By Rafeeat Aliyu
“There are demons living amongst us,” The Prophetess informed her audience, her voice was low but filled with so much strength that it carried through the room even without a microphone. “These demons are walking in our midst. They wear human skins to deceive the foolish, but those of us who are blessed can see through their falsehood.”
The assembly seated on white plastic chairs before her shuddered as one. All who came here knew of the Prophetess’ campaign to make Nigeria free of all demons. She was a survivor of many supernatural battles and they itched to hear her stories. The Prophetess knew how to hold a crowd even in a place of worship that was nothing more than a rented canopy, open on all four sides.
“My recent encounter…” the Prophetess’s voice caught as she recalled the events of the previous week. She swayed as she shared her combat with the people. She was a master orator and as she wove the tale, those who followed her every word could picture it clearly. They saw her spotting a woman who for all appearances was a mother of three, and were with her as she followed this woman through the crowded open-air market. The audience saw The Prophetess engage in a spiritual battle with the woman, they witnessed every psychic blow and counterblow until finally the Prophetess emerged victorious while the demons burst through the woman’s human disguise revealing her true form.
The Prophetess had only really started sensing the evil that existed in the world around her after most of her immediate family had died and the blame had been pinned on her. She had emerged victorious in that first battle and learned to more effectively track down that evil, to eliminate it and create a safer world. The Prophetess never knew their true forms. She only sensed them and could track them down. At first she would catch them by surprise but more and more they seemed to be on the lookout for her. Of course they rarely expected that the person who was responsible for sending them back to the darkness they had crawled from was a heavyset woman in her early forties who walked with a limp.
“It was a mere puddle of water that had been spiritually fortified through rituals and other evil acts of human sacrifice,” the Prophetess explained to her congregation. Actually, she had almost drowned in that diabolical lake.
Afterwards, she led them in a prayer that would cleanse their souls and act as a shield around them when they returned to their homes. As the audience petered out into the night, the Prophetess made her way out of the canopy. A few people came up to her wanting more details of her spiritual adventures, others offered her gifts of cash stuffed in bulging envelopes, but the Prophetess always declined them. She had no interest in worldly things and only accepted their spoken gratitude.
The Prophetess took an okada back home to her two-storey house. It was a relic of decades past which she had inherited from her grandmother. Everything about her home was faded, the roof was rusted and the walls were dull and brown, having long ago lost their colour.. The Prophetess earned a bit of money renting out some of the rooms, but kept the rooms upstairs free for those who came to her in need of shelter.
After unlocking the door and retreating to her room, the Prophetess sat on her sturdy bed. Midnight was fast approaching and she was ready to sleep. She was also ready for another spiritual battle; it had been over a week since her last one. Reaching under the bed, she grasped a plastic bottle and brought it to the light. Studying the bottle and the murky brown liquid it contained, the Prophetess surmised that there was enough holy water for her to track and destroy just one more demon. After that, she would have to visit to the woman she hated to get more; it was not something the Prophetess particularly looked forward to.
Closing her eyes and holding her breath, she took two long swallows of the water. As the liquid went down her throat she shut her eyes against its bitterness. Then the Prophetess lay on the bed and waited for the special brew to do its work. The answers always came to her in dreams, and this time what she saw as she slept was as bizarre as they came.
The Prophetess saw a skimpily-dressed young girl who ought to be facing her school books. Instead, the girl held a microphone and lip-synched to a song blaring loudly in the background. The Prophetess knew that the song was this girl’s property. She owned each rhythm in her stance and pride gleamed in her soulless eyes. A throng of people swayed before her, hanging on her every move. They screamed in approval as she turned and bent over, shaking her buttocks in an obscene manner.
The Prophetess’s eyes popped open to a dark room. She clicked her fingers over her head to ward off evil then rolled off the bed and fell on her knees where she launched into a lengthy prayer. Already her feet and palms itched, a compass in her pointing north. It couldn’t be too far because the Prophetess knew she could reach the place where the girl was within a few hours. As the day broke, she poured the last of her holy water into a smaller plastic bottle that was easier to transport and prepared to head to the scene of her next spiritual battle. By tonight there would be one less demon consuming the souls of Nigerians.
Oyin dashed through the thick darkness of the woodland. Even as she jumped over shrubs, Oyin knew there was no escape. They should have given her more time.
Still, the least she could do was make it difficult for whoever was now after her. As she came to a stop, crouching below a tree that was very similar to the one that had borne her, Oyin fervently wished she had been blessed with the power to teleport. She could be in another city or state, country even, far away from this current mess. Instead she sought respite in her element, surrounded by thick foliage.
