I am worth top pay. I avoid hormonal boys or men with limited spending power. The harder earned their money, the harder they expect me to work for it.
Along with the bad girls' credo, Chassidy—Chaz was sexier, they told her—learned to polish herself: hair always done, but not in an Iron Lady type of way, school uniform immaculately laundered with calculated hints of sloppiness around the chest area and other strategic places.
The results were instant. Boys carried her bags, did her homework, smuggled smokes for her and— this one even she never expected, defended her honor. Outside of school, grown men in government and company-issued vehicles as well as those in newly-imported-from-Japan cars bought with drug money or some import and export business no one could pinpoint, stopped her on her way to or from school and offered her rides. And never again did she pay for lunch, clothes or tampons.
She moved out of her mother's shack and moved in with Beka and Tinta. Like them, Chaz only went to the newest and hottest nightspots in Lusaka. She sat in VIP lounges with club owners and illegal FOREX dealers who handled currency as if they were the Central Bank— men who parted with money as casually as they let out cigarette smoke.
Chaz turned eighteen shortly before she wrote her final secondary school exams. Mr. Chabala, her physics teacher, had found a job in Botswana and asked her to elope with him. The only time she had spared him a speck of attention throughout the year was at the end of each term, before test results came out. Yet, Mr. Chabala told her that each time he was in her presence, pivotal parts of his body never stayed at rest and that he loved how she kept his physiology in motion. Could she please run away with him?
Naturally, Chaz ran this by her housemates, who flat out told her not only to decline the physics teacher's offer, but also to stay as far away from him as possible.
"Refer to pronouncement No. 2 and meditate on the words limited spending power," Beka said.
"Also, you know that teachers who find jobs in these neighboring countries end up in places so remote, Chipata compound, by far, is like New York City. If you go with this man, you'll end up being his only source of entertainment. Again, pronouncement No. 2," Tinta added.
Chaz heard them, but turning eighteen, being in the business for three years and never having left Lusaka, had made her re-examine her place in the scheme of the local bad girls' scene. Most girls she knew left the country after three or five years or married one of their benefactors, as had Kondi. She had hit the three-year mark, yet, none of the proposals she had received so far were worth her giving up the game— none entailed taking her out of the country. So, yes, Mr. Chabala was the very man the credo was meant to weed out, yet Chaz decided to act otherwise. She decided to take a chance with him only because he was offering to take her out of Zambia, not exactly everywhere, but at least somewhere. She hadn't read the Bible in years, but Chaz remembered a verse that said something about not despising the day of small or humble beginnings. She decided to look at the elopement as a stepping-stone to grander escapades. In any case, was not Botswana right next to South Africa? Didn't she know of bad girls from Lusaka who were living the life she wanted in Johannesburg? Rotting in rural Botswana, therefore, was something she knew she could avoid. She had her own money, thanks to a most-expenses-paid existence and her mother who, unlike other bad girls' mothers who let their daughters buy them houses in better neighborhoods, refused to have anything to do with Chaz and what she called "the decadence that brought down Sodom and Gomorrah." With her stash, Chaz figured she could set herself up in South Africa and start anew.
Mr. Chabala could only afford to buy one air ticket, yet he wouldn't hear of Chaz offering to pay for her own. "I'm the man," he said. "I'll take the bus." He arranged his and Chaz's travel so that he would be in Botswana a week before she flew there so he could make their new abode as comfortable as possible and be at the airport in Gaborone to meet her.
The day before she was to leave, Chaz lunched with Beka and Tinta at Savannah Grill at the Hotel Intercontinental. On their way out, a man bumped into Chaz (she was sure it was on purpose, not that it bothered her) who insisted on buying her a drink.
"Walking away will be like fleeing the scene of an accident I caused," he said.
"And saying no will be like plugging your ears when your favorite song comes on," Chaz said.
After they sat down, Chaz found out he was from Senegal, a merchant of unusual objects, he called himself, and traveled all over the world. He was going to Dubai the following day.
"What a coincidence," Chaz said. "I'm also traveling tomorrow, although my destination is not as enchanting as yours." And without mincing words, she answered the so-what-do-you-do-for-a-living question.
"You must come to Dubai with me then," Claude said as her order of Amarula and his, of Mosi, arrived. "I will take you anywhere in the world you want to go."
"On this trip alone, after Dubai, we'll make a quick stop in Abu Dhabi. Then, it's off to Mumbai, Shanghai and finally Bali."
Her eyes dilated, and volts of exhilaration she'd never before experienced surged through her. It mesmerized her how all the places he mentioned ended in "i". And because he said, "we will go" and not "can go", Chaz was sold. She raised her glass of the creamy liqueur and said, "Here's to going everywhere."
"Everywhere," Claude answered, touching her glass with his beer bottle.
Chaz took a sip of her drink, and excused herself. She went to the ladies' room, where she texted Mr. Chabala and turned off her phone.
On her way back, she spotted Claude receiving a garment bag from another man, who left shortly after the two men shook hands.
Joining him, she asked, "Dry cleaning?"
"Not exactly," he replied. "If you don't mind, I'd like to show you something in my room. Don't worry, I'm not that fast!"
She had seen faster, had acted even faster, but Chaz didn't consider it necessary to state the obvious.
In his room, Claude asked Chaz to try on the intricately tailored traditional outfit, its style a synthesis of West African and the latest cosmopolitan influences that currently defined South African designers, which he took out of the garment bag. It came with matching earrings, bangles and a bag.
