If you play at Hoplus’ trench, the chance you’d find yourself breaking a sacred rule on some occasion is high. Higher than if you play at Arjin or Kowi, for instance. The girls here are wild and mother warns me every time to be wary of their company, though she knows she cannot stop me from coming here – Hoplus is the closest play-area for teenagers around our home – so she constantly reminds me of why the rules are in place. For safety and balance. I nod every time, saying I understand, but it does not stop her from repeating herself the next day.
I know the Sacred Seven like the end of my own caudal fin. Never shed a tear. Never perform dishonesty. Never travel to any of the other tribes without the chief’s blessing. Never swim to shore or contact a surfacer. Never wield your gift for destruction. Never take the life of a fellow sea creature. Beware the halls of Tada; never venture there.
Mother does not know, but my closest friends – Kaumi, Jauni and Pkeni – and I have broken one, or is it two of the Sacred Seven? Thanks to Pkeni’s temper. It was she who got angry after she’d lost a race to Jauni and picked up a rock and smashed the head of a crab with it. We watched the poor crab twitch till it stopped moving. Perhaps we considered the crab’s life of little importance because it is crustacean; if it had been a fish and had bled blood, I’m sure we would have acted differently. So we performed dishonesty and did not report the incident to an elder. Instead we focused on cheering Pkeni up and told her that she was faster than all of us and that it was only because she had had a heavy breakfast that she had been slowed down this time.
* * *
Right now, Kaumi is speaking of adventure as we twirl about Hoplus. She is the oldest of the four of us, the leader of our little clique, if you will. Most times, she decides what games we play.
She is saying her cousin, Sorai, has given her information about something we should all go see. She is claiming that far away at the beach, a shoal of young surfacers are having a jubilation. I do not see how this is our business. I do not see why we should all go see it.
‘Are you afraid?’ Jauni asks me when they all realise I am not showing any signs of enthusiasm at this unnecessary escapade.
‘I’m not. But it’s dangerous. And we will be breaking a Sacred,’ I say.
‘Since when do we care about the rules?’ Pkeni says, frowning.
Only she can say this. The rules mean nothing to her. Or maybe they do, but her constant anger never lets her think straight.
Everything within me is telling me to stand my ground, but you see I was not here at the trench yesterday; I was busy with Mother. Kaumi, Jauni and Pkeni teased a shark. They say it chased them for about half a mile. I missed all of that action.
‘Okay, but we won’t stay long. We’ll come back soon, yes?’ I say.
‘Of course we will.’ Kaumi says.
‘Sure,’ Jauni says.
Pkeni does not say anything. She just smiles and licks her lower lip. I know in her heart she is thinking me a coward.
* * *
As we swim toward the beach, I notice the current of the water lessen and I feel myself move faster.
‘Stop. We’re here,’ Kaumi says.
We bob our heads against expiring waves to survey the beach and behold, there they are: a school of young surfacers, drinking from red things resembling shells. Behind them are tall trees and funny-looking structures. They are moving their bodies in an awkward fashion and hollering like demented souls. This all seems so disorganised, and their music is loud and nonsensical.
‘We should leave,’ I say to Kaumi.
‘Leave? We just got here,’ Jauni says.
I see the glint of excitement in her eyes. She is clearly fascinated by these odd beings.
‘We’ve seen them,’ I argue. ‘Now, let’s go before someone notices our absence back home.’
‘Sssh,’ Pkeni says.
Only she can shush a person when they are making sense.
‘Don’t tell me to be quiet,’ I say and Pkeni quickly places a finger over my mouth, pointing to my left.
A few yards away from us, a surfacer-man and a surfacer-woman are entering into the water. Surfacers look so weird. They don’t have gills on their necks. They don’t have scales over their bodies. How do they even stay warm? They have arms in the lower parts of their bodies and they move with it. Four arms? What is a person doing with four arms? Ugh.
The surfacer-man and surfacer-woman are swimming toward us now. They seem to be performing some kind of play. The male has his forearms all over the female. And the female seems to be enjoying it for she is smiling a soft smile.
She is the first to see us.
‘Jesus! Jesus!! Jesus!!! Aaahhhh!!!!’ The surfacer-woman screams.
Jesus must be the name of all the other surfacers, because as she screams this, the jubilant company on the beach begins to run in our direction.
‘What’s that?’ I hear them say as they approach.
‘Mammy-water,’ the surfacer-man says, pulling the screaming female out of the water.
