For the last few weeks, I’ve been grappling with a singular question: Has African science fiction influenced African technology and design? The answer is, well: yes and no. Science fiction and science fact have always been linked to each other, and it’s no different in Africa. The problem is that there just isn’t enough home-grown scientific innovation or science fiction in film and literature to say exactly how the two influence each other. And for a lot of the same reasons.
For one thing, neither African science fiction nor African innovation are clearly defined terms.
Speculative storytelling has had a long history on the continent. However, no one has been quite sure what to call these tales. There’s certainly a difference between the kind speculative fiction written by those invested in Africa and her future, and those merely set in Africa – where the continent acts as an exotic prop or backdrop. It’s the difference between H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines about European adventurers in Namibia in 1885 and Amos Tutuola’s The Palm Wine Drinkard a retelling of a Yoruba folk tale written in the 1930s.
However, as academic Mark Bould notes, the term African science fiction risks homogenising a diverse continent and casting these stories as an exotic subset of a “normalised” Western form of the genre. Even Nigerian-American sci-fi author Nnedi Okorafor is wary of the term.
“How do I define African SF?” she wrote in a 2010 essay. “I don’t. I know it when I see it.”
No one is quite clear on what African scientific innovation is, either. There has been a lot of celebration of the rising numbers of young Africans at the forefront of inventive applications for the web and mobile phones. In an Okayafrica article, African-British activist, Toyin Agbetu praised these innovators saying:
“The young geeks clustered around the iHub in Nairobi and MEST in Accra have started to move the conception of Africa from victim of technology to its masters.”
But this concentration on urban tech hubs, what one article dubbed “Silicon Savannahs”, ignores the quieter forms of innovation that happen when Africans remix and repurpose existing technologies. For instance, the four Nigerian girls who found a way to run a generator on urine or the young Malawian man who built wind turbines out of spare parts are actually at the forefront of a long history African innovation, but are often praised as special cases rising improbably from obscurity.
As Agbetu rightly noted, to the average African mechanisation is not progress. Those who have seen large-scale construction projects such as hydroelectric dams stall and fail because of corruption, poor construction and shoddy maintenance are bound to view mechanisation with suspicion. They fear that it comes with extractive or exploitative processes.
Another problem is that both African science fiction and African technological innovation suffer from a lack of supporting infrastructure. In Nigeria for instance, the publishing industry is only beginning to rise from the ashes of the country’s economic meltdown in the 80s. During the industry’s golden era, books like the Pacesetters series featured stories set in alternative pasts and glittering futures. My favourite remains a high-tech thriller called Mark of the Cobra by Valentine Alily, about a James Bond-style spy working for Nigeria’s secret service and featuring a solar-powered superweapon.
These days, however, low literacy rates and the high cost of books means that the demand for literature is often poor. Though consumers buying cheap imported books and watching Hollywood sci-fi blockbusters has shown that genre fiction is highly popular, many publishers still prefer to concentrate on proven sellers such as religious materials and textbooks.
Scientific innovation has the same problem. According to a Guardian article earlier this year, Africa produces just 1.1 percent of global scientific knowledge. This is because, as commenter Benjamin Geer pointed out, science fiction is less effective in encouraging scientific innovation than simply providing funding for the sciences.
“If you want young people to become scientists, there need[s] to be well-funded degree programs and career opportunities for them,” he wrote in response to a 2010 article about the future of science fiction in Africa. “This means that states need to invest heavily in science education and scientific research.”
Perhaps the biggest problem both scientific innovation and science fiction in Africa share is that they are not often recognised for what they are.
As I said earlier, Africans have been creating their own science fiction for quite some time; only these stories often don’t have the elements we have come to expect from the genre. For instance, two icons of African speculative fiction Ben Okri’s 1991 novel The Famished Road and Wizard of the Crow written by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o in 2006 feature magic and spirits, but neither deals directly with technology.
Nigeria’s prolific film industry, Nollywood, is the third-largest in the world and frequently features stories of magic, supernatural encounters and physical transformation. But the matter-of-fact treatment of these themes within these movies means they’re often dismissed and not recognised as legitimate science fiction.
In fact, magic, surrealism and abstract poetics are big features of African sci-fi. This is because, as Ghanaian writer Johnathan Dotse explained in a 2010 essay, Africans have a fundamentally different relationship to technology than those in the West.
“The widely optimistic view of technological progress underlying traditional science fiction simply doesn’t resonate with much of the experience on the continent,” he wrote.
Only recently – in the last decade or so – has there been a true groundswell of science fiction written by Africans for a primarily African audience. Most of this sci-fi doesn’t deal with the mechanics of scientific innovation, though. Stories tend to focus on the social costs of progress. Two recent African science fiction anthologies, AfroSF edited by Zimbabwean author Ivor Hartmann and Lagos 2060 edited by Nigerian Ayodele Arigbabu, have a diverse range of stories that could be considered firmly speculative, however, this is not the place to find the kind of explorations of hard science that Isaac Asimov and Larry Niven wrote.
This has led some to speculate that right now, technology is influencing African science fiction more than the other way around. In a series of social media chats in November, science fiction author and academic Geoffrey Ryman noted that sci-fi writers on the continent tend to have great ideas for science fiction stories, but not necessarily for scientific innovations.
“Technology contributes to SF and not the other way around,” he wrote. “Even Arthur C. Clarke’s geostationary satellite appeared in a science FACT article he wrote. SF can sometimes promote interest in science among the young that bears later fruit. But trying to justify SF on those grounds is dodgy. It’s a literature and an entertainment and THAT is its justification.”
Nigerian writer and engineer Wole Talabi has hope, however, that this currently one-sided relationship will right itself. In an upcoming essay, he presents evidence that shows that the influence of science fiction often takes about 15 to 20 years to show up in scientific innovation.
“You need to be able to imagine the future before you can begin to create it,” he wrote.
Author Biram Mboob believes this influence goes beyond just sparking new ideas. African science fiction can change the very orientation people might have towards the future.
“I would make the argument that SF will either ‘reinforce’ or perhaps challenge our ‘mood’ about the future,” he wrote in a Facebook chat last year.
I have to agree. In my work as a writer and editor of African science fiction over the last five years, I have noticed an emerging optimism. Africans are moving away from their justified suspicion and mistrust of large-scale innovation. More African writers are imagining unique utopias – their countries and cities improved by technology that works with their societies rather than ruined by it.
For instance, in the most recent edition of Omenana, which I co-edit, 10 writers and artists shared their vision of African cities of the future. Almost all of them had themes of hope and possibility. More than anything, inspiring the creators of the future is where I believe the intersection of African science fiction and science is clearest.
“Inspiration, ideas, they flow both ways,” wrote Talabi in a Facebook chat last year. “But for that you need a critical mass of technology, industry, popular science, SF creators and publishers, and organised fandoms before you begin to see and quantify the impact.”
Welcome. I will be the one taking you around. Don’t stretch out your hand to shake anybody’s again. If you shake hands, or attempt to, it will be noted in your file. My name is Joel. You are to call me “Sir,” like you will call all male people here. All female people are to be referred to as “Madam.” If you want to be specific, you will have to use their tag numbers. My tag number is eleven. You may call me Sir Eleven. It will take you some time to get used to the tag numbers.
You have only one week to learn at least twenty tag numbers. If you need help on that, you may talk to Sir Fifteen. He sits by the window at the far end of the western wing. He has all the faces and their respective tag numbers on his computer. He may offer to print the names and their tag numbers for you; do not accept his offer. If you accept the offer, it will be noted in your file. Printing out the numbers and faces means using paper. If you leave with a piece of paper with names and numbers on it, it can be used against the company. If it is used against the company, you’ll have put us at risk.
You shall be searched every time you come into or leave the company premises. It will not be intrusive. You may not even notice it, but please remember that you will be searched every time. Sometimes, you will leave with papers given to you by the company. Most of them will be delivery notes. If you leave with delivery notes, please have them signed by the client. If they are not signed by the client, please don’t come back again. You shall continue to draw a salary for a period not exceeding six months, after which all contacts with the company shall be terminated. If you ever take this choice, by your own volition or otherwise, please note that it will be noted in your file.
Did I tell you my name? I lied. That is the one printed on the job ID card. You shall be issued with a job ID card. You shall go to Madam Twenty-nine for that. She sits at the corner room just after the reception. She will also issue you with a new national ID card. Those two, your job ID card and the new national ID card, shall be kept in a new wallet. Madam Twenty-nine shall give you the wallet. You shall use these cards only when dealing with clients. For your bank transactions or any other official business, please use your original national ID card. If you use your new national ID card, we shall know, and it will be noted in your file.
The lady at the entrance is Madam Eighteen. You may look into her eyes. If she looks back at you while smiling, do not smile back at her. If you do that, do not say you weren’t warned. You may ask her to open the door for you. She will only do that for your first two weeks here. Within that period, ask Sir Nine to add to you the system. The process is not as painful as you may have heard. What was painful was the old way of doing it. The new one is much better. He will simply insert a small chip into your forehead. That will be your key into the premises.
Please note that it is not a camera. If you look into the lens, it will be reading your forehead chip. If it reads your forehead chip, the door will be opened for you. The door is opened only twice in a day for each person except Madam Eighteen. If you need to come back to the office more than twice in a day, please email Madam Eighteen in advance. If she does not reply to your email, then note that it is okay. If she replies, however, please read the email and take note of what she says. If you do not take note, it shall be noted in your file.
The door in front of you leads to the washrooms. The door right after this one leads to the kitchen. You may take a cup of tea from the kitchen. There is also a microwave in there. You can heat up your food, if you’ve carried any. You shall not carry smelly food into the premises. If you do, Madam Eighteen shall let us know.
The door to your right is the Madams’ washrooms. You shall not use the Madams’ washrooms for reasons we know best. The one to your left is the Sirs’ washrooms. You may use the Sirs’ washrooms. If you do, please ensure that you clean up your mess.
Now, back to this corridor. The seats by that table are for general use. You may take your cup of tea over there. You may also make notes and read from that table. You may also watch TV as you relax, but only for a period not exceeding fifteen minutes. You may surpass this time only during the lunch hour when you have a one hour break. You’re however encouraged to get back to your station immediately after. If you watch TV all through the lunch hour, it shall be noted in your file.
On the right part of this corridor is the directors’ office. You shall call them Sir One and Sir One A. You have some latitude here. If you call Sir One Sir A, he will understand that it is an honest mistake. Madam Eighty should however not catch you mixing up the names of Sir One and Sir One A. If she does, it shall definitely be noted in your file. She sits on the other side of the premises. She is the head of operations. You shall report to her at all times. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask her. She will also give you all the details with regards to your responsibilities.
The place on your left is occupied by four people. Two of them are the company designers. You don’t need to know their tag numbers. If you need to talk to them, you shall have to ask Madam Eighty to do that for you. If she authorises you to go ahead, she will also give you their tag numbers. You will not be required to remember them. If you forget them, it will be totally understandable.
On the other side here are Madam Twenty Nine and Madam Twenty. Madam Twenty-nine will give you your new national ID cards and job ID cards. Madam Twenty is the legal officer. If you think you may have done anything that is against the law, please feel free to speak to her. If you break a law while working for the company, please ensure that you inform her as soon as you can. If you fail to do this, you’ll have put the company at risk.
That room on your right is the training room. It is also where you shall have your forehead chip implanted. Sir Nine sits there. He will tell you what rooms you are allowed to access and what rooms you aren’t allowed into. The implant process? That is a good question. Sir Nine uses a device that looks like a gun. The bullet is the chip that goes into your forehead. He will point it at your head and pull the trigger. You should not close your eyes when he does this. If you, however, close them, it will be totally understandable. You will not have been the first one to feel terrified. Madam Twenty-nine passed out when her chip was being implanted. If you pass out, you shall be quickly rushed to hospital.
