Running through the thorny blonde grass, the lone hyena stops to scan the plains of the Serengeti for food and water. After travelling for more than three sunsets, she’s hungry and searching for carrion, but it’s scarce this dry season. A starling alights upon her path as she relishes the strong breeze rippling through her fur, she spots a droughty pond filled with muddy water. Her stomach wrenches tight as she drinks, for the water only incites her hunger pangs.
Through a curtain of heat, a pack of female hyenas lope toward her. Orange dust billows from their paws as they approach. Her fur stands on end, her ears twitch, and at that moment she forgets her hunger. She realizes that she should have stayed on course, but her desire for sustenance had urged her to take a different route.
Knowing it’s odd for a bitch to be alone without her clan, the lone hyena remains steady and still, daring not to move as the leader of the pack pads toward her. This is the first time in her sojourn she has been threatened by her kind. If she shows fear, they’ll attack.
She observes that the matriarch’s head is much larger than normal and that she towers over the other six. Yet when Large Head approaches her, she notices that she’s her equal. Grinding her teeth, she allows the matriarch to move around her in one slow circle and sniff her sex.
Her claws dig into the dirt as she watches Large Head return to her clan, sneezing, grunting, and spitting. Shaking her head, she communicates that something’s wrong with this lone hyena. The clan groans in confusion then a frenzy of rage engulfs them; some stand on their hind legs, cackling.
The seven hyenas begin to gather around her, baring their sharp-razor teeth. The lone hyena remains steady watching them. Breathing slowly and deliberately, she calculates her next move. She never takes her eyes off of Large Head. She’s really too weak with hunger to fight, but she must. Death is the only option, for she is not the only one who’s hungry.
She leaps to rip open Large Head’s throat, but two of Large Head’s underlings foil her attack and pounce on her back. Rebounding quickly, she bares and snaps her teeth, forcing Large Head’s lackeys to retreat.
She launches to rip apart the weakest of the pack, but Large Head barrels into her, throwing her to the ground. They roll and scuffle, each growling at the other, then break apart – the lone hyena quickly scrabbling back up on all fours.
Large Head lunges to bite her neck, but she swiftly squirms out of the way. Then pivoting, the lone hyena clamps her jaws on the alpha bitch’s haunches. The blood tastes bitter yet sweet. Large Head briefly cries out in agony but quickly recovers; it would be death for the matriarch to show weakness to her clan. Her followers whoop and cackle in protest. Turning, the matriarch meets her gaze and they stare at each other for one long moment.
Suddenly the ground rumbles under their paws. Off to the east, a herd of gazelles is stampeding. The lone hyena releases her hold on the old matriarch and the two combatants look to the potential meat and salivate. Abandoning their duel, Large Head breaks into a run, aiming for the slowest and weakest at the back of the herd. The rest of her clan follows her, fanning out to a large hunting V.
The lone hyena watches her in bemusement. She understands that killing an odd hyena is no longer appealing to the clan; gazelles are much juicier. She wonders if she should join them. She could help them rip apart their chosen prey. During their feeding, she could choose a choice body part, thereby asserting her leadership. She notices Large Head has left a trail of blood behind. The clan will eventually kill her as she now appears weak. If she were the one to kill Large Head, she would then lead the rest of the pack.
She hears her own quick shallow breaths, her heart beating in her chest. The warbling of birds, the twittering of insects, even the guttural sounds of vultures circling overhead, clash like cymbals in her ears. A starling alights nearby and suddenly a barrage of sounds and images flood her mind: She is surrounded by smoke, the sound of drumming rings through her ears, cool waves splash against her body, and then a coarse voice whispers: “Go to the One with the message.”
She turns away from the pack, as the voice continues to hiss in her ears. It beckons across the vast plains, urging her to leave the clan of roaming beasts behind. She obeys.
As the sun climbs to its zenith, she catches a whiff of blood, causing her stomach to grumble louder. She looks up and sees vultures circling not far off. Frothing at the mouth, she trots toward the carrion birds and finds a half-eaten antelope – a lion pride’s leftovers. She lunges at the birds, scattering them. She manages to snatch a hind leg with her teeth and rip it from the carcass. They swoop in to peck her back, an attempt to guard their meal, but with the meat dangling from her mouth, she sprints away.
Under an acacia tree, she devours the antelope’s backside in several bites, hacking through its skin to the flesh with her knife-like teeth. She relishes how carrion always tastes better when they are seasoned with a lion’s saliva. Its smell tantalizes her so much that she even eats the bones.
She wallows in the dirt to ease the sting of her scratches from the earlier battle with the hyena clan. A starling alights on a branch of the tree above her. Then as the sky turns orange and magenta with dusk, her eyelids grow heavy, lulling her into sleep.
A slim bare-chested man is waving her in through the open door of his hut. His smiling eyes sparkle as he says: “Come to me!”
She is about to walk in when…
Something awakens her. It is a male hyena, marking his territory. Lying on her belly, she pants, observing him. Unlike females, males always roam alone as they are only good for mating and are useless otherwise. He circles her with caution, for she is twice his size and could crush him easily. Yet when he climbs on her back, she allows him. She is much too drowsy to rouse. Many males have approached her for mating before and she has always rebuffed them, but this time it feels good. It feels right.
He awkwardly pokes his penis above her erect clitoris, which is as big and long as his member. Their sexes rub against each other as he tries to enter her shaft, but he keeps slipping off her sleek fur. Her sex moistens from his continuous tries. She stands up to make it easier for him to climb and poke again. When the tip of his penis finally enters, she whoops and chortles with delight. Yes, this time it’s delicious and welcoming.
A starling lands on her head and she tries to shake it off, when she hears: “Go to the One with the message.” Suddenly she remembers: She is no hyena. She is human. She is Duriya Osa! There is no way she can mate with this animal.
She throws him off her and then swipes at his face with her claws. The male hyena cowers under her strikes until she retreats, then tries to mount her again. This time she springs to bite him, snapping her jaws, but the male instantly moves out of the way. Rising on her hind legs, she yowls. He finally surrenders to her threats and lopes off to a nearby tree to lick his genitals and quench the fire of his excitement.
Under an indigo sky, Duriya begins to run. She runs until she is several miles away from the stud and the night lit with starlight. She finally stops beneath an umbrella tree to rest. This is when she hears the sound of an mbira. Her ears prick, listening to the faint notes, its tinkling sound dancing before her.
The sweet melody vibrates through her body, and with each tink-tink-tink-tink, she shudders as if from an internal storm. She leans against the tree shaking uncontrollably. Sharp pain shoots through her body like bolts of lightning and she jerks her head from side to side in rickety movements. With horror, she sees her paws begin to grow into human hands. Her black spotted fur starts to fade into coffee-brown skin and tight curls of human hair. She can feel her jagged fangs pushing back to human teeth. She has to get to the One before she fully transforms or she will not survive this journey.
But her body is changing beyond her control. She halts as her two front legs shrink to human arms. Her ears shrivel from her wide animal ones and her sharp-night vision fades into human sight. Her sense of smell dulls; her strength wanes. She howls in agony, but her breath is cut short as her spine straightens and her tail melts back into it. Her hind legs lengthen into human ones; she is now crawling on her hands and knees. She was to be there by the fifth night, she remembers, and time is running out. She has to get there. She just has to…
Crawling and changing, changing and crawling, she makes her way towards the sound of the mbira, which grows louder with each step. Then a pungent scent of violets stings her nose. She inhales… Ahh… that smell… She cackles and whoops, recognizing it. The One must be near.
At the tree that marks the entrance to his compound, she stretches her body upright and shakes off what’s left of her reddish-brown fur. She shuffles sluggishly to her lover’s threshold where she collapses, supine. She opens one eye and catches him watching her.
“Ahh … that’s my girl,” she hears him say.
Owodunni lifts the young woman, his legs buckling from a weight that is still that of a 200-pound hyena, and carries her into his home. A starling flies through the open door and alights on one of the root jars by the entrance as he places Duriya on a straw mat in the centre of the room. The air around them is as heavy as wet mist.
Burning fragrant herbs, Owodunni prays to the deities who helped create Duriya. He gives thanks and offers Ogo, the Dogon deity responsible for the powerful huntress, a boar’s head. He hangs his machete on a hook in the centre of the shrine. As the fresh blood drips from it into a sacred pot, he smokes Duriya’s body from head to toe with a bunch of burning twigs. He notices the deep scratches on her stomach and winces. When he’d cast the spell three years ago he had not thought to arm Duriya; he didn’t think she would confront any danger.
He tucks the shrine’s brown, gold, and ivory cloth around Duriya’s shoulders as she snores. He is careful not to rouse her, for she is still in the twilight of human and animal. It could be hours before her full transition and if he is not careful, she could tear him to pieces. As if to confirm his suspicions, she yawns, revealing sharp fangs. He keeps a safe distance between them and carries a fighting knife in the waist of his trousers: just in case.
He pours libations to Ogo again. He gives praises to his ancestors and to the forces that feed his powers.
Duriya’s body writhes in violent convulsions and she wakes up in tears. She struggles to look around. The room is decorated with lion and boar skins and furnished only by a chair with three legs, some wooden shelves against a wall, and an elaborate shrine. A wooden staff decorated with horizontal bands of light mahogany leans on the wall by the door, a starling is perched atop it, watching her intently.
The shelves are filled with glass jars of brilliantly-coloured powders, bottles of ogogoro, feathers, a doll’s head, the swollen carcass of a puffer fish, and three skulls – one of a dog and two human.
She studies the altar, gazing at the skulls and bones on it. The walls on either side of it are draped with gold and silver material. At its centre, there is a platter full of rice, yam, oranges, bananas, pineapples and beans – offerings for the deities and ancestors. This altar has been her home away from home for the past three years. It is where she seeks comfort from a husband she pretends to love.
Groaning, Duriya crawls until she is next to her lover, directly under the shrine. Her muscles pulsating from overexertion, she curls into a foetal position.
“When will be a good day for me to kill my husband?” She asks absently.
Owodunni glances over his shoulder at her, still not quite comfortable with her human form.
“Killing my brother takes patience, my dear,” he says, forcing a light tone.
He stands to fetch a jar of ointment from one of his shelves. Scooping some of the ointment with the fingertips of his right hand, he returns to her. “Turn over. This should take the scarring away.”
While Owodunni smears the ointment on her belly, Duriya thinks of how, in public, she has been humiliated by her husband’s beatings and threats. How, in private, she has had to concede to his desires for threesomes and foursomes. She thinks of how often she has sat in her hut alone at night dreading his return. Her only reprieve has been within Owodunni’s arms.
“I almost didn’t make it.”
“What do you mean?” Owodunni asks.
“They almost killed me.”
“Who almost killed you?”
“A big-headed hyena.”
“I’m glad you’re here,” Owodunni says. He reaches to stroke her shoulder but she flinches away.
“You don’t understand,” she says.
Owodunni remains silent and listens for he does not want to agitate the beast.
“I nearly forgot myself out there.”
“Did you hear me calling you?”
Without answering, Duriya looks up at the starling perched on the head of the mahogany staff. Then she nods.
“Well then, you have nothing to worry about,” he says. “You should eat something,” Owodunni says. He moves over to a round-bellied pot she hasn’t noticed before and stirs the soup inside it. “This will help you transition.”
“You know I can’t eat cooked meat right away.”
“I know, but I want a full woman right now.”
“What’s the matter?” She asks with a smirk. “Are you afraid I might take a bite out of you?”
“You are still part animal.”
“Is that so?” She cackles, crawling to him on her hands and knees. “Do I not look fully human?”
“Yes, but your mind and heart are still transitioning.”
He spoons the meat, yams and vegetables into a wooden bowl.
“Here, taste this.” He thrusts the bowl at her.
She shuts her eyes tight and smells the meal before her. Reaching into the bowl, she grabs a piece of meat and bites it. She lets it stay in her mouth for a moment before she tries to chew it.
“Ugh!” In disgust, she spits the morsel into the palm of her hand and wipes her mouth with her forearm. “This is awful! How could anyone eat cooked meat? It ruins its essence!”
“Taste it again,” he persists. “You will soon remember.”
“Remember your true self.”
She remembers how much she enjoyed the taste of fresh warm blood while in her animal state, how sweet carrion bones tasted. Too bad she only transitions when her husband ventures out on blood sports once a month, she thinks. Placing the piece of meat into a cloth, she lays the bowl aside.
“What if I don’t want to remember any more? What if I want to let myself go and mate with a male hyena?”
“Now that would be a problem,” Owodunni said, furrowing his brows. “Besides I would have to kill the hyena.”
Duriya laughs. Then she turns serious and asks, “So, you’re not going to cast a death spell on my husband?”
“No, not yet.”
“Does this mean that your medicine is failing?”
“No, it just means that I have to find another road.”
“Another road?” she asks, shaking her head. “Sometimes you talk in riddles.”
“I have to work around my brother’s protection.”
“Your brother’s talisman?”
“Yes, they were given to both of us at birth. I had to abandon mine when I embraced Dogon medicine.”
“Dogon medicine will serve you better than Yoruba.”