A surfacer throws a handful of sand at our heads. Another throws a stone. This is our cue. We turn around and make for home. Some pursue, diving into the water. Others throw things at us. Something hits my left shoulder. Another hits my waist. I dive into the water. I swim for dear life. Into the deep, I go. When I am certain I am away from their reach, I turn. Pkeni is before me, Jauni beside me. I do not see Kaumi.
‘Where is Kaumi?’ I ask.
Jauni looks this way and that. Pkeni stares at me. I swim upward, break the surface and look at the beach. The surfacers have Kaumi. They are beating her with clubs. She is trying to break free but the surfacers are way too many. One stamps his feet into her face. Others imitate him. I scream.
Jauni is beside me now. She is shaking uncontrollably. In the distance Kaumi looks lifeless. She isn’t struggling anymore. More surfacers are appearing on the beach and pointing towards the ocean. I cannot even tell when it started, but I am crying and wailing now.
Nnamdi Anyaduwrites short fiction and poetry. His works has appeared on the Nwokike Literary Journal, Brittlepaper and several blogs. He is currently working on a novel.
“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.
They came on mechanical Fellbeasts, gnarled wings screeching, showering bullets. I fled while shooting back, yelling profanities and, “freedom!”
So often I wonder what ancient evil possessed these people? Harbingers of doom they are, who arrived on boats propelled by the winds of white magic. They spoke of benign and forgiving Gods, whom it appears, do not forgive the dark-skinned. They brought technologies and the promise of civilisation using what was uncovered in Europe: some intertwining of the organic with man-made crafts, using runes, metallurgy and spells to bind. But the bindings were corrupt, and all the dirty work was laid heavy on the backs of dark-skinned men, women and children. Like a battery, the blood, sweat and tears of the dark-skinned was collected and siphoned to hold the New World aloft. The creation of such a scheme; it boggles my mind. Truly, I cannot fathom it, and therein lies the fear. What kind of a person would I be if I did?
I wander the Namibian veldt with my rifle and few munitions; a meagre defence. The pale trolls hound me from the ground as the mechanical Fellbeasts shriek above. I take care with my footprints, so my path might remain unknown. Though they may lack the spells of the Wringwraith, they are still large and vicious.
I lived once in a cave marked with drawings of the Khoi, my ancient brother who is now all but extinct. Rudimentary yet beautiful depictions of characters and animals, I appreciated the drawings greatly. They were taken from me by a pale troll, wielding a hose that sprayed no water. For the next week I was forced to sleep on a patch of dry grass, huddling under my thin blanket, too frightened to light a fire. I returned eventually to find the troll gone and the drawings scratched off.
Even with no roof, little food, endless walking and hard sleeping, the bush is a better place to be. I do not wish to be a slave or ‘contract worker’. Forgetting the indignity of it, I fear contamination. Should I be exposed to their magic too long, I myself might be possessed by that ancient European evil. I too might become a wraith and terrorise the dark-skinned. I want no part of it.
When hunger strikes I seek out my sister, whistling a tune shared between us. Stomach grumbling, I find her and she bravely feeds me. Against those European spells that would make a man into a beast, she stands simply with vegetables and pots. We sit around the fire and discuss the nature of things: the hypocrisy of beasts calling others beasts.
She recalls the time she was tortured by the whip of the Balrogs. Bathed in white flames designed to expunge the dark, the Balrog are so old many of the whites have forgotten where in the Netherlands they were found. At first completely feral, a great white mage discovered how to control them, fusing charmed metal horns upon their heads. It interrogates in a harsh Dutch tongue and each strike of its whip burns while paling the skin.
I refuse to look at the white scars on her back, and I cry, apologising for my part in it. If I had not signed up for the resistance she would be of no interest to the architects of Apartheid. She assures me that I have made the right choice. She does not regret assisting me or keeping my location secret.
We must not bow to these creatures, she says.
After resting at the hut, I must always return to the veldt, wandering from rock to rock and breathing in the dry air. Many of my comrades have been captured or killed. I fear capture more than death really, for if I am captured I shall be taken to Pretoria. Pretoria, that necropolis of the Undead, that bastion of white evil. There the dungeon masters, the Balrogs and the mages, reside torturing dark skinned people – poking and prodding, interrogating and infecting, experimenting. They fuse white magic and eugenics, seeking the means to cast out the remaining dark.
