I sat chewing my fingernails at the back of the room while Courage scrawled on the chalkboard. Give dem dignity with an onrabull death. Her letters were large and unwieldy. Despite her diminutive stature and dimpled cheeks, when it came to fighting, she was the best there was, so her crimes against spelling could be forgiven.
In lime green flares and a marigold shirt that set off her conker-brown skin, she waved her arms as she described the kind of beasts into which our enemy could transform, and the best place to strike each one. If, in battle, we were faced with a mighty slate dragon, we were to gore it in the throat beneath its ear. Crocodiles and gators, straight through the eye. The battle, our ‘gift’ for turning sixteen, was a fight to the death between us and them at the burnt-out hospital that separates our land from theirs. The reward for victors was passage into adulthood. We couldn’t afford to lose.
When Courage told us about the Minotaur, with the body of a man and head of a bull, I drifted into imagining an Onra Bull. It would be a wondrous creature as tall as two women and as wide as four with three ebony horns, sharp like shards of glass. It would stare out of dull, grey eyes, but if it laid its amber eye on you, you’d know you’d been judged and come up wanting. Your only option would be to run. The Onra Bull would paw the earth, head bowed low, blowing steam from its flared nostrils, then charge, its muscles rippling and the ground shaking as it galloped towards—
“Strength’s Daughter, you’re not daydreaming in my class again!” Courage patted her afro and glared at me.
I hung my head and put out my hands, the backs resting on the table. I bit into my lip, fighting the urge to let my fingers retreat into my palms as the click of her heels grew louder.
I heard the swish of the cane before it stung my hands over and over again. When she was done, she made me crouch on a chair in the window, so anyone walking by would know that I was being punished. It wasn’t long until I had terrible cramp and a grimace to match. The spectacle attracted passers-by; even children pointed and laughed. I wished I had an Onra Bull to defend me.
There was no one at home when I got back from my classes. Strength, my mother, was still at the salon, my father passed when I was a baby, and Grandma’s faded orange armchair had sat empty for a while. I curled up on the sofa, pulled the blanket over myself and counted my breaths to soothe myself, the way Grandma had taught me. I lost count somewhere around 100 and closed my eyes.
The living room became the derelict hospital where the battles take place. My mother held up my arm and announced, “Ruthless was victorious,” and a crowd of women of different shapes and sizes, all with Courage’s face, clapped and cheered. I was drenched in blood that wasn’t mine. On the battle ground behind me lay the limp carcass of a boy. Suddenly, my father rode in on a giant Onra Bull. He clutched its fur as it bucked like a bronco. It reared its head back, then thrust it down so fast that my father flew over the top and smacked the ground. The Onra Bull snorted, fixed me with its amber eye, and was readying itself to strike me when I woke to Mum kissing me on my forehead.
“Let me see your hands,” she said.
I didn’t ask how she knew. Around here, news spreads fast.
She winced when she saw them. Blew kisses at each palm. I looked down at her shiny lace-up platforms, the colour of cinnamon bark, and wondered whether I would live long enough to get a pair of my own and who I would have to kill to be deemed ‘worthy’ of them. I shuddered at the image of the bloodied boy from my dream and the Onra Bull’s amber eyes.
My mother sat down beside me and sighed. “Two weeks — that’s all the time you have until the battle for your life.” She couldn’t look at me. “You understand what that means?”
“Give the enemy an honourable death.” She breathed in hard. “But if you can’t, let them kill you. That’s your only choice.”
My shoulders rose up and I squeezed my eyes shut.
In the morning, Wisdom’s Son came to knock for me. He was early and I was late, as always. As we picked our way through plastic bags oozing with filth and the dog mess that fouled our streets, I asked, “Do you think there’s honour in being killed by them?”
“Not as much as if we were to give them an honourable death. But it’s better than the shame of…”
He couldn’t bring himself to utter the word: fleeing.
Before we even knew how to write we’d learnt that we were warriors and brave, even in the face of death. We knew we could never be cowards and bring shame on our families, our friends, our community. But as I got older, Grandma said some things that made me question what I’d been taught about us, them, and the battle. She’d promised to tell me more when I turned sixteen, but her heart had other ideas.