You shall be issued with a hospital insurance card by Madam Twenty. Please note that you’re the only one in your family covered by the company scheme. The company shall not be responsible for any of your family members. Should you pass away during working hours, your family shall be fully compensated. Your next of kin will receive all the money, as stipulated in the agreement which you will sign and return to Madam Twenty. Should you get injured and become disabled, you shall continue to receive full salary up to the period of your death. Do not worry about dying or getting disabled during working hours. Only one person has done that in the entire history of the company. He was epileptic. He had not notified the company that he was epileptic. Please do notify Madam Twenty about any health complications that you might have. If you don’t, it will be difficult for us to help you. Your cover will not be dependent on this disclosure. If you however get a health complication during work, please note that it will be noted in your file.
Sir Nine also works as the company trainer. He will teach you some of the things you’ll need to do the job. Feel free to ask him any questions, as long as it is not private. His colleague, Sir Eight, also does the same job. You may not, however, speak to Sir Eight unless he first speaks to you. There is no reason for this. It is just company tradition.
This is where all the technicians sit. As a technician, you will spend very few hours in the office. You do not, as a result, hold a permanent office desk. You may share desks with other technicians. If you arrive first, you may have that seat until it is time to leave.
This is the company workshop. There are two people in charge of the workshop. You are not allowed to stay in the workshop if the madam is around. You are not required to remember her tag number. If the Sir is around, you may stick around for casual conversation as long as you are out of the way.
The last office there is the marketing department. You are not required to interact with the marketing department. You may, however, go ahead and do so. You have to be aware that the company will not be held responsible for any of the consequences from these interactions.
That door just after the marketing department is the fire exit. In case of fire, please press the handle on that door and go down using the stairs. Walk quickly but avoid running during fire evacuation. There has not been a fire since the beginning of the company. There are smoke and fire detectors on the ceiling of this building. Note that they may fail, as all man made things do. If you notice a fire, please attack it using a fire extinguisher. Take this step only when you’re sure it is safe.
This here is the balcony. You may come here for a breath of fresh air. You are not allowed to smoke on this balcony. If you smoke anywhere in the premises, it will be noted in your file and you may get a warning letter. If you get two warning letters, you will have to be let go.
You are also not allowed to jump over the balustrade on this balcony. There have been numerous attempts at suicide by way of jumping over the balustrade here. If you commit suicide, your family will not be compensated for your death. Now, let’s go to the other side. Or maybe better, can we continue after you’ve had your cup of tea? Karibu. And remember, if you attempt to shake hands with anyone, it shall be noted in your file.
Frank nearly fell over in his chair when the brown mug moved. He was certain he was hallucinating. He was about to try it again when Liz opened the door and dumped another heap of papers onto his desk.
“Mr. Gesa wants these before lunch,” she said without as much as a glance at him.
Well good morning to you too, he thought, irritably.
She walked out and shut the door behind her. Frank pushed the stack of papers to the edge of the table and reverted his attention to the brown clay mug full of steaming tea in front of him. He stared at it again and willed.
This time the movement was unmistakable. The mug moved towards him, dragging itself on the wooden table with a loud grating sound. Frank stared at it in awe before it came to an abrupt halt again.
There was no one in the records room with him but he still looked about him to make sure. He even turned in his chair to look at the metre-high stack of old records and work orders piled behind him just in case someone was standing there. Satisfied that the room was indeed vacant, he stared again at the clay mug, harder this time, and beckoned it towards himself. It tottered slightly, spilling a little tea onto the table, before charging towards him like mini, tea-filled alien spacecraft and this time he was so gobsmacked that he noticed too late the mug running out of table and flying over the edge, mouth first – tea, teabag and all – plummeting to the floor where it shattered on impact, leaving a mess of clay shards and tea at his feet.
The door swung open suddenly as he stared at the pool of ruin beneath him, and Luswata popped his head in.
“Is everything okay in here? I heard a crash,” he said.
“Y…yes,” Frank stuttered, “Everything’s okay. I fumbled with the mug and dropped it by accident.”
“Oh. Okay then. Lunch’s been brought closer today because Gesa wants the canteen painted before tomorrow morning. The South Africans are coming to inspect us. Be in the canteen by half past twelve, okay?”
“Sure thing,” Frank said tensely.
Luswata took one more cursory glance around the room, as if he suspected something else was amiss, before stepping back out and closing the door behind him. Frank looked at the time on the clock on the wall opposite where he sat: 11:48, it read. He got up and went to one of the corners of the room where a mop and broom were kept. He got the mop ,returned to his seat and cleaned up the mess under his desk.
Frank’s mind was in a daze as he lined up for lunch. Liz and Halima were in front of him in the queue, talking about something that made them giggle endlessly. He could hear their words but his mind could not process them; the image of the mug dragging itself towards him – or perhaps being dragged by him, somehow – was causing all sorts of fantastic thoughts to take root in his head. He could suddenly see himself ordering massive boulders to fly about in the hills back in the village, hoisting entire houses off their foundations in case their tenants had ticked him off, or even suspending the insufferable Liz up in the high clouds just to teach her some courtesy.
And the Lord said, “If you had faith like to a grain of mustard seed, you might say to this mulberry tree: Be thou rooted up, and be thou transplanted into the sea. And it would obey you.” The Bible verse came to him, timely and telling, but he smirked at it and quickly discarded the thought. He was, and always would be, nonchalantly agnostic. Well, agnostic now that he was suddenly telekinetic. He had been purely atheist only two hours ago.
He carried his plate of matooke, rice, a sweet potato, beef and sukumawiki greens in one hand and a plastic cup of water in the other and made his way through the buzz and chatter of eating men and women in the canteen to the extreme end, by the half-wall with a view of the parking lot through the gap above it, where Musa, James and Musoke were seated, already halfway through their meals.
“Aah, Frank!” Musoke began as Frank sat down next to him, “I’m glad you’ve come. First tell Musa here how the country has been in decline since Obote II. He doesn’t seem to see anything wrong with Members of Parliament being exempted from paying tax, when children in the North are still dying from hunger!”
“I didn’t say there was nothing wrong with that,” Musa rebutted as Frank split the sweet potato with his fork. “I merely said that I would rather live in a country where the government is corrupt than in one where the government is blood-thirsty!”
“In the end what difference does it make?” Musoke said. “People are still dying. You just can’t see it because there are no bullets being fired.”
Frank was moving a fork-full of soupy rice and potato to his mouth when Richard arrived at the table, his plate stacked high with food. He fumbled as he set his plate and cup down, and the cup, sitting unsteadily on the edge of the table with half of its base over the precipice tilted over.
It happened so fast and suddenly that Frank didn’t have time to think about what he was doing. His reaction was instinctive. He looked at the cup and willed. The cup froze, completely suspended in mid-air, with the head of the water halfway poured out of its mouth, hanging like an amorphous, crystalline gel frozen in time, with a few stray drops and droplets static next to it, as though caught in some invisible web, and a few sun rays from the open gap above the wall striking the shapeless, liquid prism and being dispersed in brilliant little rainbows.
Realizing what he had done, as though he were awakening from a surreal dream, Frank looked away and the cup, released from its place in space and time, assented to the pull of gravity and clattered to the ground by Richard’s feet. The whole scene couldn’t have lasted more than a second, but Frank was sure everyone at the table had noticed it. As indeed they had.
Richard stood transfixed on his spot, staring down at the toppled cup and the water that was streaming away from him, while the other three men all gazed at up at him, as though they thought he was responsible for the trick of the eye that had been played on them. After what seemed like an eon of awed silence it was James who broke their trance.
“You are such a clumsy fool!” he said. “That’s like the third cup you have dropped this week. I have never seen a bigger klutz in my life.”
That seemed to break their spell, and Richard chuckled apologetically, although there was still a bemused look on his face. Musoke and Musa laughed, and Frank joined them to avoid any suspicion being drawn to himself. Before long the event had been forgotten, as though it had never happened, and Frank was grateful that the skeptical side of modern people was so strong it erased any superstitious notions almost instantly. They probably assumed they had not really seen what they had seen and went on with their lives. Frank chided himself for not being more cautious with his newly-found ability, and for the rest of the meal he participated actively in their talk, if only to help bring normalcy back to the table.
He walked pensively on his way home later that evening. Now that he was truly alone he had time to mull over the bizarre events of the day without Gesa calling him every thirty seconds. Everything seemed suddenly strange around him; he felt unreal, like a character in a movie script apt for Hollywood. A poor records clerk at Cresco Bottling Company suddenly finds himself a god among mortals, he thought to himself, beaming widely. For the first time all month he did not brood about the strife in his household. Images of his wife, Oliver, screaming at him at the top of her voice, and the sickly child crying incessantly, coughing up phlegm and blood, were replaced by images of himself floating over mountain peaks and frothing, azure seas, summoning entire land masses to himself and shifting tectonic plates. He felt alive, a new potency coursing through his arteries. He felt a new bounce in his step, a confident, swaggering gait that had been alien to him before.
A little distance from home he passed by the football field where the grass had long been eroded by the exuberant boots, sneakers and bare feet of the children who played there every evening. The ground was now mostly dirt and dust, with two net-less, rectangular frames of metal pipe at either end of the pitch acting as goals.
A group of fifteen, maybe twenty children, all shirtless and covered in dirt, were kicking a ball around, gleeful and oblivious of the dimming twilight. Frank felt a youthful playfulness swell up in him as he watched the wanton children. One of them lashed at the ball with all his might, sending it cannoning towards the left goal frame, and Frank locked his sight onto the flying crude sphere of polythene and rubber, catching it mid-flight. The ball hung stationary and suspended about five metres above the earth, before falling onto the ground about halfway to the goal and rolling eagerly towards Frank, with the children watching it in rapt, frozen bewilderment.
The younger boys seemed to see some elusive funny side to this bizarre phenomenon and chased after the ball, screaming with naïve delight. The older boys stood back for a while before reluctantly following the lead of their younger counterparts. Whenever the younger boys got close to the ball Frank caused it to roll faster, and this seemed to energize them, and they shouted louder and more excitedly, chasing after it with increased intent, as though stop-that-ball was their new game.
It was when they saw Frank, standing pitch-side in his old brown coat and matching brown trousers, and the ball steadily heading in his direction, that the boys became doubtful, reducing their speed cautiously, finally suspecting that something was not quite right. About ten metres from where Frank stood the boys gave up chasing altogether and stood off, watching Frank with suspicion. The ball gradually reduced its speed before rolling to a halt at Frank’s shoes. The boys stared at him with a mixture of curiosity and fear. Frank stared at them for a while, and then looked down at the ball and willed again. The ball lifted itself off the ground, levitating seamlessly towards Frank’s outstretched hand and nestling in the groove of his downturned palm – like a spherical spacecraft module attaching itself to a mother ship’s appendage. He turned and looked at the children again, and this time he could not help the grin that broke out on his face.
The children looked at him with vacant stares that soon gave way to wide-eyed, terrified looks and the younger ones screamed, one after the other, with the older, taller ones, though muted, being the first ones to turn and take to their heels. Soon the whole gaggle was fleeing from him, all shouting hysterically, with a few turning their heads back as they ran to make sure he was not pursuing them.
“You forgot your ball!” Frank called after them, his body tingling with a juvenile mischief he had rarely felt before. He dropped the ball onto the ground as the last of the children disappeared from sight and proceeded on his way home.
Oliver was sweeping the five or six square-metres of space that they considered “their” compound when he got home. She did not look up when he got to their door, and kept her eyes fixed on the broom and the dirt it was flinging away from their house. She stood up briefly to tighten the knot of her lesu above her bosom and then bent down again to continue with the sweeping.
“How are you?” Frank greeted. She remained silent, hurling some pebbles away from her with one sweep of the broom. Frank took off his shoes and set them neatly behind the door.
“How is the child?” he asked.
“Why don’t you go and check on him yourself?” she answered coldly, without lifting her eyes from the ground.
Frank entered the small house and made his way to their bedroom. The child was lying asleep on their bed, as he often did when they were not in need of it. Frank walked over to him and observed him. He had two rows of dried, crusty mucus above his mouth and he was wheezing slightly in his sleep. Frank gently placed his hand on his belly and the child suddenly began to cough, becoming awake in the process.