They have already cast out much of the dark. They have shaped the present in their sickening image and built pillars of vile white that have infected the very history of man. As I wander this veldt so close to the cradle of humankind where the world began, I wonder why people chose to trek north to Europe. Perhaps when descendants of the Khoi arrived on that white continent they opened something they should not have, and monsters spilled forth spitting white fire and venom. From Europe they spread, tainted with white magic, and they arrived back at the cradle – ravenous.
Now I flee and fight over rock and veldt, resting against the thick trunk of the baobab tree, all in fear of Pretoria and Robben Island. African lands deformed by the idolatrous markings of Apartheid – they are tainted, bathed in white ichor.
The Wringwraith approaches. The shrieks of its mount stir my meandering mind.
I wait, and in my desperation I hope it will veer off towards another downtrodden mark. Behind a small formation of rocks and boulders, I listen with my knees aching against the granite. I hear the wings of the mechanical Fellbeast grow close.
I run, flinging dust in my wake. The sound of the screeching grows louder, piercing my ears. The Wringwraith, one of the nine Lich Kings, launches bullets from his fingers and I leap out of the open into the embrace of waist-high grass. I lie on my belly uncomfortably, hugging my rifle and shaking. I ignore the itch of the grass and the tickling crawl of ants on my skin.
I have no white magic. No spells. I stand with only a rifle and my sister with her pots and vegetables. What hope is there really? I whimper and the Lich on his mechanical Fellbeast passes overhead. I exhale and roll onto my back. The formations of the stars look down upon me with apathy. The calm rustling of the grass is disrupted by the Lich’s cold cackle, and I curse him.
They turn around.
The Lich commands his mount to descend. The crooked wings of the mechanical Fellbeast whirl, buffeting my face with sour wind. I sit up and behold him. He is cloaked in white, part flesh and part machine, all fused together with glowing white runes. His face is pale, and his eyes a dead grey. Cold white mist leaks from his mouth. Even in the cool of the summer’s night, his cold is distinct and makes the skin prickle. His frost sucks the very nutrients from the earth leaving it naked – frosted, cracked and white. I stand up with the all the strength and pride I can muster.
I have but four, five bullets left. I fire upon him and not a dent. I scramble about in the grass for stones and throw, but he does not buckle. He approaches hissing, excited for a physical confrontation he knows he can never lose. His mount stares idly through gaping eyes, licking the organic bits of its wings.
I charge, swinging my rifle and he cackles, excited by my indignation and defiance. My blow does him no harm. He flicks me back and I fall. Dazed and scratched, I stand again.
We circle one another, his large form terrifying. The grass is all but slaughtered around us. He does not even bother with his bullets. He summons forth a jagged baton and cackles.
Our weapons clash, each blow buckling, shaking my bones. Finally he cleaves my rifle in two. I topple over and lay on the frosted grass, exhausted and drenched in cold sweat. Through the fog of fear there is something in me that will not relent. I believe this to be a trait shared with my sister.
I stand yet again, now so cold. The warmth of the bush has all but dissipated. I charge him. I beat him with my fists, his armour bruising my hands until he bashes my torso, ripping my flesh and sending me so far I land in the warm arms of the grass yet again. He approaches. The white mist and frost engulf me.
I think upon my sister. I do not wish to leave her alone against this evil, yet there is a comfort in knowing I shall have to fight no more. I am sorry to leave you this way, sister. I know your kind heart will forgive my cowardice.
I lament her future battles, but I laud them too, as I know she will never be defeated.
I attempt to stand and the Lich King beats me, rending flesh once again. He cackles, and so do I.
They say great things are achieved in the dead of night. Montague hoped it was true as he hammered in the next nail with all the life that was left in him. His only illumination was the slice of moonlight shining through the window of the wretched dungeon which had been his home for the last five years.
When the nail was in place, he gripped the piece of metal which was once the corner of a tin food tray, and used it as a wood shaver to smooth out the rough edges of his creation. The sound of the slivers of wood being hewn off seemed to mimic the sickly tones of his wheezing lungs. He paid no attention to that, not now. Now he was fighting his fiercest adversary – time.
“S…S’il vous plait…” He pleaded quietly to no one. A great cough built up from the bottom of his chest and erupted from him. He crouched helplessly as uncontrollable shakes caused him to drop the makeshift tool; he reached out a shaky hand to hold the edge of the work table. As the cough finally receded he eased open his watery eyes. A mist of blood had speckled the bench.