“But it means the Yoruba deities no longer protect me. If I cast such a spell against my brother, I would become his enemy and those deities would turn against me. All of my plans to take over his kingdom would end before they even began.”
“This is much too difficult,” Duriya says. “Why can I not kill him? It would be so easy as a hyena. Besides, I might enjoy eating the king’s meat and bones.”
“You are forbidden to kill humans; it’s against the rules of the spell,” Owodunni says, squatting in front of her. “Otherwise you will remain a hyena forever and you will lose all memory of who you are. Do you want that to happen?”
“I’m getting tired of travelling this way,” Duriya says, sighing. “I might not come back to you the next time.”
“Don’t worry,” he says. “You are protected under my spell.”
“I don’t feel protected when I’m out there.”
“You can hold your own,” he says.
She looks at her lover, this middle-aged man of medium height, and marvels at his mahogany complexion and chiselled body. She might have been staring at her husband, except for the gray streak in the middle of his hair and the way his body seems to dance with the wind. That is why she prefers him.
“So, if we can’t destroy your brother then what’s the other road?”
“The other road is called patience.”
“Patience?” she asks, smirking. “I’m not sure if you’ll last, old man.”
“Ahh … you’re starting to talk like yourself,” his light brown eyes twinkle in the candlelight. He caresses her thigh. “How’s the soup?”
She dips her right index finger into the wooden bowl. It smells of tomatoes, onions, garlic, and peppers. Licking it, Duriya finds she is beginning to like the flavours. “It’s not so bad.”
“I’ve been waiting for you for too long,” Owodunni says. “Don’t make me wait another second.”
Owodunni wraps his arms around her and she clasps her thighs around his waist. They make love until dawn.
Afterwards, while Owodunni is fast asleep, Duriya finds a strand of hyena hair at the edge of the mat. It’s from the male hyena. Closing her eyes, she savours the memory of the wind hitting her fur out there on the plains. Clutching the hair, she thinks: just in case.
Felicity was born unhappy. She was conceived when her parents were young and unmarried. They wedded immediately then proceeded to use religion to punish themselves for as long as she lived with them. There were evening prayers filled with loud supplications to God to forgive them while she knelt there feeling every inch the mistake that they perceived her to be. There was the remittance of fifty percent of their income to the church, so that she never got those new shoes or money to go on the class’ excursion to Olumo Rock.
She grew up unhappy, too; sharing a tiny room with an older cousin who carried out the frustrations of being unemployed in a thriving city on her – slaps and kicks that left marks long after the physical scars had healed. Even when she ran away from home at nineteen – her bag heavy with money she’d stolen from her family – she remained unhappy. She paid for an apprenticeship at a tailor’s shop where she excelled. When she became assistant boss after a few years, she promptly poached all her employer’s good tailors to start her own business. But even then happiness eluded her.
Today, Felicity is a tall woman of forty-five with big feet and round shoulders that hunch forward. Her mouth is downturned and her thin bottom lip juts out, giving her a permanent look of one who has tasted something bitter. She is still unhappy and her tailors sometimes attribute her constant displeasure to her unmarried status.
“If man for dey, shebi im go dey smile?” They whisper among themselves.
She is on her way to buy sewing thread in bulk from Agege Market. She likes to do the shopping herself as she trusts no one. Her footsteps are heavy on the streets of the market, which are cluttered with Gala wrappers, unlucky Lotto tickets and juice from baskets of tomatoes. Her right arm hugs her handbag tight to herself while her left hand further protects it from grasping hands. She has been robbed before; her stern sneer hadn’t prevented them from approaching.
She walks past the men stretching out pairs of jeans, calling out to women younger and prettier than she is. She walks past the shops where the girls selling big Aso-oke and lace cloth look through her, searching for potential customers. But when she meets a crowd, Felicity stops.
It is her birthday today but she has told no one. There is no one to tell. She has no friends and she is not sociable enough with her staff to have them pretend to care. On this day every year, Felicity does something out of character. One year, she made herself a long red dress made of see-through chiffon. She stood in front of her mirror for hours in this dress, turning this way and that – never smiling, just staring. As she studied herself, she mentally tucked in a flab here and trimmed a bulge there, but she wasn’t satisfied. She squinted into the mirror, her mind hacking away at her person, imagining she was nothing but bones and that the red dress fluttered in the air.
Another year, she bought herself a huge bowl of ice-cream from the Big Treat Supermarket down the street and gave her staff the day off. Amongst the immobile sewing machines and headless mannequins, she sat in the silence of her shop and ate her banana-flavoured ice-cream spoon after spoon till the white of the plastic bottom stared back at her, the cold morsels settling in her belly like dead weight.
She moves toward the nucleus of the crowd to investigate its cause. People naturally step aside for the tall unsmiling woman. In the middle of the human circle is a small man selling potions. “Solutions,” he calls them. She hisses and starts to move away, shoving people aside, when she hears someone say to another: “Him say e be magician, o. E go soon show us.”
The mention of the word “magician” has made her pause because she decides right then that this will be her out-of-character thing: stopping to humour a trickster. She looks around at the swelling audience, their eyes wide in anticipation and she shakes her head at their naiveté. Magic. Ha!
She pushes her way back to the front of the crowd and stares at the wiry little magician. He is wearing a badly-tailored white dashiki: thread dangles from the hem of the trousers and the blouse is too short for his torso, making him look even shorter, like a dwarf. He is bald and his ashy lips and the smattering of bumps on his scalp give him an aura of ill health. Despite this, the man is jumpy. He dances from foot to foot as he proffers his potions to cure cancer, erectile dysfunction and bring home runaway husbands. His eyes flit from person to person, matching the excitement of his audience who have left their shops to be entertained, as if he too will be amazed by his own acts. Felicity shuffles in impatience.
And then it is time. Felicity observes that he stows away his proceeds before starting his magic show so that when things go awry he will not be totally disadvantaged. Smart, Felicity thinks. He introduces himself as Ayao and presents a low bow. He starts with a few card tricks and Felicity rolls her eyes at the banal opening.
A member of the crowd picks out a card, a lot of skipping and dancing is done and then he reveals the card picked at random to the exclamation and yelling of the people. They yelp in delight as he does this over and over. Felicity’s eyes follow his moves, trying to uncover the charade.
Then a hush falls. It is time for serious business.
Ayao asks for a volunteer.
“For what o?” someone yells and the people laugh. But she can hear the uneasiness pulsate in the air after their laughter has died down.
Ayao’s eyes are wide and dark as he turns in slow circles to take in his captive audience. “To fly,” he says.
There is a small, almost imperceptible general step back. Felicity almost laughs. Almost. She sees Ayao’s game: If everyone is too frightened to volunteer, the magician can feign disappointment and leave the market with his reputation intact.
And so she steps forward.
She can hear their surprise.
Ayao gestures for her to walk toward him. She does. He raises his left arm to shush the murmurs of the crowd.
“Do you believe?” He asks Felicity, his voice loud enough to carry over the crowd.
Felicity lowers her gaze so that she is staring at Ayao. His eyelashes are long and bushy, emphasizing the size of his eyes.
“No,” Felicity whispers, but in the quiet of the middle of the marketplace, it is just as loud.
“No?” Ayao asks, narrowing his eyes.
Ayao moves away from her, stepping back foot by foot so that his eyes do not stray from hers.
“Do you want to drop your bag?” he asks.
“No,” Felicity repeats, her suspicion blatant.
“Okay.” Ayao walks back to her. He walks around her. He dances around her. Then he begins to chant:
“Ase Orisa lenu mi.
Ase Orisa lenu mi.”
On and on, he tries to reinforce the authority of the deities he is invoking.
“Ase Orisa lenu mi.
Ase Orisa lenu mi.”
Felicity stands there – still, waiting for him to tire.
But he goes on, louder and faster:
“Ase Orisa lenu mi!
Ase Orisa lenu mi!”
Felicity has seen a man fly once. He jumped off the Third Mainland Bridge with his arms stretched out in front of him. As the people around her honked and screamed, Felicity had envied his freedom.
Then there is smoke, as there always is in every tacky magician’s show. And then people are screaming.
Why are they screaming? Felicity raises an arm to clear the smoke in front of her eyes. But her arm doesn’t rise. Instead, feathers flap.
Suddenly, she is high above the ground looking down at the market people running away from Ayao. The magician gestures for her to come to him; she can see the panic in his eyes from where she floats. Ayao’s hands rise to his shiny head, then lower, then rise again. He gestures towards her again then turns on his heels and flees. Felicity can see him winding through the streets.
Someone has snatched her bag in the melee but she doesn’t care. She is far away from the chaos. She can now see a pattern to the rowdy market streets and Felicity thinks how tiny the world must look to God.
And then she’s off, because she cannot think of a reason not to go. The air here is so light and she is so buoyant. Felicity feels like she has been relieved of a lifelong burden of being. She is both overwhelmed and enthralled by the things her new body is doing. How is she so weightless but still so strong? She slices through the air as she moves farther and farther from the market scene. She smiles. But there is no one to see it. Nobody to witness what it is for a bird to smile.
Felicity wants to see herself. She wants to stare at her new form the way she did when she wore that long red dress. What type of bird is she? Is she colourful? Is she as black as the unhappiness that now seems so foreign to her? She opens her mouth but she has never heard the warble that escapes. She knows nothing about birds.
Felicity heads towards a high-rise building with a glass exterior.
She starts to descend towards the building. Closer and closer, her reflection comes towards her. She squints to bring the fuzz into focus. And then there is a boom. She has hit the glass, beak-first. Pain jolts through her small frame in reverberations and the world goes black.
Felicity feels herself falling and falling and as she falls she feels the heaviness of her being return.
When she crashes into the ground, she is Felicity again. She is engulfed in pain. It overwhelms her so that she starts to weep. Felicity thinks: do birds cry? When she tries to move, pain shoots out from her joints in waves – her bones are broken.
Someone screams “Amusu!” and another yells “Aje!” then there is a circle of people around her, calling her witch in their various languages. And she feels so weak, so weak and so tired. Blood seeps from unidentified gashes and she twitches with every fresh flood of pain. Now she is the show.
A stone smacks into her back and rolls to the floor, red with her blood. She realises that she is naked. Then other stones follow. The people close in, their fear chokes her – how does something thing fall as a bird and land as a woman? – their horror bites at her shredded skin like sand flies. Her body feels weighed down, more than it has ever been, beneath their stones and their words.
A feather flutters within her view and Felicity is reminded of her temporary weightlessness. She is in pain now, but she flew! She flew!
There are more voices and more stones but Felicity succumbs to the rising within her. Her body sinks further into the ground, but she is leaving it behind and rising and rising…
The all-powerful father, Olorun, was to be honored by the gods. The great creator had just finished his most impressive creation yet and the world had finally come into existence. Following this, Olorun had decided it was time to go and join his fellow elder gods and leave the running of the world to his subordinates. To mark the occasion a massive feast was planned in Ode Agba, the magical city of the gods, and every deity and supernatural being within and outside time would come to pay homage to the great god. It was customary that everyone attending would bring some type of gift. If pleased with the present, Olorun would, in turn, bless the gifter with some ability.
Now amongst the gods were two brothers, Ara and Monamona; you never saw one without the other. However, they made for quite an unlikely pair. Monamona, the younger, was slight of frame and pale of skin. He was cunning and quick footed, always dashing from one endeavor to another. He was also easily bored and often used his cleverness to pester his elder brother. Ara, on the other hand, was a behemoth and no one rivaled him in strength. When he spoke, he could be heard for miles around and he could cause tremors in the ground if he willed it. Yet, he could not match his younger brother in wit, nor could he keep up with his antics. It infuriated him, but he loved his brother dearly.
As Olorun’s farewell celebrations drew closer, gods and deities tried to outdo each other with their gifts. However, Monamona left all the gift planning ideas to his brother; he could not be bothered. Three days before the event, Monamona realized his elder brother had been missing for a while. It was unlike Ara to leave without telling anyone, and he searched high and low but couldn’t find him anywhere.
By the time the large god showed up, Monamona was beyond impatient. He badgered and pestered his brother but couldn’t get him to open up about where he had gone. Even more frustrating was the satisfied look on Ara’s face. Monamona was sure his brother was hiding something from him and he longed to know what it could be.
The night before the great event, Monamona invited his brother for a great meal. Ara, who knew how cunning his brother was, remained on guard just in case his brother was up to his usual tricks. The meal was amazing, more sumptuous than he had expected and Ara ate his fill. Afterwards, Ara was so full that he grew sleepy, and before he could utter his thanks to his brother, he keeled over fast asleep.
Smiling mischievously, Monamona disguised himself as the great god Olorun and entered into his brother’s dreams. In the dream world, He found Ara languishing under a great Iroko tree, enjoying the tranquility of the setting around him.
Seeing Olorun, Ara hurriedly got up and invited the king of the gods to sit with him under the shade. Monamona accepted his offer and sat with his brother; together they stared into the landscape of Ara’s dream world.