“Shhhh…shhhh…” Frank tried to lull him back to sleep but the coughs looked wrenching and painful and eventually the child started to cry. Frank lifted him off the bed and tried to soothe him, gently patting him on his back. The child coughed harder, now wailing loudly in between his bouts.
“What have you done to him?” Oliver’s voice came from the bedroom door. Frank turned to find her glaring at him.
“Nothing. I had barely touched him when he began to cough.”
“I told you we have to take him to the hospital but you never listen.”
“We have no money for a hospital. Have you been putting Panadol in his milk like Nurse Nampiima said?”
Oliver shot him a look that would have killed him on the spot if it could, and she moved quickly to where he was standing and ripped the child from his arms, causing him to wail louder. She patted the boy on the back and whispered soft words into his ear and he calmed down. She then turned and walked towards the door.
“I don’t know why I was cursed with a man who is poor, can’t even buy meat for his family, can’t keep his wife warm in the bed, and watches as his child dies from stupid, poor people’s diseases!” she cursed loudly as she hurried out of the room and the child, riled by the loud, harsh tone in her voice, began to cough and cry again.
“The South Africans are coming to the office!” Luswata said in a panic through the door.
Frank quickly swallowed the tea that was left in his new claymug and placed it under the desk right between his feet. He quickly organized the paper that was scattered on his table and sat leaning forward, trying to appear as dignified as he possibly could.
The door swung open and Gesa walked in, followed by a big, potbellied, moustachioed Indian man in a black suit and red tie. The man was trailed by a smaller, pale-looking white man with an ID collar, and a light-skinned fat woman with a round face and small eyes.
“This is our records office,” Gesa said to the Indian man. “And this is our senior records clerk, Mr. Frank Aguma.”
Frank stood up immediately and extended his hand to Gesa who shook it uninterestedly. Frank then offered his hand to the big man, but this time his gesture was completely ignored.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Patel,” he said, somewhat timidly.
“Derrick, why don’t you get drawers or cupboards for all this paperwork?” the man said to Gesa, as though he had not even perceived Frank’s presence in the room. “This place is a mess, just look at it! I keep telling you all our offices have to be exemplary. Do you know this could be a finding when the external auditors come here next month?”
“Yes, yes, Mr. Patel,” Gesa stuttered, “We will certainly get all this sorted out as soon as possible.”
“All this paper could easily constitute a fire hazard,” the big man continued, “When I return four months from now I want to find all this properly arranged in drawers and appropriately labelled, understood? Cresco doesn’t just excel at making soft drinks, we excel at everything, even simple tidiness!”
“Yes, Mr. Patel,” Gesa said, “I will have it sorted very soon.”
The big man scanned around with one last disapproving look at the stacks of papers that lined the walls before turning back towards the door where his two counterparts parted to give him way as he exited the office. They followed after him with Gesa humbly bringing up the rear and shutting the door behind them without another glance at Frank. Luswata opened the door as Frank was settling back down.
“How did it go?” he asked.
“Better than expected,” Frank replied.
“You’re lucky. They are giving out bonuses today, by the way. Four p.m.”
Frank ate in silence throughout the lunch hour. His customary seat at the back with Musa and the boys had been taken so he had sat next to Liz and Halima about five tables ahead. Oliver’s words from the previous evening were still cutting through him, reaching deep, tugging and ripping like a barbed stick.
A man who can’t keep his wife warm in the bed, the words echoed in his mind. He ate fork after fork of matooke, rice and beans but tasted nothing. It was the first time in their two and a half years of marriage that she had lashed out at his impotence.
“I heard he can’t even get it up.” Halima’s words snapped him into consciousness and he spun his head towards her like an invisible hand had slapped him across the cheek. She was looking away from him, towards Liz, who was listening eagerly.
Liz gasped. “No! You’re lying!” she said incredulously.
“I’m serious,” Halima said.
Frank swallowed. A chunk of matooke fell off his fork and back onto the plate. He did not notice the tiny splash it made in the bean stew, or the little brown speckles of soup that splattered onto his shirt.
“How do you know?” Liz said.
“Diana went home with him after the employees’ dinner. She said he kept mumbling apologies all night,” Halima said and giggled.
“But Gesa, that gu man,” Liz said, “And the way he likes hitting on me, you’d think he has a fully-loaded one down there!”
They both laughed heartily over their food, looking around briefly to make sure they were not laughing too loudly to attract attention. Frank turned quickly back to his food just before they caught him staring at them. His heart released rapid thuds of relief and his hand shook with gratitude as he raised the fork to his mouth. His secret – his curse – was safe with him for now.
The thirty thousand shillings in bonuses that was given to the employees that day was frowned upon by most of the other workers but Frank was thankful for it. As a clerk he earned the least among all the permanent workers in Cresco, so any add-ons were as important to him as butter to a dry crust of bread.
He passed by the butcher’s on his way home to buy some meat for Oliver and the child. His father’s voice came to him as the butcher chopped up the pieces and weighed them on the scales: Frank, the best way to quiet down a nagging wife is to bring home some meat! Followed by the loud, snorting laughter that was his old man’s trademark.
Oliver carefully set the child down on the mat beside their bed. She cushioned him with a folded blanket and covered him with a bedsheet as Frank watched from his vantage on the bed. When she was done she took a can of Vaseline from her purse and began to smear some on her legs and thighs, massaging herself slowly and purposefully.
Frank felt his heart dip. He knew what was coming next. Whenever Oliver oiled herself before bed it always meant she wanted intimacy. Frank wanted to turn and face the wall but he didn’t want to give her any cold vibes. So he shut his eyes and prayed for sleep.
Oliver placed the Vaseline back into her purse and got under the bedsheet next to him. She placed her head on his chest and wrapped her arm around his belly.
“I’m sorry I was harsh to you yesterday,” she said.
“You had every right to be. But I see he isn’t coughing as much today,” he replied.
“Nurse Nampiima came over and gave him some funny herbs, they seem to have worked.”
“I’m glad. I’m so tired, work was endless today!” Frank yawned. Oliver’s arm held him tighter across the belly, and she pushed her face up to his neck so that his nostrils were filled with the scent of Vaseline. She rubbed his torso suggestively and pecked him slightly on his nipple. When he remained still, she moved her hand down to his groin and tenderly held his manhood, finding it as soft as a sock. She tugged at it as gently as she could, and then with a bit more urgency when she felt no response to her advances.
Frank closed his eyes and willed with all his might. He commanded it to rise. He beckoned, entreated and then threatened it. There was not the slightest movement in his loins. Not even the subtlest of twitches. With his eyes still shut, unable to look at Oliver, he heard her sigh with exasperation and detach herself from him, leaving the bed altogether and setting herself on the mat next to the sleeping child. In that moment Frank could not care less whether he had the power to control aeroplanes or shift the moon in its orbit.
“Something is wrong with me,” Frank said.
“What do you mean?” his mother asked. He sat his bony, seventeen-year-old frame opposite her and looked down at his hands.
“I’m not normal,” he said.
“Why do you say that, Frankie?”
“I was with Connie yesterday. In her bedroom.”
“What were you doing in a girl’s bedroom, Frankie?” she asked with a hint of anger.
“Listen mummy!” he snapped. “Connie kissed me. And then she…she touched me. She touched me there.” His mother cleared her throat and shifted uneasily in her chair.
“And?” she asked.
“And…nothing happened. I know what’s supposed to happen, mummy. I’m not a child anymore! What’s wrong with me?”
“Have you always known?”
“Frankie…listen to me.”
“You knew all along. I knew you did!”
“Frank!” she shouted at him. He became mute and stared at her.
“Listen,” she said, “when you were born you had a lump under your manhood. The doctor removed it in a surgical procedure but he said there might be some nerve damage. Some permanent nerve damage. He said we could only be sure after a few years. Yes, I knew. Of course I knew. Every morning I checked to see if there was something, anything. Boys are supposed to get hard in the mornings sometimes. You never did. Not once. Yes, I knew. I just couldn’t bring myself to tell you. How could I? I’m sorry that this had to happen to you. God’s plans are never similar to our own.”
Twelve years later, when his father arranged for him to marry Oliver, he was struck by a terrible fright. Oliver would find out, like Connie had. And then she would spend her entire life despising him for being half a man. No, not half a man. A midget was half a man. A midget was small but he could still keep a woman warm. No, not half a man. Something less, something worse, something more base than the lowest form of man. To him could not be ascribed any form of masculinity. Not in the eyes of a fellow man, at least. And certainly never in the eyes of a woman.
When Oliver got pregnant, he was more relieved than upset. More glad than surprised. He had known for a long time about her clandestine rapports with their neighbour, Kizito. He had once found Kizito and Oliver playfully scuffling in the compound in a way that a man should not scuffle with a married woman. She was giggling, trying to dislodge his veiny, powerful-looking arms from around her waist when Frank appeared, and Kizito had quickly released her and mumbled an embarrassed greeting to Frank.
“At least daddy can now have a grandchild,” he had told his mother after breaking the news to her. “Maybe now he can finally see me as a human being. As a man. And not as some freak of nature.” His mother had been too distraught to answer back. She had just nodded in agreement and then hugged him fiercely, whispering “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry” over and over again.
Oliver’s screams woke him up with a start. He turned to see her kneeling on the mat and cradling the child. Her face was wet and her eyes were white and wild.
“What’s the matter?” he asked in a panic.
“He’s not breathing!” she shouted.
Frank leapt out of the bed and took the child from her. The child’s mouth was making gaping, gasping motions. Frank turned the child onto his face and hit him hard on the back. Once…twice…and then the child made a feeble, coughing sound.
“Put something on,” he said urgently, “We have to get to the hospital now!”
Oliver wrapped her lesu over her nightgown and followed Frank hastily out of the room. It was just becoming light outside, and they hurried past a sleepy-looking Kizito washing his face on his veranda. He gazed worriedly at them as they rushed through the gate.
At the hospital the doctors said the child had a bad case of whooping cough, and though they had brought him in just in time, he was not in good shape at all and had to be immediately admitted into the ICU. They sat Frank and Oliver down by the reception and told them to wait.
About two hours had passed when Frank got up off the seat and decided to walk around, leaving a tired Oliver on the seat, her head resting in her lap – asleep. He walked through the corridor past rows of women with crying infants and men escorting their pregnant spouses, some holding them by the hands, others holding their luggage.
He got to a closed room on his left and looked through the glass visor below the letters “3C”. He saw the child lying on a bed, asleep, surrounded by all sorts of machinery. He opened the door and entered. He walked over to the child’s side and looked down at him. As though sensing his presence, the child opened his eyes and stared up at him. He smiled at the child and waved his hand at the tube running into his arm from the drip.
“Let daddy make you laugh,” he whispered.
The drip line wriggled and twisted over itself like a thin, plastic snake and the child smiled behind his oxygen mask.
“You like that?” he said to the child. “Watch this.”
He looked at the large machine by the child’s bed and the machine moved right, then left, then right again, in dancing, groovy movements and the child’s smile grew wider. Encouraged, Frank looked at the beeping screen above the child’s bed and the beeping sound became more rhythmic, making polyphonic music that Frank nodded his head to. And then he felt himself unleashed, and as the child cooed and giggled he had the bed shifting up and down, dancing to the music of the heart monitor, and the catheter doing waves like a stage prop, and the machines coming alive and dancing with mechanical precision, like an impromptu robot dance crew assembled just for the boy.
Frank was in a frenzy when the door opened and the doctor and nurses rushed in, gazing around them in astonishment. He found himself unable to stop as one nurse shouted at him to get out. The blanket floated off the child’s bed, followed by his oxygen mask, and the needle from the drip slid out from his arm and made for the ceiling, where it turned left and right like a pin-sized dancer. Every object in the room was dancing for the child, and Frank was the conductor, too attentive to get any movement wrong – so attentive that even when the child’s eyes closed shut for all eternity he was still moving the blanket in waves like a small, floating, grey ocean.