He cursed himself to his feet, using the most colourful profanities he knew to shock his expiring body into action.
Montague glanced at a charcoal sketch on a yellowing sheet of paper that lay amongst his tools. He never kept it far from reach, and now he drew strength from it again. He forced a deep breath and wheezing, he pushed himself up on one arm. He dragged his leg up for support and growled as he was reminded of the cold heavy iron on his ankle.
The sketch portrayed a young woman, proud, bold and stunningly beautiful, gazing ahead with Montague’s eyes – the only things he had ever given her. Her afro hair was twisted into intricate dreadlocks and pulled up in a magnificent bun, like a crown. In her true homeland, he knew she would have been a queen. Perhaps with his final invention she would, at the very least, be freed.
The worn-out prisoner picked up a table leg-turned-mallet, raised it up slower than before and brought it down with less precision, every motion becoming increasingly more difficult to control. He was puzzled when his vision began to blur, and it was only when he blinked drops onto the smooth wooden surface that he realised they were tears. He smeared them away with the back of his hand. He had to finish!
His frustration threatened to overwhelm him but he didn’t stop.
When he put the mallet down he was panting. His whole body pulsed with each breath cut short by the mine dust that had built up in his lungs. The pain meant nothing. He tested his work, gripping the base, the first of three wooden components. It was shaped like a window frame, except there was a gap on the left side, leaving the square incomplete. A wheel was attached to the top right end, which when spun controlled the mechanisms that made his invention work, and a handle was attached to the top so that it could be lifted.
Montague’s wheezing slowed to a sigh. His fingertips ran along every inch of it, the fine precise holes and grooves he had drilled to insert the unique mechanism, and the corners he had spent days smoothing down… which had in turn rewarded him with splinters so imbedded they had become a part of his hands.
Now one more attachment was left, the most fragile component. Even with the risk that it might finish him, he would have to use magic… Over the years he had developed his own brand, some Bantu mysticism he had learnt in the Homeland, long before he and his countrymen were taken, mixed with French alchemy which he had imbibed from his second master.
Moving with care, he straddled the bench, first dragging the chain so he could place his feet on either side. He put his right hand on the bench in front of him, palm facing up. The moonlight had shifted, and now it only lit the edge of the bench. Sweating, he firmly pressed his left thumb into the open palm, and felt the largest splinter at the base of his right thumb. He pressed into the skin, and his head felt lighter from the pain. He feared he would sink into unconsciousness – and perhaps never wake up. Closing his eyes he continued to press along the length of the splinter within his flesh.
His fingers slipped, and he bit down on his cracked bottom lip, focussing more than he had ever done in his life. He was vaguely aware of the familiar tapping of footsteps faintly approaching – the guard rotation. Guards would have questions… questions about how he had obtained the tools and what he was building. They wouldn’t ask him for the answers, they would simply punish him. And he knew he may not survive that.
Montague didn’t allow those matters to concern him just now. He began the incantation, spoken in a grinding mix of French and Chewa. “You who were once a tree became this bench. You who were once my bench became the tool in my hands. Now you will change… from mother tree to father silver. Your life of wood is no more.”
His thumb kept still over the splinter and he concentrated, barely breathing. He felt coldness spread through his capillaries from the back of his head. He willed it to flow into this left hand, willed it to accumulate on his thumb, then into his palm. He felt a sharpening pain but he struggled to maintain control. He gasped and slumped forward using his elbows to support his weight.
His ears were alert to the progress of the footsteps on the stone floor… 15 steps away and counting. They would patrol his floor more frequently than the others, as was necessary for criminals guilty of the most heinous crimes – Les Mechants Hommes. He shifted his hand into the moonlight, examining his palm. There, just the tip of silver protruded from his palm. He pinched it between his thumb and forefinger and drew it out. His own blood trailed along its slender length, but he let out a sigh of relief. It had retained its perfectly straightened form, as he needed it to be. He held it tightly as if his life depended on it. As he slowly moved it towards the machine, he breathed in and out heavily, his whole universe now focused on the end of the needle, his own heartbeat loud in his ears…
Five steps more and invasive eyes would peer through the small grating in the heavy wooden door. Montague cursed under his breath and abandoned his attempt to attach the pin to its mechanism. He picked up the machine while stifling a painful groan, placing it under the workbench, and moving carefully to ensure that the links on his shackles did not clang together. Once he gently placed the machine onto the stone floor, he positioned himself across the tools and debris as if he were slumped asleep on the table. He didn’t dare to breathe as the footsteps fell silent at his cell door.