Our first class of the day was on the twelfth floor of the draughty high-rise our school shares with forgotten families, cockroaches and rodents. The lifts had been out for as long as I could remember, and the stairwell reeked of urine. I covered my face with my scarf as we climbed the relentless stairs. When we saw a furry brown rat with its long, smooth tail, Wisdom’s Son jumped behind me and clung onto my arm. Rats are among the many things he fears. I wiped the sheen off my brow as we caught our breath and waited to be admitted into the room.
The good desks had already been taken, so we were left with the wobbly ones by the shattered windowpanes that let cold air blow down our necks. I pulled my scarf tighter around me.
Bravery was at the front, surveying the room in washed out denim dungarees. She stood next to the blackboard on which she’d written ‘The Battle’ in large, neat, capitals. “When you see the enemy, you will feel emotion that’s so intense it will electrify you and set off your transformation.” She clapped her hands together loudly. “No one can tell you what creature you’ll become on the day.” She tossed her head so that the gold, silver and brown beads in her hair knocked together. “Maybe you’ll grow giant and squash the enemy beneath your feet. Perhaps you’ll shrink down to the size of a spider and strike with deadly venom.” She put her thumb and forefinger close together to indicate the size of a small insect. Her nails were long: red and green. “You could grow fangs and claws, spout flames, throw darts from your back like a porcupine. Whatever you become, it will be a reflection of who you truly are. And if you win, you’ll earn yourself a warrior name…Not everyone will win.” She looked at each of us. “But no one can flee.”
There was a collective shudder around the room.
“Why do we fight them?” Bravery said.
Wisdom’s Son stood; his shoulders rounded a little.
“Because they’re the enemy.”
“Yes, but why?” Bravery pointed at Courage’s Daughter, who’d thrust her hand in the air.
“Because they want to destroy us, because of who we are.” Courage’s Daughter stood, her voice strong and confident. “Because they see us as different, less than.”
“Why?” Bravery addressed Courage’s Daughter again. “Because they’re ignorant.”
There were titters around the room and Bravery glowered at us. “Continue.”
“Because we were brought here against our will way back when. They say this land is theirs and they want rid of us.”
I sat on my hands to try and stop my fingers going numb and looked at the words of hatred about them that had been gouged into my desk.
“Strength’s Daughter, what do we think of them?”
I stared at the white chalk markings on the blackboard until they ceased to resemble words. I should have been responding to Bravery, but instead I thought back to the day I’d dared Courage’s Daughter to go across the disused railway tracks to where they lived. She’d stared me in the eye, twirled a plait around her middle finger, and said defiantly, “I’ll go, if you will.”
I gritted my teeth as we climbed the steep hill that led up to the tracks and ran through the waist-high nettles; each refusing to complain about the stings on our hands and legs. Ahead of us was a high, barbed wire-topped brick wall and to the right, the burnt-out hospital; our only route to the other side.
“We don’t have to do this,” Courage’s Daughter said.
I closed my eyes, thought about what Grandma had said, then clenched my fists and strode towards the building. Courage’s Daughter rushed to catch up. We ran through the emergency department and forced open the doors to the atrium, where our battles would take place. It was a blackened, twisted mess, with cables hanging down from the ceiling, holes knocked into the walls and debris everywhere, except for a path leading to and from the wide, but shallow blood-stained crater that formed the battleground. We hurried through and out the other side.
I’d imagined where they lived thousands of times: their large houses with gleaming glazed windows, fragrant flower gardens and fridges filled with food; the wide, clean streets with no rubbish or dog mess in sight; the big, flashy cars. When we emerged into the sunlight and slid down the hill, we were there; only the houses, clean streets and cars were not. Before us were tower blocks with broken windows like missing teeth, just as in our blocks, the smell of sewage filled our noses and the biggest rats I’d ever seen ran along a river consisting of rotting God-knows-what. A skinny, little boy in a filthy t-shirt and shorts asked if we had any food. He had large, pleading eyes and streaks of dirt across his face. Courage and I glanced at each other and ran back the way we’d come.
I blinked the blackboard into focus. Bravery was staring at me, her arms folded. Slowly, I stood up, cleared my throat. “We think…We think they’re…” The Onra Bull snorted loudly. I couldn’t bring myself to say what she wanted to hear. All I could think of was that small, hungry boy.