We were standing in an empty space, but a force pinned us from floating and sinking, fixing us stable in midair. A white light surrounded us. What I saw was not what I had believed I would find in the place of the newly dead. I had always assumed it would have a foul stench, people with tattered clothes who were hobbling with outspread arms, their mouths dripping blood and speaking sluggishly. So when Padjonsin had instructed me to wear a black gown and high heels, I had thought he was crazy but here they were: the smell of nothing, black suits, black gowns, and black shoes. I could say I blended in, but there was that blank expression they all wore that I could hardly mimic. A quick facial sweep would immediately reveal I wasn’t one of them. But I wasn’t to worry about that. Focus on your goal, Padjonsin had said.
They all stared ahead, waiting. No side talk. No catching up on old times. The silence was brittle, anything would have shattered it. A pin drop would have been thunder. Padjonsin had told me not to be surprised by this. Even people who lived all their years together would be unable to recognise each other after life. Their memories were no longer theirs; it had been taken for examination. After 90 days, their results would be ready, determining their final fate: Rest or Torment.
Who did I know that had died in the past 90 days – apart from Kemi? Maybe seeing a familiar face would give me hope that I would find her, but I quickly killed that thought. All I wanted was to save her, and by my timepiece—handmade by Padjonsin in sync with the life of the red moon—I had 15 minutes left. Fifteen minutes before the rain stopped falling and the redness of the moon faded. Fifteen minutes to leave here with her or else I would become one of them.
Lightning flashed, adding a brief blinding brightness to the warm glow of the red moon. Rain kept falling, like pellets shot from the sky, chasing everything with legs indoors. Aluminium rooftops became drums. Potholes pooled with rainwater. Drainages threw up forgotten refuse. The streets were slippery traps, streaming with nylon wrappers, plastic bottles, and cans. Deafening thunder ripped the air.
Inside one of the aluminium roof-toped houses, Alade rolled on his bed, his rumbling thoughts preventing him from settling into sleep. The glow of the moon sifted through his window pane, dousing the darkness in a shade of red. That was when he saw the figure standing by his doorframe. He squinted at the figure; all the while rubbing the left side of his chest like it would slow down the beating of his heart. Could it be her? he thought. Her name hung in his throat. He pushed it out. “Ke-Kemi. Is that you?”
Then the lightning flashed, and his room—green carpet, peach walls—lit up for a brief moment. The figure was slim with a shaved head, in contrast with Kemi’s pudgy frame and plaited hair.
Alade took deep breaths, disappointment calming his nerves. “Yomi, what are you doing there?” He said, suddenly feeling guilty at his disappointment in seeing the expected.
“Daddy, it is the rain. I am afraid. Can I sleep in your room?”
“Come here son.” He adjusted himself on the bed, creating space.
Yomi peeled his frame from the door, shuffled into bed and pulled the blanket to his shoulders. “Where is Mummy?”
“She will join us before the rain stops.”
“Where did she go to?”
“She went out.”
Before Yomi could speak further, thunder blasted from above like an explosion from the sky. Father and son froze, slowly thawing to the music of rainfall drumming and splattering.
“Daddy, please tell me a story.”
Alade fell silent for a while, searching his thoughts, and then he spoke. “Once upon a time, a woman loved her children…”
I was the only one moving, looking at faces to pick out Kemi. It was difficult to describe the state of the people here. There was something alive about their dead faces, like if you tap them they would look back and ask you, “what?” It was like being stuck in both worlds, neither here nor there.
Since Kemi had been dead for almost 90 days, I had to keep moving forward. Padjosin had said they arranged themselves according to their time of death, the older ones at the front, and the more recent ones at the back. A new being popped in every few minutes, never filling this empty space. The last one I had seen had suddenly appeared, dripping wet. Fresh scratches were on his skin and he had been missing a head. Then his head emerged from his neck, a flawless brown skin replaced the scratches, and his drenched shirt transformed to a black suit. After that, his expression became blank, and he stared ahead like the others.
I imagined how Kemi would have been on arrival. Did she discover the ease of standing that had evaded her all her life? What about the ease of communicating with words, instead of groans and cries? Did she discover why she got here early or the blankness took over before she could process her memory? Shivers crept down my spine.
I pushed through the cluster of staring beings. I was tempted to shout her name; maybe she would turn and recognise me. But who was I kidding? Without memories, how would she even know what her name was? How I wished there was a faster way to pick her out, but there wasn’t, I had to rely on facial recognition. She was twelve, big eyes, full lips, and about five feet tall. I’d have to take my eyes off the tall ones and target the short ones.
I stood between two women, who happened to be tall and muscular, probably bodyguards or soldiers in their lifetimes. I stood on my toes, braced my hands on their shoulders for support, and lifted myself up so that I had a better view of those at the front. Although, it was still difficult to catch those at the uttermost front, I could see an assembly of heads: grey, black, brown, red— none of them with plaited hair. And that was when I saw her—between a taller man and a child—hair in a puffy afro, with a black gown clinging to her chubby frame. My heart flipped with joy.
I jumped down and began running, stopping myself from screaming her name. Kemi! Kemi! I kept shouting in my mind. Wild with excitement, I pushed through beings, only for them to take their previous position after I passed. I got behind her, and turned her to face me and whispered her name. But the face that met mine had tiny eyes, like she was falling asleep, and thin lips that looked like straight lines.
“No, no, no,” I whispered, trying to catch my breath. The strain of running slammed me and everything around me started spinning. I felt dizzy, like I would throw up or faint, or both. My timepiece said five minutes more. I remembered Padjonsin’s words: Once you have five minutes left, save yourself. But this was no time to succumb. I didn’t get this far to give up. I could still save her, I could still save her. Tears began gathering in my eyes.
Before Alade got halfway through the story, he heard his son’s snoring, like a soft brass solo to the melody of rain in the background. Apart from these sounds, his house was quiet. Usually, this was the time he and his wife would eat of the fruits of their privacy, partly freed from the constant monitoring Kemi demanded. It would be just the both of them planning for tomorrows and rediscovering their sensuality, until few months ago when Kemi died.
After her death, his wife hardly got out of bed. He spoke to her but she would only stare at him with indifference, like he was a brick wall. It was the same way she treated all those who came to mourn with her. It was like her sense of recognition had vanished. During those days, she would only speak in inaudible mumblings, then she’d utter a shrill cry for Kemi and begin a frantic search all over the house, looking under the couches, in cupboards, under pillows, inside wardrobes. All he could do was force feed her and ensure she did not step out of the house. He thought with time she would become her old self.
But she never did.
One day during one of her frenzied searches, he took a chance to bring her back.
“Darling, can’t you see?” He hesitated, considering the weight of his next statement, and then he said it.
She turned to look at him. Her hair had locked into rebellious dreads. Bags had settled underneath her eyes, and trails of dried tears traced her cheeks. “What did you just say?”
“Can’t you see you’re free?” he asked. At her silence, he pushed further: “You are free from all the carrying, cleaning, and monitoring. Now we can focus on Yomi.”
He didn’t know what she would do or say, but he hadn’t expected her to get up quietly and leave the house. “Don’t follow me,” was all she said.
Yomi had appeared from the bedroom then and took his hand, leaning into him. Alade had put his hand around Yomi shoulders as they watched her shut the door.
After she had left, he began regretting all he had said. Maybe he had been harsh. Maybe he sounded like he didn’t love his child. Yes, it was true that he was relieved of the shame he felt when she would shit herself, even in the presence of visitors. How those visitors would view them with pity, like they were asking what offence he had committed to be afflicted with such a burden. But he had loved his daughter.
He missed the way she smiled when she was full, how she laughed at the sound of her own farts, and then would begin crying once she caught wind of the smell. He even missed her constant calls for attention that made him feel like a father even though her cries would demand attention when sleep was at its sweetest, leading to scuffles between him and his wife about who should attend to her next.
He had loved his daughter but he could not let his wife continue to hurt herself in mourning, starving their surviving child of the care he deserved.
After two days, his wife came back. He wrapped her in an embrace, apologised for his words and promised to always be by her side. She also apologised for leaving. He didn’t ask where she had been, he feared it would push her back to insanity. But he had always suspected there was a catch to her sudden change, because after she came back, she would whistle happy songs and would always have a smile ready, like a woman who had not just lost a child. She proved him right a week later.
“Remember when we were children and our parents told us not to do bad things or else Padjonsin will carry us away?” She asked one morning.
Alade smiled and nodded. “Which child wasn’t afraid of him? Back then, I would see him walking, mumbling to himself, and I would hide behind my mother.”
“That man has been around for a long time,” she agreed. “Anyway, he told me I can bring Kemi back, not only that, he said I can bring her back whole.” Then she told him everything, rushing out the words like if she paused, her courage would flee.
His first response was to reprove her for having anything to do with Padjonsin, but the thought of bringing back Kemi, free from the pity and disgust she evoked from onlookers made him smile, then the smile faded immediately. What if it failed and his wife relapsed into madness or, worse still, he lost his wife in the process? So he carefully pushed her away from that thought.
But she had seen his smile, and it was this she used as an entry point, moving and prodding, until he finally succumbed.
Yomi’s snores suddenly became louder, lifting him out of his thoughts. Had the snores become louder or was the rain receding? He peeped through the window. The red moon was slowly draining of its colour, merging back to silver. Quietly, he slipped out of his room and stepped out of the house.
I threw away all concern and began shouting her name. The only response I got was silence. But still, I ran past these statues of flesh, blindly pushing forward.
My husband would never understand this need to save our daughter, saying I should let her go. He would never understand that the umbilical cord linking a mother to her child doesn’t get cut off at birth; it still remained, even after death. That was why Kemi, dressed in glowing white, had appeared to me after her death. When she disappeared, I would search for her everywhere. Now I was here, still searching. But coming here to bring back Kemi was beyond the umbilical link, it was much more than that.
After discovering Kemi’s shortcomings, I had to close down my market stall to give her the full care she needed. There were selected foods she had to eat, a particular way we had to position her after eating, the periodic adjustment of her body while she slept, and many others. My husband assisted at night, while I bore the daytime duties alone. Even naming our next child Oluwayomi: “The Lord has saved me,” did not save us from the hardship of catering for Kemi.
The care drained my youth, or rather what was left of it, faster than time could. The sides of my hair sprouted grey. Wrinkles marked my face. My cheek bones popped out. My steps slowed to the dragging of feet, worsened by back pain that visited as frequently as the rising sun. It was during this period that my husband started going on business trips. If it wasn’t trips, then work would suddenly become so hectic that he had to stay the night in the office. I was bearing the hardship all alone. Any time Kemi laughed, it seemed like mockery; any time she cried, I blocked my ears. Sometimes, I cursed myself for pushing someone like that out of me. When she became too troublesome, I calmed her with sleeping pills. Then one day I fell sick and needed rest, and so she wouldn’t disturb me, I made her sleep – perhaps for too long.
The guilt and grief almost killed me, till I met Padjonsin. It was after I left the house, wanting to be as far from it as possible. Walking down a narrow path, he loomed over me, blocking sunlight; his gaze like a knife piercing my skin. I wanted to run, but fear held me to the ground as tears dripped to my feet. He lifted my chin and asked what was wrong, his voice like a slow massage calming my nerves. I told him of Kemi’s death. He asked of the date of death. I told him. He said there was a way out, that I should follow him. My head kept telling me to run away, but my legs refused and found their way to his home.
He told me that when rain fell on a night of a red moon, it opened a rift between the place of the newly dead and the world of the living. And it was then that a living being could go in to bring back the dead. He said the next occurrence would be in two weeks time, but to prepare me for the journey, I would first need the blood of the one who fathered the child. When I got home, I convinced my husband to give in. What I didn’t tell him was if I failed to bring back Kemi, all the years I have lived on earth would belong to Padjonsin.
With this in mind, I turned their heads forcefully not caring if their necks snapped, but no match. Two more minutes. Maybe I should save myself and get out? No, let me give myself a minute more—
Alade was out on the deserted street. He stumbled, fell, and rose, screaming his wife’s name. Confusion directed him to different paths until he finally succumbed to helplessness, kneeling down in the middle of the street. The rain water soaked his trousers, cold on his knees, and calves. He hardly felt the droplets on his skin. He looked up; the moon was mostly silver with only a faint red crescent.