Monamona was pleasantly surprised at how vivid his brother’s imagination was. It was a lush, green world dominated by scale. Air whales and four winged dragons flew side by side whilst the white seascape in the distance would occasionally be interrupted by magnificent sea beings that even Monamona knew nothing of. Yet the grandness of everything felt harmonious. He could see himself spending a lot of time here; so much to see and do.
“What brings you to my humble abode your greatness?” Ara asked and Monamona had to remind himself visiting this landscape would only be possible when his brother was asleep. He was here for a reason and he needed to stay on course.
“Nothing in particular,” Monamona said, imitating Olorun’s voice. “As the time draws close, I often catch myself wondering if I am doing the right thing.”
“You doubt yourself, o great father?”
“Even beings like me, who have lived for millennia, second-guess our decisions from time to time. We are not above mistake.”
“I do that a lot as well. Especially when I am with my brother.”
“Why is that?”
Ara paused, as if noticing something for the first time. Sitting upright, he whirled a stone out of nothing and tossed it so far, one could make out the splash on the horizon.
“My brother is much smarter than me. He is swift whereas I am cumbersome. I am the oaf; he is the fleet-footed gazelle. Even when I tell myself not to fall for his tricks, he still manages to outsmart me. I love him dearly, but everytime I am around him, I am always second-guessing myself.”
Monamona was stunned by his brother’s words. He had never viewed their relationship that way. He thought of some way to reassure Ara.
“You do not have to feel that way about yourself. Amongst us, there is none more courageous. Your character is never in doubt, even your brother would attest to how important you are to the proper functioning of this realm. I can leave knowing there are those like you, who will make sure that we continue to excel.”
Ara beamed from ear to ear at the words. “Thank you your highness … Thank you.”
“Before I leave you to your dream, I couldn’t help but notice you’ve been missing a few times recently. Is there anything I should know about that?”
Ara turned towards his king and bowed his head. “I had been searching for something truly worthy of a going away present to give you and I have finally found something. I had to venture over the golden wall, but in the end it was all worth it. I think you will be quite pleased.”
So that was it, thought Monamona. Ara had ventured over the boundary between their realm and the unknown. He was saddened that his brother had left him out of something so pivotal.
“Thank you for risking so much for me,” said Monamona. I look forward to seeing what you found. Does your brother know about your forays?”
Ara, turned his gaze away.
“No he does not.”
“For once, I wanted to do something for myself, to be able to present this gift to you without the aid of my brother. I know what the other gods say: ‘he is the brain and I am the heft,’ they think me too stupid to think for myself. I fought many beasts for this gift, but I also had to outsmart others. When I give it to you in front of everyone, including my brother, they will realize I am no idiot.”
Monamona was once again at a loss for words. He and many others had indeed taunted his brother, but he had done it out of love. Existence was meant to be merry not valiant. Perhaps he had gone overboard with it.
Politely, he bade Ara farewell, promising to see him at the celebration.
As soon as he got back to the real world, he shrugged off Olorun’s guise. He knew where his brother had been and now he was curious to discover what he had found. He would search his brother’s house and find whatever he had discovered, just to see what it was. His brother need not know. He had very little time, though. He was the quickest of the gods, but all of his speed might not be able to find his brother’s gift before he woke up; he was going to have to move fast.
Monamona was gone at the speed of a thought. He arrived at Ara’s house and snuck in. His brother was a collector and had all sorts of interesting objects and gadgets scattered all over his home. Monamona searched through everything, yet could not find the gift. His time was running out and it looked like his brother had gotten the upper hand.
That was when from the corner of his eye he saw a painting of a lush glade. He remembered when they were younger; Ara would run off to a glade similar to it to hide from him. Could it be he had done the same with his finding?
As he moved closer, he realized the painting was alive. Birds flew about in the background whilst a gentle breeze blew through the grass which subtly changed color every few moments.
It had to be here. Where else could Ara have put something so precious? Stretching his hand forward, Monamona realized he could move into the world on the other side.
Once in the painting, he could see the allure of this place for his brother. Serene and peaceful, it was quite similar to the dreamscape he had just returned from. Perhaps once this was done, he could convince his brother to bring him back here and they could experiment with creating some new life forms for the living painting.
He sped all over the landscape looking for anything that would clue him to what he was looking for. He found it accidentally when he tripped on a branch and went sprawling into nearby shrubbery. Except it wasn’t a piece of vegetation, but rather a mirage that revealed a path that led to a hidden cave.
Walking carefully up the path, Monamona noticed there was an odd glow coming from the recesses of the cave. As he approached it, he felt its power and pull reaching out to all his senses. When he finally saw it, he couldn’t take his eyes off it.
It was the most beautiful orb he had ever seen. Full of swirling energies beyond his wildest imagination. It was a kindling world, still in the conceptual stage and waiting for someone to mold it into a planet. This was indeed the greatest of gifts and he regretted that Ara had not taken him on the adventure to find it. He knew he couldn’t leave it here; it was simply too precious. He had to learn more about it, and then he would give it back to his brother. With that, he picked up the orb and silently left the canvas world.
Shortly afterwards, Ara awoke and returned to his home, unsuspecting of what had just transpired. For the rest of the day his thoughts were all over the place coming up with ideas of what he would do after he got his favor from the god king.
He went to sleep in great spirits. If anyone had walked by his house that night, they probably would have heard loud laughter emanating from within it. That was how merry he was, even his dreams couldn’t contain his joy.
The next day, Ara woke up in an even better mood. He strode out of his house in time to catch Orun, the god of light, pulling back the drapes of night across the sky to let the sun shine over the land.
Ara, in his loudest voice, saluted him, “Good morning! How are you today?”
“I am well,” Orun answered genially. “You seemed to be in such great spirits yesterday evening. Your voice was probably heard in all the seven planes”
Ara burst out laughing. “Should I not be? It is a lovely day after all.”
“Yes, quite a lovely day indeed. Will I be seeing you at the event later on?”
“I wouldn’t miss it for anything.”
“Very well, I look forward to seeing you, then. I must rush as I have to light up quite a few places before heading back. Rumor has it you have been doing some sneaking around yourself. I am excited as to what you might have in store for us.”
“Trust me, it is going to be glorious,” said Ara, as he bade the sun god farewell, watching him speed along as he lit up the rest of the realm with his blazing chariot.
Ara then proceeded to go and see the weaver for his ceremonial garb. It was a shimmering garment that changed colors every few moments, never repeating the same pattern. Normally, Ara was not one for fancy adornments, but today he wanted his splendor to match the joyous occasion.
At about mid-day, a beautiful sound rippled through Ode Agba. It sounded like voices singing together or various instruments working in unison. It was the signal that the ceremony was about to start.
Watching from his abode, Ara saw emissaries from every kingdom in creation converging in the arena in the middle of Ode Agba, where the celebrations would be taking place. He saw winged creatures as large as cities, beasts unlike any he had ever seen, and beings of such magnificence that it hurt to look at them, walk past his house. He saw creations long forgotten coming back one last time to pay their respects to the great god. Ara took it all in, thinking to himself that he must not disappoint.
But when he went into the painting to retrieve the orb, it was missing. He searched the whole canvas, combing the landscape to no avail. Slowly it began to dawn on him: someone had been there. He stormed out of the painting, unsure of what had transpired and who could have taken it. He thought back to the earlier conversation he had with Orun, and was convinced whoever had stolen his orb was probably going to present it to the high father. He ran out of the house, making his way to the gathering of deities to see if he could apprehend the culprit before it was too late.
With every stride, he could feel the ground beneath him quaking with his anger. Soon the spires of the arena came into view and he could hear the chatter of the various supernatural beings in attendance.
Every step forward sharpened the details of what lay ahead. He saw Ina, the fire god, engaged in an incredible display with Oshun, the water goddess. Their fire and water arsenals intermingled with each other in a beautiful game of pursuit which left the audience mesmerized. Little winged creatures buzzed around the arena carrying all manner of beverages and delicacies. Even deities who rarely got along were on their best behavior as they did not want to upset Olorun on his grand day. Ara wished he could join in the festivities, but he would not permit himself any type of reprieve until justice was served.
That was when he saw his brother stepping up to the dais where the great king sat. Monamona placed something in the hands of the king and bowed. Every eye in the place turned towards the spectacle, a murmur of wonder surging through the crowd.
Ara’s eyes widened in disbelief as he realized what had been given. Olorun held up the orb – his orb – and smiled, looking up proudly at Monamona.
“This is an incredible gift, one I did not expect but am greatly pleased to have received.”
“I am humbled that it is to your liking, my king,” said Monamona.
“I know it must have been difficult to obtain, and because of that I will gift you like no other. Come forward and receive my blessing.”
A flash of light emanated from the king, surging through Monamona and enveloping the arena. It only took the briefest of moments but it was so dazzling it blinded all present.
Ara gasped, watching the whole thing transpire. He rushed forward, shouting at the top of his lungs. He tumbled onto the dais, but he was too late. He looked from the king to his brother, who was now sheathed in a living skin of golden light that stretched and crackled, shining brighter than any creation.
“What is the meaning of this, Ara?” The old king bellowed.
“He … He stole my gift to you!” Ara shouted. “That blessing is meant to be mine.”
The old king turned from Ara and looked at Monamona, who averted his gaze.
“Is it true what Ara says?”
Sheepishly, Monamona nodded, which only infuriated his brother more.
“But why? What would make you do such a thing?”
Monamona, still bathed in dazzling light, could feel the power coursing through his veins changing him at the most minute of levels, elevating him to heights he never thought possible. He had always been fast, yet he had never felt this way before; this was more than he could ever imagine. It was almost as if he had undergone a rebirth. He looked from the great king to his enraged brother and past them to the crowd gathered. They all seemed so slow compared to him.
“I did it for this,” he said, pointing to the sheath of light covering him.
“At first I was angry at my brother for keeping his quest from me, but the truth is, he wouldn’t have stood a chance had I gone along. I would have found the orb and gotten the glory, but it doesn’t matter. In the end it’s still …”
Before he could finish his sentence, Ara lunged for him.
“GIVE ME BACK WHAT WAS MINE!” He roared, but it was as if he had tried to grasp the very air. Monamona evaded him easily and was at the back of the arena before anyone could fully perceive what had happened. Only his laughter alerted them to where he was.
“My apologies my dear brother, but I won’t be able to do that. I have never felt better and I cannot wait to test out my new powers. I truly am sorry, but maybe next time things will go your way.” And in a flash of dazzling light, Monamona was gone.
Ara stormed about the arena, bellowing at the top of his voice in frustration and shaking the structure to its core. It wasn’t until the old god walked up to him and touched his shoulder that he quieted down still trembling with rage.
“Ara, I am very sorry for what has transpired and I wish I could make this up to you.”
“O great king, simply take what you gave him and give it to me.”
The king regretfully shook his head. “What is done cannot be undone. I gave him the very best of my gifts believing he dealt with me in good faith.”
Olorun paused and closed his eyes as if deep in thought. Ara waited, staring at his great king expectantly. When the old king opened his eyes he seemed to have come to a decision.
“Kneel, Ara,” he said.
Ara did as he was told.
“I have given away much today. But none more precious than what I gave your brother. There was a time when I would have personally chased him down and stripped him of all he holds dear, but alas I am old and shortly I will go join the elders. Because of that, I have come up with a solution. It might not be ideal, but it is the best I can think of right now.”
The king placed his hands on Ara’s head. A white light sprung from the tip of his fingers and into the younger god’s body. With a spasm, Ara jerked forward, the power surging through him.
“Ara, I have given you what’s left of my powers. Catch Monamona and you will be able to reclaim what is yours.”
Head bowed, Ara thanked the king profusely, and then set off after his brother. His newly acquired powers announced his movement through the skies with a great din.
Monamona, who had thought himself free of his brother, was halfway between the heavens and earth, when he heard the great noise coming from Ode Agba. He turned around to see his brother coming, and though Ara was still leagues away, Monamona began to run. He was terrified of the fate that awaited him if his brother ever caught up to him.
This is why, to this very day, we always see the lightning flash across the sky before we hear the sound of thunder. Ara is still chasing Monamona, and when he does catch him, he’ll finally claim what is his.
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.
He brought a glass of cold tap water to his burning lips, and felt the temperature of the liquid heat as it slid down his insides. Nothing stayed cool with him. Resting the empty glass with a shaking hand on the slivered wooden kitchen counter, he retired to his recently ruffled sheets to rest the redness of his eyes. It had only been a few hours since she had run out, screaming. When he pulled the cool sheets over his shoulders, his naked skin tightened and tensed, just like when she’d run her fingers across his chest.
Like the water, the sheets caught the warmth of his skin, and the pleasure of the cool of the midnight hours disappeared as quickly as she had. He tried to rest, but could not. The sheets got hotter and even more uncomfortable. African summer nights did nothing to cool the temperature of minds obsessed with worry and regret. He had never let his skin touch hers, until this night.
“After marriage,” he used say to her, delaying the inevitable, “after marriage.” But it was hope and not religious ruling that made him delay. Hope that somehow, the more he delayed, the more the chance he would change, or that she would somehow become more resilient. And hope that by then, eventually, after marriage, he wouldn’t scare her away when they finally pressed, skin to skin. Hope for things that he knew couldn’t change.