The metal shutter snapped open with a reverberating clang. Heavy breathing interspersed with loud chewing filled the quiet chamber. It was Pierre, the head guard whom he loathed as much for his pungent breath as for his tendency to spit at him for personal entertainment. Pierre mouth-breathed into the gap for a moment, then, after a lazy glance, shut it again. This was what Montague had hoped for.
He waited until Pierre’s footsteps were far enough to mask the sounds of his own laborious tasks. He pushed himself up again and the pain in his chest grew tenfold. He groaned aloud, as he clutched his chest, uncertain whether or not he had been heard. He reached under the bench for his precious invention and placed it on top. His watery eyes sought out the pin once more and he pressed it against the table, rolling it to the edge and pinching it close to its sharp end. He ignored his throbbing head, fluttering heart and wheezing lungs. Now there was only this task.
The magistrate who had sentenced him to this dungeon had said there would be no redemption for what Montague had done. Only death, and hell. That was truly all he deserved after what his terrible machines had done to countless children… their blood was his only legacy. Montague’s guilt drove him now. Building this last machine meant he might be spared from that fate. He only prayed he might finish it in time…
In a moment where time itself stopped, Montague’s prayers were answered. Tilting his head low and close to his newest machine, he twisted the pin clockwise then anti-clockwise in the groove he had prepared for it. It clipped perfectly into place with his first try. Afraid to believe it, he tested it, pulling it one way and then another – it stuck firmly to the mechanism.
He fell back, gazing wearily at the completed machine. Its components, including the pin, were wood from the window sill and a bench leg, and metal from the food trays. It had been hammered together using a second bench leg and shaped using a corner of a tray and his bare hands. The remaining pieces of the bench he had torn apart were discarded in the corner furthest from the door and his tools were behind a stone in the wall. His hands were cut and bruised but it did not matter. The last of his duty now was to conceal his invention…then embrace death.
Moving arms that were as weighty as lead, he grasped the handle and placed his other hand on the side of the machine. Just as he had shifted its weight a centimetre off the table, with his joints crunching against each other like dry stone on wood, he heard it. The footsteps of the same guard were now growing louder instead of fading away.
Panic gripped Montague, and he yanked his invention to remove it from sight. Over-calculating, he lost grip of the side, and though his right hand still had purchase of the handle, as weak as he was, he failed to stop it from crashing sideways to the floor and he screamed out as it dragged his arm down at the wrong angle…
His worst nightmare. The steps quickened their pace, someone shouted a call of alarm, and hands and keys started scraping at the door. Panting, Montague made sure he was positioned between the machine and the cell door, concealing his secret, then he allowed his body to fall the remaining distance to the floor with a bone-crunching thud. He pulled his right arm out from under his body and stretched his hand over his creation. In a hurried whisper, he began to cast a concealing spell on it.
“You who are manifested from my mind, shall be revealed to no one else, but one.” Then he spoke the man’s name.
In the same moment, the heavy door was shouldered open by two guards, with a third quickly approaching. Pierre’s snarling face came first, glancing around the cell before seeing Montague lying on the floor – not on his designated sleep bench. This alone was a punishable offence. Stick in hand, he strode to Montague, jabbing him in the stomach.
Montague gasped and doubled over – but then his hand shot out to grab the stick. Coldness spread from the back of his head.
Pierre’s eyes flashed in anger. “Disobedience is still a game to you isn’t it, Dog?” he said in his crude French, twisting the stick deeper into Montague’s stomach. It was Pierre’s smirk that Montague hated most of all. It came with the confidence that he had complete control over his prisoner.
Montague tightened his grip on the stick against his abdomen.
“Not a game,” he snarled, shoving it forward and making Pierre’s hold slip. The handle struck up into the guard’s midriff, hard. Pierre doubled over and recoiled; his eyes shut tightly, his arms over his belly.”It is a way of life!”
Montague pulled the stick with both hands, fully claiming it, and struck Pierre’s left kneecap. The guard’s eyes opened wide as he shrieked. Montague looked up at him and grinned, reminding his opponent that he too could revel in another’s pain.