Then he fell flat to the ground, his tears merging with the wetness of rain.
She suddenly remembered her husband, the joy they had felt at the birth of Kemi, one of theirs in this world, a proof they would live beyond their death. Kemi, her name meant “care for me,” and they tried to. She pitied Yomi, who had always been eclipsed by Kemi, his wholeness an excuse used to ignore him. She hoped her husband would do a better job alone than they had together. She held on to these memories and thoughts till they became too heavy and painful, like a migraine. Then the migraine faded, and all she felt was relief.
If you play at Hoplus’ trench, the chance you’d find yourself breaking a sacred rule on some occasion is high. Higher than if you play at Arjin or Kowi, for instance. The girls here are wild and mother warns me every time to be wary of their company, though she knows she cannot stop me from coming here – Hoplus is the closest play-area for teenagers around our home – so she constantly reminds me of why the rules are in place. For safety and balance. I nod every time, saying I understand, but it does not stop her from repeating herself the next day.
I know the Sacred Seven like the end of my own caudal fin. Never shed a tear. Never perform dishonesty. Never travel to any of the other tribes without the chief’s blessing. Never swim to shore or contact a surfacer. Never wield your gift for destruction. Never take the life of a fellow sea creature. Beware the halls of Tada; never venture there.
Mother does not know, but my closest friends – Kaumi, Jauni and Pkeni – and I have broken one, or is it two of the Sacred Seven? Thanks to Pkeni’s temper. It was she who got angry after she’d lost a race to Jauni and picked up a rock and smashed the head of a crab with it. We watched the poor crab twitch till it stopped moving. Perhaps we considered the crab’s life of little importance because it is crustacean; if it had been a fish and had bled blood, I’m sure we would have acted differently. So we performed dishonesty and did not report the incident to an elder. Instead we focused on cheering Pkeni up and told her that she was faster than all of us and that it was only because she had had a heavy breakfast that she had been slowed down this time.
* * *
Right now, Kaumi is speaking of adventure as we twirl about Hoplus. She is the oldest of the four of us, the leader of our little clique, if you will. Most times, she decides what games we play.
She is saying her cousin, Sorai, has given her information about something we should all go see. She is claiming that far away at the beach, a shoal of young surfacers are having a jubilation. I do not see how this is our business. I do not see why we should all go see it.
‘Are you afraid?’ Jauni asks me when they all realise I am not showing any signs of enthusiasm at this unnecessary escapade.
‘I’m not. But it’s dangerous. And we will be breaking a Sacred,’ I say.
‘Since when do we care about the rules?’ Pkeni says, frowning.
Only she can say this. The rules mean nothing to her. Or maybe they do, but her constant anger never lets her think straight.
Everything within me is telling me to stand my ground, but you see I was not here at the trench yesterday; I was busy with Mother. Kaumi, Jauni and Pkeni teased a shark. They say it chased them for about half a mile. I missed all of that action.
‘Okay, but we won’t stay long. We’ll come back soon, yes?’ I say.
‘Of course we will.’ Kaumi says.
‘Sure,’ Jauni says.
Pkeni does not say anything. She just smiles and licks her lower lip. I know in her heart she is thinking me a coward.
* * *
As we swim toward the beach, I notice the current of the water lessen and I feel myself move faster.
‘Stop. We’re here,’ Kaumi says.
We bob our heads against expiring waves to survey the beach and behold, there they are: a school of young surfacers, drinking from red things resembling shells. Behind them are tall trees and funny-looking structures. They are moving their bodies in an awkward fashion and hollering like demented souls. This all seems so disorganised, and their music is loud and nonsensical.
‘We should leave,’ I say to Kaumi.
‘Leave? We just got here,’ Jauni says.
I see the glint of excitement in her eyes. She is clearly fascinated by these odd beings.
‘We’ve seen them,’ I argue. ‘Now, let’s go before someone notices our absence back home.’
‘Sssh,’ Pkeni says.
Only she can shush a person when they are making sense.
‘Don’t tell me to be quiet,’ I say and Pkeni quickly places a finger over my mouth, pointing to my left.
A few yards away from us, a surfacer-man and a surfacer-woman are entering into the water. Surfacers look so weird. They don’t have gills on their necks. They don’t have scales over their bodies. How do they even stay warm? They have arms in the lower parts of their bodies and they move with it. Four arms? What is a person doing with four arms? Ugh.
The surfacer-man and surfacer-woman are swimming toward us now. They seem to be performing some kind of play. The male has his forearms all over the female. And the female seems to be enjoying it for she is smiling a soft smile.
She is the first to see us.
‘Jesus! Jesus!! Jesus!!! Aaahhhh!!!!’ The surfacer-woman screams.
Jesus must be the name of all the other surfacers, because as she screams this, the jubilant company on the beach begins to run in our direction.
‘What’s that?’ I hear them say as they approach.
‘Mammy-water,’ the surfacer-man says, pulling the screaming female out of the water.
A surfacer throws a handful of sand at our heads. Another throws a stone. This is our cue. We turn around and make for home. Some pursue, diving into the water. Others throw things at us. Something hits my left shoulder. Another hits my waist. I dive into the water. I swim for dear life. Into the deep, I go. When I am certain I am away from their reach, I turn. Pkeni is before me, Jauni beside me. I do not see Kaumi.
‘Where is Kaumi?’ I ask.
Jauni looks this way and that. Pkeni stares at me. I swim upward, break the surface and look at the beach. The surfacers have Kaumi. They are beating her with clubs. She is trying to break free but the surfacers are way too many. One stamps his feet into her face. Others imitate him. I scream.
Jauni is beside me now. She is shaking uncontrollably. In the distance Kaumi looks lifeless. She isn’t struggling anymore. More surfacers are appearing on the beach and pointing towards the ocean. I cannot even tell when it started, but I am crying and wailing now.
Nnamdi Anyaduwrites short fiction and poetry. His works has appeared on the Nwokike Literary Journal, Brittlepaper and several blogs. He is currently working on a novel.
“There are demons living amongst us,” The Prophetess informed her audience, her voice was low but filled with so much strength that it carried through the room even without a microphone. “These demons are walking in our midst. They wear human skins to deceive the foolish, but those of us who are blessed can see through their falsehood.”
The assembly seated on white plastic chairs before her shuddered as one. All who came here knew of the Prophetess’ campaign to make Nigeria free of all demons. She was a survivor of many supernatural battles and they itched to hear her stories. The Prophetess knew how to hold a crowd even in a place of worship that was nothing more than a rented canopy, open on all four sides.
“My recent encounter…” the Prophetess’s voice caught as she recalled the events of the previous week. She swayed as she shared her combat with the people. She was a master orator and as she wove the tale, those who followed her every word could picture it clearly. They saw her spotting a woman who for all appearances was a mother of three, and were with her as she followed this woman through the crowded open-air market. The audience saw The Prophetess engage in a spiritual battle with the woman, they witnessed every psychic blow and counterblow until finally the Prophetess emerged victorious while the demons burst through the woman’s human disguise revealing her true form.
The Prophetess had only really started sensing the evil that existed in the world around her after most of her immediate family had died and the blame had been pinned on her. She had emerged victorious in that first battle and learned to more effectively track down that evil, to eliminate it and create a safer world. The Prophetess never knew their true forms. She only sensed them and could track them down. At first she would catch them by surprise but more and more they seemed to be on the lookout for her. Of course they rarely expected that the person who was responsible for sending them back to the darkness they had crawled from was a heavyset woman in her early forties who walked with a limp.
“It was a mere puddle of water that had been spiritually fortified through rituals and other evil acts of human sacrifice,” the Prophetess explained to her congregation. Actually, she had almost drowned in that diabolical lake.
Afterwards, she led them in a prayer that would cleanse their souls and act as a shield around them when they returned to their homes. As the audience petered out into the night, the Prophetess made her way out of the canopy. A few people came up to her wanting more details of her spiritual adventures, others offered her gifts of cash stuffed in bulging envelopes, but the Prophetess always declined them. She had no interest in worldly things and only accepted their spoken gratitude.
The Prophetess took an okada back home to her two-storey house. It was a relic of decades past which she had inherited from her grandmother. Everything about her home was faded, the roof was rusted and the walls were dull and brown, having long ago lost their colour.. The Prophetess earned a bit of money renting out some of the rooms, but kept the rooms upstairs free for those who came to her in need of shelter.
After unlocking the door and retreating to her room, the Prophetess sat on her sturdy bed. Midnight was fast approaching and she was ready to sleep. She was also ready for another spiritual battle; it had been over a week since her last one. Reaching under the bed, she grasped a plastic bottle and brought it to the light. Studying the bottle and the murky brown liquid it contained, the Prophetess surmised that there was enough holy water for her to track and destroy just one more demon. After that, she would have to visit to the woman she hated to get more; it was not something the Prophetess particularly looked forward to.
Closing her eyes and holding her breath, she took two long swallows of the water. As the liquid went down her throat she shut her eyes against its bitterness. Then the Prophetess lay on the bed and waited for the special brew to do its work. The answers always came to her in dreams, and this time what she saw as she slept was as bizarre as they came.
The Prophetess saw a skimpily-dressed young girl who ought to be facing her school books. Instead, the girl held a microphone and lip-synched to a song blaring loudly in the background. The Prophetess knew that the song was this girl’s property. She owned each rhythm in her stance and pride gleamed in her soulless eyes. A throng of people swayed before her, hanging on her every move. They screamed in approval as she turned and bent over, shaking her buttocks in an obscene manner.
The Prophetess’s eyes popped open to a dark room. She clicked her fingers over her head to ward off evil then rolled off the bed and fell on her knees where she launched into a lengthy prayer. Already her feet and palms itched, a compass in her pointing north. It couldn’t be too far because the Prophetess knew she could reach the place where the girl was within a few hours. As the day broke, she poured the last of her holy water into a smaller plastic bottle that was easier to transport and prepared to head to the scene of her next spiritual battle. By tonight there would be one less demon consuming the souls of Nigerians.
Oyin dashed through the thick darkness of the woodland. Even as she jumped over shrubs, Oyin knew there was no escape. They should have given her more time.
Still, the least she could do was make it difficult for whoever was now after her. As she came to a stop, crouching below a tree that was very similar to the one that had borne her, Oyin fervently wished she had been blessed with the power to teleport. She could be in another city or state, country even, far away from this current mess. Instead she sought respite in her element, surrounded by thick foliage.
Whoever tracked her had followed her into the bush and was now close enough for Oyin to sense. This person was like her in a way, yet very different. Spirits confined in human skin, those like Oyin, had a certain smell – often saccharine – only noticed by others like them. This scent was all over her hunter but it overlaid another odour. Oyin chewed her lip trying to figure out who it was. It struck Oyin that the disparity might be because whoever they had sent after her was wholly human just as Aunty Taiye appeared in the clearing.
Oyin groaned as the petite woman crossed her arms under her breasts, left foot tapping, and eyed her gravely. It was pitch dark in the forest but Oyin had never needed light or eyes to see, and it seemed neither did Aunty Taiye. Oyin wondered if anyone could remain totally human after cavorting with her kind for as long as Aunty Taiye had.
“I am not going back.” Oyin announced resolutely.
She had imagined someone lower on the food chain would come after her, not number one-and-a-half. The scent of Leader Bitch-Witch, the person who was actively trying to ruin her life, was all over Aunty Taiye.
“My Zanottis are ruined thanks to you.” Aunty Taiye said looking down at her mud-splattered shoes. Oyin counted that victory in her favour.
“You can buy new ones when you return to Abuja,” Oyin said. Then added, “Without me.”
Aunty Taiye frowned pinching her features close.
“You know what? I don’t understand why we have to beg you to stay alive.”
Oyin rose to her feet, she did not like that Aunty Taiye was looking down at her when she was the taller one.
“You are human so I do not expect you to understand.” Oyin smoothed the sides of her skinny jeans.
At this Aunty Taiye kissed her teeth in a long drawn out hiss. “The land and water divide? Seriously? Is that the reason you don’t want to stay with Lila in Abuja?”