Theirs was a private and short wedding earlier that night. He had sought out a fatwa from an off-kilter imam of his mother’s people, who had allowed the secrecy of their union. The night was officiated only by themselves, the presence of God, and a photograph of his young father that hung high on a wall in his room. Her lips had almost melted when he’d pressed himself to her, aflame with desire. He remembered her eyes widening in fear before she pushed herself away, realizing his true nature.
His mother had always told him that humans were weak and cowardly creatures. Like his father who had tried to leave his mother when she became pregnant with him. If the human community in Zanzibar had known of his affair with a female jinn, they would have cast him away to the Prisoner’s Island. But they never found out. When she realized he had decided to leave her, his mother had simply possessed him and made his neck swell and eventually burst. No guilt, no remorse; jinn were temperamental that way. His mother had then borne him on his father’s grave; he had singed her on his way out. More jinn than human; more fire than earth.
His mother had taught him to assume human form. And a pleasing human form at that. Dark hair that disappeared into the Zanzibar night, eyes with the gleam of black pearls like those from the wild oysters found in the Indian Ocean, and the milk-and-honey skin that his Persian father had contributed. Still, he was an abomination. And that was the reason his lover had left.
On Fridays he would wait for her at the steps of the mosque where she would teach children to read the Quran. He’d arrive a whole hour early to hear the children’s voices reverberate off the walls of the mosque. Tiny voices reciting large melodic verses with meanings greater than they could comprehend. But they understood them more readily than he could understand why she cared for him so much.
Their voices moved him almost as much as she did. They would start with the iconic prayer: “A’udhu Billahi Minash Shaytaan Arrajeem.” I seek refuge in God from the accursed Shaytan. Each time he heard it, he hoped and prayed that when she eventually kissed him, that she would see he was still a person and not a devil to be feared.
Once, after she had taught madrasa, she had asked him if he had prayed already. He lied that he had caught congregation prayer in a different mosque an hour ago. He had spent the last hour thinking of how to avoid touching her. And the hour before that, thinking of what to say if she asked him if he had prayed. As he spoke to her at the foot of the mosque, he could see several jinn of pure fire preparing for prayer behind her. She turned to see what he was looking at. He told her that he was staring at the fez of a man in the mosque. Said that he always wanted one like that.
When they met the next evening, she brought with her a boxed parcel wrapped in plain brown paper, and tied with rough white string. She told him she had had her cousin mail it to her from Dubai. Pulling the string and gently removing the tape from the edges, the striations in his hands twitched. Inside the box was a fez of royal red velvet. Its tassel was made of the hair of an Arabian stallion. And when he put it on, it looked as if he had pulled a lock of his hair through the top of the hat. She laughed and went to adjust the angle of the fez. In fear of her touching him, he jerked his head backwards, and the hat fell into the mud of the alley street.
Two weeks after that day, over the smoke of a houka pipe, he told her his secret.
“Do you promise not to be scared? W’Allah?” he asked.
“W’Allahi, I promise!” she answered, shoulders leaning forward. Her ears perked as her eyes widened ever so lightly, the corners of her mouth following their movement to a coy smile. Her back, arched with interest, made her resemble a Stone Town alley cat. The kind of cats the witches used to communicate with the jinn. This was a perfect moment, he thought. And then he told her. He told her his nature. That his passion for her may burn her delicate and dark fingers. The words left his mouth like opium smoke from a witch’s mouth.
She said she had known ever since she saw his devilish smile; that his walk was more of a glide. She said that anyone who could spit on the Sultan’s palace and tell the guards they smelt like a monkey’s wind had to have fire in his belly.
But it was clear she did not believe all of what he said. Excited, like a cat, she had moved impatiently to touch his face. But like most Zanzibaris, he was startled by cats, and he withdrew. To ease her sullen and disappointed expression, he did what most lovers do. He reminded her of his affection. He also did what most pious people do. He reminded her that they could touch, after marriage.
At the time she had thought him a poetic and shy soul who was simply modest. That his tales of the temperature of his flesh were just words to describe how much she invoked in him. She mistook him for being good with words. He mistook her for having an understanding nature.
He sat on the edge of his hot bed now, playing with the fez and trying to pry pieces of dried mud from its skin. No use in trying to clean it now. The moon had made its way past his window and the muezzins were calling the city for morning prayer. The scent of Kilimanjaro coffee was wafting through his window, catching in the cotton of his tattered drapes. He wanted to catch her, dark skin in white cotton, like the scent of that coffee. He wanted to be all earth, or more fire. He needed her lips to touch his fingers when he fed her her favorite dish of hot bread and cold butter. He wanted her smooth ebony fingers to run across the canvas of his cheekbones.
He had hoped she would rest in the earth of his being, her head on his chest, with patience. That his passion would eventually subside, and his fire would cool to the temperature of morning earth, ready for a garden.
But the garden that grew for him instead was a burning shrub. As the call for prayer ended, and a hollow silence filled the sky, he recited the ancient words, “A’udhu Billahi Minash Shaytaan Arrajeem.” For now he knew that she had finally realized his nature and hers.
The day I decide to return to work the taps are dry. The tank is empty because the landlord hasn’t turned the pump on, and none of us tenants has the key. I should wake him up, but this has led to shouting matches in the past, so I take two plastic buckets and go to the well without telling Shakira. She’ll only protest. She is awake when I return carrying both buckets, trying not to spill water on the lino. I see her micro-frown, and I grin to counter it.
I have been off work for two weeks with the worst bout of malaria of my life. I force myself to return even though my mouth is bitter and the blood tests still say I have haemolytic anaemia. In the mirror my eyes have that yellow tinge.
Shakira has been unemployed since June. She does not think I am ready for work, but she does not try to stop me. My mother thinks Shakira should stay home and have babies. I secretly agree, but my wife has her own mind, and the best I can do is hope she starts feeling maternal at some point.
I am weak, but I still take the bus from Idi Oro to Lagos Island.
In hindsight perhaps I should have stayed home.
This is the late 1980s. Billy Eko has just been arrested with eight million dollars worth of heroin at Kennedy Airport in New York. Decree Two has effectively muzzled the press since ‘84. There is no legitimate money to be made anywhere. I have a job with Equity Plc, though. A good one. It pays well and on time. We are fed lunch on the job and we have fuel for our cars. Those who have cars, I mean.
My job title is Special Assistant, which is deliberately vague. What I do is mostly administrative. Filing, posting letters, moving memos around.
When I arrive my co-workers are welcoming. I notice new War Against Indiscipline and Corruption posters on the wall.
”Bakare, pele, o!”
“K”ara o le, egbon.”
“Bros! Welcome back!”
They all smile. I am back. All is well.
I see something new, or perhaps I see something old for the first time. It’s in the antechamber before the department secretary’s office, hiding on the floor in the left corner on approach, right corner on departure. It’s a grate, six-by-six inches, visible because of a cut section of carpet. Through the crossbars I see another set of bars about an inch lower than the first. It’s incongruous. We’re in an office building, on the tenth floor. It looks like a drain, but water never collects here. I look inside and see only blackness beyond the second inner grate.
I kneel and put my ear to it, but all I can hear is the hum of regular office machinery, all ambient. If any sounds come from the grate I will not be able to hear them at this time. This close to the floor I smell dust, despite the apparent cleanliness.
“What are you doing?”
A woman stands behind me, holding a stack of files, eyebrows raised. Without saying anything, I rise and walk in a direction opposite to the one I expect her to take.
The day passes with management talking down to me and me talking down to the people I supervise. I make phone calls, sign documents, send faxes. Through all of this I think of the grate. What currents run through it? Is it an access point for servicing the electrical system? Why have I never noticed it? I don’t know why I am so curious about it, why I cannot let it go.
For the next week I get used to the grate. On occasion, when walking by on an errand for management, I even salute the grate. One day, after a meeting, I notice a new grate just beside the coffee-machine in the break room on the third floor. I know this was never there before because I come here much more often than the department secretary’s office. It’s the same size and shape as the previous one. Even more striking is the age the grate shows. The metal margins show old, layered grime and weathering that suggests the passage of time, a veteran of cleaning, chemical treatment, and spilled coffee. It belongs.
I leave, wondering if perhaps my powers of observation are not as acute as I’d like to believe, and that maybe these grates have always been there.
I tell Shakira and wonder what she thinks.
“Have you listened to yourself?” asks Shakira “You are talking to me about air vents. Vents, Lanre. I’m trying to get a job and you think I want to hear about architectural features?”
After this I don’t mention it to her again.
No one you meet will ever be able to tell you who the managing director of Equity, PLC is.
All the fellow employees I have ever met have their own managers. Inter-employee fraternizing is not encouraged, and this has resulted in a firm shrouded in ignorance or, if you’re the romantic type, mystery.
The fact is I don’t know what I do for a living. The documents handed to me by my direct managers are in a language that I don’t understand or even recognize, the instructions, moron-proof simple. Shred these. Make photocopies. Take these to room 344. I have no clue what these documents mean. We all have non-disclosure agreements.
Every day strangers file through our doors, though they all have appointments. They are led to the managing director’s office and they leave with envelopes or packages, always happy. We employees speculate that it might be drugs or money, but we do not know. We whisper theories to each other.
On one day the managers ask me to stay in my office for exactly three hours and seven minutes. Not three hours; not three hours and fifteen minutes. After this, they tell me to leave for home, even though it is midday and I haven’t done any actual work. I imagine a smell of ozone in the corridors as I leave, but I do not look back. I take the opportunity to do some shopping at Mushin before surprising Shakira.
It’s puzzling, but as employees we come back day after day because our needs are met. Even though the lunch buffet is lavish, Equity allows us to pack one meal only, for supper. It might be a large helping, but only for one. The story is told of one who took meals for himself and a little more for a friend. He was fired the next morning. Some say he was liquidated and that, so as not to waste the firm’s investment in him, his ashes were scattered into the air-conditioning so that other employees might breathe him in and merge with his carbon. I do not vouch for the veracity of this story.
We are secure. As long as we work for the firm no street gangs harass us, we are not in debt, and the spectre of unemployment is something we only read about in the newspapers.
I love Equity,PLC and I truly want to please the managing director, whoever he may be.
There are more grates now. Since the one near the secretary’s office I count forty throughout the building. I sketch a map of the building, with floor plans showing the grate locations. Some of them appear overnight, while others seem to mock me by popping up within minutes of my passing an area.
What are they?
I ask a colleague, but I get a blank, hostile stare.
Today, when returning from the staff cafeteria, I see someone speaking into a grate but this is from the corner of my eye, and when I take a direct look I see the man adjusting his necktie. This particular grate is located on a wall about five feet up, the first of its kind, all others being on the floor. He walks away before I can ask him. I follow him, but he disappears around a corner. I take the former position of the man and look. Nothing unusual, except the six week old grate.
“Talk to me,” I say. “Is anyone there?”
Silence. Silence and a sense of foreboding so strong I look about furtively.
I can’t sleep at night. I lie awake, unable to get the thought of these square spaces out of my head.
On the way to work, standing in the molue on Agege Motor Road, trying to ignore the man preaching the Gospel, I remember the induction training as a new employee.
After three hours of presentations on embezzlement, a woman walked to the front of the conference room and told us the story of the day all the animals went to visit heaven. Monkey told the other animals that it was customary to take a new name when visiting heaven. While the others took names like “Peju” and “Kudi,” Monkey called himself “Allofyou”. At heaven the host angel welcomed them and took them to a feast of unimaginable size, spread out with foods known and unknown. “Who is this food for?” the monkey asked.
“All of you,” said the angel.
The animals looked to Monkey who smiled, and ate till his belly was round.
They went to the next room, where they found all manner of gifts waiting for them. There were material gifts and talents and special powers, dominion over learning, music, humans, the royal and the humble, the quick and the dead.
“Who are these gifts for?” asked the animals.
“All of you,” said the angel.
Monkey gathered all the tangible and intangible gifts and the animals move on, containing their resentment because it was heaven.
In the next chamber there was a cage.
“Who is this for?” asked Monkey, apprehensive this time.
“Heaven is not a place to be visited by the living,” said the angel. “You can never leave. All of you must stay in this cage.”
On hearing this Monkey fled. He leapt down from heaven, through the clouds, all the way to Earth. The legend said the angel threw down the cage and it landed around Monkey, trapping him on Earth with all the choice gifts.
The woman stopped there and walked out of the conference room, leaving all of us confused. We thought it might have been some light entertainment, because the next talk involved fire safety.
I shine a pen torch into one of the grates.
There is something in the inner grating, something alive. I can see it move if I stay still long enough. It is furry. At first I think it’s a rat, and I sigh, thinking these have been elaborate pest traps all along. I am relieved. Then it shifts, and I see a gigantic black eye that looks straight back at me.
I fall back and drop the torch. I scramble backwards, before I pick myself up and run to my desk, struggling to control the shaking.