“Put out your hands,” she said. The Onra Bull turned its amber eye to her.
I closed my eyes and waited for the sting of her cane.
“You should have been able to answer like that.” She clicked her fingers.
Courage’s Daughter was waving her arm in the air again and leaning forward in her seat.
“Yes,” Bravery said, turning to her.
She stood up. “They’re dead to us.” She glanced down at me, then continued. “Their ignorance, hatred and violence mean they don’t deserve to live.” The Onra Bull tensed its muscles and horned the ground.
“Tell us about their hatred.”
“Since we came here all those generations ago, they’ve despised us. They hate that we were ‘weak’ enough to be forced to come but are too strong to be exiled.” “Well done.” Bravery turned to me. “You bring shame to your father’s memory.” The Onra Bull started to bellow.
I could see the little boy with large eyes sunken into his dirty face. There had been hope, not hatred, when he had asked if we had any food.
“What happened?” Wisdom’s Son whispered.
I shrugged. “I have a headache.”
Mum baked me a sponge cake for my birthday, even though she couldn’t eat any. I blew out my candles and wished the Battle would be cancelled even though I knew that would never happen. It felt strange without Grandma.
“Your father would have loved to be here, to see you turn into a woman,” Mum said, her eyes misty.
“But they had to take him from us,” she said.
“They didn’t have to,” I said.
“I didn’t mean…No, they didn’t have to, and yet they did.”
I was only a baby at the time, but I knew the story. Back then there were monthly battles at the burnt-out hospital. My father was fearless and would always volunteer to fight. In his last battle he was delayed entering the atrium, trying to comfort the wife of his best friend who’d just been killed. His opponent had already turned into a beast when he stepped onto the battleground, but rather than wait for my father to transform, he lunged at my father, floored him and crushed his skull. Despite the honour with which my father always fought, he was denied an honourable death.
Tears welled in my mother’s eyes. “They’re wicked, scheming beasts. Just think, if not for them, your grandfather might have been here today too.”
I hugged my mother. When she was little she was walking home with my grandfather when a group of them seized him and started yelling that he didn’t belong there. Before her eyes they transformed into beasts and tore him apart like dogs on a rag doll. They left him strewn about the street. At first our elders managed to calm things with promises of security and patrols, but it happened again and again, until the anger was insuppressible. That’s when the first of us felt that surge of electricity that caused them to transform. It was tit for tat after that. They killed us, we killed them. No one was safe. After years of killings, families on both sides had had enough. They demanded a solution to the daily violence and that’s how the coming-of-age battles came to be.
“Do you think Granddad would have wanted me to fight in the Battle?” I said.
“If he was still here there’d be no need for the Battle,” Mum said.
“According to Grandma, he always said violence wasn’t the answer,” I said.
“And look where that got him? Come, eat your cake.”
I tried to eat it, but it was cloying, so I said I was full. Mum snatched up the cake and took it to the kitchen. I heard her clattering about in there and banging cupboard doors, so I shut myself in our room and tried to draw the Onra Bull.
On the day of the Battle my mother told me to strip and wrapped me in nothing more than our family’s patterned cloth; aqua, navy, and white to represent the sea and skies for my mother’s strength and father’s fearlessness. She wrapped another length of the heavy fabric around her shoulders. All of us who’d turned sixteen since the last battle made a procession through the streets to our battleground, our families, neighbours and friends following behind. We gathered in what used to be the emergency department, they congregated in the former children’s wing. As I stood there shivering, I watched Courage’s daughter force her way through the buckled emergency department doors into the atrium, wrapped in a heavy red, fabric patterned with alternating rows of orange and golden-yellow ‘v’s, representing flames of courage. I had no idea whether I’d ever see her again.
I’d paced up and down more than fifty times when she limped back into the room, cut and bleeding. She staggered a few steps and then collapsed against her mother, who held her daughter’s arm up in the air and announced, “Fierce was victorious.” The rest of us awaiting our trials clapped and cheered for Fierce. I wondered what beast she’d turned into. I felt, somehow, that she must have become a monstrous cat with razor claws and a killer jaw. My legs were fading so I leant against the wall.