Oyin’s face grew heated instantly. “You really don’t understand, do you?”
“Explain it to me then,” Aunty Taiye’s tone was mocking. “I am listening.”
“From the start of time we land spirits have never gotten along with the water spirits. Do you know how many of my sisters lost homes because of the wily nature of one water spirit?” with each word Oyin’s voice rose. “And to top it off, even before we took human skins, those from the water have been pompous. Whether it is due to their popularity among humans, I don’t know. It is always Mammy Wata this, mermaids that…”
At that point Aunty Taiye interrupted, “No one is talking about the nymphs and tree spirits, right? So this is a popularity contest?”
Oyin pursed her lips and refused to dignify that question with a response.
“I just wonder why the other land spirits in Abuja aren’t objecting to Lila’s offer.”
“I am not like the rest of them,” Oyin spat. “They are boring and do not have anything going on in their lives. Aunty Lila cost me a feature with Burna Boy.”
It still pained Oyin; she had been charming her way through the music industry when Lila and her cohorts had invited her to come to live in Abuja. It was an offer for protection in the face of increased attacks on their kind, spirits in human disguise, but had cost Oyin a lot, especially after Lila frightened off her manager. That was the final straw for Oyin, it was all nice being kept safe from shadowy villains, but she had a life to live too. Oh, but Aunty Taiye knew how to launch her ammunition.
“Didn’t you hear about the mysterious lake that appeared overnight in Enugu, and dried up the next day? Do you want to be reduced to nothing but seeds?” Aunty Taiye asked.
Oyin’s anger evaporated. Ever since leaving the protection Abuja offered, Oyin had been following news sites with a fervour that was nothing less than religious. She understood that there was danger, that was why she opted to lay low here instead of returning to Lagos, and she needed to be informed. The sort of news stories that mattered to her and her kind could not be found within the pages of The Guardian. Instead, they were in gossip papers tucked between headlines like: Woman gives birth to tuft of hair and How I was kept in a bottle by my wife – Husband tells all.
Oyin had seen the story: Mystery lake appears in community – locals claim waters are blessed. The article had quoted an elder in the village who held that decades ago a huge body of water existed in the exact same spot where the lake reappeared. The elder explained that the original lake had dried up a few years ago. Even though she had never been to that part of the country, or known the lake intimately, Oyin recognised that the lake had been like her: A spirit that had found refuge in disguising itself as human. Now, due to The Search, the lake had reverted to its original state and was ultimately destroyed. Oyin felt nauseous at the memory.
Aunty Taiye’s tone softened, but only slightly. “Whoever is hunting your kind is merciless, and Lila only wants to make sure you are not eliminated.”
She moved closer and made to place both hands on Oyin’s quivering shoulders, but then she let her hands drop. “There is safety in numbers.”
It was just as well that Aunty Taiye had not touched her because Oyin would have shrugged her hands off. Before she had allowed herself to be breathed into this human form, some emotions had been completely foreign to Oyin. One of them was fear. Now, her heart tap-danced in her chest and her stomach felt as hard as diamond. Sometimes she hated how much emotions affected her physically. Her attempts at calming breaths did nothing to stop the shaking in her hands. Oyin thought she had evaded oblivion when she had been successfully transferred to this human body. Now she had to worry about the mysterious group intent on riding the world of her kind one by one. At least an elder had remembered the lake; no one would care about the pawpaw tree she had been.
“I can’t be away from my fans,” she mumbled, she clenched her hands at her sides and turned away from the woman in front of her.
Aunty Taiye scoffed, “You have fans here?”
That stung Oyin deeply. It was true that few people in this quite commune a few kilometres north of Lagos knew her personality as Miz Honey. They had probably never heard her hit single, even though it was still being played at parties and in clubs in Lagos and Abuja. Still, Oyin needed to eat and the thought of her honeypot gave some strength.
Every one of their kind needed to feed on their allotted poison and, as Oyin feed on veneration, the larger the crowd the better. They were what she called her honeypot. When she initially arrived here, she was nervous that someone would be sent from Abuja to look for her. As days passed and she built her honeypot, she grew comfortable.
The reverence from fans who loved her music always drove Oyin to euphoria, but in the absence of that she settled on the few who gathered around her in this place. It was a different flavour, but food was food, Aunty Taiye had no right to judge.
“I would rather be here than stuck in Abuja where no one cares about me.”
“You sound like a spoiled child.” Aunty Taiye snapped.
Oyin wanted to remind Aunty Taiye that she had spent many more years on this earth as a tree-nymph than she had. The only thing young about Oyin were the years of inexperience that came with trying to be human. All she really wanted was the freedom to explore this new reality but what Aunty Taiye offered was strict regulation.
“It is interesting that you say no one cares about you,” Aunty Taiye said. “You do realise that with your celeb status you are the key to your kind being accepted by humans? Even Lila believes it.”
“If she thinks it’s a great idea to reveal our existence to NigeriaShe must be very smart indeed,” Oyin said sarcastically.
“I don’t think you understand, Oyin,” Aunty Taiye said. “People already know you exist and they have labelled all of you as evil. Why else do you think your kind are being attacked?”
As most of her honeypot were corpers teaching in the only government secondary school in the area, Oyin headed to the school. It was past midday when Oyin got to the school’s administrative block and found the schoolyard was empty. She called out to her honeypot, sending a message to the Whatsapp conversation group she had created for them shortly after she arrived here. Choosing to wait for them outside, Oyin sought shade under a flowering tree near the football field. She played games on her mobile phone to while away time. It was not exactly exciting but Oyin was glad to be out of the house.
She did not have to wait long. Soon her honeypots flocked towards her, settling themselves around her. Someone brought benches so they sat enjoying the shade of the tree and the soft breeze that blew through the field. They complained to her about the long day they’d had at school and the ridiculous bureaucracy of the system. Oyin pretended to listen while she gulped up their attention. It was not long before she grew dizzy with satisfaction. She made them sing along with her and was so taken with the scene that she did not see the old woman dressed in a faded ankara iro and buba until she spoke.
“Leave this place,” she said in Yoruba. Then she repeated herself in Pidgin English, “Make una comot.”
The old woman wore a brown veil wrapped around her shoulders and a small black purse poked out from under her left armpit. She had a set of tribal marks deeply engraved on each cheek.
“I said leave this place,” she ordered impatiently. “Can you not see you’re seduced by a demon?”
Even though some of them turned to look at the woman, regarding her as if she was sick in the head, no one in Oyin’s honeypot moved an inch. The situation was almost comical to Oyin.
She waved a dismissive hand in the direction of the old woman. “As you were saying Chinedu…”
The old woman stepped closer to Oyin. The movement brought a whiff of something foul to Oyin’s nostrils. Everything about the old woman was off, even when she had been a tree spirit Oyin had never felt such aversion towards her. Humans either loved her or were indifferent to her, and with indifference all Oyin had to do was show them her spirit and they eventually turned to adoration. Even Aunty Taiye, who always adopted a brusque manner towards her, did not hold such negative feelings for her. This woman hated her strongly and to Oyin, who was used to adoration, it felt it like something rotten in her mouth.
“Don’t let her come any closer,” she called out to the most physically fit of her honeypots. “Hassan, stop her.”
The words had barely left her mouth before Hassan leapt to his feet. He grabbed the old woman’s arm firmly.
“Mama what is your own now?” he demanded.
“You don’t understand,” The old woman said looking up at Hassan. “This girl isn’t what she seems…”
“Hassan, take her out of here,” Oyin commanded, her heartbeat increasing by the second. “Drag her on the ground if you have to.”
Hassan made to pull the woman away, but she resisted. Oyin watched in amazement as the old woman easily pushed Hassan off her. For the second time in her long life, Oyin felt fear. She needed to remain calm, to keep her hold on her honeypot, yet she started yelling at them.
“Why are you people sitting down? Is this old woman stronger than you? Get her out of my sight!”
The others rose and gathered round the old woman. Eleven young people formed a wall between Oyin and the stranger but the old woman was fighting back, pushing and shoving as her honeypot closed in. The struggle was useless as they eventually lifted her up, carrying her away as if she was a crowd-surfing rockstar.
But as far as powerful speech went, the Prophetess had a few in her arsenal as well. She stopped resisting and let the crowd carry her while under her breath she recited a verse and with it a commanding word.
“Oju asa kii ribi. Oju awodi kii roran…”
As if waking from a dream, the crowd stopped moving. They lowered the Prophetess till she was on her feet.
“I see you are awake now.” The Prophetess smiled at their stunned faces. “Go home my children, leave this place.”
Oyin squealed at the incredulous scene playing out before her. The crowd she had had firm control over was running away in several directions, leaving her alone. Had her hold on them been so weak? Were all the things Leader Bitch-Witch said about her inexperience true? Who exactly was this old woman who was now moving towards her with such determination? Shakily, Oyin rose to her feet and scurried backwards until she hit the tree behind her. Oyin trembled but made no move to run away like her honeypot had, in fact her feet remained rooted to the dusty earth. As the Prophetess placed an unyielding hand on Oyin’s shoulder, it dawned on her that she had been caught.
Oyin fell to her knees with a painful thud. She had been so careless. The Prophetess murmured something under her breath, so low that Oyin could not pick out any distinct words. With one hand holding Oyin down, the Prophetess somehow manoeuvred her other hand into her purse and brought out a small bottle. When the Prophetess flipped open the cap, a strong acidic smell permeated the air. Oyin’s essence immediately recognised it as dangerous and she recoiled shrieking, yet her human shell was paralysed.
As though her core had separated from her body, Oyin saw the Prophetess tip the contents of the bottle down, directing it to a spot on her forehead. She squeezed her eyes shut and when the impact took too long to reach, Oyin reluctantly opened one eye. The first thing she noticed were a pair of hands hovering above her face, cupped to save her from the burning liquid. Then the light scent of Jimmy Choo perfume wafted to Oyin’s nostrils. Oyin had never been so relieved to see Aunty Taiye.
The Prophetess was confused. A second demoness had appeared out of the blue and this one seemed to be immune to her holy water. Manipulating a crowd of mentally chained humans was one thing but facing down two demons was another. It was a law in the spirit world that when one encountered a higher power, one had to submit.
The Prophetess flung the bottle at the two hellish creatures and ran as fast as her age and frame could carry her. She had reached the main road when it struck her that she was not being chased. She paused by a sign warning residents against dumping waste in the area and struggled to catch her breath. The Prophetess was angry and scared at the same time. That the holy water had not worked on them meant that the demons were evolving. Demonic spirits were independent and moved alone, the thought of them forming alliances raised bile to the Prophetess’ throat. The game had changed entirely.
As her breath stabilised, she felt tormented. The thing that pinched at the Prophetess the most was that she would have no new story to tell next week.
A few acidic drops had landed on Oyin’s face, despite Aunty Taiye’s shield. The liquid ate through her skin and Oyin screamed as she felt part of her human shell eroding. It was like she was being cracked open. With one cupped hand holding the foul liquid, Aunty Taiye fetched the bottle the Prophetess had discarded. Carefully, Aunty Taiye transferred the liquid in her cupped palm into the bottle. What remained was insignificant, but it would be enough to examine.
Meanwhile Oyin was writhing in pain.
Aunty Taiye disappeared and when she reappeared she held a plastic bag of pure water in her hand. She ripped open the bag with her teeth and rinsed her hands with the water. She then rinsed the plastic bottle, holding it with the tips of her manicured nails. Next, she pointed the plastic bag at Oyin and squirted the water that remained in it directly on Oyin’s face. Oyin flinched at the contact, and closed her eyes. The coolness was a relief that she accepted grudgingly. The relief was fleeting; it was quickly followed by the horror of knowing that she was now forever indebted to Aunty Taiye. Oyin felt something crawl upwards and lodge in her throat. She heaved and choked till she vomited a stream of pawpaw seeds. The pain receded after that.
“Now that you’ve stopped screaming your head off,” Aunty Taiye tossed the empty bag away. She observed Oyin from the corners of her eyes, extended by the dark wings of her eyeliner, and managed to look offended. “Are you ready to come to Abuja?”