My work slips. I cannot concentrate and consequently make mistakes, behaviour guaranteed to attract attention. I must give off the smell of the dying because my co-workers avoid me. When Mama Nuru, the woman who brings roasted corn, boli, nuts and puff-puff to the office asks me what I want, I can’t even give her a sensible answer.
Finally, I rush out of the building and do not stop until I hail the taxi that drives me all the way back to my flat at Idi-Oro, where I lock myself in. I cannot answer Shakira’s questions about the matter. I just tremble and shiver for hours, then I fall asleep.
The next morning Shakira wakes me.
“There are people here to help you,” she says.
“Help with what?” I ask.
Three men in suits, right there in my room, standing in front of our bed. They have Equity ID badges.
“Hello, Mr Bakare. We are from Medical.”
“What do you want?”
“We heard you had malaria.” One opens a satchel. The other two move towards either side of my bed. Shakira is silently weeping in a corner.
“What are you doing? Stay away.”
“Relax. This is a new injection. It will clear that malaria right up.”
“And you will stop seeing those troublesome cages.”
“Just hold still.”
A prick, some pain, then I sleep again.
I wake up after 48 hours feeling fantastic. Physically fantastic. Like Power Mike and Ben Lionheart combined. There is a note taped to my door asking me to come back to work when I feel better.
When I’m ready Equity sends a car for me. I answer my manager’s questions about what I saw and when I saw whatever it was and why I was spooked. I say I must have been confused because of the malaria. She is happy to hear that.
After that, things settle down. I am still paid well and on time. Life looks up, and Shakira gets a job with an oil company. She even gets along with my mother for a while.
I work there for years and show no signs of fright.
But I am frightened.
I am frightened because I still see the grates. Whatever drug they injected only worked for a few days. Each day I struggle not to react when I see the furry thing writhe behind one of them. I am too frightened of the eye to take a closer look. I know that if they know what I see, management will take more permanent measures.
I can’t escape and I can’t resign, so each day I go to work in the Monkey House. Or perhaps I am the caged one, the monkey in the cage. After all, how can I tell if I am outside looking into the cage, or inside looking out?
My father was executed after a failed coup attempt. He was not the leader, but he was executed all the same. That was the most interesting thing about my father, the execution. He was interesting while alive, yes, but his execution must have been the most interesting thing about him. I didn’t attend his execution. He had forbidden me saying:
-God will punish you if you show up at my execution.
I don’t know why he brought God in that. He rarely talked about God in his life. He never took us to church like most people did with their children. And it was not as if I ever enjoyed church services. I had been there a couple of times with my friends. I had not liked it, but I was with my friends.
He had told me not to be at his execution some months before the coup attempt. I doubt that he knew there were plans for one. But somehow he always thought, or he rather knew, that he would end up getting executed for something.
I don’t know who my mother is. I have never met her. Hannah probably met her once or maybe even twice. Hannah is my bigger sister – was my bigger sister. She would’ve known our mother. I should have asked her before she left. And left is probably not the right word. I would’ve said gone but maybe ran would fit better. I just woke up one morning and her bed was empty. She had just disappeared like that, but I know she wanted to go. I think she might have ran when she was some distance from home, though of course she tiptoed while leaving the house. It is sensible to run when you’re leaving some place you don’t want to stay, but it makes sense to tiptoe first so that you aren’t heard as you leave. When Hannah ran from home, father was still alive.
Father cuts off people’s fingers for a living.
She had left a note saying that by my bed.
That’s all she left. I don’t know what she thought was wrong with cutting off people’s fingers for a living. My sister was a weird girl. She couldn’t stand many things. She couldn’t stand squashing a locust, or even cutting off its hind legs to prevent it from jumping away. She always said we were hurting them. I don’t think that such a simple thing can hurt a locust. Not like a person or a rabbit or a rat. Rats make a lot of noise when hurt. People too. Locusts don’t make a sound. They are not hurt. Not really.
My sister couldn’t even stand wind. She was so weak-spirited I always wondered how she managed to survive like that. One day, while we were walking in the sun, I decided to step on the head of her shadow. It was just a game and I didn’t mean to hurt her. She was not looking when I did it, but she clutched her head in so much pain, her mouth open as if she wanted to scream but was not decided about it. I kept my foot in place, looking at her as she held her head, struggling and unable to move. She let out such a heart-wrenching cry when I let go that I couldn’t stand it without covering my ears. Her face was bleeding from a cut on her cheek. There had been a piece of metal protruding from my shoe sole. It had cut into her shadow.
That was a few years ago when Hannah was still around, when she was still my sister. We still lived in the barracks and father had not been executed yet. The coup attempt had not even been staged yet. She stopped being my sister when she ran away. Father told me anyone who runs away stops being my sister, just like mother stopped being my mother.
I sometimes think Hannah saw more than just fingers. She saw more than she ever talked about with me. Maybe that time I had caught her talking in her sleep had been her way of saying things. That had happened a few days before the note and the running away.
-No, please, father. Don’t cut off my head… I won’t tell anyone… yes… yes… Just do it again but don’t cut off my head… Just leave my head, please…
I didn’t ask her to tell me what it was father had been doing to her. She wouldn’t have told me anyway. Hannah and I rarely talked. We just passed whatever it was that was needed, like salt or the sugar bowl while at the table and that would be it. Or she would ask:
-Jane, is father back from the barracks?
Then I would shake my head, or nod, usually too engaged with my locusts, which I would have tied together abreast, or pierced through the thorax with a wire to make them my oxen. They would drag a plough behind them, and I would whip them with a piece of wire every now and again, shouting their names:
-Dicholi, kenda! Lando, ndahuhuya!
Usually, the game would end up in a disaster. I would whip the locusts too hard, and one or both of them would just stop moving. Then I would go out and trap another pair to complete ploughing my farm.
The wives of my father’s fellow soldiers used to say I had my mother’s nose. They also said I had her ears. I don’t know anything about my mom’s nose or ears, and father never showed us a picture of her. Now that I remember it, my father never had a picture of us as a family taken. Not him and Hannah and I. It is different from all the others. Everybody has a family picture.
Andota and Sarah’s families had many. They used to take pictures every year during Christmas. The photo man would come around, and they would all change into their Christmas clothes and he would tell them to say “cheese!” They would all say “cheese!” and Andota, who was the smallest, would go on saying “cheeeeeeese!” long after the flash from the camera had gone off. And when the photo came after development, we would all laugh at Andota because all the photos had him grinning but with his eyes closed. Then we would all later on call him “Andota the Cheese” just to make him cry. He would start crying and tell us that he would tell his father to come and shoot us like he had done to so and so in the North. He always mentioned shiftas. If you wronged Andota he would call you a shifta and say he was going to tell his father that you were a shifta so that he would come for you. The names of people would keep changing every time we made him cry though his threats would remain constant: shiftas.
I sometimes look into mirrors trying to find my mother. I am interested in knowing about her nose. If I am to find her, the starting place will be to look into a mirror. I mostly concentrate on the nose and the ears. Of the two, the nose is the easier one to look at. It does not have any hidden details, and you can look at it for long without mirrors playing any dirty tricks on you. Staring at ears, on the other hand, is a taxing experience since there are two of them, and you have to decide which one you should start with. In the case of need for a quick decision, the ears have some hidden parts too. You have to turn your head to have a good look at them. And then the mirror usually decides which ear it will bring closest to you, which is not the one you necessarily want. And if you turn too much, your eyes move too far away to be able to look at the mirror. You can’t see when your eyes are too far away. Sometimes, however, I move to just beyond where I can see, and then listen closely. The mirror and I know each other well. So, in the spirit of this understanding, it starts describing my mother’s ears. From previous narrations, my mother had big ears. The mirror says they looked like mine, but a little bigger.
Sometimes, when I am not attentively looking at the mirror, my mother’s face shows up. It used to be timid when it started, but nowadays, it has grown familiar to me. It shows up without trying to hide and without the initial shyness. It is just a blank face with the nose and ears alone. There is no mouth. There are no eyes either. These are the times I like, when my mother’s face shows up in the mirrors. I concentrate on my mother’s nose for a long time, and when I have eventually mastered it, when I am sure I know what my mother looked like, I just cough a little and the mirror gets the message and quickly replaces my mother’s face with my own, with a full face with a mouth and eyes in place, with the broad forehead that looks at me with a little wrinkle of worry spread across it. I also cough when someone is coming along and I don’t want them to catch me staring at my mother’s face. Sometimes, I just clear my throat. Both of them work, coughing or clearing my throat.
There is only one mirror that understands me completely. It is the mirror that holds my secrets without any thoughts about them. The mirror in Aunt Leah’s bathroom. Other mirrors get to do well too, but no other mirror describes my mother’s ears as well as Aunt Leah’s bathroom mirror. The one in the living room once lied to me. I was looking at my mother’s face, and it brought the eyes and the mouth all in place. That is a total impossibility. My mother’s face doesn’t have a mouth and eyes. That mirror lied, and I have never used it since. Not when looking at my mother’s face, at least. But I love the mirror in Aunt Leah’s bathroom. If ever I should move out of here, as Aunt Leah keeps suggesting, I will ask her to give me that mirror. I will say pleeeease, and be ready to break into tears should she refuse me. Aunt Leah hates it when I start to cry. She hates tears and when I cry so much, she too breaks into tears then we hug each other and sob together. That’s how I win most arguments. She can’t stand my tears.
But I am not a bad girl. Aunt Leah doesn’t think so, even though I have killed three of her chickens. She thinks I need some help, but I don’t think there’s any help I require. She thinks I keep killing the chickens because I’m just a delinquent. Not that I do other bad things, but she thinks I am obsessed with chickens.
The first chicken I killed came at me when I was cutting vegetables. I had just moved into Aunt Leah’s place after my father’s execution. A new family had moved into our house at the barracks, and the soldiers had told me that I needed to find a new place since daughters of traitors could not be allowed to live on the premises. Aunt Leah had come for me after I had gotten kicked out, and I had been lucky to identify her since she had eyes and cheeks just like my father’s. And here I was now, preparing vegetables and humming to a tune. Then this chicken comes along and starts walking all over the vegetables I’ve just washed. And as it moves, I don’t like it and the double work it is going to make me do. Then I look onto the knife I am using to cut the veggies and there is my mother’s face. She is just like I’ve seen her before, without a mouth and no eyes either. But this time round, she has her hands. She is pointing towards the chicken. Aunt Leah is in the kitchen and since she shouldn’t see my mother, I go on humming as my mother goes on pointing at the chicken. Then it dawns on me. She is trying to tell me something. So I get hold of the chicken and hold it by the neck to prevent it from squawking. I raise my brows in question and my mother nods at me. When I get hold of the knife, my mother goes on nodding. So I cut the chicken’s head in a single movement. And since I know that Aunt Leah will be mad, I start crying out loudly as I keep hacking at the chicken’s head. Aunt Leah comes out of the kitchen and sees the chicken bleeding from the head and jumping about as I bawl uncontrollably. My mother’s face looks hazy through my tears. Aunt Leah comes and hugs me and tells me it is okay.
-Accidents do happen, but just be careful next time, okay?
I nod as I slow down my crying; then I go on cutting veggies as Aunt Leah prepares the chicken. I don’t know why my mother wanted me to kill that chicken. But the chicken is dead, and Aunt Leah is preparing it and I think that is a good thing. At least we are not going to eat these vegetables as the only stew tonight.
There were other two instances with chickens. One that I ran over with a wheelbarrow after seeing my mother’s face in the water that was at the bottom of the barrow and the other after I saw her face in the glass of water I was drinking. I got so startled that I threw the glass away and it hit a cockerel. That last instance got Aunt Leah so angry; she promised that next time something like that happened she was going to take me back to the barracks.
I wouldn’t want to go back to the barracks. The children would make fun of me, and I wouldn’t have friends to play with. If Hannah had been around, I would easily have gone back. You see, Hannah knew her way around people. She knew how to command them without talking to them. She had ways of getting them to do what she wanted. But she ran away from us, claiming that father cuts off people’s fingers for a living, which I never understood really. I once asked Aunt Leah about the cutting off of people’s fingers. She said she didn’t know that, but soldiers do many things. I shouldn’t go around asking about what my father did with people’s fingers, she warned.
-The dead have ears too. Don’t go about saying things about the dead, alright?
That had been before I caught her talking to her husband about my father. They were speaking in Lunyolo. I don’t know that language very well, but I understand just enough to make out what you’re talking about; I had had Banyolo friends back in the barracks. So when I heard her say my father used to “fall” on women; I knew exactly what she meant. It had been a thing they did to shifta women and boys in the North. And he probably had done it to Hannah and me. It was why my mother had left in the first place, his wanting to always fall on her instead of a normal life. She said he had been caught doing it, and not just once.
-But then he promised to shoot her if she ever came for the daughters, and she had run away and never showed up again.