Pierre held his wounded knee and stumbled away from him, hurriedly whimpering orders to his men. Jacques, the thin one with the potbelly, and François, the short one, immediately dove into action. Against one man, when Montague’s eyes could pierce into the soul and convince him he was nothing, but two men with sticks… He was not young or healthy anymore; the magic he drew on for strength was now weakening him more than it was helping him.
He dropped Pierre’s stick as the blows came raining down, striking his head, chest and stomach – each one a drumbeat closer to death. In the madness and pain, he rolled onto his side and immediately feeling a kick on his back. Unheard by the guards, he said with a broken sigh, “I lived as Montague, I die as Imamu.” His birth name would be his token in the land of the gods. Through squinted eyes, he saw the place under the bench where he had put the machine, then tore his shirt and flung the piece over it, just as they dragged him to the open floor.
Jacques raised his stick high, but Pierre grabbed it before it came down and wrenched it from him. He shoved Jacques back and struck Montague square in the head then pulled up for another blow.
“Stop!” shouted François. When Pierre glared at him he pointed at Montague. The prisoner was still. Pierre looked at the limp body in disbelief. He let the stick drop from his hand and wiped his brow, panting.
“Tell the master that the slave,” Pierre murmured, “is no more.” He limped towards the door in disgust. “And make sure the undertaker collects him immediately. I don’t want his stench in here!”
“I am the undertaker,” said a voice just outside the door. It was coming from a large robed man in front of them.
Pierre frowned at the mysterious figure for a moment, but he decided he didn’t care how the undertaker had arrived before they had sent for him.
“If only the living were served so quickly…” Pierre said as he brushed past the man. He was eager to distance himself from the remains, and any inconvenient sense of guilt that may want to follow him. The other two guards followed with brief sideways glances at the undertaker.
When the guards left, Barthélemy Thimonnier the undertaker entered the cell at a brisk pace and began his search. Grim-faced, he stepped around Montague’s body, giving it just a brief glance. He moved silently from one end to the other, looking all over the floor, until he finally came to the bench. He lowered himself to one knee and peered under it, and a dirty cloth caught his eye.
He lifted the cloth and tossed it aside. In the poor light, he could not tell what it was, but he knew it was what he came for. As he picked it up he felt a slight tingling vibration. Raising his brow he gazed at the contraption, but it drew no more attention to itself. It was small enough for him to hide it, and carry the slave’s body out as well. He placed it within his robes, wrapping and securing it within using a length of cloth.
He began to rise, but then spotted a piece of paper on the floor amongst the makeshift tools. It had been pinned underneath the object. He picked it up and held it up to the moonlight. It was a coal sketch of the woman who was the slave’s daughter. The undertaker turned it over.
There were words written with smudges of dirt and a darker smudge which experience told him was blood: “Pour Elle.” Below that was scrawled: “Je suis deso.”
“Je suis desolé…” the undertaker read quietly, filling out the missing letters. I am sorry. A fitting final message, he thought. From what he had heard, the slave had much indeed to be sorry for. Rumour had it that on his master’s orders, the slave of the house of Montague had kidnapped the children of his master’s rivals and brought them to the underground chambers, to his nefarious machines of torture. As deep underground as they were, the screams of the innocent could still be heard across the moorlands on a quiet night. When they were discovered, the châtelain himself was charged a fine and 3 years imprisonment whilst his slave was thrown into this dungeon for the remainder of his life.
Barthélemy looked at the paper for a moment, rubbing it between his fingers, before stowing it in his robes together with the machine. He rose from the floor and went to the barred window, feeling along it. Before he dealt with the body, he had one final, most important collection to make. Jammed between two stones he found what he was looking for: two silver coins. Lower than his usual fee for smuggling contraband, but he was impressed that the slave had gotten his hands on these at all.
The undertaker pocketed the money, turned and shouldered the remains of Montague, closing the cell door behind him.
Weighing down the undertaker’s robes was the world’s first sewing machine.
“That neverending nurturing you need, the sea has it.” – Nayyirah Waheed
Mami Wata is a water spirit celebrated throughout Africa and the Diaspora.
Believed to be the bringer of good and bad fortune, a healer of the sick and nurturing mother, Mami Wata is a complex representation of good vs evil.
Often portrayed as snake charmer or mermaid, Mami Wata is described as a woman of excessive beauty.
Taking the form of a mermaid, Mami Wata can be seen splashing in the waters at the end of a rainbow after a heavy storm before descending into the magical realm in which she resides…a whimsical world of unrestrained fancy.