Whoever tracked her had followed her into the bush and was now close enough for Oyin to sense. This person was like her in a way, yet very different. Spirits confined in human skin, those like Oyin, had a certain smell – often saccharine – only noticed by others like them. This scent was all over her hunter but it overlaid another odour. Oyin chewed her lip trying to figure out who it was. It struck Oyin that the disparity might be because whoever they had sent after her was wholly human just as Aunty Taiye appeared in the clearing.
Oyin groaned as the petite woman crossed her arms under her breasts, left foot tapping, and eyed her gravely. It was pitch dark in the forest but Oyin had never needed light or eyes to see, and it seemed neither did Aunty Taiye. Oyin wondered if anyone could remain totally human after cavorting with her kind for as long as Aunty Taiye had.
“I am not going back.” Oyin announced resolutely.
She had imagined someone lower on the food chain would come after her, not number one-and-a-half. The scent of Leader Bitch-Witch, the person who was actively trying to ruin her life, was all over Aunty Taiye.
“My Zanottis are ruined thanks to you.” Aunty Taiye said looking down at her mud-splattered shoes. Oyin counted that victory in her favour.
“You can buy new ones when you return to Abuja,” Oyin said. Then added, “Without me.”
Aunty Taiye frowned pinching her features close.
“You know what? I don’t understand why we have to beg you to stay alive.”
Oyin rose to her feet, she did not like that Aunty Taiye was looking down at her when she was the taller one.
“You are human so I do not expect you to understand.” Oyin smoothed the sides of her skinny jeans.
At this Aunty Taiye kissed her teeth in a long drawn out hiss. “The land and water divide? Seriously? Is that the reason you don’t want to stay with Lila in Abuja?”
Oyin’s face grew heated instantly. “You really don’t understand, do you?”
“Explain it to me then,” Aunty Taiye’s tone was mocking. “I am listening.”
“From the start of time we land spirits have never gotten along with the water spirits. Do you know how many of my sisters lost homes because of the wily nature of one water spirit?” with each word Oyin’s voice rose. “And to top it off, even before we took human skins, those from the water have been pompous. Whether it is due to their popularity among humans, I don’t know. It is always Mammy Wata this, mermaids that…”
At that point Aunty Taiye interrupted, “No one is talking about the nymphs and tree spirits, right? So this is a popularity contest?”
Oyin pursed her lips and refused to dignify that question with a response.
“I just wonder why the other land spirits in Abuja aren’t objecting to Lila’s offer.”
“I am not like the rest of them,” Oyin spat. “They are boring and do not have anything going on in their lives. Aunty Lila cost me a feature with Burna Boy.”
It still pained Oyin; she had been charming her way through the music industry when Lila and her cohorts had invited her to come to live in Abuja. It was an offer for protection in the face of increased attacks on their kind, spirits in human disguise, but had cost Oyin a lot, especially after Lila frightened off her manager. That was the final straw for Oyin, it was all nice being kept safe from shadowy villains, but she had a life to live too. Oh, but Aunty Taiye knew how to launch her ammunition.
“Didn’t you hear about the mysterious lake that appeared overnight in Enugu, and dried up the next day? Do you want to be reduced to nothing but seeds?” Aunty Taiye asked.
Oyin’s anger evaporated. Ever since leaving the protection Abuja offered, Oyin had been following news sites with a fervour that was nothing less than religious. She understood that there was danger, that was why she opted to lay low here instead of returning to Lagos, and she needed to be informed. The sort of news stories that mattered to her and her kind could not be found within the pages of The Guardian. Instead, they were in gossip papers tucked between headlines like: Woman gives birth to tuft of hair and How I was kept in a bottle by my wife – Husband tells all.
Oyin had seen the story: Mystery lake appears in community – locals claim waters are blessed. The article had quoted an elder in the village who held that decades ago a huge body of water existed in the exact same spot where the lake reappeared. The elder explained that the original lake had dried up a few years ago. Even though she had never been to that part of the country, or known the lake intimately, Oyin recognised that the lake had been like her: A spirit that had found refuge in disguising itself as human. Now, due to The Search, the lake had reverted to its original state and was ultimately destroyed. Oyin felt nauseous at the memory.
Aunty Taiye’s tone softened, but only slightly. “Whoever is hunting your kind is merciless, and Lila only wants to make sure you are not eliminated.”
She moved closer and made to place both hands on Oyin’s quivering shoulders, but then she let her hands drop. “There is safety in numbers.”
It was just as well that Aunty Taiye had not touched her because Oyin would have shrugged her hands off. Before she had allowed herself to be breathed into this human form, some emotions had been completely foreign to Oyin. One of them was fear. Now, her heart tap-danced in her chest and her stomach felt as hard as diamond. Sometimes she hated how much emotions affected her physically. Her attempts at calming breaths did nothing to stop the shaking in her hands. Oyin thought she had evaded oblivion when she had been successfully transferred to this human body. Now she had to worry about the mysterious group intent on riding the world of her kind one by one. At least an elder had remembered the lake; no one would care about the pawpaw tree she had been.