But I don’t let that occupy my mind. Not when I have to figure out where I am to go should Aunt Leah decide that it is time I moved out. She took me to school the other day, and I was surprised to see all those new faces staring at me. I don’t know how it reached them, but they started calling me the traitor’s daughter. Nobody plays with me except my mother with whom I am usually with, even at school. Not all the time though, because mirrors and the metallic cases of geometrical sets are not always around. Sometimes, when I’m in class, I open up my geometrical set and look into the shiny inner part of the lid. Then my mother shows up, and I have to look around just to ensure that nobody else is looking at my mother’s face. I zone out of class, and the teacher sounds like a distant voice or a sound you hear when you’re asleep and you keep thinking it is part of a dream.
But lately, I’ve been seeing my father’s face in the shadows too. I was not very sure the first time I saw it. It just came and vanished all of a sudden, and I was left there wondering if that had been my father or if I had just imagined things. But the following day, I heard his voice. I was sure it had been his voice because of his hissing command.
-Give me your fingers, now!
I was so scared that I wanted to run away. But knowing my father, I didn’t dare to run away. He would catch me in no time. He would probably come with his gun and his knife and he would probably use the knife on my head like he had wanted to do to Hannah. Then the voice stopped and his image disappeared when two girls came running towards me laughing and screaming.
-Traitor’s Daughter! Traitor’s Daughter! They shouted as they giggled and made faces at me.
The girls in that school are all stupid. They don’t even know what I am capable of doing should my mother decide to tell me something. They think I am lonely and afraid of them. They don’t know anything about me and maybe that’s why Aunt Leah keeps introducing me to them. Last weekend, she took me to one of the girls’ homes.
-To see Mama Atieno, she said.
As we got there I saw Atieno scowling at me and it made me wish I had a mirror with me to know what my mother would have me do. But it went all well, save for the scowling and the making of faces. It went well until it was in the evening and the light was fading. Mama Atieno, buried in telling stories with Aunt Leah, told Atieno to light the lamps – which she did, alright – and that is when it all started.
I had not noticed the mirror in the room by the dining table. It had round white cushioning with the words, Welcome Aboard written on it. I was seated at a table opposite the dining table, which meant that I had the mirror in my direct line of sight. My mother just showed out of nowhere. I wasn’t so sure at first, but I checked again and there she was. That is when I knew that this time around it wasn’t going to be so cool. My mother had never shown her face in public.
My mother appeared, just like usual, except that instead of missing her eyes and mouth, she had blood running out of her eye sockets and her gums were all bloody and several teeth were missing. I raised my brows in question. I wanted to talk to my mother, but I was afraid that Aunt Leah and Mama Atieno would have to be let in on my secret if I started to.
Then I heard my father’s familiar hiss. The same one I had heard at school. It happened when Atieno walked in with the taadora lamp and cast a shadow into corners and underneath the table.
-Give me your fingerssssss! My father said.
Aunt Leah turned her head and looked around.
-Did you hear someone talk? She asked.
-What, besides me and you? Mama Atieno answered.
-Yes, something close to a whisper.
When they turned to me I shook my head. Mama Atieno had clearly not heard it and Atieno was too busy scowling at me to have paid any attention to any hissing sound.
This was a strange one: My mother bleeding and my father showing up, and their coming out in public and Aunt Leah hearing my father’s hiss. I had to get out of here quick. I had to talk to my mother and find out what the problem was. I hoped she would be able to talk even with her bleeding eyes and her toothless mouth.
-Could you please show me where the toilet is? I asked Mama Atieno. I wanted to find a place with a mirror, or at least a reflection. Aunt Leah looked at me as if to say something, but thought better of it.
-Atieno, show Jane where the bathroom is now, will you?
I was just about to change my mind. I wanted to be alone with my mother and not with some scowling child who wanted to take out her stresses on me, but Atieno held my hand – gently, as if she cared – and directed me. She lit a candle and handed it to me as I got into the toilet then left me to go in. Luckily, there was a big mirror on the wall. I closed the door quickly behind me and held the candle in front of the glass. My mother’s face came slowly, building to form, block by block. She was still bleeding from her eye sockets and her gums but before I could even look properly, there was the hissing sound again. It was from a shadow below the sink. I held my breath and kicked into the shadow to shut it up. I was not afraid of my father. He was not going to make me cower while seeing my beloved mother. But then the flame from the small candle expanded and the candle became heavy in my hand. There was Hannah’s face in the flame.
I had not heard from Hannah since the day she left so I just stood there, holding my breath, and wondering what I was supposed to say. Then my father’s shadow hissed from below the sink and I stamped my feet at it again. But that didn’t prevent my mother’s face and hair from changing into that of a shifta woman. I stood and watched my mother’s hair lengthen as her face became slender. Then she split into two shifta women and both of them were bleeding from their gums and eyes. My sister had also changed into a shifta woman in the flames and she too was splitting into several women who were bleeding from between their thighs. I was shaking by the time my hair started changing from hard and short to long and soft. I was becoming shifta too and stamping at my father’s shadow.
-Stooooop iiittttttttt! My father kept hissing, but he couldn’t do anything about it.
My mothers moved out of the mirror carrying dead babies in their hands and my sisters moved from their flames bearing fire and holding onto their bleeding groins, and the bathroom was suddenly a large house and there I was stomping on him to keep him on the ground.
Then my father appeared in physical form on the other side of the wall, bleeding from the cheek where my shoe was pinning his shadow to the ground. There still was a metal protruding from underneath my shoe sole. It had cut into his shadow. He was holding his head in pain and grimacing, and my mothers were all looking at me with expectation from their bleeding eye sockets. I understood my mothers’ looks even without their eyes. My sisters were still coming out of the flame one by one, too and closing in on my father’s physical form. I knew what was going to happen if I let my foot off my father’s shadow. My mothers and sisters were not going to handle him. But then there was a knock on the toilet door. It was Atieno.
-Your auntie says you need to leave, she said.
I did not answer her back. My father’s shadow had me fully engaged and I could not afford to take my attention off him. I felt him pushing at me from underneath my foot and trying to move towards my mothers. But my sisters were there, blocking his way and his attempts. Then there was a louder knock on the door. It was Mama Atieno this time.
-Jane, will you get done now?
Then she pushed at the door and distracted me making me take my foot off my father’s shadow. He got the respite he had been looking for and lunged at my mothers. My sisters attacked him with their fires, aiming for his head and setting his hair and clothes aflame, but my father kept on coming towards them, lashing at one after the other and making them disappear into the flames from the candle in my hand one by one. I had to do something here to save my mothers. If my father finished my sisters, he was going to get to my mothers and then I would be the last one. But every time I tried stepping onto his shadow, he kept moving out of my reach.
Then he was done with my sisters. Only Hannah was left at last but she was just a shifta woman in the candle flame. I was the only help my mother had now. My father moved to the closest one of my mothers to him, held her by the throat, and shoved her into the mirror. I stood there, stifling a cry as I watched one of my mothers disappear, back to an intangible form. Then he went onto the next one and then onto the next one until it was just me and him remaining in the bathroom, with my sister looking at us from the flame and my mother from the mirror. But then, he smiled and said:
-You fight like a girl, Jane. You need to do better than that.
The knock on the door was now persistent and Mama Atieno was getting louder. My father nodded at me, and since there was no way out of this, I went ahead to open it.
Mama Atieno moved in. It was clear that she was too annoyed to notice my father, who nodded at me and moved his hands towards his throat. I got his message. I grabbed Mama Atieno by the throat and was surprised at how light she was for a woman of her size. Then I shoved her into the mirror and watched as she disappeared with a look of shock on her face. I saw her turn into a shifta woman and then become my mother. My father just smiled, obviously satisfied. We then stood there, none of us talking, as my father went on smiling with that satisfied look on his face.
The sudden silence must have caught Atieno’s curiosity. She came towards the door, peering and craning her neck. My father must have been invisible to her too. When she got within reach, I grabbed at her neck, but she slithered away, more out of surprise than out of defensive instinct, and screamed as she did. I made a move at her again and this time round, my grip was vice-like. I watched her face, looking for that scowl she had been giving me. There was nothing. Just a scared girl’s face that I shoved into the mirror too.
Then I left my father in the toilet as my mothers looked at me with questioning eyes from the mirror. My sister was silent as I dropped the still burning candle to the carpeted floor. I found Aunt Leah standing in the corridor, her mouth agape and her knees shaking, as she watched the smoke rise from behind me. She must have heard Atieno’s scream and noticed the sudden silence.
-What have you done, Jane? She asked, her voice crackling.
-Let’s go home, Auntie. I answered in a tone that said it all.
We walked out of the Mama Atieno’s home leaving the silence behind us, with my mothers in their mirrors and my father in their bathroom. I left my sisters about to multiply to one thousand Hannahs and my aunt following me in silence and her hands shaking. She must have been scared, but the flames danced high up into the air and lit our path as we headed home in silence. My sisters lit our way home.
After a while, it began to get her in trouble at work. Her colleagues thought that she was getting lazy, arriving late, or disappearing in the middle of the day for hours at a time. She bought a headscarf and a long coat, and took to walking into the office with her face turned towards the wall. Once, Gareth from Purchasing bumped into her. She dropped her bag he bent down to pick it up, and then looked her straight in the face. There was nothing there, of course. Her head scarf was empty. But he did not flinch; just handed her the bag and went on down the corridor.
Tendi was getting used to this reaction. As it was impossible that she not have a face, peoples’ brains just put one in for her. Children were different though. They saw what was actually there, whether it was possible or not, and Tendi came to quite enjoy frightening a whiny child on the bus into silence by lifting her scarf, just for a moment.
Her first big visibility loss had happened just as the riots were beginning at home. Her mother had phoned and confessed that she’d been lying, and that actually she did not have enough to eat. She had not liked to ask before, because she knew how hard London was for the undocumented, but she was very hungry now – and would Tendi go on the internet for her and order something?
As Tendi ordered the maize and the meat, her fingers on the keyboard slowly disappeared. At first she thought her eyes were failing, or her mind. She ran away from the mirrors in her flat, down to the corner store, and it was there, at the Pick’n’Go, that she realised that no one else could see her either. While putting out the Pringles, Mrs. Patel picked her nose right in front of her. She thought next about phoning for an ambulance, but she knew that with ambulances came police. She went back up to her flat, and – ever the student, even after all this failure and discouragement – thought of books. She found The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison on the internet and was thrilled when she saw the cover art, but then she read it and found it was just a strange story about some guy in a basement who never actually lost his visibility.
She was slow to it, but she did eventually think of movies. She had been brought up on a farm compound so had little idea of who the superheroes were, but she knew some of them had special powers and thought it might be in some way related to wearing underwear. She went down to the Blockbuster, not sure how she would rent a video while not visible; but once she got there, she realized that of course she did not need a formal rental process. No one could see her taking what she wanted. She took some movies and, this being the early days of her invisibility, actually did return them later.
She watched Spiderman and Superman and Ironman, the Hulk and Transformers and Indiana Jones. That night she got up to go to the toilet and realized she was visible again. Sitting down, she could actually see her thighs and not just her urine hitting the water. She gasped, put out her hands to touch her legs, and immediately disappeared again. She thought about how the Hulk got big and green when he got angry, and wondered if it was distress that was making her transparent. She stood in front of the bathroom mirror in her pyjamas, breathing deeply, talking comforting nonsense to herself. Slowly the outline of her head began to appear, and then her arms. This excited her so much she disappeared again.
She spent hours on the internet learning about managing her emotions. She tried mantras, and whale music, and white music, and breathing of all kinds. She found her special place, a patch of sun outside her grandfather’s house on the farm compound, and went there often. Yoga seemed to help too; she was almost always visible while the yoga DVD was on. She learnt that anything she touched with bare skin also became invisible, but if there was cloth between her and any object, it was not affected. She was very careful never to leave anything in her pockets, after an embarrassing incident in which she terrified an entire tube carriage with her house keys.
Over time, she needed the headscarf less and less, but she never got complete control of what she came to think of as her opticality. There were always embarrassing blips, like when she would disappear and reappear on a car backfiring or a door slamming. Gareth from Purchasing was also a problem. He had a very sweet smile, and sometimes when he stopped by her desk to talk procurement, her heart would pick up its pace and she would flash in and out to its beat.
The news from home also seemed to affect her particularly, often able to make her disappear for hours at a time. It’s not so easy to go to your special place when you hear it’s been burnt to the ground, and that gramps is now living in some city slum. She tried various mantras for it. ‘That’s not your home anymore,’ being often useful, though nothing worked all the time.
Over time she realized that just as she could maintain calm, she could maintain upset. This meant she could be invisible almost as she chose. That she did not start stealing immediately was testament to her Mission schooling. London is, however, a hungry city and will chew up even the strongest. So eventually she did start lifting a little here and there. Just chewing gum and fizzy drinks, at first .I’m illegal anyway, she thought. My every breath steals air from these British. So she began to take more than air.
It had always hurt her in the evenings as she left work to see friends in bars, families in restaurants, the whole happy whirl of people at home. All the wealthy English stepping off the cold streets into the theatres, golden doors opening onto grey pavement. Now she too entered those doors and just like the English she would wait until the lights began to dim, and take a seat. After a while she realised she might just as well sit on the stage. Once during Mama Mia, she started to enjoy the show so much that she lost her feeling of upset, and her outline started to appear, downstage centre. The conductor, whose brain was on the music, actually saw her and dropped his baton on the cymbals with a clash. That disappeared her quick enough.