When it was the turn of Wisdom’s Son, I reached out and touched the blossom tree prints on the fabric wrapped around his slight form. “Be brave,” I said. I thought of the way he jumped at the sight of rodents and hoped he’d be turned into something mighty to give him a fighting chance. It felt like there was a stone in my throat.
A few of the others were peering through holes in the double doors where glass used to be. I went to join them. Wisdom’s Son was mid-transformation. Fur covered half of his body, his feet became hooves and two small, curled horns sprouted from his head. Instead of a ferocious beast, he was becoming a faun – a symbol of peace and fertility. I rubbed at my eyes, hard. He’d just finished changing when his opponent turned into a wolf with a snow-coloured coat. Wisdom’s Son just cowered on the spot. I wanted to bang on the door and scream ‘fight or flee,’ but I just bit into my lip and watched as the beast leapt into the air, landed on Wisdom’s son’s back and ripped his neck open with a clap of its jaws. I staggered back and started panting as the room swirled around me. I couldn’t see for tears.
“Snap out of it. He died an onrabull death,” Courage said.
I wiped my eyes on my mother’s cloth. His death wasn’t honourable, it was nonsensical. It meant nothing.
“It’s your turn, my only one,” my mother said. She guided me to the doors and my classmates stood back so she could push them open and propel me into the hospital’s charred atrium. “Give him an honourable death and come back to me,” she said, her voice cracking.
Quietly, Wisdom said, “Think of my son.”.
In the centre of the atrium his body lay in a pool of blood next to the torso of one of them. I ran, gathered up his family’s cloth and covered him in it. Their families and friends and ours stared down from the balcony on the level above, as if into a great amphitheatre.
My opponent was a skinny boy wrapped in a grey blanket. It looked like his legs were shaking. I caught his eye and the look he gave me was filled with terror. As I held his gaze, I remembered what they’d done to my father, and grandfather, but sadness, not rage, surged inside me. It coursed through my body until it felt like I was being electrocuted. This was what Bravery meant by electrifying emotion. The room swirled and I was sure I was going to fall. Before I could hit the ground, I was filled with a heat that emanated from my core. I felt strength like I’d never known and smelt the scent of burning fabric. I tried to move and noticed that instead of arms I had wings the colour of autumn leaves with sunlight streaming through. I was on fire, my family cloth was ablaze.
I heard a roar and saw a giant polar bear rising up before me. It pawed at the air, its hungry mouth wide, revealing sharp, pointy teeth.
“Kill him, kill him,” chanted the crowds of us lining the hospital balcony.
Somewhere behind me Courage yelled, “Give him an onrabull death.”
The polar bear circled me, unsure how to negotiate my flames. I flew up into the air and hovered above the great beast. Bright embers fell like fireworks, which made his huge body flinch.
“Kill him, kill him,” my people shouted.
As I flapped my wings, flames encircled me and the polar bear retreated to escape the heat.
“Kill him, kill him,” my people roared, stamping their feet.
I hovered where I was. I knew if I swooped down, I would kill him, but in my mind I saw the Onra Bull’s amber eye judging me. I shook my head, which caused more embers to rain down and he backed away. Behind the ferocious exterior I saw the skinny boy in the grey blanket. He’d reminded me of the hungry child who’d asked Fierce and me for food. Like Wisdom’s Son, he was just a boy. I didn’t want to kill him, but I couldn’t let myself be killed like my father and grandfather. The Onra Bull lowered its head, but kept its amber eye on me. It began to paw the earth.
The crowds on both sides worked themselves into a frenzy of shrieking and stamping. Ignoring the din and commotion I landed opposite the polar bear. My flames grew wilder as they began to devour the ground around me and a thick smoke began to spread. The polar bear backed away from the smoke and intense heat and I stood there watching him, the atrium burning around me.
The screams began a few moments later as crowds of them and us fell over each other as they surged towards the exit. I kept my eye on the polar bear, who continued to retreat, then turned and fled. Something in the pit of my stomach told me I couldn’t follow him. I flew up and set the walls and ceiling alight and then I landed again and watched as everything around me was engulfed in flames. The Onra Bull appeared through the smoke, stared at me with its dull grey eyes and seemed to nod, then it turned and walked away. As the ceiling began to collapse I was certain of one thing, the hospital would never again be used as a battleground.