“I can’t be away from my fans,” she mumbled, she clenched her hands at her sides and turned away from the woman in front of her.
Aunty Taiye scoffed, “You have fans here?”
That stung Oyin deeply. It was true that few people in this quite commune a few kilometres north of Lagos knew her personality as Miz Honey. They had probably never heard her hit single, even though it was still being played at parties and in clubs in Lagos and Abuja. Still, Oyin needed to eat and the thought of her honeypot gave some strength.
Every one of their kind needed to feed on their allotted poison and, as Oyin feed on veneration, the larger the crowd the better. They were what she called her honeypot. When she initially arrived here, she was nervous that someone would be sent from Abuja to look for her. As days passed and she built her honeypot, she grew comfortable.
The reverence from fans who loved her music always drove Oyin to euphoria, but in the absence of that she settled on the few who gathered around her in this place. It was a different flavour, but food was food, Aunty Taiye had no right to judge.
“I would rather be here than stuck in Abuja where no one cares about me.”
“You sound like a spoiled child.” Aunty Taiye snapped.
Oyin wanted to remind Aunty Taiye that she had spent many more years on this earth as a tree-nymph than she had. The only thing young about Oyin were the years of inexperience that came with trying to be human. All she really wanted was the freedom to explore this new reality but what Aunty Taiye offered was strict regulation.
“It is interesting that you say no one cares about you,” Aunty Taiye said. “You do realise that with your celeb status you are the key to your kind being accepted by humans? Even Lila believes it.”
“If she thinks it’s a great idea to reveal our existence to NigeriaShe must be very smart indeed,” Oyin said sarcastically.
“I don’t think you understand, Oyin,” Aunty Taiye said. “People already know you exist and they have labelled all of you as evil. Why else do you think your kind are being attacked?”
As most of her honeypot were corpers teaching in the only government secondary school in the area, Oyin headed to the school. It was past midday when Oyin got to the school’s administrative block and found the schoolyard was empty. She called out to her honeypot, sending a message to the Whatsapp conversation group she had created for them shortly after she arrived here. Choosing to wait for them outside, Oyin sought shade under a flowering tree near the football field. She played games on her mobile phone to while away time. It was not exactly exciting but Oyin was glad to be out of the house.
She did not have to wait long. Soon her honeypots flocked towards her, settling themselves around her. Someone brought benches so they sat enjoying the shade of the tree and the soft breeze that blew through the field. They complained to her about the long day they’d had at school and the ridiculous bureaucracy of the system. Oyin pretended to listen while she gulped up their attention. It was not long before she grew dizzy with satisfaction. She made them sing along with her and was so taken with the scene that she did not see the old woman dressed in a faded ankara iro and buba until she spoke.
“Leave this place,” she said in Yoruba. Then she repeated herself in Pidgin English, “Make una comot.”
The old woman wore a brown veil wrapped around her shoulders and a small black purse poked out from under her left armpit. She had a set of tribal marks deeply engraved on each cheek.
“I said leave this place,” she ordered impatiently. “Can you not see you’re seduced by a demon?”
Even though some of them turned to look at the woman, regarding her as if she was sick in the head, no one in Oyin’s honeypot moved an inch. The situation was almost comical to Oyin.
She waved a dismissive hand in the direction of the old woman. “As you were saying Chinedu…”
The old woman stepped closer to Oyin. The movement brought a whiff of something foul to Oyin’s nostrils. Everything about the old woman was off, even when she had been a tree spirit Oyin had never felt such aversion towards her. Humans either loved her or were indifferent to her, and with indifference all Oyin had to do was show them her spirit and they eventually turned to adoration. Even Aunty Taiye, who always adopted a brusque manner towards her, did not hold such negative feelings for her. This woman hated her strongly and to Oyin, who was used to adoration, it felt it like something rotten in her mouth.
“Don’t let her come any closer,” she called out to the most physically fit of her honeypots. “Hassan, stop her.”
The words had barely left her mouth before Hassan leapt to his feet. He grabbed the old woman’s arm firmly.
“Mama what is your own now?” he demanded.
“You don’t understand,” The old woman said looking up at Hassan. “This girl isn’t what she seems…”
“Hassan, take her out of here,” Oyin commanded, her heartbeat increasing by the second. “Drag her on the ground if you have to.”
Hassan made to pull the woman away, but she resisted. Oyin watched in amazement as the old woman easily pushed Hassan off her. For the second time in her long life, Oyin felt fear. She needed to remain calm, to keep her hold on her honeypot, yet she started yelling at them.
“Why are you people sitting down? Is this old woman stronger than you? Get her out of my sight!”