She stole a lot of clothing. She’d read news from home for twenty minutes or so, just enough to upset herself, and then she’d go out to the shops. At first it was just H&M, but after a while, Selfridges, Harrods, Rigby & Peller. If the news from home was bad enough, she could keep going for entire afternoons. She did sometimes set off the door alarms as she would leave with her arms full of clothes, but staff always assumed it was a malfunction. If the alarm went off and she was not near it, Tendi would run over as quickly as she could, her arms spread out in the empty space, hoping one day to feel the warm body of another invisible.
She took time off work to go and sit for a few days at Her Majesty’s Passport Service. She had no trouble remaining invisible because she was furious all the time she was there. The workers acted as if their duties were just dull routine, and not what could change someone’s life. She followed around a guy called Derek, and learnt his passwords, and one night when the place was empty she sat down at his desk and entered herself in that great database, which separates those who are allowed, from those who are not allowed. She printed out an Indefinite Leave To Remain certificate, and pasted it carefully into her passport. She sat for a while under Derek’s desk lamp, marvelling at the hologram. Then she took all the workers’ family photos and knickknacks off their desks, and threw them in the skip outside. She had let herself stay upset for too long. But she was legal now.
She thought again about getting help from the authorities. She told herself that the movies had made her afraid of medical experimentation, but really she was enjoying what she had started to think of as her power. She often went over to Gareth’s desk, to listen to him talk on the phone, or to read his emails, or just to smell his aftershave. This came to an abrupt end when she heard him confessing to his sister that he had a crush on someone in the office. She walked back to her own desk, almost in tears. She sat down and kicked off her Jimmy Choos (good fakes, she’d told the girls in the office. African connections, you know. They had no idea).
She went to the bathroom, gave herself a firm lecture, and transitioned back into visible. She went to the lunch room. It was only then, as she sat watching her colleagues warm their sad leftovers, that she realized that the woman Gareth had a crush on was almost certainly herself. She went through each lady there: too old or too married, and had to bite hard on her lip to keep from laughing. It was almost as if she had been in the shadows of the semi-legal for so long she had forgotten she could be noticed.
Then she really did start to follow Gareth quite a lot, to secretly learn what he liked, so she could become it. However, on their first date at a cheap Italian restaurant in Soho, she found she could abandon all her pre-arranged comments about bands and Manchester City. It was strange, after all this time trying to pass as English, to be asked about Africa as it if mattered. There was an embarrassing part, where he thought her gramps owned the farm on which she grew up, and she had to explain that he was just a worker there. But a worker loves his home just as much as an owner does, she tried to explain. She was still a Mission girl, so she didn’t have sex with him for some time, and when she did, she insisted the lights be off. He thought she was nervous about her body, which of course she was.
She still paid for Starbucks, because she couldn’t figure out a way to steal it, and it was one day while waiting to order that the idea of assassination first came to her. She immediately put it out of her mind as obviously ridiculous. But it kept coming back, like a cat you should not have fed the first time. She found she could no longer upset herself over the news from home without a dark shadow of the solution rising in her mind.
She began to feel guilty. It was like the time she had found a dead street kid back home. He wore a bright yellow T-shirt, and would hang about the area where she worked, so she knew him by sight. When she saw him lying on the pavement one morning, curled up in a foetal position, she thought he was just sleeping. But when she saw him again that evening, in the same position, she knew he was dead. She kept walking. He was gone by the next morning. The country was hip-deep in crisis by this point, far beyond where the police might have acted, so she wondered where his body might have gone. She had a horrible image of the other street kids taking him somewhere and some funeral ceremony devised by children. She knew there was a little one who wore a pink shirt and a bigger one in black shorts who often went around with the yellow shirt but she never did ask them what had happened because she did not know want to know the answer. All the times she had refused to give yellow shirt money – “a dollar, mama, please” – would come horribly to her mind for months after that. It only really stopped when she moved to the UK. This guilt now was like that guilt then. As of something she ought to have done, or should be doing.
On the one hand, there was the question of whether it was even a desirable outcome. Would assassination make things any better? On the other hand, there was the question of practicality. Would her invisibility actually make it possible? She had reason to think it would.
One afternoon after a boozy picnic with Gareth in St James Park, she had decided she’d like to see the Queen. It was easy; she just followed a truck through the palace gates. She wondered around for quite a while, feeling a bit deflated by the modern toilets and the standard office equipment. Then she entered a warm living room and there she was! She was wearing a nightie with a dressing gown over it. She looked just like a real grandmother. The corgis ran towards Tendi barking with the pointless enthusiasm of all little dogs. She knew how to deal with them; she just stood still and they lost interest. Then Tendi sat down carefully on the sofa to the Queen’s right and watched some TV with her. She thought she had never felt so welcome in England as she did then, though the old lady did love to channel surf. The living room was just exactly how she had imagined Europe would be before she came, all warm and golden-toned and safe with all the children tucked in their beds, and only on the streets if they were playing on their bikes till dinnertime. And if they did die, after lots of free medical care, they were buried with fluffy bunnies by weeping parents in green churchyards next to their dear old grannies.
So Tendi lay awake at night, trying to find good reasons for dismissing the ridiculous idea. There is little more painful than extended indecision. A line from one of those Blockbuster movies kept coming back to her, the one with the Spiderman: “with great power comes great responsibility.” She hadn’t even liked the movie, but the line troubled her.
Then one day on her way home from work she didn’t get off at her stop. She stayed on the line, which she knew ended at Heathrow. She gave up on being an adult and decided to let the oblivious universe decide for her. If there were free seats to home tonight she would go, and she would do it. If not, she would put all that dark country behind her and enter this new one with her Indefinite Leave and her Gareth, and her Jimmy Choos. She waited in the ticketing line, feeling sick. When she got to the front she asked and got her answer. There were seats.
She did not buy one, of course. She just walked on, invisible, and waited till the doors shut before she sat down. She made sure to be visible then as her countrymen were like rebellious rabbits on planes with no one staying in their own seat for longer than necessary. When they landed and she smelt that familiar smell of dust and hot rubber her body blinked out. She’d thought it might; she expected the stress of home to be too much for her fragile content.
What she didn’t expect was that she would not be able to reclaim visibility, even over days. Something about being there kept her unable to reflect the light. So she wandered the town alone, seeing what was left of her home. She went to see her mother, though of course her mother could not see her. Watching that old lady sit alone in her bare flat steeled her at last to go to where he was.
She slid into a taxi that was headed in the right direction, and slid out near his residence. She walked all the way around its high external walls. She stood at the main gate for a while, and then just as at Buckingham Palace, simply walked in behind a truck. She was sweating. She had a kitchen knife in her hand. The truck went to the kitchens and she followed it there. She was surprised to see normal people there, preparing normal food. She climbed out of the kitchens and found herself in a long hallway. It had a dark green carpet and old photographs on the walls. She stopped to look at some old white people she did not recognize. She opened each door along the hall, finding room after empty room, and then finally in one big sitting room, she found a woman watching TV. The Kardashians was on.
The woman was wearing a T-shirt and some old jogging bottoms. It was his wife. Tendi had never seen her in real life, and never without a hat, but here she was. Tendi stepped in and shut the door behind her. The television was on very loud. Tendi looked around the room, which was decorated in red satin with gold detail. She couldn’t believe how close it all was to caricature. There were even some Harrods bags on the bed. Suddenly the wife started yelling.
“Daddy, come!” she shouted. “Come and see!” There was a pause, and then “Da-ddy!”split into two long syllables. A door next to the TV opened and a bent little man shuffled in. He was wearing a white shirt buttoned to the neck and black trousers. Tendi felt all the blood run up into her face.
“I am not deaf, you know,” he said.
“Oh yes you are,” said his wife. “Anyway, come and see how modern this clinic is, where Kourtney is having her ultrasound.”
As he crossed over towards the sofa, towards where Tendi was standing, she had to control a very strong urge to run away. Here he was; the beginning and the end. He sat and she heard a little creak from the sofa. She was astonished that he had weight. She had imagined him to be only myth.
“It’s not so modern as in Asia,” he said. His wife said nothing to that.
He sat for a while, watching with her, and then got up from the sofa – not without a little difficulty – and shuffled back to the door. Tendi followed.
It was a small study, the walls covered in bookcases. He went over to a well-stuffed chair and sat down. He opened a book and started to read. The worst part was the room had the light, urine-tinged smell she associated with old age homes. She had often thought of all the things she would say to him. But now she wasn’t here to talk. She had looked up how to kill someone on the internet. What was needed was a quick, hard, ear-to-ear slice. She walked up behind him. She read his book over his shoulder. It seemed to be some kind of adventure story, set in England. She stopped reading as the book tilted forward onto his chest. He was already dozing.
This suddenly seemed like murder. But she thought about her grandfather and his life on the farm, about her mother and her pension, about that yellow shirt boy, and she lifted up the knife. With her blood screaming through her veins, she brought it down hard into his neck.
He gasped and his hands swung up to the knife he could not see. She pulled the knife sideways. His neck was thick, and it was very difficult to pull it across. He struggled and his struggling gave her strength. He was a powerful man and deserved no pity. His blood gushed over her hands as his feet thumped on the floor. The blood was warm and it kept pouring, but at some point she understood it was no longer being pumped.
She had been worried that after she did it she would feel remorse, or horror. She had done Macbeth at the Mission school; she knew what fate awaited murderers. But what she found as the blood dripped down was a sense of well-being, as if all her troubles had been removed. As if someone had gone backwards in time and wiped away all her difficult past. The university she could not afford to attend. The menial jobs. That time in Jo’burg when she had been treated like dirt by South Africans with welfare checks while she cleaned toilets. Every time it had rained in London.
He had broken up her life and that of tens of thousands of her generation, and now she had broken his. She felt the joy of justice done. As he grew still, a great peace came upon her. She removed her hands from his neck, and put the bloody knife in her pocket. She did not want to leave fingerprints. She looked at her hands, slick with his blood, red to the elbows. She smiled. It had, after all, been easy. Then she stopped smiling. She realized she could see her hands. She looked down her body. She was visible.
She sent her mind quickly to what she knew could upset her. She thought about that time in South Africa when she had cleaned the toilets. She thought about her mother’s pension. But somehow they were not as terrible to her now as they had been before. She was not just a small pebble ground down by an all-encompassing grinder, but the pebble that had stopped the machine. She had justice now. She was somebody now. She thought of other bad things, of hurricanes and famines, but still she could see herself. She looked for another door out of the study. There was just the one. Then she heard a voice:
She heard footsteps approaching. She looked for somewhere to hide and went over to the desk, thinking she could get underneath it. Then she stopped. She was not someone who needed to hide now. She went back towards the door and stood in front of it, knife in hand. She was somebody now. They would see.
You are in the city, and you are surprised to find yourself alone in a bar that might once have been popular. It feels like midday, and the bar is almost empty. As your eyes adjust to the gloom, they take in the animated movement of two young men drinking at a booth, the two bartenders’ lugubrious nods, and the staggered sweep of the ceiling-fan’s shadow across the floor. There is very little else that holds your attention; you are in a wood-panelled dive.
You take a seat next to the row of dusty beer taps. You don’t feel like drinking, but you worry that your sobriety might offend someone, possibly yourself. Neither of the bartenders have moved towards you, and the two young drinkers have not noticed you, so engaged are they in taking turns to smile and nod at one another. One, pale-skinned, thin and red-haired, is busy miming something that could be sexual, culinary or martial; his brown, barrel-chested companion is convulsing with silent laughter, dreadlocks shaking, teeth flashing behind a thick-curled beard.
You eye them for a second or two in the mirrored liquor shelf before shifting your gaze to the nearest bartender, who walks over to where you sit. He is young, pale and watery-eyed, sporting an optimistic growth of beard. You offer a smile that goes unnoticed; he has moved to get your glass before you are finished ordering something cheap. His colleague, older, bald, with a complexion like varnished wood, watches him critically.
Your drink arrives, which you sip at tentatively. It could be worse. The two young men roar with laughter over something, and you recognize delight. It saddens you a little not to be part of it. The skinny youth and his burly friend seem to be having a better time than you can remember having had in weeks.
You lose yourself for a while, then. You listen to over-loud music from a decade ago, and sip at your lukewarm drink. You run your hand vaguely over the wooden curve of the bar; while the pine is solid, and the varnish relatively fresh, there are faint indentations dotted across the bar’s surface. You begin to filter out the noise of the two revellers behind you, only distantly conscious of laughter, of glasses being clinked and emptied. When you find that your drink has vanished, you order another of the same, and tip your watery-eyed bartender generously. He smiles wonderingly when you do so. You glance past him at the fading portraits of white men in waistcoats who had once owned this place, and lose interest in them almost immediately. That’s what they’re there for. You return your gaze to the figure looking at you in the bar side mirror.
Some time later, your attention is snagged by a sudden stillness in the room. Not quite stopping yourself in time, you look over to the two young men, both of whom have stood up, and are walking stiffly to the bar.