Oyin remained seated on the ground. She stared at her hands, which were stained orange, studying the stringy bits of pawpaw fruit under her nails. She was scared to imagine the kind of damage that had been done to her face. Yet, Oyin’s borrowed heart would not still its painful throbbing. This was fear, and as much as she longed to be around adoring humans whom she could control, Oyin had to be reasonable. She gave Aunty Taiye a curt nod.
This edition of Omenana is late, over a month late.
It is our intention to publish a high-quality quarterly magazine, however, everything that could delay the production, did. It’s been a crazy four months, but we are happy that Omenana 7 is here now.
In the time between the last edition of Omenana and this one, we were reminded why it is of great importance to continue producing this magazine. Through it, we encourage more writers to look to the extensive materials we have on the continent called Africa for speculative fiction.
This month, we are happy to introduce stories from new voices and established writers of the speculative on the continent. We hope their stories speak to you as they did us.Also, we are spotlighting Sunny Efemena, who illustrated this edition and has worked on other editions in the past.This edition of Omenana closes with an essay on African sci-fi and literature and its impact on technological advancement on the continent by my co-editor, Chinelo Onwualu.
Meanwhile, we are very happy to announce the start of a partnership with Okadabooks.com, an online publishing portal. All editions of Omenana will now be available on Okadabooks.com, where you can access and download various formats of the magazine. No fear, Omenana remains free, and will remain that way for as long as we can manage.
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.
The street is quiet. Mosquitoes sing an octave higher than the hum of electricity, often absent. My bed feels like a pallet of lead but I don’t thrash; I lie still as death. I am sweating from wearing three shirts and a sweater over two jeans and a pair of shorts. I click the heels of my boots against each other to keep myself awake.
I hear her in the other room, a drunken bee dancing around our things singing something I can’t piece together in a droning voice. She has been drinking, slowly, but with a determination I almost admire, since seven. It’s nearly three am. That’s nearly eight hours if you discredit the fact that she was hung over even then. I don’t grudge her drinking; if I had as much courage as she did, I’d do the same.
A loud crash comes from the passageway and then the muffled thud of her body hitting concrete, like the sound you make when you punch a pillow. I don’t move immediately; I wait ten, then twenty minutes. Just to make sure. Then I crawl off the mattress, feeling my way in the darkness towards the door that joins the halves of our two-room apartment. I freeze when in the near dark I spot a lump. She is splayed out in the doorway, half of her body in ‘my’ room. If I had stretched out my hand any further, I would have touched her, my mother.
I skirt around her body, it takes some contorting but I manage it without touching her. Even dead with drink, I can feel it; the pull of our telepathic connection. Being this close to her it is almost physical, like someone tugging on your arm, but I hold my breath and press my fingernails hard into my palm to distract myself. The front door takes some savvy to pry open but once I slip out into the dark, I feel free. Alive in a way that I had never felt before. I start to run and I haven’t stopped running since.
Applause rings from the circle around the fire. She stares at the flames, her cheeks flushed. They all look at her with pride, with such hope and she hates that she can read each one of them like an augury. They want to make her a leader, but she doesn’t want any of it.
“You’re so lucky, Maki. You never went to reform school. It’s horrible,” they chorus.
Almost all the girls on the street were there because they had been kicked out of the reform schools for being unable to learn the ‘dainty’ crafts. They have never seen anyone who has voluntarily escaped from a parent, a family unit. Even a dysfunctional one. It amazes Maki how excited they get each time she tells the story, how eager they are.
She looks around the circle at the other girls, the youngest is thirteen and only a few weeks old in her new life as a street feral. Liesl is the name she has been given because, like the girl in The Sound of Music, she loves to whistle. The day they found her, she was sprawled on a rubbish heap, cigarette scabs on her inner thighs and a festering burn on her back. They brought her to Maki to clean her wounds. While she had daubed the blistered flesh clean, she’d found pieces of singed polyester cloth in the sores. She hasn’t been able to get the image out of her head since.
Someone else begins to enrapture the audience with a story of her own, but Liesl keeps staring at her long after everyone has turned away. When the fire settles into bright orange embers and the circle breaks for the night, Liesl follows her, puppy-like, and sits beside her as she transforms a disused table into a cove. At first, Maki ignores Liesl; it is the only way to discourage fawning. She hears Liesl’s heart speed up each time a strange sound pierces the silence of the night, feels the fear that keeps her awake. She is only half sure of her decision when she raises her ratty blanket and says:
“Just for tonight.”
A shriek sends a tremor through everyone. She is up on her feet and running before she is even fully awake, her hand a tight fist around Liesl’s wrist. Liesl stumbles and slows them down but she holds on and keeps running. More shrieks erupt behind her and Liesl seizes up. The police officers are shouting commands, interspersed by the meaty crack of their batons breaking bone through skin.
A number of street ferals run past her towards the complicated maze of decrepit buildings that is the slum they all escaped once, but she keeps the course, braving the exposure of the open field. She knows if they can make it to the swamps around the lagoon, they will be safe; the police would never bother chasing her there. Everyone knows dangerous, dark things happen in the swamps, that batons and guns are useless there. Liesl screams behind her and falls. Maki releases her hand just in time to see her convulse as five hundred volts of electricity pumps into her body through the taser barb in her thigh.
“Maki!” Liesl screams.
It surges up from her belly, the magic that lives inside her, spreading to her arms and pooling in her voice box, begging to be used. It is like liquid fire in her body – supercharged. She stretches her hand in the direction of the wire connected to the barb, at the policeman cradling the taser gun on its other end. Just a thought, a single command would the power inside hurtling through space to devour him.
To stop is to be caught.
To live on the street is to live alone.
She remembers the words, repeated by every street feral from the day they slip the leash and become ‘free’. Her hand falls to her side and she averts her eyes from Liesl, who is already foaming at the lips. She’s been juiced for too long, possible brain damage. Maki ignores the magic howling in anguish in her head and turns away, making for the marsh.
The swamps aren’t as deadly as everyone makes them out to be, not for someone like Maki. Every sentient thing is lit up like a small beacon of life, so she knows where to step and where to duck. She slowly wades through the brackish water, chasing away water snakes with a stick. The bigger ones know to stay away from her; they can sense the thing living inside her. That was why their house never had rodents, why as a girl dogs gave her wide berth. She feels like she’s been walking for days though she knows it’s only been hours. Still she pushes on without rest. Her thoughts return constantly to Liesl.
I let them take her. I’m worse than my mother.
She wonders how long it will take them to identify the young girl and return her to her parents. She wonders if Liesl’s parents were one of the ones who went to the State for help with handling their ‘difficult’ children. Whether she knew that her mother had been one of the 942 women in her generation born with magic. The magic that the State harnessed into the drone army that revolutionized their world. She regrets never asking Liesl if she knew what she was, regrets not telling her she wasn’t alone.
She starts to cry, knee deep in swamp water, wet, shaking and alone. This moment of weakness is all the magic inside her needs. She doesn’t notice the warmth spreading up and through her until her cheeks start to warm. By then it is too late to will it back down.
She feels her spine stiffen; her legs grow immobile underneath her. Like light, it suffuses her cells, until she feels herself rise out of the water, and hover in the air. Slowly it reaches her brain and subsumes it and she feels her awareness widen, growing wider, till all of her skin is a giant eye. She sees through the trees of the swamp, past thousands of miles, through the shanties of the slum and the concrete of the city, past the bulletproof glass of the New Lagos’s hovering buildings, to a spacious corner office where a coal-skinned woman in a black dress, sleek greying hair fringing her nape is poring over blueprints. Like an involuntarily sigh, the words escape her:
The woman’s head snaps up like a hound’s, as though she can hear Maki from hundreds of miles away. She abandons the blueprints, moves towards the window and presses her face against the glass. Her mother feels so close in that moment that Maki is tempted to reach out and touch her.
The woman’s eyes widen.
The wave of longing that hits Maki leaves her gasping. It’s all she needs to reclaim control of her body. She forces the magic to retract itself into a tiny ball of consciousness. Free of its control, gravity returns swiftly, plunging her into the brackish water. She rises, her afro drenched and speckled with slime.
She starts to wade quickly through the water, making for cover but it is of no use. She cannot shake the feeling of being watched. She can no longer ignore the magic inside her, now rebelliously asserting its presence with a queasiness that makes her want to bend over and vomit. Despite the nausea, she needs to find a hiding place before sundown. Her mother will tell the police where she is, and they will come for her.
The streets are empty of ferals. The silence is haunting; nights in the slums are usually filled with chatter and the crackling of furniture repurposed as firewood. Her steps are coltish, wobbly from the strain of wading through the muddy swamp for hours. She doesn’t dare return to any of her haunts; the police would have already found them. Ferals might be great at hiding but they turn easily once they are caught. There is only one thing to do: find a hiding place in New Lagos.
She slinks in the shadows, tense as a power line. The magic in her pulses, barely restrained. The temptation is always there: to give a little and allow the magic suffuse her. She could then levitate herself several feet through an open window and find dry clothes and a warm bed for the night. But she resists. Instead it is 30 minutes of lurking and backpedalling and then a tight squeeze through a hole dug under the separating fence and she is in New Lagos.
The slums are relics of a time when grounding buildings was the only way to ensure structural integrity but now, with people of her kind, levitation is the new craze. Plexiglas squares hover in clusters above the ground, their ultramodern, LCD-lit angles casting knife-edged shadows. She scuttles underneath the first one, checking to see if anything moves in the darkness.
Cast in silhouette in one of the windows of the nearest high rise is a family, their short-haired sons whipping around the legs of subdued parents. Across the lush landscape this scene is repeated, over and over in each lit window. There are barely any girls, anywhere. They are all gone. The darkness remains inky, foreboding. The next tenement building is floating towards her; bigger than the stationary one she is under, more likely to give cover. But the space she has to cross to get to it will leave her exposed. There isn’t much of a choice, she has barely a minute before it passes. She springs into the space between them and shrieks as the world explodes in light.
“Stop! We have you cornered!”
The magic inside her starts to flex, pushing inquisitive tentacles. Let me help you. The light is too bright, and it traps her in place like amber. There is no other option. For the second time in one day, she relinquishes control, this time voluntarily, and lets the magic spread. It rushes like heat, expanding, betraying its presence through the sheen of sweat that suddenly coats her exposed skin.
Voluntarily acknowledging the magic is very different from being forcefully possessed. Because it isn’t siphoning energy into wresting control, all of its power is at her disposal; it is giddying. She splays her hands and the floodlights trained on her explode in a shower of sparks, plunging everything into darkness, but it still hurts too much to open her eyes. She feels the lightness again, the laws of physics bending to her whims.
Then pain, sharp as a lance, pierces her right shoulder blade. A tidal wave of electricity pours into her from that point. She convulses, shaking like a leaf. She tries to hold on to consciousness but it is too hard, too painful. The magic is a coward; she feels it flee, retreating from her fried nerve endings, squeezing into itself till it is a tiny pinprick of usurping life in her gut. She hates it in that moment. That revulsion is the last emotion to bloom as the taser peaks and the world collapses around her.
The world is like a sepia photograph when she awakes, bathed in tepid brown light. Her jaw aches, her throat is dry. She looks down instinctively and sees her arms and feet are shackled to a metal chair welded to the floor. The design of the chair is archaic. There is a butterfly syringe head taped to her forearm; the IV package it is attached to is empty. She cannot tell how long she has been in this room, but because the magic doesn’t sleep when she does, she knows that it’s been four days since they took her.
She is sure someone is watching her through the mirrored wall. She tries to reach the magic inside her but now that she needs it, it won’t come. It is barely a sliver and she is half afraid that she might be imagining it is still there. She waits, hoping that someone will come and talk to her, an external force to move the stationary object. She waits and waits, but no one comes. She thrashes against her restraints in frustration, chafing her wrists and ankles. Droplets of blood dripping off her mark time and still no one comes. Exhausted, she settles in for the long haul.
The door creaks open, alerting her. It has been hours at least. How many, she can’t say. She raises her head and sucks in a deep breath.