She did so, leisurely, in front of him, slipping out of her own clothes, letting them fall to the floor, bending to pick them up—
"Here," he said, "let me do that."
He placed her clothes on the chair, took the traditional outfit, squatted and held it out before her. She placed her palms on his shoulders, stepping into the outfit, right leg first, then the left. She let go of him when he began to hoist himself up, gingerly, pulling the dress up along her thighs, hips, waist, and when he neared her rib cage, she extended her arms to the sides. Claude stood erect and paused, nodding slowly, as if on her body he was discovering some profound truths. Then, with haste, he put the bodice over her breasts, full, indifferent to gravity. His Mosi breath was all she had to inhale while he arranged the wooden loop around her neck through which a thread ran, to be tied at the shoulders with a matching one from the back panel.
"This is some heavy wood," Chaz said after Claude fastened the dress. She reached to adjust the loop, but he moved her hands away.
"That's because it's not ordinary wood," he said, slipping the bangles, four on each side, up her wrists.
"Whoa! And the bangles are like shackles! Are you sure this is wood?"
"The rarest kind. Now tell me how much you like the entire outfit." He stood her before the mirror. "You are wearing it on the flight."
"But it's so heavy!"
He took off her earrings, which he replaced with his.
"My earlobes are definitely sagging after this."
"What would you rather have: perfect earlobes or travel?"
Claude placed the handbag in her hands. Its wooden handles, like the earrings, were also heavy, too heavy in fact to allow for a jot of comfort. Chaz decided she had had enough and was about to tell him so when she remembered the everywhere places he was about to take her, the places which all ended in 'i'. She recited pronouncement No. 1, and conceded that it was a fair trade.
By the time they concluded their business, not only had Claude managed to get her a seat on his Emirates-bound flight, he had also arranged transportation to pick up her packed bags from her place as he insisted she spend the night with him at the hotel so they could leave together for the airport first thing in the morning.
Waking up, Chaz found Claude already dressed and engrossed in phone conversation in a language alien to her. An alluring aura, renewed, whirled about. This was the beginning of a life she wanted: to awaken to tongues she'd never before heard, to wear head-turning clothes (without the heavy wood!) and to walk on unfamiliar faraway streets.
She showered in a blink, and when she came out, Claude was holding the traditional outfit out for her. As before, he dressed her with such attention it was as though he were adorning a goddess. And when they were leaving the hotel, he insisted on carrying the handbag.
"You are my prized treasure. Anything I can do to make you comfortable."
Let me take off these shackles, she wanted to tell him, but he had just called her his prized treasure. She decided she could afford to indulge him.
All the way to the airport, Claude never took his eyes off Chaz, and she couldn't decide if it was because she was that irresistible, or he was that obsessed with her (or, God forbid— the outfit). No matter, she decided. Soon, she would be in the air for the first time in her entire eighteen years of existence, headed to—of all places—Dubai! Soon, getting on airplanes would become as commonplace as getting on minibuses. What was a little freakiness from her benefactor? If all he wanted was for her to parade in heavy wood, it was a small price to pay.
When it came time to board, and Claude and Chaz had to part, him to join the customs queue for male travelers, and her, the female line, he said, "Just act natural, and everything will be fine."
Chaz took a deep breath, determined not to let the rest of the world know this was her first time at the airport, her first time at the threshold of going everywhere. She raised her chin and chest, shoulders back, and took each step as if she were on the catwalk.
Her turn to go through the security checkpoint came, and a female airport officer ordered her to take off all her jewelry and shoes. "Place them, together with your handbag, in this tray and then walk through the scanner."
Chaz placed her bag in the tray, and because it was bulky, it filled the entire container, and the officer had to hand her an additional one.
"Thanks," Chaz said, and took off her bangles and placed them in the new tray.
She bent down to unstrap her sandals. As she did so, one of her earrings fell to the floor. It shattered, revealing an off-white object in the contour of the earring.
One look at the object, and the officer pushed a button. Red lights flashed and an alarm went off. The officer grabbed Chaz and handcuffed her.
More officers rushed to where she was. They formed a barricade around her and ordered onlookers to clear away. A pair of the officers started picking up pieces of the shattered earring, while another pair grabbed the trays with Chaz's bag and bangles.
She was led along a couple of passageways, until she was ushered into a Customs office.
Shoving her into a metal chair, the arresting officer took off Chaz's other earring and handed it to a man in a white coat, who knocked at it with a mini hammer. As with the other earring, when the outer wooden layer cracked open, an off-white object bared itself. With gloved hands, the man in the coat picked it up. "Ivory," he announced, raising it in view of everyone. He took one of Chaz's bangles and shattered it, revealing more ivory.
"We are going to have to confiscate her dress as well. It seems she's concealing some on there too," the woman who had arrested her said.
The arresting officer and another female in uniform led Chaz behind a thin curtain, which partitioned a small section from the rest of the Customs officers. In all her years of getting naked in front of man after man, never had Chaz felt more insulted than she did in this moment, lying on a gurney, legs strapped open, infrared scanner from hair to toe nail, and the arresting officer probing her vagina and anus with what could have easily been a fist.
Afterwards, sitting on the edge of one buttock and wrapped in a grey blanket, Chaz was asked who her handler was. She opened her mouth to say something, but words remained huddled up in her mouth like a turtle in its shell. Only her tears made it out.
"Her ticket shows that she is booked on the Emirates flight," an officer said. "Call Reservations and ask them to check if she's traveling with someone."
Minutes later, word came back that Chaz's ticket was a cash transaction. The long and dusty trail had ended with her.