The brown-skinned drinker sets two empty glasses on the bar top, and gestures to the older bartender, who is leaning against a keg, grinning. The redhead speaks up:
“I’d like to buy a last drink for my friend here, please.” You are surprised at how deep and quiet his voice is; you would not have associated it with the laughter you had heard earlier.
“I want to do the same,” says his companion. He has an accent, but you can’t place it.
“What drink?” says the bartender, his eyes on the ceiling fan, his tongue held between his teeth. The redhead offers something between a cough and a laugh, and leans hard against the bar. “It doesn’t really matter. Something to forget.” His companion grimaces behind his beard, and looks away, his gaze running across yours without stopping. You are staring.
“You boys aren’t planning on starting any trouble, I hope,” says the bartender, who has made no move towards the drinks or the empty glasses.
A long, quiet moment stretches on between the two men, snapped back by the abrupt slamming of the bigger man’s fist on the bar. He strikes it only once. His voice is strained by an obscure irony when he says, “No. We don’t want to start any trouble.” He lifts his hand off of the bar to tuck a stray lock behind his ears. You note that there is a faint indentation in the wood where he struck it. The bartender does not seem to react.
The slight man shrugs, and says, “There isn’t much choice in the matter. Now, those drinks, please.” His face is beginning to show either irritation or puzzlement; neither he nor you are quite sure which.
“The drinks to forget, you mean,” says the bartender, rocking on the balls of his feet, still smiling.
The white man’s hand is fidgeting on the bar top, but his voice remains level when he says “Yes, I mean the drinks to for – oh.” He stops, and looks down at the bar’s surface. He runs his hand over two or three of the indentations that run the length of the bar, and glances at his companion before returning his gaze to the bartender. “I see,” he says. “Very neat. We’ll have the usual, I think.”
The old bartender’s smile widens, until it looks like a half-moon might erupt out of his skull.
“You boys got there early today.” He laughs, and retreats into a back room you had not noticed earlier. There are one or two wooden barrels visible where the sunlight gets past the doorway, but beyond them is only darkness, which quickly swallows the older bartender. He must know his way since you don’t see any lights come on.
“I don’t understand,” says the bearded one.
“We’ve been here before,” says his red-headed companion, scowling at the space the space that bartender had occupied. “We’d just forgotten about it.”
“What?” the bearded man says, slipping – perhaps without noticing – into the voice he’d spoken in earlier, when he’d been drinking at the table. He looks around the room, taking in the filth, the stink of smoke, faintly ridiculous Victorian portraiture. “I think I’d remember having been in a place like this.”
“You think you’d have remembered my real name sooner, too.”
The man stiffens, and presses his bulk more firmly against the bar. “Oh.”
“Just so,” says his companion, head propped up on his elbows. The two men are silent, and to avoid looking at one another or themselves in the mirror, all three of you look at the younger bartender cleaning pint glasses at the far side of the bar.
At some length, the bartender returns, clutching a long-necked, round-bottomed clay bottle in two hands. He is still making a considerable effort to grin at the unspeaking men, but his mouth is twisted into a grimace; the bottle is not especially large, but its weight appears to tax him. When he emerges from the dark corridor, the younger bartender sets down the glass he has been wiping needlessly, and moves over to help lift the thing onto the bar’s surface.
Elbows still propped up on the bar the red-haired man tilts his head to one side. “Where did you get that?”
Out of breath, the older bartender hits his colleague on the shoulder. The younger man looks confused for a second, and then blurts out, “Oh! Sorry. If he told you, then he’d have to–“
“Fine, fine,” says the redhead, turning away from the bar and surveying the room, unseeing. The younger bartender brings out two shot glasses, and places one on either side of the bottle. “You’ll need to spit into the bottle, sir. Sirs.”
“What?” says the bearded man. Wilting slightly under his dark stare, the young bartender attempts to shrug. “I’m sorry, I’m new here – but it doesn’t work otherwise.”
You watch out of the corner of your eye and the mirror behind the brandy bottle as the bearded man snorts and begins to move away, his pallid companion turning to follow suit.
Wheezing, the older bartender speaks up: “You’ve got to spit your names out.” He coughs, dislodging something in the back of his throat. “The stuff in the bottle clears out all the minor memories, but it can’t drown out your names – and if you both still have those…”
The two men glance at one another briefly.
“You have to put your names somewhere safe,” the bartender finishes.
The big man regards the bottle, and the two bartenders behind it, critically. He scratches his beard, and shakes his head slowly. “No… that won’t work. Where would be safe from us?” He looks at his companion. “We’re wasting time. We should go and get this over with.”
“Wait!” says the redhead, a little too loudly. He whistles between his teeth for a moment, and drums his fingers on the bar, staring at some distant point outside of the room; he glances at you, and stops drumming briefly, but resumes almost immediately. “We’ve been here before,” he says.
“What of it?” says his companion, half-turned towards the door. Your drink has been refilled without your noticing it.
“We’ve been here before, which means we’ve done this before, and successfully.” He turns quickly to look at the bartenders. “What did we do last time? Where did we put them last time?”
“Clearly whatever we did last time didn’t work – or else we wouldn’t be back here,” says the larger man. Late afternoon light creeps into the room as he opens the swinging door.
“It worked for a while!” snaps the red-haired man. “It worked for a while, and that’s something.” His companion says nothing, and with the daylight behind him his face is shadow. The redhead speaks again. “Please. You don’t want to do this now. You don’t want to do this at all.” Still, the brown-skinned man says nothing.
He begins to turn away, and you feel your stomach clench for no reason you can understand.
“I’ll buy this round!” the redhead calls out. He leans forward, trying to make out his companion in the evening haze. You can hear sirens outside.
A snort, and then the man lets the door swing shut behind him, returning the room to a comfortable gloom. He raps his knuckles on the doorframe, and nods, walking back to the bar. “Fine, then. Remind me to get the next one,” he says. You watch the redhead man and the younger bartender relax visibly.
The two men take turns tilting the long neck of the bottle towards them and hawking up some quantity of phlegm into it, neither with apparent distaste. You observe that neither the large, bearded man nor his scrawny companion have much trouble moving the bottle. The bartenders work in tandem to pour the bottle’s contents into the two shot-glasses, the younger aiming the flute of the bottle while his colleague levers the bowl upwards with as much care as he can manage. The fluid that pours out of it is clear and syrupy, and gives off a faint vapour. The redhead pulls a large note from his breast pocket, which the older bartender accepts with a nod. The two men pick up the glasses dubiously. They are silent; you shift in your seat and try not to be heard.
Finally, the bearded man shakes his head and raises his drink. “Skaal,” he says, clinking his glass to his companion’s. Smiling faintly, the other says, “Kara o le.” They knock back the clear liquid with a shudder, and set the glasses down on the bar. They regard one another, and the black man burps; the redhead takes an uncertain step backwards, in your direction. “Catch him!” hisses the younger bartender from behind you; he has rounded the bar and is rushing to grab the larger man, who is stumbling to his left. You jump to your feet, which are less sturdy than you had realized, but you manage to stop the suddenly unconscious redhead from falling over completely, and you manoeuvre him towards the chair you were sitting in. He is surprisingly light. The bartender, on the other hand, has only barely kept his burden from cracking his head on the side of a table; after a few more moments of struggle he shakes his head, and lowers the big man to the floor.
He stands up, panting, and nods at you. “Thanks.” He looks over to his colleague and stretches out his hand. The older bartender stares at it. “What?”
“Give me the money he gave you.”
“The money he paid you for the stuff. You said we don’t charge for that.”
The older bartender mutters, but slaps the banknote on the bar counter, before picking up the two empty shot glasses and bunging them in the sink. The younger bartender steps awkwardly over the supine bearded man’s body, and tucks the money into the redhead’s front pocket.
The older bartender circles to the front of the bar, and heads for the door.
“Where are you going?” asks the younger.
“I’m on break,” he answers, cigarette in mouth. “Mind the cash box.” He wrenches the door open, letting the beginnings of a sunset into the room and making you squint.
“Wait, do you want me to take the memory stuff out back?”
The man at the door pauses, and seems to regard the two unmoving figures.
“Leave it.” The doors swing shut, and the bar seems colder suddenly. The remaining bartender sighs, and moves back to his station to start cleaning up.
You reach over the redhead for your drink, and find a new seat.
“So, um, hey.” You say as you clear your throat. The barman stops and turns from the basin to look at you. “What was all of this about?”
“Oh! Hey, sorry.” He switches off the taps, and walks over to you. “I figured you knew.”
“Not really, no. Sorry.”
“Right! Well, this,” he raps a knuckle against the long clay bottle, “is water from the land of the dead. I’m not sure who our supplier is, but we use it for people who seriously need to forget something.”
You blink, and sip your drink, which has gone tepid. “Okay.”
“Okay, and those,” he points at the man on the floor and his friend propped up against a chair, “are gods. They’re called….ah.” He snaps his fingers. “Sorry, I knew who they were like five minutes ago. This happens whenever they come and get their names erased like that – I remember who they are right until they take a drink, then it goes.” He shakes his head, smiling faintly. “Anyway, so these two are sworn to kill each other.”
“Really?” You frown. “They were sort of hitting it off when I came in.”
“Well yeah, exactly – that’s the thing. A couple of years ago they realized that they had a lot in common – come from the same country, speak the same language, and they don’t really want to kill each other. Also I think if they kill each other the world’s supposed to end.”
You purse your lips, and regard the unconscious figures. “So why don’t they just not kill each other?”
The barman slaps the bar, warming to his subject. “Exactly what I want to know. Exactly. But apparently gods just don’t work that way, so instead they get their memories wiped every now and again, so they forget about one another and don’t have to kill each other.” He grabs a glass and holds it to the light, almost entirely for effect. “Except, since they’re gods, they can’t wipe away their names – not completely. They have to hide them away somewhere, like in a duck or an egg or something.”
He shrugs. “This is just what my boss tells me, alright? Anyway, the universe seems to want gods to know who they are, so the duck/egg/whatever thing usually doesn’t last too long. They find the egg with their name in it on their sandwich in two or three days, or… I don’t know, the duck breaks into their house. And then they know who they are again, and what they have to do. Which, apparently, is fight, die, and end the world. After a while my boss figured the best solution was to make them hide their names inside each other – this way they’ll wander the city for a couple of weeks, at least, before they find each other.”
“What happens when they find each other? This?” you gesture towards the two gods. The redhead is beginning to stir.
“Pretty much. I mean it’s not exactly the same every time, but they meet up, hit it off, come here and start telling each other stories, and jokes, and whatever. Eventually they run out of things to say, so god number one says the last thing he has left, which is the other guy’s name, god number two says the last thing he has left, which is the first guy’s name, and then they have to go through this whole spiel again.”
The pale, thin god chooses this moment to wake up, with something of a start; he has drool on his face. He looks from you to the bartender, and back. “Oh my god,” he says. “I’m sorry, but,” he belches, “where am I?”
“Downtown,” says the bartender. “You can get a cab from about two blocks over.”
“Great, great,” says the god. “Thanks.”
“You need a cup of coffee before you go?”
“Jesus,” says the god, standing up retching slightly. “No. Thank you.” He nods at the bartender, and at you, before turning to the door. You nod back. The god pauses, frowning, at the sight of the bearded man splayed out on the floor. “Is he with me?” he asks.
“No, he’s just some drunk,” says the bartender.
“I know the feeling,” says the god, and walks a little unsteadily out of the door.
The bartender waits a couple of seconds for the door to stop swinging before resuming his unnecessary glass-polishing. He shakes his head. “It’s weird – I don’t understand why the little guy always comes around first.”
You don’t have anything to say to that, so you pour the dregs of your drink into your mouth, which you regret. Once you succeed in swallowing the taste of it out of your mouth, you say, “So, that’s what you do? You keep gods doped up so they don’t kill themselves?”
“Well, I mean. Not just gods. I’ve only been here a year or so, but we get a couple of boudain once every now and then, and the guy who runs the kebab place next door is a djinn.”
“A djinn. It’s how you’re supposed to say genie.”
“Oh.” You look down into your glass. “Alright. How’s the pay?”
“We do pretty okay.”
“I mean – is everybody who comes here secretly somebody else?”
“Not everybody,” says a voice behind you. You turn around; you did not hear the older barman come back in. “A lot of you, though.”
“So who am I?” you ask, only half-joking. “What do I forget?”
The barman looks at you carefully, then over at his colleague. “Go check the stall in the men’s bathroom,” he says. The younger barman nods and ducks out of the room without a word. The older barman moves behind the bar counter, and places a leathery hand on the neck of the clay bottle. He looks at you with something like sympathy, but it’s getting dark and they haven’t turned on the lights yet, so you’re not sure. He whispers your name into your ear.
You look at him, and he doesn’t meet your eyes. You both agree that to be what you are is a terrible thing; he passes the large stone bottle to you, and takes your name away again, safe from you for a time. He hides the knowledge in an obscure writer’s story that, you will tell yourself, is not about you.