Dressed in a lilac jacket dress that perfectly complements her coal-black skin, with black pumps and pantyhose, her mother looks like something out of a noir film. There is no security detail with her. With the kind of power radiating off her, she doesn’t need security. Beneath her sleek grey hair, her mother’s pupils are ashen. Maki recognises the symptoms of end stage cataracts. It is disconcerting to watch these near-sightless eyes track her every move, even in the weird light. Her mother notices her staring and chuckles.
“My eyes? They’ll go white eventually. By then I’ll have already lost my sight. The price we pay for using the Sentience. But I’m one of the luckier ones. I doubt I’ll need it.”
Maki stays silent. Her magic is reacting to the presence of another user, ballooning to assert its presence. ‘Preening’ is the word that comes to mind. Her mother paces the room, her heels clicking on the ribbed Plexiglas floor. The sound is grating. Watching her gives Maki a chill, this woman is nothing like the person she ran away from. Her back is too straight, her gaze is too focused, her clothes too put together. Her mother’s movements are measured but graceful, as though she is moving underwater. But there is a lapse in her gait, a split second glitch that precedes everything she does. It’s almost gyroscopic, as though the world is slightly tilting to accommodate her. It takes a minute of watching for Maki to realise it is not her mother but the room that’s glitching, shifting to centre her – like everything else in her life.
“What happened to you?” Maki asks.
The knowing chuckle resurfaces. “After you left, I had no reason to pretend. No reason to fight what was inside me.”
Maki sighs. “You know why I ran away: You told me to.”
“Yes, I did.” Her mother says, idly scrutinizing her nails. “But I was a drunk, depressed woman; you didn’t have to listen to me.”
“I was eight years old.”
Maki realises why her mother keeps pacing the room. The moment she stops moving, she starts to levitate, only slightly. It is almost beautiful to see the magic fully symbiotic with its host.
“Do you know what that did to me, when you told me to go?”
“Oh, that,” her mother scoffs. “I was only trying to be a better mother to you than mine was to me. You know she never told me about the Sentience? Pretended not to notice when I levitated stuff, when I started to read minds, even as her own Sentience turned her into a bowed old hag. The day I killed her, she was still denying.”
“Magic.” Maki murmurs.
Maki raises her voice. “It’s a magic, the thing inside us.”
Her mother gives her a strange look then shakes her head. “No honey bee, it’s not that simple. The thing living inside us is not magic; it’s an advanced parasite we call the Sentience. One not hundreds. It found a way to separate its component cells and transplant itself into the First Generation: the women who started the industrial revolution.”
She gestures with her finger and the room expands, groaning from the stress of reconstituting itself. Maki’s chair shrinks, immobilizing her even more. Maki struggles not to howl.
“What you call magic is its framework. All its cells are still connected by telepathic links. We the hosts strengthen that link with our bodies, and in return we get to use that telepathic highway to manipulate the things and people trapped within its matrix. With each generation, our bodies get stronger, better at supporting its power.”
Maki can feel her Sentience vibrate inside her. Every inch of her roils and her core burns so brightly she is afraid she’ll belch fire if she opens her mouth. She fights the Sentience silently with the techniques she learned from years as a runaway: breathe slow, focus on a single point, breathe some more. She understands now why sometimes her Sentience tries to possess her for no reason; this proximity to another cell is driving it crazy.
“You could have gone anywhere! Why did you stay even though you knew what this thing is?”
“Awwww,” her mother crows, “you know nothing about what is inside you. Do you know why this place is named New Lagos? The Sentience won’t leave the lagoon. My guess is there is something in its filthy depths that makes us able to host its cells. Your grandmother dared to leave, but then again she was always a fool.”
Maki hesitates. “My grandmother?”
Her mother’s façade slips, but for a second. “My mother… She only lived to be thirty four. I killed her myself when I was fifteen. She welcomed it. There is nothing worse than having a Sentience but refusing to manipulate it. Using the Sentience has a price, but so does fighting it. She was idealistic, like you. What I did to her was a mercy. A mercy I now regret never extending to you.”
White hot rage erupts inside Maki and she tries to lunge for her mother. The restraints catch at the last minute, halting her mid-lunge. The shackles have broken her skin again and a single rivulet of blood travels down the arm of her chair.
Her mother’s filmy eyes slant into a murderous glare. She flicks her wrist and the room tilts sharply, throwing Maki against her restraints. She twists her hands and the chair mimics her movement like a marionette, its metal limbs contorting around Maki’s body into a grotesque wireframe cocoon. Her mother gestures again and the cocoon sails across the room until the tines protruding from the frame trap her against the far wall.
“I should have never had a child,” she says. “I never wanted one. I wanted to end the generational cycle. But I was naïve and the Sentience had turned me into a raving sex freak, denying me its power until you were born. That is how it works. But history won’t repeat itself – not if I have anything to do with it.”
Alien energy surges through Maki. Finally, she acknowledges it and lets go of the reins. The result is orgasmic. Her body flushes with delight and every inch of her feels alive. She can see hundreds of shimmering bands of energy, a lattice that engulfs her and her mother.
Maki’s Sentience reaches for the nearest band and drains energy from it. She spasms violently, her body pries the metal cage she’s trapped in out of the wall and hurtles it into the air. It shatters into bits of twisted metal.
Her mother’s eyes widen and the room is suddenly flooded with white light. A part of the wall has slid open and men in misshapen green uniforms and tasers swarm the room. A single thought is enough to divert a band of energy that hardens like taffy and pins them to the wall. She commands the band to tighten and it constricts; the men scream in terror.
“If you let me go, I promise not to kill them.”
Her mother cackles, and flicks her wrists. The band Maki has manipulated around the policemen thins into a rope with the consistency of a fishing line. Her mother closes her hand into a fist and the rope tightens, threading their necks like an iridescent necklace. None even has time to gasp before the rope slices clean through their necks. Heads roll grotesquely across the floor between them and the band returns its original form.
Her mother cleans blood from her cheeks with mild disgust. “Don’t underestimate me.”
Maki reaches telepathically for the biggest energy band and pulls it to herself. She can hear the distant murmurs of the lives of other hosts through sift through it. It is disconcerting.
When her mother’s wrist starts to move, she is ready. She drapes herself in the energy, willing it to coat her. Her Sentience is all too eager to oblige. She fans the energy out, repelling it from her Sentience with all her strength. It floods the room like a giant wave. Her temples start to ache and her vision blurs momentarily. The force of the sonic wave sends her mother spiralling. The room starts to tilt and the older woman flails, skidding in the drying blood.
Maki sees it as an opening. She lets the Sentience lift her into an energy band and shoot her forward, towards the sliding door which starts to yawn at her approach. Just a few feet left, she thinks and she pushes herself harder. The Plexiglas room veers sharply to the right and she slams into the side wall. She tries to manipulate the room but the energy doesn’t seem to respond to her anymore.
Her mother is now on her feet, bloodied and fuming. She makes a series of deft swats with her hands and the energy dances, swaddling Maki and constricting her until she sees spots dance before her eyes. She heaves violently for air but she is too tightly wound. The Sentience is a drum beating in her skull, nagging for control. She cannot concentrate long enough to silence it, she’s dying.
She feels her Sentience spread its consciousness and a sharp jolt of energy whips through her, splicing the cocoon. It dissipates instantly and she keels forward, gasping for air. She manages to lift her head up. The horror of what she sees makes her blanch. Her mother is nailed to the wall by the interrogation chair, its aluminium legs mangled into tines. Her head lolls lifelessly to the side, her hazel eyes obscured by cataracts. Maki starts to cry.
Then her mother’s body begins to thrash expanding her wounds. Her neck straightens mechanically and her mouth opens wider than any human should be capable of. What pours out is a foot-long worm with moist, fetid skin streaked with blood. Tiny pockmarked holes across its length hold inverted eyestalks. Maki tries to scream but her larynx seizes up. The thing starts to crawl to her. She tries to stand but her joints have also locked. She feels her Sentience exerting control and dread fills her. The thing crawls into her lap, leaving a trail of slime. She struggles harder, but it’s futile, nothing moves.
It slugs over her shirt, between her breasts and then coils around her neck, lengthening till it is three feet long. Her jaws unhinge at the behest of her own Sentience and the new Sentience slips its amorphous head down her throat. The sensation is one of the worst things she’s ever felt; nausea without of the relief of vomiting. With a tiny flick against her palate, the new Sentience finishes its journey into her. Feeling returns, first to her face, then her limbs. She manages to stand, struggles to make sense of what happened. She can feel the nauseating sensation of her Sentience making space for this new thing, expanding in ways she never thought possible. She knows now that her Sentience is not on her side and that her body, just a shell, is ready to betray her.
With two inside her, the bands of energy seems stronger, corporeal even. There is no time to dally, not now. Surviving the moment is her only concern. She runs into the hallway and her senses expand. She can feel the girls abducted in the raid, like flickers of light. She senses Liesl, three floors down, restrained. And others. Hundreds more, sparkling like lights at the corners of her eyes. Their pain is tangible.
She knows they are coming for her but she cannot leave all those girls in the hands of these people. She sinks her fingers into an energy band, connecting to it. She forces it to thicken, not just the one but all the bands that encompass the building. They join at the edges and grow into sheets that traverse each floor. There are thirty-four floors, two hundred and seventy-six girls, two thousand people in total. The amount of information that the bands can collect astounds her.
She sends a command and the sheets increase in density. Beads of sweat pop up on her forehead from the effort of what she is doing. The building starts to plummet. The force finds the mechanism that keeps the doors shut and fries them. Doors start to open, popping out of place with a mechanical shlick. Restraints twist and spring open. The building finally slams into the earth with a sickening thud, bringing everyone to their knees. Shrieks of joy as the girls realise they are free confirm that her mother was telling the truth: the neural pathway works.
Through the plexiglass door she can see the vague shapes of policemen as they appear at the end of the hallway holding tasers, she can hear their muffled screaming. Shots ring and the door fractures. A few kicks bring it down. She waits as long as she can to give the other girls time, then she flees, turning the first corner. She hears a taser barb sing past her ear, a few inches shy. She calls to the Sentience but it doesn’t respond. She is on her own.
Running seems futile so she obeys, turns to the sound.
“Help me!” She whispers to the Sentience under her breath.
At the other end of the corridor is a phalanx of kevlar suits and muscled bodies, arms outstretched, weapons pointed. She senses her Sentience awaken but only slightly.
Then she feels it, the first pang. A rawness in her throat, a hunger lower down.
It wafts in the air, pheromones. Her body responds to it, shuddering. She can smell them from across the hallway. The policemen. Sweat on each of the male officers, distinct like perfume notes, separating them, picking out the most virile, the most likely to impregnate her.
How easily you could get any one of them to sleep with you. Just a thought, one energy band.
Her thighs grow slick at the thought of it.
She digs her fingers into her fist, presses her legs together.
“What the hell is wrong with me?!” She screams, startling the policemen.
The epiphany is as subtle as a brick to the face. The parasite needs to be transferred from one generation to the next. Through parturition. From to mother to daughter. Her Sentience wants this. It has slowly orchestrated everything to bring her to this point. Even now, it is subtly manipulating her, trying to override her logic with hormones. It is growing stronger; she is losing control of her body. She remembers her mother’s words, realises they were earnest, not vicious.
I didn’t want a child… I tried to break the generational cycle. The Sentience forced me…
“How did I miss this? How?” She whispers in disbelief.
Looking through the window beside her, she can see the girls, nearly a hundred and twenty feet below her, pouring out onto the street like a swarm of brightly coloured insects. They are oblivious to what she now knows: Each one of them is destined to be forced into a standoff with their mothers, doomed to matricide for the survival of creature within them. Saving them might not have changed anything. Grief engulfs her.
There is a corridor to the right but she knows she won’t make it that far without getting caught. She cannot concern herself now with the future; all that matters is now, escaping those men, breaking the cycle. The window, three paces away, is her only chance. She strafes hard, then throws herself at the pane, a hail of taser barbs pouring in her wake.
The glass breaks on impact and she sails, momentarily weightless.