The others rose and gathered round the old woman. Eleven young people formed a wall between Oyin and the stranger but the old woman was fighting back, pushing and shoving as her honeypot closed in. The struggle was useless as they eventually lifted her up, carrying her away as if she was a crowd-surfing rockstar.
But as far as powerful speech went, the Prophetess had a few in her arsenal as well. She stopped resisting and let the crowd carry her while under her breath she recited a verse and with it a commanding word.
“Oju asa kii ribi. Oju awodi kii roran…”
As if waking from a dream, the crowd stopped moving. They lowered the Prophetess till she was on her feet.
“I see you are awake now.” The Prophetess smiled at their stunned faces. “Go home my children, leave this place.”
Oyin squealed at the incredulous scene playing out before her. The crowd she had had firm control over was running away in several directions, leaving her alone. Had her hold on them been so weak? Were all the things Leader Bitch-Witch said about her inexperience true? Who exactly was this old woman who was now moving towards her with such determination? Shakily, Oyin rose to her feet and scurried backwards until she hit the tree behind her. Oyin trembled but made no move to run away like her honeypot had, in fact her feet remained rooted to the dusty earth. As the Prophetess placed an unyielding hand on Oyin’s shoulder, it dawned on her that she had been caught.
Oyin fell to her knees with a painful thud. She had been so careless. The Prophetess murmured something under her breath, so low that Oyin could not pick out any distinct words. With one hand holding Oyin down, the Prophetess somehow manoeuvred her other hand into her purse and brought out a small bottle. When the Prophetess flipped open the cap, a strong acidic smell permeated the air. Oyin’s essence immediately recognised it as dangerous and she recoiled shrieking, yet her human shell was paralysed.
As though her core had separated from her body, Oyin saw the Prophetess tip the contents of the bottle down, directing it to a spot on her forehead. She squeezed her eyes shut and when the impact took too long to reach, Oyin reluctantly opened one eye. The first thing she noticed were a pair of hands hovering above her face, cupped to save her from the burning liquid. Then the light scent of Jimmy Choo perfume wafted to Oyin’s nostrils. Oyin had never been so relieved to see Aunty Taiye.
The Prophetess was confused. A second demoness had appeared out of the blue and this one seemed to be immune to her holy water. Manipulating a crowd of mentally chained humans was one thing but facing down two demons was another. It was a law in the spirit world that when one encountered a higher power, one had to submit.
The Prophetess flung the bottle at the two hellish creatures and ran as fast as her age and frame could carry her. She had reached the main road when it struck her that she was not being chased. She paused by a sign warning residents against dumping waste in the area and struggled to catch her breath. The Prophetess was angry and scared at the same time. That the holy water had not worked on them meant that the demons were evolving. Demonic spirits were independent and moved alone, the thought of them forming alliances raised bile to the Prophetess’ throat. The game had changed entirely.
As her breath stabilised, she felt tormented. The thing that pinched at the Prophetess the most was that she would have no new story to tell next week.
A few acidic drops had landed on Oyin’s face, despite Aunty Taiye’s shield. The liquid ate through her skin and Oyin screamed as she felt part of her human shell eroding. It was like she was being cracked open. With one cupped hand holding the foul liquid, Aunty Taiye fetched the bottle the Prophetess had discarded. Carefully, Aunty Taiye transferred the liquid in her cupped palm into the bottle. What remained was insignificant, but it would be enough to examine.
Meanwhile Oyin was writhing in pain.
Aunty Taiye disappeared and when she reappeared she held a plastic bag of pure water in her hand. She ripped open the bag with her teeth and rinsed her hands with the water. She then rinsed the plastic bottle, holding it with the tips of her manicured nails. Next, she pointed the plastic bag at Oyin and squirted the water that remained in it directly on Oyin’s face. Oyin flinched at the contact, and closed her eyes. The coolness was a relief that she accepted grudgingly. The relief was fleeting; it was quickly followed by the horror of knowing that she was now forever indebted to Aunty Taiye. Oyin felt something crawl upwards and lodge in her throat. She heaved and choked till she vomited a stream of pawpaw seeds. The pain receded after that.
“Now that you’ve stopped screaming your head off,” Aunty Taiye tossed the empty bag away. She observed Oyin from the corners of her eyes, extended by the dark wings of her eyeliner, and managed to look offended. “Are you ready to come to Abuja?”
Oyin remained seated on the ground. She stared at her hands, which were stained orange, studying the stringy bits of pawpaw fruit under her nails. She was scared to imagine the kind of damage that had been done to her face. Yet, Oyin’s borrowed heart would not still its painful throbbing. This was fear, and as much as she longed to be around adoring humans whom she could control, Oyin had to be reasonable. She gave Aunty Taiye a curt nod.